How Our Suffering Can Be Productive

Maybe you can tell, but I have been reading Tim Keller’s book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering the past few weeks. It’s full of insight, depth, and practical help. I have never read anything so comprehensive and so good on suffering. I found his discussion on pages 188-190 on how suffering can reveal character flaws that can then be addressed particularly insightful in a number of ways.

In his book The Importance of Suffering, [psychologist James Davies] critiques what he believes is the majority position among Western therapists, namely that suffering should be treated by helping the patient remove or manage the negative feelings that adversity brings…Davies goes on to make a radical suggestion. What if your negative thoughts about yourself are actually right? “The feeling of being ‘cowardly,'” he writes, “may be less a symptom of ‘faulty thinking’ than an accurate appraisal of part of us that is cowardly. This makes the distress that accompanies our self appraisal not only a perfectly natural response to encountering our cowardice, but also a necessary prerequisite for changing it.” So suffering can lead us to see a significant lack of courage in our character.
If we listen to our negative thoughts in the midst of suffering, we might actually see ourselves more clearly so that we can cultivate courage. If dive deeper into our suffering, as difficult and frightening as it may be, by listening to our negative thoughts rather than seeking friends or therapists that will tell us we are great, then suffering can actually produce positive character growth.
Keller notes two other examples from Davies of character flaws that can be transformed in suffering :
Or suffering may also show us a streak of selfishness. Davies points out studies that show “low self-esteem” is far from a universal problem. He points to research psychologists demonstrating that many people, instead of being plagued with low self-esteem, “are so infected with self-love that they are unable to love others…[and] cannot see beyond the horizon of their own needs and concerns. They are therefore unable to put themselves to one side and empathize with the needs and pains of others–their reality is best so all should adapt to it.”
With an even more countercultural impulse, Davies claims that people who have been through depression can become wiser and more realistic about life than those who have not. He presents a number of studies that show that people who have never been depressed tend to overestimate the amount of control they have over their lives. While severely depressed people are debilitated, in general an experience of depression can give you a more accurate appraisal of your own limitations and how much influence you can have over your circumstances.
No one should seek out suffering, but psychologists agree with Romans 5:3-4 that suffering can produce endurance (resilience), proven character, and eventually a new hope.
But suffering doesn’t always produce these things in us, does it? Why not? Keller looks to social psychologist Jonathan Haidt to explain.
Davies, Jonathan Haidt, and others who argue for the benefits of adversity, are quick to point out that suffering does not automatically improve your life. [In Happiness Hypothesis,] Haidt speaks of two basic ways to cope with it–what he calls “active coping and reappraisal” and “avoidance coping and denial.” The latter strategy can lead to disaster, for it includes “working to blunt one’s emotional reactions by denying or avoiding the events, or by drinking, drugs, and other distractions.” The former strategy can lead to real gains, as it combines doing the hard inner work of learning and growing with seeking to change the painful external circumstances. Put another way, Haidt and Davies distinguish steadily walking through suffering from standing still, lying down, or just running away from it.
…The stakes are high here. Suffering will either leave you a much better person or a much worse one than you were before.
When we rage at God, our church, and our friends on account of suffering, when we run away, deny, refuse to face, self-medicate, and/or distract ourselves from the pain and trauma we experience, our suffering will not transform us into better people. It will only make us bitter and angry or further blind us to the areas of our lives that need transformation. Running from our pain by finding something that temporarily relieves the pain and seemingly gives us new life will end up crashing down on us later leaving us more devastated and disillusioned with life.
But when we face our suffering, listen to our negative thoughts about ourselves, and observe what has been exposed about us, we can start to see beauty emerge from brokenness. We can grow into people of greater depth, compassion, understanding, and love.
This latter response is more probable if we know that because of the suffering of Jesus, we are in God’s hands as his children. The confidence that we belong to the Lord whether in life or in death can strengthen us to deal with our suffering rather than merely trying to manage or even deny it.
Trial and troubles in life, which are inevitable, will either make you or break you. But either way, you will not remain the same.

Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism

In their book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (2005), sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton coined the term “moralistic, therapeutic deism” (MTD) to describe the spiritual lives of American teenagers. Based on a research project called the “National Study of Youth and Religion,” Smith and Denton observed a set of beliefs (doctrines, if you will) commonly held by teenagers today:

  1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Since the publication of this book, MTD has become a familiar summarizing term that captures the general religious outlook of our youth. Many have argued that this description fits the wider population’s spirituality as well. Some even think this is a good thing! Any Christian who has been catechized in sound doctrine will recognize this (unconscious) creed conflicts with orthodox Christian faith. In MTD, there’s no need for Trinity (≠deism), incarnation (≠therapy), or redemption (≠moralism).

An Easy Target

I’ve read and heard numerous Christians lament this creed as fundamentally unchristian, and it is. But in Evangelical circles, MTD has become a bit of an easy target to attack because it so obviously diverges from orthodoxy. Everyone knows it’s wrong, and we all shake our heads at those other people who so misguidedly fail to grasp the truth.

But Smith and Denton have put their finger on something that runs much deeper than this anemic creed, something of which all of us, including my Evangelical brothers and sisters, are guilty. MTD isn’t just a bad creed. It’s a fundamentally upside-down orientation to life, and it’s an orientation that all of us, secular or not, naturally share. And that means it’s not enough to simply look at the creed and shake our heads in disagreement. In fact, Smith and Denton created this creed as a summarizing term not because people actually walk around with those doctrines in their heads but because they were trying to put their finger on this orientation.

In short, MTD is an orientation in the making since the Enlightenment that sees God in obligation to us and not the other way around. MTD describes our deeply felt convictions that God must be about our well-being and happiness (hence therapeutic). It’s not us who must be justified before God, rather, God must justify Godself to us.

Seeing Ourselves

That’s why the problem of evil is such a pressing question for Westerners whereas in Ancient times it was not the most troubling question with which people wrestled. If we are owed happiness and circumstances that please us, then God better do some explaining as to why my life isn’t going the way I want. If I cannot see any good reason why God would allow suffering in my life, then God must either not exist or be a moral monster.

The MTD orientation also explains why churches have become highly focused on relevance, being positive and encouraging, and meeting people’s perceived needs and preferences regarding corporate worship and programming. We moderns don’t come to God needing to be justified. We come demanding God work for us. I can reject the creed of MTD but still involve myself with a Christian community that “pursues God in a way that works for me.”

This insight is reason #2,567 why I am convinced we have to return to biblical and historic church practices (both in worship and community) that reorient us properly to God. The form of worship and ministry in most Evangelical churches shares rather than repels the orientation of MTD, and so while we can see the errors of the creed, we can’t see our own reflection in it.

Disappointing Sufferers as a Pastor

Culture is ubiquitous, or so says James Davison Hunter in To Change the World. I expect he means that culture, being present everywhere, shapes the way I experience the world and understand my own identity apart from any conscious decision I make to go with the flow. In our context, even though I am a Christian and reject secularism, I am more secular than I realize or like to believe (see Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age).

One of the reasons I love to study history, sociology, and philosophy is that it helps me to see what I unconsciously assume. This is also why I love pastor Tim Keller. He regularly gives insights into the modern context that explain the world and me in remarkably clear ways. I had such an experience reading the beginning of his book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. I only just started but already had several “Aha!” moments. This one relates to my calling as a pastor, and it came from his discussion on suffering and the meaning of life. Let me outline his discussion and then show you how this helped me understand my calling and experience as a pastor in the modern world.

Suffering and the Meaning of Life

Keller argues that traditional cultures and religions all, in different ways, regard suffering as a necessary part of life that can be experienced in such a way that it helps the sufferer achieve the purpose of life. In other words, suffering will happen in life, and it requires a particular response on the part of the individual so that a “redemptive” outcome can occur. So, for example, in the pagan cultures of northern Europe, sufferers could face pain and difficulty with nobility and endurance so as to receive honor and glory. Or in some Eastern religions, suffering must be met with the abandonment of desire so one can achieve enlightenment. Suffering is awful, but it can be faced in such a way that life’s purpose is achieved.

