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how suffering sets you free
By TULLIAN TCHIVIDJIAN
David C. Cook Copyright © 2012 Tullian Tchividjian
All rights reserved.
SUFFERING IS INEVITABLE
When you raise children, you hope to shield them from suffering. You do everything in your power to keep painful experiences at bay.
I remember when my boys were little; Nathan was four and Gabe six, and we visited my mom and dad in central Florida. We were inside the house, while the boys played outside with one of the neighborhood kids. When we called them in for dinner, Gabe came running and said, "The boy we were playing with showed me a bad picture." My wife, Kim, ran outside immediately and found that this little seven-year-old boy had a stash of incredibly explicit pornography that he'd probably stolen from his dad.
I wept myself to sleep that night. They're six and four, and they've already seen this stuff, I thought. It may seem like a minor incident, but this was the first time that the nastiness and darkness of this world crowded into their innocent, naive world. I couldn't stop thinking about how it could come back to haunt them, that this could be the beginning of a lifelong addiction that could crush them and ruin their marriages. It was devastating to me, and the first time as a parent that I was beside myself. It was merely the tip of the iceberg, but that didn't make it any less painful. I was confronted with the truth that my boys were no more immune to the tragic realities of the world than I was.
Benjamin Franklin memorably captured the inevitability of pain in this life when he wrote, "In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." And while his tone may not necessarily reflect the gravity of the sentiment, he was right. From the death of a loved one, to hurricanes and tsunamis, to the loss of a job, to chronic back pain or inexplicable depression, suffering is everywhere. When the satirical newspaper The Onion published the mock headline "Average Time Spent Being Happy Drops to 13 Seconds Per Day," it confirmed, in a laugh-or-you'll-cry way, what I have learned from fifteen years in ministry. People suffer more deeply and more frequently than they admit, even those who appear to be doing well. In other words, if you're not suffering in some way right now, just wait. Things are not as they should be.
Physical pain and sickness are perhaps the most overt forms of suffering. This ranges from a kindergartner's stubbed toe to a teenager's stress-induced migraines to stomach cancer in old age. It all hurts, and as the multibillion-dollar medical-technology and pharmaceutical industries can attest, we do everything in our power to stave off the decay.
Job himself suffered from excruciating boils, or in more modern language, the sores that form around infected hair follicles. If you know someone who's ever dealt with this affliction, you know that it can be unbearably painful. A friend of mine described his ordeal with a boil on his shoulder as the sensation of a knife being continually jabbed into his back. Imagine that kind of pain across your entire body, and you might have a glimpse into what Job would have suffered. I hope that most of us have not faced the kind of pain and discomfort that Job did—although there are likely female readers who have experienced the intense pain of childbirth and will claim otherwise! But the issue here is not so much the comparative depth of suffering, but simply the fact that we suffer. No one is exempt from the dust-to-dust, ashes-to-ashes verdict handed down in the garden of Eden.
Relational suffering is just as universal and severe, though perhaps a bit more elusive. Who hasn't felt misunderstood or taken advantage of? Who hasn't been insulted or cheated or rejected? As life-giving as our relationships with other people can be, they can also be sources of resentment and regret. This form of suffering applies to men and women, children and parents, colleagues at work, and members of your church. The issues involved may be trivial, but the feelings aren't. When a parent misses the game he promised he'd move heaven and earth to attend, it hurts. Getting dumped when you're sixteen years old is extraordinarily painful. So is divorce when you're forty-five. Equally painful are the passive-aggressive comments from a coworker at the office or from the mothers at the playground. And then there's endless stream of "feedback" about how you're filing your TPS reports at work (Office Space). This list goes on. Emotional pain is the risk we run when we relate to another person.
Job suffered immensely in this regard. In the midst of all that he had gone through, including loss of home, livelihood, children, and finally, his health, his wife chimed in: "Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die" (2:9 ESV). Job was already disoriented and alone in his suffering, and the person he loved most told him to just give up, turn his back on God, and die. If there's anyone in Job's life that should have been there to comfort him in his time of blinding agony, it was his wife. The feeling of abandonment must have been terrible. As if that weren't enough, we then read a thirty-odd-chapter conversation between Job and his "friends," in which the friends pick apart every aspect of Job's life in a, frankly, rather creepy kind of spiritual surveillance, looking for some hidden sin they can pin the suffering on. The misguided assumption they are working with, of course, is that nobody suffers these kinds of reversals unless he or she did something to deserve it. We'll return to their ruthless moralizing later. For now, suffice it to say that Job's friends were great counselors—until they opened their mouths! These relational betrayals give a whole new meaning to the phrase "kicking a man when he's down."
