The following is from Stanley Hauerwas’ acclaimed God, Medicine and Suffering. My students this semester in theological bioethics are reading it, and it is raising a host of unsettling but important issues to discuss.
Hauerwas points out the inadequacy of theoretical theodicies (justifications of God in the face of suffering), and in doing so offers Christians a timely reminder as they formulate “responses” to suffering. Whether suffering be over the sea in Japan or in one’s living room with a sick child (I had two of my own children in the hospital this winter), theoretical responses to suffering are not the answer, even though they may be the ones we think must be offered.
Only after the seventeenth century did the problem of evil become the central challenge to “the coherence and intelligibility of Christian believe per se” . . . That Christians now think the problem of suffering renders their faith in God unintelligible indicates that they now are determined by ways of life that are at odds with their fundamental convictions.
For the early Christians, suffering and evil . . . did not have to be “explained.” Rather, what was required was the means to go on even if the evil could not be “explained”—that is, it was important not to provide a theoretical account of why such evil needed to be in order that certain good results occur, since such an explanation would undercut the necessity of the community capable of absorbing suffering. [...] Continue reading
In chapter 2 of The Joy of Ministry, Thomas Currie offers us the fruit of his tutelage in the writings of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. In contrast to the contemporary church culture and its offerings of success strategies and management helps, we find in the writings of Dostoyevsky a vision for God’s mysterious grace that embraces life’s painful and oftentimes tragic messiness. Currie profiles the character of Father Zossima from The Brothers Karamazov and draws lessons for pastoral care from Zossima’s interaction with three different peasant women. In each case,
The joy that is offered by Father Zossima perceives and addresses great suffering, revealing itself to be no stranger to human misery but refusing to let such misery define the terms of a life that belongs to God (p. 22).
Currie’s study of Father Zossima and the insights he offers here for pastoral care are rich indeed. I was particularly struck by his interaction with the third vignette. A peasant woman comes to Father Zossima and without saying word falls prostrate before him with her face to the ground. She confesses that when her alcoholic, abusive husband was deathly ill, she wished not for healing but for his death. Having already confessed this to her priest, she comes to Father Zossima continuing to fear for her soul. In Zossima’s response Currie finds the heart of God’s extravagant mercy:
Father Zossima’s words to the woman voice the deepest convictions of Dostoyevsky’s own novelistic vision and summarize his understanding of redemptive love, Continue reading
This concludes our study of L. Ann Jervis’ look at human suffering (At the Heart of the Gospel: Suffering in the Earliest Christian Message). In her final chapter on Romans she makes what I believe are her most transparently theological – and insightful – contributions of the book yet.
Romans: Embracing Paul’s concern for those not “in Christ”
Paul understands suffering to be caused by sin, the presence of which affects all humanity, believers and nonbelievers alike, as they wait for the ultimate defeat of sin and with it the end of suffering. What this means for Jervis is that because all humanity “shares the same history – a history of bondage to sin” believers should see themselves as co-sufferers with those who do not believe.
The Christian’s attitude toward those who suffer outside of faith, Jervis explains, “would be profound love and compassion, care for the present and future lives of all humanity, outrage when tribulations occur to any person or part of this planet” (p. 119). Continue reading
As I read At the Heart of the Gospel I am continually impressed with L. Ann Jervis‘ graceful presentation. Moving easily between exegesis and exhortation, at times it feels more like I am reading a sermon than a textual study.
Philippians: Suffering that Shapes
During my pastoral ministry, I prayed with grieving mothers, cried with family members in chronic pain, and sat for hours with those whose most cherished relationships have been shattered by tragedy. In each case, even if left unsaid and even if mature believers were involved, the question of “why?” loomed. With that question in mind, Jervis directs us through the text of Philippians to point out a powerful reality: Christ-followers who suffer do so “in” Christ and their pain is not lost, fruitless, or random. On the contrary, because we suffer in the light of the resurrection our suffering produces life not death.
Whether they be the tragedies of death, the humiliations of age, the challenges of illness or poverty, believers may suffer knowing that the power of life is greater than the power of suffering and death. Continue reading
Guest Blogger: L. Ann Jervis
Note: When beginning an extended discussion with a particular book, such as At the Heart of the Gospel, we invite the author to participate in the dialogue for our accountability and to enrich the discussion. In the following comments, L. Ann Jervis responds to the “nagging Christological question” I posed last week regarding atonement and participation:
I think that Paul takes conformity to Christ very seriously: the lives of those ‘in Christ’ are to follow the pattern of Christ’s life – in our faith, which is Christ’s faith, and in our lives before our physical deaths, which are to be lived in Christ’s suffering and death and in hope of Christ’s resurrection.
Where Christ and those ‘in him’ differ is that Christ is the one who made possible what believers can know; and that Christ has already experienced what we can only hope for. Continue reading
As we saw yesterday, Jervis (At the Heart of the Gospel) makes three interwoven claims from 1 Thessalonians. First, she connects Christologically the suffering of Christ to the suffering of believers through Paul’s exhortation to “imitate” Christ in 1:6. In some mysterious way, she urges, God actually uses the suffering of believers toward his redemptive ends (I have some concerns here, see my comments from yesterday).
She follows with two further claims:
(2) A Spiritual-Pneumatological Claim:
Paul understands the threads of holiness, which are faith, hope, and love, to be threaded through the needle of affliction. Living in faith, hope, and love does not mean one is protected from pains…By accepting the word of the gospel (1:6) and determining to lead lives worthy of God (2:12), the Thessalonians became both people who exhibited faith, hope, and love and people who suffered. Their faith, hope, and love are expressed as they suffer (p. 20).
“[T]he Gospel is wrapped not just in joy, but also in affliction” (p. 16).
Today, we begin our discussion on human suffering by way of L. Ann Jervis’ book, At the Heart of the Gospel: Suffering in the Earliest Christian Message (see “Up next” below for preview). Before proceeding let me say a few words about our topic.
This will not be an “ivory tower” interaction with the issues, questions, and challenges surrounding human suffering. I have and continue to walk with many people who suffer greatly and I do not take their pain lightly. In fact, it is because of the gravity of human suffering – its gravity for our Maker and therefore its gravity for us – that we take it up here. We might say something like this: to reason well theologically about human suffering contributes to theologically rich life in the midst of and for those who suffer. Continue reading
A dear friend of mine has been bravely enduring great physical suffering for some time now. It was her situation that prompted us to blog through this book on suffering; for the sake of the church, we need to think well theologically about suffering.
In At the Heart of the Gospel , L. Ann Jervis reminds us that suffering is often understood “as the absence of God; our response, whether intellectual or visceral, to suffering’s cruel bite is to feel that God has abandoned us” (1). If you’ve seen I am Legend, Will Smith’s character plays out this response. Jervis’s intention here, however, is not to engage the “why” questions that orbit human suffering, but learn from Paul how we might respond to suffering.
Paul’s energies are spent on moving the furniture of our minds and imaginations around so that we can see that our suffeirngs take place in a space embraced by God’s love and that they are destined to be swallowed by glory (2). Continue reading