Not so with secularism, says Keller. Secularism is uniquely ill equipped to address suffering (which, by the way, should make us suspicious of it as a worldview given the universal nature of suffering). Here’s my outline of his exploration of the role of suffering in secularism:

  1. According to secularism, life is objectively meaningless. There is no built in meaning to the universe since it came about through random chance.
  2. Meaning can only be invented subjectively by individuals. Life for any individual, at best, involves the freedom to live in a way that brings the most personal happiness.
  3. Suffering, by definition, hinders happiness and thus has no meaningful role in the achievement of the invented purpose of the individual’s life.
  4. Therefore, suffering can only be managed or eliminated, but it cannot be meaningful.

Keller supplies the arguments of secularists to demonstrate this logic. He isn’t imposing this on secularists. It’s something many honestly acknowledge. I think this is brilliant and insightful, but it’s what he said about dealing with suffering in a secular culture that helped me understand some of my experiences as a pastor.

Dealing with Pain in a Secular Age

Given the meaninglessness of suffering in a secular age, Keller observes that Western culture has become obsessed with managing or eliminating suffering and pain, and practically every academic field approaches this differently. Psychology, psychiatry, anthropology, sociology, political science, race theory, gender studies, medical doctors, essentially every field of study tends to reduce suffering to one material cause relevant to their area of expertise and then offers the appropriate external remedy.

This plurality of specialists has caused massive confusion in our culture as to what to do with pain. And since every expert reduces the causes of suffering to one fundamental cause external to us, a culture of victimhood has developed. Sufferers are now victims to material misfortune or social injustice in need of experts or social activists that can help sufferers manage or eliminate the cause. So the one thing an expert should never do is address suffering in such a way that the sufferer is blamed for or told they have contributed to their suffering. This is the culture in which we live and breathe.

Here’s my “Aha!” moment: Pastors have become just another specialist in the business of pain management and elimination. I never consciously thought of myself this way, and I doubt many of my congregants would describe my job in this way. But my experience tells me our cultural context has (wrongly) shaped expectations I have had for myself and others have had of me.

Keller goes on to explain how traditional cultures (and Christianity) understand suffering to be the result of conflict between the external and our internal world, which means that, rather than raging against the world, those suffering were to take responsibility to address their pain and use it to achieve a redemptive outcome.

Pastoring Sufferers in a Secular Age

Now I wouldn’t have put it that way when you asked me to describe how to pastor people who are suffering, but that is essentially what pastors are called to do. We must love people with our presence, help, and the Word of God, and we are called to love sufferers in that way so as to help them on the road of faith. And often, though not always, this means we have to help people face the ways they have caused or contributed to their pain. Pastors must help their flock understand and know “that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us,” (Romans 5:3-5). We are not simply victims.

But in a culture that fosters a victim mentality, we all naturally want experts to take away the pain or help us manage it so it doesn’t hurt so badly. While pastors should aim to help in that way, that isn’t all we are supposed to do. And when we call people to examine their lives and consider how God might use their pain to transform them or how they might be causing some of their own suffering, it makes sense, given our context, that people will lash out in anger and accuse us of making things worse! It makes sense that I have been such a disappointment to some who have suffered greatly. We are more secular than we realize.

I must admit, I’ve been surprised in my pastoral ministry at how some who have suffered have lashed out at me and caused me to suffer! That has led me to self-examination, submitting myself to others for evaluation, and some needed repentance. But I have also come to see that sometimes those who are suffering lash out at me as a pastor because we have different ideas of what I am supposed to do. Consciously or not, some have looked to me to manage or eliminate their pain, and at this, I have completely failed. Sometimes that’s because the sufferer has been offended or outraged that I would suggest they might be responsible for some of their pain. Sometimes that’s because the sufferer thinks I haven’t done a good job at relieving their pain or doing the things they believed would help them manage or relieve their pain.

In either case, I need to remember my calling, and I must self-consciously reject the idea that I am just another specialist there to manage people’s pain. My job is to offer people the hope of the gospel in the midst of a broken world. No doubt, many will be disappointed. But I cannot let the disappointment and anger of some alter my job description.