Faith, Hope & Love: A Pastoral & Theological Meditation on Suffering
by Dr. Kelly Kapic, professor of theological studies
On June 9, 2008, my wife, the mother of my two young children, was diagnosed with cancer. I watched her courageously and gracefully go through this diagnosis and the surgeries and treatments that followed. Even as I watched her, I was unprepared for the weight of that watching, for the weight of walking beside a suffering one.
After having eventually been declared cancer free for a time, in May 2010 she developed severe polyneuropathy, a condition characterized by extreme fatigue and debilitating pain in all four limbs. It has not eased through the years, and remains a daily, even hourly presence in her and our lives. Most people who see her would not guess that this most active and able woman is often bedridden or severely restricted by her pain and limited mobility.
Through these years, we have wrestled in various ways with suffering, grief, and loss. We’ve had to ask hard questions about God, His will, ourselves, and relationships. We have wrestled with issues of identity and purpose. These have not been easy years, and there are no simple answers. But this journey has been our story—our existence lived with and before God.
I begin with this brief snapshot of our lives, not because I aim to give you an autobiography, but to admit that this subject of suffering is not hypothetical to us. Nor do I imagine that it is hypothetical to you. Consequently, these reflections do, in some way, reflect our own family’s wrestling through the ravages and emotional toll of suffering.
Tempted to Think Ill of God
Christians, perhaps even more than those without faith in a personal and loving God, can feel not just alone but abandoned during times of difficulty. It is one thing for sufferers to cry out to the great unknown, echoing the unsettling words of Stephen Crane:
A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”
Yet for the saint who confesses the personal God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Mary, such moments of despair can bring the fear of divine indifference, rejection, or judgment.
Dorthee Soelle, in her powerful but unnerving book Suffering shows deep frustration with the orthodox Christian tradition at just this point. With special hostility reserved for the likes of John Calvin, she observes that Christian theologians have often used suffering to promote a kind of “theological sadism” and “masochistic approach.” She describes a most unpleasant picture of common historic approaches: “Suffering is there to break our pride, demonstrate our powerlessness, exploit our dependency. Affliction has the intention of bringing us back to a God who only becomes great when He makes us small.”
While I am not interested here in debating the adequacy of Soelle’s many historical or even theological claims (many of which I strongly disagree with), I believe her volume raises honest questions. What do we really believe about this God?
One of the most powerful temptations Christians face as they go through suffering is, to borrow a phrase from John Owen, to have “hard thoughts” of God. By “hard thoughts,” this Puritan theologian does not have in mind our honest questions that naturally arise amid our struggles. It is fairly common to have honest questions as we stand before God in our physical pain: Why? How come? What does this mean? When will it end? Such questions are not only understandable, but healthy.
Despite widespread misperceptions, Christian spirituality is not stoicism. Heartfelt cries and existential questions operate at the core of healthy theology, and suppressing them is more hurtful than a confession of ignorance. While I can’t fully unpack this here, let me just say we need a fuller appreciation for longing and lament. What Owen has in mind is different, which is why these might be called “temptations” rather than merely honest struggles.
Whether first fostered from painful childhood experiences, heavy-handed preaching, or something else, we often imagine God in deeply problematic ways. When experiences of physical suffering persist, it is all too common to find ourselves plagued by distorted perceptions of God, making Him appear tyrannical or even demonic. Such “hard thoughts” are temptations because they can lead us to ultimate despair and away from communion with the loving Lord. They are temptations because our suffering and struggle entice us to think ill of God, to imagine Him cruel and brutish. As Owen comments, we are “apt to have very hard thoughts of Him, —to think He is always angry, yea, implacable; that it is not for poor creatures to draw nigh to Him.” God’s concern about such hard thoughts arises not because He cannot answer our questions or becomes defensive. No, they concern God because they keep us far from Him.
With this in mind, I want to help us think about this problem as an extended meditation on Paul’s comment about faith, hope, and love in 1 Corinthians 13:13. These words and images are vital, not simply in telling the Christian story, but for anyone trying to live within that story.
I want us to spend some time with Martin Luther. Luther’s emphasis on faith is important for our discussion because it shaped his view of the Christian’s struggle with sickness.
