Aug

31

2012

Tullian Tchividjian|8:11 am CT

Minimizing Suffering Minimizes The Cross

The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming book Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free

It is ironic that one of the most beautiful and encouraging verses in the Bible is also one of the most dangerous. You probably know which one I’m talking about. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28).

I’ve witnessed that verse misused more than any other. And I know I have been guilty of misusing it myself. Maybe you’ve heard it thrown out in a small-group setting, maybe in a casual discussion. Inevitably someone has just shared a painful story about what she’s going through or has gone through. We don’t know what to say—the predicament is a sad one. It goes beyond the normal categories and struggles. It’s awkward. We want to help, perhaps, but we also want the moment to end. Or maybe we are just focused on saying the “right” thing, the faithful thing.

Make no mistake, in this context, Romans 8:28 can be a bona fide conversation stopper. A spiritual “shut up,” if you will. And lest we think only Christians are prone to such insensitivity, the secular translation, “Don’t worry; it’ll all work out,” is no less ubiquitous. This is classic minimization of suffering.

Minimization involves any attempt to downplay or reduce the extent and nature of pain. Any rhetorical or spiritual device that underestimates the seriousness of suffering essentially minimizes it. Quick fixes are inevitably minimizing tactics. Platitudes are minimizing tactics. If moralization reduces suffering to a moral or spiritual issue, minimization makes similar reductions. For example, when doctors reduce suffering to a matter of medication or chemistry, or psychologists to one’s dysfunctional upbringing (which is not to say those things can’t be factors). In fact, naturalistic or materialistic outlooks are especially susceptible to minimization.

Whether suffering is approached through the eyes of faith or not, the God of the Bible never reduces or compartmentalizes suffering—ever. The problems of life are large and complex; pat answers are not only inaccurate but also unkind.

In his book Shattered Dreams, Larry Crabb relates the experience of a man who suffered an enormous loss. Crabb describes the man’s friends as concerned and supportive, sending books on handling grief, spending time with him both in prayer and on the golf course, etc. Several friends sent letters expressing their love, and a few included verses from the Bible they said had been impressed on them by the Lord.

When his friends called or came to visit, the first question after a quick greeting was always “How are you doing?” He hated the question the first time he heard it and hated it more each time he heard it again. He knew the “right” answer, the one his friends were hoping to hear, the one that had more to do with relieving their concern than with expressing his own heart. The hoped-for answer could be expressed in many ways, but its message was always the same. “It’s hard, but I’m okay, or at least I’m getting there.” …His words [had] their intended effect. The questioner smiled with relief and said, “I’m really glad. Not surprised though. Lots of us have been praying.” … As the struggling man listened to his friend, he felt a tidal wave of intense loneliness sweep over him. He returned the smile but his soul shriveled behind a familiar wall that left him lifeless, more desperate and alone than before.

As the story illustrates, when the bottom falls out of our lives, we don’t necessarily find it comforting when people try to cheer us up. No matter how well intended, such overtures create pressure that adds to our distress. Not only are we suffering, but we now feel bad about how we make those around us feel or, at least, about the disconnect between where they would like us to be and where we actually are.

All of our attempts (well intentioned as they may be) to minimize suffering reveal our universal, fatal love affair with control and law. If I can just recast suffering in a diminished role, then I will hurt less. Or conversely, if I just do the right thing or just obey enough, God will be pleased, and I will hurt less. Neither approach takes God into much consideration. He is a passive bystander at best in either scenario. And both approaches stand on the premise of you and me possessing power that we simply do not have. Yet the knowledge of our limitations does not stop us from exhausting ourselves—indeed, from destroying ourselves—in our tireless attempts to grab the reins. The breadth of human
impasse is the opposite of minimal. Yet as Paul Zahl wrote:

An old joke is repeated year after year in the graffiti on public buildings. Someone writes for all to see, “Christ is the answer.” After it someone has added, “But what is the question?” The addition is perceptive…. Is there a real problem to which the atonement of Jesus Christ offers a solution? What is irremediable about the human condition that it should require a death for healing to occur? The extreme nature of the solution, one person’s death for the “salvation” of others, presupposes an extreme need on the part of the others.

The cross makes a mockery of our attempts to defend and deliver ourselves. God provided a shocking remedy that both reveals and addresses the depth of our illness, our “sickness unto death.” Indeed, despite our efforts to contain, move past, or silence it, that ol’ rugged cross stands tall, resolutely announcing that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” All things, Paul said, even misused Bible verses and the men and women who misuse them. Instead of diminishing our pain, then, these words proclaim the corresponding and overwhelming gratuity of our Redeemer.

11 Comments

  1. Susanne Schuberth (Germany)

    I don’t know whether trying to minimize suffering automatically minimizes the cross to me, since I am not sure that I always have Jesus’ suffering on my behalf in my mind, when I – most of the time helplessly – try to comfort others who are suffering.

    In my own experience, one of the main reasons for me to not look more closely to others’ wounds and needs which cause them to hurt was that I didn’t want to be reminded of my own inner brokenness. As soon as I learned to listen quietly to anything I was told, I was hurting as well. And thus my brokenness began to heal slowly, that is, to the same degree I was ready to accept any unpleasant, negative feeling appearing in me. However, it’s still not as easy as it sounds.

    Therefore, the only honest thing I am able to say when confronted with someone who deeply suffers is, “My thoughts always stay with you.”

    By the way, I wonder why we are most of the time inclined to think that ‘all things work together for good’ in Rom 8:28 is speaking of ‘all things’ as bad things? Looking at the context I can only see that Paul talks about our (human) weakness, particularly regarding our helplessness to pray in an appropriate way. Any thoughts about it?

