Wednesday, October 17, 2007

A Christian Theology of Suffering

Note: Here is the outline from my talk last week to a group of "pastoral care givers":
A Christian Theology of Suffering
October 11, 2007
Jeff Riddle

I. Preface:

The Minister’s resources:
1. We come with a people (the church).
2. We come with prayer.
3. We come with Scripture.
4. We come with doctrine.

II. Five observations on the Christian theology of suffering:

1. The Bible reveals a God of suffering.

Flow this concept in Scripture:
*The protoevangelion in Genesis 3:15. The first prophecy of Christ. Note that evil is overcome but in so doing the Savior is wounded.
*The covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15:6-11, 17-18. The LORD himself passes through the animals cut in two. God is promising to be broken Himself if the covenant is not kept. He will keep the covenant, but man will not. God is promising to suffer for his people.
*The Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52:13-53:12.
*The cry of dereliction in Mark 15:34. Maybe the most astounding verse in Scripture. Jesus, the God-man, suffering on the cross.
*The scandal of the preaching the cross in 1 Corinthians 1:18-25.

This is the touchstone of Christian theology. It requires a trinitarian theology to avoid patripassianism. Islam cannot understand a God of suffering. It has to change the account of the cross. Christianity embraces it. If you saw three young men coming toward you on a dark street, how would your mood change if you discovered they were all three committed Christians?

2. The Bible reveals a God of com-passion in Incarnation.

At the core of the Christian faith is the concept of incarnation:

*The Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14).
*The Christ hymn of Philippians 2:5-11.
*Christ’s identity with humanity in suffering in Hebrews 2:14-18; 4:14-16.
*Christians follow in Christ’s example in taking on Incarnational ministry (see 1Cor 9:19-23).

God has entered into human experience in Christ, including even the experience of death.

3. The Bible reveals that death is an evil to be overcome.

Pastoral care givers are working with people preparing for death, or with people who seem much closer to it than to others.

There is a modern tendency to deny the reality of death. See the funeral home industry. Note how the old hymns dealt with death’s reality. Some theologies deny death but remember that the mortality rate for healing evangelists is 100%!

Contemporary therapeutic counseling denies the evil of death. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s Death and Dying promotes the "death is good" and the "death is natural" approach. The Hospice movement continues and expands this. See the tendency to do memorial services and not funerals. The Biblical view, however, is that death is not to be celebrated. We have lost the sense of seriousness and sobriety with death.

The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). Death is an insidious opponent to be overcome (see 1 Cor 15:54-55). This life is not ultimate (see 2 Cor 5:1-8).

4. The Bible reveals that suffering is redemptive and purposive.

Flow in Scripture:

*God meant it for good (Genesis 50:20).
*The preeminent example of this is the suffering of Christ (see Acts 2:22-24).
*The Christian sees suffering as redemptive and as a tool for identity in ministry (see 2 Cor 1:3-7).
*Note how Paul revels in what he has suffered for Christ in 2 Corinthians 11:24-30. The goal is a contentedness in Christ despite the external circumstances (see Phil 4:11-13).

5. The Bible reveals that suffering draws us to the doctrine of God’s sovereignty.

How could I have talked about suffering and not have mentioned the book of Job? Here we come to this book at last.

This is a book of theodicy. Rabbi Kushner asked, "Why do bad things happen to good people?" His answer was that of process theology. God is good but not great. The orthodox Christian answer, on the other hand, is that God is both great and good.

Job concludes with man humbled before the sovereignty of God in Job 42:1-6. Man’s end is not to shake his puny fist at God in protest of his governance of the universe but to rest humbly in God’s sovereignty. We will give most comfort to our fellow man in preaching the sovereignty of God.

III. Conclusion.

One of the classics on the Christian view of suffering is the Puritan Thomas Boston’s The Crook in the Lot. Boston (1676-1732) suffered religious persecution and in the final eight years of his existence what he called "the groaning part of my life." His wife suffered a paralyzing depression while he was, a Packer put it, "a martyr to some form of the stone (gravel he called it) and saw himself become a physical wreck." This book is seven sermons. Three on Ecclesiastes 7:13: "Consider the work of God: for who can make that straight, which he hath made crooked?"; one on Proverbs 16:19: "Better it is to be of an humble spirit with the lowly, than to divide the spoil with the proud"; and three on 1 Peter 5:6: "Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God and you will be exalted in due time."

At the close he offers this exhortation:

"As you meet with crosses in your lot in the world, let your desire be rather to have your spirit humbled and brought down, than to get the cross removed. I mean not but that you may use all lawful means for the removal of your cross, in dependence on God; but only that you be more concerned to get your spirit to bow and ply, than to get the crook in your lot evened" (p. 121 in the Christian Focus edition, 2002).


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