Saturday, August 30, 2014

Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering

Chapter Eight: The Reason for Suffering

On page 163, Dr. Keller says, “According to Christian theology, suffering is not meaningless – neither in general nor in particular instances.  For God has purposed to defeat evil so exhaustively on the cross that all the ravages of evil will someday be undone and we, despite participating in it so deeply, will be saved.  God is accomplishing this not in spite of suffering, agony, and loss but through it – it is through the suffering of God that the suffering of humankind will eventually be overcome and undone.  While it is impossible not to wonder whether God could have done all this some other way – without allowing all the misery and grief – the cross assures us that, whatever the unfathomable counsels and purposes behind the course of history, they are motivated by love for us and absolute commitment to our joy and glory.  So suffering is at the very heart of the Christian faith…And that means that our suffering, despite its painfulness, is also filled with purpose and usefulness.”

In our modern world we no longer espouse any idea of the usefulness of suffering.  We understand that stress is generally bad for peoples health, yet we also find empirical support that shows we also need adversity and setbacks in order to achieve to our highest levels.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt points out three benefits of suffering.  The first is that by enduring, we become more resilient.  Second, it nurtures and strengthens relationships.  Third, and most significantly, it changes our priorities and philosophies.  Those who invest most of their energies into personal achievement and happiness find themselves most vulnerable to adversity.  For those whose priorities include relationships, religion or contributing to society find suffering enhances their efforts towards these.  Times of pain and suffering will often force us out of self-centered life agendas and move us into ones that are other-centered.

On page 167, Dr. Keller lays it out for us.  “According to all branches of Christian theology, the ultimate purpose of life is to glorify God.  That means that the first – but perhaps hardest to grasp – purpose for our suffering is the glory of God.”  It is unfortunate that many of today’s most popular churches teach that God is there for our personal benefit, to make us happy, healthy and prosperous.  As we have previously discussed, happiness is a western cultural idea of life’s purpose.  The church should know better.

There are also those who argue that one who needs constant reminder of his own glory is not one to be admired.  C. S. Lewis counters that when we notice “that a work of art is admirable, we don’t mean that it “deserves” praise in the way that a good student deserves a high mark.  Rather, we mean the artwork demands admiration because it is the only ‘adequate or appropriate response to it’ and that if we do not give it praise, we shall have missed something.”  Therefore, God directs us to do that which is simply right to do because we need to do it.  “[In] every action by which we treat him as glorious as he is, whether through prayer, singing, trusting, obeying, or hoping, we are at once giving God his due and fulfilling our own design.”

But what exactly is the glory of God that we should be giving him his due?  For one it is “his infinite beyondness”.  Again, this is one of those things that modern people dislike.  How can we believe in a God beyond our comprehension?  We don’t want to believe in a God who would do this thing we don’t like or who would judge people.  But would a god that we can figure out and completely understand really be God?

The glory of God is also “his supreme importance”.  “[When] the Bible says that God is glorious, it means he should matter, and does matter, more than anything else or anyone else.  And if anything matters to you more than God, you are not acknowledging his glory.  You are giving glory to something else.”

Thirdly, the glory of God is “his absolute splendor and beauty”.  This comes from the Greek word doxa used in the New Testament that means “praise and wonder; luminosity, brilliance, or beauty”.  As Dr. Keller states, “Glorifying God does not mean obeying him only because you have to.  It means to obey him because you want to – because you are attracted to him, because you delight in him.”

To illustrate what he has been saying, Dr. Keller describes the story No Graven Image by Elisabeth Elliot.  The point of the story is that a god who acts the way we think he should, who supports our plans, who makes everything go the way we think it should, is really a god of our own creation, a counterfeit.  He is only a projection of our own wisdom.  But when we expect God to serve our plans, we are not treating him as God.  We expect young children to trust adults they don’t understand, yet we are horrified at the idea of trusting a God we cannot understand.   Elisabeth Elliot would later write that “I dethrone Him in my heart if I demand that He act in ways that satisfy my idea of justice…There is unbelief, there is even rebellion, in the attitude that says, God has no right to do this…”  So we can trust God’s wisdom in our suffering, even when we don’t understand, because we remember the glory and meaning of the cross.

While we can glorify God in our suffering, we can also glorify him to others as well.  How we handle suffering demonstrates the greatness of God to those around us.  As early Christian writers such as Ambrose, Cyprian, Ignatius, and Polycarp said, onlookers wondered where these dying Christians were getting this power to face their torture and pain.

A recent example we can look to is the Amish community’s response to the tragic school shooting in Lancaster, PA in October 2006.  The Amish response was considered by the media to be an example of “the best in us”, yet their ability to forgive has a basis on two things.  First, their ability to forgive is grounded in Christ forgiving his enemies and it is at the heart of their faith and practice.  Second, they understand that forgiveness involves self-renunciation – giving up the right to pay back.  But this is in direct opposition to our individualistic, consumeristic society that emphasizes self-assertion that is more likely to produce revenge.

Even the suffering that no one sees can be a testimony.  The secular world says there is no transcendent, no supernatural, only this world.  Yet the Bible teaches that angels are watching the church and rejoicing when sinners repent.  Job was watched by a great council of angels and the devil.  Knowing that all is seen and known brings great meaning and significance on the most insignificant thoughts and actions.  As Joni Eareckson Tada wrote about Denise Walters, a woman who spent 8 years alone in a hospital room dying of multiple sclerosis, “Angels and demons stood amazed as they watched her uncomplaining and patient spirit rising as a sweet smelling savor to God.”

“No suffering is for nothing…Jesus took away the only kind of suffering that can really destroy you: that is being cast away from God…Jesus Christ suffered, not so that we would never suffer but so that when we suffer we would be like him.  His suffering led to glory.  And you can see it in Paul…He is like Jesus now.  Because that is how Jesus did it.  And if you know that that glory is coming, you can handle suffering, too.”

Next week Chapter Nine: Learning to Walk

Until then, don’t take my word for it, read the book – don’t wait for the movie,
and have a little hope on me,

To learn more about Timothy Keller and his work at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, you can check out his 
personal website, his Facebook page or the church homepage.

Keller, Timothy (2013), Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering. Penguin Group. ISBN 978-0-525-95245-9

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