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Saturday, April 16, 2016

When Life Really Hurts

There’s a woman in my church — a lovely woman, a mother and a wife, and selfless servant of the Lord's people, one most highly esteemed. She has been a grief and addiction counselor, and has spent her whole life ministering to others in their moments of darkest sorrow. Her husband is also a wonderful person, and his career for several decades has been as chaplain to the elderly, caring for fragile souls on the doorstep of eternity.

This woman has just been diagnosed with aggressive, metastasizing liver cancer. The fatal kind.

Naturally, she is shaken and brought to grief at the prospect of leaving her family so suddenly. Her husband is also devastated; he lost his first wife to cancer, so he’s been down this awful road before. Though strong in their faith, the whole family is understandably emotionally rocked by this terrible, terrible prospect.

Me, I don’t know what to say.

But I hope I know what not to say.

The Godly Reaction


That remarkable fact is recorded for us in the shortest verse in the Bible.

At that moment he was facing full-on, point-blank, the ultimate destiny of existence in our fallen world, the final wages of sin — and he wept.

Astonishing.

All the more astonishing since we know he was about to reverse it. In a few short moments, he would speak the words “Lazarus, come forth”, and out of the tomb would come a man fully restored to life.

What’s more, he knew this was what he was about to do.

And yet he wept.

That fact, if nothing else, should warn us against any cavalier attitude to pain, sorrow and death. Even in the presence of the total ability to reverse it, the tragedy was profound — that human beings, sentient creations of God intended for eternal fellowship with him, should instead be subjected to distress, suffering and death, this to the Son of God was more than merely wrong … it was unspeakably sad. In the face of it, grief and empathy were absolutely appropriate, regardless of what would happen thereafter.

Facing the Pain of Others

As Christians, we need to remember that. Human pain hurts. Sadness, grieving and tears are not signs of lack of faith. Death and deprivation are not to be dismissed offhandedly. And empathy for those who suffer is absolutely right, regardless of what hope may come hereafter.

Remember Job? Now, there was a guy who suffered. And when his pals showed up to comfort him, they saw how awful his situation was, and were so dumbstruck they sat down with him and said nothing for seven days and nights. They just shared his suffering.

It was the best thing they did. The worst was that after that they opened their stupid mouths and tried to explain away his agony as if it were perfectly understandable in straightforward humanly-graspable terms. In doing so, they became so irreverent and self-righteous that God nearly judged them. (Apparently, God doesn’t think much of people who explain away his dealings by quoting cliches or by being cavalier.)

Job saved their butts. But Job also never knew, this side of eternity, the why of his suffering. Even after his restored fortunes he was never told what caused the whole thing to happen.

Maybe there are people who, in this life, manage to figure out why they have suffered. Most do not. Maybe God will explain it all to us one day, and we'll all agree when we see his wisdom. But for now, suffering just hurts.

Cavalier Christianity?

I am reminded of these facts every time I hear someone quote or preach on the verse that says, “all things work together for good to those who love God”. It is true, of course, but it is not and cannot be taken as a dismissal of suffering. Human pain is real. Suffering, even the prospect of it, is legitimately terrifying. Death is unspeakably sad. And in response, grief is legitimate and necessary.

And yet, it seems that invariably whenever I hear Romans 8:28 quoted, it is being used in the hope of relativizing, excusing or minimizing someone else’s pain. Sometimes it’s even used to chide the sufferer for his or her lack of faith in feeling sorrow at what has befallen.

This, I think, is wrong. I don’t think the verse was ever intended for that purpose, and I suggest that he (or she) who uses it that way is doing a disservice to God and to his people.

Now, it’s not that I do not believe that God can bring good out of any situation at all — depression, sickness, separation and even death itself — it’s that I don’t think that God ever intended us to use that verse to dismiss the terrors and agony of life in our fallen world. To bring us ultimate hope, yes … but not to inoculate us against the present experience of suffering, and certainly not as an anaesthetic to our responsibility to feel along with others.

All things work together for good — yes, ultimately. But right now, it is very, very hard to be a human being.

A Closer Look

In fact, I think we have good reason to question how most people use that verse. They generally apply the “all things” to absolutely everything that can happen, without restriction, definition or limit. But in the scriptural context, we have good reason to suppose that might be wrong.

It is true that one can make a case for “all things” referring back to verse 18, which speaks of “suffering” in general terms. Maybe then the “all things” are anything that causes pain to anyone, anywhere, anytime. Maybe. But verse 18 is a fair distance from verse 28, isn’t it? And there’s a lot in between that merits attention and, I suggest, is more likely relevant to the interpretation of those words.

First, look at verse 17: it refers specifically to the sufferings that we who are Christians experience in our role as Christians — not to all the suffering that goes on in the world. Similarly, the “groaning” in verse 23 is specifically the agony of, on the one hand, knowing there is a better day ahead but, on the other, experiencing the painful realization of its absence at the moment; and in verse 26 is the agony of not knowing how to pray. The impression that we are dealing with spiritual pains is further strengthened by the reference to “hope” in verses 24 and 25; for this “hope” is a specifically Christian hope, and not something pertaining to the general experience of the world. So even within the passage, we find good reason to think that the sorrows being spoken of are the unique spiritual sorrows of the Christian experience, rather than general sorrows of human life.

Not only that, but there is a whole list of specifics that is positioned much closer to the “all things” in verse 28 than the general “suffering” in verse 18. We are told about a whole lot of things that should count against the sufferings we experience in the world — new birth, adoption, sonship, redemption, salvation, hope, perseverance, and the intercession of the Spirit. The “all things” in verse 28 is followed by foreknowledge, predestination, election, calling, justification and our inevitable glorification. Then “these things” is referred to again in verse 31, specifically in reference to the spiritual blessings that God has arranged for those who love him.

The Point, Concisely

Let me put it bluntly, then: it seems to me that the “all things” referred to in Romans 8 are not things like marriage breakups, mental illness, child abuse, cancer, and death. It is not God’s will that such things should even exist, for eternity will see them banished forever. And any good that comes out of such things will be purely by God’s overruling them; in and of themselves, they are the terrible furniture of a fallen world, and they are simply bad.

In contrast, God has a bunch of “things” that he is working together for our good. These are things like salvation, justification, the work of the Spirit, the hope of full redemption and glorification. He works them together for our good, because put together they combine into ideal unitary plan that God is securing for us despite whatever circumstances are happening to us in the present moment. At the end, we will win.

It’s really those spiritual things, and not the former circumstantial things, that Paul means by “all things work together for good”.

This is why Paul exclaims, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” Maybe against us are the evil circumstances of the world — like suffering, grief, pain and death. But for us is God’s wonderful plan of full redemption, secured by his foreknowledge, guaranteed by our adoption, sealed by the Spirit, and founded in the faithfulness of a promising God. If the trials of life are evil in and of themselves, they are never so great that they can put a dent in that.

Tears may fall now; but joy comes in the morning.

A Better Balance

In any case, one thing I am sure of: the Lord didn’t give us Romans 8:28 so Christians could dismiss the pain and suffering of others with a back-handed wave or a pat explanation.

My advice: watch how you use that verse. There’s nothing wrong with taking personal consolation from the thought that a sovereign God can make even very bad situations yield good in the long run. But we have no license for minimizing the present pain people experience between now and the long run.

When faced with the reality of human suffering, Jesus wept.

So should we.

2 comments :

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ullv_XN2d8M

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    1. Very much on-point, Bernie. Thanks.

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