Tag Archives: suffering

Walking Through Twilight

Openness, authenticity, and even lament are increasingly been seen as important among evangelical circles. With an increase in the valuing of these virtues and practices we have also seen an increase in the number of books addressing such topics. For example:

  • Todd Billings’: Rejoicing in Lament – Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ
  • Steve Hayner’s: Joy in the Journey – Finding Abundance in the Shadow of Death

More recently we have Douglas Groothius’, “Walking Through Death: A Wife’s Illness – A Philosopher’s Lament.” In this book, Groothius, Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary, walks us through what it has been like for him and his wife dealing with her rare form of dementia: Primary Progressive Aphasia (PPA). He walks us through the pain of learning of her condition, watching some of her strengths become weaknesses, and most significantly, loosing vital aspects of his relationship with his wife.41guszfmbtl-_sx331_bo1204203200_

The highlights of this book come in Groothius moments of raw transparency. He expresses anger and even rage. He, understatedly says, “I did not think dearly of God.” And, rather strongly says, “I hated God and told him so repeatedly.” (41) He says he never flirted with atheism, but was bordering on “misotheism” – the hatred of God. Yet at the same time he knew that God was his only hope. Those struggling with hating God in terrible situations might find solace in hearing Groothius verbalize thoughts they think they probably shouldn’t have.

In the midst of these emotionally packed moments we are also given glimpses of Groothius’ philosophical mind at work. His reflections on atheism and misotheism are interesting. His discussion about the nature of lying in chapter 13 presents some interesting philosophical reflections. Chapter 15 which addresses humanity’s relationship to animals, specifically dogs, raises some interesting questions about humanity’s nature.

The appendix, though not strictly a part of the “lament” is worth the price of the book. In it he provides three ways to engage with people who are lamenting. I won’t spoil it here, but, I recommend you take a look at this section and really reflect upon how you deal with people who are hurting.

If you are looking for a model of how to deal with pain, anger, agony, and confusion in the face of suffering, this book might be a good place to turn to.

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(Review) Embodied Hope by Kelly Kapic

The problem of evil has been solved. Well, at least the logical problem of evil has been, which for the lived experience of most human beings is radically insufficient. Pain and suffering present a radically real problem for many people. People die, get sick, and deal with chronic pain. For some, these realities pose a major stumbling block to seeing God as good. Kelly Kapic, the author of Embodied Hope has experienced these realities first hand. His wife has dealt with the ravages and emotional toll of physical suffering. In light of this he has chosen to write a book which is both theological and pastoral, exploring the truths about God and ourselves which have bearing upon this problem of pain and 51a5lkxgr8l-_sx331_bo1204203200_suffering.

Naturally, the problem of evil is a really large topic, thus Kapic chooses to limit himself in two ways: First, he chooses to address Christians who suffer. Thus this book isn’t meant as a global defense against the existential problem of evil, or evil in general. It is aimed ad Christians who experience suffering. Second, he chooses to deal with suffering associated specifically with serious illness or physical pain.

The book is roughly divided into three parts. Part one deals with the limitations of easy answers often given to the problem of suffering and he deals with the nature of biblical lament. Here he also explores what it means to be embodied creatures. Part two turns to Christology in order to address some of these issues. Kapic believes that “Only by looking to this man [Christ] can we reorient our experience of suffering in a way that is truly Christian.” (15) In part three Kapic relates ecclesiology to the problem of suffering. He says that in the body of Christ we “discover a pattern for Christian discipleship that allows for genuine struggle, communal support, and transformative affection.” (15)

As someone who would consider myself to be a “pastor-theologian” I can really appreciate the nature of this work. Kapic works hard to make sure that our theological reflections are not separated from our pastoral practice. I found Kapic’s chapter on the Incarnation to be especially strong in maintaining this bond. Here he examines the theology of Athanasius and Warfield and concludes that,

The physicality of the Messiah takes us to the heart of the gospel and God’s promise, not just of sympathy but of rescue. God has come, come near, come to be God with us and God for us!” (75)

This is a powerful truth with major pastoral implications. Much incarnational theology has swung towards saying that the most important part of the incarnation is that Christ now has solidarity with us. This is certainly true, and pastorally significant, but solidarity without rescuing doesn’t offer much hope!

