Tag Archives: Suffering

“A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss” by Jerry Sittser

In the fall of 1991, Jerry Sittser’s life changed when his wife, mother, and four-year old daughter were killed in a car crash while he and his other three children survived. The accident, as Sittser noted later, forced him down a course “which [he] had to journey whether [he] wanted to or not.”[1] He had to find a way to adjust to his new life as “there was no way out but ahead, into the abyss.”[2] As Sittser walked into the abyss, he kept a journal of his reflections in an effort to help process what was happening in and around him. Friends would later encourage him to write a book on the subject of catastrophic loss, hence the origins of this book.[3]

While the book A Grace Disguised contains vignettes of Sittser’s personal experience, it is not about his experience per se. Rather it is about the “universal experience of loss”[4] and the “transformation that can occur in our lives”[5] through this loss. As Sittser found in his own journey, it isn’t the “experience of loss that becomes the defining moment” of life but the way in which we “respond to loss that matters.”[6] In a way, Sittser’s book is akin to Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning in that both writers focus on how people respond to suffering and loss rather than trying to avoid or deny pain altogether.[7] (Sittser is familiar with Frankl’s book as he references it as something that helped him on his journey through the pain.)[8]

Though the book is fairly short, I found myself struggling to make it through the pages due to the subject material. Losing my wife and/or children through a sudden catastrophic loss like Sittser is one of my secret fears that sometimes keeps me awake at night. Knowing that they could die at any moment though the sheer randomness of the universe brings all kinds of emotions to the surface. It is as Sittser comments in chapter eight, “suffering may be at its fiercest when it is random, for we are then stripped of even the cold comfort that comes when events, however cruel, occur for a reason.”[9]

I, however, disagree with Sittser’s conclusion that God is in absolute control and that every event ultimately has a reason.[10] Instead I embrace the concept that humanity is engaged in a war between the spiritual forces of good and evil. When bad things happen, they do not happen due to the will or inaction of the Creator but rather because of the war around us. Jesus, who is in the trenches with us, promises to take the negative events in our lives and use them for good through the cruciform power of his love (Romans 8:18-39). Though this war motif may not encourage everyone, it helps me deal with the pain that comes from living in this world as it means my life is part of something bigger than what I see on the surface. Which, as it happens, is similar to the reason Sittser wants God to be in control.[11] Though we traveled different paths, in the end both Sittser and myself “choose to believe that there is a bigger picture”[12] in which our lives (the good and bad) play a part.


[1] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2004), 29.

[2] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 29.

[3] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 18.

[4] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 18.

[5] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 17.

[6] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 17.

[7] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984), 80-81.

[8] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 46-48.

[9] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 111.

[10] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 149-161.

[11] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 118-119.

[12] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 118.

“Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy” by Viktor E. Frankl

Born, raised, and trained in Vienna, Austria, Viktor Frankl launched a neurology and psychiatry career in 1937 within the shadow of Nazi Germany. Five short years later Frankl and his family were sent to the concentration camps of War World Two wherein his father, mother, brother and wife would die. The next three years would be some of the most difficult years Frankl life; yet they also proved the launching pad for his later career as the founder of logotherapy.

Originally written over the course of nine successive days in 1945 soon after Frankl was liberated from a concentration camp, the book Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy is partly biographical and partly scholarly. The first part tells of Frankl’s experiences in the concentration camps. The second part, which was added to the book in 1962, gives readers a basic introduction to logotherapy, a school of Psychotherapy founded by Frankl. The final section was added to Man’s Search for Meaning in 1984 and deals with how humanity continues to have hope in the face of pain, guilt and death.

The focus of the first section of the book was to let people know that “life holds a potential meaning under any conditions, even the most miserable ones.”[1] To this end, Frankl proceeded to tell the stories of the common prisoner and their “unrelenting struggle for daily bread and for life itself.”[2] In the midst of these stories, Frankl highlighted the ways in which the human psyche adapted and responded to the horrors around them. In the words of Friedrich Nietzsche “he who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”[3]

The second part of the book focused on introducing the reader to the world of logotherapy. Logotherapy is a form of psychotherapy developed by Frankl that focuses on the “meanings to be fulfilled by the patient in his future.”[4] In other words, it seeks to help each person discover the meaning of their lives though either accomplishing a deed, experiencing something or encountering someone, or through the attitude one takes when experiencing suffering.[5] At its core logotherapy is built upon the thesis that humanity is “ultimately self-determining”[6] and is not bound by the conditions or genetics provided to them by fate. Humanity, therefore, has the freedom to change both the world and themselves for the better if they only choose to do so.

