Providence and Suffering

I spent the last several days attending a conference here at King’s College on Providence in Modern Theology. It was an outstanding conference with a world-class lineup of theologians, both Protestant and Catholic, some from the UK and others from the United States (David Ferguson, Sarah Coakley, David Bentley Hart, Nicholas Healy, Alister McGrath, Philip Ziegler, and John Webster to name a few).

The purpose of the gathering was to explore and examine the character and interrelation of divine and human agency related to the classical doctrine of providence. How has the idea of providence developed within intellectual history? What is the role of the doctrine of providence within systematic theology? In what sense does the doctrine of providence affect, inform, and relate to practical theology?

It is this last question related to practical theology to which Prof. John Swinton gave his paper: ‘Patience and Lament—Living faithfully in the presence of suffering.’ Swinton directed his attention to the lament Psalms in which we learn to “recognize God as faithful in the midst of suffering rather than question his goodness.” In the Psalms of lament one always finds movement from “alienation to worship.” Psalms of lament don’t leave the suffering one to despair but “form” us and “teach us a language for faithful suffering.” In the context of God’s faithfulness (Providence) the Psalms of lament “form” our pain and suffering toward worship and submission.

Thus, the Lament Psalms model for us a critical movement from Articulation to Submission finally to Relinquishment. Through this process, we learn the language of “providential waiting”; it is waiting in the knowledge that God’s good providence allows no shadow of meaningless suffering to cast itself over our pain. So lament, suffering in waiting, finds its place within the doctrine of Providence.

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