THE CHURCH COMMUNITY ATTEMPTS TO DEAL WITH HUMAN SUFFERING
FROM A LITURGICAL AND SACRAMENTAL PERSPECTIVE
WHICH OFFERS A BIBLICAL AND THEOLOGICAL MODEL
Dr. John I. Penn
This paper supports the position that the church community offers the best response to human suffering from a liturgical and sacramental approach. When the church understands itself as a redemptive covenant community body, it often participates more fully in the suffering of Jesus Christ for the expressed purpose of helping people move toward transformation amid their brokenness, pain, confusion, sin, and alienation in a fractured world.
The particular scope of this paper will be limited to the texts used in this course, “The Suffering of God,” with one exception. I will also include the book I inadvertently read and submit a paper on it as a critical review.
This course has raised a personal concern and presented a compelling challenge to discover a more appropriate response to human suffering that best reflects the perspective of the Hebraic-Christian faith tradition. According to Douglas John Hall, this tradition informs us that human suffering is accurate but not ultimately real. The horrendous and vast spread of suffering includes: injustice, inequality, racism, hatred, sickness, murders, starvation, homelessness, and crime, which we experience in the world, represent suffering that should not be. Suffering cannot be fully comprehended without involving God, a suffering God who stands in solidarity with suffering humanity. God and suffering are not two different aspects of life.
Also, this paper attempts to consider suffering from different perspectives to be more informed about the nature and scope of suffering from a biblical and theological viewpoint. Due to the limitations of this paper, I will briefly consider human suffering from six perspectives: 1) The Old Testament perspective of suffering; 2) The reality of human suffering; 3)Is suffering intended, is it the will of the Creator God? — creation; 4) What is the source or problem that accounts for the fall from divine intentionality? — fall; 5) How do the Gospels inform our tradition concerning human suffering that is not intended (creation), what is “wrong” (fall), is met, addressed, engaged, altered, or redeemed? — redemption; 6) What is the church’s response to human suffering; and 7) The conclusion. Sections three through five will examine Douglas John Hall’s threefold perspective of the reality of suffering that he believes is essential to the Christian tradition. His book, God and Human Suffering, thoroughly develops each aspect of the reality of suffering given in our tradition (creation, fall, redemption). Hall’s threefold perspectives of suffering will be used extensively in this paper. His perspective of suffering will be used to help establish the theology of suffering from a Christian’s perspective. I believe this perspective is critical to supporting the thesis of this paper.
This paper would be incomplete without examining the Old Testament records concerning suffering. In his scholarly writing, Jos Luyten affirms that many perspectives of human suffering are presented in the Old Testament. Luyten consults those authors who had attempted to offer a systematic treatment of suffering described in the Old Testament. He approaches this theme using the Old Testament images of suffering exclusively. He discovers from reading Suffering as Divine Discipline in the Old Testament and Post-biblical Judaism (1995), by James A. Sanders, that there are eight answers to the problem of suffering in the Old Testament: 1) suffering is retributive, 2) disciplinary, 3) revelational, 4) promotional, 5) illusory (or transitory), 6) mysterious (only God has wisdom), 7) eschatological, or 8) meaningless. He states that the Old Testament treatment of suffering can be reduced to three fundamental tendencies: 1) suffering is punishment for sin; 2) suffering is absurd; and 3) suffering is a source of renewal. He believes these three fundamental tendencies run parallel with one another and are also intertwined.
The theme of suffering as punishment for sin is also prominent throughout the Old Testament, which is found in the narrative texts and prophetic oracles, in the psalms and wisdom literature, according to Luyten. The Decalogue stress that the laws of God are to be obeyed, or the wrath of God will come swiftly upon the law-breakers and the community to which they belong: “I the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 20:5). This is the way the Israelites interpret their subsequent relationship with God. The Israelites looked back through their history in their relationship with Yahweh and equated their hardships, enslavement, and destruction of their nation as punishment for their corporate sins.
The misfortunes of Job represent attempts to deal with the idea of suffering as punishment for individual sin developed mainly in the post-exilic times. During this time, the Law became the norm of the faithful community. Anything but strict obedience to the letter of the Law was met with punishment from Yahweh. Both the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel emphasized that the faith community could not continue to claim that they were being punished or were suffering for the infidelity to Yahweh of their fathers, but that every person was responsible for their sin and not for the sins of their fathers (see Lamentations 5; Jer. 31:29-30; Ezek. 18; and 33).
The ancient history of
The Old Testament text presents a second antithetical tendency which contends that there is sufficient evidence to show that all evil and suffering of humankind is unnecessary, meaningless, and absurd. The people cry to God for justice because they see the innocent being crushed into the dust while the guilty go free and live in posterity. Luyten points out that the book of Ecclesiastics expresses the absurdity of human suffering. God is pictured as being in heaven, unaware of what is happening here on earth. There is no communication between the God of heaven and the people on earth. Although God holds the fate of the people, the gulf between God and the world seems too great for God to get involved in the daily lives of the people on earth. The best that a person can do is eat, drink, and recall the days of his youth, cherish the moments with the woman of his heart’s desire, and make the most of the opportunity he presently receives from God (Eccles. 2:24; 3:12-13, 22; 5:17-19; 8:15; 11:9-10).
Luyten concludes this section by referring to the human suffering in the Old Testament text that gets no notice or explanation whatsoever. Some examples of these are: “the grief of Rizpah, who for months stands vigil over the dead bodies of his sons (2 Sam. 21:10); the anguish of the foreign women who are sent away with their children by their Israelite husbands at the command of Ezra (10:44); the suffering and the fate of all those who were innocently murdered, from Abel — whose name Hebel, is in itself highly suggestive — Zechariah, the son of Jehoiada, who at Joash’s order was stoned in the courtyard of Yahweh’s temple” (2 Chr. 24:20-22).