The third and last part of the book deals with the question of “can life retain its potential meaning in spite of its tragic aspects?”[7] In answering this question, Frankl reminds the reader that “happiness cannot be pursued.”[8] Rather, it is something that one finds once they have a meaning to life. Happiness is a by-product of a meaningful life that comes naturally no matter the situations or conditions in which one finds themselves. Building upon this, Frankl explores how the different avenues of finding meaning in life help combat the tragic triad of pain, guilt and death.

On a personal note, I thoroughly enjoyed Frankl’s view that humanity is free to make our own choices. I am saddened by the voices both within and outside the church who claim that the actions of humanity are predetermined by God, fate, genetics, and/or the environment in which we live. In the years since I originally read this book I have found myself returning to Frankl’s experiences in the concentration camps of War World Two as proof that I can choose to act Christ-like even in the most difficult of situations. In fact, it is, as Frankl notes, in the tough parts of life that “people unmasked themselves, both the swine and the saints.”[9]


[1] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984), 12.

[2] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 18.

[3] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 84.

[4] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 104.

[5] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 115.

[6] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 133.

[7] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 139.

[8] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 140.

[9] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 145.

Normal Christian Living

Growing up on a farm with cows, dogs, chickens and goats, my brother and I were hard on our shoes, forcing my father to take us shoe shopping every few months. And every time he always reminded us of his one rule: no white shoes as they would be quickly destroyed. One day, though, I was able to talk him into allowing me to buy a pair of white tennis shoes. I promised him that I would take good care of them and make sure they stayed white. This was a lofty promise as keeping a pair of white shoes white was like keeping the sun from rising! Yet my dad, most surely out of love as he knew that I would never be able to keep my promise, bought them for me.

Sure enough, it didn’t take very long before the shoes were covered with a layer of manure and mud. Going over to the water hose, I proceeded to spray the shoes down trying to find a patch of white in the midst of the brown dirt. After what seemed like hours, I finally had a pair of white tennis shoes! Rejoicing, I went into the house where in the bright lights I realized that the shoes were still more brown than white. Sighing deeply, I went into the bathroom and grabbed an old toothbrush. Sitting down beside the bathtub, I begin to scrub each of the seams with the toothbrush, trying to recover that original whiteness. There would be times when I thought I was through only to turn the shoe over and see a piece of mud stuck in a seam or a smear of brown gunk. It took forever – or at least it seemed like forever – to clean those shoes!

The Christian walk is like that.

The Creator God made us in his image as living declarations of his rule and reign. Living in the fallen world of evil, we quickly get covered in the mud and manure of life through our own actions, the actions of others or just because we happened to be there. No matter why, Jesus climbs down into the mud with us and picks us up, washing off the mud and restoring our relationship with him. At that point we are no longer the same people we once were.

After a while, we think that we are doing pretty well – I mean, we are no longer covered in mud. Then Jesus takes us inside the house and shows us all the mud and manure stuck to the seams of our lives. These are the heart issues, the things that no one else can see. Yet, the Creator King isn’t content with only cleaning the outside, he wants to clean every area of our lives so that we can truly live. As we allow him to do this, things start getting better. No more big pieces of mud; no more lying, stealing and drunkenness. At the same time, things are also getting harder. The cleaner we get, the more we realize how far we are from perfection. Our hearts break at things that we used to ignore. In the past, it was normal to bark out a harsh comment from time to time, or allow our minds to dwell on the physical appearance of someone of the opposite sex. Now our hearts break when we so much as think about such things.

To be faithful to our King and the Scriptures, we must fully embrace both the suffering and the victory of this life. We must not break this tension no matter how hard one side or the other will pull us. On the days that we are depressed and nothing is going right, we must remind ourselves that we are new joint heirs with Jesus and new creations under the new age of life. On the days when we are tempted to think that we have conquered all of our sins and addictions, let us remind ourselves that we are in process, that the light of Jesus can, and will, reveal to us the hidden faults tucked away in our inner hearts.

