Episode 136 - If You Want to Survive Trials and Suffering, You Need Good Theology

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If you've lived for even a little while, you're acquainted with some form of sickness, pain, suffering, or evil. You can't live in this world and not experience that sort of thing. Now, of course, some people have worse experiences than others, and some amounts of evil, some kinds of sickness or suffering or pain are more severe or more acute than others, but nonetheless, we are all acquainted with the problem of evil, both in its human dimension—where people commit evil acts against us or others—and the natural dimension of evil, like sickness and natural disasters and illness and things like that, and we actually talked about that last week.

But this week, I want to talk about the importance of good theology during trials and suffering, and you might think, "Okay, those sound a little odd together, because trials and suffering are often very emotionally moving, very emotionally affective in that sort of way, and then theology sounds like this very stuffy, academic, intellectual thing, so what do they have to do with each other? Because I need comfort when I'm going through a trial, when I'm suffering. I don't need facts and books and the thoughts of 1,500 year old since-deceased men, so how do these things fit together?"

Well, the first point I want to make is that a trial may reveal good theology, but it rarely forms it. Good theology can help you get through a trial, but you will rarely come out of a trial with better theology than you went in with, and that's just a practical point. Is it impossible? No, but that's just basically what I see in people's lives, and read about how this often goes for people, because most likely, you will form bad theology from trials if you don't start with a good, solid foundation.

And I'm actually going to talk a little bit about, if I can, an experience my family and I had about two weeks ago. I had mentioned before that my daughter was born premature. We were in the NICU for a couple weeks, and then she was doing well, but about a week and a half ago, she started breathing really quickly. Her heart rate was high, she wasn't eating as well, so we took her to the ER. They didn't really know what was going on. We had an actually very rough experience in the ER. I'll save you the details there, and about 12-15 hours later, they determined that she had congestive heart failure.

And basically, we had seen a decline in her the whole time we'd been at the hospital, a very steep one actually, her heart was failing in real time, and she was dying. I can't say that I've ever had to be in a situation that was as hard as that, that was as emotionally trying. Now, part of that obviously is going for two days without sleep. But this was very difficult, and they ended up air-lifting her to a hospital about two and a half hours away, and we had to drive over, and she had surgery, and everything went pretty well. Now, she doesn't have a normal heart, but she's as healthy as she can be now, and she's doing well.

But that intermediate state, where things were uncertain, where we didn't know what was going on, and then when we did, the prognosis wasn't exactly happy and chipper. It's not like she just had a virus and she'll get over it. She needed heart surgery (and she actually may still need more in the future) and so it was interesting going through this and trying to be a little self aware of how I was thinking about things, and how I was talking with my wife, and how she was thinking about things, and really, I realized in the middle of this just how important good theology is in trials and in suffering, and when we're talking about life and death matters.

Because I also, in this situation, reflected back to the Brian who was in college, who didn't think God was good, even though he'd grown up in the church, who didn't even think God existed a good bit of the time, and I compare those two in my mind and say, "How would that Brian have responded in this circumstance? Would his heart have been softened to God, or would it have been hardened against God?"

And I think the answer is probably very clear. My heart would not have been softened to God by going through this situation, because at that time, I did not have a good theological foundation. I didn't believe God was good. I didn't believe He was sovereign over everything, that He works his loving purposes for His people. I didn't believe that Jesus on the cross paid for the sin of His people, but more than that, I didn't believe that, through His atonement, He actually set the foundation for God to make all things new one day, with a new heavens and a new earth, like we talked about last week. And so, because of not having good theology, I do not think that at that point in my life, things would have gone like they went two weeks ago.

Now, I'm very aware that I'm holding myself up as an example here, and I'm not necessarily a fan of that, or enthusiastic about it, because there are a lot of things I would do differently, and I definitely don't have all of this figured out, but I have paid attention to relatives and family members and people I know who have gone through hard times, and I have paid attention or tried to to myself, and so I do have a few things I want to talk about today in terms of good theology during suffering, or during trials.

You know, it's interesting. We've seen a change in the last several years in what is popular and acceptable with regards to sexual ethics. Several Christians who grew up as evangelicals, maybe who were even evangelical scholars and ethicists, who used to believe that marriage was a God-ordained union between one man and one woman for one lifetime, changed their mind. And you might say, "Well, what changed their mind?" For some of them, it was the fact that they had a family member who came out as gay, and so they actually changed their interpretation and their understanding of what scripture said to fit that situation. They actually did have good theology on the front end, and in spite of that, they came out with worse theology, and basically, on a side opposed to God and scripture, I would say.