His chapter on confession was also enlightening. I have rarely seen a chapter on confession in a book addressing suffering. If I have, they are often very poorly written, wrongly teaching that our sickness/suffering is always tied to some hidden sin. So what does confession have to do with healing? Confession before others can help us disentangle our pain from the idea of personal punishment, it liberates us from shame and condemnation, it allows us to meet Christ in the other, and allows us to make ourselves truly vulnerable to the healing presence of God. This is truly powerful stuff!

So who should pick up this book? Undoubtedly, pastors! I mentioned above that this is a great example of pastoral theology. Kapic doesn’t present anything “new” here, or anything particularly interesting to academic theologians. However, he does an amazing job of making theology “real” for pastors and laypersons. I often hear that systematic theology is irrelevant or that it’s a nice intellectual pursuit, but here Kapic shows us that is simply untrue. The sort of historical theology  and systematic theology he is engaging in this book is supremely relevant to the life of anyone who calls themselves a Christian.

Note: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an impartial review.

Does Karl Barth Hold to a Version of Penal Substitution?

It’s a sort of tricky question. How does Barth understand Penal Substitution? I was once told that Barth definitely saw PSA in Isaiah, but that he believed that it is not taught in the New Testament. The debate sort of rages on – does Barth have some version of Penal Substitution? And if he does how does it differ from typical evangelical versions of PSA? And if he doesn’t – can Barth be a resource for formulating a version of PSA? These are all important questions.

In his recent book Faith, Freedom, and the Sprit, Paul Molnar addresses a passage which I believe hints at some sort of version of PSA in Barth. But I will let you decide for yourself:

Barth always stresses that Jesus acts both divinely and humanly so that we never have simply a human or divine being in Jesus. Jesus’ sacrifice for us “is of course, a human action –but in and with the human action it is also a divine action, in which… the true and effective sacrifice is made” (IV/1, p.280)

Up until this point there is nothing that would hint at PSA. All that is being explicated is that atonement happens in both directions – it comes from God and Man. Molnar goes on to say:

In Jesus we see the true meaning of suffering and death. While there was suffering and death in Israel, in Jesus these become “the work of God himself” (IV, p.175)

At this point there is nothing surprising here. Atonement is being explained as the death of death. Sin and guilt and death themselves are put to death on the cross. Nothing (yet) about Jesus being punished. All that we know at this point is that the Son exists in solidarity with the humanity of Israel in its suffering.

Now here stuff gets tricky:

“The Son of God in his unity with man exists in solidarity with the humanity of Israel suffering under the mighty hand of God” (IV/1, p.175)

Molnar says that “As such he suffers Israel’s suffering as “children chastised by their Father”; in him God entered the vicious circle of human suffering allowing the divine sentence to fall on himself… “He, the electing eternal God, willed himself to be rejected and therefore perishing man” (IV/1, p.177).

Molnar seems to think that the suffering of Christ is in solidarity (some form of substitution) with humanity under the hand of God. This constitutes the act of sacrifice. If Molnar is right (which I think he might be), then we have an interesting take on Barth’s PSA.

10 Statements About the Gospel

Gospel this, gospel that, gospel here, gospel there, gospel everywhere! Now a days it seems like everything is “gospel,” but if everything is the gospel then nothing is the gospel. However, this does not mean that the gospel does not have breadth, the gospel might be a lot more multifaceted than we think….

The word “gospel” or to “preach the good news” is used a total of 128 times in the New Testament. Its used in many context and in may ways, so naturally we should want to get a clear grasp on what this word means.

In his book Understanding Christian Mission: Participation in Suffering and Glory, Scott Sunquist list out ten statements about the gospel which he thinks should help us in thinking about how we proclaim the message of the Messiah:

  1. The Gospel is a summary of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.
  2. The Gospel is what Jesus taught.
  3. The Gospel is the message from God to all people or, more precisely to all ethnic groups.
  4. The Gospel is the message preached by the apostles.
  5. The core message of the Gospel is about the grace of God offered for all of humanity.
  6. The Gospel of grace is centers on the meaning of the cross of Jesus Christ.
  7. Because the Gospel is a Gospel of grace, it is also a gospel of judgement.
  8. The Gospel is to be preached in a manner that reveals its nature: The gospel is truth, and so it must be preached truthfully.
  9. The Gospel of Jesus Christ has supreme value.
  10. The Gospel has its own power to transform individuals.

