(This is part 3, which means that you should read parts 1 & 2 first if you haven’t yet.)
And so we come to the conclusion of this series. I hope you had a great Christmas season (unless you’re Orthodox, in which case I hope your preparation is coming together nicely) and a fun New Year.
So far I’ve attempted to debunk three inappropriate views of Christian faith (part 1) and have presented an appropriate biblical theology of faith (part 2). Now, let’s see if I can make the rubber hit the road.
No church escapes the devastating, painful, and heart-wrenching experience of watching a fellow brother or sister in Christ suffer, whether it be from disease, death, or any other sort of tragedy. That the local church, being a faith-based community, chooses to engage suffering people in discussions concerning the idea of faith comes as no surprise. The Church, as is typically understood, has a mission to help people know and experience God through faith. Sadly, suffering individuals, and the family and friends that surround them, are often presented with misrepresentations of faith. Conveyed in these misrepresentations are implicit beliefs and images concerning God that are terribly inconsistent with Scripture. Misguided ideas of faith create a misrepresentation of God, and this equation rarely helps a suffering individual know God more. This is a problem.
Considering the findings in part two of this series, the ultimate goal of pastoral ministry as it relates to helping people and their families in the midst of suffering is not to help people acquire more faith. Rather, the role of a pastor must be to help people know God. In the experience and journey of knowing God a person will find faith; they will find the trustworthiness, faithfulness, fidelity, commitment, steadfast love, compassion, grace, kindness, patience, and mercy of God. It is in discovering and experiencing those characteristics of God that faith is born: the kind of faith that “gives a horizon in which problems are not ultimate and the response of hope, thanks and praise is most appropriate” (1). The more a person knows God, the more he or she will realize how much God can be trusted to be who He will be and to adhere to His promises.
Here, then, are several suggestions for use in pastoral ministry to the suffering.
First, allow for people to question God. These are questions directed at God, not the pastor. Though some pastors incorrectly believe that they are capable of knowing all the reasons why a person might suffer, a pastor must not feel compelled to, or that they can, provide answers to a suffering person’s questions. On the contrary, pastors should be “okay” with allowing a suffering person to yell and scream at God without feeling like they must provide the answers for God. Psalm 89 clearly allows for this kind of response to suffering. “The emphasis in Ps 89 had as a sole concern the Divine pledge of perpetuity to the Davidic dynasty as such and the glaring contrast between the promised ideal and the present reality” (2). The “suppliant” [in Ps 89] wants YHWH to be mindful of the short span of human life as people often experience it,” (3) and so the writer asks: “How long?” and “Where is your hesed?” (4). However, the Psalm ends with the scribe notably proclaiming: “Praise be to the LORD forever! Amen and amen” (TNIV). There can be little doubt that this ending was written in faith: a belief that even though it seemed as if God had forgotten His promise, God would, in the end, still keep His word. This is authentic questioning rooted in faith and it must be allowed to happen in situations of suffering. It is in these moments of questioning that God often reveals to the questioner the ways in which He has been gracious, merciful, compassionate, and loving. Questioning can lead to knowing God and His ways.
Second, a pastor must pray, and lead prayer, in the name of Jesus Christ. When a person prays in Jesus’ name they are evoking the fidelity of Jesus’ name: “It is because of Jesus — his covenant with us — that I ask these things” (5). The New Testament clearly speaks to Jesus revealing and fulfilling the divine characteristics of “steadfast love” and “faithfulness” (John 1:14-17; Rom 15:8-9). “To be consecrated or to be sanctified through the truth…is to possess steadfast devotion by means of the steadfast love of God communicated through Jesus Christ” (6). Therefore it is in Jesus’ name that a Christian prays, yielding his or her will to the will of Christ and “making room” for the infilling of the Spirit. Praying in this way is how a person knows and experiences God and, therefore, rests in the presence of the God who is hesed, emet, and emunah. Those who suffer must pray to know and experience God’s dependable character as it is described in Scripture.
Third, a pastor should allow for grief. “A theology without the tears of grief and without a sigh of hope, a theology that has lost sight of man [sic] in his distress and in his expectations, has also lost its real theme: God” (7). “Strength is not built on easy stories with happy endings” (8). Christians believe that the Davidic promises have been fulfilled in Jesus Christ (Acts 2:30; Rev 5); however, there will be no final closure — suffering will remain — until the second coming. Grief, during this period of “now and not yet,” is unavoidable. However, the beautiful truth in the midst of a person’s suffering is that God weeps alongside those who weep (John 11:35).
Fourth, a pastor should remind the person who suffers that suffering itself — pain and death — does not have the final say (1 Cor 15:35-58). The best way to do this is simply by reading aloud Scripture and stories from the Tradition. God is faithful: this is the truth found in the Hebrew Bible. Jesus wins: this is the fullness of truth expressed in the inauguration of the Kingdom at the resurrection. The finite experience of a person’s reality must be weighed against God’s cosmic and infinite movement of love and redemption. This is not done to make a suffering person’s circumstances feel insignificant. Rather, it is done to remind the suffering person of the overarching story of God, and that it is the God of that story who they have the incredible privilege of submitting their life to and knowing. “Those who counterintuitively look beyond themselves for such stability find themselves fastened firmly to the most unassailable refuge possible — Jesus Christ, risen and vindicated” (9).
So there you have it. Faith is not a currency, faith is not to be confused with positive thinking, and faith is not a guarantor of happiness. Faith is from God and based in who God is and how He demonstrates His character. To have faith is to have faith in God’s faithfulness and trust in God’s trustworthiness. To quote one of my past professors: “It’s about God, stupid” (10). Therefore, the primary aim of pastoral ministry to the suffering must not be to help them acquire more faith. Rather, the aim must be to help those who suffer know God. Faith comes from knowing God and experiencing Him — from knowing His steadfast love, grace, faithfulness, mercy, patience, and kindness. It is this understanding of faith that must permeate a pastor’s interactions, words, and prayers with those who are suffering. In 1 Cor 2:1-5, Paul is not specifically referring to interactions with suffering people, but his aim remains a prescription for all pastoral ministry.
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I didn’t come preaching God’s secrets to you like I was an expert in speech or wisdom. I had made up my mind not to think about anything while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and to preach him as crucified. I stood in front of you with weakness, fear, and a lot of shaking. My message and my preaching weren’t presented with convincing wise words but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power. I did this so that your faith might not depend on the wisdom of people but on the power of God.
And so concludes this series. Thoughts?