As I alluded to in a recent blog post, my wife Amy and I recently hosted three ‘theology-themed’ evening services at our local Church, South West London Vineyard. This is the edited text of the talk we prepared together, and I gave at the third one, which I reproduce here for anyone who either missed it or is interested. It is quite long (just over 3500 words!), but broken into three ‘things’, so I hope it will be helpful for some.
1. A Kingdom Theology of Suffering
Today we are going to spend a bit of time thinking about the problem of suffering.
It has been one of the biggest objections made to Christian faith since before our faith was called Christian.
In fact, one of my theological heroes, John Calvin, wrote something that has stuck with me. That to consider the answer this, to solve the problem, would be “. . . a secret so much excelling the insight of the human mind that I am not ashamed to confess ignorance. Far be it from any of the faithful to be ashamed of ignorance of what the Lord withdraws into the glory of his inaccessible light.”
But, because we know and love Jesus, we get to explore these secrets. We get to probe the mind of Christ, and we can be ignorant in the light of His majesty, even as we wonder and wander in our own realm of not quite understanding…
In the Vineyard, we have a fairly minimal, fairly biblically-based, fairly open, optimistic and thoughtful approach to theology. We embrace what is often called Kingdom theology – a way of reading the Bible that takes Scripture seriously, sees the message of the Kingdom of God (by which we mean the dynamic rule and reign of God) as central to the task of interpretation, and sees all this fulfilled in and perfectly embodied in Jesus. We don’t, as a movement of churches, have a worked out and written up theology of suffering. We do, however, in line with the Bible, have some great foundations to build on. One of the key stories in the bigger story of the Bible is what we as Christians call the fall. Regardless of your perspective on God’s control, or human free will, this story offers us the idea of a tension that runs through a lot of theological questions – can we be truly free, or is there a Good God in control? The fall is a rich story, with more layers than we can imagine, but the fundamental takeaway point from it is that the world is broken, not quite as God intended it, and this is because of the actions of humankind, and whilst it is the way things are, it is not the way things will always be. You see even in the opening chapter of the story God’s goodness is on display: cast out, Adam and Eve are clothed. They are not alone.
But I digress.
Here are a few things from the Vineyard Statement of Faith that frame this question for us this evening, in light of the fall and charged with Kingdom Theology:
“We believe… …that God did not abandon His rule over the earth which He continues to uphold by His providence. In order to bring redemption, God established covenants which revealed His grace to sinful people. In the covenant with Abraham, God bound Himself to His people Israel, promising to deliver them from bondage to sin and Satan and to bless all the nations through them. …that in the fullness of time, God honored His covenants with Israel and His prophetic promises of salvation by sending His Son, Jesus, into the world.
Conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, as fully God and fully man in one person, He is humanity as God intended us to be. Jesus was anointed as God’s Messiah and empowered by the Holy Spirit, inaugurating God’s kingdom reign on earth, overpowering the reign of Satan by resisting temptation, preaching the good news of salvation, healing the sick, casting out demons and raising the dead.
Gathering His disciples, He reconstituted God’s people as His Church to be the instrument of His kingdom. After dying for the sins of the world, Jesus was raised from the dead on the third day, fulfilling the covenant of blessing given to Abraham. In His sinless, perfect life Jesus met the demands of the law and in His atoning death on the cross He took God’s judgement for sin which we deserve as law-breakers. By His death on the cross He also disarmed the demonic powers.”
There are a few things to pick up on here.
But let’s also be honest. The problem of evil and suffering is real and painful. It means cancer and crime, holocaust and homophobia, depression and death, slavery and sin, war and warts of all varieties.
We believe that God did not abandon His rule over the earth…
In a world wracked by sin, by disease, by war and rumours of war, by persecution and pain, a world where children are ripped from their mothers’ breasts and a million injustices go unanswered every day.
We believe that God established covenants which revealed his grace to sinful people…
In a world where promises are broken every moment of every day, where adultery is normal, where rape is almost an accepted part of society, where murder can be bought and human lives are often sold and traded. We live in a world where we are groaning, groaning for the sons of God to be revealed, for a message that isn’t mundane or evil.
