Tag Archives: suffering

Suffering and Divine Sovereignty?

What is similar and different counselors and beauty queens? Well, we both want to end human suffering and seek world peace BUT the counselor no longer talks as if it is possible in this life. We know that sitting in suffering is, in fact, an important act in this life.

So, for all you counselor types out there, I have a theology book for you. Currently, I am reading Suffering and the Goodness of God, edited by Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson (Crossway, 2008).

Not all theology books are stuffy. Really. This one is very readable and helpful. Chapter one (Robert Yarbrough) lists 11 theses about suffering. I will not repeat them all here but each one is illustrated from Scripture and personal experience. Here is a taste:

1. Suffering is neither good nor completely explicable

2. Suffering in itself is no validation of religious truth

3. Accounting for suffering is forced upon us by our times

4. Suffering may be a stumbling block to Gospel reception

5. Suffering Creates teachable moments for Gospel reception (though this does not make suffering, in itself, good)

7. Suffering is the price of much fruitful ministry

10. Suffering unites us with other sinners we seek to serve

Lest you think this book takes a happy view of suffering, consider this quote:

It is certainly true that it is primarily God himself who in his redemptive activity has “caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet. 1:3). But this new birth does not take place in a vacuum. Rather it unfolds amidst earthly life, which is manifestly to some extent a vale of tears.

We sometimes wish to talk about “new birth” and redemption as if our suffering does not continue in this life.

The rest of the book addresses OT and NT interactions with suffering, the problem of evil and oppression and two chapters written by theologians about their own personal suffering. A good read if you realize you cannot ignore suffering or go back to some prior period of naiveté.


Filed under christian counseling, christian psychology, Doctrine/Theology, Evangelicals, Psychology, suffering

What to say to suffering people: When truth isn’t helpful

Is the truth always helpful? Always the best option?

I think it is. But when we humans seek to convey truth, we never capture it all. As a result, what truth we do share may not be the truth that is most helpful. There are two things that have me thinking about this today:

1. On Monday night I shared with a class some of our experience with infertility. Some things said to us were downright stupid and wrong. Other things were true. In fact, God does have a wonderful plan for us. But it wasn’t helpful to tell us that when we were hurting. Scripture teaches us that when we sing songs of joy to the downcast it is like drinking vinegar or adding baking soda to it. Kaboom!

2. In recent weeks, CCEF has posted a couple of things on their website that need to be read together. This week they posted David Powlison and John Piper’s “Don’t Waste Your Cancer” to their homepage. This was written by both men when they were in the throes of Prostate cancer. I encourage you to read it from the perspective I am reading it. My wife has breast cancer. We hope to beat it. But we are in the throes of chemo right now. How does this sound to you. True? Helpful? Now, when you have read that, go read Ed Welch’s post: “What Not To Say To Suffering People.” He wrote a follow-up here.  How does this sound to you? True? Helpful?

Seems the first could be seriously misused and does not address all of what you say for comfort in the heat of the battle. Surely we need to be a bit careful about what the person needs to hear. Yes, we can “waste” the cancer in a “woe is me” mentality. But be careful not to go there too quickly! Know your audience and what they need NOW from you.

What do you think? I’d like your feedback.


Filed under biblical counseling, CCEF, christian counseling, counseling, suffering, Uncategorized

Helping sufferers without having suffered

Previously I posted this quote:

It is an easy thing for one whose foot is on the outside of calamity to give advice and to rebuke the sufferer

Attributed to Aeschylus, Greek playwright

I fully believe that we counselors are able to counsel those who suffer in ways we have never experienced. I need not be sexually abused to help those who have been. But, let us not believe that we truly understand those experiences we never knew. I have walked with a variety of people with terrible suffering. I think they found my listening and counsel helpful. But now that I am having their experience, I now know I knew NOTHING of what they were really experiencing.

We should not be hesitant to help. But be wary of easy advice!


Filed under Uncategorized

Psychopathology Monday

Happy New Year all. Our semester begins today with the first session of Psychopathology for the first year students. Before launching into the various forms of mental illness and emotional maladies, we consider the larger concept of suffering. Without a careful understanding of (a) the nature, causes, and theology of suffering, (b) the meanings of suffering, and (c) our beliefs and responses to suffering, we counselors become a dangerous lot. We fall prey to simplistic understandings and responses–and fall prey to false hope and false despair.