With the loss of health, a person—whether in the sixteenth century or the third millennium—commonly loses a sense of peace and identity. Physical difficulties are often accompanied by spiritual trials, even though tracing out the exact relationship between the two is impossible. A person’s life becomes unavoidably narrow when severely limited by debilitating pain or weakness. Amid such difficult seasons of life, Luther understood that the fog of doubt often comes rolling in, obscuring the believer’s vision: accordingly, the taunts of hell often grow louder during those periods. He recognized this because he lived it himself.
During his life, Luther experienced various levels of physical ailment. Sometimes it was so severe that he thought he was on the verge of death, frightening not only his wife and friends, but even himself. Given that he viewed physical pain as often woven together with spiritual challenge, he approached such moments not with indifference or stoicism, but more like a sailor fighting a vicious storm that would inevitably leave damage and pain through its thrashings. Amid such storms he believed “all hands on deck” were needed to survive the turbulence.
For example, in 1527 he wrote to Melanchthon, explaining how for a full week he was terribly ill and “in death and hell.” Through these moments of weakness and pain he describes his vulnerability: “I almost lost Christ in the waves and blasts of despair and blasphemy against God, but God was moved by the prayers of saints and began to take pity on me and rescued my soul from the lowest hell.” Luther knew that in times of physical and emotional distress saints often struggle to believe and are afflicted with confused images of God and His work in the world. During such seasons, the Christian leans heavily upon the faith and prayers of other saints, for by them one is sustained, or even “rescued.”
Writing to Nicholas Hausmann on a different occasion, Luther describes how he stands in the midst of great suffering even as the plague seems to be ending in his area: at least three times the affliction had hit his household, with even his son Hans greatly malnourished and ill, appearing for a time to be on the verge of death. Here the sickness was not his own, but that of those he loved, and so again he admits that in this context, while it is “Christ’s will,” he has still been struggling with “restlessness and faintheartedness.” Consequently he implores Hausmann for prayers that “my faith fail not.”
Luther never doubted the significance of faith, but he also never forgot how fragile it could become in instances of duress. What was really at stake in such moments of weakness was not merely his physical condition, but his belief in God’s goodness and provision.
While Luther’s life was fraught with various battles, including struggles against the Pope and other power structures, he always seemed to have a sense that the underlying battle was one of faith, or as David C. Steinmtz concluded, “the central problem for Luther remains the problem of God. The mercy and compassion of God are always set against the background of God’s hiddenness.” This tension often grew during times of physical weakness, when uncertainties and temptations fostered uncomfortable questions: Is God really loving? Could He welcome a sinner like Luther into His holy presence? Would Luther’s heart worship this God or merely fear Him?
Luther lived, as Heiko Oberman memorably said, between God and the devil, and so he serves as a useful model of the Christian struggle. When he suffered from serious sickness, the threefold taunt of sin, death, and the devil was always nearby.
The ache of disease often awakens an awareness of one’s sin, thus increasing even the believer’s susceptibility to imagine divine judgment. At stake during these times of illness is the saint’s ability to trust in God’s gracious reign and rule. What is needed is light, the light of faith.
Illness was unquestionably tangled up with spiritual trial in Luther’s mind. His afflictions were often accompanied by “spiritual depression.” Once, Justus Joan wrote as a firsthand witness of a time when Luther was suddenly overcome with grave physical pains, after having gone through a “grave spiritual trial” earlier in the morning. That evening Luther’s body gave out, starting with ringing in his ear but then quickly spreading so that his entire flesh seized up until he appeared frighteningly faint. Luther’s response was not only to beg Justus to splash him quickly with cool water, but he also began fervently to pray. His prayers in this instance, as we have them recorded by Justus, are a mixture of his reciting the Lord’s Prayer and various psalms. Luther was mainly just physically weak, and so his friends brought physical relief, but they also reminded him of his hope.
Turning to everyone in the room one by one, Luther requested, “Pray for me, please.” But Luther did not die, and when the physical pains subsided and he was more stable the next day, he reported that he had just been to “school,” and that “his spiritual trial of yesterday was twice as great as this bodily illness which came on in the evening.”
While it may be debated whether or how spiritual trials might provoke physical vulnerability or how bodily weakness may open one up to spiritual challenges, it does seem that these two often go together for psychosomatic beings.