So those are Sunquist’s 10 statements on the gospel. I would love to hear whether you would add any other statements or whether you would take away some of his. I would also love to hear the reasons behind your decision.

Which statements would you add? Subtract? Why?

Book Review – The Suffering and Victorious Christ by Richard Mouw and Douglas Sweeney

Richard Mouw and Douglas Sweeney, The Suffering and Victorious Christ: Toward a More Compassionate Christology, Baker, 2013, 108pp.

The Suffering and Victorious Christ

As evangelical Christians become more and more aware of the fact that Christian theology is not simply a western endeavor we will begin to so see more and more interaction between American Evangelical theology and Non-Western theology, in other words we will begin to see that our American theology is also a contextualized theology. As we slowly being to realize American theology is also a contextualized theology we will come to see that there is no such thing as “American Theology.” Who do we mean by “American?” Do we mean Latino-Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans? What about people like me, who are mixed, with parents from different cultures and continents? How will traditional Anglo-American theology, specifically Christology address these segments of the Christian church? Douglas Sweeney and Richard Mouw provide us with an example of how that might go….

The Suffering and Victorious Christ was birthed  out of a Christology conference held in Japan in 2010. During the conference it became clearer that

“Western militarism led Americans to highlight God and Jesus’ Christ’s power, stringent holiness, and victory over sin far above their passion condescension to our weakness, and identification with human suffering” (2)

On the other hand Asian theologies have consistently emphasized the suffering and brokenness of Christ. Mouw and Sweeny say that they are “not convinced that violence, triumphalism, and denial of the suffering of God are essential to the Reformation traditions.” With that they engage in a project of digging through their respective traditions (Reformed and Lutheran) for a more compassionate Christology. At the forefront of their minds is a missional concern, people need to hear that God identifies with them in their suffering, they don’t only need to hear about God’s wrath against sin….

Mouw and Sweeney mine their traditions for Christological gold, through the study of hymns, sermons, and personal narratives as well as more traditional theological resources, they show that the Reformed and Lutheran tradition can serve as a basis for a Christus dolor, not simply a Christus Victor. They set up their purpose in light of contextual theology. On page 9, they say that their question is

“How can we articulate a more compassionate and globally relevant Christology in terms that are faithful to and consistent with the Reformation traditions we claim, but are also disciplined by the concerns and expersience of our Asian and non-European brothers and sisters?”

Overview

In order to answer this question they begin by dealing with resources from their own theological heritages. Mouw begins by examining the Reformed theologian, John Williamson Nevin, a central figure in Mercersburg theology. Sweeney then devotes a chapter to Lutheran theologian Franz Pieper, who predicates suffering of God himself by talking about the suffering of God in Christ. This chapter is followed by a brief interlude on Roman Catholic theology and incarnational presence. After this interlude Mouw adds another chapter on Reformed theology and the suffering of Christ. Hodge, Berkhof, and Faber are the central foci of this chapter. Mouw argues that the seeds of a compassionate Christology were there, but what is needed is an emphasis on a compassionate Christology. Mouw and Sweeney then devote a chapter to a less traditional theological resource, narratives and hymns. They examine African American slave experiences of suffering and the role of Christ’s suffering in their making sense of their situation. They point out that the slaves believed that Christ, and Christ alone understood their suffering. They believed that he suffered with them and like them. The Christus dolor is a Christ that suffering slaves could identify with. They conclude with some words of warning, stating that the exploitation of Christus dolor can be just as dangerous as the exploitation of Christus victor. We need scriptural guidance to form our Christology. In their conclusion they offer some words of encouragement for those who seek to form more global and compassionate Christologies.