This is not to suggest that suffering can ever be neatly organized or clinically categorized. The most tragic events in our lives, such as the sudden death of a loved one, have both physical and emotional components, not to mention spiritual ones, and to the sufferer, the precise makeup is irrelevant. Loss is loss and it stings, pure and simple.
Nicholas Wolterstorff is a Christian who taught philosophical theology for many years at Yale. He and his wife have six children, but he lost an adult son. His son Eric, who was twenty-five at the time, died in a mountain-climbing accident. Wolterstorff chronicled the grief he experienced through his loss in a journal. This is a man who had devoted his life to the understanding, meaning, and reality of life's mysteries, and he suddenly, strikingly, lost a son. In a single moment, all his intellectual categories for making sense of the existence of evil and pain were demolished. He published his journal years later as a book titled Lament for a Son. The book opens with his recollection of the moment the dreaded phone call came:
The call came at 3:30 on that Sunday afternoon, a bright sunny day. We had just sent his younger brother off to the plane to be with him for the summer.
"Is this Eric's father?"
"Mr. Wolterstorff, I must give you some bad news."
"Eric has been climbing in the mountains and has had an accident."
"Eric has had a serious accident."
"Mr. Wolterstorff, I must tell you, Eric is dead. Mr. Wolterstorff, are you there? You must come at once! Mr. Wolterstorff, Eric is dead."
For three seconds I felt the peace of resignation: arms extended, limp son in hand, peacefully offering him to someone—Someone. Then the pain—cold burning pain.
Wolterstorff's harrowing account explodes the tempting notion that if we only grasped God's will more clearly, if we only knew something we don't know now, the wound would hurt less. But the gospel is not ultimately a defense from pain and suffering; rather, it is the message of God's rescue through pain. In fact, it allows us to drop our defenses, to escape not from pain but from the prison of How and Why to the freedom of Who. We are not responsible for finding the right formula to combat or unlock our suffering. The good news of the gospel does not consist of theological assertions or some elaborate religious how-to manual. The good news is Jesus Himself, the Man of Sorrows, the crucified God who meets us in our grief. Indeed, information, even information about Jesus, is relatively useless when it comes to the aching soul. Only the Holy Spirit can comfort a person in the depths of grief. Neil Young claims that "only love can break your heart." But only God can heal it.
Does this mean that the Bible is of no help when it comes to suffering? Of course not! The counterintuitive message of the cross is a message of immense hope and comfort to "those who are perishing." It is not the healthy who need a doctor, after all, but the sick.
FAITH DOES NOT ALWAYS EQUAL PROGRESS
It is not exactly breaking news to say that our culture has an aversion to suffering, regardless of how inescapable it may be. This is because we—you and me—have an aversion to suffering. Who wants to suffer? But the conscious avoidance of pain is one thing; the complete intolerance, or outright denial of it, is another. Why do we run so hard from something so inexorable, so much so that we often make the painful situation even worse? Setbacks fly in the face of our dearly held beliefs about progress. They rub against the grain of our collective obsession with personal control, that is, our sin. Celebrated American novelist Jonathan Franzen put it this way:
We have this notion in this country, not only of endless economic growth but of endless personal growth. I have a certain characterological antipathy to the notion of we're all getting better and better all the time. And it's so clearly belied by our experience. You may get better in certain ways for 10 years, but one day you wake up and although things are a little bit different, they're not a lot different.
It's true. Despite the inevitability of suffering, everything in our culture points toward progress, progress, progress. And I'm not just talking about classic rock anthems like The Beatles' "Getting Better," or Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop." Unfortunately, our churches often espouse a Christianized version of this gospel of progress, framing the life of belief as primarily about personal improvement. What may start out as a faithful by-product of Christian belief soon becomes its focal point, inadvertently serving as the foothold for Original Sin, aka the innate God complex hiding within us all. Such is the default curved-in-on-itself position of the human heart, or what Augustine termed incurvatus in se.
Perhaps you've heard this tendency expressed as a legalistic formula: "The reason for suffering and the lack of abundant life among Christians is due to lack of faith. Or, if you fall ill or come upon hard times financially, maybe it's because there's a hidden skeleton in your closet that needs to be confessed and exposed."
