The gospel’s bizarre promise for sufferers.
Robert Capon’s good news of calling suffering what it is.
One of the incumbent motivations behind putting mine and my family’s story in a book that turned out to be a collection of discussions about faith and suffering was to dispel the common assumptions regarding what suffering is supposed to do for you. That might be a weird way of putting it, but I think, in general, we are so resistant to the idea of suffering and its apparent concomitant weaknesses that we rush to assume that every ounce of suffering is merely a stepping stone to some other degree of human experience or achievement. This is nothing but a theology of suffering that’s downstream from Oprah’s wisdom for sufferers: “Turn your wounds into wisdom.” Or, to parrot the words of another motivational speaker, “Your setback is just the setup for your comeback.” To view the evil and the sorrow we endure from that perspective is to refuse to call evil and sorrow what it is: awful intrusions into God’s good green earth.
You see, we think that if we can just get out of the badness of life’s bad seasons by twisting them into good seasons, then we don’t have to spend so much time and energy on the bad stuff of life. No one wants to be preoccupied with all that. But, in the end, that’s not good news. Not at all, in fact. All that does is put the onus on you and your ability to get through those bad seasons and make something good out of them. The theology of “your setback is just the setup for your comeback” puts you behind the wheel to navigate your own suffering, with the attendant rule-of-thumb that only those who are able to overcome their bout of suffering, whatever that may entail, are the true winners of the world. And winning is all that matters, right?
The good news of Jesus Christ is a much different announcement, though. It doesn’t inspire you to call bad things good; rather, it invites you to call them what they are, and to see that there’s a Person who is with you in the middle of it all — yes, even in the middle of loss and pain and death. Martin Luther would distinguish these constructs as the rivalry between the theology of glory and the theology of the cross. Robert Capon, though, in his book The Mystery of Christ, speaks to this same reality with his consonant wit:
The Gospel . . . makes the bizarre promise that it’s precisely in the evil, right smack in the present injustice, that God bestows the healing, makes the New Creation. Our brokenness — which is where we really are, and what we really are — is actually the place of our restoration, not just a glitch on the way to it or a punishment for not getting it right. The Gospel, you see, neither calls evil insignificant nor says it’s good in and of itself. It freely admits that the brokenness of the world stinks. But it does say that God meets us in our brokenness, and that by taking it all down into his own death and resurrection, he creates a New Order in which evil has not place at all. (152)
Your brokenness and mine isn’t something we have to avoid by turning it into a stepping stone through our own sheer force of will. There’s only One who holds in his hands the ability to turn all the bad elements of life into his good and glorious ends (Rom. 8:28) — and he’s none other than the One who heaved on a cross, “It is finished.” With those words, the worst filigrees of human malevolence and rebellion were woven into what the Father had already been cooking up from “before the foundation of the world” (Col. 1:20; Eph. 1:4; Rev. 13:8).
You’ll be able to read more about this and other topics related to faith and suffering in my upcoming book, Finding God in the Darkness: Hopeful Reflections from the Pits of Depression, Despair, and Disappointment, which is set to be released in July 2023 by 1517 Publishing. Keep an eye out for news and details on the book’s release in the coming weeks.
Grace and peace.
Robert Capon, The Mystery of Christ . . . and Why We Don’t Get It (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993).