Sunday, November 10, 2019

Some pastoral reflections on suffering

D. A. Carson offers some pastoral reflections on suffering in the Christian life in his book How Long, O Lord? (2nd ed.), pp 221-225.

Anyone who has suffered devastating grief or dehumanizing pain has at some point been confronted by near relatives of Job's miserable comforters. They come with their clichés and tired, pious mouthings. They engender guilt where they should be administering balm. They utter solemn truths where compassion is needed. They exhibit strength and exhort to courage where they would be more comforting if they simply wept.

In the preface I warned you that this is not necessarily a book that should be read by someone who is going through deep suffering. It might help some people; most certainly it would not help others. It is more in the way of preventative medicine: that is, I have tried to establish some firm structures to help Christians think about evil and suffering in biblical ways before hard days descend on them.

Even so, because suffering of one kind or another is always taking place, a chapter of this sort may be helpful. It is at odds with the rest of the book. It is less theoretical, and offers a miscellany of counsel to men and women who are trying to comfort those passing through deep waters. Many of the points are offered in light of the discussion in the previous chapters; and, as in the rest of the book, I am concerned with helping Christians, not unbelievers. When unbelievers grieve, there are opportunities for Christians to help and serve and share the gospel; but in this book I am not specifically addressing that challenge (though of course many of the same things apply). Here I have the Christian in view.

1. We must recognize that grief normally passes through predictable stages. For example, when someone is suddenly bereaved, it is not uncommon to find such stages of grief as the following, drawn from a useful little book by Granger Westberg:1 "we are in a state of shock"; "we express emotion"; "we feel depressed and very lonely"; "we may experience physical symptoms of distress"; "we may become panicky"; "we feel a sense of guilt about the loss"; "we are filled with anger and resentment"; "we resist returning to our usual activities"; "gradually hope comes through"; "we struggle to affirm reality."

Clearly there is no immutable law about these stages. How many stages an individual goes through, and how quickly, depends on many things: how stable that person is, how devoted to or dependent on the one who has died, how much support is given, how robust that person's faith is, how habitual that person's walk with God, and much more beside. The value of recognizing that stages of grief are common, however, is that the person who is trying to offer comfort will see the telltale signs and respond appropriately. The bereaved Christian who suddenly starts lashing out with anger and resentment will not be written off as an apostate. The Christian who at this moment finds little comfort in the doctrine of the resurrection, so great is the sense of loss, is not to be berated and rebuked. It would do many would-be comforters good to sit down and read the moving and candidly personal book of Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son,2 written after his twenty-five-year-old son was killed in a mountain-climbing accident.

2. Some grief takes a long time to heal. I have known families-remarkably mature, Christian families-where the death of a promising child so devastated the parents that it took several years before the mother could talk about it without bursting into tears, before the father could talk about it at all. A young pastor I know lost his wife, the mother of their two children, and about a year later left the ministry. The church had proved marvelously supportive for the first two or three months. By six months, older saints, including the senior pastor, were simply telling him to get on with life, to pick up the pieces, to stop feeling sorry for himself.

It is possible that some of these things needed to be said-but only in a context of giving this young man the repeated opportunity to talk out his grief, to pray with people, to find some continuing help with the children. Pastoral ministry being what it is, perhaps he should have been gently directed toward temporary resignation even earlier-but only as a way of helping him to regain his moorings, not in a way that compounded his grief with a sense of failure and guilt. After he resigned, it took another two years, and a great deal of talk with a mature Christian leader who could give him some perspective on what he had gone through, before he felt able to resume active ministry. My point is that many forms of grief need time.

3. Frequently in the midst of suffering the most comforting "answers" are simple presence, help, silence, tears. Helping with the gardening or preparing a casserole may be far more spiritual an exercise than the exposition of Romans 8:28. The Scriptures themselves exhort us to "mourn with those who mourn" (Rom. 12:15).

4. Many verbal expressions of encouragement should not be based on the assumption that they must answer an implicit "Why?" Not everyone asks that question. Some who need encouragement need reminding of simple things, not profound and complex answers to the "why" question. A young man became a Christian and almost immediately was diagnosed as having a rapid and incurable cancer. As he watched part of his body wither away and other parts of his body bloat grotesquely, those around him found that the greatest encouragement came to him from reciting John 11:25–26 and parts of 1 Corinthians 15.

