How Shall We Minister to the Suffering?

The following is a comment I posted as part of a conversation on my Facebook page yesterday.  I though I would post it on my blog as well.  I have edited the original comment slightly but the gist of what I said is still the same..

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I once was asked to speak on the question of “Why Do Children Die” as part of a Faith in Crisis series at the Highland Church of Christ in Memphis, TN.  My short answer was and still is “I don’t know” (and believe me, I wish I did).

I did however suggest three reasons for suffering in scripture.  The three reasons are redemptive, pedagogical, and punitive.  We see all three reasons displayed in the suffering of Jesus’ death.  His death brings about redemption (i.e., Jn 3.16), teaches his disciples a new way of living (i.e., Phil 2.5-8), and assumes the punishment for sin/evil since it is God’s way of both being just and the one who justifies sinners (i.e., Rom 3.25-26).

With that in mind, I believe we still can see in hindsight the redemptive and pedagogical meaning in suffering (cf. Rom 5.3-5).  However, I am somehwere between hesitant and unwilling to say that God is still using some suffering to punish individuals and communities for whatever sin they have done.  First, if the sins (past, present, future) of the world have been nailed to the cross (cf. Isa 53.4-5; Col 2.13-15; 1 Pet 3.18) then why are people being punished for that which Jesus has taken on in the cross?  This is why I love the 2nd stanza to the hymn It Is Well with My Soul (“My sin…Oh, the bliss of this glorious thought…My sin, not in part but the whole.  Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more…”).  Secondly, if we think about events of suffering such as the systematic rape of women in the Congo or the children who will never leave the oncology ward alive, then our theological reasonsing about human suffering falls woefully short.

That is why in a recent seminar class I taught on “A Christian Response to Human Suffering” I advised those present that it is best if we would just refrain from making judgments about why someone is suffering. Even when someone is dying, say from addictive & dysfunctional behaviors (for which we are tempted to think there are obvious reasons for such suffering), we don’t know what all has happened to that person throughout their life that has had an affect on continueing in negative behaviors.

As a follower of Jesus Christ, I believe our simple Christian response to suffering is first, to join with the sufferer in thier suffering, however that is possible. It may be listening to their complaints (lament), serving them, or some other way.  Secondly, when appropriate we ought to pray with them and even if that would not be appropriate (there are such inappropriate times for prayer), we can still  pray for them.

8 responses to “How Shall We Minister to the Suffering?

  1. Rex: You wrote, “I am somewhere between hesitant and unwilling to say that God is still using some suffering to punish individuals and communities for whatever sin they have done.”

    Me: I would be hesitant to claim to know for sure the reason for suffering; but I do not think we can deny it does happen. A good juxtaposition of the two possibilities (suffering is due to an individual sins vs. suffering is not, but is for another hidden purpose) are found in John 5:14 and 9:3. In the former, Jesus links the man’s suffering to his sins. In the latter, Jesus denies that individual sins were the reason for the suffering (blindness). So I think it can be due to individual sin, or it might not; but the important point here (as you stated later in the post) is that we are not to make that call! It is not our position to determine for certain why something is happening. Also can we not deny it was because of an individual sin or sins. Best left ignorant in all cases I believe. And another major point is that all suffering is due to “sin” in the world; as in suffering is a cause of the creation being subjected to futility. Therefore, we groan; and we proclaim the Gospel and the coming full redemption of all creation.

    You also wrote: “First, if the sins (past, present, future) of the world have been nailed to the cross (cf. Isa 53.4-5; Col 2.13-15; 1 Pet 3.18) then why are people being punished for that which Jesus has taken on in the cross?”

    Me: I would disagree that all sins of every man without exception were put on the cross. That is not what “world” means in that case. It does not mean “all the world (mankind) without exception;” instead it means “all the world “mankind” without distinction” (that is, not just Jews). This is a very important difference to maintain. Only the sins of those who believe were put on the cross. If all sins of all men (without exception) were put on the cross, then we might as well be Universalists. Belief and faith mean something; and it is that (being born-again) that lays our sins upon Jesus.

    Having said that, I think that even though the sins (past, present, future) of a believer were put on the Savior (by grace, through faith, according to the eternal purpose and election of God); God can still use His discipline via suffering/harm/etc. to conform a believer into His likeness more and more. This would fit your “redemptive” or even the “pedagogical” options in the beginning of your post.

    I agree with your conclusion. Let us join a sufferer. Let us lament with them (Psalms are excellent for this, particular with their laments being linked to the realities of God and His promises – except for 88 that is).

    Thanks for this. Good post. Grace to you –
    Jr

    • If a person is hospitalized a fight because they were drunk and mouthing off to someone in a bar, we might advise them to stop or else something worse (like being killed in a bar fight) might happen.
      – or

      If a we minister to a person and bless them with the compassionate mercy of God, we might then point them towards repentance by reminding them that whatever problem they had is not their only problem, that they have a sin problem that needs to be ‘stopped’ or something else (like judgment) might happen.