“We believe that in the fullness of time, God honoured His covenants with Israel and His prophetic promises of salvation by sending His Son, Jesus, into the world. He is humanity as God intended. Jesus was anointed as God’s Messiah and empowered by the Holy Spirit, inaugurating God’s kingdom reign on earth, overpowering the reign of Satan by resisting temptation, preaching the good news of salvation, healing the sick, casting out demons and raising the dead. He reconstituted God’s people as His Church to be the instrument of His kingdom. After dying for the sins of the world, Jesus was raised from the dead on the third day, fulfilling the covenant of blessing given to Abraham. In His sinless, perfect life Jesus met the demands of the law and in His atoning death on the cross He took God’s judgement for sin which we deserve as law-breakers. By His death on the cross He also disarmed the demonic powers.”
That isn’t an answer to the problem of suffering and evil – but it is a story that allows us to engage with the question. A Story that gives us a sense of the one who can grapple with evil and suffering. And a name – Jesus – for the one who did and does and will defeat evil, just as he did and does and will see more and more of the Kingdom of God coming in this present age.
So how can we begin to engage with the problem? How can we even begin to answer the question?
Well, I hope we can do a bit of that this evening. I’ll briefly outline two different ‘classic’ responses to the problem of evil and suffering. Then, if you don’t mind, I’ll share a bit of my own experience of suffering and evil. Coming to a close, I’ll reflect briefly about why my faith remains intact, and why my faith and hope endures through pain and suffering.
2. Two classic responses to the problem of evil
I say all that by way of introduction. We need to recognise the problem – how big, pervasive, and universal it is. And we need to recognise the King and his Kingdom, the story that rises above the swamp. The light that breaks into the prison cell. And, in different ways and from different angles, a whole range of thinkers and theologians have tried to engage with the problem of evil. Fun fact – what we are talking about is technically a ‘theodicy’ – an idea that attempts to vindicate or explain God’s goodness in light of the problem of evil.
2. a – An Augustinian Theodicy
You might have heard of Augustine, one of the earliest theologians, who wrote powerfully and regularly about evil and suffering. Augustine argued that God created the world perfectly – good, if you like – and that whatever evil and suffering exists as a result of human disobedience. God remains in control.
One of my favourite theologians, the Swiss and much maligned John Calvin, took this further. He imagined, in light of the Bible, that perhaps God is in control of suffering and evil and that, whilst God cannot be indicted or blamed for it, his control means that all we do and see now is of grace. For Calvin, Satan is a servant of God, and truly is the adversary, but at the same time, all of his actions that are intended for evil will ultimately serve God’s glorious ends to his own chagrin and destruction.
“With regard to the strife and war which Satan is said to wage with God, it must be understood with this qualification, that Satan cannot possibly do anything against the will and consent of God. For we read in the history of Job, that Satan appears in the presence of God to receive his commands, and dares not proceed to execute any enterprise until he is authorised.”
So this is one option, on the question of suffering and evil. That humanity, given freedom of choice in whether or not to obey God, squandered it, and in the light of that, the cracking of the world, a good God sombrely took on all sovereignty in order to bring His plans to fruition. The Augustinian theodicy, developed in a range of ways, is ultimately about permission and God’s sovereignty. The human response to this, ultimately, can only ever be one of faith and worship.
John Piper says that “God’s sovereign predestination of all things is one of the great mysteries of the Bible… when we ask our questions (and we should), we should ask with humble faith — not to find fault with God, but to know and love God.”
Piper goes on, controversially, so say this, imagining some words that could be said by someone who has suffered. Biblically, they could say this:
“it was God’s sovereign will. The reason I know that it was is because there are a hundred ways he could have hindered it. And for reasons I do not yet fully understand, he did not hinder it, and thus ordained in his infinite wisdom that it come to pass. And I will see in due time how he works it all for my good. It’s just hard to see right now and that’s okay.”
Intense, to say the least.
2. b – The Process Theodicy
Another option, another theodicy, another way of engaging with the problem of evil and trying to take seriously the whole sweep of Scripture, comes to us in a set of ideas known as ‘process theology’.
