Suffering, healing and why getting our theology right matters

Suffering and healing. Emotive issues. Ones with lots of questions and few answers. At least few answers that do it for me.

I come from a family with what can only be described as a ‘difficult’ history. I met my dad for the first time that I can really remember a few months ago (I’m 34). I grew up with my mum. Just me and her. She sacrificed so much to give me the best she could. She faithfully followed Jesus and lived generously with what she had.  At the age of 62, almost 3 years ago she died of cancer, 3 months after her diagnosis. I watched Ruth, a 22-year-old who interned with me lose her battle with cancer several years ago. I saw Andrew, an incredibly gifted leader, surgeon, preacher, husband and father of 3 young children lose his battle with cancer in his mid-thirties.

In church I hear a lot about healing and praying for healing and that God can heal anything and anyone. We’ve seen people healed and rejoiced with them. God is a good God and a loving Father who wants what is best for his children. But God doesn’t always heal and make people better. My mum died. She may have still received the ultimate healing of a resurrection body but she isn’t here any more. Her last months were painful. For me too. It still hurts. And it hurts when I hear people say God can heal anything. I know He might be able to but He doesn’t. And please don’t even try to trot out the line about “all we need is faith…” I worry about  people being  given false expectations that ignores the reality that we live in a broken world and life is just tough sometimes.

I believe that God is good and can heal. I don’t believe He always heals. I don’t know why but I know that sometimes He speaks and works powerfully in the midst of suffering. As my mum was dying and I was losing my family I got engaged and gained another family. In a beautifully redemptive moment as my mum lay in the hospice I met and embraced one of my uncles for the first time.

Then there is the Calvinist line that takes a belief in God’s sovereignty down to the fine details. That uses the language of “God ordains…”. Suffering becomes something God ordains to teach us stuff. My story of meeting my uncle becomes the reason for the suffering. I worry about the sort of God that this view portrays. One who wilfully causes suffering just to teach us stuff. That doesn’t sound like a loving Father to me. I’m sorry but I cannot believe that God prematurely takes lives or brings illness just for our learning. In this perspective this understanding of suffering comes from trying to maintain a view of God as being totally in control of every little event.

I do believe God is sovereign but I don’t believe he controls every action. That makes us into robots without freedom. I believe God gives us the dignity and freedom to choose.

All these thoughts have been swilling around my mind and occasionally come flooding out in the odd rant.

Then on Sunday Alain Emerson came to speak in church about his experience of hope in the midst of tragedy. He articulated so much of what I’ve been struggling to articulate for so long (and what I’ve been trying to articulate above). You can listen to his talk here.

He talked about how each of our stories find meaning in the kingdom of God. He went on to say that if we go to the extremes of theology (either everyone gets healed or no-one gets healed) then our stories don’t fit. For me this was a lightbulb moment that expressed my struggles and frustrations.

He reminded us that we follow a God who is familiar with suffering, who took on our suffering and is present with us in the pain. He reminded us that there is grace and hope in the pain. In my case mum was able to make it to my graduation, see Emily and I get engaged and get to know Emily’s mum – passing on lots of stories even I didn’t know. Even though I had no words when it came to prayer I felt myself being carried along. Meeting my uncle was part of the process of my dad and I meeting. In the midst of loss there were moments of healing and reconciliation.

In the midst of pain and suffering I experienced hope and grace. But to say that God brought about my mum’s death so he can do those things I don’t think I can believe. And to suggest that God wants to heal everyone. Well, where does that leave those of us who didn’t experience healing?

Getting our theology right matters. Alain’s words that we need a really robust theology of the kingdom of God really resonated.

We live in the in-between. The older I get I realise there is more grey and less black and white. God is not a puppeteer. As his image-bearers He gives us the dignity of freedom and making our own choices. We live in a world full of brokenness and things that should not be. But the kingdom of God is breaking in and one day God will make everything right – that’s the hope I cling to.