Next, Jos Luyten deals with another
theme that can be detected throughout the Old Testament: human suffering as a
prelude to renewal or even new life. Something excellent or beneficial can and
does come out of suffering. Suffering at
the hands of Yahweh often has a higher purpose: discipline, purifying, and
educating. Israel interprets the wilderness wondering
experience as a lesson in the field when it is pictured as a father
disciplining his son. The era of oppression in
Finally, he mentions a unique perspective of
suffering in the Old Testament. This
presents the idea of vicarious suffering, suffering, and death, which bring
God’s salvation and redemption to people who turn toward God. This perspective of suffering is illustrated
more powerfully through Moses and Jeremiah.
These prophets of God suffered for and mediated between God and the
people on numerous occasions. Moses
constantly intercedes for the Israelites, begging God to be merciful toward
them. He negotiates divine grace on
behalf of the people. Joseph suffered at
the hands of his brothers, who sold him into slavery and ended up in
God’s judgment against the evil of Joseph’s brother was to enter into their pain and brokenness, bringing healing and transformation to his dysfunctional family. Our lifestyle choices can cause untold suffering. Jacob suffered the loss of a son he loved dearly. This caused much heartache. The brothers suffered the anguish of not knowing their brother’s fate, whom they hated, and never learned how to accept and appreciate Joseph’s unique gifts and purpose in life. This whole situation seemed hopeless and doomed from the beginning, at least from a human perspective. But from God’s perspective, this tragic family situation still had the potential to become all that God intended for it. Despite coming from a dysfunctional family, Joseph becomes the great leader he was to be. Joseph showed mercy and forgiveness toward his brothers. His aged father regained his beloved and lost son. The alienation between the brothers was reconciled. And future generations were saved from starvation.
There is ample evidence to show that suffering has been around almost as long as creation. I will now consider the reality or nature of suffering. The Christian tradition, of which I profess, does not deny the existence of suffering. Jesus understood that hell was one of the human conditions. He understood that his messianic mission was not only to confront human suffering, but he said that the Son of Man “must” suffer on behalf of suffering humanity. “It is a condition of his Messiahship.” He had to suffer to bring healing, wholeness, and salvation to a suffering world. Jesus’ suffering reminds us that God is not indifferent to human brokenness, pain, or grief but profoundly identifies with the suffering of humanity. Throughout history, God used human instruments to respond to human suffering and has more fully responded to despair of all kinds through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.
God’s creation has been endowed with certain freedoms; the freedom to make a rational judgment and to exercise free will in making personal choices. In doing so, God placed certain limitations on the relationship between God and creation. God respects human freedom and will not violate or diminish this unique gift of creation. This freedom makes the relationship between God and creation (creatures, humanity, or world) memorable and special.
Although God created the world and all things in it, including human beings, and is in complete control of the creation, God does not exercise control over creation by limiting human freedom. God and creation (world) exist in a relationship. Terence E. Fretheim makes a profound statement about the relationship between God and the world.
The world is not only dependent upon God, but God is also dependent upon the
earth. The world is not only affected by God; God is affected by the world positively and negatively. God is sovereign over the world, yet not
unqualifiedly so, as considerable power and freedom have been given to the
creatures. God is the transcended Lord, but God is transcended not in isolation
from the world but relationship to the world. God knows all there is to know
about the world, yet there is a future that cannot yet be understood even
by God. God is Lord of time and history, yet God has chosen to be bound in the
time and history of the world and to be limited thereby. God is unchangeable concerning the steadfastness of his love and his salvific will for all creatures, yet
God does change in the light of what happens in the interaction between God
and the world.
This statement makes it clear that human actions and lifestyle choices have profound consequences, some of which often lead to human suffering, which takes various forms and can be universal in nature and scope. History has shown us that some suffering is beyond human responsibility. However, some of the sufferings in the world must be shared by human beings. Some of the sufferings must also be shared by God because of the way God willed creation and God’s relatedness to it. The Bible affirms over and over that God is against suffering and works toward removing suffering from the created order. God works in and through humanity to achieve this end.
If the relationship between God and the created world is to be real and have integrity, and if God is bound to it, then God has to give up some freedom for the sake of the relationship, attests Hall. He says God’s freedom is freedom for the world, not freedom from the world. He further states that if this relationship is to have integrity, both parties must share the power. Neither party can be overwhelmed by the control of the relationship through the exercise of power. Fretheim points out that for the sake of the integrity of the relationship between God and the world, God does not work or relate to the world from outside but from within the world. God is in solidarity in every way with creation.
Because of the complex nature of human beings, there are no easy and quick answers to explain the broad scope of human suffering. In a well-documented written paper, “Moral Questioning and Human Suffering: In Search of a Credible Response to the Meaning of Suffering,” Joseph A. Selling attempts to find some answer to why people suffer. First of all, he believes that suffering is tragic. He believes that most people of faith require a solution that transcends the more common answers of why suffering exists. He approaches suffering from an analytical perspective that does not try to provide answers about suffering but articulates the complexity of human suffering because of the complex nature of human beings.
Selling believes that to comprehend the nature of human suffering, it is essential to distinguish between pain and suffering. He acknowledges that pain is a God-created mechanism built within human beings. Pain consists of both negative and positive elements. Most human’s response to pain is interpreted as something negative or evil. From this perspective, we should seek to eliminate pain as much as possible. Although the experience of pain is ambiguous and places physical and psychological limitations, morally speaking, pain’s positive element works for our wholeness. This brings him to the first step of analysis and interpretation.
