It’s really a theological question. Theology is just a posher sounding word for the study of God’s nature and doctrine (Christian beliefs). It can get pretty heavy sometimes, but it all starts with the kind of questions that a young child might ask. Children are born with an innate ability to question the world that we live in and the reason for everything. My five-year-old niece is a perfect example of that. My sister in law recently had to buy a book on how to respond to the questions that children ask, to answer all the questions that her daughter was asking. For many questions, that’s great. Two plus two will always equal four, unless you want to start philosophising just for the sake of it. When it comes to suffering, though, it gets more complicated. We often want to give answers as to why it’s all happening, but the truth is that often we don’t know. And sometimes, we’re so scared by that fact that we frantically start searching for answers and then we’re in danger of becoming part of the “mob” that bombards the sufferer with platitudes. For those of us who are Christians, our faith inevitably plays an important part in responding both to our own suffering and to that happening in the world around us. Often without intending to, we find ourselves wrestling with the whole area of divine providence (which again is a posh term that just means we’re trying to work out where God is in it all, what His will is). We want to know how much His intervention has played a role in our current circumstances and whether He will intervene to make them better. Even within the church, there are differing views on this and there’s nothing like a life crisis to bring an emotional element to an often intellectualized topic.
My Unwanted Theological Journey
I was catapulted into my theological journey of suffering, when my husband started throwing up one afternoon, doubled up and screaming out with extreme abdominal pain. A short time later and he was admitted into intensive care, fighting for his life with pancreatitis. Over the next weeks and months, I was shocked to discover what so many Christians believed about suffering. There were moments when I wondered if I were a Christian at all because I just couldn’t relate to some of the things that people were saying. It wasn’t to do with doubting God, but rather what I was being told about Him and His place in it all. On the one hand, some believed that it was all God’s will and, on the other hand, others believed that because it wasn’t His will, Lemuel would definitely be healed.
As I watched my husband crying out in pain for the first few days, as the doctors struggled to get his pain under control with high doses of medication, I wrestled with the all too common platitude that was tripping off many people’s lips, “God is in control.” What did people even mean by that I wondered? Were they trying to tell me that God had caused this illness, that it was His will, that he would be healed or that if he weren’t healed, then that would be God’s will too? What on earth did that phrase mean? I’m not sure that it has a universally agreed meaning. And as I attended intensive care each day and saw that my husband’s pain wasn’t under control, the phrase began to grate on me more and more. During the five weeks that he remained in intensive care, I can’t say that I ever had the certainty that Lemuel would be healed. In that sense, I truly lived the experience that, for five weeks, my husband was fighting for his life. I was there by his side whenever I was allowed to be, up to three times a day for 30 minutes each time). My faith in God wasn’t shaken; He was my anchor in the midst of the storm. What was shaken had more to do with my faith in Christian platitudes. Since that sent me running back to the Bible and caused me to cry out to God from the depths, I’m not sure that it was a negative thing for that faith to be shaken.
Whatever our theological view of suffering, it’s possible for that theology to become the basis for platitudes. That means that instead of engaging with the person, we give them a sentence that summarises however far we’ve got in our theological journey. We try to make everything ok. We try to assure them that the bad stuff is actually good or that it very soon will be. The problem is: everything isn’t always ok. Jesus loves us and we’re going to heaven, but it’s still OK to cry sometimes.
It's possible for our theology to become the basis for platitudes Click To Tweet
When Our Theology Becomes the Basis for Platitudes
When we’re faced with another person’s suffering, we’re often so convinced that our view of suffering is the truth that we don’t even consider that we may be imposing it on someone at just the moment when they’re least equipped to deal with imposition. I say that realising that the same goes for me with my theology of suffering. I don’t have the right to impose it on someone when they’re using all their strength to survive. Yet the problem is, that we’re often so convinced that our theology is the correct one that we just “know” that if the other person accepted our view, then they’d suffer less. So we tell them that they just need more faith, that they should believe God and not the doctors, that God has allowed it to happen for a reason or that it’s His will that they’re going through their current life circumstance. We insist that God does not give us more than we can handle and that His ways are higher than our ways. We tell them these things to support them and yet sometimes, we beat them down in the process. Because now not only is our Christian friend struggling with whatever affliction they’re facing, but suddenly they’re also doubting the “hand of God” in the midst of it all. And that’s the thing: How can you argue with God? Of course, people do. Or they may say they don’t believe in Him. But for those of us who are seeking to follow Him, it’s the ultimate trump card, if “God” says it, then it must be true…. However, what happens when it’s not God that’s speaking? Are we able to distinguish between God’s voice and our own? Because if we’re not, we’re likely to do untold damage whenever we dare to open our mouth to speak “for Him” in the face of suffering.
