Just over 10 years ago, Timothy Lee survived a serious mountain bike accident. Now living with tetraplegia, he has learnt a lot about suffering and grief. He shares here his developing theology around suffering.

One of Rotorua’s popular attractions is luge riding. After a short adrenaline rush down the hill, you reach the chairlift, and it’s a long slog uphill compared to the trip down. On reflection, we often think suffering is the shortest part of the ride, and the greater portion of the journey carries little drama. The reality is it’s the other way around, as Job discovered.

“When I lie down, I think, ‘How long before I get up?’ My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle, and they come to an end without hope” (Job 7:4,6, NIV).

In order to survive this arduous journey, we must wrestle with the God who doesn’t cause our suffering, but allows it. Here are my top seven ‘experienced theologies’ in response.

1. Suffering identifies us as followers of Jesus

A few years after my accident, I was feeling distant from God. Not able to escape the daily grind, I felt depressed. My wife encouraged me to look into the stages of grief. Coupled with some pointers from a counsellor friend, an ongoing calling in pastoral work, and a curiosity for answers in Job, I’ve found a renewed endurance in life. “The terror and wonder of the book of Job is that God slowly allows Job to walk through the stages of grief and dying, while admittedly holding his feet to the fire.”1

Yes, in this world we will always have trouble (John 16:33)—largely due to the brokenness of humanity, to sin and the choices we make. We are also subject to natural laws that bring flooding, quakes and diseases. However, suffering also identifies Christians with Christ.

[W]e are…heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory (Romans 8:17, NIV).

For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps (1 Peter 2:21, NRSV).

2. Suffering causes us to exercise our prayer muscles

Technically, I shouldn’t be alive, given the trauma to my head. The physicians told my family that if I did survive, I could be on a ventilator for the rest of my life. After initial surgery and the second attempt to bring me out of an induced coma, I came to, and eventually breathed on my own after 42 days in ICU. I know people prayed, for which I am eternally grateful. 

F B Meyer saw that in his life experiences “the greatest tragedy of life is not unanswered prayer but unoffered prayer.” We are called to persist in prayer and to give thanks, knowing that God is accomplishing his purposes through the power and intercession of his Spirit. (See Romans 8:26 and 12:12; Ephesians 6:18; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18; James 5:16.)

3. Suffering challenges us to trust God and to discover his kindness toward us

We’ve been blessed by others’ generosity. God’s opened unexpected doors and my ministry has become more itinerant, though I’m firmly planted in our church community. I live with fatigue, yet God’s given me a voice, a story and the privilege of connecting with many people. I often hold back my tears when listening to the plight of locals who live on the streets, but I’m humbled by their spiritual maturity and buoyancy in life. They give to me, as much as I give to them. 

God is always doing the right thing by us, though we may not see it till after the event! Or as Neil Ormerod put it, “Providence can only be recognized looking backwards, with the eyes of faith; seeing the care of God in the midst of suffering.”2

Providence in Hebrew speaks of three things: God’s oversight, his availability to visit, and active involvement in our lives. I encourage you to sit with this Scripture: 

“You gave me life and showed me kindness, and in your providence watched over my spirit” (Job 10:12, NIV).

4. Suffering enables us to help others with their troubles

To paraphrase Paul in 2 Corinthians 1:3-7, God comforts us so we can comfort others and help them to endure their suffering. I believe the only reason God’s kept me alive is to encourage others. Not a week passes by without opportunity for me to do that. During lockdown, my neighbour asked if I could take his wife’s funeral. After sharing with family and neighbours at the back of his house, family followed the hearse down the driveway. With lips still shaking in grief, my neighbour said, “Thanks Tim, you’ve made my day.” 

“Hiding wounds gives a pretence that life is perfect. Licking wounds requests sympathy. Learning from wounds gives us the knowledge to help others.”3 Despite my trauma, it’s a privilege to travel a journey with others.

