The Reality of Suffering Versus ‘Your Best Life Now’
There is much to celebrate and enjoy in life, and if you are a Christian you have plenty of reasons to rejoice and be glad. But that joy is in Christ, not in this world. Yes God is our source of peace and joy, but life itself is a real mixed bag.
We live in a very dark and fallen world, so there is plenty of suffering, hardship, evil and death to deal with as well as all the good. But some preachers and teachings try to tell us that we should only focus on the positive, that we should never think unhappy thoughts, and that everything is just peachy in life.
Sorry, these are false theologies and they have no connection with the real world. They have no connection with Scripture either. Everywhere the Bible makes it clear that in this life there will always be difficulties, trials, hardship, suffering, misery and grief. Sure, they may be intermittent, and we can also have times of great elation and happiness, but in a fallen world, we cannot and should not expect everything to be rosy.
The Bible sure does not do this. It is much more sober and realistic about what life in a sin-impacted world is like. Indeed, entire books are devoted to this theme. The book of Job for example is completely dedicated to the issue of suffering and grief – a full 42 chapters’ worth.
There are plenty of vital themes presented in this Old Testament book. One is that suffering is a universal condition – we are all subject to it. As Job 5:7 puts it: “Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward.” Inevitably we all suffer in varying degrees, and we all experience times of overwhelming grief, sadness, loss and sorrow.
Another theme that arises from this book – and the rest of Scripture – is that we may need to develop a theology of suffering. Given that the Bible speaks to this topic so often, why do we not think more theologically about it? Why is it not a major part of our Christian conversation, preaching and teaching?
Worse yet, why do we try to pretend that suffering, grief and hard times are somehow disconnected from the Christian life? As mentioned, in part this is because of some really quite unhelpful teachings about having your “best life now” and the like. These messages may be appealing to many, but they have little or nothing to do with life in the real world, and where most Christians actually are at.
One moving case of suffering, and grace
Rebecca Merrill Groothuis was at one time a vibrant, active lecturer, editor and author. But no more. Now she is in great suffering, and her husband, Douglas Groothuis, a philosophy and apologetics professor at Denver Seminary, is suffering along with her.
I mention this couple for several reasons. I do not personally know either of them, but I feel like I do for several reasons. I happen to have 10 of his books, so I know a bit about him through those volumes. But I am also his friend on the social media, so I have been following his journey with his wife. It is hard going. Just moments ago he posted his latest update:
When Becky hits a new low, I hit a new emotional low.
1. Becky has almost no agency left besides going to the rest room and eating. Even these are becoming more difficult. She often looks at me and desperately says, “What should I do?” or “What is happening.” She has to be guided into everything as she understands less and less.
She wants to do more things, but there are few things she can do. Few offer to take her anywhere. Tomorrow we are going to a musical theater put on by a local dementia help group. Chances of success: I don’t want to talk about it.
2. Words are more elusive. Her already ravaged vocabulary is rotting away. The ocean is drying up.
3. Her sense of humor is gradually fading.
Thus, I am getting more serious about assisted living or even skilled nursing help. You don’t want to know how much this costs–and most don’t take dogs.
My tear ducts are busy and tired.
But I am not giving up. I am not freaking out. I am not going down with the ship. I have a life preserver. You know his Name.
I write these things because so many of you have told me that you appreciate my record of this sad journey into darkness. You can pray for me and can learn a bit about how it feels. This can help if you, may it never be, have to face a similar situation. It can also give you fellow-feeling when others go through this unique torment.
Wow, this is such heavy duty stuff. All you can do when reading such updates is stop everything and cry out to God and pray for this couple. Countless saints would be praying for Doug and Becky, and we must keep praying. But things seem to be getting worse.
Of course he is not alone in such suffering. C. S. Lewis was a wonderful Christian thinker who penned such classic works on suffering and evil as The Problem of Pain (1940). But he had to write another book after witnessing his wife Joy Davidman suffer and die. A Grief Observed (1961) is a rather different treatment of the same topic.
Doug Groothuis is also writing a book on all this. Out later this year, Walking Through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness—A Philosopher’s Lament (IVF) will be hard but essential reading. In the meantime we have his regular updates, as well as a piece he wrote two years ago for Christianity Today entitled “Bedeviled by My Wife’s Dementia”.
