The elephant in the room: suffering — André Baard

IMAGE: WDArms

There are broadly three responses from Christians I have observed to the current Covid-19 pandemic and to the widespread fear and suffering it has caused. We have the “rebukers”, the “lamenters” and the “rejoicers”.

The aim of this article is to help you identify and clarify your own primary response.

Jesus said in Mathew 24 that the end game will have many disasters, probably not very different to this Covid-19. The ingathering must also happen. And the great apostasy ( 2 Thessalonians 2:3). Forget End Times, what is our view of suffering in times of peace?

What is the Church’s doctrine and therefore attitude to suffering in general? Covid-19 has forced us to think about this elephant in the room called suffering

Many of us around the world are experiencing loss now in one way or the other. Loss of sleep, financial loss, loss of life, loss of contact, loss of hugs and loss of convenience. Jesus said these kinds of things would happen. It may be a V experience, quick down and quick up but it has been a deep V!

Coronavirus, that tiny microbe, has exposed the mighty so quickly. What has caught me by surprise is the extent and nature of the response of many in the body of Christ to the present suffering. There seems so much hate for suffering, so much avoidance. So much fervent prayer in rebuke against this wind of change. Not much lament. Little to no rejoicing in it.

Yet Scripture abounds in a positive attitude to suffering. Paul teaches us to be thoughtful. We pray for mercy, we sew face masks, we  take medicine but let us thoughtfully ponder our responses.

Our response has been telling and I believe the Lord is testing our hearts, refining our faith and auditioning for the future leadership of the church.

“Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” — John Calvin

By being aware of our response we can grow and learn to be more like Christ. This pandemic has huge potential to teach us all so much about ourselves. Know thy self.

But also know God. The nature of God is good. It is also severe. Moses brought the law, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. Do we know God truly? How do we know the God that is the same yesterday, today and forever? Most of our issues come from not understanding the nature of God and our new creation nature.

One — The rebukers

This category of response is the most common 

The rebuker rebukes and often intercedes away everything that causes pain and discomfort. Jesus paid for my comfort and I will get my comfort and temporal and eternal security now!

Now there are times we need to rebuke and exorcise demons 

We should pray for mercy, always. Jesus rebuked the storm on Lake Galilee but He embraced the cross. Jesus rebuked Legion out of the man from Gerasene but He told the Pharisees their chance of salvation was slim. Not all problems can or should be rebuked. They are what they are.

Peter rebuked Jesus for letting Himself be crucified and we know what Jesus said to him … “Get behind me Satan!”. Peter acted perfectly reasonably, but was wrong and was used of Satan to try to thwart Jesus’s mission to suffer and die on the cross.

We cannot rebuke all bad things that happen. Good intentions, like defending your friends could be big mistakes. Like Peter cutting off the ear of the servant of the high priest in defence of Jesus. Rebukes aimed at preservation of self and friends may be misguided. Have you wrongly interfered in others’ destined suffering?

God give us the wisdom to know what and when to rebuke bad things and when not to!

Two — The lamenters

NT Wright wrote an article in Time magazine recently and he used the seldom-used word “lament”. 

It’s a word that is taboo these days in a feelgood, me-focussed gospel. Yet it holds much value in our solace and healing from bad things. 

Old Testament scholar Claus Westermann defined lamentation as the “language of suffering”. It is the process in grief where we are able to articulate or describe our suffering without becoming paralysed by it.

It is an emo-spiritual language that helps us process suffering without necessarily solving the cause of the suffering. We mourn with those that mourn.

“Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” — CS Lewis

Lament has no place in a world of quick fixes; of prosperity, wealth and health at all costs. We do not want to face pain.

Lament looks pain in the eye and finds deliverance in Christ. If we do not find the redemption and closure that the lamentation process gives us, we just delay our healing. That said, sometimes we need the numbing, for a time. Even wine and brandy have their place and for some there is a proper time for anti-depressants.

But we need to rediscover the art of lamenting when that offers the best way of dealing with the nasty stuff that goes down in life.

Some turn to endless comedy. Laughter is medicine to the bones, we need humour and laughter. Yet comedy can also be an avoidance behaviour as we skirt around lament. God deliver us to find You alone as our fix!

Yourdictionary.com defines lament as “an expression of loss, sometimes through artistic expression.”

The artistic element grabbed my attention. Arguably, the most enduring and beautiful hymns were also written from a place of Godly lament.

How poor would the Church be without Amazing Grace? What about painting? We would be poorer for not having Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son masterpiece. What supremely moving, emotionally delicate and stirring love songs come from some painful heartbreak.

When we short circuit lament we miss the creative pause it offers and the chance to make those penetrating insights only suffering unveils to one. Suffering keeps its secrets tightly hidden from the casual and comfortable enquirer. If we miss the lessons, we will also miss the creative and inspirational lament-unction.

There is no healing without the mourning process. Lament is not wallowing in grief, it is facing grief head-on. It is redemptive and it is looking to Jesus all the time. The quicker we mourn and lament, the quicker we heal – the quicker the miracle of the exchange of our ashes for His beauty materialises.

Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. Nothing. Not even loss or pain or disappointment. That is freedom. Freedom is not the absence of trouble, it’s the transcendence with Christ through trouble. It is bringing the peace of Heaven to earth.

The story of Paul in Acts 21 is so telling. Everywhere he goes the Church prophesies he is going to be imprisoned in Jerusalem and they reasonably conclude that he must not go. Agabus prophesies accurately but interprets wrongly.

‘When we heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul answered, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” When he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, “The Lord’s will be done.’  — Acts 21:12

This is an easy mistake to make. I think we will hear more echoes in future of “Why do you break my heart?” The believers wanted Paul to avoid the pain but he said he must go because that was the will of God for him. Yes, the will of God was for Paul to suffer cruelly in Jerusalem and Rome. Tough I know. What! You yell in disbelief.

Jesus said to Paul; ”I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” — Acts 9:16

So, here is that horrible question: “Are you called and destined to suffer for Christ? Are you willing to suffer for Christ? Through many tribulations we must enter the Kingdom of God. The very gates into Heaven are made of giant pearls. What suffering the oyster goes through to produce that pearl! Amen to lament when it is needed.

God give us wisdom to know what to rebuke and when to simply lament for our troubles!

Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. — John 16:20

Three – The rejoicers

The third response I see in the Church to corona is what I would term the rejoicers.

“Count it all joy my brethren when you fall into various trials”, said James. “ I now rejoice in my sufferings for you,”Paul said. “… rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings,” Peter said. All the leading first-century apostles’ attitude to suffering in Scripture is in stark contrast to much of what I hear and read on Church social media.

Their response was to rejoice within the suffering, not for it, because in God we have no fear because He orders our every step.

We hate pain and we hate to talk about it but it is the elephant in the room that we need to talk about.

We will do well to weaponise ourselves with this attitude to suffering, before it’s too late, because when widespread persecution inevitably comes, will we deny Christ because the going gets too rough? We all do love to be liked – Facebook and all.

Despite pestilence, we soar as the eagles. Despite being surrounded by fear, we love. We are not paralysed by our grim circumstance because we are seated with Him in Heavenly Places. Our heavenly union with Christ overshadows any earthly disasters.

Like Stephen the Martyr, who while being stoned was overtaken by a supernatural kind of spiritual-physical ecstasy and saw Christ stand in Heaven, in the midst of his earthly torment (thankyou Judy Scott for this insight) – so we pray the same attitude and resolve resides in us – and it does in Christ!

The humble grapevine needs the dry summer months. Those hot January and February months are what sweetens the otherwise sour grape

We are at the end of the growing time of the harvest of the age. The End-Time Church is going to be the sweetest, without spot or blemish.

But the sun will be hot and the season dry for the vineyard of God as those final days before the harvesters harvest the best vintage ever. Interesting how the hottest and driest and most foreboding months in the year are what produce the sugary sweetness for the noble vine.

The scorching hot and dry months bring the flavour and colour and sweetness to the grape. No wine without grape crushing. No oil without olive crushing. We will not always be rescued from every adversity. But we will always have Him with us, no matter how deep the pit or how dark the times.

I expect the sweetest things: exquisite movies, plays, revelations and innovations and songs are going to come from this pandemic. Christians lamenting artistically! If God delivers you entirely without a scratch, then you can lament vicariously for those adversely affected.

Strange how the bitter produces the sweet. How the soil is most fertile in the valley and mountaintops remain lonely and quite barren. The King of Paradox loves to bring sweet from bitter, good from bad, innovation from hardship, strength from weakness – life from death!

“Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” — Romans 8:17

We share in His sufferings. We fill up His sufferings. He gave us the example of vicarious suffering – He died as one innocent for all who are guilty.

 [Even] now I rejoice in the midst of my sufferings on your behalf. And in my own person I am making up whatever is still lacking and remains to be completed [on our part] of Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of His body, which is the church. — Colossians 1:24 AMPC

So what about revival? Revival costs. Revivals are expensive on the flesh and our comforts. Jesus started the greatest revival ever by dying on a cross and then resurrecting three days later. That is God’s pattern and strategy for a revival!

I pray God brings in billions of souls before the end but I know at the very end, many will fall away. I want to be one of those that stand to the end and get saved as Jesus promised in Mathew 24.

A seed must die if it is going to multiply. Are you ready to be sown? Beloved, if the reproaches of Him do not fall on us, we are not His. Rejoice in these temporary sufferings, they are laden with artistic treasures waiting to be sung, danced and written on your heart by the Spirit.

God, give us the wisdom to know when to rebuke, when to lament the bad things that happen to us and around us. Lord remind us always to rejoice in all circumstances because we know this is your will. And Lord teach us to practice rejoicing within suffering. Amen.

2 Comments

  1. Hugh G Wetmore

    Brilliant insights and balanced theology. Studying the KIMCHI church growth course in South Korea (1993), I learned that persecution and suffering are the core secrets of church growth with depth. One lecturer, referring to the successive persecutions in Korean Church history (Buddhist, Shinto and Communist), said “I fear for the future of the S Korean Church – this is the first generation that has not known persecution. Without persecution/suffering, the church cannot survive. Thank you, Andre, for this article. I’ll copy and keep it!