Of Necessity and Suffering

I’ve appreciated much of what John Piper has said about the prosperity gospel. Prosperity theology strikes me as not just false (Biblically and experientially), but particularly dangerous because it either drives one from faith and its actual benefits, or creates a very shallow Christian at best, ready to be driven away at the first difficulty. “Come unto me, all you who want to get rich,” just doesn’t sound much like Jesus to me.

Via Adrian Warnock’s blog ( PIPER FRIDAY – Suffering is Essential to Christians), I found this set of notes from a talk by John Piper.

I’m going to use the same quote Adrian did:

Let me underline one of the statements I’ve already made: Suffering is an essential part of your Christian existence. I choose the word essential very carefully. Paul said to new believers in Acts 14:22, “Through many tribulations we will enter the kingdom of heaven.” This is Christianity 101. Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 3:2-3 that we Christians are destined for suffering. This is your destiny—suffering. Think it not strange when the fiery ordeal comes upon you. And 2 Timothy 3:12: All who desire to live a godly life will be persecuted. And Romans 8:16: We are fellow heirs if we suffer with him. There is one God-appointed path to glorification—suffering. If you are making it your life ambition to avoid suffering, you will perish and suffer forever. And all this Pauline talk is based on Jesus’ talk.

I am not in disagreement with this statement, but I would take a slightly different angle on the issue. Suffering is an essential part of the way that the universe is put together. The difference in suffering for a Christian is one of perspective, and not one either of suffering exclusively. I’m not in disagreement with Piper here. One commenter at Adrian’s blog seemed to think Piper was indicating that only Christians suffer, which would be a foolish thing to say, not to mention demonstrably false.

There’s also a reverse link that I have heard frequently, the idea that suffering or receiving persecution indicates that one is right. I hear this frequently about great leaders of the past. If they hadn’t been right, why would they have been so persecuted? This sentiment reflects an awe-inspiring ignorance of history, in which people on all sides of various controversies have suffered persecutions. The trinitarians, who won, were persecuted until they did win. The Arians, however, also suffered for Christ. Gnostics suffered as well. In the reformation, Catholics and all varieties of protestants were persecuted at various times for their beliefs. Persecution is an indication of persistence on the one hand, and a severely overdone desire for control on the other, but it doesn’t tell you whether someone is right.

Back in March, I wrote about Bill Dembski’s article on theodicy, in which he argues that though evil occurred later in humanity, that evil (the fall) was nonetheless the logical cause of death and suffering. (Note that the article was revised on March 15, 2007, and the date of that post was March 4, 2007. I have not reviewed the article since that revision.) Though I have often written negatively about Dr. Dembski’s work, I find this particular article intriguing and challenging.

I would suggest, however, that in order for their to be free will there must be options with consequences. Those consequences must offer the full range of results of the choices. Further, if there is both free will and interaction with other creatures, not all consequences of any one creature’s choices will fall on that creature alone. To take a simple example, if I fail to pay my power bill, I’m not the only one who has to sit in the dark. My wife shares that problem with me. If one person takes an incomplete course of an antibiotic, and as a result helps release a resistant strain, the consequences fall on many, not just one.

One can easily imagine a universe in which there is no suffering, or no negative consequences, but such a universe would simply be a machine. I think it’s difficult if not impossible to demonstrate that the universe is not a machine, though most of us persist in the belief that somehow it is not and that our choices matter.

Which leads me to a brief excursus on free will. I have heard many folks say there is no free will only to discover that what they mean is that our will is not completely free, i.e. that there are options closed to me. What I am speaking about here is any departure from the purest determinism. If the universe is not perfectly deterministic, and more specifically if my actions are not 100% determined by knowable causes, then I would call that free will. I would imagine a continuum, from pure determinism through absolute freedom. On the one hand, there would be no responsibility, because there would be no I with an input into my decisions. On the other hand, there would be no order against which to observe freedom in action. I’m calling anywhere on the intervening continuum free will. My feeling is that the reality is much, much closer to determinism than to complete freedom.

