We are due to start a series in the book of Acts at QBC, but I’ve had a message pressing on me which I feel is from God (as distinct from all the others where I just fluff along and hope for the best…) and it concerns the issue of how we see God in the midst of serious pain and suffering.
I’m not talking about how we deal with ‘first world problems’ ie. unexpected bills, a faulty air con or not enough holidays. I’m thinking of how we deal with life’s major disasters. When a child dies, a marriage busts up, a family member is diagnosed with a terminal illness… BIG stuff… ‘valley of the shadow’ type stuff.
If you read Psalm 23, a Psalm that typically gets read in tough times, you would notice that almost every statement in it is positive and encouraging, (ever noticed that?) but there is an allowance for ‘walking through the valley of the shadow of death’.
Its a powerful metaphor for the type of suffering that I am alluding to. And my theory is that sooner or later every single one of us will walk thru the valley. In one way or another our lives will involve significant pain and we need a theological framework for dealing with that.
If we don’t (and sometimes even if we do) we will end up ‘blaming God’ and berating him for his failure to be an adequate father. This can lead to ditching faith altogether and being disappointed with God because he didn’t meet our expectations
At another extreme is the whole idea of ‘thanking God’ for the suffering, as if it were a good thing. I have seen and heard people thanking God for the most bizarre stuff based on the idea of ‘giving thanks in all circumstances’. Now I’d want to say there is always something to give thanks for, but chances are it won’t be the death of a spouse, or the loss of a child…
I won’t give the game away in terms of what I want to say, (although its not rocket surgery) but I will point you to two posts that I have found helpful in this process and both know suffering firsthand.
The first is by a friend and an ex school student of mine who died on Jan 2nd this year of bowel cancer and it is his final words written a short time before his passing. Kristian suddenly became ‘famous’ after making a video for his wife’s birthday, putting it on Youtube and then discovered it had gone viral.
What I admired about Kristian’s journey was the way he honestly expressed his pain and struggle, and how he didn’t end up pinning it all on God. To the end he called a spade a spade but he also acknowledged God as good, in control and to be trusted. You can read his final words here. I watched the memorial service online and it was a real tribute to a both the way he and his wife dealt with ‘the valley of the shadow’.
And then there is this post by New Testament Theologian Ben Witherington, that is the start of him reflecting on the unexpected death of his 32 year old daughter from a pulmonary embolism. It takes a different tack and shows a biblical scholar coming to grips with the valley of the shadow. Here’s an excerpt:
So, for me, the beginning of good grief starts with the premise of a good God. Otherwise, all bets are off. If God is almighty and malevolent, then there is no solace to be found in God. If God is the author of sin, evil, suffering, the fall, and death, then the Bible makes no sense when it tells us that (1) God tempts no one, that (2) God’s will is that none should perish but have everlasting life, and that (3) death is the very enemy of God and humankind that Jesus, who is life, came to abolish and destroy.
So my theory – as dark as it may be is this: One day you will enter the valley of the shadow – if you haven’t already – and how you see God will be critical to how you walk that journey.
One of my deep convictions is that a healthy grasp of the true character of God can help us both grieve, express pain and not lose our way all at the same time.
So the question comes back to who is God and what is he like?