Sound like a great way to start of the New Year? It does to me because we now have an opportunity to look at ourselves and our world with more realistic eyes than we may have during the stress of the holidays.

Coincidentally, we had a Sunday School class yesterday on the topic of suffering. Our church has buried 10 people who died before their time (so it seems to us!) in the past 5 years. Not only have we had these tragedies, we’ve also splanted a church and been in a transitional malaise for maybe 7 years? The class allowed individuals to talk about suffering and heartache. Good class. We heard those who felt that what was going on was a message from the Lord, from those who just felt confused and in pain, from those who felt the nearness of the Lord during these normal ups and downs of life in a fallen world.

What was said in multiple ways was that one’s perspective or expectations about suffering really impact how one feels about the struggle of life. If you expect life to always be healthy then repeated sicknesses and death will set you back. Someone said there that if you lived in a dirt hut that moving into a trailer would seem wonderful but if you lived in a palace, the trailer would seem a terrible thing.

So, what should we think about suffering and the seeming explosion of death and heartache?

  1. God is saying something AND yet He may not be sending some special message to us
  2. Our actions may cause some of our own suffering but living more righteous lives does not prevent suffering
  3. Suffering is to be expected in this world AND yet it is NOT THE WAY IT IS SUPPOSED TO BE
  4. Isolation and failure to connect to others in suffering ALWAYS makes that suffering worse
  5. Even those who only observe those in suffering suffer as well and need to connect with others in order to avoid despair
  6. Good may come out of suffering, but suffering itself is not good
  7. God, through the cross, bears our suffering and yet it still hurts
  8. It will not last forever

Finally, how do you respond to suffering? Turn away? Become numb? Angry? Probably all the above, right? Take a moment to consider how you respond to suffering right in front of you and watch yourself for those trite statements that can hurt those who are already in pain.

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Filed under christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, counseling, counseling skills, Doctrine/Theology, suffering

Chronic pain and the Christian faith

Last night’s Counseling & Physiology class covered the topic of chronic pain. There are a number of syndromes and disorders that cluster around pain as the presenting problem: Chronic Fatigue, Fibromyalgia, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Osteoarthritis, back pain, etc. Depending on which research study you read, some 9-17% of the population struggles with some form of chronic pain.

While these various forms of pain are quite different, there are some commonalities. Chronic and diffuse pain sufferers frequently experience some form of inflammation, fatigue, sleep disruption, negative mood, and poor memory (its hard to pay attention to new information when you are weighed down by pain). We don’t really know what causes what but we do know that these symptoms form a vicious cycle. If you don’t get restorative sleep, you experience more fatigue, you are more prone to negative thought patterns, your pain levels go up, memory goes down…and thus you don’t sleep well the next night, and so on. Researchers describe this vicious cycle in terms of “allostatic load”–the deleterious effects of chronic stress hormones without restorative sleep.

Because of the diffuse nature of pain (vs. focal) and the lack of obvious objective evidence of that pain (a big red spot, a swollen limb, etc.), chronic pain sufferers and their families struggle to understand whether or not the pain is real and what they are truly capable of doing. How do you measure pain levels? It’s pretty subjective! Thus, it encourages more “I should be able to…” thinking in all parties. Those not suffering chronic pain do more damage by implying that the person is just looking for attention, is just being lazy. Those suffering pain who either deny the pain and try to do too much or refuse to engage the world and withdraw from it do damage to themselves–real physical damage.

As with all physiological problems, one’s mood, one’s perceptions, one’s focus, one’s stress levels impact severity of the problem. While chronic pain is not just in one’s head, how one responds to chronic pain may help alleviate or elevate the pain sensations. Ironically, many pain sufferers resist counseling because they fear that others will believe that their symptoms are all in their head. Those who refuse to acknowledge the psychological factors in pain sensation and management miss out on important means to cope with the pain and to lower pain perceptions.

Chronic pain sufferers must accept the need to adjust their lifestyle to accommodate more rest. They must fight to get the best restorative sleep possible. These are probably their primary practical responses–even above medical treatments (and I’m not knocking medical treatments nor saying that just getting sleep will solve the problem).