Writing to Gerard Wilskap at Herford in 1528, Luther noted that while he had suffered illness from his youth, he was now facing things at their most severe. His note describes his precarious situation. “[S]o far Christ has triumphed, but He holds me by a very slender thread,” and so Luther desperately requests their prayers: “I have saved others, myself I cannot save.” Such moments require the prayers of other saints, rather than self-referential prayer. And what Luther wants to be “saved” from is not merely death, but more importantly, saved from blasphemy, doubt, and distrust of his loving God.
Luther’s letters serve as powerful examples of someone who recognizes not only the centrality of faith, but also the dependence we have on others through their prayers and presence to provide a hedge around us during our weakness.
God freely employs the faith of others, expressing itself through prayer, as a means to sustain and uphold the fragile faith of the suffering Christian. During times of challenge, including illness which can breed vulnerability, the wounded believer often depends on other saints to sustain her through seasons of suffering. While Luther and others from the Reformation are often accused of brash individualism in their conceptions of faith, these examples of Luther’s sickness remind us that he never imagined faith as a purely individual activity. Yes, the individual was called to believe, but that faith can in fact only be lived within an organic connection to the locally constituted church.
One of the regular ways the body of Christ maintains its health is just as when parts of the human body are attacked with disease or weakness: the other parts often carry some extra weight. If a person’s ankle is broken he instinctively places more weight on the strong leg. This is not because he despises the weak leg, but because it can only return to full health if its burden is born by the other limb. Similarly, Christians bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:1-5).
Such a relational setting allows, even requires, a more holistic response to suffering—not only by attending to the legitimate physical, social, and psychological concerns of the wounded saint, but also by offering the distressed pilgrim the faith, prayers, and acts of mercy of the surrounding body of Christ (2 Cor. 1:4-7). When we are distressed and find it easy to doubt God’s grace and provision, we find shelter and sustenance under their canopy of faith.
Together as the body of Christ the worries about divine apathy, judgment, or abandonment can honestly be faced and answered. Alone, the flame of faith diminishes, but in true community the fire of faith illumines the night.
Christian faith does not simply involve affirming God’s existence, but also the far more difficult call to trust in God’s holy kindness and tender provision. John Calvin described faith as “a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” Maintaining a “firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence” can sound easy when things are going well, but prolonged physical suffering easily induces despair and fatigue, both for the sick and the caregivers. Hope, which nourishes faith, thus plays a pivotal role.
Seasons of physical distress challenge Christian hope, so the suffering saint leans hard upon other believers for spiritual sustenance. Fellow pilgrims not only rescue us in our struggling faith, but also strengthen us by embodying gospel promises.
Notice that Calvin’s definition of faith doesn’t ground confidence in the Lord’s benevolence by making empirical observations about the way the world works (which in fact is full of injustice and pain). Instead, his certainty is “founded upon” the realities of the Son and Spirit. And the promises of Christ and the power of His Spirit are normally linked to the people of God.
Earlier, we noted that the saints speak to God for us when we struggle to believe and speak alone. Here, we note that saints are called to speak to us for God when we seem unable to hear Him on our own. Their prayers sustain our faith; their proclamation reignites our hope.
Hope is not achieved through the power of positive thinking, but in the promises of the Word and sacraments. Of course, one can read the Scriptures while alone, and it is the individual who must swallow the bread and wine, but the corporate life of the church strengthens the soul by reminding us that we are not alone but in a body. Here both particularity and community meet.
The Holy Spirit mysteriously draws us into communion with God in the proclamation of the Word, speaking into our fragile condition. For example, the Psalms often display a movement from anxiety to hope. Beginning occasionally with questions or a sense of impossibility, the Psalms often urge the singer or reader to invoke the power of remembrance and anticipation. Remember who this God is, the Creator Lord who has been faithful through the ages. Remember the stories of His deliverance, His constant care, His steadfast love. Such remembrances rekindle hope by assuring the sufferer that Yahweh neither leaves nor forsakes.
The beauty of the Psalms is that they openly move between the glories of hope to the depths of despair: they neither belittle pain nor trivialize promises.
Significantly, the Psalms do not attempt to explain suffering or what mysterious purposes God may have for our pain. Instead, they display the character of Yahweh as trustworthy—brimming with compassion for His people.