Now, there's probably a noble impulse in the middle of there, out of concern and compassion for their child, but it's never actually compassionate to adopt a position that God is opposed to, and we've talked about this before, but just think what would it have gone like if those people did not come into the circumstance with good theology. Well, they most assuredly would have come out with a bad theological perspective, because trials don't really necessarily form better theology, but they do reveal it if it's there, and more likely, they'll actually break down your good theological convictions if you're not careful.

Really, what we're talking about here is the problem of evil, and so what theological convictions does someone need if they are going to endure a trial and come out perhaps even stronger on the other end? Well, I think the first conviction you need is a belief that  God does exist, and so going through this very hard time with my wife, and my child, and the doctors, and all of this, I did not have a second though as to if God existed, because I'm convinced by scripture, and argument, and evidence, and philosophy, and all of these things undergird my confidence that God exists.

And I could also speak of more maybe subjective aspects too, but just at a baseline from objective type of criteria, I'm convinced, so I don't have a question. But if I did have a question if God existed, I think a trial would be automatically more difficult, because now I'm not just trying to understand the medical side of things as they're happening, and I'm now dealing with the emotional weight of that, I'm also dealing with this existential question of, does God exist? And how does that fit here?

But I think that even becomes more severe when you maybe have the question if God is good. If you go into a trial and you are not convinced, by examination of scripture and other arguments, that God is good, I think you may struggle in that trial, and that would be reasonable, because if you're not convinced, then wouldn't it be natural to ask the question, "Well, how could God possibly be good if someone is suffering this much?" Well, that would be a natural question if God is not good or you're not convinced that he is, but if you are convinced, that question may not even come to mind.

And so I hope what you're starting to see is our theological convictions are a hedge, they're a boundary, they're a safety net around taking us to areas where it would not be good to go. It's perfectly acceptable to ask questions of God, not that we'll necessarily get the answers we want this side of heaven, but it is not acceptable to question God. There's a difference there, in the same way that we can be angry express the fact that we are angry to God, but we should not be angry with God. It is a sin to be angry with God.

And so if we come into trials knowing these things, believing these things, having trained ourselves in these things, I think we will be stronger going through them, and instead of the trial breaking us down, maybe what it actually does is teach us some things about God and his character that we wouldn't have been able to know in quite the same way otherwise.

There are a few different kind of sayings that have become taboo, and I've seen multiple blog posts and articles and talks about how you shouldn't say some things when people are suffering or in trials, like you shouldn't say that “all things work together for good”, and you shouldn't say that “you can do all things through Christ.” “You shouldn't say those things. They're insensitive. People don't need to hear that."

While I think there are certainly insensitive ways to say those, here's my question: If we're going to cling to something in a trial, if something is going to be the bedrock, wouldn't we want that thing to be scripture? Why would we encourage someone to not cling to the promises of God during a very difficult time.

For instance, if someone is going through suffering, wouldn't it be important for them to understand and believe that God works all things together for the good, for His people, for those who love Him and are called according to His purposes? Wouldn't that be important, and wouldn't it be also important for them to understand what that good actually is? It's not some type of nebulous, subjectively defined, personally defined good thing. No, Paul tells us in Romans 8 that that good thing is the image of Christ, and as a Christian, especially as someone who hopefully is maturing in their faith, we need to understand this idea, but the most important thing for the Christian is to glorify God. One of the ways we do that is actually what God does through us, by conforming us to the image of his Son, and that happens through suffering.

If you think of a person kind of like a sculpture, consider that no sculpture has ever been made without some type of suffering being made to the material that the sculpture's out of. In order for the sculpture to be made, in order for a block of marble or granite to be turned into David or some other sculpture, a lot has to be removed with a chisel and a hammer and brute force, and if that marble could feel, I don't think it would say it feels very good. And it's the same way for the Christian.

If life is only ever easy and comfortable, I will almost guarantee you you are not being conformed to the image of Christ in the way you would be as if life were difficult. Now, does that mean we're masochistic and we go looking for suffering? No, but in some ways, and I think this is behind what Paul's saying when he says we should be joyous in all things, we understand that the testing of our faith produces endurance, and that trials are the way that God has ordained, the means He has ordained to conform us to the image of His son through the work of the spirit.

Someone should hear in a trial that God is working this in a way they can't understand necessarily, that I can't understand, in a way that we must trust that God is working this together for their good and their conformity to Christ. I know it doesn't feel good, but that's where trust and faith comes in, because God says He is doing it for good. That should be a comforting truth, not an off-putting truth.

Now, yes, it can be said in a glib way. "Man, I am so sorry things are hard, but you know, God works all things for good." That sounds very insensitive, but there is a more sensitive, appropriate way to say that, and it's the same way with, "I can do all things through Christ.”