Let me quote from parts of it here:
For years I’ve pondered the topic of lament. This is partially due to my melancholic nature; I once read a book called Against Happiness—and enjoyed it. But my wife, Becky, is the main reason for my scrutiny of this topic. A gifted writer and editor, Becky had been bedeviled by a bevy of chronic illnesses, each year worse than the year before. None were fatal. All were miserable. They handed down not a death sentence, but a life sentence. It was ailment upon ailment without respite. We lamented as we sought relief.
The losses compounded and gathered into a pattern of a life absent of common enjoyments such as vacations, sufficient sleep, church attendance, days and even hours free from pain, serendipitous activities, and more. In their place came doctors’ visits, medical tests, prescriptions, expensive supplements, counseling, prayer sessions, experiments with unorthodox medical practitioners, and more. Our searches for respite did not do much good. I often thought of Freud’s statement that at its best, psychoanalysis could bring “an acceptable level of misery.” That was about all we had.
The strain upon our marriage was heavy, sometimes crushing. But we took our vows to each other and before God seriously, and we soldiered on. I could find the solid ground of meaning in my writing and teaching. But for Becky, the sicker she became, the more these islands of meaning sank beneath her.
Becky was diagnosed with fibromyalgia about 25 years ago. One of the many symptoms of this cruel disease is cognitive impairment, or “fibro-fog.” These symptoms became pronounced about 5 years ago. Paperwork took longer. Names would not come to mind. She stuttered.
One day Becky got lost on her way home from the hairdresser on a route she had driven for years. For several hours, I did not know where she was because she had forgotten to take her cell phone. She eventually called and stayed put until a friend and I arrived. I was slated to preach an apologetics message the next day at a local church. My anger at God and panic over my wife had, I thought, incapacitated and disqualified me. Upon calling the pastor to cancel, I found out that he thought otherwise. I delivered the message that Sunday—somehow. This was the beginning of sorrows.
Becky has been home for over a year. We have someone living with us to help her. Once an avid reader, writer, and editor, Becky now wonders how to use her time. I often hear her drumming her fingers on the dining room table as I study in the basement. There are many unbidden adjustments for both of us to make. It seems unbearable, but we get up for another day. She is still Becky. She is still my wife. We have had 30 years of life together, and can draw from that deep well.
This narrative presents the beginning of our sorrows. Far more sorrows have since invaded our lives. But this should suffice. Life under the sun is just what the philosopher of Ecclesiastes said:
“When I applied my mind to know wisdom and to observe the labor that is done on earth—people getting no sleep day or night—then I saw all that God has done. No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it.” (8:16–17)
His conclusion is this:
As a philosopher, I yearn to hold and commend rational beliefs about the great and perennial issues of life….
Yet when I try to find the meaning in my wife’s suffering, I come up dry and gasping. Even as the disease progresses, she will still be made in God’s image; she will still be in covenant with me; she will still be living out the vicissitudes of Providence. And yet, and yet: “Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it.” I know there is a larger meaning behind it all, but I cannot parse it out day by darkening day.
Ecclesiastes tells me to embrace my ignorance within the larger circle of knowledge—to mine meaning where I can and to look ahead with hope. Other Scripture, such as the Psalms of Lament (i.e., 22, 88, and 90), recognize and ratify my anger, confusion, and fatigue, while placing them in the grand story of Scripture and before the presence of God. Still, I lament before God and man, trying to find a sure footing where I will not sink into self-pity and where I can smelt meaning out of misery—a footing from which I can offer up to God and to the world a hope worth hoping, because there is a God worth knowing.
Their story continues. Please continue to uphold them in prayer. Many other believers in a similar situation might have been tempted to give up, to look for quick fixes like suicide, or abandoned their faith altogether. It is much harder to press on, trusting God, and seeking his grace in such difficult times.
But Job did. Millions of other suffering believers have done so. And we all must do the same. We do not have all the answers as to why this happens. But we do have the ultimate answer: a suffering servant who took our place at Calvary so that we do not need to suffer eternally without God and without hope.