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11 thoughts on “Suffering, healing and why getting our theology right matters”

  1. Very helpful Sam in the current climate, especially the paragraph about false expectations in a fallen world.

    If I can offer one alternative reading to your (I think) misunderstanding of Calvinism and God’s ordination. Firstly, the idea of God ordaining is not proposed because Calvinists need “God to be in charge of every detail” (the usual caricature of us being reduced to robots) but because behind the word ordination we perceive a Wisdom far greater than we can imagine (you illustrate this in your personal story).

    Secondly, and more importantly; although it may not gel with our fallible categories of good and evil, I think we have to say that God ordaining difficult circumstances does not- can not – detract from his goodness. Did he not ordain the Cross? His own son! And that is before we look at other Scriptural issues such as the testimony of Joseph “you meant it for harm, but God meant it for good.” Joseph obviously didn’t feel it detracted from his goodness.

    Having said that, I appreciate that, evangelistically, this doctrine, like election, is one to keep in the back pocket for the right moment. As I have grown in faith I have learned to make room for the fact that perhaps God’s goodness encompasses a whole lot more than I would ever have imagined.

    It is not only important to get our theology right, but to understand the proper context for drawing upon it. To those doubting their faith, election is a comfort; to those trying to make sense – in retrospect – of difficult times, God’s ordination can be a cause of thanksgiving. But to those pre-faith, or in the middle of hard times, they are unfathomable and there are other doctrines we need to communicate.

    Nevertheless to those of us who have experienced pain, tragedy, disappointment, darkness, the fact that the wisdom of God confounds our wisdom is something we cling onto in “the between times”

  2. Thanks for writing this, I have found it really helpful with the thoughts that have been swirling around my head lately.

  3. Thanks folks. In many ways this is me processing a few experiences of the last few years. I’m still learning…
    Thanks Monty for clarifying – I guess my take on the more reformed/calvinist approach belies some of my struggles with it – and a diet growing up of brethernism and CS Lewis. Your comment on not only getting our theology right but understanding the right context to draw on it is a helpful one.

  4. I think it is really healthy to question why and how we view our theology. I agree It is an ongoing process and as we grow in our relationship with God and seek to know Him more fully He reveals Himself to us in new ways. I think that the verse that speaks of “working out your salvation” encourages us to seek out the truth of God’s word in our lives. Thank you for sharing your moving story Sam. Understanding suffering in the light of a loving God is a hard one. I agree re the consequences of living in a fallen world. Suffering entered our world as a result of Adam and Eve’s disobedience. They were given free choice and chose to disobey. Suffering is a given. I do also believe there are some things that are beyond our human understanding and at these times we need to hang on to the truth of who God is. God is GOOD, faithful and true – at all times and in all circumstances. He IS all knowing therefore we can fully trust Him even in the ‘not knowing ‘ times. He can not lie. I will always remember hearing my friend discuss the aftermath of the tsunami in Asia a number of years ago. She was questioning where was God in all of this and her son replied ” Mum, God was in the giving”. One day suffering will cease and then ” I shall know fully even as I am fully known”1 Cor 13 v 12 . This is the wonderful hope we have as children of God.

  5. Thank you Sam for sharing your thoughts, insight and wisdom through your own personal journey. I have come to view suffering and the theology of it as you talk about, in a totally different light over the years, since my time as a nurse in the height of the troubles in N.Ireland caring for, for example, a beautiful young christian in her 20’s engaged to be married and shot as a presumed “mistaken identity”.Paralysed from the neck down and died 6 weeks later.Yet somehow, God was very real to her in her pain and she was a shining light to all who met her and cared for her each day.I would often wipe her tears as she wept for her father and the fact he didn’t know Jesus and thought her tragedy would perhaps turn him further from God.I was thrilled to hear that a short time after her death her father became a Christian! Did God ordain this shooting? No, I don’t believe for a minute he did, but in his love and mercy he brought good out of evil.Over the years as I nursed at the age of 30 my terminally ill beautiful Godly mother ,as I walked beside one of my christian best friends who was told she had only a few months to live and now many years later as I live in a community and church family where many have suffered immense pain,hurt and suffering as a result of this broken world, I see a very special glory in many of these lovely people and a beauty that has emerged out of great agony and suffering.Isn’t it so true that often we fail to look at “The big picture”. As I read recently It’s like flying,on the ground we have limited view but at 10,000 feet everything looks different.

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