Podcast episode 018: Hard thoughts about pain and suffering

by | Aug 1, 2018

Most of us can cope with pain and suffering for a short while. But what happens when you wake up each morning not wondering whether it might be better today, but knowing in your heart that it won’t be?

How can we deal with that kind of chronic pain and suffering without becoming bitter with God and with those around us? And how can we minister to those who endure this kind of long-term pain?

That’s the subject of this episode of the CCL podcast, with American theologian and author Kelly Kapic. Kelly knows about this kind of suffering firsthand, and has written an award-winning book on the subject called Embodied Hope: Theological meditations on pain and suffering. Kelly brings biblically rich reflections and honest practical wisdom to the conversation. You won’t want to miss this one.


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Kelly Kapic: People who aren’t in—especially something like chronic pain—and chronic—just to help, chronic pain, they often think of as pain that is felt for more than 90 days. So in other words, if you’re in pain every day for ten days, you’re still surprised on the eleventh day that you wake up in pain. But basically by the 91st day, you now think this is your lot.

Tony Payne: That’s Kelly Kapic, our guest on the podcast today, talking about the reality of ongoing long-term pain and suffering—the kind of pain and suffering that nearly all of us will experience in one way or another during our lives—either by suffering it ourselves, or by being close to someone who is.

How do we understand and deal with this kind of long-term debilitating pain and suffering as Christians? It’s not something that we can laugh off or pretend doesn’t matter; it’s not something that we can over-spiritualise either, as Kelly Kapic also points out.

KK: Think about how irritable we can be if you have a toothache, right? And people say, “Well, just read your Bible and pray.” Try having a tooth peg—a toothache—and reading your Bible and concentrating! It’s very difficult. But we can over-spiritualise physical pain, and therefore not be very loving and understanding to people who are dealing with it.

TP: Kelly has lots of really useful things to say about how we can understand and deal with chronic pain and suffering—how we can keep going in the midst of it, how we can understand and respond well to it spiritually and bring it to our God and Father, and how we can help other people we know who are also suffering. That’s our topic on episode 18 of the Centre for Christian Living podcast.

[Music]

TP: Hello, I’m Tony Payne, and welcome to the Centre for Christian Living podcast coming to you from Moore College in Sydney, Australia. Our goal is to bring biblical ethics to everyday issues, and we do that in a few different ways, of course—not just through this podcast, but also through the public events we run several times a year here in Sydney.

And our next one is coming up very soon: it’s on August 20thhere at Moore College. It’s on “Spirit-inspired Christian living” and the speaker is Phillip Jensen. Phillip will be asking, “What does the Spirit want Christians to do in their lives as Christians? What does the Spirit enable Christians to do?” There are two very common approaches to this that are erroneous—on sort of either side of the spectrum: on the one side, there are the more humanistic or liberal Christians who don’t really have much place at all in the Christian life for the dynamic, empowering work of the Spirit. At another extreme, though, are the more mystical experientially minded Christians, who seem to expect the Spirit to do everything in the Christian life, and to magically solve all the problems we experience. What does the Holy Spirit inspire and enable and empower Christians to do in their Christian lives? And what do the Spirit-inspired Scriptures tell us about all this? Well, that’s what Phillip will be digging into at this Centre for Christian Living event on August 20th at Moore College.

Go to our website—that’s ccl.moore.edu.au—for all the details, to purchase tickets, and also to register for the livestream. You can participate in this event if you’re listening to this outside of Sydney. The livestream options are all detailed there on the website. You can send in questions during the event and participate in that way as a livestreamer. So find out all those details on our website.

But let’s get to today’s topic—the topic of pain and suffering, particularly long-term chronic pain and suffering—and how we deal with and understand this as Christians.

Kelly Kapic has written a book on this subject called Embodied Hope, and I sat down with Kelly while he was in Sydney recently to talk with him about it. Kelly is well-known in the US as a theologian and author and speaker. Perhaps most of our listeners outside the US don’t know so much about Kelly, so I started by asking him to tell us a bit about himself.