Selling asks, “Is this form of pain filling a function that may allow us to tolerate it, or is it serving as an alert or threat to our well-being?” When pain serves our well-being, it should not be eliminated. Pain can help to prevent persons from needless suffering or unimaginable harm. A second response might be to get an alternative interpretation before seeking to alleviate the pain immediately. This is usually the course the medical professionals will pursue. Their successful diagnosis and analysis can determine the proper response one should take to a particular pain. That process distinguishes between suffering and discomfort rather than looking toward its justification and reason for it. The critical piece in such a process is understanding how one interprets what they might find. He says, “Pain demands a response while suffering demands an interpretation.”
Selling raises some critical questions related to the issue of human suffering. It provides some thought-provoking explanations in the following areas: the passive interpretation of suffering, religion and the interpretation of suffering, the active interpretation of suffering, suffering as a contrast experience, and relievable and unrelievable pain.
According to Selling, allowing the context
to create the interpretation of human suffering represents a passive response
to suffering. Suppose this passivity is
allowed to become the norm forunderstandingation of human suffering. In that
case, people might not take suffering seriously, which could lead only to a
fascination with suffering itself. This
passive interpretation may also function as a motive for human behavior toward
suffering. On the one hand, it has been
invoked as a motive for something beneficial or rewarding, a type of spiritual
On the other hand, passivity may lead not simply as an explanatory justification for situations of human suffering against which we are powerless to respond; it has also been invoked as an impetus for seeking opportunities to suffer here on earth to gain some eternal reward If human suffering here on earth has some kind of benefit. Those who may be responsible for originating the suffering can interpret their behavior as providing some applicable service or at least believe they are fulfilling or cooperating with some grand scheme of things. Although many people have rejected this lopsided kind of spirituality, failure to correct this perspective of human suffering can lead to a one-sided view of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
I agree that we are not to allow the context to create the interpretation of human suffering. Still, the context can inform us of how the faith community responds to human suffering regarding their needs at that time. We can learn from that, but we must not stop there. We must interpret human suffering within the present reality and search for solutions and answers to fit the current needs of the people. Jesus’ healing model was based on this understanding of suffering. This point will be fully developed in this paper.
I agree with Selling about the dangers of trivializing suffering. He states that when human suffering is trivialized, people tend to minimize the effects of sin and, at the same time, diminish the meaningful suffering of Christ–the Lamb of God, who takes away the world's sin. In addition, if this interpretation is not corrected, the image of a God who suffers along with creation is replaced with a God who is indifferent to human pain and suffering. Humans are helpless orphans in a hostile world, doomed to a tragic end.
Selling turns to religion for an interpretation of suffering. Religion has been replaced by numerous institutions in contemporary society, better known to many as the welfare state. They consist of various helping professions that believe there is an adequate explanation or solution to every problem concerning human suffering. Science and technology, not religion, is the savior of humankind. “What has not yet been overcome – persistent, chronic, meaningless suffering and ultimately death itself – is only a matter of time, knowledge, and technique. Science is the savior of the human condition. Selling does believe that we may find an immediate and exclusive explanation for all human suffering. He weighs whether there is a vital alternative interpretation and whether our faith experience is still a consideration in articulating that alternative.
Selling believes we cannot rely on the context providing the interpretation needed to understand human suffering. He believes that what is required is an active interpretation that demands observation, reflection, and analysis. He further believes that it is a historical endeavor that requires the continuous wisdom not only of individuals but the active participation of the whole human community.  He believes that we must go beyond the restricted interpretation of human suffering given by explanation and justification. What is needed is the product of performance that brings both “....clarification and integration into a wider context that is not pre-fabricated, but rather something that becomes the by-product of the interpretation process itself.”
Johannes Van Bavel wrote a paper asking, “Why suffering?” According to him, suffering is not worthy in and of itself, nor is all suffering meaningless. He states, “That meaning must come from without though, that is, from something good that stands apart from suffering, and from a good that transcends suffering.”
In his paper, “The Meaninglessness of Suffering and Attempts At Interpretation,” Van Bavel defines four responses to the question of “why” suffering occurs. He believes suffering has a punitive character. Human beings are suffering because they lost the state of purity they had enjoyed through the Fall. Yet, he would argue that this does not comply with the different forms of suffering. Douglas John Hall has also come to this conclusion.
Second, suffering can tutor us to grow and mature and become sensitive to the suffering of others, which might direct us to enter into the cause of their suffering to bring about a higher good. On the other hand, not all hell is informative. Some suffering might cause a person to become bitter and give up on life.
Third, suffering is necessary for human progress. It is the price for a better functioning reality. This notion is problematic when the suffering of some is considered an essential good of the whole. He states, “When countless individuals are sacrificed as cogs to some great wheel, society, in this case, the matter becomes quite problematic indeed. Victims cannot be expected to accept or approve their suffering because it is said to be the way to a better future.”
In light of this argument, he believes that some forms of suffering are intended in the creation or that we can always find a way to discern some good within a nightmare. The question I have about this particular perspective is who decides the interest that can be felt in human suffering. In one sense, only the person experiencing grief can determine if the hell is good or not. Those who have not experienced that particular kind of suffering cannot speak with authority on the benefit of some other person’s suffering.
The final response is to see that evil and suffering have their places within some greater whole, whether this is the world order, the logos as a universal principle, or God. Suffering can be neutralized when it is in the service of the greater good. Van Bavel quickly points out that this thesis falls apart when the vision of a greater harmony fails, when great systems collapse, when the innocents are prey to destruction and death, and when senseless suffering happens. I agree with Van Bavel on two points. Suffering is evil and is often destructive. Second, we can learn from certain kinds of suffering and use it to improve reality, provided that some people are not used as sacrifices for the good of the whole.
As stated above, in his book, God and Human Suffering, Douglas John Hall examines a threefold perspective on the reality of suffering that is essential to the Christian tradition. These are creation, fall, and redemption. Each of these three theological reflections on suffering raises a different-but-related biblical question of suffering. The first perspective of creation asks the question: Is suffering intended, or is it the will of the Creator God? If it is the intent of creation, what is its essential purpose?