Assessment

In one sense this is an act of constructive Christology, yet in another sense it is a report of what different traditions have to say regarding a particular subject. Given that it is partially a constructive project and a report, its difficult to asses this book. For instance, I have qualms with some parts of Lutheran Christology, but this is not the place to address those issues. Others will have issues with Reformed Christology, but again this is not the sort of critique that the book invites. The type of critique that this book invites is regarding whether or not the project that Mouw and Sweeney are engaged in is possible in principle and whether or not it is a worthwhile project. Some will surely respond that theology ought not be contextual. Theology is objective so speaking about contextual theology brings the subject into subjectivity. However I don’t think that is the case. Mouw and Sweeney rightly point out that “diverse circumstances…require different emphases in the way they configure theology, they can – and should – nonetheless expresses as hared theology that unites them in the body of Christ. (91)” So there is certainly room for manifold theologies that have a different emphasis, yet talk about the same thing, because they are talking about Christ. So to those that say that contextual theology is in principle misdirected, I simply say “you are wrong.” Regarding the second question, whether or not Mouw and Sweeney are engaged in a worthwhile project, we must answer that they are. The fact is that we Americans have often ignored the suffering Christ and instead have chosen to focus only on the victorious Christ…

The other day I was preaching on Matthew 5:10, I was preaching about persecution and how Christ identifies with us in our suffering and in our persecution. At the end of the sermon a college student who was visiting from another church came up to me to thank me for preaching on God’s suffering. He said that he has never heard a sermon about that. We simply don’t like to talk about suffering in church.

For some reason we Americans don’t like to think about God suffering, maybe its because we think comfort is a mark of godliness.

Nevertheless it is a fact that the God-Man (however you want to cash that out, either in a Reformed fashion or a Lutheran fashion) suffered for us and in our place. Christ was a man of sorrows, well acquainted with pain. And if we choose not to address that part of Christ’s person and work we are missing a central part of the gospel.

Themes in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: Imitation

The imitation of Christ has always been an important emphasis within Christianity. Augustine believed that the whole point of the Christian life was to imitate Christ. Francis of Assisi also felt strongly about imitating Christ, in fact he modeled his entire ministry around the way Christ did ministry.  Francis advocated for a life of poverty and itinerant preaching, imitating Christ’s work in the Gospels. However the most prominent and well known advocate for the imitation of Christ is Thomas a Kempis. He wrote the classic devotional book The Imitation of Christ. This book is truly a modern classic. It is one of the most widely read Christian books apart from the Bible and it helped to spark the Devotio Moderna movement (along with Geert Groote). This book advocates for a spiritual imitation of Christ. Paul in his letter to the Philippians also advocates for a sort of imitation. But the imitation Paul advocates for is less spiritual and more tangible/physical.

 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Notice what Paul says in verse 10. He desires to know Christ and share in his sufferings…becoming like him in his death. Paul desires to share in Christ’s sufferings! He desires to become like Christ in his death and resurrection. I’m not going to comment on that too much today. I just want to let you sit with that and soak it in.

Is this a desire that you can say is yours as well?

I know it certainly isn’t for me. I know that I personally like the first part of verse 10. The part about knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection, but the second part not so much! I don’t want to share in his sufferings and I don’t want to become like him in his death. I’m just being honest with you.

But right now you might be saying, “well that is just for Paul. Paul isn’t saying that we have to have this same desire.” If that’s what you are thinking right now check out 3:17

17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.

Not only are we to imitate Christ, we are to imitate Paul and the example of those who have gone before us and followed Christ faithfully. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t unreflective following. This doesn’t mean you need to become like Francis of Assisi or like Brother Yun. Don’t blindly copy and paste someone else’s ministry/life onto your own. However

You should be looking to their lives, seeing how they are being Christ like, whether in “power” or in “suffering,” then imitate that!

Take that example that was set before you and use it to spur you on into knowing “him and the power of his resurrection that you may share his sufferings becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible you might attain the resurrection from the dead.”

Questions for Reflection

  1. Who are you looking to as an example of Christ-likeness? I.e. Who are you “imitating?”
  2. What specifically is Christ-like about that person?
  3. Who are you being an example of Christ-likeness to? How are you doing that?
  4. What is the missional impact of a community imitating Christ together before the world?