Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Church’s Response to Suffering, Part Two

Yesterday, we discussed the church’s need for a robust statement of suffering that fuels a meaningful response to suffering.  We considered the story of Gary.  An abusive recovering alcoholic that is broken because his wife has left him.  How do we respond? 

The typical response is to address the symptoms.  This is one area where the church sadly reflects the cultural response to suffering.  There is an underlying theological reason for the hyper-medication of Americans.  We do not like getting our hands dirty and addressing the root of the problem.  If I can feel moderately better through taking a pill without having to deal with my own anger then keep the meds coming.  The cultural answer to suffering is this: If A hurts you then do B to alleviate the pain of A.  The churches parroting answer to suffering is this: If A hurts then let God do B so that He can fix A.  If your wife is leaving you because you are angry or an alcoholic let God fix your anger and alcoholism so that he can fix your marriage.

Perhaps this is why there are so many “12 step” type of books at your Christian book store.  Christians are hurting.  Christians know hurting people.  We want it fixed so we buy the books that essentially say, “If you are deficient here are 7 things you can do to fix that deficiency, then you will have what you really desire.”  Just read the blurbs on the back of many books and tell me this is not the case. 

If you come from a prosperity “gospel” background then you are all too familiar with this.  Their mantra is that if you are having financial difficulties then plant a seed in God’s kingdom and He will bless you.  If A is a problem do B and fix A.  What I am submitting to you is that many conservative, prosperity “gospel”-hating Christians offer the same formula to hurting people.  We just have a different “do B” than the prosperity gospel.  The problem, though, is not with the numbers in the equation—the problem is that the whole equation is bogus. 

This is what Job’s friends could not see.  They used this same formula.  “Job, you must have be doing something wrong, suffering doesn’t just happen.” They proposed various things to fit into their formula.  “You need to repent, Job”.  “You need to change your theology, Job.”  “Turn to God and you will be blessed, Job”.  If A is a problem do B and fix A. 

Now, lest I be misunderstood there is often a direct correlation between our suffering and the stupid choices we make.  There is an element in which this equation is true.  If Gary stops abusing his wife and if his attitude changes it will create a change in his relationship with his wife.  That is not in question.  The problem is that things are not that simple.  Gary is not a light switch that you can turn off and on.  He is a complex human being.  Even if he stops abusing his wife unless the underlying issues of anger are dealt with given time his angry heart will manifest itself in other destructive ways. 

The typical response to suffering will not cut it for the same reason communism doesn’t work—people are messed up.  You cannot insert a simple formula and then miraculously people change.  Just knowing the right information does not change people.  Knowing what you should do does not change people.  Healing symptoms does not heal a person.  Gary’s suffering is not simply that is wife left him.  Gary’s suffering is that he has an angry heart that desperately needs the gospel to go deep.  If A is a problem do B and fix A is not the robust statement of suffering that I am referring to. 

Next time we will consider a few other unhelpful responses to suffering. 

Monday, December 28, 2009

Monday’s Ministry Musing: The Other “Purpose” Statement a Church Needs Part One

I remember in college being told that every church needs a purpose statement.  In fact this principle extends to even the marketplace.  Wal-Mart has a statement of purpose, your local car dealer probably has a statement of purpose, even my barber has a purpose statement.  However, there is one statement that the Church needs that Walmart, the car dealership, and hopefully your barber does not: a statement on suffering. 

The reality is that we live in a broken world filled with broken people.  We live in a Genesis 3 world and not a Revelation 21 world.  Therefore, people suffer.  And when people suffer people have questions.  We all want answers to suffering.  The church needs a robust statement on suffering.  Better yet, the church needs a robust statement on suffering that fuels a meaningful response to suffering. 

I hate to say it but much of what I have experienced (and even given) as a response to suffering is trite, meaningless, gospel-depleted, and frankly sickening.  We often like to stare suffering in the face and assume that we have the answer:  “If you will only…”  Marry this to our cute little cut phrases and the churches response to suffering is so shallow that it only makes you feel better on Sunday but leaves you wrecked and without a response on Monday. 