One of the biggest challenges for pain sufferers is the matter of hope and faith. When we suffer problems, we often hope they will go away. And when they do not, or only get marginally better, it is easy to slide into despair. Despair usually is the result of things not going the way we hoped or expected they would. Part of dealing with chronic pain is grieving what is lost in order to accept–even enjoy–what strength and health we do have. Without hope, we lose what self-efficacy we once had, thus not doing the basic care-taking activities within our grasp. Interestingly, one of the clearest signs of this struggle is the massive dropouts in pain management research. Frequently, dropouts number about 50% in these studies. This means that before a study gets too far along many are dropping out because they assume the new treatment isn’t going work.

Faith is not that things will go my way right now but that God is in control, cares/protects me, and is working for my ultimate redemption–even when the opposite seems to be true. Faith is acting in a manner consistent with said assumptions even while grieving over real losses. Such faith enables us to be mindful of our thoughts so that we do not practice into beliefs counter to what we have come to know as true.

The chronic pain sufferer who grieves well (asks God for relief, stays in community with others, seeks relief through human means yet has an attitude of waiting on the Lord, and yet still willing to explore and confront hidden sin in self) begins to see that in the midst of the pain, God is there and providing momentary help. Such a person need not act as if the pain were nothing but will look for and rejoice in 5% improvement, 10% more comfort, etc, rather than demanding complete healing as the determinant as to whether God is present with them in their distress.


Filed under biblical counseling, christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, counseling, counseling science, Despair, Mindfulness, suffering

Orbinski on humanitarianism, dignity, and hope


Two days ago I had the privilege of meeting and hearing Dr. James Orbinski at the 2009 Frobese Day, an educational conference held at Abington Memorial Hospital each year. Dr. Orbinski is the former head of Medicins Sans Frontiers (Drs without Borders), current head of Dignitas, professor at U. of Toronto, author of An Imperfect Offering, and central figure in the documentary, Triage. Of interest to me was his work in Rwanda during the genocide.

On a personal note, I found him very engaging. When I was introduced to him, he didn’t do the usual handshake and move on. He really engaged me about Rwanda and what work we did and plan to do there and gave a number of encouraging comments that went above and beyond the call of duty. I guess that is one of the characteristics you need if you are a person who goes into distressed areas. You need to connect to the people, figure out what they need and what can be done, and then do it.

First, an assortment of observations presented:

  • There are about 6.8 billion people in the world. Some 3.8 billion, or about half, subsist on less than 2 dollars a day
  • 1.1 billion go to bed hungry each night. This number grows by about 100 million each year
  • Nearly all famines are the function of political conflict rather than acts of nature
  • There has been a 24% increase in food prices in impoverished areas. One of the key causes is the increase of developing biofuel. Food is more valuable if it can be made into fuel.
  • The World Food Bank is begging for about 23 billion dollars to feed this number of poor. It can’t get it. But, 13 TRILLION dollars has been recently expended to prop up a collapsing international economy.
  • In 2000, it cost 15,000 (a year, I think) to provide an individual in Africa the antiretroviral meds needed to survive. Today, with political pressure, it costs 99 dollars
  • The drug companies say that it costs 1.6 billion dollars to bring a drug from a new chemical to market (through research & Development). While they do not reveal how it costs this much, it is clear that part of the costs they factor in is the income they expect to make on the drug. So, if you expect to make 10% on your investment, can you really consider that a cost to develop a drug. Apparently, they do
  • A recent nonprofit just released three new drugs dealing with neglected diseases in Africa. The costs to bring these drugs to the market was 100 to 300 million dollars. And, the companies selling them are indeed making a profit

A couple of his key ideas:

  • Dignity cannot be granted; it must be acknowledged via engaged collaboration and solidarity
  • Solidarity is not pity but active compassion
  • Hope is not some naive utopian dream, it is “what we do”
  • We all need to be political. The first act of politics: speak the truth; The second act: listen
  • The worst form of suffering is suffering alone
  • We must see it, acknowledge it, give voice to the voiceless and thus allow for dignity even if we cannot solve it
  • Optimism and Hope are two distinct concept. Optimism is confidence that one’s actions will work for the best. Hope is confidence that the action you are about to undertake is the RIGHT one no matter the outcome
  • We need those with daring ideas, with visions of possibilities. That is all there is. Hope, is in his estimation, in himself–that he will do the right thing.

While I do not agree with his definition of hope, I do agree that we need more people to move from insight (that a problem exists) to action (that I can do something of value in a hopeless situation). Folks like Orbinski certainly put many of us to shame.

