Suffering in the Service of Theology

lightstock_62619_medium_user_173243Most churches are familiar with suffering. 70% of one congregation I served in was regularly going through drug rehab and recovery. Some are homeless, many come from broken homes. In the last few years I’ve prayed with a man whose girlfriend overdosed and died, a young girl who experienced a “pregnancy scare,” and a young man whose fiancé abandoned him. As an inexperienced pastor it has been a real challenge at times. I’ve often concluded that I really have no clue what I am doing most days. But dealing with suffering can actually make us better theologians.

I consider myself a theologian by trade. I spend my days in the familiar white pages covered with black ink. Mine is the realm of mental activity and analysis. Reading, studying, writing, and synthesizing are my daily activities. If I consider such things strengths they can also be liabilities. I am often not great with real, live, right-before-my-eyes people. Impatience, assumption, awkwardness, and such can be the trademarks of my personal interactions. Serving in my current ministry position has caused me no short amount of stress. I am the pastor of discipleship. That means I am to spend most of my days talking to people, listening to their problems, and providing biblical counsel. Thus my stress.

In some ways my gifts and strengths just aren’t that useful in this type of ministry. After all, the girl who came to speak with me because she wanted to get off meth wasn’t really interested in my ecclesiology. I felt more competent to discuss it than I did meth addiction, but her needs were specific. I am learning, however, that dealing day after day with real hurting and broken people has actually made me a better theologian. In fact, I would go so far now as to argue that you can’t do good theology without interacting with suffering.

This will strike many as a rather surprising statement. For some it will be more than surprising, it will be blatantly false. It’s not because, of course, such theologians don’t believe in the importance of interacting with suffering people. Rather many consider serving the needy a separate, if important, activity. Kelly Kapic mimics such responses when he writes:

Well, yes, concern for the poor and justice matters, but that is something practical that comes only after we have done our theology; it is more a rational discipline, not meant to deal with such pragmatic concerns. (A Little Book For New Theologians, 88)

Such a distinction, however, cannot be maintained in the face of Scripture. Ethics are part of theology. And theology that isn’t practical isn’t really theology. Specifically, the Bible calls serving others an act of doing theology.

Take for example Jeremiah 22:16. We often define “theology” by its compound structure: theos (God) and “ology” (the study of). So “theology,” we say simply, is the knowledge of God. But in Jeremiah 22:16 God speaks of “knowing” Him as doing justice. The Lord commends King Josiah by saying, “He judged the cause of the poor and needy; and then it was well. Is not this to know me? declares the LORD.” Theology, then, has hands and feet that get dirty and reach out to those in need.

The apostle James says similar things when he contends that “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27). Kapic understands this concept well. He adds:

What I always find startling about this statement is that the text puts caring for those in need with the call to be “unstained from the world.” For, in truth, we in the church sometimes seek to be “unstained” by distancing ourselves from those most troubled in society, those most in need. They can become absent not only from our churches but also from our thinking, and this does affect our theology. (84)

Considering the sufferings of others is an integral part of “doing theology.”

This is so because doing theology is saying something about God. The God of the Scriptures is one who cares deeply for us and specifically for the destitute and needy. Kapic states that:

Since it speaks about God, faithful theology must reflect God’s compassion and care for us and for our neighbors. If we are to pursue theology faithfully, we must contemplate the value that God places on those who are most vulnerable and in need” (82).

Theologizing that doesn’t reflect God’s heart for the poor and needy is not true theology. After all, at the heart of our theology is the gospel, and the gospel is all about God reaching out to those most destitute and needy (2 Cor. 8:9).

The connection between theology and suffering isn’t just about serving others; it is also about our own experience of suffering. I recall Tim Keller saying in a conversation once that many young pastors struggle in their first ministry simply because they haven’t endured enough suffering. Our lack of experience makes it hard for us to connect with others and know how to connect the Scriptures to their sufferings. As we grow and age in ministry, as we experience more and more suffering ourselves we receive the mercy of God which allows us to extend specific kinds of mercies to others (see 2 Cor. 1:3-4). There is something about suffering that aids the work of ministry and aids the minister himself.

The dichotomy between theology and practical services is a false one. The two are deeply interconnected and many of us serving in the church need to remember this. Suffering makes us better theologians.

Dave Dunham is associate pastor at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Roseville, MI. He is a graduate of Ohio University (BA) and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (MDiv).

3 Responses to “Suffering in the Service of Theology”
  1. Mark says:

    Thanks Dave for the insight. I will take this and apply to my personal life. Christ the fulfillment of theology is a great example of suffering for us, and thus connecting with us.

  2. Elder Larry G Stanley( Grace Brethren Chapel) says:

    Enjoyed your writing Brother David. I am always reminded of Christ saying when I was hungry you fed me. When I was thirsty you gave me something to drink. They ask, when did we do these things? Jesus said, as often as you do this to one of “my” little ones, you have done it unto me. Also, another thought to think upon. We could feed and give drink, but without providing the Word of God or theology of God, we fall short. So often the person wants us to hear their hardship and their pain but request no imput about God. One such case lately actually demanded it. I think that equipping the person with words and wisdom and helping those to help themselves is a lot of work. It sometimes weighs us down. Recently, my consulting and help did not turn out in a manner I had hoped for? I was discouraged but did not lose faith. After a few days, I checked my notes and did in fact give them much scripture that should help them. It is a fine line of listening, helping, and giving Godly words/theology to others. It does help us to be stronger after it weakens us to the many wordly problems people live within.

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