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. 

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