So how does that verse come into play, let's just say, for me, dealing with this idea of maybe losing my daughter at seven weeks old?

I realize that in context, in Philippians 4, Paul is not talking about doing all things, like getting A’s on tests and becoming a millionaire or something like that. No, he's talking about actually being without, and that he's been content in plenty and in famine, and so he can even be without, because Christ is enough, and the question in a trial is, can we claim that? Can we say that for ourselves that, "You know what? Even if my aunt dies, even if my daughter dies, even if my business is in ruin, God and Christ is enough, and I can do this through Him, recognizing that the material things in this world and the relationships we have here are not ultimate." They're important. In some forms, they're necessary, but they're not ultimate.

That brings us back to trusting God that He is good. We're not going to form that belief in a trial if we don't already have it. Another phrase some people have said we shouldn't say is, "Well, what is God teaching you through this?" I have a friend who is good about asking that question appropriately and not insensitively, because on the one hand, it's conjecture. I don't know what God is actually teaching me. He alone knows that, and often, we can see that in hindsight, but when you ask someone, "What do you think God is trying to teach you through this," one, we are acknowledging that trials are a way of teaching and testing our faith and proving our endurance, and that's a biblical concept, but more than that, it causes us to be much less inwardly focused and consider the broader, more circumspect nature of what God is doing.

It reminds us that He's actually working these things together, that they're not arbitrary, they're not autonomous workings of natural laws. No, God is ultimately ordaining all that comes to pass, and so when we ask the question, "Well, what is God teaching you through this," it causes us to consider that God is actually in control of all of it, and for the Christian, that all of this is actually working together for our conformity to Christ, once again.

For example, I was talking with my wife on this drive over to the hospital while we were following the helicopter, and I was saying, "You know, it's interesting that I never really knew I could be moved emotionally and with so much love for someone else, much less someone that's never talked to me," referring to my daughter here. And I consider, as her father, just what I would not do for her, what door I would not break down, what I would not do to get her the treatment she needs, and then I consider that God in scripture has revealed Himself as father, as father of His people who He has redeemed for Himself, that He has adopted into his family, that have been grafted in, and you know what? If the amount of feeling and care I have for my daughter is overwhelming to me, and I am sinful and fallen and broken and imperfect and finite, well gosh, what must it be like for my heavenly Father to love His children, of which I am one?

And so, scripture doesn't just arbitrarily give us these examples and parallels between Christ and the church, and a husband and a wife, and God as the Father, and His people as His sons and daughters. No, I think they're there because actually the way we live our lives, and the events that are ordained in the structures that we have, if we pay attention, can teach us about the character of God. So when a father or a mother realizes how much they love their child and what they wouldn't do, they're discovering something imperfect and a shadow as it is, but about the character of God and just how much even more He loves His Son, and He loves His sons and daughters, and so we learn things in that way.

When we see how much Christ sacrificed for the church, and He's said to be the groom and the church is the bride, doesn't that set a very high bar for husbands to sacrifice for their wives? Because that parallel is made in Ephesians 5, and so we see that these biblical parallels and examples are actually there because our experiences in this world tie in with those parallels to teach us more about what God is like, and what he expects from us, in some cases.

So all that to say, if we don't spend the time now to form good theology, we very well may not end up with it when we need it most. I was giving a talk last night, and one of the people in the room mentioned that the problem of evil was a struggle for her, probably intellectually, and more so, experientially and personally.  One thing I said was, "Don't wait until you get in the worst time of your life to try and sort out the existence of God, and if He's good, and if you can trust His word. Do that work now. You will serve yourself well." If we put that off, examining these things, building our confidence in the God of scripture, we will be broken down later instead of built up when a trial comes.

And so, for some people who are not prepared, the same light that melts the ice and makes them more sensitive to the things of God actually hardens the clay for others. In suffering, our theology should drive us to the God of scripture and the things found about him in scripture. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 10, Paul says, "No trial has overtaken you that is not faced by others. And God is faithful: He will not let the trial endure beyond what you are able to bear, but with the trial will also provide a way out so that you may be able to endure it."

Yes, someone going through a trial needs that truth. There are appropriate ways to say that. There are glib and insensitive ways to say that, but if we're not finding solace and comfort in scripture and the God of scripture in our trial, we're doing it wrong, but more than that, we need to be prepared on the front end. We can't expect God to bring something out of us in a trial that we haven't had put in before, if that makes sense.

I hope this has been helpful. In future weeks, we will not talk as much about pain, sickness, trauma, death, and evil. We will talk about some other things, but I do look forward to talking with you next week on Unapologetic.