Do You Have a Theology of Suffering?

Amy here introducing my friend Tanya. “Introducing” doesn’t begin to capture the excitement I feel in having Tanya here as our first post for the week. Tanya has many things to offer us, but today we’re going to focus on one: her passion to help create space for people to form healthy and helpful theologies of suffering. She has had M.E.  (myalgic encephalomyelitis)  for over 6 years. For the past few years  it has worsened to the extent that she is almost entirely housebound, needing to spend a large portion of the day in bed. On her blog, Thorns and Gold , Tanya has hosted 38 guest posts on suffering! This is the kick off post and I’d encourage you to set aside some time this week to read through them … they offer a spiritual treasure trove when it comes to suffering and God. Tanya is in the midst of a relapse and might or might not be able to respond to comments, but I know she’ll be blessed by reading them and knowing how much we appreciate her words. Below Tanya explains why she’s named her blog Thorns and Gold.

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If someone asks me what I believe about God and suffering, I don’t want to reply in prose. I want to draw a picture in pastels, because you have to smudge and blend pastels, until the lines are blurred and unclear, and your hands get covered in dust. There is a lot of blurring and mystery in suffering, and much dust, too.

photo 3

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thorns

I select the colours of darkness and draw a branch with thorns in it. Paul talked about his suffering as a thorn in his flesh. I remember how it felt as a child to injure myself on a thorny bush, the thorns digging into my skin as I cried, and I remember that Paul also cried and pleaded with God for Him to take his suffering away.

Here is where we start – that suffering is bad. Sometimes as Christians, when we tell our stories of suffering, we jump too quickly to the ‘God is good’ part. It is not good that death and sickness and violence and evil are in the world, and God did not intend them in His good design. They were not there at the beginning; they will not be there at the end.

I have an autoimmune illness which is poorly understood, even by good medics. For the last four years I have had to spend the majority of the day in bed, resting, and I am only well enough to leave the house once a fortnight or so, in a wheelchair, for a couple of hours. It’s ongoing, with little treatment or help, and my prognosis is uncertain. You may think that sounds isolating and frustrating – and you would be right.

When I draw suffering, I start with thorns and the fact that pain is painful, bad is bad, and the reason we find suffering hard is that it is hard.

Then I turn the thorns into a crown, and remember that those thorns and that suffering were thrust upon Jesus’ head. When I am suffering I need to know that I worship a suffering God. He has experienced pain and isolation. He has wept.

photo 1

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gold

I draw with the colours of darkness, but I don’t stop there. I highlight it with glints of gold.

In 2005, I was in the middle of a busy and exciting term as a minister to university students, when I woke up one day and couldn’t read – the words were spinning in front of me. I didn’t know it then, but I had Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, and this was my first relapse. I was in the middle of ministry, serving God, and it came to an abrupt stop as I had to spend the next two months resting in bed.

At that time of wondering where God was in all of this, a wise friend said something helpful to me: “I know that there is a lot of muck and confusion here, but God will be at work, even in this difficult situation. Look for the gold.”

photo 2

When Job was undergoing extreme suffering, he said, “But he knows the way that I take. When he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.” (Job 23:10) There is something unique about suffering that brings about holiness and a purity of character. God has the power to work in all things (good, bad and ugly) for the good of those who love Him (Rom 8:28), and He has a habit of producing gold even out of desperate situations.

I confess, I find it hard to identify the gold that has come from my illness. Perhaps it is something that only others can see in us.

(Sometimes I use that as an angry bargaining prayer: “Hey, God – I’m not any holier with the suffering than before. It hasn’t worked. How about we call it off, eh?”).

When I am suffering, I pray for it to end. (I figure that as Jesus did the same in Gethsemane, that kind of prayer is allowed). But sometimes, when I can lift my head enough, this also is my prayer: “Let this suffering bring about some good change in me and the world. Let there be gold.”

This is what I draw when people me ask about suffering, and this is what I write: thorns and gold.

photo 4

 

What has been helpful (and not-so-helpful) in forming your theology of suffering? Do you have a theology of suffering? 

 

Photo Credit: Anne Marthe Widvey via Compfight cc

34 Comments

    1. Tanya Marlow March 31, 2014

      Thanks so much for stopping by here and encouraging me, Tanya – I really appreciate it. 🙂

  1. Jennifer March 30, 2014

    Thank you! May we simply never lose sight of the fact that there can be gold as well as thorns in our sufferings. May we look for the glimpses of gold in the midst of the challenge. I know that for me it has been seeing the “gold”, even just glimpses of it, which does help to keep me going when otherwise the thorns could be overwhelming.

    1. Tanya Marlow March 31, 2014

      I’m so glad to hear you have been able to see those glimpses of gold in the midst of hard times, and that that has spurred you to keep on. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment.

