A thunderclap of mercy – a theology of suffering
by Jack Taylor
MAiD legislation is pushing some Christians into a quandary around how to handle their end of life sufferings. Hospices, like the Irene Thomas Hospice in Delta, are facing the ire of governments for maintaining a pro-life palliative care approach in managing suffering without taking active measures to end it. Has this become an issue of moral evil?
As we face this Easter season, and the focus on the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus, how does a theology of suffering help us understand our own approach to end of life issues? My own father’s death very recently, calls me to think beyond theory. The Christian message is fixated on living hope in a world of pain – a world where God has never abandoned his meticulous sovereignty.
A retired Calgary physician focused on palliative care, Dr. David Falk, states that “Palliative care roots were deeply embedded with care of the soul, respect for human life, and respect for the healing of the spiritual life of the individual. Unfortunately, over the years, medical culture has intentionally or unintentionally made it more about the physical, with treatment of pain and symptoms, more about the social with resolution of relationships and personal business, and less about the care of the spirit.” He focuses on dislike of failure, a lack of belief in God, a worldview where life is more expendable and professional detachment from patients as reasons for the transition of ‘care’.
Matt Smethurst, in his article ‘6 Pillars of a Christian view on Suffering’ (June 2, 2013) starts off by saying that “ever since the ancient revolt, suffering has been woven, with perplexity and pain, into the fabric of human experience. We all live and move and have our being amid Eden’s wreckage. Affliction and evil – universal as they are real – haunt us, stalk us, plague us.”
John Piper, in his recent podcast designed to make sense of the corona virus, calls this moment of suffering a thunderclap of divine mercy for the world. Affirming Jesus’ absolute control over all things, he traces the biblical narrative where God ordains biblical corruption, futility and death in response to the sin of Adam and Eve. He sees that believers, who are enveloped under this universal human experience, are incorporated into suffering as purification rather than punishment.
Paul Dirks, lead pastor at New West Community Church, says “Unlike the suffering of the wicked, the righteous person who suffers does so in faith, hope, and love towards the God who, in the form of Christ, suffered immeasurably more than he ever can. Just as the Lord Jesus thought the shame of the cross little compared to the glories of heaven, so too the Christian is to consider the sufferings of this life slight in comparison with the glory to be revealed (Heb 12:2, Rom 8:18).
In some circles the idea of heavenly reward is not deemed a worthy motivation, but the Lord Jesus not only motivated His disciples with visions of great reward (Mt 19:29), He used it for motivation Himself (Jn 17:5).
It is too convenient to dismiss suffering and evil, like Christian Science, in saying it is a state of mind. The ethical dilemma of David Hume posing that suffering and evil presents God as weak or evil ignores the Biblical stance. C.S. Lewis once rejected Christianity because of cruelty but realized that atheism fell short once injustice was truly understood.
When a believer faces suffering, they must wrestle with God’s justice, goodness, omniscience and omnipotence, plus his discipline or judgment. We wrestle with the enemy’s role in causing suffering. Human agents also make choices which cause suffering. Suffering comes with commitment to our following Jesus (Phil. 1:29; Matt. 16:24; Acts 14:22; I Pet. 5:8; Rom. 8:21-22; Rom. 7:19; 2 Cor. 12:8). The end of it all is faith. Paul’s perspective that “we rejoice in our sufferings” (Rom. 5:3-5) requires a mature faith as we contemplate endurance, character and a hope that doesn’t put us to shame. Suffering is the designated path toward Christlikeness.
Barton Priebe, in his book, The Problem with Christianity (p. 150), states that understanding Jesus’ teaching that good and evil co-exist in our world “can spare us from a naïve optimism that thinks this evil world can be turned into a utopia, and from a despairing pessimism that thinks the evil world can never experience true change.”
Why is there evil? “Jesus’ answer is that although the kingdom is already here, it has not yet fully come. Theologians call this “the already but not yet” of the kingdom.”
Don Carson begins his lecture at Lanier Theological Library titled, Going Beyond Cliches: Christian Reflection on Suffering and Evil, with a simple truth. “If you live long enough you will suffer.” Carson says “what Jesus seems to presuppose is that all the sufferings of the world – whether caused by malice or by accident – are not peculiar examples of judgment falling on the distinctively evil, but rather examples of the bare, stark fact that we are all under the sentence of death.” In Christ, our current sadness will one day become “gloriously untrue.”
God desires our trust in a world of ambiguity “where we do not know the mind of God.” While God has every day ordained for us in his book, this sovereignty “never functions to mitigate human responsibility.” Even with the reality of the cross, we are uniquely comforted “because only the Christian God plunged into the suffering we experience.” Carson notes that while there have been more Christian conversions since 1800 than in the 1800 years preceding “there have been more Christian martyrs since 1800 than in the previous 1800 years combined.”
A theology of suffering is something to be embraced prior to the onslaught of the dark valleys. We are not alone in our journey.
Whether we hear the thunderclap of mercy, a gentle whisper of comfort or a passionate commitment to hope, can make all the difference as we face end of life choices.