So as we have seen, some people are ruined while others are able to gain strength and happiness despite experiencing the same traumatic experiences. We want a one-size-fits-all solution for handling suffering despite the fact that we come in so many different temperaments and spiritual conditions. Yet there is nothing less practical. Also, the suffering itself comes in a wide variety of forms. So not only can we not think that the same solutions will work for the same situations with different people, but that there are also so many different forms of suffering. Dr. Keller discusses four basic forms that the Bible speaks of.
The first is simply the direct effects of our own failures. David violated the law by committing adultery with another man’s wife and then having him murdered. Jonah tried running from God and later was bitterly angry because God did not destroy Ninevah. In both cases, God is not punishing them for their sins, but waking them to be humbled and realize something particular in their lives that needed to be dealt.
Other suffering is the result of good and brave behavior that causes betrayal or attacks from others. Paul was constantly under attack by his own people as well as the Gentiles. Jeremiah was put in stocks and imprisoned for simply “speaking the truth to power” (Jer 20:1-6). Such suffering is accompanied by the temptation to become bitter and hardened under the guise of being the noble victim. While confrontation and the pursuit of justice is required, the desire for vengeance must be resisted and forgiveness pursued.
The third type is considered “universal” because at one time or another, we all face it: grief and loss in the face of our mortality – accident, disease, decay and death. We see this in Mary and Martha when Jesus comforts them at the loss of their brother. Christians must learn to direct their minds and hearts to the comfort and hope that Christianity offers. As Paul exhorted, we do not grieve like those who have no hope, we do not lose heart.
The final type is what many call “senseless”, the mysterious, sudden, overwhelming, horrendous, or needless for which there is no understanding of “why”. While the Bible pays particular attention to this (see Psalm 44), there is the story of Job. He wanted to know a specific sin. He wanted a clear lesson from God. He wanted to know what in his life had caused this. But there was nothing in his life. That was the point of his suffering. God was leading him to the place where he would obey God simply because he was God, not in order to receive something or get something done. Such suffering requires honest prayer and crying, the hard work of trusting God and the re-ordering of our lives.
The diversities of suffering not only stem from the external, but from the internal as well. The different ways we tend to deal with pain and sorrow is described by Simone Weil in her essay “The Love of God and Affliction”. One way is through isolation. Either because we no longer feel a shared common experience with those around us or because others stay away because they don’t know what to say or do or they simply fear being drawn in themselves. Another is implosion where we become so self-absorbed that we get sucked down into ourselves and are unable to see what is happening around us. The third mark is condemnation when we feel we are being punished and our sense of self-hatred and guilt crushes us with a sense of doom and hopelessness. Finally, there is the temptation toward complicity. The noble victim becomes so wrapped in self-pity that it becomes a sweet addiction, an excuse to justify all sorts of behaviors. Or it could be possible that at some level we feel we need to pay for what we’ve done, so our suffering becomes the means to some end.
Every affliction is virtually unique and every sufferer will need to find their own pathway. But we can help one another. We must be careful though not to be like Jobs friends and give true statements with inappropriate applications. As Don Carson writes about them, “There is a way of using theology and theological arguments that wounds rather than heals. This is not the fault of theology and theological arguments; it is the fault of the ‘miserable comforter’ who fastens on an inappropriate fragment of truth, or whose timing is off, or whose attitude is condescending, or whose application is insensitive, or whose true theology is couched in such culture-laden clichés that they grate rather than comfort.”
There are things that we can say or do that may encourage some but at the same time discourage others. We want to be encouraging, to let the sufferer know we understand or share a nugget of wisdom that we find helpful ourselves. I can recall my own experience sitting in an ER listening to a counselor who was a Christian spout off a dozen or so cliches of encouragement and feeling each one land on my heart like a brick. Such “help” can be discouraging because it implicitly says to the sufferer that they’re somehow spiritually immature because they are not experiencing peace or knowing the goodness and wisdom of God. But if every affliction is unique, and every sufferer is unique, and every path through the suffering is unique, how can we help and comfort others in pain? Be with them, listen to them. Allow them to lament, wail or cry and lament, wail or cry with them.
Next week we begin Part Three: Walking with God in the Furnace, Chapter Eleven: Walking
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,