The destruction of the Dawlish sea wall and railway feels like a pretty good image for the experience of hardship in this life. Recently life has felt quite like wave after waves crashing in relentlessly... health, circumstances, finances... each wave leaves its own small mark but the culmulative effect of all of them is where the destruction comes.
The problem of suffering is suggested by some to be the issue that nails Christianity. What it certainly is is the issue that arises most commonly because our shared experience of life here is of a world that while laced with beauty very often seems quite brutal.
Don Carson very helpfully says,
"you only have to live long enough and you will suffer."Every worldview has to deal with it somehow... James Sire writes:
“A world view is a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed as a story or in a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic constitution of reality, and that provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being” (The Universe Next Door, IVP)Everyone has a worldview - true, partially true or false... consistently or inconsistently... consciously or subconciously... we all have stories that attempt to make sense of the world.
In 1999, England football manager Glenn Hoddle was interviewed about suffering and answered
"you and I have been given two hands and two legs and half-decent brains. Some people have not been born like that for a reason. The Karma is working from another life time. I have nothing to hide about that..."And no job to go to soon after.
Karma appealed to me as a teenager near the top of my class, healthy, middle-class... but when you become a smaller fish in a bigger pond and enough of life's waves hit you it turns out to be neat maths but nasty news. Pastorally it says - your suffering is basically your fault. Try harder. Be better. And maybe things will be better now or in a future life or in heaven. It's hard to really live that unless you keep winning though many of us subconciously think good things should happen to good people.
Others say - no this world looks pitilessly indifferent. It is brutal, it always has been brutal and always will be brutal and your selfish genes might get you to high enough ground to survive. This approach is honest but pretty hopeless and doesn't give much reason for compassion. Few can get close to holding this view consistently.
Darwin cried out at the misery of this world. Marcus Brigstocke says he wishes someone would be watching over us. In the moment of suffering, the Christian is told: weep with those who weep.
It's said that
the best time to talk to someone about their suffering is before it happens.Sometimes that's not possible and things have to be considered afterwards, but few can think clearly in the middle of the storm.
Paul's letter to the church in Rome suggests 10 approaches if you take a worldview shaped by Jesus... (Romans 8:18-39)
1. Futility is real but not the only story.
This world has been subjected to futility. The brutality is real. But it wasn't always brutal and it wont always be brutal. It's not a bad world but a good one. Hope has been dashed, like Abel killed by his brother. But one day glorious freedom will come. Brutality alone isn't a big enough story.
That heart-cry that says: It shouldn't be like this! ...is biblical.
That heart-cry that says: Will it one day not be like this? ..is biblical.
2. Life hurts
The experience of suffering is describes with words like GROANING and WAITING. That resonates with my heart. Gut-wrenching groaning and the frustrating pain of waiting and waiting. And its not just that we groan - all creation groans. And doesn't it! Who doesn't cry out "What just happened..." I need a world-view that can handle that.
3. Through death to life.
The image offered is the pains of labour. Here it's vital to know that the talking needs to happen before not in the middle of the pain. A woman in labour - something I've witnessed close up three times - does not want to be talked to... she wants to break your hand and punch you in the face. Afterwards maybe some talk, but better before. In pregnancy a woman needs to know that pain will come... and that it's what precedes birth. When it happens get to hospital and know that good is meant to come from it. Thus Paul says - our suffering is incomparable to the glory to come. Say that in ante-natal classes not in the labour ward.
4. Life is bewildering.
The gut instinct in suffering is to pray. But, Paul says we pray in WEAKNESS and WE DON'T KNOW WHAT TO PRAY. Again, what a real resonance with our experience! We hide behind masks of strength and confidence but most of time it's no more than a veneer. While we look at the world or our own situation weak and bewildered God's Spirit who lives in the believer will pray on our behalf - joining with our groans. We might imagine suffering takes us out of the life of God. No! We participate in the Triune life in our suffering.
5. There is purpose.
The suffering occurs in this futility-subjected world in which God's purpose is to make Christians life Jesus. Like the man of sorrows who suffered even to death. But like him. Not healthiness and wealthiness but Jesusiness. What's begin will come to its conclusion. That's not easy. That doesn't remove the pain. But it prepares me to understand that there is purpose.
6. Pain isn't punishment.
Does suffering mean God is against us? No, he gave up his Son for his people. God doesn't say - I'll give you my son and then I'll beat up on you cos I don't like you. Does suffering mean God holds things against you? Satan, like Job's friends, tempts us to despair.. and in that moment, with the hymnwriter we cry: "Upward I look and see him there who made an end to all my sin." Yes I have sinned, but God justified me freely on account of Jesus. He doesn't hold anything against me - he's not against me. He's for me. No condemnation for those in Jesus. We still suffer but what's 100% sure is that God is for us not against us.
7. Empty hands are ok.
What if I have no food, no clothes and live in danger, has God's gospel failed? Not on your life! Suffering people aren't directly to blame, they aren't left without compassion - rather they can know the God of all comfort. A worldview that promises good people get good things, or strong people progress is going to struggle in suffering... You might lose everything in this world but you can still have Christ.
8. Life is dying.
What's it like to walk with Jesus? Psalm 44 is quoted: dying all day long. Ever feel like you're dying? That's Christian. Very Christ-like. Led like sheep to slaughter... just like Jesus. Dying because this isn't a world that can be reformed and redecorated, but one that needs to pass through death to life. Seeds die to produce life. Stars empty themselves to give light and life to those nearby. Mothers are stars.
9. Winning looks like losing.
In a world subjected to futility are we defeated? No in suffering we're victorious. The Jesus way is subversive. What looks like defeat is triumph, never brash self-confidence but rather a bruised quiet-confidence. Safe and irrevocably loved in union with Christ.
10. Jesus shines in suffering.
Is Christianity defeated by suffering? No - its claims are rooted in historical evidence not experience so whether it 'works' pragmatically isn't the decisive issue.... but more than that, far from nailing Christianity, suffering is where Christ's story shines brightest, for the Christ follower views the world from the perspective of one who hung on a tree when the sun stopped shining. The waves crash in and the man of sorrows freely offers us refuge in and with himself.
[With thanks to Bath and Exeter students with whom I've been reading Romans 8 recently]