  2. Emilie March 30, 2014

    Thank you, Tanya, for admitting that suffering is hard. The person who has walked closest with me and my husband through my endometriosis and our infertility has earned this dear place because she lets me wail and cry as long as I need when it’s hard. Too many others jump to “But God is good” before I can even finish my sentence. They either don’t know or have forgotten that God never promoted denial of our pain, but rather hope in spite of it. And yes, I often ask Him when I’ll be holy enough to cut back on the suffering-glad to know I’m not alone:)

    1. Tanya Marlow March 31, 2014

      This kinda brought tears to my eyes – I’m not gonna lie. Wail seems the apposite word here. I definitely think we need to reclaim ‘wail’ in our Christian lexicon. And I know just what you mean about people jumping to ‘God is good’ before you’ve ever had a chance to take a breath. I think we’re not very good at grieving, as a society, and we’re definitely not good at sitting with ongoing problems. We can do the acute, the emergency, but we don’t know what to do when there’s an ongoing, unsolvable problem. (And I’m so glad I’m not alone in my ‘holiness/suffering’ prayer).

  3. Amy Young March 30, 2014

    Tanya, as you know, I am thrilled, thrilled, thrilled to have your story and voice and just wonderful self here at VA. I love it when some of my fav parts of the world come together … now if only it could be in person :). And I’m quite sorry about the relapse and we here at VA will be praying for you — thanks for setting such a pitch perfect tone for the week. A

    1. Tanya Marlow March 31, 2014

      “If only it could be in person” – yes!! So much! Thank you so much for welcoming me here. 🙂

  4. Marilyn March 30, 2014

    “There is a lot of blurring and mystery in suffering, and much dust, too” ….This spoke to my soul – thank you.  It was a couple years ago that my brother – in preaching a series on Job talked about how we want to skip to the end of Job – we want to be assured it all came out okay. But the reality is that there was so much inbetween. I love your reminder that suffering was never what God intended. It is a reality – but it is a reality of a broken world…I look forward to reading more from you. 

    1. Tanya Marlow March 31, 2014

      I’m so glad to hear that this spoke to you – thank you for telling me. And I’m so glad you mentioned the middle of Job! I’m SUCH a fan of the book of Job, and I agree with you brother, that often we (and lots of preachers) want to do the beginning and end of Job and are a bit nervous about the middle. But it is the middle parts that speak to me, the confusing and honest cries to God while Job’s friends give the ‘right’ answers. Hope to connect with you more.

  5. Elizabeth March 31, 2014

    I think sometimes we think our faith, our requests, can dictate God’s actions. My husband’s mom died from cancer when he was 16. She had 8 children. Our church prayed and prayed for her to be healed. But she died. Then 8 years later my husband’s dad died from cancer. Again, people prayed and prayed for him to be healed. But he wasn’t. Some people said we just had to believe more in the healing power of God, and He would heal (both of them). That’s a heavy burden to place on someone, that someone they love could have lived if they’d only had more faith.

    Yes, sometimes Jesus healed because of people’s faith. But there were lots of people in the Bible, and in 2000 years of Church history, who suffered, and died — including the Son of God. Was their faith not enough?? No. We are all going to die someday. Jesus himself said the blind man wasn’t blind because of someone’s sin. Not all the bad things that happen to us are our own fault, because we sinned, or because we didn’t have enough faith. Sometimes God’s people suffer, and we hate to watch it, we hate to know it. But it’s not because He is withholding His love.

    So I think our theology of suffering has GOT to deal with these confusing aspects of “faith.”

    1. Tanya Marlow March 31, 2014

      Thank you so much for this thoughtful comment, and for raising this issue. As someone with a chronic illness, it’s something I face a fair amount, and there is a (frustrating) mystery in it all. I am really sorry, though, that some Christians told you that you ‘just had to believe more’ and God would heal, because you’re right – that is a heavy load to place upon someone. And however much your rational mind tells you that’s not the case, I think so often comments like that can burrow their way under the skin.

      “Sometimes God’s people suffer, and we hate to watch it, we hate to know it. But it’s not because He is withholding His love.” – YES. There is so much wisdom right there – thank you. 

  6. Mamadeano March 31, 2014

    I am in the midst of trying to establish my theology of suffering. I think it is similar to yours, and with every new challenge relapse and hardship, I feel my faith get stronger not weaker. But, my understanding of who God is, changes. I think he is a bit different to how I though he was ! After 10 yrs of living with CFS/ME I am slowly (oh so slowly!) coming to the realisation that, suffering, is where the gold is. But most days I wish it wasn’t !!

    1. Tanya Marlow March 31, 2014

      I would say it’s great to see someone else with ME (but then that’s not quite right, cos this is a sucky illness! You know what I mean!) #solidarity. That’s really interesting to read of how your faith gets reshaped and honed at every new relapse and hardship. I think that’s one of the unsettling things about this illness – the sudden changes and unpredictability. I’m so glad that you’ve been able to see some of the gold already! Sending you much love.

  7. Danielle Wheeler March 31, 2014

    Tanya, thank you.  Thank you for opening up and sharing with us.  You’ve prayed “Let there be gold,” and there is.  Here today you’ve gifted us with pure gold.

    1. Tanya Marlow March 31, 2014

      Thank you so much, Danielle – it was an honour to be here. I’m thrilled at the potential of this project – such a great idea. I hope it will be a lifeline for many.