When we embrace both the here and the not yet of the kingdom of God, we enter a new place of life. We gain the freedom to confess our current sins and struggles to those around us, instead of hiding behind a façade of victory passages and promises. Neither do we have to wallow in the muck of depression trying to endure the pain of this world. We have the freedom to be real. If we mess up, then we admit it and move on. As a people living between the ages, we must learn to embrace the tension of the victory and suffering, the here and not yet. In doing so, we gain the freedom to be the people of God.

An excerpt from my book, The Here and Not YetPhysical book and e-book versions available at Amazon, iTunes, and other online bookstores.

Let us increase our dedication…

St. Anthony the Great
St. Anthony the Great

I wanted to include this quote by St. Antony of the Desert on my last post…but it was way too long for that post, so I decided to post it separately.  I would, however, highly recommend everyone to read The Life of Antony by St. Athanasius as soon as possible. Written in 360 C.E., it was one of the best known works of literature in the West for a thousand years or so.

And, wow, is it good! =D

So do yourself a favor and find a copy today!

Enjoy.

“[L]et us hold in common the same eagerness not to surrender what we have begun, either by growing fainthearted in the labors or by saying, ‘We have spent a long time in the discipline.’ Rather, as through making a beginning daily, let us increase our dedication…

“Let us not think that the time is too long or what we do is great, for the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. And let us not consider, when we look at the world, that we have given up things of some greatness, for even the entire earth is itself quite small in relation to all of heaven. If now it happened that we were lords of all the earth, and renounced all the earth, that would amount to nothing as compared with the kingdom of heaven.

“For just as if someone might despise one copper drachma in order to gain a hundred gold drachma, so he who is ruler of the whole earth, and renounced it, loses little, and he receives a hundred times more. But if all the earth is not equal in value to the heavens, then he who has given up a few arourae sacrifices virtually nothing, and even if he should give up a house or considerable wealth, he has no reason to boast or grow careless.

“We ought also to realize that if we do not surrender these things through virtue, then later when we die we shall leave these things behind – often, to those whom we do not wish, as Ecclesiastes reminds us. This being the case, why should we not give them up for virtue’s sake, so that we might inherit even a kingdom? Let none among us have even the yearning to possess. For what benefit is there in possessing these things that we do not take with us? Why not rather own those things that we are able to take away with us – such things as prudence, justice, temperance, courage, understanding, love, concern for the poor, faith in Christ, freedom from anger, hospitality? If we possess these, we shall discover them running before, preparing hospitality for us there in the land of the meek….

“[W]e have the Lord for our coworker in this, as it is written, God works for good with everyone who choose the good. And in order that we not become negligent, it is good to carefully consider the Apostle’s statement: I die daily. For if we so live as people dying daily, we will not commit sin…If we think this way, and in this way live…the desire for a women, or another sordid pleasure, we shall not merely control – rather, we shall turn form it as something transitory, forever doing battle and looking towards the day of judgement.”  (emphasis added)

Source: Athanasius. The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus. Trans.by Robert C. Gregg (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1980), 44-46.

Church and the Fellowship of the Ring

Comic by Choppic
Comic by Choppic

Church.

Six English letters that carries within itself a ton of emotions, good and bad.

For some the word “church” brings back memories of family, friends, Sunday School rooms, great worship and potlucks. To others, the word recalls unwanted memories of abuse, pain, human politics and rejection.

I have been on both sides of this scale – finding great comfort and sharp pain in that one word.

Yet throughout it all I refuse to give up on the word nor the concept that it represents. It is like the tension of the here and not yet. We are called by the King to walk with others through this journey of life, yet in doing so we open ourselves up to pain and heart ache.

It is like the Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring.

Nine people chosen from different races and culture. Not all the people liked, loved, or even carried for the others. However they were all thrown together by forces above them and tasked with a mission. As they journeyed through the land, they experienced betrayal and pain along with self-sacrifice and love. In a word, they needed each other.