Biblical hope grows out of a confidence in God’s redemptive actions and trustworthy presence. But such hope can become hard to muster when we are physically or mentally vulnerable.
Because Jesus Christ is the hope of the gospel, God’s people serve one another in their times of suffering by offering each other the good news of Christ crucified and risen. Only in Christ do the Psalms and the rest of the Scriptures take on their full power of hope. In our weakness we may find it impossible to proclaim this hope ourselves, but when it is offered to us in the liturgy or by fellow pilgrims, when we hear, “Christ is risen,” we are able to reply, even if weakly, “He is risen indeed!”
To the sufferer, the body of Christ offers faith and graciously supplies needed gospel hope. Yet, by the remark in I Corinthians 13 that of these three—faith, hope, and love—the greatest of these is love, Paul shapes our understanding of them and how they affect each other.
Even great gifts can be upended and used for ill. Faith without love can turn abusive, belittling the struggling saint by substituting impersonal axioms for heartfelt prayers. Likewise, hope void of love can devolve into insensitive forms of activism and arrogance, replacing empathetic grace with cheap platitudes or an impersonal vision of what must be done.
So if faith and hope are to mean anything to us in our suffering, they must come to us in the context of love. Or, to put it another way, faith and hope are only properly applied with love: a love accomplished and given through the person and work of Christ. Nicholas Wolterstorff, grieving over the death of his son, illustrates some of these connections:
“Suffering is a mystery as deep as any in our existence. It is not of course a mystery whose reality some doubt. Suffering keeps its face hid from each while making itself known to all.... We are one in suffering. Some are wealthy, some bright; some athletic, some admired. But we all suffer. For we all prize and love; and in this present existence of ours, prizing and loving yield suffering. Love in our world is suffering love.... This, said Jesus, is the command of the Holy One: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ In commanding us to love, God invites us to suffer.”
We experience divine love most concretely in our suffering as we receive and give it to others. In His economy, God expresses His love and extends His comfort normally through the agency of His people. This is not merely a sociological observation, but a theological reality.
One aspect of our secure union in Christ is our secure union with one another. The church, as the body of Christ, recognizes “no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together, if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:25-26).
We, under the normal means of grace, receive and extend the love of Christ through our union with the saints. Such love is received by faith, bolstered by hope, and protected through self-giving. When faith and hope are detached from love, they are drained of their power and efficacy. When they grow out of love, they are like food for the hungry and medicine for the sick. Thus we need faith, hope, and love, but without love we lose all three.
Luther helps us here, also. He appears to assume that the relationship between suffering and faith is best seen within the context of the community, even in its imperfect expressions of love: “When we feel pain, when we suffer, when we die, let us turn to this, firmly believing and certain that it is not we alone, but Christ and the church who are in pain and suffering and dying with us.” Within the matrix of love, Luther holds together the church and the Savior through a robust view of union with Christ.
When having “hard thoughts” about God, Christians can better understand their lives within the matrix of faith, hope, and love. Others speak to God for us by their faith and prayers, when we cannot ourselves speak. And these saints speak to us for God, when we by ourselves find hope elusive. Faith and hope become powerful and healing when they come to us through genuine love.
Reflecting on this powerful healing in the context of Christ’s death and resurrection, my wife, Tabitha, wrote these words: “Suffering can be like a famine: a famine of comfort and peace, a famine of joy and health, a famine of community and self-worth. To this famine Christ offers the feast of Himself.”
Christians themselves give and receive love, but it is always ultimately a response to and an extension of God’s love. In the crucified and risen Messiah we encounter the love of God, who on the cross and through the resurrection acts as the Prophet, Priest, and King. He is the one who not only sympathizes with us in our weakness, but who has secured our redemption and wholeness, and thus can declare it accomplished with final certainty. Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again. Only in Him can we appropriately see our suffering and the suffering of others through the lens of faith.
Taken and adapted from Sanctification, edited by Kelly M. Kapic, professor of theological studies at Covenant College. Copyright ©2014 by Kelly M. Kapic. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515, USA, ivpress.com. All references to quotations can be found there. Kapic is currently finishing a book on faith and suffering, which will be published by InterVarsity Press.