Saturday, September 06, 2014

Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering

Chapter Nine: Learning to Walk

In our modern culture, we pursue methods of self-improvement in order to achieve happiness.  But happiness is not an end product, but the by-product of right relations with God and our neighbors.  Trying to achieve comfort and satisfaction on your own without a life centered on God in Christ will leave you with a lack of self-knowledge and inner emptiness.

Why should we trust God?  “[We] should trust God because he is God and not our personal assistant or life coach.  We should trust him because it is his due, he is worthy of it, not because it will get us something.  If we love and obey God for his own sake, not ours, it begins to turn us into something strong and great and wise.”  Suffering can lead to personal growth, training, and transformation so long as we do not become self-absorbed and make it about improving ourselves.

Much of present therapy consists of removing or managing feelings of low self-esteem, incompetence or worthlessness.  These are considered errors or distortions in thinking.  But what if such negative thoughts are actually correct?  Psychologist James Davies points out that psychological research demonstrates that many people, instead of being plagued with low self-esteem, “are so infected with self-love that they are unable to love others…[and] cannot see beyond the horizon of their own needs and concerns.  They are therefore unable to put themselves to one side and empathize with the needs and pains of others – their reality is best so all should adapt to it.”  Dr. Paul Keedwell writes, “[It] is not the depressive who distorts reality but the so-called healthy population…Even if depression does distort reality in a negative way…the fact remains that it removes the positive self-biases that are seen in the non-depressed.”

Whether one’s life can find improvement from suffering can depend on the strategy used to cope.  Avoidance coping and denial can lead to disaster by blunting emotional reactions or by seeking other distractions such as drinking or drugs.  Active coping and reappraisal combines the “hard inner work of learning and growing with seeking to change the painful external circumstances…Suffering will either leave you a much better person or a much worse one than you were before.”

Dr. Keller than describes four ways the Bible teaches that God uses suffering.  The first is to transform our attitude toward ourselves by engendering humility and removing unrealistic self-regard and pride.  Second, we will realize that some things have become too important in our lives and we must change our relationship to them.  Third, it strengthens our relationship to God.  C. S. Lewis arugued that it is only in suffering that we can hear God ‘shouting’ a set of questions at us: “Were things all right between us as long as I waited on you hand and foot?  Did you get into this relationship for me to serve you of for you to serve me?  Were you loving me before, or only loving the things I was giving you?”  Only in suffering can we come to understand that our faith and trust is truly in God and not just what he does for us.  Finally, suffering enables us to become more tenderhearted and able to comfort others.  As such, the church should be “a community of profound consolation, a place where you get enormous support for suffering and where people find themselves growing, through their troubles, into the persons God wants them to become.”

The Greek word gymnazdo, from which we get our word gymnasium literally meant to be “stripped naked” – to “exercise naked, to train.”  When everything is going well for us, our flaws can be masked and hidden from others.  When difficulties hit us though, we suddenly find ourselves in God’s gymnasium – exposed.  And how do we use a gymnasium?  We put pressure on our limbs and muscles to strengthen and build them.  Too much pressure can cause you to break down.  Too little pressure will have little or no effect and you’ll break down.  What we need to do is put just the right amount of pressure and the right amount of discomfort and pain.  I Corinthians 10:13 encourages us that we can trust God in his gymnasium.  Everything that happens in our life has both a purpose and a limit.

But we must also be prepared, both in our minds and in our hearts so that we are not surprised when suffering occurs.  We prepare our minds by “developing a deep enough knowledge of the Bible and a strong and vital enough prayer life that you will neither be surprised by nor overthrown by affliction.”  This is simple but crucial.  “Some people have the naïve view that because they are fairly savvy people, or self-disciplined, or morally decent, or good Christians – that really, really bad things simply can’t happen to them.  That is nothing but bad theology.  And so many people’s misery and distress in suffering is doubled and trebled, coming not from the trouble itself but from the shock that they are suffering at all.”  It is also helpful to remember that we not expect to understand all God’s ways.  It wouldn’t make sense that all his does make sense.

In our heart’s we know that suffering isn’t just intellectual – “Why is there so much evil and suffering in life?”, but suffering is personal – “How will I get through this?”  Preparation for this requires a prayer life that is consistent, vibrant, theologically deep and existentially rich.  When John S. Feinberg’s wife was diagnosed with a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that had a 50% chance of being passed on to each of his children, he initially struggled with denial, but eventually came to realize “[Who] was I, the creature, to contest the Creator?...the creature has no right to haul the Creator into the courtroom of human moral judgments and put him on trial as though he has done something wrong.  God has total power and authority over me.”

On page 201, Dr. Keller states, “It is one thing to believe in God but it is quite another thing to trust God.  It is one thing to have an intellectual explanation for why God allows suffering; it is another thing to actually find a path through suffering so that, instead of becoming more bitter, cynical, despondent, and broken, you become more wise, grounded, humble, strong, and even content.”

Next week Chapter Ten: The Varieties of Suffering

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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