I would note with some humor that every time I discuss this I seem to get someone who will tell me that quantum theory demonstrates determinism, and someone else to tell me that it demonstrates that there is some indeterminacy. I don’t know enough about it to argue with either one, though I lean to some level of indeterminacy.

In any case, let me get back to my point. Suffering exists in the world, and it is a necessity because there is freedom. While I do not understand the physics, I can affirm that the Biblical writers believed in some degree of human freedom and responsibility. The Bible also affirms that God’s servants, even God’s very good servants, suffer. Job is called righteous, and he suffered. Jesus, according to Christian theology, made all the right choices in his life, and he suffered. The question is not whether some form of hardship will come, but rather what will come of the hardship.

And let me make a little point here. Suffering is hard to measure, and it is probably better not to even try. When our son was suffering from cancer, one of our friends complained to my wife about a problem she had, and then was embarrassed. “How could I complain to you about my tiny problem when you are facing such a big one?” she asked. Well, just what a particular problem does to you isn’t that easily measurable. Even the moment in a situation that is hardest to take differs. I recall my lowest point being when I spoke to the doctor and heard the word that cancer had spread and was not treatable. My wife was overseas leading a mission trip, and I knew it would take hours at best to contact her. I’ve never felt anything like that pain and isolation, even when he died. (It’s coming up on the anniversary of that, September 22, so it’s kind of running through my mind again.)

My wife Jody has just written a book about grief (which also is making me remember), based on what she learned in 12 years as a hospice nurse and our own experience. In it she said:

I believe that each loss is personal and the degree of grief or pain is personal and cannot be compared!

(OK, here’s the shameless advertising plug. The book is Grief: Finding the Candle of Light and should be shipping September 21. She has also written about this on her blog here.)

The question is not one of quantity or whether or not you will suffer. Suffering is an essential. The question is what you are going to do with it. One of the things both my wife and I have been able to do is to listen with sympathy to people who are undergoing loss, and occasionally even to talk to them. Many people were encouraged by the way that James faced death. That is a good thing that happened. I know a number of people who started to wear “Live Strong” bracelets because of what they saw in James’ life and the way he faced death. More importantly, they determined to “live strong” themselves.

Those are good things. Now comes the odd question. Did God kill James in order to accomplish those good things? I’ve found that there are some Christians who seem to need to think of it like that in order to deal with what happened. Somehow it’s easier for them to handle if God is doing everything. For others, the thought that God did it is so repugnant that they will deny it with all their force, or alternatively abandon faith because they can’t deny it, and feel certain that God did it.

There is a sense in which God does everything. He is that First Cause (logically, not temporally) that brought everything into being. If it were not for God there would be no cells, no DNA to have copying errors, and thus no cancer. At the same time, all of those things are results of that basic law of cause and effect without which freedom would have no meaning. Thus as I see it God didn’t give James cancer; James got cancer in God’s world.

I have been asked how I kept my faith through this struggle. I would say two things about that.

First, I never thought that my faith would make me exempt from the troubles that are in the world. In other words, my theological thinking about suffering was refined, but not essentially changed by this experience. This is a major reason I oppose prosperity theology. One’s faith is most needed when things are not going so well. Discipline is needed when they are going well.

Second, however, it was my faith that helped me work my way through it. To ask me why I didn’t abandon my faith in the midst of this difficulty is to ask a man in danger of drowning in heavy seas why he doesn’t let go of the life preserver. He’s in heavy seas, after all! But anyone in that situation would say, “That’s precisely why I’m clinging to this life preserver.”

Faith will be tested. How and when will vary. You may find it impossible to compare your suffering to someone else’s. The question is whether you will grow from it, or get destroyed by it.

PS: For more information, see my three essays titled The Hand of God, part 1, part 2, and part 3. These three essays are edited and incorporated in my book Not Ashamed of the Gospel: Confessions of a Liberal Charismatic.

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