  2. Thanks! My husband and I are constantly blessed by reading your blog. As someone (well, we all have) who has suffered at times I esp. love the last paragraph you wrote. It reminds me of the verse, where “sin abounds, grace superabounds”. There’s such hope in Christ and the cross, to help us in all of our feelings and He lovingly helps us separate feelings and truth of the gospel, while completely accepting and loving us in His grace [unmerited favour] + reminds us who we are – complete in Him (Col. 2:10).

    Have a great wkend!

  3. Hi Tullian,
    I thought of you as I read this in my (still)on going study in Eccl. Thank you. Since your teaching I have been looking intently in this book. I even felt as I watched your last Sunday sermon Pt.2 very close interpretations except for a word or two (like under the sun)that would be just short verbatim coming from the book of Eccl. I like it when your making a point and you make us reflect back to another book other then the one your teaching from to enforce your point though the message is from the book your teaching in. I would think that some of the material you used Sunday could reflect on what you taught us in the book of Eccl.in a very connected and insightful way. Anyway this is a small portion what I’m reading now sharing it with you – The word rendered `prosperity’ is tob which is the word `good’. We are not surprised therefore to find that the word `adversity’ is ra `evil’. This knowledge of `good and evil’, with its concomitant sorrow and death, commenced in the Garden of Eden and will go on until that day when God Himself shall wipe away all tears from off all faces.The whole of the age is associated with the acquiring of this knowledge, and its application. When experiencing the `good’, rejoice. When experiencing the `evil’, consider. Let the visitation not pass without profit. Let the chastisement yield its fruit. Let the lesson be learned. Let patience have her perfect work. The day of prosperity is not the time when we consider the purpose of the ages with so much profit as in the day of adversity. Then, says Koheleth, consider the purposes of God and learn the humbling lesson. A word almost identical with `adversity’ is `sadness’ (7:3), and the lesson is the same. Chapter 11:9,10 bases its teaching upon the same truth as does 7:14. Youth will, and should rejoice, but let rejoicing be of that sort that remembers the fact of judgment. The presence of `good and evil’, and the right attitude of mind regarding good and evil enters into the warp and woof of life, and Ecclesiastes rightly followed will cast many a ray of light upon the ways of God with man, `all the days of his vain life which he spendeth as a shadow’ (6:12). Really good!

  4. Pastor
    I am still waiting for the book in my mail box (patiently of course.)
    I was next door this afternoon watching my neighbor kneed dough, and it occured to me that I feel like that dough sometimes being thrown down and pounded. She said that if you don’t kneed it well it will bake up a little tough. This week was especially rough and I feel a little beat down. But God is good I am not destroyed or too overwhelmed. But I do feel a little KNEEDY.

  5. Dr. Crabb is especially good at zeroing in on what is necessary to really encourage. When I’m struggling and open up to someone, what initially is most helpful is when that person doesn’t have a quick answer. I’m struggling. A quick answer says, “just do this” and “no big deal.” Minimizing the problem only makes it worse. I remember Dr. Crabb saying don’t give a band-aid to a person who has cancer. And don’t diagnose cancer as a superficial wound. Don’t be a prophet saying, “Peace, peace.”

    Our wounds go to our core and apart from Christ crucified there is no hope, no answer. It’s actually good to be brought low every now and then. I think it’s part of the work of the Spirit in our lives in order that we see more clearly how great is our sin, how hopeless our condition is, and how great is God’s salvation of sinners in Christ.

    Good stuff, Pastor T.

  6. I’m looking forward to the book. I have read a quite a few of the blogs. I guess I know we are all guilty of saying the wrong thing. But what would be best? When someone has had incredible loss and they are suffering, after just listening and spending time just being there, isn’t there a time to speak? And when you speak what do you say?

  7. Tullian, I really appreciate you writing this. So often, I talk with clients (I’m a therapist in training) who feel guilty, lonely, and cast off as they are going through incredibly heart rending, difficult, pain inducing situations. They need someone to just BE with them in their pain, and that is not something people typically do well. It’s difficult and uncomfortable. So I’m thankful for your post, because it underscores that need. I hope you and your family are doing well (Joe says ‘hi’)!

  8. Tullian Tchividjian

    Hi Melinda!

    I totally agree. Job’s friends were great counselors until they opened their mouth :)

    Tell Joe I said “hi.” I miss you both and hope that you’re doing well!

  9. [...] Minimizing Suffering Minimizes the Cross - Sometimes the easiest thing to do when encountering suffering is to offer trite answers and hollow platitudes. Others want to force fellow believers to have only “positive expressions of suffering.” But neither of these responses see the depth of suffering and the power of the cross. This has been on my mind often, and it was helpful to read this recent article by Tullian Tchividjian (the entirety of the article is excellent.) [...]

  10. Job’s friends were only great counselor’s until they opened their mouth because they had terrible application of theology and were full of hurtful arrogance and ignorance.

    I wouldn’t say using Romans 8:28 is unkind, in most cases its encouraging to know that God has your entire course of life in His hands and will use it for your ultimate good (if you love the Lord) and His Glory. We just shouldn’t stop there in ministering to those who are suffering. Crying with those who cry (Romans 12) etc.

    Thanks for sharing.

  11. Lots of people say amazingly bad things to those who are suffering. Having experienced my own share of difficult times, I can say that I look to Romans 8:28 as a promise; God’s promise that although in this fallen world we will have trouble, God will take these bad painful things that hurt us, and still bring good from them for those who love Him. That is a comfort to me.

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