Because of the current age in which we live everyone will experience some form of suffering and tragedy in their lives and each person will have his/her own way of responding, but the Christian Church possesses a particular understanding of suffering and encourages particular responses to it. What follows is only a summary of our understanding and approach to suffering and tragedy.
Abbey on Suffering
We recognise that suffering in this world is: (1) universal (although it will vary in nature and degree from person to person and from community to community – Ecc.3:1-9; 1 Cor.6:1-10), (2) alien (it was not an integral part of God’s initial creation, but something that resulted from humanity’s decision to claim divine status – Gen.2:15-17 and 3:14-24; Rom.1:18-32; Jn.11:32-38); and (3) temporary (something that will have no place in the New Creation – Isa.60:18-22; 65:17-25; Rev.21:1-4; 1 Cor.15:51-57).
We further acknowledge that suffering must be understood within the framework of God’s purposes. The goal to which everything is moving is “the glory of God.” This means, on the one hand, a royal-priesthood living out their vocation of true humanness in and for the world and, on the other hand, God dwelling with us in fulfilment of his ancient promises. The route towards this goal, the character-forming habits that put together the genuine humans, the God-bearing, Spirit-filled humans, who will one day rule God’s new creation and sum up its praises, involves suffering at various levels and dimensions:
- The tradition of suffering within the saving purposes of God as particularly testified in Israel through Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel and the Psalms. We might also add the Wisdom literature of Job, Ecclesiastes and Proverbs.
- The suffering of Jesus Messiah; especially his crucifixion.
- The suffering of Jesus’ Apostles; especially as Paul outlines it in 2 Corinthians.
- The inevitable resistance by the powers of this world to those who are and who will be exercising genuine power in the world to come.
Tom Wright explains:
People who find themselves in that sort of situation as a result of following a crucified Messiah , and who see his own suffering within the context of the Jewish expectations of God’s saving purposes, will have a grid of understanding within which to interpret what is happening to them, and to give it theological and moral meaning. (Virtue Reborn: 154)
This framework is outlined in such passages as: Romans 5:1-5; 2 Corinthians 4:10; Philippians 3:10-11; James 1:2-4 and 2 Peter 1:5-8.
Responses to Suffering
Some people might argue that it is all very well to theorise beforehand about how we ought to respond when tragedy strikes and suffering sets in, but ‘the reality’ will always be different and our responses then will be uncontrollable. Indeed, some might claim that this is more authentic and that any attempt to impose premeditated responses will prove false and perhaps even dangerous.
While we acknowledge that nobody can say for sure how they will actually respond to a given crisis, we also maintain that preparation of heart and mind in accordance with God’s purposes is far more likely to provide a helpful way of understanding and responding than the alternative of hoping it will never happen and then making it up as we go along when it does happen.
What we propose is actually accepted practice in other arenas of life. Soldiers practice drills over and over in artificially constructed war games so that they will respond under the pressure of a real life combat situation. Pilots spend hours in flight simulators honing their responses to every eventuality so that, should and emergency arise, they lose no time in completing the complex procedures required to save lives. Sportsmen likewise spend hours on the training field developing their skills, fitness and strategies so that their performance on the field rises to the occasion when it counts. To the casual observer the responses of these people seems like an instant genius, but it is actually ‘second-nature’, through reflection, practice and preparation they have honed their abilities and increased the likelihood of meeting their crises more effectively. Doesn’t it make sense to admit that suffering is all around us, to assume that sooner or later it will hit us, and to prepare ourselves for it? High performers will tell us that the final outcome is usually determined in the mind beforehand, so establishing a theological framework for suffering is not empty theorising.
We believe that God provides us with an understanding of how the world is (we are realistic, not naive), how the world will one day be (we are hopeful, not pessimistic), and how we must develop character-forming habits now for then. Moreover, we are assured of the continual intercession of Jesus and of the power of the Holy Spirit on our behalf. We are also supplied with the community of fellow believers whose calling and pleasure is to love and support us, especially in times of suffering and tragedy. It simply makes no sense to avoid the fellowship of the Church (as many do) at a time when the Church truly comes into its own. In fact, given all of this, we no longer spend our energies in a fruitless exercise of avoiding suffering but instead we choose to live all out for God and others, knowing that this will bring us into confrontation with suffering.