Editor's Note: In the next few weeks, Ryan will be exploring the reality of suffering from a prepositional understanding. Each post will relate God to suffering using a different preposition. This is part one and the introduction. Other parts of this series are linked below. All parts of this series were originally posted as a single article in its entirety, written by Ryan Lister, Ph.D., in the Fall 2015 edition of Western Magazine and is posted per their permission. All rights belong to Western Seminary. Thanks, Western!
God and Suffering: A Prepositional Theology
Suffering makes our true theology known. When the whirlwind comes, nothing is sacred. It exposes our real doctrine, the one that often lies beneath the bleached-whited veneer of our biblical jargon and Christian platitudes. Suffering demands our theology get real; it bullies us into reevaluating our assumptions about God and ourselves.
No one knew this inner dissonance better than C.S. Lewis. In his lofty academic treatise, The Problem of Pain, Lewis penned these well-worn words about suffering:
God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.
These words creep into our sermon manuscripts because they are true and because they grab us by the collar. They shake up our understanding of God and what he is doing in our pain. Yet Lewis’ claim only goes so far. It finds its limits because it leaves God and suffering in the theoretical realm.
Unfortunately, suffering suffers no academic speculation or conjecture. Suffering will not be trapped under the microscope as Lewis himself learned just a few years later.
It was the pain surrounding the death of Lewis’ wife that finally backed his academic analysis into the corner. It also gave birth to a new book—a diary of sorts chronicling Lewis’ raw, unchecked emotional experience of God in the wake of his suffering. In A Grief Observed, the knife of suffering cuts Lewis’ theology, and what pours out of his existential wounds are these words, words very much on the opposite end of spectrum from his earlier, clinical assessment:
[G]o to [God] when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.
For Lewis, the God he examined on paper—the One who whispers, speaks, and shouts—stood silent in the crucible of his pain. While the debris of his ivory tower experiment crumbled at the foot of his wife’s headstone, the God he thought he had figured out didn’t reach for his megaphone, but rather what seemed to be the deadbolt latch. It turns out that God didn’t act according to Lewis’ plan and it was His silence that was deafening in Lewis’ experience, not the divine shouting.
When the Whirlwind Hits
Lewis’ experience and, more than likely, our own reveals this about our knowledge of God and suffering: we know very little at all, and what we think we know, suffering often turns on its head. Suffering is the great equalizer; it does not pause to review our résumés and academic qualifications before it walks through the front door. It does not read our articles on suffering or bow to our unfounded assumptions about God and his ways in the world. Rather, suffering is here—or it is coming—and we better be prepared. We better have something to hold onto when the whirlwind hits.
To help, here is my suggestion: We need a theology of prepositions—one of the strongest and sturdiest theological realities we can grab hold of when suffering comes.
You read that right; you don’t need to read it again. I know that it has been awhile since you’ve probably given English grammar a second thought, but that is just it. You know what prepositions are because you naturally use them every day. Prepositions are the “befores,” the “overs,” the “in the midst ofs,” the “throughs,” and the “afters” in our sentences and speech. These little words—ones that seem insignificant to us—matter in a big way. They matter because they help us understand relationships. They tell us where we stand in relation to someone or something else. In our theology of suffering, then, prepositions clarify who God is and where he stands in relationship to suffering.
But this is no mere grammatical exercise. These small words help because they get us beyond the theoretical. A theology of prepositions forms the ballast for our knowledge and experience of suffering especially when suffering consumes us. Prepositions help us understand how God relates to our pain and sorrow while also being truths we can cling to in the dark times. They help hold us in place when we don’t know which way is up. They can be the emergency latch we pull when we start to drown in the chaos of our grief and sorrow.
This is how a theology of prepositions helps us to both understand and live out our theology of suffering.
Ryan Lister is a husband, father, blogger, author, and professor of theology at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of The Presence of God: Its Place in the Storyline of Scripture and the Story of Our Lives. Follow him on Twitter!
image credit belongs to Bastien Grivet: http://fav.me/d7mrqvp