Platitudes in the Church
My experience, and what I’ve observed as others have shared their pain with me, is that platitudes are far more prevalent in the church. Personally, I’ve been far more hurt within a church context than by anyone who wouldn’t describe themselves as a Christian. It’s important to take that in context, though. Although I’ve been hurt, I’ve been far more blessed than any pain I may have received. In that sense, I’m not criticising the church as a whole but merely crying out for all of us to reconsider how we support each other and lift each other up in times of crisis. I know that many of those who’ve hurt me have done it with the best intentions in the world. Sometimes, those best of intentions are what blinds people to how much pain they’re causing.
Platitudes are far more prevalent in the church Click To Tweet
As Christians, we seem to feel that we’re responsible for having the answers to all of life’s problems. I remember seeing a church sign that said, “It doesn’t matter what your question is, the answer is Jesus” We like to summarise things in cute little phrases that make life sound organised and easy. But actually, there are questions, valid questions that do not have easy answers. If we’re not prepared to engage with them, then we are not truly living in this world.
Yes, I know, we’re citizens of another kingdom, of course, we are. But we also live here, in a world of questions and uncertainty. The Bible is a great guide book for our lives. It does not always give us clear answers, however. There are questions that it isn’t trying to answer. The psalms and books such as Job are full of people wrestling with God and pouring out their questions to Him. Yet at times in the church, we’re scared when people start doing that. Perhaps we worry that they’re losing their faith (however we define faith) or perhaps their questions are threatening our own view of faith and so we’ve got to put some order back in again.
Personally, I would love for the church to be a community that is prepared to wrestle with life and to sit with the questions, rather than impose answers. I’m not talking about not having doctrinal beliefs. I have doctrinal beliefs! We all do. But when it comes to suffering, I so wish we would stop trying to pretend that we know everything. We don’t. We aren’t meant to.
When Scars Give Testimony
When we see people suffering, it’s natural to want to point them towards a place of blessings. What we sometimes seem to forget, however, is that sometimes that place of blessing is only reached after a long night of wrestling. I’m not talking about trying to earn our blessings. It’s not about works, but rather about revelation. Some “Christian platitudes” are just not true (I’ll deal with that in another post) but sometimes, we may be speaking the truth to someone and yet we’re still imposing it because it’s God who needs to be revealing that truth to them. They need to receive it for themselves. Sometimes, as was the case with Jacob in the Bible, it takes a night of wrestling before we come to understand and receive the blessing. Even then, we may leave with a limp! I guess that’s not a very popular message if we see our responsibility as Christians to be to make everything ok. So often we want the blessing without the wrestling and we want it without any pain and we definitely don’t want to be left with a limp at the end of it all. However, when we can dare to face our inability to resolve all the world’s problems, then we may be free to see that a limp does not have to take away from the blessing. In the dark night, we may see the stars. Yet even if the dawn comes and the stars fade, once we’ve seen them, we’ll always know that they’re there. The night changes us. We cannot un-live the experience or the memories of either the darkness or the stars that may have helped light our way.
A limp doesn't have to take away from the blessing. Click To Tweet
Do you know something? Even if I got pregnant this month, I’m convinced that I wouldn’t be left unscarred by this eight-year- infertility journey. I’m sure a successful pregnancy would do much to heal that hurt, but I’m not convinced that it would take it away entirely. Even though my husband survived pancreatitis, it left a mark (far bigger than the large cysts that he still has in his abdomen. Although I’ve been walking for three and a half years since I experienced sudden paralysis and was diagnosed with MS, I don’t walk the same way anymore. That’s not just a physical thing. It goes far deeper than that. When we wrestle with life’s challenges, we don’t come out of it the same. By the grace of God, that may not always be a bad thing!