It is the same with us. We are all on a mission with Jesus through the land of darkness awaiting for the fullness of the Kingdom to come. In following the King, we have bound ourselves to people of different races and cultures. There are those people and cultures we like and love along with those who we don’t. Yet we all are walking together with our Lord – and we all need each other, just like the Fellowship needed all nine members.

And just like Tolkien’s Fellowship, our fellowship looks different at different times. It may be a formal group of nine (i.e. the organized church with a building and all that) or it may be three friends riding across the land searching for lost love ones or two Hobbits walking through hell itself.

The manner or structure of what the church looks like doesn’t matter as much as some may think it does. At the core we are to be a fellowship on mission with our Lord walking through the darkness with those we love and those we are learning to love.

Suffering According to Jesus

jesus icon sufferingJesus was no stranger to suffering.

Not only did Jesus experience all the typical pain of life (hunger, pain, sickness, death of friends and family), he also lived under an oppressive regime which commonly used violence to keep the masses under control. In 6 C.E. when Jesus was about 10 years old, the Roman army killed Judas of Galilee and lined the roads around Sepphoris (4 short miles from Nazareth) with the corpses of 2,000 crucified men. Growing up so close to Sepphoris, it’s a safe bet that Jesus would have heard about the deaths. He might of even had family members or, at the very least, known people whose family was directly involved in the rebellion.

Knowing that Jesus experienced the hardship of life (harder, I would say, than myself or many others here in the USA), it worth paying attention to what he says about suffering. As in, does he consider pain and suffering to be part of the divine plan of God? A method of purification or a teaching moment? Or does he offering some other reason as to why pain and suffering happens?

In what is now the fifth post in a series about the “Sovereignty of God” I would like to look how Jesus on this topic. (For those just now joining, you can find the first four posts here, here, here and here.) I know this is a HUGE topic so please forgive me if I seem to skim over things. My goal is to look at the overall message of Jesus to capture the jest of his viewpoint.

War Zone

In reading the four Gospels, one thing that stands out is Jesus’ battle with the forces of evil. He is constantly driving out demons and rebuking the forces of nature. Sadly a lot of modern folks in the West skip over these parts as they don’t believe in the supernatural. Rather they think that these verses are remnants of a lesser culture where people believe in all kinds of false things. To these folks, the main point of the Gospels is Jesus’ teachings about love, acceptance and ethics.

However if we are to take the Scriptures seriously, we must admit that this world in which we live has an invisible supernatural element to it (a view, BTW, that majority of the world throughout the ages has held). In his book God at War, Greg Boyd gives a convincing argument that the Scriptures were written with the believe that God is at war with evil, pain, and death. This means that Jesus’ actions of healing the sick and casting out demons were not philosophical actions, but rather battles against the forces of evil.

As such, we can then safely say that Jesus didn’t view sickness, pain, suffering or any other form of evil as being part of God’s divine plan. They were not teaching moments or ways of purifying the soul. Rather they are things that are contrary to the heart of God and should, therefore, be attacked and driving out. (This, by the way, is not to say that all forms of sickness and pain is caused by demons as some may say. Rather the point of this is that Jesus is at war with evil rather than using evil as a tool.)

The Red-Letters

Below are some verse in which Jesus talks about the problem of suffering:

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he [Jesus] answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” -Luke 13:1-5 (ESV)

This passage shows that there were people in the 1st century (like today) that though that death, pain, and suffering was connect to how righteous one was. In other words, those who did not sin were spared pain/suffering while those who did sin experienced such items.

Jesus fights this mentally head on by informing the questioners that sin played no part in the suffering/pain/death experienced by these folks. Rather it was human freedom (Pilate’s massacre) and natural law (falling tower) that caused the death/pain/suffering. This is huge as Jesus could have said that the pain/suffering/death was all part of God’s divine plan and that folks just needed to trust God. Yet, Jesus – God himself, I might remind you – didn’t tell them that.

