This was a 4-Session Bible Study that took place during May, 2020 (Summarized Below)
Amidst pandemic, this study proved to be a helpful conversation to have, seeking some Biblical perspectives. We came together not for quick answers but for reflecting on our sufferings. May the following also bless you with some orientation to further consider this huge, complex, baggage-loaded question. More than academics, this is a deep, ongoing question of the soul.
May 7, 2020 - Session One: You bring yourself and your own story to the question
If we had met at church, I’d simply have pictures sitting on the table as you enter the room, inviting you to choose one for our discussion starter, so here’s the online version of the table: View the photos in the slideshow and choose one picture that "speaks to you" about our topic and its connection to God and you. There are no wrong answers here, just a discussion starter for you.
What aspect of the image grabs your attention? What story does it tell?
Where might God in this image? What would God be doing?
Where would you put yourself in this image? (If at all.)
Now read Romans 8:18-23 slowly a few times over. What connections do you see between our chosen image and this passage? How does your image help you to understand this passage in new ways?
As we explore this heartfelt question of suffering, there are three realities that can seem in conflict for us as Christians: 1) God is good; 2) God is God (i.e., omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient); and 3) Evil exits. How can all three be true?
Martin Luther speaks of God as both hidden and revealed (deus absconditus/revelatus). There is in every self-disclosure of God a tension of hidden/revealed, of mystery/revelation. Example: "O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!" (Romans 11:3).
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. (NRSV)
May 14, 2020 - Session Two: What does sin have to do with suffering?
I have an uncomfortable question for you: Can pain be a good thing? Whether we care to admit it or not, the answer is "yes"! Consider for a moment getting pierced in the sole of your foot by a thorn as you hike in the woods. Without suffering of pain, you'd never notice that your foot needed attention, and your foot and health would deteriorate. Pain let's you know that something is amiss and needs care.
Romans 8:18-23 seems to imply that there's a direct connection between sin and suffering.
Sometimes it might come in the form of us "doing something wrong" and reaping the consequence. Consider Genesis 2-3 which tells the story of Adam and Eve trying to be like God and ended up with knowledge, not of what is ultimately good and evil, but the perverted, bent perspective of what they now think is good for themselves or bad for themselves. Suddenly their newly gained "knowledge" and "wisdom" causes them to separate themselves from the very source of their life - God! - as they hide from God and blame everyone else. The further suffering that God invokes in the curse oracle of Genesis 3:16-19 frustrates attempted existence apart from God at the heart of who they are. For Eve (a.k.a. life-giver), suffering comes in childbearing. For Adam (a.k.a. man/ground) the very ground he farms will yield frustration and suffering. Yet don't think "punishment", rather "discipline", for God will begin forming them anew. Suffering can begin faith formation.
Deuteronomy 28 shares the blessings and curses of the Sinai Covenant (see Exodus 20). From passages like this, it's easy to see why some people think that God really loves rich people and hates poor people, but that's not a faithful reading of the whole story. Jesus certainly has something to say about that one! (Consider Luke 4:16-19.) Nevertheless, there certainly is a biblical perspective that connects our sins, or lack thereof, with our suffering. Certain behavior does promote certain results. There's a reason, for example, why there's a warning on each pack of cigarettes.
Yet there is another biblical perspective to consider, as well: That our suffering can also come to us through no sinful fault of our own. Consider Jesus' words to his disciples inquiry about the sins of a man born blind from birth inJohn 9:1-7 or the description of Job in the first verse of that great story of suffering - Job 1. As Job cries out amidst his undeserved suffering, God finally answers Job in Job 38-42. Is it a satisfying answer? I'll leave that for you to consider. But as you consider, hear behind it God's promise that sings out through St. Paul in Romans 8:28-30. God can bring good from suffering, blessing from curse.
May 21, 2020 - Session Three: Sometimes Lament is All we can do, and God Hears Us
The Biblical writers don't try to explain suffering away. They call upon God to deal with it - and them! - and invite us to do the same. They remind us that we have a God who does not "hide God's face" from us or turn a "deaf ear" toward us. God wants to save us, but from even more than just suffering. (More about that next week.)
