Fourteen years ago I suffered a miscarriage. Turns out it was actually a molar pregnancy which, left unchecked, has to potential to become cancerous.
My gynecologist wrote a prescription for strong birth control, scheduled me for quarterly blood work, and warned me not to attempt any more pregnancies until a year had passed.
Sorrow and grief fell like a ton of bricks and I felt smothered and helpless for months. The loneliness of being frozen there, on that fateful day when the sonogram showed nothing but a mass of random tissue and no baby — well, it glued itself to me and nearly buried me alive.
Measured in sheer ounces of sorrow, it was one of the most painful experiences of my life.
Because unlike so many earlier heartbreaking episodes, this one seemed random. There was nothing I did to cause it, nothing I could have done to prevent it. It wasn’t fair. There was no way to fix it, change it, or cheer myself up.
It was loss, pure and simple, and it hurt. I needed to sit in my grief for a long while before I was able to get up again.
Why Does a Good God Allow Suffering?
The big question we humans forever ask is, “Why does a good God allow suffering in the first place?”
And there are as many philosophies and theologies and explanations as there are people to give them.
But today I want to discuss a different aspect of suffering than the “why” of it.
Instead I’d like to look at the “what” of suffering.
Because truth is, too many times Christians tend to ignore the “what” in order to get to the “why” on the other side. It’s what I experienced in 2002.
My grief and pain were real. They were burdens I never asked for and didn’t want. There was no quick way around them, no easy way out.
And yet, in the throes of my evangelical “good girl” phase, I felt compelled and driven to “move on.” It wasn’t other people who pressured me. I did it to myself.
I convinced myself that joy in the midst of adversity was the proper path for a Christian, so I tamped down the sorrow, put on mascara, and tried to muddle through without letting my grief show.
At a MOPS meeting a few months after my miscarriage, somebody exclaimed, “Let’s take a picture of all the pregnant girls!”
I should’ve been one of them.
But I wasn’t pregnant anymore.
Fighting my untethered emotions, I ran from the room in tears, disappointed in myself for not being able to celebrate with these other women who had what I ached for.
A friend came alongside and comforted me. But still, I was my own cruel taskmaster. I vowed to do better, work harder, hold it together, and smile through the pain.
It’s what I’d learned over the years, and what I believe is one of the biggest downfalls of the evangelical church.
Too many Christians don’t believe in suffering.
We say we do. But only in problem-solving ways. Christian bookstores are lined with prayer and scripture guides filled with uplifting verses to turn to when we’re grief-stricken. Because surely a Bible verse, a wink, and a smile will turn our frowns upside down, right?
There’s an old Sunday School song that says, “I’m inright, outright, upright, downright happy all the time.” And of course, there’s the old standby “If you’re happy and you know it.”
Both of which discreetly convey the message: if you’re not happy right now, something must be terribly wrong with you.
What results from such a message is hordes of Christians who believe that no matter what you’re going through, you’re supposed to plaster on a smile and fake it till you make it.
We even go so far as to see others’ unhappiness and condemn them in their spiritual journey. We say, “She’s not walking closely with the Lord.” Or, “Have you prayed about it?” A friend of mine wasn’t allowed to volunteer for Vacation Bible School because people had noticed her unhappiness. They wanted her to “get better” before allowing her to serve.
Why is it so hard for the evangelical community to admit to the reality of sorrow and suffering in the life of the Christian? Cramming suffering into the suitcase of conformity and counterfeit joy doesn’t make it go away. It just stresses people to the bursting point.
This is never how God intended for us to experience suffering.
Learning to Lament
The Old Testament is chock full of the practice of lament.
- The psalmists and the prophets cry out to God in their suffering, sorrow, and shame.
- They mourn and grieve.
- They tear their clothes and cover themselves in ashes.
- They weep and wail.