The second dimension of the threefold perspective on the reality of suffering offered in our tradition raises the question of the fall: What is the source or problem that accounts for the fall from divine intentionality? The third perspective given in our tradition deals with redemption, which asks the question: How do the Gospels inform our tradition that human suffering that is not intended (creation), what is “wrong” (fall), is met, addressed, engaged, altered, redeemed.
Hall believes that these threefold perspectives attempt to give the Christian tradition theological reflection on human suffering that the church continues to grapple with from antiquity to the modern time: 1) Is suffering part of God’s creation to plan for humanity? 2) What went wrong if suffering is not written in the creation script? and 3) How does God overcome what is not intended in the creation script? These perspectives will have an essential role in this paper later on.
Hall points out that suffering belongs with the divine because the Old Testament views all intermediate agencies such as demons, angels, spirits, of the dead, personifications of divine attributes, and impersonal or magical powers such as magic, curses, or fate only play a secondary role in suffering, if at all. From the Christian confession or faith perspective, creation is not a theory of how the world came to be but what came to be and why. It seeks to “...speak about the essence (esse) and the end (telos) of creaturely life, of what is essential, and to what is intended.” Hall tends to believe that creation is not without some kind of suffering. He thinks the Garden of Eden story is not entirely without some kind of suffering in the eyes of the faith confession. He finds evidence for at least four types of human suffering there. Even in goodness, one can discover something not so good. The four he identifies are loneliness, limits, temptation, and anxiety.
God discovers that a condition is not so good in the perfect creation. It was not good for Adam to live a solitary life. The Creator learns that it would be better for Adam to have an appropriate counterpart, which all of the other creatures apparently could not fulfill. This brings joy or ecstasy to him: “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2:23).
This passage in Genesis can apply to the sick or suffering because they experience isolation and loneliness. God’s words could also be to those suffering; It is not suitable for you (the sick person) to be alone.” This is why I give a broader interpretation of the passage in James’ Epistle, where he instructs the ill person to call on the church elders to have them pray and anoint with oil the sick for God to heal and save (see Jam. 5:14-16). James did not mean that a little dab of oil would do; instead, it was also a call to the sick to reestablish them with the faith community. There, they would have the spiritual support and encouragement needed for their healing, wholeness, salvation, and return to Christian service. I believe that the entire Christian community is, first of all, a healing community. Both the sick persons and the faith community experience healing and transformation.
I believe the church fails to fulfill an authentic role as a healing community when human suffering is not taken seriously. The original church creates a safe place to experience God’s healing grace, where healing and transformation can happen when people gather in Christian love in Christ’s name. Most sick people struggle with their pain and brokenness in complete isolation from family and the faith community. People do tend to visit the sick and shut-ins. People usually make one or two visits to the sick, but little ministry takes place. Most clergy and lay persons who regularly call on the sick do not understand the importance of their role as an h to the sick. This is true partly because most seminaries do not teach courses about spiritual healing nor emphasize the church’s role as a healing community. More will be said about the church as a healing community later.
Hall points out that suffering also emanates from the experience limits of its existence, powers, and intelligence. He states that the garden stands as a reminder of the presence of human limitations.
A third condition associated with a creation that is a source of suffering is temptation. Hall suggests human beings face temptations when we strive to work individually or collectively outside our creaturehood potentiality — to seek to be like gods. Temptations come from within and outside of ourselves. The tempter and dealer attraction seems to be a part of what “should be,” according to Hall.
The final condition of the created order is anxiety that accompanies ignorance or a desire to peer into the unknown. Prolonged stress can manifest untold suffering when it leads to despair. Another danger associated with anxiety is the potential for sin. According to the Christian tradition, human beings were not created sinful. The potential for both good and evil is always present. Sin has the potential of introducing suffering (that should not be) as no longer the suffering of belonging but is destructive, which distorts our creaturehood—a form of suffering that produces bondage and sickness unto death. In one sense, sin can be interpreted as a rejection of our stewardship of life that has been divinely willed to us. That is the acceptance of and living within the conditions of the four elements of our creaturehood.
One must ask, “Is all suffering intended as a part of creation?” When is suffering considered harmful or even destructive? Hall reminds us that suffering becomes harmful when it ceases to serve life. Hall makes this same point by saying, “In the course of struggling with the conflicting elements that are present in all four of these conditions...we become the beings that (in essence) we are…We become more truly whole, unified, and centered persons. Such suffering is an indispensable means to our greater appropriation of the life that is our birthright as covenant partners of the Lord and Giver of life.”
Douglas John Hall affirms that there are two forms of suffering. One form of suffering (that should be) that tends to be part of the created order, or integrative suffering and the suffering that should not be. The suffering that should be is part of the creation blueprint. It produces life or has the potential to transform life to its original intent — the fullness of life. According to Hall, life without struggle is not the intent of the created order. There is a second form of suffering that should not be, which does not serve life, and is not part of the created order. Consideration will now be given to the suffering that should not be.
The tradition of the Bible gives evidence of a form of suffering that does not serve life, which is senseless, meaningless, massive, unbearable, and absurd. It would be unrecognizable to the Creator God. Hall points to scripture that presents a God who weeps over the enormous scope of the tragedies of human suffering on the earth. This God will not rest until all the wrongs of the suffering that should not have been corrected and eliminated from the face of the planet — death itself is defeated (Rev. 21:4).