Now there is a passage that some will use to claim that Jesus did say that God causes sickness for his glory. However that passage (John 9:1-7) isn’t as clear cut as some would like. But first the passage in question:

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” Having said these things, he spit on the ground and made mud with the saliva. Then he anointed the man’s eyes with the mud and said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). So he went and washed and came back seeing. – John 9:1-7 (ESV)

At first glance it looks like the “God-is-using-sickness” crowd has won. However things are not always as they seem. As most of you know, the Gospel of John was originally written in 1st century Greek. Translators then translate the words into English so that we common people can read them. These translators, no matter how hard they try, are biased people (like all of us) who hold to certain theological views. Most of the time these views don’t really matter as the passages are fairly straight forward. However there are times when there are times when the there is no direct ancient Greek to modern English word. It is during those times that one’s personal theology and worldview effects how one translates the Scriptures.

John 9:3 is one of those passages. Translators who hold to a “God controls everything” viewpoint (which is the most dominant view of things) tend to translate the Greek with a view that God caused the man’s blindness for the express purpose of giving himself glory. However there is another way of translating this verse that fits better with the overall passage. Here’s two examples:

Jesus said, “You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do. We need to be energetically at work for the One who sent me here, working while the sun shines. When night falls, the workday is over. For as long as I am in the world, there is plenty of light. I am the world’s Light.” –The Message

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” Jesus answered, “but let the works of God be displayed in him. We must work the works of Him who sent me while it is day…” – truthortradition.com, relying on the works of Greg Boyd and others

Under this alternative translation, John 9:3 goes from Jesus telling folks that God caused the man’s blindness to Jesus fighting the blindness as something that does not fit within God’s plan. This view, in my option, fits better within the overall story of Jesus as a God at war with the pain and suffering of a fallen world.

Conclusion

In looking at the life and ministry of Jesus, I see a God who is fighting against pain, suffering, death and evil rather than one who is using it for his purpose. I know this view doesn’t fit within the typically “God-is-in-control-of-everything” view of the Sovereignty of God. However I do think it fits within the consent and participation view of God’s Sovereignty – a view, I might add that is as ancient, if not more so, than the “God-in-total-control” view.

I also know that some of you might look at the above and say “Josh may have a point with the Gospels, but I know that St. Paul says…” To those folks, I will say that I try to read the read the Scriptures through the lens of Jesus rather than Jesus through the lens of St. Paul or any other author. This means that when I’m in doubt, I will always go back to the words and action of Jesus as he is the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). And when I do so, I find a God who is a war with evil not a God who is using evil as a pawn. Hence why I reject the “God-in- total-control” view of life and embrace the consent and participation view of God’s Sovereignty.

Colossians: Suffering and Mystery

Cross on wallPassage: Colossians 1:24-2:5

Audio file of sermon can be found at the PRV website.

Sermon

  • There are two themes or concepts within this passage
    • Suffering for the sake of others
    • God’s Mystery

Suffering

  • The first point is Paul’s suffering
    • He is a servant of the church
    • His suffering is to their benefit

The Kingdom NT Right now I’m having a celebration – a celebration of my sufferings, which are for your benefit! And I’m steadily completing, in my own flesh, what is presently lacking in the king’s afflictions on behalf of his body, which is the church. I became the church’s servant, according to the terms laid down by God when he gave me my commission on your behalf, the commission to fulfill God’s word. –Colossians 1:24-25

The Messsage:  I want you to know how glad I am that it’s me sitting here in this jail and not you. There’s a lot of suffering to be entered into in this world—the kind of suffering Christ takes on. I welcome the chance to take my share in the church’s part of that suffering. When I became a servant in this church, I experienced this suffering as a sheer gift, God’s way of helping me serve you, laying out the whole truth. –Colossians 1:24-25

  • St. Paul’s conversion
    • Commissioned to “carry my (God’s) name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
    • Acts 9:15b
    • Yes, St. Paul’s commission is not for everyone… I understand that
    • But each of us has a commission from Jesus to preach the Gospel and to love others as ourselves
    • This means that there will be times when we will have to celebrate, as Paul did, our sufferings on behalf of the church
      • Meaning, that there are times when we must set aside our own passions and dreams
      • Set aside our wants
      • For that which benefits and blesses the whole body
      • This is called humility

For by the grace given to me I say to every one of you not to think more highly of yourself than you ought to think, but to think with sober discernment, as God has distributed to each of you a measure of faith. For just as in one body we have many members, and not all the members serve the same function, so we who are many are one body in Christ, and individually we are members who belong to one another. –Romans 12:3-5