Greg Strand is EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, and he serves on the Board of Ministerial Standing as well as the Spiritual Heritage Committee. He and his family are members of Northfield (Minnesota) EFC.
How do we understand God's presence with suffering and pain? As pastors, how do we trust in and rest upon the Lord while giving pastoral care to those who are in the midst of deep suffering and pain? Often during these moments it feels like a Job-like experience, we believe and we trust, but it does not seem to make sense. And in the midst of it all, it feels like God has become silent.
This refers to the Deus absconditus, the hiddenness of God. This is when it is critical to remind those who are feeling God’s hiddenness of the truth of God’s presence, even if it is not felt. It is the heart of Jesus’ human experience on the cross. It is also the heart of a pastoral presence.
Colin B. Johnstone writes about God’s presence and human suffering in “Theophany & Theodicy: When the Inevitable Questions of Suffering Confront the Living God,” Touchstone (July/August 2017), 36-39. This was an unpublished paper written by his father, prior to his succumbing to Alzheimer’s.
For some context, Colin’s father “studied the Western classics, and became a theologian and then a applied theologian, spending 25 years in a cancer research hospital as a chaplain. He provided care for terminal patients, taught aspiring chaplains, and counseled scientists and medical doctors in the ethics of care and research.”
Since it is not available on-line, I include lengthy quotes from the article, so even though you will not get the full gist of the essay, I will attempt to give some context so you get the most out of the quotes I have included.
This article grounds theology in God, in his presence (theophany) in the midst of suffering and pain (theodicy), and it provides an excellent example of combining pastoral theology with pastoral practice.
In the introduction, he sets the context of the attempt to reconcile “belief in God’s goodness with the existence of evil and suffering,” and in particular with the existential, personal angst of “why me?” For the caregiver, the question is heard as coming from the head. For the sufferer, he utters the plea from the heart.
Questions of theodicy, questions concerning the reconciliation of belief in God’s goodness with the existence of evil and suffering, are among the passionate existential questions. They come out of my own story. “Why me?” is not a textbook question but rather a question that comes out of my life and stirs my passions every time it returns. I believe that the important existential questions do return repeatedly, for they are questions of the heart, not of the head. We may have excellent answers for the questions, but they do not quiet the heart’s ache. The heart cries, laments, and complains, and although it expresses itself in the language of a question, an answer will not satisfy the lament of the heart.
The biblical context he focuses on is Job, the man from Uz. Job is considered an “innocent sufferer,” who experiences a “cosmic ‘wager’ between the Lord and Satan,” and who was given inadequate answers by his “comforters.”
Johnstone concludes it is important to discern who is asking the question. Often the one giving counsel to the sufferer wants to respond to the intellectual question. Furthermore, it is done “by someone deeply disturbed by the suffering of someone else. It is usually offered in an attempt to change the person’s mind about his or her suffering, and it assumes that suffering is a human problem.” For the sufferer, it is more of an existential question than it is an intellectual objection.
However, the question changes considerably when it is actually the suffering asking the question. He writes that when the sufferer asks the question of “why me?, “it is often a private conversation between God and the sufferer.” He continues,
I would not wish this reflection to be construed as an attempt to deny the value of struggling with the theodicy question. Caregivers, especially pastoral caregivers, need to “justify” the behavior of the One in whose name they come, but they should not confuse an adequate working theology of suffering with a pastoral methodology for easing suffering. Their care should not be used to stop the questioning; it should be used to help people who have stopped questioning to restate questions that remain unresolved. Several years ago, I suggested that the question “Why me?” asked by a sufferer ought to be listened to and the emotions responded to, but the question itself not answered. I argued that until the emotions were heard, the question couldn’t be dealt with. I wrote of venting emotions, differentiating the question and integrating it into a search for meaning. I stated that, very often, when the emotions are listened to, the question seems to lose its power and to no longer need an answer.
He speaks wise words for caregivers. We often are afraid of questions, and we do not like to leave questions unanswered. And when there are no questions, we conclude all is well. However, he communicates an important and helpful reminder writing, “they should not confuse an adequate working theology of suffering with a pastoral methodology for easing suffering. Their care should not be used to stop the questioning; it should be used to help people who have stopped questioning to restate questions that remain unsolved. . . . very often, when the emotions are listened to, the question seems to lose its power and to no longer need an answer.”
At the end of the day, Job did not get all of his questions answered. In fact, God responded to Job’s questions with questions of his own. Although Job did not receive answers, he encountered God’s presence through his word. Prior to this, his claim was God was silent. Now he spoke, not answering his questions, but with his presence.
It is the encounter with the living God that heals and transforms. When we explore the dynamics of Job’s healing, we see clearly that the very presence of God is sufficient. In this encounter, however, we must not ignore the content of the discourses, for that is also important. The Lord not only spoke out of the whirlwind, but also directed Job’s attention to the whole of creation. A sufferer is like an astronomical black hole that draws everything into itself. The Lord directs Job to look beyond himself to the total perspective of creation. It is as if he is saying, “Look around you, Job, and ponder the mysteries of creation. There are many things out there that you don’t understand but can still appreciate.” This calling out was a call to an encounter with the living God. Thus, theophany is experienced with fear and trembling, but there is also healing and resolution in the encounter. Job doesn’t have anything more to say, because God has come.
In essence, “Job doesn’t have anything more to say, because God has come.” In the words of Job, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. 'Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?' Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. 'Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you make it known to me.' I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:2-6).
Here is his conclusion:
It has been my experience that my personal pain and suffering has been resolved by the caring presence of another person or the caring presence of God. It has also been my professional experience that suffering is eased and resolved by a Healing Presence and not by a brilliant answer to the theodicy question. One who has explored theodicy and has come to an acceptable answer will probably be more able to minister to the suffering, but he will also find that it is not the answer itself that helps but the calm, trusting presence of the caregiver.
Remember these two keys: (1) “It is the encounter with the living God that heals and transforms.” (2) “One who has explored theodicy and has come to an acceptable answer will probably be more able to minister to the suffering, but he will also find that it is not the answer itself that helps but the calm, trusting presence of the caregiver.”
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too” (2 Cor. 1:2-5).
What thoughts do you have? How do you approach those who are suffering, those sufferers who are asking questions, those sufferers who have stopped asking questions, those who suffer with or because a loved one is suffering?