Sadly, such thinking has also seeped into our evangelism: "Accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, and all your dreams will come true"—despite the fact that the general tenor of the New Testament suggests increased suffering for believers, not decreased. Which isn't to say that Christians never experience victory over areas of compulsive sin and brokenness. They certainly do! But as beautiful and miraculous as these thanksgivings may be, they are not the gospel. In fact, the thinking that ties suffering to faithlessness actually is in the Bible—but it's not affirmed, it's condemned! What is affirmed, however, is God working through our afflictions.
This is where Martin Luther, the great leader of the Protestant Reformation, comes in. One of his most important and lasting contributions to the faith involves the distinction between the "theology of glory" and the "theology of the cross." These two divergent views did not originate with Luther. They are as old as the hills; he simply gave them names. It may sound like an esoteric distinction, but it is just as essential today as it was in the sixteenth century.
A THEOLOGY OF GLORY VERSUS A THEOLOGY OF THE CROSS
"Theologies of glory" are approaches to Christianity (and to life) that try in various ways to minimize difficult and painful things, or to move past them rather than looking them square in the face and accepting them. Theologies of glory acknowledge the cross, but view it primarily as a means to an end—an unpleasant but necessary step on the way to personal improvement, the transformation of human potential. As Luther put it, the theologian of glory "does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil." The theology of glory is the natural default setting for human beings addicted to control and measurement. This perspective puts us squarely in the driver's seat, after all.
One way to understand this dynamic is to look at the ways people talk about painful experiences. If someone has just undergone an ugly, protracted divorce, for example, he or she might say something like, "Well, it was never a good marriage anyway," or "But I've really learned a lot from this whole experience."
This kind of rationalization tries to make something bad sound like it is good. It is a strategy to avoid looking pain and grief directly in the face, to avoid acknowledging that we wish life were different but are powerless to change it. In the church, one hallmark of a theology of glory is the unwillingness to acknowledge the reality of ongoing sin and lack of transformation in Christians. A sign that you are operating with a theology of glory is when your faith feels like a fight against these realities instead of a resource for accepting them. The English poet W. H. Auden captured it beautifully when he wrote, "We would rather die in dread / Than climb the cross of the moment / And let our illusions die."
A theology of the cross, in contrast, understands the cross to be the ultimate statement of God's involvement in the world on this side of heaven. A theology of the cross accepts the difficult thing rather than immediately trying to change it or use it. It looks directly into pain, and "calls a thing what it is" instead of calling evil good and good evil. It identifies God as "hidden in [the] suffering." Luther actually took things one key step further. He said that God was not only hidden in suffering, but He was at work in our anxiety and doubt. When you are at the end of your rope—when you no longer have hope within yourself—that is when you run to God for mercy. It's admittedly difficult to accept the claim that God is somehow hidden amid all of the wreckage of our lives. But those who are willing to struggle and despair may in actuality be those among us who best understand the realities of the Christian life.
A theology of the cross defines life in terms of giving rather than taking, self-sacrifice rather than self-protection, dying rather than killing. It reorients us away from our natural inclination toward a theology of glory by showing that we win by losing, we triumph through defeat, and we become rich by giving ourselves away. Of course, our inner theologian of glory can be counted on to try to hijack the theology of the cross and make it a new, more reliable scheme for self-improvement. But the theology of the cross happens to us and in spite of us. For the suffering person, this is a word of profound hope.
THE BEST ARGUMENT FOR (AND AGAINST) ATHEISM
In light of the theology of the cross, perhaps it is no coincidence that the apostle Paul wrote, "The foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength" (1 Cor. 1:25).
Let's look at atheism as a particularly timely example. The best argument for atheism is not the one articulated by Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. It has nothing to do with logic or rationalism or the laws of physics. No, the best argument for atheism was the one articulated by Ludwig Feuerbach in the nineteenth century, which is the same argument that Karl Marx latched onto and then Sigmund Freud after him (and then Ricky Gervais after him, in his 2009 film The Invention of Lying). Simply put, Feuerbach posited that God was a projection of everything good and everything hoped for in the human heart. People take what they value, their dreams, their wishes, and put them in the sky and call them God. God becomes the sum of the things we wish were true. Feuerbach himself wrote:
God is the Love that satisfies our wishes, our emotional wants; he is himself the realised wish of the heart, the wish exalted to the certainty of its fulfillment, of its reality.
Excerpted from GLORIOUS RUIN by TULLIAN TCHIVIDJIAN. Copyright © 2012 Tullian Tchividjian. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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