Thursday, February 20, 2014

From the Newsletter: Thoughts: Four resources Christianity gives us for suffering

Over the last few months we’ve had 2 funerals, and many other maladies at our church. From accidents to illness to death, the church family has encountered suffering and hardship. Something I wanted to say in my recent sermon on suffering from Romans 8, but needed to cut, is that Christianity offers us rich resources to lean into when sufferings come. Often Christians don’t lean into them, but they are there inviting us to lean into them.

There are four key doctrines that make up the foundation of these resources for dealing with pain, suffering and evil. Together, these four key doctrines stand over and against the secular or deistic view that sees suffering as an interruption to be pushed away or drowned out, and show you how you can move through it with hope.

The first is the belief in a personal, wise, infinite, and therefore inscrutable God who controls the affairs of the world–and that is far more comforting than the belief that our lives are in the hands of fickle fate or random chance.

The second is that, in Jesus Christ, God came to earth and suffered with and for us sacrificially–and that is far more comforting than the idea that God is remote and uninvolved. The cross also proves that, despite all the inscrutability, God is for us, and more than that, it shows us that "Suffering is actually at the heart of the Christian story.

The third doctrine is that through faith in Christ’s work on the cross, we can have assurance of our salvation–that is far more comforting than karmic systems of thought. We are assured that the difficulties of life are not payment for our past sins, since Jesus has paid them. As Luther taught, suffering is unbearable if you aren’t certain that God is for you and with you. Secularity cannot give you that, and religions like Buddhism and Hinduism that teach variations of karma and provide salvation through virtue and good works cannot give it either.

The fourth is the doctrines of the bodily resurrection from the dead for all who believe. This completes the spectrum of our joys and consolations. One of the deepest desires of the human heart is for love without parting. Needless to say, the prospect of resurrection is far more comforting than the beliefs that death just takes into nothingness or into an impersonal spiritual substance. The resurrection goes beyond the promise of an ethereal disembodied afterlife. We get our bodies back, in a state of beauty and power that we cannot today imagine. Jesus’ resurrection was corporeal –it could be touched and embraced, and he ate food. And yet He passed through closed doors and could disappear. This is a material existence, but one beyond the bounds of our imagination. The idea of heaven can be a consolation for suffering, a compensation for the life we have lost. But resurrection is not just consolation–it is restoration. We get it all back–the love, the loved ones, the goods, the beauties of this life–but to  new, unimaginable degrees of glory and joy and strength. It is a reversal of the seeming irreversibility of loss" I mentioned this thought during the meditation at Al’s funeral. When JJ was told that Mr. Blood had died, he said that he didn’t want him to be in heaven, and when Veronique told him that now Al’s not sick, he asked "does that mean he has two arms now that he’s in heaven?" The resounding answer is yes. That’s the promise of the resurrection.

In this life, we will all face hardship, and the question we will face is, "How can you be to-tally sure when you look at all the horrible stuff that has happened in your life and out in the world that someday God is going to make it all right? How can you not just hope so, but be absolutely sure that in spite of your own failures, God loves you and will never let you go? How can you know that when you face death it is not the end? Only if you know that Jesus rose from the dead and there-fore so will you. You know what else this means? You can have incredible hope in suffering. Tim Keller, whose incredible book Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering supplied most of these thoughts, points out that what this knowledge means for us is that "While other worldviews lead us to sit in the midst of life’s joys, foreseeing the coming sorrows, Christianity empowers its people to sit in the midst of this world’s sorrows, tasting the coming joy". Suffering is unbearable if you aren’t certain that God is for you and with you, but the more you dive into your resources, the more you are able to face it.

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