Process theology is a valid biblical option – even if it does, perhaps, reduce God’s power to persuasion rather than kingship, either active in ordaining or passive in permissing. Greg Boyd, who has been a friend to many in the Vineyard, says:
“Jesus nor his disciples seemed to understand God’s absolute power as absolute control. They prayed for God’s will to be done on earth, but this assumes that they understand that God’s will was not yet being done on earth (Mt. 6:10). Hence neither Jesus nor his disciples assumed that there had to be a divine purpose behind all events in history. Rather, they understood the cosmos to be populated by a myriad of free agents, some human, some angelic, and many of them evil. The manner in which events unfold in history was understood to be as much a factor of what these agents individually and collectively will as it was a matter of what God himself willed.”
Rather than seeing a view of the future in which God’s rule and reign cannot ultimately be thwarted, this view perhaps sees the potential for God to do even more Good than God is already doing. When God is just another actor in the grand drama of creation, God can potentially do more.
Simply put, process theology is the idea that Jesus and his disciples show us that God is not in absolute control. Instead, God is ‘just’ the most powerful free agent
Such a view stresses God’s gracious activity in the world, at the expense of his kingship.
To briefly recap – we’ve got two quite different directions to think about God’s goodness in the light of suffering. One trajectory is towards making God the author of suffering and evil – which would make sense in terms of human logic if we focused solely on what we understand and how we understand evil. The other trajectory, the more open and recent one, is towards seeing God as just another actor in the play – not the one who writes, directs, and stages the play. Either way, we will be saying something significant about God’s Goodness and God’s Kingdom.
3. My Suggestions
In the last few minutes, before we move into ministry, I’d like to offer a pair of thoughts, rooted in my story and explaining my perspective, if that’s ok?
Firstly, though, what the Bible says. In the book of Job we have one of the rawest and most powerful theological conversations. Job, a good man, a man who loves God and whom God loves, is laid low. He went above and beyond the demands for holiness and religion. In contemporary terms, he’s a blend of the Pope, Oprah, Doctor Who, and anyone else who comes to mind. And the devil – the adversary, the tempter, the first to fall, the father of lies – notices him. And the devil attacks him. The devil goes out from the presence of the Lord to attack the person he has identified who is trying to follow and honour the Lord.
Job isn’t satisfying because God seems never to answer the ‘why’, merely reminding Job of the answers about who God is and what God does. In a number of long speeches, God reminds Job through his friends and through the example and wildness of nature, that evil is all around. And yet, Job does not lose his faith. At the end, after everything around him has been reduced to ruin – naturally and supernaturally – Job remains faithful. He replies with praise (Job 42:2-6):
“I know that you can do all things
no plan of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.
You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.’
My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you
but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes”
The worst of things happen to Job – he is kept alive even after asking and desiring to die. And yet he ends the story in praise. I hope that, however you’ve found this evening and this little theological exploration, we can end this evening praising our Good Father together.
3.a – My Story
It is worth noting that, at the outset of my story, you understand that I had an essentially Calvinist upbringing. I was brought up to think that the Bible mattered, that God was in control, and that, just maybe, God might want to surprise us with how good He was. I was also brought up – and you can probably tell this – as a white, male, straight, privately educated Christian. Easy, right? Well, yes. Except that depression fell on me when I was 15/16. Naturally speaking, I might point to bullying, or the death of a friend from a massive heart attack in an English class, or even just not really gelling with the particular school I was in.
This was just after I’d become a Christian. It was unexpected. I found myself turning in on myself, against those around me, wishing for death, wishing for an end to a pain that I couldn’t describe but which I felt was incredibly real and present.
At times, honestly, I’ve wanted to take my own life. These suicidal thoughts are a particularly pernicious form of evil, a particularly painful kind of suffering. They are un-natural – and they are so easy to misunderstand. The Bible is actually incredibly gracious towards the issue of suicide. Contrary to popular belief, suicide is not an unforgivable sin, or a sin that sends you straight to hell. The Bible contains examples of a number of suicides or attempted suicides – and yet it presents these as normal examples of human life in a fallen world. These experiences are not beyond the care and kingship of God. Of the suicide of Saul, recorded for us in Judges 9, Karl Barth writes about ‘his desire to be king in gentile fashion… as his own sovereign instead of an acknowledgement of the sovereignty of God’.
I find this a challenging idea.
Am I king, lord of life and death?
Or is God King, lord of all, and saviour of the world?
I should say that, unlike some people, I don’t have a happy healing story for my depression and suicidal thoughts. These feelings haven’t had a clear end – I continue to take medication and be technically clinically depressed to this day.