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Filed under Civil Rights, Cultural Anthropology, Psychology, Rwanda, suffering

Two ways to look at suffering

Yesterday, one of our pastors, David Goneau, preached on Acts 13 and made the following point: “Jesus’ Lordship advances through suffering.” His point was that through the book of Acts one cannot miss that the message of Christianity spread through the starter soil of opposition. Consider the cross, Stephen, Peter, Paul, James, etc.

So, there are at least two ways to look at our own suffering and hardships:

1. Not the way it is supposed to be. We rail against trauma, suffering, pain, death, hate, illness and much more because it is not the original design and we know it. Brokenness is something to be fought against; to be resisted at all cost.

2. The starter soil for our maturity. Who hasn’t had the experience of coming through a time of hardship with maturity that we wouldn’t want to give up? Haven’t we heard of those who raise children with disabilities say, “I wouldn’t have asked for this but I wouldn’t go back and change a thing.” Like some seeds that need to be frozen before they can bloom, we need certain forms of stressors to grow in maturity. (Consider the character of one who has nothing but luxury and never has to work!)

Is it hard to hold these two truthes at the same time? Yes! And followers of Jesus look for the day when their maturity will be complete and suffering will be no more–when Christ establishes his kingdom once and forever. Until then, we must try to hold on to both thoughts–to work against suffering everywhere (justice work) and yet allow what suffering we do experience to build character while we look for our relief.


Filed under Mindfulness

Making sense of things and the suffering it brings

Ever had the experience of having your brain work overtime to try to make sense of some action, something done to you?

Some things make no sense and we know it–things like the premature death of a single parent, a genocide, impulsive choices that make matters much worse, etc. Yet our minds keep trying to figure it out. Why? How come? What does it mean? If only I could understand what God was up to then I could…

Sometimes, trying to understand the incomprehensible compounds and adds to our present sufferings.

We then tend to respond in one of three ways, (a) give up and stop functioning, or (b) develop antiseptic conclusions (e.g., God is going to use this to bless me later), or (c) put our heads down, ignore the pain and do the thing in front of us.

Response b may in fact be true but often it is used to help the person dissociate from the incomprehensible in a way to keep living and moving.

What do you find most helpful when dealing with an unsuccessful attempt to make sense out of suffering? How do you avoid giving in to ruminations about unanswerable angsts or hopelessness or its opposite, baseless optimism that denies the present reality?


Filed under christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, suffering, Uncategorized

Comfort is in the eye of the beholder

When you read the lament Psalms are you comforted? Do you feel God’s care for your plight? Over the years I’ve had a number of conversations about this topic. Some find great comfort in reading about God’s concern for his people in the midst of their suffering. Others prefer to hang out in more positive, praise oriented passages in order to meditate on the good things God is doing. Some find more comfort in realism now, others find comfort in expectantly meditating on heaven.

How about you? How about those you might try to comfort in their time of misery? Does empathizing with the depths of trouble being faced (e.g., “Wow, what you are going through is incredibly hard!”) help or does it endanger more depressing thoughts? Does talking of ultimate delivery in heaven help or distance you from your friend? It is key for us to find out as we walk with those going through the valley.


Filed under biblical counseling, Biblical Reflection, christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, counseling, suffering, teaching counseling

What does hope feel like?

Ever thought about what hope feels like? When ministers and other christian leaders speak or write about hope, what do you envision? Does it include confidence? Peace? Contentment? Belief? Assurance? Or does it include pain, longing, and the like?

In reading Romans 8:18f Paul speaks of present suffering and that yet reminding himself that it is nothing in comparison to heaven and our glorification. And yet, we wait, he says. Notice some of the words used in this passage (up to v. 29):

eager expectation, frustration, groaning (like in childbirth), wait eagerly, patiently?, wordless groans.

This is all included in this passage about hope–hope in what is not seen. Hope, it appears, includes eagerness and expectation, but also groaning and waiting for something that seems to be killing us despite the good we hope will come (like childbirth). Though hope was present, the experience the Christians were facing was difficult enough that Paul in v. 31 reminds his readers that if God is for them, then nothing can conquer them in this period of waiting. They were in pain!

So while the hope of heaven sustains us, it is not something that is at all peaceful or without suffering since we long for something that we yet do not see.

How do you put longing/groaning and hope together in the same breath?


Filed under Biblical Reflection, Christianity, suffering