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” (Romans 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.