The One Big Question: the God of love in a world of suffering
"For as long as I can remember, suffering has been the major block to belief," says Bishop Michael Baughen. He speaks here about his new book on the subject, The One Big Question.
In The One Big Question you say, "there are many books on healing, but few on suffering". Why do you think this is?
We all would like to be healed. Otherwise we would not go to the doctor or the hospital. It is a right and proper part of our relationship with our Lord that we bring our illnesses to Him and pray for His hand of healing directly or through the medics. The problem our Lord faced was that the crowds began to follow Him to get healing or to get food, rather than to hear the revelation of saving truth, or to get the food that lasts to eternal life. The Gospel had to be the priority.
The statement that you can be healed if you have enough faith is far more attractive to a sick person than the statement that God may wish to glorify Himself through our suffering. It also breeds extreme views and claims. Just as the national lottery uses the powerful phrase, "It could be you", so some people turn to this 'healer' or that one. It has resulted in dangerous actions, such as stopping medication.
People who have genuinely been healed by God's grace give testimony – and so they should. But when the generalisation is made that everyone can be healed in that way if they have enough faith, then the pendulum has swung dangerously. The faith of many people is destroyed by being built upon this claim, and then finding they have not been healed. Even worse is when others tell them it was because of hidden sin or lack of faith. Some people feel they are a failure when they are not healed.
Nevertheless, books making various claims, from the balanced and helpful, to the extreme and dangerous, proliferate. Books with personal testimonies of healing are some of the most popular Christian titles. There are some fine books of testimony from Christians who have walked the path of suffering, but they are hugely outnumbered. The whole purpose of The One Big Question is to get a doctrine of suffering in balance with a doctrine of healing.
Christians face many challenges to their faith today, including of course the attacks of the new atheists. If you were to draw up a league table of challenges, where would the problem of suffering come?
For as long as I can remember, suffering has been the major block to belief, but it is true that aggressive atheism is affecting a lot of people. Yet, as I show in the book, that can often be a smokescreen for the real block of suffering. So in the ordinary streets of Bolton, Bermondsey, Camborne, Ipswich, or wherever, it is not Dawkins (except as a name representing atheism) but suffering that is the block. So I think suffering still tops the league table.
The One Big Question begins with questions raised by suffering, but in part two of the book you turn to building faith, hope and love in the face of suffering, and then end on the subject of prayer. Why did you structure the book in this way?
I thought about this a lot and discussed it with a variety of people. Initially, I wanted to start with the pastoral half, not least because it is grounded in my ministry experience over 54 years, but also because some early readers got to the end of the first half and paused ... which many of us do with books. I wanted readers to get to the pastoral material.
However, almost everyone thought the questions part of the book should come first, and that is how the book is now structured. Its chapter headings are clearly more arresting. Nevertheless, I expect that quite often I will suggest that someone should start reading the book halfway through, if the pastoral is what they need most.
In a story from the book, you describe a hospital scene where the parents of a child who has just died ask, "Why would a God of love allow this to happen?" How would you advise people to handle that sort of situation pastorally?
Every pastoral situation needs care, love and much prayer to our Lord to help us get it right. My response to parents in this situation would obviously vary according to whether they were members of the church or not. Whoever they are, they need to know you are weeping with them. I would want them to know that my heart bled with theirs.
In the circumstances, it might be best to say, "I am more than willing to talk with you about your question, for I fully understand why you are asking it. We could talk now if you wish, or perhaps a little later, but I want to assure you that His love does surround you and your child (using the child's name), and that He will, if you trust Him, be what helps you go forward."
When it seems possible to talk with the parents about their heart-question, I would use the lines given in the book as it seems appropriate, particularly regarding their concept of God and the expectancy of His controlling hand intervening billions of times a second to retain the perfect world. But mainly I would want to show them the New Testament revelation of God as love: a love of self-giving and suffering in the Passion, a love from which we can never be separated.
If I had the book with me, I might show them the cover, with its huge tear-drop, which suggests the tear-drop of the Father at the suffering and death of His Son.
People who are enduring suffering will most probably be helped by the love and support of their family and friends. Do you see books – and in particular The One Big Question – playing a role for them too?
Yes, I agree that family support is so important. Sharon Grenham-Toze shows in the book how members of her family abandoned her and how that hurt her. It has also been brought home to Myrtle and me that being a single person without any family support means the church has to be on its toes to give much more care than normal, and to be family.
There is quite a bit to help pastorally in the book, but I think there may be a need for a follow-on book giving more help and advice on how to help fellow-Christians as they walk the path of suffering. However, there are, of course, a number of helpful books such as the one by Mel Menzies, listed in a footnote, about bereavement.
How do you respond in the book to the 'killer question' posed by John Humphrys: "We are told that faith, goodness and virtue are always rewarded and that wickedness will be punished. But what we see is precisely the opposite."
John seems much more an Old Testament man and, as I say in the book, rewards, punishments and justice are there all right. But the New Testament is different. The prosperity gospel people twist texts in terms of earthly rewards, but examining texts in their proper context shows that in most cases we are talking about rewards in the very different terms of impact on our spiritual lives, eternal destiny and the crown of life.
Yes, there are some sharp judgments such as with Ananias and Sapphira (in Acts chapter 5), but they were specific teaching in vivid form, just as happens so often in the Old Testament. They were not general principles, or there would be, one suspects, a lot of people dropping dead in church!
