Complexity in Ministry to the Suffering
I recently went to the dentist for a check-up, and I’ll be honest—I was nervous. No happy gas was administered and so every time I felt the slightest sensation, my whole body flinched in anticipation of the possible sharp pain that might follow. Praise God, it never did, but it reminded me that our conception of pain in the 21st century western world is largely new and unnatural.
Access to anaesthesia has been a major contributor to our general expectation that a good life should be relatively pain-free. However, it wasn’t until after the mid-19th century that truly effective general and local anaesthesia began to be administered in the west, and many non-western countries still cannot access anaesthesia easily. Therefore, we are the exceptions; seeing pain, including sometimes severe pain, as a natural part of life has been normative throughout most of human history.
I’ve met Christian farmers who make similar observations. They’ve noticed a trend that increasing numbers of Christians living in cities now see carnivorous activity, whether human or animal, as a derivative of evil, and unnatural. These farmers, however, attribute this view to the disassociation of city-dwelling Christians from the context in which their food is produced and their consequent lack of appreciation of the delicately balanced biosphere God created, which is dependent on carnivorous activity. Carnivores prevent their prey from multiplying out of control and wiping out all vegetation and, consequently, all life on the planet. The media recently aired a small example of this phenomenon occurring at Cape Otway, where due to the removal of natural predators koalas overpopulated, stripped their habitat bare, and began starving. Carnivores mitigate the spread of disease and abnormalities in their prey. Also, only carnivores deposit the exceptionally high levels of nutrient-rich fertilizer into the soil necessary for certain plants critical to our survival to grow. I could go on, but to summarise, farmers know that without carnivores there would be no food for anyone because everything would die.
Where am I going with all this? For many of us, our theology of suffering is predicated on our conception of pain, or more precisely our particular, modern experience of the absence of pain. However, this is troubling because a theology of suffering that is not shaped by a deep wrestling with the tensions in both Scripture and nature will often lead to ministry practices that are inadvertently out of character with our calling. In fact, our response to suffering often has some of the most profound consequences in ministry, whether positive or negative. I’ve heard countless testimonies from students who have witnessed Christians in the midst of suffering being treated abhorrently by other Christians who truly believed they were acting according to Scripture.
So, how do we respond when Christians experience suffering, persecution, or loss? Do we pray for healing or supernatural rescue? Do we assume the sufferer has deficient faith, unconfessed sin, or is demonically attacked? Do we just believe all things work for the good, or pray for God to take them home? Looking wider still, how do we respond to suffering in the environment? Do we see it as a fallen creation that will ultimately be burnt and discarded and so does not require our attention? Do we see it as our responsibility and within our power, through faith, to fulfil the Edenic commission to order life on earth?
I suggest that we will never be able to properly answer these questions if we base our understanding of suffering on our experience of the relative absence of pain. I’m not trying to suggest that pain is always good, but that pain is not necessarily evidence of the presence of evil. In John 9:2–3 Jesus’ disciples ask him, ‘Teacher, was this man born blind because of his parents’ sin or his own?’ Jesus replies, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him’. Similarly in John 21:9–14 and Luke 24:42 Jesus, in his glorified body, the first fruits of the eternal resurrection, kills, distributes, and eats fish. Yet in Jonah 4:11 God is not prepared to destroy Nineveh, in part, on account of its large population of animals. This small sample of passages demonstrates the tension and complexity of suffering, which Scripture neither sees as innately evil nor innately good.
If you have read this far, I have to confess I’m not going to give any easy answers. Instead my hope is for you to join me in attempting to develop a theology of suffering, persecution, pain, and death that is predicated on this Biblical complexity. By doing this we will be able to respond with ministry practices that are relevant to the context, led by the Spirit, and thereby truly reflect our calling.