5. When verbalized answers to anguished cries of "Why?" are required, what and how much we provide will depend largely on what might be called our spiritual diagnosis, that is, our assessment of the needs and capacity of the individual. Some crying "Why?" are not really asking questions; they are simply seeking comfort. Others are asking questions, but cannot at that moment bear more than the briefest reply. When a Christian I do not know very well asks that sort of question, my response to that question may be, "I cannot give you all the answers to your 'Why?' But you may draw courage from the fact that the one who loves you so much he died for you asked the same question: 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'"

At some point, more reflective believers will want something more. Some will be ready to read, others to engage in simple Bible studies-for instance, reflections on some of the psalms, or on the prayers of Paul, or on other passages briefly expounded in this book.

6. In this day when many in the Western world have been seduced by some form of the "power, health, and wealth" gospel, it is important to stress the Christian's location-between the fall and the new heaven and the new earth, enjoying the "down payment" of the Spirit but by no means free of death and decay. There is nothing in Scripture to encourage us to think we should always be free from the vicissitudes that plague a dying world. Of course, it may be easier to say those things to believers before their time of suffering rather than in it. But where self-seeking, self-gratifying forms of Western Christianity predominate, it is essential to lay out these truths, loudly and often.

7. For one reason or another, suffering is often associated with guilt feelings. The sharpest diagnosis and care are called for. Sometimes there may be real guilt, that is, moral guilt before God for specific sins. Here, if anywhere, the Christian is able to offer good news. Jesus died to take our guilt. Real guilt in the face of suffering must be handled like real guilt in every situation: we must confess it, renounce the sin, ask God for his forgiveness, attempt restitution where possible, and learn to rest in the forgiving word of Christ.

But often there is false guilt, that is, a vague feeling of guilt for which there is no real breach before God. For the Christian, the long-term answer is to establish, on the basis of God's Word, what we should and should not feel guilty about, and thus expose false guilt as nothing less than the devil's lie.

8. Some forms of suffering require active intervention. A wife being beaten by her husband, for instance, requires a judgment: at what point must you counsel the wife to leave him, even to get a court order to provide her with some sort of protection? The case of a child being sexually abused by a relative demands that we bring in police or other services: the need for haste is often balanced by the need for discretion or reasonable certainty. Those serving in poor areas may tackle some problems with carefully thought-out programs of support, relief, education, self-help structures, redress in legislation, and much more. In countless instances, Christians provide-they must provide-more than a counseling service or a shoulder to cry on.

9. It is important to offer hope-not only the hope of the consummation, but hope even on the shorter term.

10. Nevertheless, it is important to help people to live one day at a time. When a horrible and terminal disease is hanging over your head, you do not need grace for the end-yet. You need grace for today-just for today. We all are under sentence of death; all of us need grace for today.

11. Above all, we must help people know God better. Too many answers we give are merely intellectual, merely theoretical, merely propositional. We must so teach and counsel and pray with people that we deepen their experiential knowledge of God. We must so get them into meditative and rigorous reading of the Word of God that they draw vast comfort from its pages. At the deepest level, men and women must learn, with Job, that God is very great, and it is an inexpressible privilege to know him, to be satisfied with him, even when-especially when!-we do not have all the answers. Then men and women will learn to rest in his love, and will return again and again to the cross, where their vision of that love will be constantly renewed.

When C. S. Lewis finished writing his book The Problem of Pain (originally published in 1940 at the outbreak of World War II),3 he wrote a preface explaining that his aim was to address certain intellectual problems relating to the problem of pain. Then he added this sentence:

For the far higher task of teaching fortitude and patience I was never fool enough to suppose myself qualified, nor have I anything to offer my readers except my conviction that when pain is to be borne, a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God more than all.

12. To this end, we must pray for those who suffer. God himself is the one "who comforts the downcast" (2 Cor. 7:6); he is "the God of all comfort" (2 Cor. 1:3). In the deepest suffering, many find it almost impossible to pray. Should not the rest of us intercede for them?

There have been times when I have seen the face of suffering transformed, permanently transformed, in answer to specific, believing prayer. There is surely something unhealthy and deformed about a vision of Christianity that offers counsel but not intercession-a trap into which I have tumbled on far too many occasions. If God is the God of comfort, he, finally, must provide it-often through human agents, sometimes not, but he must do it. So let us ask, remembering that he delights to give good things to his children, and that very often our lack is a reflection of a pathetic refusal to ask (James 4:2).

1 comment:

  1. Excellent, pages 247-252 in the first edition.

    That book has some of the very best discussion of how the theology of God's sovereignty and providence is compatible with our responsibility, prayer, choices, trust, patience, God's love and goodness and wisdom, etc. Very helpful.

    I don't have the 2nd edition though.