A Theology of Suffering

A Theology of Suffering

I’m continuing a series of posts on how to preach in a pandemic.  The first of these posts is here.  During World War II all of Europe went through great suffering as a result of the war.  Christians  found that their faith helped them develop a theology of suffering that reflected the Bible’s teaching that “in this world you will have trouble….”  (John 16:33)

After the war, many European Christians came to the United States.  One man spoke for many, I think, when he was asked his impressions of American Christianity.  He responded, “You have an inadequate theology of suffering for our world today.”

A Simple Theology of Suffering

Here is a simple summary of what the Bible says about suffering in our lives.

  1. God created the world perfectly good.
  2. But when the first humans sinned, something terrible happened to all of God’s creation.  It became twisted and bent. (Romans 8:19-25).
  3. As a result of this twisting of God’s beautiful purposes of Creation, people have a bent toward evil.  As a result, people will often inflict pain on other human beings through physical or emotional abuse.
  4. And another aspect of the fallenness of our world is illness.  We are all subject to things like bacteria and virus, but also to things like cancer.  (I Peter 1:6)  Christians are part of this brokenness of the world.
  5. Accidents happen to Christians as well as non-Christians.  In addition, there are the natural disasters like earthquakes and tornadoes.
  6. But God promises to walk with us through our pain.
  7. When heaven comes, all pain will be removed by our gracious God.

The Prosperity Gospel

The United States is a sheltered nation when it comes to the horrors of war.   As a result, the theology that has become known as the prosperity Gospel has found fertile soil here.   A summary of prosperity theology may be helpful at this point.  The quote below comes from an article that you will at this link.

The prosperity gospel is based on a simple premise: God wants us to live “in abundance.” But in order to receive the gifts we are promised, we must demonstrate faith and claim the prosperity that is rightfully ours.

Even if many Americans have never heard the term, most are familiar with images of oftsatirized televangelists shaking down their viewers for donations in return for blessings.

The prosperity gospel has also been used to explain good health and even good luck.

After a string of lethal tornadoes moved though Texas in December 2015, a survivor named Sabrina Lowe claimed that God had given her authority over the winds – and that her family had “commanded” the tornado to move elsewhere.

Lowe’s narrative strangely inverted feelings of survivor’s guilt that often follow natural disasters. Instead, she claimed agency and credit for her good fortune. Like the televangelist’s promise of financial blessings in exchange for “seed” donations, the idea of commanding immunity from natural disasters is also a manifestation of prosperity gospel theology.

If you live in the US, or follow Christianity in the US, you recognize that many of the Christian television personalities espouse this kind of belief.  No wonder those who have suffered think we need a theology of suffering that acknowledges the truth of the Scriptures and of our own experience.

The Testimony of A Theology of Suffering

A theology of suffering should also include the fact that Christians can redeem suffering.  In fact, we can grow through it and benefit from it.  I think of the group of people who gathered in Nicea to formulate one of the guiding creeds of the church.

In 1962, Victor and Mildred Goertzel published a revealing study of 413 “famous and exceptionally gifted people” called Cradles of Eminence. They spent years attempting to understand what produced such greatness, what common thread might run through all of these outstanding people’s lives. Surprisingly, the most outstanding fact was that virtually all of them, 392, had to overcome very difficult obstacles in order to become who they were.

You can find that quote in this book: Tim Hansel, Holy Sweat, 1987, Word Books Publisher, p. 134.

The Bible makes it clear that we should even welcome difficulties, and rejoice in them, because they contribute to our growth in faith. (Romans 5:3-5, James 1:2-4).

This is a very quick overview of a theology of suffering.  I share this with you because these are some of the things you need to preach in a pandemic.  In addition, you need to preach the promises of God to walk with us through our pain and challenges.