Hall concludes this chapter of “Creation: Suffering of Becoming” by emphasizing that God not only took the risk of putting certain conditions (restraints) and suffering within the created order for the expressed purpose of bringing forth a kind of creation that is creative, imaginative, wondrous, endowed with abundant potentialities — a creation with freedom — that should be. Freedom is the essence of what it means to be human. With this unique capacity, we are free to choose a lifestyle that is responsible or not, to live creatively within the conditions of creation or not. In so doing, God set certain limitations over how God could relate to God’s creation. God chose to have a creation that is free to respond, act, to love. Hall states,
It is the genius and the burden of this faith that it determines to
resolve the problem of suffering, not through a creation theology
which makes the suffering born of distorted human freedom impose-
sible to begin with, but through a redemption theology that takes
upon itself, the consequences of distorted freedom transform them,
and offers them back to the sufferer as healing grace.
Hall believes our biblical tradition informs us that this suffering we see daily in the world is born out of “the fall.” The suffering that should not be robs humanity of their God-given potentiality for enjoying life in its fullness, of becoming what God intends for us to be. This form of suffering distorts our being and contradicts God’s good creation. This suffering was introduced through the distortion of human freedom, whether personal or corporate. The fall is the second aspect of the threefold perspective of the human condition.
People of all levels of life agree that there is a connection between suffering and sin. Understanding that the world and the creatures were created well is essential. Sin was not part of creation. Human beings are not created sinful. When we misuse our God-given freedom, the potential for sin is always present. The disciples were also confused about the connection between suffering and sin when they asked Jesus whether the man or his parents’ sin was responsible for his blindness. Jesus’ answer makes it crystal clear that not all suffering can be attributed to sin on a personal or collective level. Sin cannot account for all of the sufferings in the world. Suffering comes from other aspects beyond human responsibility, including sin, as even Jesus revealed. The Apostle Paul firmly believed that some forms of suffering in the world are caused by unseen, spiritual forces of evil, who were angels created by God. They rebelled against God and now exercise temporary powers in the universe. (see Eph. 6). Paul calls these powers and principalities. They cause untold suffering through their evil influences on the affairs of people, institutions, and world systems. They aim to distort, frustrate, or limit God’s plans and purposes for creation and salvation. Walter Wink’s book, Engaging the Powers, deals extensively with the dominant powers that cause massive evil and suffering worldwide. He believes that even the evil behind institutions and systems is spiritual, confusing, and subverting human life.
The theology of original sin has to be challenged if we accept the thesis that humans were not created as sinful beings. As Hall states, perhaps the doctrine of original sin was an attempt to express the universality of suffering and sin. Our Christian tradition recognizes that humans have the capacity for both good and evil but were not created with a sinful nature. There is a distinct difference between the two concepts.
Hall believes this is a unique opportunity for the church community as a compassionate body to provide guidance and answers in this sensitive area where many people feel burdened with personal and collective sin issues. Hall wisely challenges the church community, whose members are sufficiently in touch with their feelings to discern the most profound needs in others. He further states, “Christians do believe, however, that there is at work in the world a grace, an influence, a Spirit of transformation which is engaging both the moral and tragic factor in the human condition which make for earthly suffering. And they believe they are called and enabled by this same Spirit of transformation to participate in this conquest.”
The Christian tradition affirms that suffering is real but not ultimate; it does not have the last word. This leads to the third area of the threefold perspective of suffering. The Bible reminds us that suffering does not have the last word because there is a profound answer to suffering. Hall states that an even greater reality has met suffering. Suffering is completed by a God of suffering love (agapé). This answer is named in our tradition as redemption or salvation. Hall wisely points out that the threefold perspective (creation, fall, redemption) does not belong to three distinct areas or foci. They belong to a single view of redemption.
The doctrinal concept of redemption may be defined as the suffering love of God who took on our humanity in all of its weakness, struggles, brokenness, sin, and potentialities for wholeness and transformation (of the inner human spirit) for an abundant life that the incarnation directs us toward. Redemption, through the eyes of faith, is defined as grace — that reminds us that we are not alone in trying to make sense out of life on our own — that human weaknesses can find expression in strength — that our brokenness can be transformed into healing and wholeness — that we are not alone in our struggle — that our sin (personal and collective) does not have to lead to separation but bring reconciliation, nor does it have to produce death but can produce life in all of its fullness — human potentiality does not have to remain fixed and finite but have the potential of infinitude. All of this is possible because God not only identifies with human suffering but works against suffering, giving both a new perspective and a new meaning — the possibility of healing and transformation.
Hall emphasizes that we must understand the true meaning of redemption through the doctrine of the divine trinity. In the incarnation, God engages fully in and with the struggles of humanity “...not through power but participation; not through might but self-emptying, “weak” love is the burden of human suffering engaged by the God of this faith tradition.”
I believe that much human suffering comes from our insufficiency or incompleteness because we deny this suffering God accesses into our suffering. Yet, this is precisely why God suffers. God is incomplete when God cannot engage in our torture. Jesus said that the Son of man must suffer (see Mark 3:31-9; Matt. 13:16).
What does this all mean for the contemporary church? What is the church’s response to the widespread suffering, and how can it be an instrument of healing and transformation? I believe that the Holy Spirit is challenging the church, the body of Christ, to make a paradigm shift in its theology, to embrace a broader interpretation of wholeness not only in the context of the healing stories found in both the Old and New Testaments but also in the context of where the people are today. When Jesus healed suffering people, he healed them within the context of their culture. The body of Christ must pay attention to and model its healing ministry in the twenty-first century after Jesus’ healing ministry. In light of these views, a fivefold perspective becomes apparent if we as a church pay attention to how Jesus healed people. First, the church must believe that although suffering is accurate, it is not ultimate. God has empowered the church with gifts and graces to minister to the suffering world. Jesus has given us the authority of his name to heal, cast out, and destroy the evil spiritual powers in the world. Second, the church must identify with and participate in the world's suffering as God’s instrument of grace, to bring healing and salvation. As long as the church sits on the sideline of life and remains passive, it does not witness God’s suffering love available to the world.