KK: Sure. It’s—first of all, it’s great to be here in Australia and to be at Moore. It’s been a delightful trip. I’m a theologian from Lookout Mountain, Georgia. I’m originally from California: my wife and I are Californians but haven’t lived there in 25 years. But yeah, a theologian who was trained in the UK and has been back. I teach at a liberal arts Christian college in the States. You don’t really have those here so much. But—so I train students—not just who are going into ministry, but many who are going into law or medicine or different things like that—help give them an overview of the theology of the faith and—and—and how these doctrines matter to life.

TP: Well, in terms of how doctrine matters to life, you’ve recently written a book—Embodied Hope, it’s called—“Theological meditations on pain and suffering”. It’s been received very well—in fact, I believe it’s—it won the Christianity Today Book of the Year in 2018. What particularly led you to want to write a book about pain and suffering?

KK: That’s a good question. It’s … it’s the kind of book that actually I didn’t want to write. [Laughs.] And it wasn’t anything that was on the plans. I was not planning to—to do anything like this. But the—the briefest story is—these—as these things are often the case, it’s very personal, and in 2008, my wife was diagnosed with cancer and we went through that and, long story short, after surgeries and—and time, she was declared “cancer-free”, and we were very thankful. 2009. And very happy, and then in 2010, she was functioning at the time as president of Medair and International Relief and Rehabilitation organisation, and the Haiti earthquake had just happened and she was heavily involved in doing some—some different things, and just been meeting with some pastors in downtown Chattanooga about church planting and Haiti—you know, this is good, godly work, right? And … she called me from the side of the road mid—midway home, and she’d pulled over and said, “Kelly, I have no idea what’s going on, but my leg’s not functioning rightly. I’m not sure I can drive home our stick shift—our manual. I’m not sure I can make it home.” And that marked—in June 2010—marked the beginning of what became daily pain and serious fatigue from my wife, who, eight years later, still deals with that.

It took us years to—all the way to the Mayo Clinic, a famous hospital in the States—and she was diagnosed with various things. But in—now we’re basically know what we’re dealing with, although it took many years to figure it out and—and the reality is they’re chronic. So that—this book, in 2014, I was approached with the possibility of a grant, and it was out of nowhere, and God just kind of opened the door, and they—it was on spiritual formation and psychology, and they asked, “Is there anything you’d like to study?” And it wasn’t on my writing agenda; I had other things to work on. And my wife and I talked, and I said, “Well, if you pay for my research, I’d love to think about suffering and have the time.” So that—that in 2014 was what—what allowed for that research and writing to begin.

TP: So the book is about—about pain in particular?

KK: Yep.

TP: Physical pain? Or is it about—

KK: Yep.

TP: —suffering more generally?

KK: It’s suffering more generally, but then, because when we talk about suffering, there are so many different forms of our suffering, it can sound too abstract. I really—for various reasons, I—I do use physical pain—chronic pain—as kind of a test case. And part of it’s because I’m very interested in the importance of our bodies and—and what is physical pain. So I’ve had people who’ve heard me talk about these things or read the book, who maybe dealt with childhood trauma or other kinds of suffering that aren’t chronic pain, but have said it’s—it’s helpful. But I do use physical pain as—as a way in to think about it.

TP: When we suffer pain of some kind—whether it’s an emotional, traumatic pain, a physical chronic, ongoing pain—what does it do to us as people? What does it do to us as Christians? What effects does it have on us?

KK: Yeah, it—it actually has quite a bit, and one of the reasons I’m interested in wrestling through this more publicly is people who aren’t in—especially something like chronic pain—and chronic—just to help, chronic pain, they often think of as pain that is felt for more than 90 days. So in other words, if you’re in pain every day for ten days, you’re still surprised on the eleventh day that you wake up in pain. But basically by the 91st day, you now think this is your lot.