Lament! It's a faithful response to suffering. You'll see it throughout the scripture. Consider these Psalms of lament:
Psalm 10 - Complaints against the "wicked" AND God!
Psalm 34 - Notice both lament and humble introspection
Truth be told: We're getting the Reader's Digest condense version of the psalmist's story, yet I so appreciate hearing also that they discover God's faithfulness in the end. It gives me hope. Yet having said that, lament is messy. That's OK, though. God can deal with it... and invites you.
And finally let's acknowledge even greater messiness in the Psalms of lament known as imprecatory (curse) Psalms. The prayer calls out for God's wrath amidst his/her pain and suffering. Consider Psalm 69 and Psalm 109 as examples. Psalm 139 is my favorite Psalm. It comforts me greatly. But I confess being comfortable with it only until I get to verse 19. There a curse lets loose! Whatever else one may say about such passages, they are honest, brutally honest. God wants that. God invites that. God can deal with that. Will you?
In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Lutheran pastor and martyr at the hands of the Nazis) wrote, "Can we, then, pray the imprecatory psalms? In so far as we are sinners and express evil thoughts in a prayer of vengeance, we dare not do so. But in so far as Christ is in us, the Christ who took all the vengeance of God upon himself, who met God’s vengeance in our stead, who thus — stricken by the wrath of God — and in no other way could forgive his enemies, who himself suffered the wrath that his enemies might go free — we, too, as member of this Jesus Christ, can pray these psalms, through Jesus Christ, from the heart of Jesus Christ."
Amidst suffering, allow your question of "why" to be honestly and boldly expressed to God. Lament!
May 28, 2020 - Session Four: Theology of the Cross
What is the Theology of the Cross? It's the theological perspective coined by Martin Luther that the cross of Jesus Christ is the ultimate source of knowledge for us about who God is and God's way of salvation. For two quick insights: CLICK HERE to find the 28 premises Luther shared at the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518, less than a year after he wrote his 95 Theses. And CLICK HERE to read a summary of Luther's Sermon on Cross and Suffering preached on Holy Saturday, 1530, based on Jesus' Passion.
Luther's Theology of the Cross adds incredible perspective to the presence of suffering in our lives. Suffering is something that shouldn't surprise us, for take up our cross and follow Jesus.
Consider St. Peter who in Mark 8:31-38 doesn't want to hear of any suffering coming to his Lord Jesus, let alone his death on a cross. Yet Jesus rebukes Peter and says, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it" (Mark 8:34-34).
St. Peter will years later write his New Testament epistles (letters) with new understanding. In 1 Peter, a letter Peter wrote to the early church while it was under persecution from the Roman Emperor Nero, Peter echoes Jesus' words of walking the way of the cross. Peter has become convinced that:
Our bearing with suffering inflicted upon us by others will perhaps advance the Gospel in their hearts. Consider 1 Peter 2:13-17.
Jesus' suffering made all the difference in the world to, it changed us for the good. Consider 1 Peter 2:23-24.
Life is about serving Christ in the other, not about our rights. Consider 1 Peter 3:14-16.
God has already declared Whose child you are in your baptism. You need not fear what God thinks about you under suffering. Consider 1 Peter 3:21-22.
We take up our cross and follow Jesus, and this will bring suffering in a world that is bent against God. Consider 1 Peter 4:12-14.
In the midst of our suffering we discover anew that we can trust God, that God is and will be faithful to us. Consider 1 Peter 4:15-19.
Jesus has invited us to live with Him, birthing a new way in the world, and that will bring push-back, BUT taking up our cross and following Jesus will bring incredible gift...both to us and the others to whom God sends us. Yes, in Jesus' name we are even called to fight against the unjust suffering of others, against the powers that unjustly oppress.
In the preceding, we have tasted some of the Biblical perspectives of why we suffer, but the Bible finally is not as concerned about that as it is with what we do in the midst of our suffering. We are invited to engage with God who we discover can be trusted. And, of course, God also promises that there will be an end to suffering in that day in which God will swallow up death itself. Consider Revelation 21:3-5.
God's peace be yours amidst your living, yes, even amidst your suffering.