The suffering Christ and the un-suffering God

Earlier this year I read a piece [subscription required] in Books & Culture: A Christian Review by John G Stackhouse of Regent College. I’m not terribly familiar with Stackhouse except through his small book Finally Feminist which I enjoyed immensely and would encourage you to read (it takes only an evening). While you’re at it, subscribe to Books & Culture too. It is a wonderful resource.

The subject of Stackhouse’s article was kenotic theology. This is a way of conceiving of Christ’s sojourn on earth that takes seriously the Christ hymn of Philippians two which tells us that Jesus “emptied himself.”
Stackhouse defines the school of thought like this: “[Kenotic theology] suggests that God the Son voluntarily relinquished his powers as an equal member of the Trinity in order to experience a genuinely human life and death in our place.”
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I have to confess not being all that familiar with the work of the any of the great theologians who emphasized kenosis. Having studied at a confessional and evangelical  divinity school, there wasn’t a great deal of space for left in the curriculum the study of kenotic theologians. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, all education is necessarily limited by constraints such as time, faculty, and students who are interested in learning the subject (unless it is required).
There are problems with kenotic theology when you look at it from a reformed perspective. As Stackhouse notes, it challenges both the impassibility of God as well as the immutability of God. In effect, it argues that there are changes that take place in the life God (and in humanity) that do not undermine God’s divinity just as suffering may be experienced without fundamentally altering God’s divine nature. It’s worth asking the question precisely how God can change without somehow undermining His divinity and how God’s inability to suffer (His impassibility) relates to His deep providential concern for His people.
 
Kenotic theology is appealing in a number of ways. I’m sure that what makes it chiefly appealing is its potential pastoral implications. It has long been a criticism of reformed theology that its emphasis on God’s otherness and omnipotence makes Him difficult to relate to. It’s also been noted that hyper-Calvinism has almost no place for Jesus — it’s almost as though nothing had changed in the coming of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.
In the midst of suffering is it more helpful (and we can argue about what this word really means) to hear that God is suffering with you or that God is in control of your situation? 
 
As a pastor, I think it depends.
It is, of course, foolishness to enter into the suffering of another with a pithy statement asking them to “let go and let God.” Likewise, it is foolishness for those of us who are teachers in the church to basically espouse what Christian Smith has called “moral therapeutic deism” from pulpit, table, and font before suffering comes and then expect our parishioners to somehow experience that suffering with their belief in God’s sovereignty, and indeed His goodness, intact.
Rather, the role of the pastor and of the church is to teach and live the Scriptures in such a way as to apply them to our life together and our individual lives as well as to communicate theology so that it becomes a set of lenses that gives insight and shape to our life and experiences.
Ellen Charry’s book By the Renewing of Your Minds suggests that theology is not an abstract academic endeavor alone, but it is also a pastoral, local, embodied, way of forming the way a people know, experience, and follow the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ. The contemporary church is in danger of forgetting this.
 
One of the great challenges of the parish is creating what Eugene Peterson has called a theological imagination. It is one thing (and certainly no bad thing) to be able to quote the catechism, but it is quite another thing to be able to see in one’s minds eye how God can be simultaneously loving, powerful, caring, and unsuffering. I doubt that any of us will ever be able to fully do this, perhaps some of the saint have come closest, but in the end the purpose of the church isn’t to make us happy so much as to make us saints.

How to interact with suffering friends

Society doesn’t provide us with much in the way of resources for caring for those who are suffering. Our TV shows tend to either ignore suffering or simply (in reality shows) allow us to—voyeur-like—gaze upon the suffering of another without actually entering into it. There are precious few role models of care for those suffering. Pop psychologists offer a sliver of resources, but again they’re limited by time and attention. We look to the presidents and governors to assuage our pain, but in reality they are—despite their great power—powerless to lift of the pain from our lives.