Lament is a way of acknowledging pain’s existence. The world is not right. This suffering should not be occurring . . . and yet it is. Lament is how we offer our broken pieces to God. It’s an essential piece of the puzzle in this thing we call life: learning how to feel pain.
Even Jesus, in his agony on the cross, emits a cry of lament when He utters the words, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
The grief, pain, and the suffering are real. And His cry acknowledges it.
Theology of Glory, Theology of the Cross
In ancient church history, there are two competing theologies concerning suffering. Martin Luther gave them the names “theology of glory” and “theology of the cross.”
Theologies of glory are approaches to Christianity (and to life) that try . . . to minimize difficult and painful things, or to move past them rather than looking them square in the face and accepting them. Theologies of glory acknowledge the cross, but view it primarily as a means to an end—an unpleasant but necessary step on the way to personal improvement, the transformation of human potential. As Luther puts it, the theologian of glory ‘does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and in general, good to evil.’ The theology of glory is the natural default setting for human beings addicted to control and measurement. This perspective puts us squarely in the driver’s seat, after all.”
In contrast, the “theology of the cross” looks at the human condition realistically. It acknowledges pain, suffering, and death as essential touchpoints on the journey toward resurrection. Martin Luther said it is the ability to “call the thing what it is.”
- The theology of glory says, “Follow Jesus right. Do A, B, & C to become a good Christian. Live as close to sinless as you possibly can. If you fall down, get right back up and don’t burden others with your problems. Being a Christian will make your life better, if not in this life, then at least in the one to come. So be happy and celebrate!”
- The theology of the cross says, “Follow Jesus. Take up your cross and walk wherever he leads. It will inevitably mean suffering and pain. It will be costly. Your life won’t be easy and it won’t be perfect. In spite of your faithfulness, you will still struggle. But through it all, God’s mercies will prevail. His grace is sufficient. And this is good news.”
When I first read of these two contrasting theologies, it was like having blinders lifted. Growing up in the evangelical tradition, I was steeped in a “theology of glory.”
I wasn’t supposed to suffer.
I was supposed to “let go and let God.” Suffering and ongoing pain meant I was doing something wrong. I wasn’t praying enough, serving enough, giving enough, reading my Bible enough. I was encouraged to rejoice in my suffering and to consider it pure joy.
Please don’t get me wrong. I do believe we are to rejoice in the experience of suffering inasmuch as it links us in fellowship with Christ. But I don’t for one minute believe the twisted version of scripture that insists we “put on a happy face” when we’re in the midst of heart-crushing grief.
Grief and sorrow don’t work that way.
- They didn’t work that way for the Old Testament prophets or psalmists.
- They didn’t work that way for Jesus.
- They won’t work that way for us.
Telling people to get over their sorrow and rejoice if they want to be good Christians is a dangerous and deadly business.
Man of Sorrows
The scripture tells us Jesus was a man of sorrows, well-acquainted with grief.
He wasn’t someone who felt pain, then shoved it down or dismissed it as trite and unimportant. He never instructed his disciples to ignore or deny their pain and suffering. If anything, He encouraged His followers to lean into it. To acknowledge it, to feel it fully, to trust His presence through the deepest throes of it, to accept it as part of the journey, and to comfort others on the other side.
“Don’t worry, be happy” might be the siren song of the evangelical “theology of glory” camp. But it’s completely out of tune with the reality of the human condition.
So if you’re in the midst of suffering, don’t let others bully you into putting on the mask. It’s okay to feel what you’re feeling. Go ahead and feel it good and hard. Feel it in your soul, in your body, in the way you struggle to breathe in and out. Recognize how it turns your world upside down, how it crashes into you and cuts bone deep.
And then trust in the savior who walked the lonely path of suffering all the way to the cross. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.
Remember this: you will never walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death without the Good Shepherd by your side. He’s been down this trail of tears before.
And he knows the way by heart.
May the “theology of the cross” be embedded in your heart this Good Friday, dear one. Be not dismayed.
Easter is coming.