Suffering, Authenticity, and Ministry in the Post Modern Church

I don’t want this to sound like Cafechurch is a drag, a place where people sit around moaning about how hard life is, but suffering is a topic which we come back to again and again. It is often at the bottom of why people leave their big churches, and what people who search us out want to talk about. Suffering is definitely our biggest topic. It’s a bit surprising really: Cafechurch people aren’t especially gloomy – on the contrary,  gatherings of our little community tend to be joyous events. And people generally aren’t disadvantaged – almost everyone is a middle class professional, or aspiring to be one. But there is something in questions about suffering that fascinate, even preoccupy us.

The first question is some form of “why does God allow suffering?” This is at least potentially a philosophical question, amenable to the sort of answers provided by philosophers sitting in their proverbial armchairs. I don’t want to dismiss this question- it is important that there be a rationally defensible answer to this question. But the various theories don’t really seem to answer people’s deep anxiety about the whole thing, because something much deeper, much more existential (to use my current favourite word) going on.

What generally seems to be behind it is not merely intellectual curiosity which wants a rational world view, but rather a deep and confronting encounter with suffering – either one’s own, or that of another.  And, even though it is presented as a question, it is not really. Rather, it is something which I don’t think there is a good English word for:  people are struck dumb by it, propelled into a kind of existential shock. It is mysterious and tremendous, a kind of counter-numinous which drops people into the crisis of meaninglessness.

So, for me at least, the question is not so much “why does God allow suffering” as “how do I live with the fact of suffering?”

And, the truth is, I don’t have an answer. That is where the “authenticy” part of the title comes in: suffering is not in fact a “problem” to be “solved” (though individual instances of suffering might very well be.) When people talk to me about suffering, I so strongly want to solve it for them, to be the poweful one with all the answers. But I can’t do that – it is mysterious, both in the sense of “we do not know the answer” and I suspect in the stronger sense that “it is not in fact knowable.” I want to be the expert – in fact, I want to solve their suffering, but I cannot do so, and this is itself deeply painful.

This is deeply counter-cultural. Our culture is such a technically brilliant one that we think that everything must surely be amenable to a managerial, technical fix. If only we pray a little harder, work a little smarter, go to a workshop, read a particularly apposite blog article, then everything will be OK. It is hard not only to suffer, but to see someone else suffering, and so we try to make it all go away. This is how our incredulity towards meta-narratives works out: we have become a society without an overarching story to give us hope, and so we can’t afford to see things which push us up against this fact, this base level of meaninglessness. But it is hard to keep it up, and sometimes, in spite of our serious efforts, reality does break through our walls of fantasy and projection.

Anne was the co-founder of a support group called “Moving On” for people who, like us, had gone through IVF and failed to have children (you can find us via the Melbourne IVF website if you are interested.) One of the many striking things we heard again and again was how hard family and friends found it to listen to our stories of infertility and grief. Especially family – people who are too close to the situation perhaps find it hardest of all to hear, and rapidly move into solution mode. We heard essentially the same story again and again, and it amply demonstrated to me that as a culture, we are deeply in denial about suffering, and are extremely keen to push it away out of our consciousness. It is really only as a result of reflecting on my own experiences of involuntary childlessness, and hearing essentially the same story a hundred or so times over the last five or six years, that has made me able to sit for even quite a short time and hear someone’s story of suffering. Even now I am very very tempted to jump into fixing mode, which shows quite how deeply ingrained it is.

So, as a church, what do we do about it? The first, and possibly most painful (and possibly especially hard for pastors) , thing that I do is to acknowledge that not only do I not have the answers: I myself am broken by suffering, but that that fact is not enough to give up on God. After all, the choice seems to be on the one hand, suffering without God and despair, and on the other hand suffering with God and with hope that somehow this will all be transformed, that God is redemptively at work in the world.

But suffering is a deeply ironic, even paradoxical, thing. It can destroy faith, or it can deepen it. Talking about the role of suffering in developing a fully adult faith, in Finding Faith Again John J Shea says this:

Some of us, in experiencing suffering, trauma, and loss, may find a safe and compassionate space in which to begin to accept what happened. In time we may come to terms with the te suffering, the trauma, and the loss, not minimizing what happened but allowing it to become part of a renegotiated, and, perhaps, more inclusive sense of self…. Suffering, trauma, and loss, are a two edged sword for us. At times they make adulthood much harder to realize, and at times they help usher it in.
A church in post-modernity needs to be a place where people develop an adult faith, and one point of change in people’s lives is when we are shocked out of our complacency by suffering.
The final part of the puzzle is, as I suggested at the start of this post, that a church to be really Christian has to be, at bottom, about joy – life, this world, the universe itself is the joyous gift of the illimitable God, a fountain of love and delight at the centre of all that is who creates out of sheer love, and who, in the incarnation of Jesus, entered into our joy and sorrow and brought us back to this joyous, suffering God, and who works within us still.  That is the foundational image of the universe that needs to be at the base of our church – because it is true.
This seems to me to be the challenge of doing and being church in post-modernity. We need to be authentic – honest – about suffering, but not by letting it be the end of the story, not by being dreary and depressing. Suffering is part – a big part – of our human story, but it is not the final word. We have to be able to name it, and confront it, but plant a banner of hope nonetheless.
Anyway, that’s how it seems to me. What do you think? And, perhaps more interestingly, how do we go about it?

2 comments

  1. rod baker · · Reply

    Through compassion it is possible to recognise that the craving for love that people feel resides also in our own hearts, that the cruelty the world knows all too well is also rooted in our own impulses. Through compassion we also sense our hope for forgiveness in our friends’ eyes and our hatred in their bitter mouths. When they kill, we know that we could have done it; when they give life, we know that we can do the same. For a compassionate person nothing human is alien: no joy and no sorrow, no way of living and no way of dying. Henri Nouwen

  2. Really great article! Thank you.

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