The words of another Christian philosopher, Peter Kreeft, are worth closing with here:
We began with the mystery, not just of suffering but of suffering in a world supposedly created by a loving God. How to get God off the hook? God’s answer is Jesus. Jesus is not God off the hook but God on the hook. That’s why the doctrine of the divinity of Christ is crucial: If that is not God there on the cross but only a good man, then God is not on the hook, on the cross, in our suffering. And if God is not on the hook, then God is not off the hook. How could he sit there in heaven and ignore our tears?
There is, as we saw, one good reason for not believing in God: evil. And God himself has answered this objection not in words but in deeds and in tears. Jesus is the tears of God.
10 Replies to “The Reality of Suffering Versus ‘Your Best Life Now’”
Such suffering requires “an interpreter or intercessor” Elihu counsels Job. This “quote” is from memory, Bill. Such a one who has entered the suffering, is acquainted with the grief and has the required balm that recalls, soothes and quiets the anxious spirit. In Job we see the result of Elihus’ knowledge of God communicated objectively but warmly and vigorously to the older man. I personally have such a one in the writings of the late Rev Geoff Bingham. Last night his poem brought “the balm of Gilead” to me as I had felt the tragically awful carelessness – and its’ deep consequences – in otherwise sincere people for the revelation of God incarnate His purposes and our domestication and “trivialising” in our own lives of that revelation. The Spirit Of All Things and All Things Of The Spirit are the two books of poetry. The author endured 3 and 1/2 years in Changi POW camp and carried pain from his war wound along with his deep love for the elect church of God for the rest of his full 90 years. He brought and still brings rest to the wounded in this age. God bless your friends who are known and loved by our God “in all these things”.
Thank you for writing this.
Thanks Bill, Interesting, James 1:2-8 came to mind while reading your article. My thought was that suffering ‘for Christ, or for our Faith, is to be expected as ‘I thought’ the scripture in James said. But on rereading it I discovered that trials and suffering seem not to be required to have any reason, perseverance seems to be the great challenge. Perseverance still does not seem to give a satisfactory answer to the ‘why’. As you put it ‘But we do have the ultimate answer: a suffering servant who took our place at Calvary so that we do not need to suffer eternally without God and without hope’. Thank you Bill, Jesus is eternal Hope.
Thank you for your kind, thoughtful, and wise essay. I hope it helps many people.
Many thanks Doug – bless ya. Hopefully all this results in many more people praying for you two.
I cried when I read this. I will be praying for them!
Douglas, our hearts go with you. May God’s grace for strength and healing be poured on Becky. May God visit Becky, for we know that if God Can bring back to life even the dead, He’s more than able to raise and restore Becky. There is hope, all is not lost for Becky. For the God we serve is still more than able to restore Becky back to normal life. Let us all join our faith and pray to God expecting His divine intervention by Christ Jesus. May God also strengthen Doug in this moment of anxiety.
I’m reading this as I’m sitting in a hospital bed at 130 in the morning after an operation on my wrist that is broken which doesn’t seem much but that it happened 6 weeks after my last operation for a year long treatment for bowel cancer… I just felt devastated spirituality (and in a lot of pain) and wondered when will it all stop… I’ve trusted God step by step moment by moment, cried, prayed, have people pray for me and all I know is that God is sovereign. He is my all in all. He is the great I am….no matter what I go through…. to Him be the glory. I will now be praying for this beautiful couple
Faith that will not or cannot walk through life’s cataclysmic floods and white-hot fires reads more like groundless optimism or utopian delusion.
I know of an Australian couple, returned missionaries, whose story is similar to Doug and Becky’s: Bill and Gladys Forward’s story was on TV in 2013 – a remarkable, refreshing alternative to the gloomy protestations of Philip Nitschke and Peter Singer and their ilk. For the YouTube clip about the Forwards go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GH5n9lVZcM4 . To love in this fallen world is to risk finding one’s own personal Via Dolorosa: Like our Master, we can be assured there is an indescribable eternal joy set before us (Hebrews 12:2; 1 Peter 1:7,8). Of all the “abiding things” the greatest is love – no matter how difficult it may be to persevere in loving.
AMEN, AMEN – Kwasi Boateng
Blessed words/thoughts & heart-wrenching but necessary biblical application to the everyday frailty of our fallen human existence, Bill.
‘I have a Life Preserver & YOU know His Name” – What FAITH!