And part of what I’m interested in is how dealing with serious pain or different forms of suffering over long periods of time affect us, and they wear us out. Think about how irritable we can be if you have a toothache, right? And people say, “Well, just read your Bible and pray.” Try having a tooth peg—a toothache—and reading your Bible and concentrating! It’s very difficult. But we can over-spiritualise physical pain, and therefore not be very loving and understanding to people who are dealing with it.

So I’m—I’m interested in—in what this does to those who are suffering, what it does to those who are trying to care for them, what it does to the community of faith. And I—I do worry—one of—I—oh, well, I have two main concerns: maybe this is … helpful. When I was writing the book, on the one hand, I’m worried about some forms of evangelicalism, which are what I would call—I don’t mean to be disrespectful—but “happy clappy”. [Laughs.] So we don’t really have space in some forms of evangelicalism for sad things—for difficult things; we just think, “Well, if it’s hard, be happy; it’s going to get better.” And the truth is, sometimes it never gets better.

So that’s part of the audience I’ve been trying to address. And then the other audience—I’m a Reformed theologian—and sometimes in my circles, the flipside is, “We don’t really understand. We treat pain and suffering as just ‘God is doing this to you. He is like this cruel scientist who—who is in his sovereignty, is just doing this and wants to see, like, you’re a lab rat. How are you going to respond?’” And we have used sovereignty to flatten out everything the Bible talks about. And so, I’m trying to also address that side and say, “No, no, no: the Bible has lots to say about things like lament—things where we say, ‘God, where are you? Why is this happening?’” And the Bible gets—gives space for honest wrestling with God.

TP: So in your experience, what would you say is the most difficult or dangerous spiritual aspect of being in pain? What spiritual danger does it most typically represent for the Christian?

KK: Oh, yeah, that’s a great—that’s a great question! So for me, both experientially and in my study, the—and—and this is driving a lot of … this is driving a lot of what I’m—I’m writing about—I’m writing particularly for Christians, and the biggest danger I think they have is, as the—the Puritan John Owen says, is to have “hard thoughts” about God. So when we are in pain, we very often at a subconscious level—sometimes not subconscious; sometimes conscious—but even as subconscious, feel like God is punishing us. And the—the—the hard thoughts about God that Owen is warning against is we think he’s a cruel Father. We think he’s unconcerned or just mean. And Owen, when he talks about hard thoughts, he doesn’t mean it’s wrong to wrestle with God and be honest with God, but what he’s saying is, “Our Father’s loving, and when we think of him as cruel—we think of him as—as just treating us like an experiment or like a distant father, we’ll never approach him.” And so Owen’s word about hard thoughts—’cause he’s saying, “No, no, no: this is a Father who wants to hear—wants you to draw near to him—and—and in your pain and suffering, he wants you near him, not far from him. He’s not a mad scientist. He’s not doing any of these things.”

So, for me, in the book, I’m interested—I—it’s not so much—sometimes people talk about if you suffer a lot, will you doubt God’s existence? I actually don’t think it’s hard to talk about God’s existence. You’ll find non-Christians think that there’s a higher power. I think that language—actually, when you hear Christians saying, “I’m doubting now if there’s a God”, to be honest, if you really listen, I think what they’re saying is, “I’m doubting that the God I thought existed is really there.” I—put it this way: I think the hardest question in theology is this: “Is God good?” In my opinion, that’s the hardest question in theology.

So in the suffering book, I’m trying to ask the question, “In the midst of your pain, is God good?” And very often we try and answer that question by evaluating—well, can—is your pain going to go on forever, this or that? And I think that’s the wrong way to answer it.

TP: The answer that you provide in the book to that most important question has to do with embodied-ness: you say that the hope or that the—the way to think about what God is doing is an embodied hope and an embodied answer to that question.

KK: That’s right.

TP: What—what do you mean by that?