Sometimes we’re tempted to believe that perhaps suffering isn’t really as pervasive as it might first seem. Perhaps most people go through most of life with relatively few bumps in the road. Maybe suffering is the exception rather than the rule. And, even if it really is widespread isn’t there very little I can do to offer comfort to friends in difficulty? I’m not clergy or a mental health professional. What can I offer?

Suffering is universal. It is all around us.

Pulitzers

We rarely, however, pause and become open to encountering it in the life of another. We may get a brief sense that a friend is suffering, but in our haste to move to the next thing we breeze through a conversation without offering our friend space simply to express the pain, to let some of the suffering move from heart to lips—even for a brief moment of respite.

Despite our society’s messages, there is much each of us can and should do to care for friends who are experiencing suffering.

Every one of us should be able and willing to simply lend a listening, non-judgmental ear. Suffering is a profoundly isolating experience. The only way to let another know about it, which can sometimes offer just the slightest reprieve from the weight, is to talk about it.

Consider this: the moments in which someone recounts to you the greatest sorrow in their life are moments in which that friend is opening his or her soul to you. The pain may be so great that he feels he can do no other, yet it is still true that the very moment of sharing is an intensely vulnerable moment.

In those moments, each of us can either alievate (albeit briefly) another’s suffering or we can increase it. None us would intentionally say something believing that it would increase the suffering of another. Yet, how often do we unconsciously do precisely that?

Broadly, when we have the privilege of speaking with suffering souls—and we’re all suffering souls in various ways—we should avoid speaking of the

 

  1. The secret will of God. I believe firmly in the sovereignty of God and yet I know that God is not the author of sin. Further, I know that I am not privy to what has traditionally been called the secret will of God (in contrast with his revealed will found in Scripture). It is presumptuous of us to speculate about God’s designs moreover it is counterproductive, especially in the moment.
  2. God’s intent for this experience. God may use all things redemptively in the life of the Christian, but the moment of acute anguish is not the right time to point that out. At times, considering that God may have some deeper purpose is comforting. As a general rule, explore this only when the person you’re speaking with seems to be open to exploring it. Each of us has to reach a spot where we’re ready to consider this—moving there prematurely is dangerous.
  3. Causation. “Who sinned, this man or his fathers?” Linking sin and suffering is a natural human impulse that is exhibited in the book of Job. Job’s friends become certain that the anguish in his life has been caused by some offense against God. The reality is that there is no correlation—at least in Job’s case—between sin and suffering. More accurately, the relationship between sin and suffering is broader than 1:1. Suffering exists in the world because of the Fall and sin’s entry into our lived experience. However 1:1 causation is never easily detected.

As you move into this week, you will encounter people in distress; suffering souls who need a shoulder to lean on even if only for a moment. You can make a positive difference in their lives if you will only stop, listen, and allow them to lean on you.

Making sense of suffering

One of the privileges and burdens of pastoral ministry is sharing in the deep suffering of so many of God’s sons and daughters. It’s all around–mind-boggling suffering, interminable pain. It can be overwhelming.

41wy7jCz-bL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_It’s hard to know precisely how to minister in times of deep pain, but Michael Horton offers some intriguing thoughts on the theology of suffering that I want to share with you:

[I]t is not by imitating Christ’s vicarious and atoning death, but by being incorporated into it as members organically attached to their dying and living head, that his conquest of sin and death becomes ours…

A Place for Weakness, 47.

When we suffer it can be tempting to believe that somehow we can be redemptive agents. If we work hard we can start a foundation, launch a ministry, build helping relationships with the vulnerable, all in a hope of mitigating or quashing sin and death.

Friends, the world is not ours to save. If we begin any of these good works with the intent of quashing sin and death, our noble errand will quickly become a ball and chain that pulls us into the darkness of bitterness and depression.

If, on the other hand, we begin with our union with Christ–our being united into his death–this makes all the difference. We become agents of God’s redemptive mission in the world. We are increasingly freed of the need to prove ourselves by changing the world. Instead, we find ourselves able to join in with those things God is already doing.