Before I go any further I need to confess that I am talking about my own response to suffering.  It is easy for me to look at suffering people, give them a few religious sounding arguments, and then give them a handy little James 2 “go in peace, be warmed and filled” farewell.  It hurts to enter into people’s suffering.  Ministering to broken people might mean that I get even more broken.  It might mean that I have to get a little too close to a lot of the garbage that is buried deep in my own heart.  I don’t really want to do that, so I minister to suffering from a distance.  My advice may seem pastoral but it really doesn’t help on Monday, because my ministry is not incarnational—it’s theoretical.  Now, allow me to make this concrete.

Imagine with me that a man (we’ll call him Gary) comes to you for advice.  Gary is a recovering (yet not recovered) alcoholic.  He was abused as a child.  He looked for love in all of the wrong places.  He’s not only a victim though.  Gary has done the same thing.  He chose to go down the same path that his own father did.  He is abusive.  And now his wife (we’ll call her Jill) has left him.  This was the one thing in his life that he thought he had going for him.  He knows his abuse was wrong.  He wants to change (or maybe he just wants the security of a wife back—you aren’t sure).  Gary is hurting, but the only way he knows to cope is through anger, blame, denial, and Jack Daniels. 

I could come up with a million different scenarios, some not as “difficult” and some with so many twists and turns you are left shaking your head.  Regardless, of the scenario the church needs to have a response to this man’s suffering.  How would you respond to Gary’s suffering?

Feel free to leave a few comments…I’ll do a follow up post on this tomorrow. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Where Have I Been?

You have probably noticed that I have not updated this blog since October.  I have a few articles I have been working on but nothing really worth posting at this point.  I thought before I begin regular posting again (hopefully around January 1st) I would update you on my first semester at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. 

I took three classes this semester:  Elementary Greek, Biblical Hermeneutics, and Church History 1.  I really loved all of my classes.  honeycutt-seminary-lawnI have not gotten all my grades back yet but I think I will have an A in Hermeneutics and History and a B+ in Greek.  I am most proud of my B+ in Greek because one thing I learned this semester is that I am NOT good at foreign languages.  The same part of my brain hurts that hurt taking Pre-Calculus (which I failed) in High School. 

Other than my deficiency in learning foreign languages it is really difficult to narrow down the things that I learned this semester.  I know that my hermeneutics class opened up for me a more clear way of viewing the entire canon of Scripture.  Dr. Wellum did an excellent job of showing how biblical theology (the “big story” of Scripture) effects our reading of Scripture. 

Prior to the class I knew the importance of reading a text in its context.  I also knew about the analogy of faith and reading a text in light of other texts of revelation.  But what I had never put together was that each text should be read on three horizons: textual, epochal, and canonical.  Textual is reading a text in light of its immediate context.  Epochal is reading a text in light of where it is in the unfolding of God’s redemptive story.  Canonical is reading a text in light of all of Scripture.  Before this class I had been introduced to biblical theology, but I never really knew how to tie everything together.  Dr. Wellum’s class, I believe, set my on course to read the Bible as it really is—a big story.  I also enjoyed reading Dominion and Dynasty by Stephen Dempster. 

In my Church History class I was really struck by Dr. Wright’s historical humility.  What I really came out of this class with was a realization that history is not as black and white as we would like to think.  You cannot accept everything Augustine said nor throw out everything that other historical figures had said and believed.  I came out of this class with an appreciation for the rich diversity among the people of God. 

My Elementary Greek class will be very beneficial for me for quite some time.  I can now read a decent portion of the New Testament with comprehension.  I look forward to taking syntax and exegesis.  Dr. Plummer is an amazing teacher; not many professors could make an 8:00am foreign language class interesting. 

Next semester, I am taking (at least as of today) Church History II, Personal Spiritual Disciplines with Dr. Whitney, New Testament II with Dr. Schreiner, and Systematic Theology III with Dr. Ware.  I am very excited about next semester.  I hope to get much of my reading done before the semester begins—and I also hope to do a better job of blogging.  Once, we get moved to Jasper, IN and I begin having set office hours again, I should be able to write more. 

Thanks for all of your prayers and support throughout this semester.


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