KK: Yeah, thanks, that’s—that’s a great question. So there’s really three parts to the book, but the first is our embodiment: God made us his creatures, and he made our bodies good. He made the earth good. And sometimes when we’re in pain, we can start to think our bodies are the problem, when they were actually made for good: they’re made to make us mutually dependent upon others. So the first part is thinking about our bodies and thinking about relationships and—and some of those ways, and how pain can affect it. And that’s—that’s embodied.

But then the—the centre of the book is the embodiment of the Son of God, who becomes human—like us in all ways, yet without sin. That the answer to the question, “Is God good?” is not found by empirical evidence of your life; it’s found by gazing upon Christ in his life, death, resurrection and ascension. And so really thinking—as Protestants, we’re very good about talking about the cross of Christ; we’re not always good about talking about the incarnation—the fact that the Son of God becomes human. And I want—and part of what I hope to explore—want to explore there is to say the fact that the Son of God becomes human is the embodiment of that hope.

And then the third part of the book is about embodiment in terms of the community: we in the West tend to be so rugged individualist, but suffering is a reminder we are part of a body—the body of Christ. And part of the big argument is that only together can we keep faith, hope and love. Only together can we get through this.

[Music]

TP: Well, I hope you’re enjoying this conversation with Kelly Kapic, and we’ll resume in just a moment. This is a brief reminder just to tell your friends about the Centre for Christian Living and this podcast. There’s all sorts of ways you can do that, of course: you can post it on Facebook or post it on Twitter, or write it on a Post-It note and stick it on their desk. Perhaps the most effective way to share the news, however, is to go to iTunes and to review and rate the podcast, because that sort of surfaces and raises it up in the podcast universe of iTunes, and it helps more people to hear about and know about the podcast. So do go onto iTunes, leave us a review and a rating. We’d appreciate it. But more to the point, others will appreciate finding out about the podcast and being able to enjoy its content as well.

But back to Kelly Kapic and to those three main approaches to the subject of pain and suffering that his book outlines. And we’re going to start with the first one—the fact that we’re embodied as humans—as people—which is to say that we’re created. How does the doctrine of creation relate to how we understand ourselves and how we understand pain and suffering?

KK: Actually, this is where lament and longing are very important. The Bible—one of the things that’s so surprising and beautiful about Christianity is it—it uniquely says we don’t need to lie. We don’t have to choose between being honest about the pain of this world and also believing that God is good and righteous. The Bible holds both together. And so, a doctrine of creation can talk about our bodies—the beauties, the strengths, but also in light of sin and the Fall, can talk about our pain—can talk about injustice and say, “This is not how it’s supposed to be” and our longing, actually, I would argue, points to the goodness of our creation and our sense that shalom isn’t right now. So the—the fact that humans long for things to be better, right? We have a feast with family and we love the laughter and we love the—the—the conversation, it’s all good until Uncle Harry says something offensive, right? And then it all goes bad. But in that longing for the meal that never goes bad, I think it points to how God made us and where he’s going to take us.

So I—I—I—I think that that is beautiful in terms of the doctrine of creation and where we’re going, but it also allows us to be honest: it’s not that now. Things are not right. And that doesn’t mean that God isn’t sovereign, but it means that sin is a real problem, and brokenness in this world is a real problem.

TP: Which is interesting in view of evolutionary theory and the alternative to a Christian view of the world. I mean, if we are just meat sacs who are adapting and evolving in order to survive, then pain and suffering aren’t an aberration from the good; they’re the necessary means by which the world progresses and—and goes forward in which everything happens. In other words, far from pain and suffering being a problem for the Christian, in many ways, pain and suffering are a real problem to talk and think about for the non-Christian—for the atheistic worldview, in a sense.

