Published in Connections Magazine (Sept/Oct 2012)
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A Theology of Suffering for the Family
by Marcus J. Carlson
Nobody enjoys suffering, and our human nature avoids it. One of the great failures of the American church is our lack of a theology of suffering. For a faith that hinges on the greatest torture device in the history of the world—the cross—we do not know how to think, talk about or embrace suffering. For a people who seek to follow Jesus Christ—who embraced suffering for us—we often assume that His suffering means that we should not have to suffer.
Suffering is a reality of life that cannot be avoided. As Lutherans, our love for the cross, for Lent and for other symbols of suffering should lead us to a more thoughtful theology of suffering, but this is often not the case.
As followers of Christ, our entire faith hinges on the life of a man, Jesus Christ, who embraced suffering, not for the sake of suffering, but out of love for us all. Jesus did not shy away from suffering; instead, He embraced it.
Additionally, Jesus calls all of His disciples to “take up [their] cross daily” as they follow Him. Our churches and our families desperately need a theology of suffering that is consistent with our faith and the reality of suffering. Pain avoidance has become high in value in both our culture and our churches, but it is not a value consistent with Scripture and the story of God’s people. It is not consistent with the life and message of Christ.
As a parent, I do not want my children to be in pain. Many times I wish I could take their pain on myself so that they do not have to experience it. In this way, I catch a tiny glimpse
of the love of God for all people. Parents often want to fix things for their children. We want to find solutions to their problems and help them avoid pain. While these intentions are good, we must stop, think and reflect carefully (and theologically) about the role and nature of suffering in the lives of our children, youth, families and churches.
Suffering is a reality we are called to embrace by the words and life of Christ. Our children and youth desperately need to learn and have modeled for them a theology of suffering. Our children and youth need to learn how to deal with suffering so that when they face it as adults, they can be drawn closer to God.
We cannot put our efforts into ignoring suffering, expecting our children and youth to face it alone. Nor should we try to avoid or fix the suffering in the lives of our children. Instead, we need to find a way to teach them about suffering, and help them to embrace it as we walk with them through their times of suffering. As I work through my own theology of suffering, particularly when it comes to children and youth, I try to keep the following five key points in mind.
No suffering is too great for our God
Talking about suffering is very difficult, especially when in the midst of it. We know in our hearts and minds that there is no amount of suffering that is too great for our God. In the midst of suffering, it can be hard for us to embrace this reality. When thinking about suffering, and when helping our children and youth, we must remind them of the power and love of God. Our children and youth need to know that they do not have to walk alone in the midst of their suffering.
No suffering will ever be as painful as the suffering of Christ
Our own suffering often feels so significant that we think nobody can fully understand how much we are hurting. The nature of pain is usually overwhelming, and suffering creates a sense of loneliness in us. It even caused Jesus to cry out, asking the Father, “Why have you forsaken me?” While comparison is often the basis of all unhappiness—and comparison can be especially dangerous in the midst of suffering—perspective is crucial.
No amount of suffering that we will face as human beings will ever be as painful as the suffering of Christ. The amount of suffering Christ endured, not only on the cross, but in His life and ministry as well, will always be more significant than anything we will face. Part of the beauty of the cross is that Jesus embraced the worst of suffering and rejection so that we would not have to. The cross does not rid the world of suffering, but it does change our experience with suffering.
No suffering is the end of the story
God has written the most beautiful love story that can ever be told, and yet it’s a love story that is also filled with pain and suffering. God’s story continues to be written in our lives and in the world, and God’s Kingdom is still fully present and unfolding in, around and through us. Suffering is a part of our story; it shapes us in powerful ways, but it does not define us. It is not the end of the story that God is writing in our lives and in the world that He loves.
No Suffering Can escape the power of God’s redemption
Our God is a God who can (and does) redeem all things, making all things new. We believe that God can take any situation and any suffering we face and make it good. Some of the most significant parts of my own faith life have come in the midst and aftermath of suffering. While God does not cause our suffering, God can take our suffering and turn it into good, making all things new. This is the powerful story of redemption we must share with our children and youth as we walk with them through their suffering.
No Suffering Can Separate us from the love of God
Romans 8 reminds us in a powerful way that nothing in the world can separate us from the love of God. While suffering may be a painful, lonely experience, it does not keep us from God’s love. I believe that it is in the midst of suffering we can experience the love of God in the most profound ways. While we may feel a sense of punishment, abandonment or isolation from God in the midst of suffering, it (and any feelings suffering causes in us) cannot separate us from God’s love. Our children and youth need to hear this truth in order to embrace suffering as followers of Jesus Christ.
While suffering is a painful reality of a broken world that we wish were not a reality, God’s redeeming power is bigger than any amount of suffering we will ever face. God speaks to us in the midst of, in spite of and because of suffering. Max Lucado once commented: “The next time that you are called to suffer, pay attention, it may be the closest you ever get to God.”
We know the end of the story: on the other side of suffering is hope and victory. While the cross is an important part of the story that can help us understand, accept and find life in the midst of suffering, the cross is not the end of the story because of Jesus’s victory over death.