The Identity of a God Who Understands
I can only think of Thomas putting his hands into Jesus’ scars and finally believing that the resurrection was real. Why did Jesus have scars in His resurrected body at all? Wasn’t the whole point meant to be that He had a glorified and perfect new body? It wasn’t because He needed to hold on to them. It wasn’t because God couldn’t quite manage to get rid of them; an incomplete healing because God had used all His power up by raising Him from the dead and there was nothing left to deal with the scars. Somehow, those very scars left the door open for others to find their way to Him. They were a reminder that this resurrected and glorified Jesus had experienced being fully human, had experienced suffering, and had the scars to show it. Those scars expressed a part of His identity, the identity of a God who understands, knows what it is to suffer, and had overcome. We may want to walk without the limp, or to have a new body without scars, but that limp and those scars have a story of their own to tell. My scars are part of my testimony, part of my experience, part of what I have to offer as I reach out to others. I didn’t choose them, but I don’t despise their worth. I hope they’ve made me more sensitive. I believe that God is using and will continue to use each and every one of them, as I lay them down before Him. Some people have expressed to me that if I were miraculously healed, then I’d have an amazing testimony to share. And they’re right; I would. I’d shout it from the rooftops! But my testimony doesn’t start and end with healing; I’m living it right now. Whatever happens, the good, the bad, God’s grace, the questions, the wrestling, and the hope, it’s all there and all valid. I’ll shout that from the rooftops too. It’s a message that needs to be heard. But most of all, I’ll just keep gripping on to my God because the truth is, I’m scared of heights, and He’s the only one who can keep me from falling off the roof!
I never chose the scars, but I don't despise their worth. Click To Tweet
When it comes to theology and Bible interpretation, we’re all going to be wrong about something. So we could all do with being a lot more humble and willing to engage with each other in spite of any differences. The last thing that someone facing a life crisis needs is to be told, or made to feel, that they’re a heretic or lack faith, for not accepting another person’s view of God’s place in their circumstances. Personally, I prefer to use my energy to face the circumstances and to seek God in the midst of them, rather than to argue with those for whom my life circumstances are an opportunity for a theological debate. I enjoy discussions, but not arguments, not imposition and especially not judgement.
In a previous post, I spoke about how we can’t protect our loved ones from our pain. It’s one of the hardest things about dealing with a chronic or acute illness. The other unexpected battle that I faced was that I didn’t expect to have to deal with intellectual and theological arguments as to why I was ill and what I had to do about it. To suddenly find myself on such a journey was unexpected and unchosen. Yet in one sense I embraced it because I chose to face up to them rather than sweep it under the carpet. I embraced it because actually, I quite like theology; I just don’t like feeling that it’s being used as a weapon. I believe that the area of platitudes and imposed theology of suffering has caused immeasurable damage to many people.
Platitudes and imposed theology of suffering have caused immeasurable damage to many people. Click To Tweet
I believe that because I’ve experienced it myself, because I’ve seen others experience it and because people have opened their hearts up to me about this issue. Ever since I started writing this blog, I get private messages from people who have been hurt by “Christian” platitudes. There are people no longer attending church, or who are disillusioned with the church, because of this. There are people who have no interest in knowing about God because they can’t reconcile the idea of a good God with the suffering that they see in their lives and in the world around them. They’re not going to be fobbed off by platitudes that refuse to engage with the issues or to listen to people’s pain. As the church, we’ve got to take this issue seriously. If people want to reject the gospel message then that is their God given right, but let’s, at least, ensure that it is the gospel they’re rejecting and not merely our own view or portrayal of it. Perhaps our response to suffering needs to be less one of trying to give answers regarding God’s place in it all and more one of seeking to be Christ-like in the midst of it.Those who suffer, will not be fobbed off by platitudes that refuse to engage with the issues. Click To Tweet