KK: Yes, it—it definitely can be. Part of where I’m concerned is, again, as I address a Christian audience, I still see, though, often in Christian circles—what you’re saying, I think, is true—I see in Christian circles, though, sometimes our uncomfortable—we’re uncomfortable letting people grieve. So at a funeral, for example, we say, “Well, they were Christian, so everything’s fine.” Well, often everything isn’t fine! Right? They’re with God, but we have longing and pain and—and—and it is—there’s reason to lament, you know. Depending on how you arrange it, scholars will argue at least 40 per cent of the—the Psalms—the Psalter—are laments. And—so I just think that we get tempted to—to pretend the world is a certain way. In fact, we think that’s Christian faithfulness is just to say, “Things are good or things are getting better”. And no, they’re really really hard! So even when someone has confidence that their loved one who died goes—is with Christ, it doesn’t mean that there’s no grieving and lament and hardships.

TP: It’s almost like, when—when you mentioned the idea of “happy clappy”—

KK: Yeah.

TP: —I—I—I couldn’t but think of the—of the chorus that we used to sing on—in—in Scripture missions and beach missions—you know, “God loves you and I love you, and that’s the way it should be”. And the second verse was, “You can be happy and I can be happy, and that’s the way it should be.”

KK: Yeah, right.

TP: And in a sense, that’s quite right; it’s just got the timing wrong—that that vision of happiness and blessedness and things being fixed is the vision we long for, but it’s not the vision for now.

KK: Yeah.

TP: It’s the vision of faith. It’s the vision of the end time.

KK: Yep.

TP: I guess, what I hear you saying is that our inability to cope with grief and to—to lament honestly and to be comfortable with doing that, it—it kind of speaks to an uncomfortableness with the—the tension of living now in the fallen present evil age while we await the age to come.

KK: Yeah. And—and I love that you brought up singing: I think that’s a test case. So if our singing together as the body of Christ is always upbeat, and we never sing laments, then what happens is we have not exercised the muscles to lament when things go badly. And so in our congregations, when something goes badly—a young person dies; someone does—we could use countless examples: someone’s faced abuse. They come to church and we’re just happy clappy. And rather than lamenting—some people say, “Well, I don’t want to lament if I don’t feel sad!” No, no, no: we lament because there’s always reason to lament, even if it’s not ours personally. And we need to cultivate empathy. And—so that we can identify with those who are in pain and who are suffering. And that also means, then, when we face it, we have those muscles that have been exercised, and we can lament.

TP: We’ve kind of skipped into part 3, haven’t we, about the place of the community in helping us deal with pain and suffering, so let’s—let’s stay there. How as a Christian community—an embodied community—can we help one another deal with pain and suffering?

KK: Yeah, thanks for asking. I—in the last chapter—well, the last three chapters, really, try and deal with the community, and the last chapter has a bunch of, what I hope, is very practical advice, and I won’t get into all of it. But—but one of the things I would talk about is—is the idea of witness: in evangelical circles today, when we use the language “witness”, we almost always think of a Christian telling a non-Christian about the faith. Which is great and biblical. But both—but in the—in the Christian tradition, there’s another form of witness, and that is when Christians testify to other Christians about God’s faithfulness.

And so, for example, in the African American tradition—Christian tradition—they’re—they’re very rich in this, and they really understand it. So if you’re in an African American worship service, it’s very common for a—a preacher to be preaching or someone stand up and—and they will say, “I need a witness!” or someone will say, “Bear witness!” And normally what’s happening is there’s two things happening at the same time: on the one hand, they’re talking about some great difficulty that they faced. And they need someone to say, “Oh, I see that too.” And on the other hand, they’re talking about how God met them and has been faithful in the midst of the difficulty.