Jesus said there are two kinds of church members: sheep and goats. The sheep are engaged in ministries to those suffering from hunger, thirst, loneliness, sickness, imprisonment, homelessness, oppression, poverty, alienation, and more. These are the evils that cause so much human pain and suffering. The goat church members are indifferent to the suffering world. They are so preoccupied with their well-being that they cannot see other hurting and needy people (see Matt. 25; Isaiah 58).
Third, healing must be understood holistically. We must seek to heal the whole person, which includes: spirit, body, mind, and relationships. Healing, by necessity, must also be interpreted within a broader context that reflects the faith and culture of the people. As healers, we must speak about healing in a language that reflects the culture and faith that the people possess. In other words, we must meet people where they are—meeting people where they demonstrate acceptance of the faith experience of others. This also builds a level of trust between those involved. This also helps people to open themselves up to an invitation to experience the healing that might be beyond their faith level. The goal of the healing community is to point others to the Great Physician, Jesus Christ.
Fourth, the church must understand itself as a healing community where people can receive healing, wholeness, and salvation. Healing is best understood within the context of the faith or covenant community. The church’s task is to create an atmosphere where divine grace is manifested. The church community is to be a place perceived by people as being: warm, safe, hospitable, and nonjudgmental, where people can come to share their brokenness and pain. In this environment, people’s pain and brokenness are healed and transformed.
Finally, the church must continuously search for meaningful and creative ways of relating to, and joining in solidarity with the suffering of the world, if we are to become an authentic church. The church must take the lead in the struggle against the widespread suffering in society and the world. This constitutes a paradigm shift in our perspective of the church’s healing ministry. This paper is written to explore what this can mean for the church in the twenty-first century and challenge the church to make this paradigm shift so that the church will become what God intends for it.
I began this paper by stating that the church community attempts to deal with suffering in a liturgical and sacramental way. I had come to this conclusion some time ago, but my interest in this area intensified after coming to my present position as the director of Spiritual Formation and Healing. I read an interesting essay by Cor Treats, concluding that the church community attempts to deal with suffering from a liturgical and sacramental perspective. This essay expresses many of my thoughts about suffering and how the church community ought to respond to it.
Cor Traets’s essay reminds us that
the church community is a healing community.
I believe that when the church understands itself as a covenant community,
it offers the best attempt to deal with human suffering from a liturgical and
sacramental perspective. He limited his paper to deal more
specifically with the aspect of anointing the seriously ill practiced within
the Roman Ritual of 1972. He also
considered the Ritual for the Flemish dioceses of
Treats stresses that the care of the
seriously sick person must be done with pastoral integrity. When the sacrament is offered to a seriously
ill individual, one tends to approach it from a faith-centered
interpretation. This interpretation
anticipates that administering the sacrament will help the sick person toward
salvation and is restored to health. In
the Flemish tradition, the ill person is hoped to be restored to health. Illness is now better understood from a holistic
perspective: spirit, body, mind, and in
a social context. The intention is to
see the recovery of the whole person.
For this reason, illness is taken seriously. The aim is to treat the whole person. Sickness is viewed as a crisis and a disruption of communication with one’s body, which is now experienced as an enemy. The sick person no longer feels connected with one’s environment or people, from which one grows progressively isolated. The seriously ill individual becomes aware of their frailty and finiteness. Questions are raised in the mind of the sick person. Where is God now? Why God? What have I done to deserve this? Where will this lead? Because sickness often takes many forms, most of which cause pain and suffering, sickness is evil.
When a person is healed, there is the potential for restoring all of the brokenness and communication disruption that the person experienced during their illness. According to Traets, “True healing is essentially connected to the future: it includes arriving at a new harmony, a new integration of one’s situation and a new outlook, operative at every level on which the sick person has been affected by illness.”
Traets further states that the person leaves the hospital “cured,” even when there may be little or no evidence that (purely) medical progress has been made. All sacraments intend to invite people to actively engage themselves in their health and wholeness (meaningful life situation) in the context of the gospel message and also open themselves up to Christ’s healing presence. All sacraments are means of grace to communicate the elements of restoration of the seriously ill person and the restoration of all aspects of that person’s life. Because the sacrament is administered through the church community, it is to be understood that God heals through human beings. The church serves as a channel of God’s healing power and grace. In other words, the church communicates in different ways or signs to show the healing presence of God in the world.
The liturgy of the sick brings the sick and the faith community together as an expression that not only does God care for the ill but also is actively working through the faith community to bring health and salvation to the sick person. Traets affirms, “The liturgy of the sick represents a crystallization of the whole process of human and Christian caregiving. It places this care explicitly in a Christian perspective, thereby turning toward God and leading to a petition for God’s efficacious care for the sick.”
The three goals of the Ritual are: (1) it connects with the situation of the sick and suffering; (2) it brings insight to that situation; and (3) it accomplishes something, the sick are healed. Traets draws from tradition to discover to what extent each of these three aspects benefits the sick individual in dealing with their situation. The Ritual contains two kinds of texts: doctrinal and liturgical. The doctrinal text includes the pastoral guidelines for those using the Ritual. The two most important are the Apostolic Constitution and General Introduction.
The liturgical text consists of particular prayer texts that express a Christian and ecclesial view of the circumstance or situation. The liturgical text aims to create an atmosphere of celebration of the expectation of the sick and the community of faith in God’s promises to be present among those who gather in Christ’s name, which recalls how deeply God loves the unhappy. The sick can rest under God’s grace and providential care to struggle against sickness. In the liturgy, the faith community joins with and supports the sick, offering prayers that the sick be saved, healed, and restored to Christian service. The liturgy reminds us that the faithful Christian church must always be an active caregiver in reaching out to the sick and suffering.
