Suffering: Playing Your Part With Passion

Recently, archaeologists discovered what they think is a missing section of 1 Samuel. It is a section of the book which describes what Saul did after he chased David out of his courtroom. You might remember, David was ‘hired’ by Saul to play his harp in order to sooth Saul’s soul when evil spirits tormented him (1 Sam 16:14-23).

The recent discovery tells of how after David departed, Saul was left with no choice but to call on Israel’s philosophers to come and comfort him. And apparently, it did not go well. Instead, of refreshing his soul, these debaters of the age reasoned why bad things happened to good people and why men like Saul suffered as they did. The missing section claims that these foolish lovers of wisdom only exacerbated the problem and that Saul actually pinned a couple of them to the wall with his spear.

Apparently, they were not as agile as David. Nor were they as existential as David, either—meaning, they did not exist.

In truth, there is no such archaeological account and there were no such philosophers. But you already knew that because surely no king would hire philosophers for solace and comfort. Philosophers do well to afflict the comfortable, but they are less skilled at comforting the afflicted.

The Emotional Problem of Evil

For this reason, the emotional problem of evil will never be resolved by philosophy alone. While there is a place for considering the personal, spiritual, and systemic causes of evil, none of these ‘answers’ satisfy the soul. Indeed, when Job writhed in the dust and ashes, he questioned God. When God showed up, he responded in kind. For four chapters (ch. 38-41), YHWH queried Job, until Job responded: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (42:1).

Indeed, philosophical answers do not answer the emotional problem of evil. Neither do biblical-theological answers. Scripture supplies truth to stand on during the storm, but the only source of hope in the face of suffering is God himself. It is an empty cross and empty tomb that promises peace and power. And it is the gospel story that will alone strengthen the soul of the weary and heavy-laden.

This is the point I want to bring make: In the face of agonizing pain, we must not look for answers, but like Saul, we must take comfort in the rhythms of salvation’s song. We must learn to see how the notes of our life fit into the symphony which God is composing and performing. As with any epic soundtrack, there are minor notes and places where it may seem like the symphony is going to come undone. Yet, unlike the bubble gum pop song that fizzles  in three-and-a-half minutes, the dramatic opera sings on for eternity. In this symphony, our part contributes to God’s song. And it is in this storied song that we can find hope in the face of incredible pain.

Learning to Play Your Part with Passion

Learning to play our part in God’s passion narrative takes time. It also takes a renewal of the mind. Thankfully, God has given us a book written by saints well-attuned to grief and able to speak a word of comfort to those suffering under the hand of God’s providence. Here are five things to consider as you play your part in God’s grand symphony.

1. The answer is complex. Suffering is complex and needs a complex answer.  We want quick fixes, but we know that a quick fix won’t work. Cancer is not cured with a band-aid; suffering is not alleviated by a Bible verse. Suffering leads Christians to dig deeper  (Ps 119:67). Pain awakens the drowsy, excites the lazy, and emboldens the timid. And pain causes us to consider the infinite stores of mercy that are promised to those in Christ. Such meditations are not simple, they are complex, but in complex situations, that is exactly the kind of help we need.

2. We need a worldview, not a mantra. Since suffering is cosmic, we need an answer as big as the universe. Better put, we need an Answerer, not just an set of answers. Simplistic answers are good for the Sunday School classroom; they’re just not very good for much else. We need a view of the world that has a massive God who is able to sustain the weary with a word (Isa 50:4).

In this way, Romans 8:28—‘And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good’—becomes a opening to see who God is and how God acts. This promise is a window, not a morphine drip. God’s word doesn’t anesthetize us from the pain of life. God’s word strengthens our souls to be able to walk through the valley of the shadow of death we call life. In short, we need a Scriptural worldview, not just a series of mantras we repeat to ourselves.

3. Worldviews are created by narratives not ethical principles. Pluralism says that all religions are the same because they have the same ethical value—‘love your neighbor as yourself,’ etc. Christianity disagrees. History is determinative, not ethics.

