The Gospel of Christ’s grace deals thoroughly both with the sins we have committed and with the evils we have suffered. Somewhere along the way, some of us may have gained the mistaken notion that to address suffering means minimizing sin and capitulating to a secular psychology perspective on victimization. While I understand that concern, biblically it is unwarranted.
In fact, biblical counseling that deals only with the sins we have committed is half-biblical counseling. This means that it is also “half-gospel-centered” counseling. Unlike the Bible, we sometimes tend to make Christ’s victory over sin predominantly individual and personal, rather than also corporate and cosmic. Christ died to dethrone sin and defeat every vestige of sin. Christ died to obliterate every effect of sin — individual, personal, corporate, and cosmic — including death and suffering, tears and sorrows, mourning, crying, and pain.
That’s why twice in Revelation, John sees the culmination of the Gospel narrative as the end of suffering and sorrow:
He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. – Revelation 21:4
Question 52 in the New City Catechism asks, “What hope does everlasting life hold for us?” John in Revelation answers, “All our greatest sorrows will be swallowed up!” Christ died to defeat every enemy, every evil, including the Devil, who holds the power of death (Hebrews 2:14-15), and the last enemy — suffering and death (1 Corinthians 15:25; Isaiah 53:4).
Certainly the Gospel is about payment for and forgiveness of personal sin. Equally certain is the Gospel’s eternal overthrow of the curse of sin — including suffering. That overthrow has already begun! Christ invites us to share with one another his healing hope in the midst of suffering today.
It is only through the hope of the Gospel that we can truly face suffering and find hope in suffering.
Kevin Vanhoozer, in pondering the drama of redemption, explains that tragedies deal with catastrophes. The Gospel, while never denying the catastrophe of sin, deals with what he calls eucatastrophe — Christ has accomplished something extraordinarily amazing out of something horribly evil.
This insight helps us to develop a biblical sufferology — a Gospel-centered theology of suffering.
We’ll see that the Gospel way to address suffering follows the twin paths of brutal honesty — it’s normal to hurt; and radical reliance — it is possible to hope.
The Pathway to Hope Straddles the Precipice of Despair
Olaudah Equiano, a Christian and an enslaved African American, began his life story with these words, “I acknowledge the mercies of Providence in every occurrence of my life.” His words might sound trite until we realize that they introduce the narrative of his harrowing kidnapping and enslavement.
Equiano was born a free man in 1745 in the kingdom of Benin on the coast of Africa. The youngest of seven children, his loving parents gave him the name Olaudah, signifying favored one. Indeed, he lived a favored life in his idyllic upbringing in a simple and quiet village, where his father served as the “chief man” who decided disputes, and where his mother adored him.
At age ten, it all came crashing down:
One day, when all our people were gone out to their works as usual, and only I and my dear sister were left to mind the house, two men and a woman got over our walls, and in a moment seized us both; and, without giving us time to cry out, or make resistance, they stopped our mouths, tied our hands, and ran off with us into the nearest woods: and continued to carry us as far as they could, till night came on, when we reached a small house, where the robbers halted for refreshment, and spent the night.
His kidnappers then unbound Equiano and his sister. Overpowered by fatigue and grief, they had just one source of relief. “The only comfort we had was in being in one another’s arms all that night, and bathing each other with our tears.”
Equiano and his sister were soon deprived of even this comfort of weeping together:
The next day proved a day of greater sorrow than I had yet experienced; for my sister and I were then separated, while we lay clasped in each other’s arms; it was in vain that we besought them not to part us: she was torn from me, and immediately carried away, while I was left in a state of distraction not to be described. I cried and grieved continually; and for several days did not eat anything but what they forced into my mouth.
It was during these evil circumstances, and many more to come, that Equiano acknowledged his heavenly Father’s good heart and Christ’s merciful providence in every occurrence of his life.
In his autobiography he makes the sweeping affirmation that even in the face of human evil, God is friendly and benevolent, able and willing to turn into good ends whatever may occur.
Equiano believed that God squeezes from evil itself a literal blessing:
I early accustomed myself to look at the hand of God in the minutest occurrence, and to learn from it a lesson of morality and religion; and in this light every circumstance I have related was to me of importance. After all, what makes any event important, unless by its observation we become better and wiser, and learn “to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before God!”
Olaudah Equiano moved beyond the suffering. He faced his suffering candidly, reminding us that it’s normal to hurt. He suffered face-to-face with God, recognizing that it’s possible to hope. His story reminds us of Paul’s story in 2 Corinthians 1:8–9:
We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.
Like Equiano and Paul, we’ve all endured hurt that has driven us to the precipice of despair. Unfortunately, we’ve likely been sent subtle messages:
“Christians don’t hurt.” “Spiritual Christians don’t talk about their struggles.”
Paul, inspired by God, tells us that’s a lie.
In fact, he shows us that when we deny our hurt, we deny our need for God.
And he demonstrates that the pathway to hope often straddles the precipice of despair.
Moving beyond the suffering first requires moving into the suffering.
Excerpted with permission from Gospel-Centered Counseling: How Christ Changes Lives by Robert W. Kellemen, copyright Zondervan 2014
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Pastors, and leaders, you’ve experienced the pressure to put on the flawless front, to not show any weakness, not share any of your struggles or problems, not reveal any past hurts lest people in your community and church think you’re less than perfect. Most would agree that that world is isolating, a jail cell of our own making, and no way to heal or model healing. Truth may hurt, feel shameful, bring consequences we don’t like, and change lives, but the light of Truth also heals. How do you encourage those you counsel to bravely face their suffering in truth and move beyond it? Join the conversation on the blog. We would love to hear from you!