Luther and the German Reformers believed that the churches teaching that salvation is merited through patience under suffering led to a paganistic stoicism and therefore sought to restore a biblical approach. Unfortunately, what resulted was a culture in which Christians were taught to demonstrate their faith through unflinching, joyful acceptance of God’s will. Questioning God, like Job, was considered sinful. Job expressed himself with strong emotion and rhetoric and did not pray politely to God. He was brutally honest with his feelings.
But as Dr. Keller explains on page 242, “It is not right…for us to simply say to a person in grief and sorrow that they need to pull themselves together. We should be more gentle and patient with them. And that means we should also be gentle and patient with ourselves. We should not assume that if we are trusting in God we won’t weep, or feel anger, or feel hopeless.”
I Kings chapters 18 – 19 tell the narrative of Elijah, a great prophet who is despondent, even suicidal. He is a human being who is capable of taking only so much disappointment, opposition and difficulty. He is not handling his stress very well. He doesn’t say “I’m rejoicing in the Lord.” No, he wants to die. And how does God respond? He sends an angel. Not to scold him or tell him to rejoice or even ask probing questions, but to touch him and feed him. It is later that God comes to him and challenges him out of his despair.
“Some today conceive of depression as all physical, simply a matter of brain chemistry, and so they just need medicine and rest. Others, often Christians, may instead come upon a depressed person and tell him to buck up, to repent and get right with God to pull himself together and do the right thing. But God here shows us that we are complex creatures – with bodies and souls…suffering people need to be able to weep and pour out their hearts, and not to immediately be shut down by being told what to do. Nor should we do that to ourselves.”
In The View from a Hearse, by Joseph Bayly, a man who is grieving the loss of his sons describes a pair of offerings from friends seeking to help. “I was sitting, torn by grief. Someone came and talked to me of God’s dealings, of why it happened, of hope beyond the grave. He talked constantly, he said things I knew were true. I was unmoved, except to wish he’d go away. He finally did. Another came and sat beside me. He didn’t talk. He didn’t ask leading questions. He just sat beside me for an hour or more, listened when I said something, answered briefly, prayed simply, left. I was moved. I was comforted. I hated to see him go.”
Unfortunately, the church is seldom seen today as a place where those suffering have the freedom to weep and cry out to God, “Where are you? Why won’t you help me?” In Psalm 88 we learn several things about dealing with suffering. First, the Psalm ends without any note of hope. It is possible to be praying faithfully and enduringly with no improvement in our circumstances. One can live right, yet remain in the darkness of difficult circumstances or spiritual pain. Next, continuing struggles can reveal God’s grace in new depths. We can lose our temper and speak irreverently to God, yet he understands. Our God is still our God, not because we put on some happy mask and reel in our emotions, but because of grace. We need to be afraid to be candid and express ourselves honestly with God. Finally, in unrelenting times of darkness we have the opportunity to truly defeat the forces of evil around us by choosing to serve God just because he is God. There is no opportunity to give service because of something we have been given or are expecting to receive. We can serve him because of who he is and we can trust him. Jesus suffered the ultimate darkness for us, who better to trust in our own times of darkness?
Dr. Keller concludes this chapter with a brief exploration of what it means to “rejoice in suffering”. To rejoice cannot simply mean to “have happy emotions”. In 1 Peter 1:6-7, Peter describes his readers as rejoicing in their salvation while at the same time suffering great trials and sorrow. But how can that be? Not only can we do both, but he argues that we must do both. “To rejoice in God means to dwell on and remind ourselves of who God is, who we are, and what he has done for us. Sometimes our emotions respond and follow when we do this, and sometimes they do not…Rejoicing in suffering happens within sorrow.” Jesus was perfect, and yet he was considered a man of sorrow and acquainted with grief. When we are not all absorbed in ourselves, we can feel the sadness of the world. And when that happens, the joy of the Lord happens inside the sorrow, not after. “The weeping drives you into the joy, it enhances the joy, and then the joy enables you to actually feel your grief without it sinking you. In other words, you are finally emotionally healthy.”
Next week Chapter Thirteen: Trusting
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