Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A Theology of Suffering

I'm beginning to appreciate in my ministry the importance of not only having a sound theology of suffering, but of the importance of teaching this to your people as well. Scripture speaks loudly and often on the subject, but it is strangely absent from much of our preaching and teaching in America today. I'm not sure if this is because so few of us really seem to suffer (or at least we don't think we do or admit that we are suffering). But the gap in our ministry efforts reveals itself quite plainly. It shows itself when our otherwise godly and orthodox church members turn to "preachers" such as Joel Osteen for encouragement. Osteen's secret is quite simple and yet, I believe, profound. Osteen acknowledges suffering and he offers a solution. Those of us committed to orthodoxy instinctively recognize something wrong with his message, even if we can't always put our finger on it. That something is this: Osteen's answer is wrong. Specifically, Osteen tells people that their suffering is not a normal part of this present life. He tells them that if they do the right things, they can leave that suffering behind, right now. Our flocks, those God has placed in our care, hear his message and they too often succumb. Why? Because they are not hearing often enough from their pastors on the subject. Their pastors too seldom acknowledge their suffering and place it in a redemptive context. Ambitious though it may seem, I want to offer just such a thing over the course of several posts here on the blog. Stay tuned!

10 comments:

GUNNY said...

Joel,

Read Philippians 1:29, dude! Perhaps even the Beattitudes.

C'mon!

Matthew Bradley said...

(in a gentle and soothing southern drawl...)

Now, Gunny, I'm not interested in judging anyone. I just want you to know that you can have all the good things that Jesus promised us. You believe he loves you? You believe he is faithful to keep his promises? Then just trust him. Grab hold to those promises and repeat after me:

"I'm good enough. I'm smart enough. And gosh darn it, people like me!"

M. Jay Bennett said...

Wait, was that Joel Osteen or Stewart Smalley?

Matthew Bradley said...

Hard to tell sometimes, isn't it?

About Janice said...

There is a sense that suffering is not normal (comparing Eden with life after the Fall) but it is part and parcel of gospel living if we are in Christ. You are correct, people are drawn to Osteen and others on the TV because it doesn't always get integrated into the "whole counsel teaching" from the pulpit - and also because their ears are itching. Thanks for addressing this in your ministry and here on the blag.

Matthew Bradley said...

That's right, Janice. In the big picture, suffering is not normal. But "between the trees" of Eden and the New Jerusalem, it is a reality. I'll address this in future posts.

Jared Nelson said...

Look forward to more on this. Suffering is so hard to communicate (and accept for myself!) as a necessary requirement to the Christian life and spiritual development. By "hard to communicate," I mean it is difficult to say it without driving people to doubt rather than to God as their comfort. Piper sometimes strikes me as too harsh, making me not want to run to the God with the bloody switch still in His hand. I would be curious how I would treat the matter in a sermon, not necessarily to balance the two, but not to have the doctrine drive people away from God in fear and towards spiritually numbing themselves in the comfort of a world of distraction. (which is a quick reaction to suffering...)

Mike said...

@jared

Should we be worried about driving people away from God with a correct view of suffering as part of the Christian life? Are people who are driven away from God by this message those who were with us but not one of us? I know that in my life, the times I am closest to God are the times I am suffering. Although I should be closer to him in health and wealth than I am (when I tend to want to rely on myself), I feel closest to him in suffering when I have no other choice but to rely on him. Now, praising him while I am in the midst of suffering? That is another story entirely! I often just want the suffering to end. But looking back on it I often see all the good that came of it and how much I was blessed by it.

Mike

Jared Nelson said...

I do not deny that is true. My concern is how to communicate this in a way that is not unnecessarily insensitive to one's suffering; in a way that says, yes it hurts and Christ's first reaction to to weep with you that your child died, your husband left you, you cannot provide for your family - yet God also ordained for this to be. I think the first part is important so as not to make God a cosmic Sadist, but a chastizing Father. Somehow communicating that God takes no pleasure in our pain but also does his work by it. Know what I mean?

Mike said...

@jared

Oh, Yeah, I am totally with you. To present the second without the first is not telling the whole truth. It is like presenting a social Gospel without the spiritual Gospel. It is incomplete.

Mike