      I have not done a thorough exegesis of Jn 5.14 – at least not the way you would have sitting in a class with Dr. Black 🙂 – but it seems both of the above options are plausible and that we should not just assume that Jesus’ statement in v.14 is a claim about suffering being a punitive response from God for sin.

      As for John 3.16…I believe there are plenty of other passages that jusitify God’s redemptive act as being for all people. I don’t know where you stand but I reject the doctrine of limited atonement. I believe it is based on shoddy and selective biblical reading and makes some claims about God that are just outright incoherent with One who loves even ‘the least of these.’

      —–

      Any ways…how was the Gospel of John class? I had thought about trying to audit it but with all of my moving this summer, I just couldn’t swing it.

      Grace and peace,

      Rex

  2. Rex: John 5:14 is pretty straight forward in context. Jesus was (it seems) linking the man’s suffering with his sin. Again, however, that was NOT the case in chapter 9 with the man born blind. Like I said, I’m not going to make the call either way to someone I counsel or minister to; but I do think it happens.

    God’s saving act is certainly powerful enough for all people, but it was not effectual for all people, which is why some people will still be condemned in their sins on that Day. Only with faith in Christ are sins forgiven. Again, if that wasn’t the case, we should be Universalists.

    Anyway, the class is going great! I really appreciate Dr. Black’s intellectual honesty when it comes to difficult texts (like 6:44) that our tradition normally dismisses are ignores. He admits he can’t get around what it says, and even though he doesn’t go as far as I would with that text, he still remains honest with it without feeling the need to dodge it or explain it away. I appreciate that. Plus, we’re using D.A. Carson’s commentary on John, which shows his openness to discussion and debate in the class. It’s been good. The class ends on Saturday. We’re almost done with chapter 12 as of now; nine to go!

    If you are interested, Dr. Powell’s ‘Systematic Theology’ class is a week-long intensive this October (’cause I know how much you just love systematic theology!) 🙂 I’ll be in that one.

    Grace to you –
    Jr

    • So has the wrath of God been poured out in Christ’s crucifixion or not? If it has, then why would God be punishing people for their sins now…especially when there will be a day on which those who have rejected God’s grace will be punished?

      I appreciate your willingness to not claim that God DOES use suffering as a punitive measure. My post is more of an attempt (feeble though it may be) to silence those who want to say an earthquake in Haiti is a consequence of their sin (as though Haitians are sinner and Americans are not…or at least not as sinful as Haitians) or those who want to say a persons child has died so God could punish. I have even heard that one about my own son’s death. I wonder if people ever think about the assumed claims they are making about God when they make such claims.

      Ultimately, I have no reason for human suffering. That is why I started the post with an “I don’t know”…because I don’t.

      As for taking Systematic Theology…sorry, I have been there and done that. I hope he makes you still read George Lindbeck’s book titled “The Nature of Doctrine.” Though the book is only about 150 pages, it is one of the most difficult reads I have ever encountered (at least it was then).

      Grace and peace,

      Rex

      • Rex: Yes, the wrath of God was poured out upon Jesus … for those who believe (ultimately, His Bride; or as Jesus says, He lays down His life for “His sheep” [see John 10:11,15,etc.]).

        Notice in my first comment above I affirmed that for the cause of sanctification that God could still inflict suffering or trial on me as a believer for “redemptive” or “pedagogical” reasons. As the writer of Hebrews says, “God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?” and again, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb 12:7,11). So I affirm this as a possibility. It is not punishment, but discipline – in which I may become more like He is. Perhaps I did not distinguish that enough before (tends to happen).

        I will affirm with you a negative response to those who claim to know why God sends natural or human disasters upon lands and peoples. That is going inside the mind of God; a place I have no business being (for in that effort I believe man only hopes to be God).

        I do believe Luke 13:1-5 has something to say to it on a broad level. In other words, all the things that happen in this broken, fallen, creation that is groaning while under the futility that God subjected it to “in hope…”, are calls for repentance of ALL men everywhere. In the words of Jesus from that passage after disaster struck (both human and natural), “Do you think that [they] were worse sinners than all the other[s], because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” And it is not only disaster, but the beauty of creation itself. In all things, God is calling on ALL men everywhere to repent.

        Again, that is a broad-level “reason” if you will that involves all men everywhere. But as for specifics, I am not in the business of determining or knowing. God knows what He is doing and like Job I place my hand over my mouth (40:4).

        Good discussion, Rex. Thanks for the engaging convo.

        Grace to you –
        Jr

      • ” Yes, the wrath of God was poured out upon Jesus … for those who believe…”

        So there is such a thing as limited atonement…and what Bible are you reading :-).

  3. Excellent thoughts Rex. thank you.

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