brief thoughts on suffering and theology

That the central event in the Christian faith is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus should lead to, among many things, reflection on how we approach theological thought about contemporary issues.

Indeed, God came to us in the form of a human named Jesus, and thus he suffered as a human. He probably grazed his knees as a child. He probably gashed his hand as a carpenter. He most definitely mourned the death of loved ones.

And of course he suffered when he was crucified.

It seems that the clearest revelation of God we have explicitly models him suffering with others who are both socially and ontologically inferior. Should this model serve as an example to us of how possibly to approach theology?

Theologian Jurgen Moltmann says:

Suffering … precedes the answers of Christian theology – the open questions precede the answers of Christian theology. It is not possible to express God before the world without first and at the same time expressing the world before God.*

That is to say that theology cannot be done as distinct from living in a world filled with suffering. This is not because such theological work is practically impossible (one can ignore the suffering), but because such suffering is an interpretive key to seeing things through the lens of the cross, the ultimate act of God’s solidarity with humans.

The recent documentary Go Back To Where You Came From may provide us with a non-theological example of suffering in solidarity affecting one’s understanding and perspective. Six participants journeyed in a way comparable to refugees and most ended up having their thinking deeply transformed by the experience.

In the first part of a recent blog series on homosexuality and the Bible I made the point that those who work with AIDS patients often have a very different way of “doing” theology than those confined to academia. There is something powerful about getting one’s hands dirty that makes us think about issues differently, including in theology.

The most profound theological event in history was that God came and suffered and died with us. What then are we to make of the modern hyper-aversion to suffering? If we will do anything to avoid suffering, will we fully meet with God? And if we do not fully meet God, can our theology be whole?

To end I will quote an in some ways provocative statement from Michael Northcott, whom I spoke of in my last post:

… the suffering, and not the powerful, hold the key to history. In their radical dependence on God, on one another and on natural systems, the poor and the exiled know, as the rich do not, that history is not in human hands.**


* Jurgen Moltmann, Hope and Planning, 35.
** Michael Northcott, A Moral Climate: The Ethics of Global Warming, 42.

Posted on July 19, 2011, in Hermeneutics, Theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Great post Matt.

    Particularly like the sentence about how caring for others changes our perspective. How do we understand “Grace” in the face of suffering?

    I have had to work through huge personal identity issues in regards to sudden health concerns…from a position of being fit and healthy to being in hospital paralysed on my right side…then face the challenges of being involved in a community who believed in the health / wealth lie…resulting in deeper personal pain and being black-banned from contact from the community and my becoming homeless.

    Don’t get me wrong, I do believe in healing – God challenged me while I was sitting in a wheel chair to still pray for people…when I said how could I do that while I was in a chair – I felt him say to me…What has that got to do with praying for others? But I no longer believe its an automatic given.

    In fact I believe that I have a better understanding (and outworking) of Gods grace and mercy than I did before my time of sickness. Through my own experience of homelessness I was able to sit with homeless people and just listen to their stories from a position of equality and not superiority.

    Our theology is always transitional according to the status of our personal journey..constantly being pruned, sharpened, and even blunted….and I believe TRUE theology has to be this way…for we theology is about relationship with a living God and his relationship with his creation.

  2. Some great thoughts about the (often hushed) centrality of suffering the life of humans; and the relevance of Jesus and his incarnational model. I particularly appreciate your sentiment that holistic theology as being experienced rather than merely studied.

  3. I realise my previous comment sounds a little clinical.

    I went through deep pain. There were many tears. Much fear. Suicide became a tempting option. The sense of guilt and shame – whether real or imagined was a terrible burden. I suffered physical, emotional, mental and spiritual abuse from my wife…no one believed me – society has no options or help for men who suffer abuse from women – indeed its believed that women do not abuse men. I was dragged around the church carpark for an hour by elders of the church – my right leg trailing uselessly behind me…the result being I no longer could trust the church / Christians with my sickness.

    I cried out to God asking him if I had lost my salvation. I cried out to God for him to heal me and restore joy into my life. I cried out to God asking him to reveal himself and for me to feel his presence in my life once again. There is no sense of darkness so deep than what there is to have no concept of God being there for you anymore and that you no longer have a purpose for living.

    Within this time where I was ostracised by the church – I was invited to play poker at a local pub with my brother. There I found a deeper sense of community and acceptance then what I did at church. King David become my friend…for he too was ostracised and made friends with the so called ratbags of society.

    The transition in working through identity wasn’t easy. But slowly God worked in and through me – bringing me to a place of restoration and healing and significantly used others for that. I received a couple of timely prophetic words of encouragement, I became part of a new fellowship that truly accepted me as I was…I met a wonderful lady who took me in while I was homeless and to whom I am now married to.

    My experience causes me to read the scriptures through a different set of lenses. It causes me to read about a God who accepts all and seeks out all, treating all with dignity and respect. My experience has taught me what it is like to be crushed when we are not treated with dignity and respect… whereas love builds up hope. Hope builds up ever increasing faith.

    And therefore any and all theology has to start out with the premise that God is love and totally accepts us as we are…and we also are to do the same.

  1. Pingback: Thoughts on suffering and theology. | Trinitarian Dance

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