Can I pause there?
Some places would say that I shouldn’t talk, or tell truth about Jesus, because of my depression. I’m grateful for this opportunity because I get to say that that is a foul lie.
But I digress.
Depression – and its friends, suicidal thoughts and anxiety – are a form of suffering and a manifestation of evil that doesn’t easily fit into a neat academic argument. Suffering is endemic to the human race, from the small to the large. There are hundreds of millions of people, according to World Health Organisation Estimates, that suffer from depression and related issues – and there were millions of people killed in the holocaust, in the fires of Hiroshima, and the Gulags of Stalinist Russia, to name but a few.
Part of my story involves reading books. I’ll recommend a few of these later. But one direction of reading, reading and thinking under the unintended tutelage of Fredereick Nietsche, led me to a strange realisation.
What if the Holocaust was ok? What if the killing of all those people was legitimate? What if that was just? Just fine?
A different journey led me to think how I now think. A journey, I believe, that has been guided and curated by the Holy Spirit.
3. b – My perspective
Let me quote at length from Kingdom Suffering by John Wimber, one of the key founders of the Vineyard movement:
“When we suffer we are confronted with a choice: we can believe that God is unjust and does not care for us or we can believe that he is good and that whatever comes from his hand is tempered with mercy and his desire for our growth”
Whatever comes – it is not worse than death. This is the challenge of a properly Christian response to the problem of evil and suffering – there is a fate worse than death, but, in Christ and pursuing God’s Kingdom, the Holy Spirit will not let us befall that.
And, if we dare to believe that God is King and can do anything, in light of our Kingdom theology, then even death is not the end.
And at the centre of this Kingdom Theology, at the heart and the focus of the proclamation of the Kingdom of God by the King of Kings that we’ve been celebrating and proclaimin, is the singular event of the Cross. Wimber puts it like this: “Faith is characterised by people believing God’s Word regardless of their circumstances. This is not ‘blind faith’ so much as informed faith, trust in God who overcame the most evil circumstance in all of human history: the cross.”.
My perspective is undoubtedly shaped by my story. I’ve tried to tell you a bit of it tonight – and, indeed, through the various ways we’ve done theology together. Yet my story pales in comparison to the crux of the ultimate story. At the Cross, we are invited to consider love and suffering, pain and healing, brokenness and wholeness, simultaneously and in a way that challenges us all to rethink what we think.
“Here is where an understanding of the kingdom of God becomes crucial for trusting God when we suffer. ‘The time is come’, Jesus proclaimed at the beginning of his ministry, ‘The Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news’… These words were the heart of Jesus’ message, the announcement that though we live in an evil age, we can come under his reign now.”
Our perspective should be shaped by the Cross – and yet not just the Cross. In the Cross, the King of Everything is building the Kingdom of God. In the Cross Jesus endures every kind of suffering and evil – in order to defeat it. In the Cross Jesus identifies with the lowliest criminals and stands in front of the mightiest tyrants of the age. In the Cross, at a hopeless point of suffering, we see a glimpse fo the kingdom.
Because, of course, the Cross is not the end of the story. Let me pause, again. The reason that my story has led me through my theology towards my current perspective is because of the person I have met in the process. I believe I have met Jesus – who suffered – in the process of understanding what God is up to, this side of the Resurrection and renewal of all things. At times, I’ve been so overwhelmed by a bleaknessss and sense of giving up, that the only thing that has helped has been knowing that God is in control, and is, in the words of the Bible, working together all things for good for those who love him. For me, this theological position of trust has helped keep Amy and my relationship together, got me through university, and, with no exaggeration, kept me alive. For me, knowing that Jesus suffered more than I ever can shows me that God loves those who suffer and does not abandon them. And the Resurrection reminds me and challenges me that death and pain are not, ever, the final word.
And this is where we are. The wonderful kingdom signs of Cross and Resurrection give us a shape and hope – but at the same time they remind us of reality. People die. Criminals exist. Powerful men falter. Women don’t speak up. God appears to turn his face from suffering. God suffers. Women are the first witnesses. Powerful men offer practical help. Criminals are the first to recognise the king. Someone lives.
Thank you for reading this long piece. I recommended a few books – links will take you to reviews.