In faith, the sick rediscover a deeper relationship with God, experience a deep sense of being surrounded by God’s abiding love, recover a deeper understanding of the human community, rediscover their most profound level of being as a person and as a Christian (even if their healing physically or psychically is incomplete), and see the future open up beyond death. The sick and suffering welcome the invitation to follow Christ in some particular vocation.
The theme of the church as a healing community that attempts to deal with suffering is also captured in another essay written by Kritiaan Depoortere entitled, “You Have Striven With God” (Gen. 32:28): A Pastoral-Theological Reflection on the Image of God and Suffering.
Kristiaan Depoortere recognizes the church’s pastoral role to the faithful experiencing some suffering. He writes this paper to support those who sense a call to minister to the sick and suffering and challenge them to face life’s situations with the help of the gospel and find their calling in pastoral care. He affirms that the aim of pastoral care is a ministry of service and encouragement to the faithful experiencing suffering. Their ministry is faith-encouraging and faith-strengthening believers in their attempt to adopt the lifestyle of Jesus Christ. He believes the pastoral ministry is not limited to those in the ordained ministry. Both lay and clergy persons may engage in the ministry of pastoral care for faith-strengthening believers in the church.
Depoortere believes that pastoral theology does not reflect on suffering in general nor gets caught up in the different systems of religion that try to make sense of suffering. Pastoral theology ministers encourage people to engage in their suffering and pain actively. He recognizes that pastors who minister to the suffering are in short supply. He acknowledges that not all pastoral care is equal. Some pastors provide adequate care to the sick; others are mediocre, while others try to avoid it as much as possible. Although pastoral care for suffering is evolving, it remains a problematic ministry. Pastoral care involves both word and sacrament. A person’s biblical and theological perspective of suffering is essential in how they respond to suffering.
Depoortere believes that Adolphe Gesche provides the best framework for understanding the theology of pastoral ministry to those suffering. Gesche describes five moments in integrating suffering with classical terms: contra Deum, pro-Deo, in Deo, ad Deum, and cum Deo. He warns us that the relationship between God and the sufferer varies and does not fit any prescribed pattern.
Unlike Gesche, Depoortere believes that pro-Deo-moment should head the process. This is the process that most of the faithful approach suffering.  The sufferers try to exonerate God because they acknowledge the goodness of God. Human beings are responsible for suffering and calamity, not God. They believe God is concerned about suffering. Depoortere brings out two severe problems with this approach. First, sick people believe that the faithful must protect their God. This is not fair either to God or to human beings. To exonerate God from responsibility, give God an image of a moralistic-fix-it God. On the other hand, if human beings are responsible, can all suffering be attributed to them?
The second element of pro-Deo suggests that suffering is sent by God to teach some moral lesson or to test the faith of the believer. This idea of suffering is found in the Bible but does not hold up in reality. Some may see suffering as chastening and benefit from it., However, suffering for most of us ends in confusion, brokenness, and bitterness. This passive resignation enables the person to remain in their suffering and compounds any pastoral efforts. The pastoral response, in this case, is to allow the patient to communicate their guilty conscience, release their pain, and not dismiss it as irrelevant.
The second moment in the process of giving meaning to suffering may be called contra Deum, a pleaagainst God. He points out that blaming oneself naturally leads to blaming God. God is not excused or justified. God is either accused or eliminated. This is often a cry against a particular image or idea of God. The attitude of the sick person is one of aggression and revolt. People become angry with a God of punishment and retribution and are angry at themselves. Pastorally, this is a difficult situation. Three things work against the sick person: the disappointment of a particular image of God, feelings of powerlessness, and isolation (or alienation). Most counselors would advise against interfering with the feelings or attitudes of aggression. The best counseling at this time should be non condemnation and nonconfrontation. Affirmation and support at a deeper level are what’s needed. The pastoral worker should pay more attention to the argument and not the patient’s situation.
A third way the religious community gives meaning to suffering is described as ad Deum, which lays suffering directly on God. They occur when people have the courage not to deny the reality of suffering and see a relationship between the sick and God. Ad Deum asks the question, “ Why me, God?” They cry out to God for help. The fact that God is addressed suggests that God exists and is present. God is not viewed as outside suffering, even if God’s will involves some suffering.
The fourth way that suffering has religious meaning is described in the term cum Deo, where God raises the problem of suffering. God is with the sufferer. God is in solidarity with those suffering in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ’s ministry to the sick and suffering settles once and for all the issues that God does not bring but alleviates all suffering. For him, Gesche shows the depth of God’s solidarity with the suffering. He states, “His solidarity is not merely effective. It is effective. He intervenes. He strives with women and men against evil and suffering. This means a formal break with the previous images of God. There is no longer an association between God and suffering. God does not use suffering for anything, not even for the well-being of humans...He acts together with us against suffering.”
Because God is a suffering God, the church can offer a pastoral ministry to the suffering. Those who believe in God’s healing presence can rest in the assurance that God’s power is available to the suffering. Suffering does not have the last word for the believer. People confidently say, “Thy will be done,” because God’s will is salvation. The reality of the resurrection is an essential aspect of pastoral care. God’s healing presence and power are made available to those engaged in the ministry to the sick and suffering.
According to Depoortere, the pastoral care ministry offers two benefits to those who suffer: 1) the exoneration of suffering and 2) the pardon of God. He concludes that most suffering is senseless. When suffering is associated too closely with sin, guilt, and punishment, the sick person loses heart and tends to blame him or herself needlessly. Bitterness results, and it breaks off relationships.
Second, God is exonerated. When God is interpreted as the one who sends suffering as punishment for some sin, one’s relationship with God is distorted. God is often reduced to a capricious power, Depoortere attests. The God of the gospel does not present this God. He points out that God has only one power: the power of love.
Depoortere makes it clear that this interpretation makes sense only in the context of the faith community. It becomes a model of experience. He further states, “Nobody can be freed from the self-incriminating experience of suffering without the support of a believing community. This is the constitutively ecclesiological dimension of faith.”