So there’s two sides: one is saying, “Here is an injustice or a difficulty or whatever, and I need you to see it.” And on the other hand, “But God strangely has still been there in the midst of it. He’s been my—my comforter.” And we tend to separate those. We tend—tend to think, “Either you talk about injustices and pain in this world, or you’re going to talk about God’s faithfulness.” And—and as a—as a people who have experienced great injustice and pain, and have trusted in Christ in the midst of it, they know not to choose between those. And I think that’s beautiful. I think that’s what the church does: the church should not—if someone’s been abused—if someone’s been—we need to come alongside and say, “Oh, beloved, I see that too. And that is wicked! That is awful!” Because if you feel like you’re the only one who sees it, you feel like you go insane, right? It’s kind of like if I’ve had something happen to me at work and, for the sake of argument, let’s say I’m in the right. [Laughs.] And I tell my wife: “You know, this is what that person did.” And her response is, “Ah, it’s not that big a deal.” At that point, I get more upset! I keeping—I get—my voice gets louder, I get more animated, I can explain more. But if she says, “Oh, I can’t believe it! I can’t believe they said—I can’t believe they did it!”, I actually calm down, because now I think, “Oh, someone else sees it.” And that’s what the church—it’s so often the church is nervous, like, we have to protect God, and so we—we won’t let people actually talk about how painful things are. And we should say, “Oh, I see it too. That is hard.” And then we can also talk about God’s faithfulness.

TP: Yeah, it’s hard to share one another’s burdens and bear one another’s burdens if—if that burden isn’t shared and observed, as you say it—

KK: Yeah.

TP: —and affirmed and witnessed to.

KK: Yeah, that’s right.

TP: You’re speaking my language, Kelly, at the moment. I’m—I’m doing a lot of research into the speech of the Christian community with one another.

KK: Oh, excellent!

TP: And I think what you’re saying is an important aspect of it—that we em—the speech of Christians to one another—the mutual Word ministry of Christians—I think supplements the preaching/teaching ministry—

KK: Yeah.

TP: —that’s so central in the church in—in this—in one of—and this is one the vital ways in which it does it in that we listen to and testify to the work of God that he’s doing in one another’s lives and affirm with one another what the truth is and remind each other and exhort each other and encourage each other. And that happens in the midst of the hard contexts—the painful things that happen—happen in our lives.

That’s the community. So you’ve talked about doctrine of creation, which is sort of where the book begins, and we’ve skipped through to part 3. Tell me a little bit more about part 2 and how, in your words, sort of looking to Jesus or looking at Jesus as the one who comes and suffers—how that helps us to see that God is good—

KK: Yeah.

TP: —in the midst of our pain.

KK: Yeah.

TP: Tell me a bit more about that.

KK: Maybe—maybe the way into it, and this would be a longer discussion, so I’ll try and make it shorter. But I talk some about Job. And Job is such a fascinating—and obviously, when you think and write in—and talk about suffering biblically, Job often comes up. And I won’t make the whole case here, but I—I think sometimes we misunderstand certain parts of Job. One of the ways to understand it is … in the—even today, if someone’s at University of Sydney and they’re not even a Christian, but maybe reading about Western literature, they might read little bits of Job. And if they did, almost certainly it would be from the beginning of Job and the very end of Job. And that’s often how Christians think of Job: you say, “What’s most important?” and they’ll think, “The beginning and end—the beginning, where God says, ‘Okay, you can test him. You can do these things to him.’ He says that to the Satan. And then at the end, where God says, ‘Hey, where were you, Job, when I did all those?’”

But what’s interesting, for example, is in Jewish scholarship, after the Holocaust, they said, “Wait a minute. The thing that’s so important about Job is not just the beginning and the end.” They said, “The most important part is the huge middle, because look at how long Job is able to wrestle with God.” And I think that’s brilliant! That’s very insightful. We—we—we lose sight of the fact that over 30 chapters—long chapters—are Job and his friends wrestling, and we get very confused and what do we say here? And Job’s friends, who seem to be bad guys, are saying things that are theologically true. How do we work this out? Well, don’t miss the fact that God let Job and his friends wrestle for that long.