5. Suffering is a platform to reach the lost

I’d be lying if I denied ongoing grief and frustration. One morning, I was looking up at the bush line where I used to ride and jog. I felt God clearly say, “Timothy, do you want to run more than win the lost?” Talk about being hit over the head again with a four-by-two! In my heartache, God was challenging me not to lose his heart for my community. 

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us…We always carry in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body (2 Corinthians 4:7,10, NIV).

We are cracked pots, not crackpots! Paul says the treasure of God cannot be contained from shining out of our broken lives. All the more is our mandate to share the good news. “Suffering, failure, loneliness, sorrow, discouragement, and death will be part of your journey, but the Kingdom of God will conquer all these horrors. No evil can resist grace forever.”4

6. Suffering gives us a broader understanding of healing and the well-being of life

I believe in the all-powerful God who is able to heal through the provision of Jesus’ work on the cross. I wouldn’t be here otherwise! But I cannot demand healing. Some doctrines teach that Christians should be materially wealthy, physically healthy and happy. I don’t buy that—neither does God. Our walk with him is one of mystery—an uncompleted puzzle. So, we need to reconcile the tension between suffering and the well-being of life. 

I’m content and I find a sense of well-being in helping others, to weep with them, to pray for and mentor them, to give leadership to them. That’s a meaningful story, and it fulfils something of who I am, even if I can’t walk to the letterbox. “We can flourish, even though we sometimes suffer, if our lives can be invested with meaning.”5

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me (2 Corinthians 12:9‑10, NIV).

7. Suffering leads us to see beyond our struggles to where hope is found

God has provided our needs in multiple ways. Despite having to wrestle with ACC on occasion, it serves me as a world-class system. Each day has its frustrations, but I’m not digging a hole; rather, I am looking to God! As Romans 5:5 tells us, hope will not disappoint us. God didn’t take away Job’s struggles. He parted the clouds and gave him the ability to see beyond them. 

My flesh may be destroyed, yet from this body I will see God. Yes, I will see him for myself, and I long for that moment (Job 19:26-27, CEV).

God has covered me with darkness, but I refuse to be silent (Job 23:17, CEV).

“My life is not about me—this is the great and saving revelation that comes only from the whirlwind, and we’re never ready for it.”6 (See Genesis 50:20; Jeremiah 29:11; 1 Peter 1:6-7; Revelation 21:3-4.)

Conclusion… theology in formation

On the day we moved from alert level four to level three, Dr Ashley Bloomfield alluded to the words of theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard: “We live our lives forwards, but understand them looking backwards.” If COVID-19 has taught us anything, the world is crying out for release. As God’s people, the ecclesia, we have increasing opportunities to lead lost sheep toward fresh pastures, a place to belong to (tūrangawaewae), and hope beyond grief and despair. I’m a weak shepherd, reliant on the daily support of others, but I can see God’s hand of grace in the fabric of my life, and I’m fulfilled inasmuch as he sustains me. 

“I know that you can do all things; and no plan of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2, NIV). 

Kia kaha.

Contributor: Rev Timothy Lee

Timothy has pastored in Baptist churches for over 20 years. He has a number of community roles as missional pastor at Rotorua Baptist Church, and is also transitional minister at St John’s Presbyterian Church, Rotorua. 

References:

  1. Richard Rohr, Job and the Mystery of Suffering: Spiritual Reflections (New York: Crossroads, 1998), 105.
  2. Shane Clifton, Husbands Should Not Break (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2015), 155.
  3. Henri Nouwen, The Prayer Motivational Devotional (2017), 415.
  4. Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel (Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books, 1990) 199-200.
  5. Clifton, Husbands Should Not Break, 90.
  6. Rohr, Job and the Mystery of Suffering, 178.

Scripture:

Scripture quotations marked (NRSV) are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright ©1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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Scripture quotations marked (CEV) are from the Contemporary English Version Copyright © 1991, 1992, 1995 by American Bible Society. Used by Permission.