He lists some of the ways that the faith community works on behalf of the suffering and sick: 1) organizes the care of the sick (both professional and voluntary) workers with a service where the sick can be identified; 2) provides systematic counseling prayers of intercession during worship; 3) introduce opportunities for the worshipping community to experience a special liturgy and the sacrament of anointing of the sick; 4) provides opportunities for the sick to express their feelings; 5) assists the sick with praying, which is an essential aspect of the counseling process; and 6) helps the sick person experience a sense of community which is a critical ministry of the community.
Finally, Depoortere points out that
suffering does not serve anything; it certainly does not appease God. “No particular life situation is more or less
advantageous to faith: no national,
racial, social, or religious condition, neither poverty nor illness. Jesus would not have healed the sick if the illness
were particularly beneficial.” He reminds us that when the community
reaches out to the suffering, it testifies to the promise that God in Christ is
with us and that nothing can separate us from the love of God (Rom.
In, Conclusion, I have attempted to show that although suffering is real, it is not ultimately real because it does not have the last word. Why? Suffering has been profoundly met by this suffering God of love, whom we know by the name of Jesus Christ, Emmanuel — the God with us. The church community has been equipped and empowered by the Holy Spirit to participate with the suffering world.
There is a form of suffering that is to be because it is part of God’s creation to help humanity toward transformation to participate in our entire human potentiality as God intends. This suffering is understood as “becoming” or “integrative” suffering. Four forms of suffering belong to the human condition: loneliness, limits, temptation, and anxiety.
There are forms of suffering that should not be. This suffering is not a part of the created order. These forms of suffering do not move us toward becoming but are destructive and do not serve life. Suffering of this nature results when we misuse our human freedom. This disintegrative and burdensome suffering robs and saps us of the joy of our personhood. When human freedom is distorted or misused and left unchecked, it always has the potential for sin. The sufferings that should not be are injustice, racial hatred, poverty, homelessness, starvation, wealth inequality, material goods, sickness, and disease, to name a few.
Jesus’ teaching and ministry were directed to those who were suffering either from: illness, poverty, religious elitism, oppression by demons, hopelessness, enslavement by the traditions of men, outcast, classism, sexism, or lacking self-esteem, to list some. Jesus reminds us that this kind of suffering should not be. Jesus not only pointed them out to his disciples but also equipped them to do something about them. The cross of Jesus Christ demonstrated that we should be willing to give our lives for the sake of helping others come to know God’s healing and transforming love.
This is the challenge of this paper. The church must model its healing ministry after that of Jesus. We are also challenged to interpret the healing of Jesus in the broad context as he did. The healing stories of Jesus strongly suggest that healing, wholeness, and salvation always have a more expansive dimension or higher purpose, which benefits those who are healed and those in the faith community. I want to offer at least two reasons why the faith community must search for a broader interpretation of healing, wholeness, or health. First, the church community must understand that healing, health, wholeness, and salvation are bound up in God’s redemptive purposes for creation and redemption. Second, healing, wholeness, and salvation are bound up in our shared humanity. Thus healing and wholeness are the ministry of the church, the redeemed people of God. We are to take up the suffering of the world. God’s redemptive purposes are to heal our brokenness and create a kind of covenant community where others can experience God’s healing, wholeness, and salvation.
Healing and salvation point us back to God’s original purposes for creation. The redemptive story is of God welcoming the lost, broken, and fallen creation home. The redemptive story is about a covenant God that would not give up on God’s creation. God was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s self. This is the story of the incarnation. Jesus says this: “...I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full.” Healing and salvation are not just about healing the brokenness of humanity; it is also about a God who would not break the covenant with God’s creation. When God said to the Israelites I will be your God, and you will be my people, this was God’s way of reclaiming all of creation. God called the Israelites to witness God’s healing and salvation to the world. When they failed to be a light unto the gentiles, God raised a servant from among them to carry through God’s plans for creation and salvation.
 Douglas John Hall, God and Human Suffering, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1986), 29???
 Ibid.,. 2.
 Ibid., 4.
 Ibid., 13.
 Ibid., 19.
 Ibid. 19-20.
 Ibid., 22.
 Terence E. Fretheim, The Suffering of God, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 35.
 Ibid., 36.
 Ibid., 36-37.
 Ibid., 38.
 Jan Lambrecht and Raymond F. Collins, editors, God and Human Suffering (Louvain: Eerdmans, 1990), 155.
 Ibid., 15.
 Ibid., 156.
 Ibid., 158-59.
 Ibid., 162.
 Ibid., 168.
 Ibid., 170.
 Ibid., 171.
 Ibid., 172.
 Ibid., 129.
 Ibid., 134.
 Ibid., 135.
 Ibid., 29.
 Ibid., 29.
 Ibid., 29-30
 Hall., 3.
 Ibid., 51.
 Ibid., 55.
 Ibid. 59.
 Ibid. 56.
 Ibid., 71.
 Ibid., 64.
 Ibid. 65.
 Ibid., 74.
 Ibid., 74-75.
 Ibid., 71.
 Ibid., 92.
 Ibid., 94.
 Ibid., 113.
 Lambrecht and Collins., 183.
 Ibid., 183-84.
 Ibid., 184.
 Ibid. 185.
 Ibid., 186.
 Ibid., 187.
 Ibid., 190-91.
 Ibid., 199.
 Hall., 211.
 Ibid., 218.
 Lambrecht and Collins., 218.
 Ibid., 222.
 Ibid., 221.
 Ibid., 224-25.
 Ibid., 225-26.
 Ibid., 226.
 Ibid., 228.
 Ibid., 228-29.
 Ibid., 230.
 Ibid., 230.
 Ibid., 231.
 Ibid., 231-34.
 Ibid., 234.