And then at the end, God approaches Job, and you’d have to read the book for the argument I make there, drawing on other scholars, but I think Job—God is firm with Job—he’s clear: “I’m the Creator and you’re not.” But I don’t think God is being cruel to Job, and I don’t think he’s belittling Job. There’s evidence: look at how he’s treated in James. Look at how he’s treated elsewhere. Even the very end of Job, where Job gets all of these resources and blessings, actually, if we’re honest and read Job carefully, Job is—is an example. He’s held up. He’s very faithful. So—so what seems to be going on there? Well, it’s fascinating: in the Book of Job, Job is allowed to ask all these questions, and then God comes and finally says, “Listen, Job: you’re not God.”

But God doesn’t answer Job’s question with an answer. He answers by his presence. He shows up. But actually the Book of Job ends without a real answer. And the Book of Job is not answered until you get to the New Testament. And what the great surprise is—the—the actual answer to Job’s questions—is that God becomes Job. God in his Son takes on all of the pain and suffering and injustice of this world. And the answer to Job’s questions is answered not by a sentence, but by the person of Jesus, where he takes on all the pain and the suffering—takes it on, absorbs it, exhausted on the cross, and then rises to new life and ascends in the heavens. And so, Jesus is God’s answer to Job, because God in Christ becomes Job unto death, overcome in life.

Now, my—I don’t know how much sense that makes, but I think that’s a—so—so, what we’re looking for when we’re dealing with the problem of suffering is not a philosophical answer; you need Jesus. And I don’t mean that in a cheesy way; I mean that in the most profound way.

TP: Jesus is the place where—where God’s creation in all its fallenness and in all its suffering and pain and all its sin and everything—where—where God meets his creation and enters his creation.

KK: And reconciles it.

TP: And reconciles it to himself.

KK: Heavens and earth—heaven and earth—all in him—in his flesh.

TP: For someone who’s listening to this, Kelly, and let me ask it in two ways. Firstly, someone who’s listening to this podcast and has someone in their life—in their own family or in their immediate circle at church or someone—who they know is suffering chronically, and it’s—it’s way past 90 days, what do you say to that person? How can that person help, support, witness to their friend or their family member to help them through this period?

KK: Couple of things I would say, but … the first thing I would say to people in general, but especially the loved one, but people in general, as Christians, we feel a tremendous temptation when someone’s suffering to explain it. And often we think it’s our job to tell them why they’re facing it. And I would beg Christians to stop doing that. Just be silent. ’Cause the truth is, you and I have no idea. So I—you know, you have examples of someone whose child is in the hospital, and the child dies, and a well-meaning Christian says to the parent, “Well, I think a nurse might become a Christian through this.” Please don’t say that! You have no—and that is a—that—that sounds spiritual, but what happens if two years from now, the nurse who made a commitment abandons the faith and wants nothing? Or people say, “Well, I think that happened, because look at the revival in the church”, but what happens when it dwindles away [in] six months? None of us are God! So we—we’re not—it sounds good and spiritual to say these things, but we’re speaking out of turn. So the—

TP: Which—which is surely the e—one of the lessons of Job, right?

KK: Exactly!

TP: And his confidence.

KK: Exactly! Exactly! And so we need more humility, and our job is not to answer that question—even when people are asking. It sounds like they—but trust me, if people are asking you, “Why is this happening?” and you answer why, they’re going to get angry. Because you actually aren’t qualified to say.

So I would say resist the temptation to answer why and instead, you be the—the presence of Christ in their life—not by answering them, but by loving them.

TP: I always think that Job’s friends were doing so well when they just sat there quietly—

KK: Exactly.

TP: —with him and said nothing, for what was it? Seven days or something, I think?

KK: Yes, yes, yes.

TP: I think, “Guys! You got off to such a great start!”

KK: Yeah!

TP: “Then you had to try and explain everything to him, and persuade him that it really was his fault in some way”, and all the different ways that the debate continues.