How do you think church leaders today can best help their church communities with the problem of suffering?
First, of course, by preaching and teaching on suffering. This can also prove to be evangelistic in removing blocks to the gospel. Secondly, I would encourage preachers or course leaders to keep emphasising the need to get the foundations of faith, love and hope deeply embedded in people's souls – I take three chapters on that in the book – because the person who has thought it through before any suffering hits is far more likely to lean on God and become a testimony to his glory.
I have emphasised this quite frequently in preaching recently and it rings bells time and time again. Someone told me the other Sunday that the preacher at the funeral service for their daughter kept saying, "Stand on the facts". Because they were firm on the facts, their faith and walk with Christ has been sustained and deepened in the 40 or more years since that deeply sad loss.
Thirdly, I want to urge as strongly as I can that a session on suffering should be a must in every basic Christianity course. Some courses have a whole session on 'Does God heal today?' but that must be balanced by thorough teaching on how a Christian approaches suffering, about sharing the sufferings of Christ, of turning suffering to Christ's glory, and the reasons for suffering.
The One Big Question contains quite a lot of well explained science, arguing that suffering often happens because "this is the way our world, and we, are made". Why did you choose to include it?
Archbishop George Carey says the book has faced the questions 'head-on'. We need information that is well-grounded when meeting accusations against God. Platitudes are not enough.
I remember the bitter anger of a young Christian after the Boxing Day tsunami. She was on a Christian holiday and as I was the speaker I was the target of her outbursts. It went on day after day. Only gradually would she begin to listen, and I could gradually open her up to some of the facts I mention in the book.
When I came to work on the book, I knew I needed to have much more substantial ground for explaining these things. I have been enormously helped by various scientists who share the faith and, in the case of the tectonic plates, a great deal has emerged in TV documentaries which has been very helpful. I never understood tectonic plates before, nor that their movement is vital to life.
I also wanted to build a strong case to show the incredible way we are made, and the intricacies of our bodies. It is utterly amazing how wonderfully we are made, and yet also how, for instance, one rogue gene can bring devastating results. The reality of having carbon in our make-up because that is vital to life, but which also leads to decay, is worth emphasising against those who somehow think we should have perfect bodies which remain perfect.
I have learnt a lot in the process of writing the book. When I was recently challenged head-on and aggressively (in a polite way!) about a particular world disaster at a livery dinner top-table, I was able to bring all this gathered evidence into play – until the eminent lady said, "I surrender!" Then I could get to what really mattered.
You recount in the book how you held on to faith hour by hour after an appendix operation. Do you recommend that method for others?
Paul points out that our experiences of suffering and comfort are experiences we can share to comfort others. One of those experiences for me was when I had an abscessed appendix. The abscess was leaking into my body for eight days. Eventually, in the middle of the night, my body seemed to burst from every pore. The internal results were, apparently, very considerable.
After the operation, perhaps it was the morphine, or the body reacting to the poison of the abscess, but every nerve seemed to be on edge. The chaplain kindly came to offer communion. I could not cope. He just prayed and left.
What does one do? I had preached often on suffering. I resolved to hold on to just one aspect of our marvellous God and that aspect only, as much as I could. The next day, a different aspect. I held on to the anchors, to the facts, even though no feelings matched the facts. The third day was so different. I felt as if a blanket of love was holding me all day. It was wonderful.
Many times since I have been able to share this experience and to share what that holding on to God can mean to the sufferer.
Which C.S. Lewis book about suffering have you personally found more helpful: The Problem of Pain or A Grief Observed?
I found The Problem of Pain enormously helpful in thinking through the question of suffering, and I found A Grief Observed a superb balance in its honesty of suffering overwhelming thinking, and how eventually the sky cleared and the sun of God's truth refreshed his heart again. Both books are necessary.
Suffering as the forge of conviction and faith
Some close Christian friends recently had to handle the shattering news of the husband’s inoperable cancer. They rocked humanly (there is no need for a ‘stiff upper lip’ as a Christian - we can cry) but they did not rock spiritually. Although the treatment he received was the best, gradually, the physical battle was lost. The pain, the disfigurement and the suffering were intense, but faith held. He died in the arms of Christ.
I acted as ‘devil’s advocate’ to his widow as I said, "How can you possibly still believe in a God of love when you have seen such suffering in your beloved husband and endured it yourself in walking this awful path with him?"
She looked at me with amazement: "Are you serious?! Abandon faith in the God who has carried us, who has been so wonderfully with us through these months, whose love has surrounded us? How could I?" Because they had thought through the question of suffering before it had occurred, they had forged their convictions and faith more deeply in the heat of that suffering. Yes, there were tears. Yes, there was pain. But there was faith and great glory to God.
The issue of suffering is of course inextricably linked with the important area of healing. There are many books on healing, but few on suffering, yet everyone in the world experiences suffering and it is there on page after page of the scriptures, from honest despair and a sense of devastation in the Psalms and the Prophets, to glorying in it for Christ in the New Testament.
This extract from The One Big Question by Michael Baughen (published by CWR, 2010) is used by permission.
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© The Kingham Hill Trust 2010
This article is published here by the kind permission of the publishers, CWR. It was previously published in Commentary, a quarterly magazine published by Oak Hill theological college. The book can be purchased from CWR's online store, at Christian bookshops or from other good bookshops.