  8. morielle March 31, 2014

    Tanya, the thoughts you share here are amazing. I’ve just been reading Job and trying to put that together with the suffering of Christ to try to think about how we as Christians experience suffering. What you wrote here has really helped me. Especially the bits about smudged lines, and mystery, and being unable to see the gold that’s coming out….and yet knowing it must be there. Praying for you. And so grateful for your gift of writing about this topic.

    1. Tanya Marlow March 31, 2014

      Thank you SO much. This touched my heart. I’m grateful both for your prayers and your encouragement.

  9. Diana Trautwein March 31, 2014

    As always, I read your fine words with gratitude and resonance. Thank you for starting with the truth — suffering is, first and foremost, hard. And bad. In and of itself, there is nothing good about suffering. Only when we open our hearts to God’s redemptive power can we find that gold, seems to me. And some days? All the looking in the world will not reveal even a glimmer. And I think living with a chronic, debilitating illness is at the top of the list of hard. Thank you for sharing your journey with all of us, Tanya. We see those glimmers a lot, my friend. And yet – we pray for healing, relief, recovery, too. Love to you.

    1. Tanya Marlow April 3, 2014

      “Some days all the looking in the world will not reveal a glimmer.” I always love the way that you tell the truth about these hard things. I am so grateful for your voice and wisdom on these areas – so few people say these things.

      Thank you for always being a cheerleader for me – and for those prayers. Thank you, friend.

  10. Stephanie April 1, 2014

    Tanya, your words so often bring me to tears – the good, cleansing kind. To acknowledge the truth of suffering, without losing sight of the hope we have in God, is a balm to my soul. There is truth and much-needed balance here.

     

    1. Tanya Marlow April 3, 2014

      Stephanie – this comment is really precious to me. Thank you.

  11. Mark Allman April 1, 2014

    Tanya,

    I want you to know beyond a shadow of doubt that we see the gold.  It always shines forth in your writing.  You give hope to those who suffer in anyway.

    I wish life was not like this where there is suffering.   The gold is woven in the suffering or is it the suffering is woven in the gold?  Life is like this.  The good, the bad and the ugly and the beautiful are woven together in our lives.

    I ache for you Tanya that you have so much suffering yet I feel blessed to see how you deal with it with such grace and beauty even when I know you wail at it.

    It is scary to have to suffer but to know you have people who will stand by you and wade into the darkness of your life is such a overwhelming blessing.  To have those who suffer willingly wade into others lives to help is awesome.  Thanks for letting us in a small way wade into yours.

    1. Tanya Marlow April 3, 2014

      Woven together – yes, that’s exactly it. And thank you for using the word wail! – sometimes that is just the perfect word to describe a response to suffering. (A biblical word, too!) And yes – people who ‘wade into the darkness’ (love that phrase!) are so precious – thanks for being one who wades into my life.

  12. Deborah April 2, 2014

    As always wise words! But these struck me more than any other: ‘There is something unique about suffering that brings about holiness and a purity of character.” Wow! This has been my prayer, and on the days I struggle more with being ill I remember the day early into my illness when I ‘lifted my head’ and said to God that I wanted His gold to be produced above anything else. And I think you are right, I think we see gold and holiness in others not ourselves; I see the gold and your holiness in the words you write Tanya. I don’t know whether Moses ever knew his face glowed, other than what others said to him…?! 

    Thank you again 🙂

  13. Tanya Marlow April 3, 2014

    “I don’t know whether Moses ever knew his face glowed, other than what others said to him” – oo, I like this thought. It gave me goosebumps. Thank you for affirming me in my writing. And I’m praying for you on your journey too. Much love.

  14. Beth April 3, 2014

    Oh Tanya, this is – and you are – amazing.

    1. Tanya Marlow April 8, 2014

      I was actually just praying for you when I read this. Thank you so much for these words, Beth – I so value your opinion!

  15. chrissy April 3, 2014

    My 11 year old son is 18 months into an illness that started with mononucleosis.  I pray that the characteristics you describe are being developed in him.  It is so hard, but God is still faithful.

    1. Tanya Marlow April 8, 2014

      I had mononucleosis when I was 17.

      I’m thinking that from a mother’s point of view it must be so scary-powerless. When I was younger and ill, I had a whole lot of raging and questions in amongst the exhaustion. I couldn’t see any good or gold then. But it was forming. I am praying for your son, that he will know God in amongst this limbo and frustration. I am praying for his healing, because sometimes it becomes too painful for pray for yourself and you just need someone else to pray for you.

      praying for you both.

  16. Pat Duff April 5, 2014

    As a Christ follower serving in Guatemala, it is easy to get overwhelmed by the suffering around me.  Working with the disabled in this poor country which barely acknowledges them, I often ask God “why?”   While he has given me many responses, none fit as well as your statement, “We serve a suffering God.”  Thank you for a new insight.  Praying for you right now.

    1. Tanya Marlow April 8, 2014

      This comment means so much to me. Thank you so very much for writing it, and for your prayers. Praying for God’s blessing on you in that land of suffering.

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