KK: I—I love you brought that up, ’cause we all kind of make fun of Job’s friends—like, “Oh, Job’s friends are so insensitive!” I’m not so sure we’re very different. All of us kind of think, “Oh, you know, I had someone I knew. I asked about someone and they said, ‘Oh yes, you know, their loved one died, you know, six weeks ago, and they’re, like, still really upset by it” and you think, “Are you kidding?” So you—you find this, like, yeah, we’ll let people have their space of struggling with whatever it is. But then we think, “Oh, that’s too long.” The reality is we’re all different. And—and this is not a blank cheque for people to abuse others with their—their grief. But we need a lot more patience. We need a lot more listening and a lot less talking. Yep.

TP: So a basic thing we can do for our friends is just be careful not to speak too soon or too much, and especially be careful not to try to explain.

KK: Yes.

TP: Is—is anything else you want to say to the person who’s trying to support someone in pain?

KK: Yeah, one of the other things I would say is, “You need to have rest too.” As a caregiver, you will be exhausted, and very often you won’t be one that anyone’s trying to care for. And you actually need care as well. You need hope. You need encouragement.

And—and the flipside is, I would also say there’s a danger in the caregiver—whether it’s a loved one or church members—thinking that they are the ones who supply all the need for the hurting person. That’s not how the gospel works. We can bring hope and encouragement, but actually the person in pain often is the one who brings the encouragement. The ministry does not necessarily go from the caregiver to the cared for. Often it goes from the one in need to the helper. Often, in my case with my wife, my wife is the one who ministers to me. It’s not a unidirectional thing, and if we think it is, it’s kind of like when we mistreat people who are poor. No, no, no: we may bring some things to the equation, but they’re bringing something as well, and if it’s not treated with that dignity and mutual relationship, then we’re in trouble.

TP: And what about the person who might be listening to this podcast who themselves is—is dealing with or has dealt with pain and suffering that is long-lasting and deep? What would you like to say to them? I know, in one sense, it’s a trite question, because you’ve just said, “Be patient and don’t be too quick to speak.” But if I can ask you to break that rule, in one sense and say—

KK: Yep.

TP: —what would you say in general to the person who is suffering? What would you encourage them with?

KK: I would encourage you to not grow bitter toward the church. Remember, the church is not great at handling these things. But one of the primary ways—if not the primary way—that God will care for you through this is the church, even in her imperfection.

And you need to help the church learn how to love you. You need to risk being vulnerable. And you need to be patient with yourself. You need to let God really care for you. And—and the other thing I would say is you need to learn to lament. For a lot of evangelicals, they just don’t know what “lament” means and they feel very guilty doing it.

And just as a very practical matter, one thing I’d encourage them, if you’ve never really lamented—never been honest with God—is get a pen and get a piece of paper and write your prayer. Many people have never written prayers. But write a lament and be honest with God about your pain, your frustrations, maybe your anger. You might not even know how angry you are with God until you start to pray and write it. And have a lighter, because you’ll be uncomfortable: you’ll worry that someone might read it. Know that when you end that prayer, you’re going to burn the paper. ’Cause then you’ll actually be honest. But until you can start being honest with God about these things, it’s going to be hard to accept his love and his kindness. And the big surprise is you’ll pour out your frustrations and your heartbreak and your concern and your anger, and you’ll discover his warm embrace, not his rejection.

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TP: Well, I hope you enjoyed and benefitted from that conversation with Kelly Kapic as much as I did. Kelly’s book is Embodied Hope: A theological meditation on pain and suffering. It’s published by Inter-Varsity press and can be obtained pretty much wherever you get good Christian books.

Thanks for being with us today on episode 18 of the Centre for Christian Li ving podcast. You can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or Stitcher or wherever good podcasts are found. If you have any questions about this episode or any topics you’d really love us to cover, or any feedback at all, get in touch with us by emailing at ccl@moore.edu.au and always, of course, check out our website, which is ccl.moore.edu.au, for everything we do here at the Centre for Christian Living—our public events, the full archive of all these podcasts, and a bunch of articles and essays on various aspects of the Christian life.

Thanks for being with us today. I’m Tony Payne. ’Bye for now.

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