In times of grief, ethical injunctions won’t comfort; they don’t explain evil; they can’t change the circumstances. But, a story, on the other hand, has the possibility of recreating reality. Indeed, a story with the right Narnian ‘magic’ can solve all problems. Without thinking about this, people do this with regularity. At the funeral meal, the widow laughs at the stories her children tell of their father, and parents of a stillborn child go to the movies to recover a sense of normalcy.

It may be true that stories sooth by distracting us from the pain, but I would suggest that the story of God’s eventual restoration of creation does more than distract. It creates hope in our battered souls. The true story of the resurrection—a resurrection that promises to envelope the universe—is a story that rewrites all tragedies. This story comes not from an ethical set of principles; it comes as a promise that every tear will be wiped away. Everything will be made new.

4. The Bible is such a narrative. Worldviews come from narrative explanations of the universe, and the Bible is such a meta-narrative (read: Grand Story). While the Bible has laws, proverbs, and epistles, it is first and foremost a persuasive epic comedy. This will take some explaining, but if you get a handle on what the Bible is, it will help you weather the storms of this life when the break upon you.

The Bible is an Epic. Leland Ryken defines an epic as, “A long narrative having the following characteristics or ingredients: expansiveness and grandness; the story of a nation of group (nationalistic emphasis), not simply an individual; a unifying hero; motif of warfare, conquest, kingdom, rulership; presence of supernatural characters and events (what literary critics have traditionally called ‘the marvelous’); exalted style.”

The Bible is a Comedy. Again, Ryken helps us understand this term applied to the Bible. A comedy is a “U-shpaed plot in which the action begins in prosperity, descends into potentially tragic events, and rises to a happy ending.” This plotline itself gets at the solution to the problem of evil. We who know goodness, experience a life-altering, seemingly irreversible tragedy. Yet, the Bible’s promise of resurrection is the solution to the problem—nothing else is.

The Bible is a persuasive invitation. That is, existing as a real account of human history, it is a story that invites your participation. It is real and true, and it is meant to persuade you to lay down your micro-narrative and redefine your reality on the basis of this story. It calls sinners suffering in a fallen world to submit to the Author, to receive your part, to learn his Script(ure), and to play your role with passion—suffering with the hope of glory.

5. The cross stands at the center of this story. Finally, in this story there is a hero whose tragic death and almighty resurrection promises life and light to all  who are loyal to him. The cross is the central feature of this story. In the Bible, all the OT leads up to this climactic moment; all the NT, understands the person and work of Christ to the central unifying theme in all creation. Because the worst moment in human history—Christ’s death—is followed by the greatest moment in human history—the resurrection, the Friday Christ died is actually called ‘Good’.

Happily Ever After

This paradigm shift related to Christ’s death and resurrection gives us a tangible reminder of how God—and God alone—can rewrite the tragedies in our lives. While we experience overwhelming grief in the moment, God’s story has not ended. The credits are not yet rolling.

For those who know Christ, we are guaranteed that God will bring this story to a happy ending. It does not mean that God will air-lift us out of the valley of the shadow of death. It does mean that when the trumpet sounds, we will be raised to everlasting life. Moreover, since we know the Author of the story, we can rest assured that he will not abandon his Script or his Scriptures.

Just the opposite, God’s word calls us to feed on his faithfulness  and to pick up the instruments God has given us to play along in the Lord’s epic symphony. By beholding the Lamb of God, we see the kind of role we are to assume. We must pick up our cross daily and follow him.

In the immediate, this will actually increase our pain and trouble. But in the long run—in accordance with God’s epic comedy—the personal choice to embrace the suffering is filled with promises of knowing God and the fellowship of his sufferings (Phil 3:9-10). And it is promised to us who suffer well that we will reign with him in glory (2 Tim 2:11-12). This is not an immediate balm for our wounds, but it is an eschatological promise that God will make all things new. He is writing the story of our lives, and because of that we can entrust ourselves to a faithful creator while doing good (1 Pet 4:19).

Soli Deo Gloria, dss