Your suffering will show you that the timing of teaching and touching is crucial...When you walk through your own valley of darkness you learn these things. This is your lifelong seminary. If you are called to counsel others, I entreat you, do not begrudge the seminary of suffering. -John PiperMany factors over the course of the past two months play into the unmistakable truth that I am in a semester in the seminary of suffering. Academically, I just finished an extensive study of 1 Peter in my Greek Exegesis class, where one major theme is suffering. I also recently took an intro to counseling course that exposed me, albeit briefly, to the reality of the vast suffering experienced throughout local churches all over the world. For work, I am helping to prepare a sermon series on suffering. Personally, I have heard several sermons as of late on the theme of suffering and I have begun to explore my life and the painful losses that occurred in my past. Finally, my time in the Word has opened up my eyes to the consistent message of suffering presented after Genesis 3.
However, I’m also learning that we balk at that word in America--suffering. We want to avoid it at all cost. We medicate ourselves with all society offers as means for comfort, security, and safety. Even when we know it is okay to suffer-—whether it be the loss of a loved one, experiencing rejection, being abused or neglected—-we don’t want to embrace the pain and the hurt. Instead I know so many people who just suppress it all, burying it deep within their hearts. But it never actually goes away; it never heals. And if it never gets dealt with it destroys them. They either become violent and angry, bitter at everyone or, and maybe even more frightening, they become numb to life and to God. He or she is a shell of a human being, an illusion of who they once were.
As I journey through this semester in the seminary of suffering, I am realizing that I have sought too long to avoid suffering in my life. Furthermore, my eyes are opening to the plain truth that I know too many people--Christians--like me. We do not have a proper theology of suffering. We do not get trained in a proper theology of suffering that incorporates both the mind and the heart. As a result, we do not know how to minister to others in their suffering, providing trite, cliché, theologically and emotionally hollow answers to questions we're unwilling to wrestle with before the Living, Triune God.
My journey has brought me to several conclusions I wish to develop over the coming weeks and months. The two major ones that constantly come to the surface are here, but I believe there are many more.
1. Suffering in Light of Eternity
"But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed" (1 Pet 4:13). This verse sums up the tone of the entire letter (1:7, 11, 21; 4:11, 13, 14; 5:1; 5:10). Peter is writing specifically about suffering because of persecution, but the principle of rejoicing in the midst of suffering as we look to Jesus' return can be extended to all areas of life. Moreover, we must realize that each and every person in this world has experienced some level of suffering. Their experience is unique and valuable because they are created in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27). C.S. Lewis states it poignantly:
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations--these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But is is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit--immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. -C.S. LewisIn light of eternity, how are we approaching suffering in our lives and the lives of others, both believer and unbeliever?
2. The Language of Lament
We do not need to be taught how to lament. What we need is simply the assurance that we can lament. -Michael CardPut simply, our theology does not allow for the category of lamenting in our suffering. Somewhere we lost it and I for one grew up in a generation that knew little to nothing about it's place in the Christian's life. Yet we can look to Scripture--more specifically the lives of Job, David, Jeremiah and Jesus--not only to see that lament is possible for us, but that it even produces a stronger dependence on God than ever before.
Have you ever been taught about lamenting? If so, what did you learn? Have you ever seriously lamented? Is this a foreign concept to you?
I plan on expanding each of these a bit further because we have to ask why the necessity for eternity and lamenting is important for a proper theology of suffering and practice of it as we and others in our lives will undoubtedly suffer.
For now I must ask, are you too walking through a semester in the seminary of suffering?
By His Grace.