Friday, July 13, 2012

HT Reformed Anglicanism: Back to Basics--a book on suffering

... In the seventeenth century, if life was not always short then it was almost always nasty and brutish at some level. It was, after all, a time before analgesics and antibiotics. This is one of the reasons why attitudes to suffering seem to have been different among many Christians then. Today, suffering is a problem: whether we are thinking of a massive crime against humanity, such as the Holocaust, or the stillbirth of a single child, suffering tends to provoke the question, 'Why?' Looking at Owen and Baxter, it does not seem to have had quite the same effect.

Owen rarely mentions it. It is not that he did not know suffering. He had eleven children, ten of whom died in infancy and all of whom predeceased him. It beggars belief to think that this did not take a heavy emotional toll on him; yet he never mentions any of these losses in his voluminous works. I suspect he simply regarded grief as a private matter and of no public interest.

Baxter too knew suffering. In particular, the loss of his beloved wife Margaret devastated him. She was much younger than him but utterly devoted to her husband. Indeed, when Baxter was imprisoned, she took her bed into the prison and joined him in his suffering. When she died, he fully expected (hoped?) to follow her swiftly to the grave. He did not, outliving her by a long, lonely decade.

After she died, Baxter wrote an account of her faith and piety, Breviate of the Life of Mrs Margaret Baxter. It is a moving work, containing both her own writings and Baxter's reflections on her. It drips love and devotion from every page. What is perhaps most stunning is that there is not a hint of self-pity or of challenge to God in the whole text. The great modern questions, "Why me?" and "How can a God of love.....?" -- you know, the kind of questions you and I even dare to ask when we lock our keys in the car or hit our thumbs with a hammer -- do not feature anywhere. While Baxter grieved more publicly than Owen, one suspects that both men regarded suffering as something to be expected in this fallen world and thus to be treated as such.

I'm going to respectfully suggest there are simple reasons why suffering becomes more of a problem for us in our day than it would have been in the time of Owen and Baxter, there are kinds of suffering that are preventable, preventable enough that we can wonder why it wasn't prevented.

Now it is easy to observe that we seem to have a lower threshold these days for any kind of suffering because we have access to painkillers in modern societies.  Yet we also have access to levels of education that would have been impossible in earlier times.  We may as an age be less tolerant of suffering as the normative lot of life both because we have ways to prevent or alleviate suffering medically and we have enough informational resources to prevent other kinds of suffering that emerge from bureaucratic stupidity or the inertia of foolishness.

Or so we'd like to believe.

It is not only possible for a believer to pray for God's aid in the midst of adversity that has been caused by the long term effects of the believer's sin but we have a terse and poignant example of such a prayer in the scriptures themselves.  Maybe you've read Psalm 3 some time in the last five to seven years?  There it is.  Understanding the full context of a prayer like Psalm 3 necessitates grasping the canonical background and context of the prayer.  So we need to know about David and Bathsheba, the killing of Uriah, the confrontation with Nathan, the rape of Tamar by Amnon, David's failure to right that wrong due to parental favoritism and neglect, Absalom's murder of Amnon and eventual insurrection against his father with David's reactions.  We can have a visceral emotional reaction that is quite simple in the wake of circumstances so complex it would be tough to summarize them.  There is nothing quite so visceral an emotion as fear to suspend any and every rational function we think we have in our brains and there's nothing quite like the prospect of immediate, awful, and possibly prolonged suffering to get our so-called lizard brain dominating our thoughts and feelings.

I have been pondering in the last few months how it can seem as though American Christians have reflected on suffering in ways that can seem sex-congratulatory or self-pitying.  I'll tip my hand here, at Phoenix Preacher in Linkathon reference was made to ten reasons pastors quit too soon.  Michael observed that none of those reasons listed are really reasons that are unique to pastoral work.  Another person observed in a comment that the work of the pastor can be shown to be self-selected.  In other words these guys are calling it quits for suffering that can, in many ways, be described as self-selected suffering.

I'm far more bold in spelling this out in the "how" and "what" because it's something that has stuck with me.  It's possible for church leaders to speak or blog or tweet or preach as though they are dealing with a rough season (and it's always a season in American evangelical jargon even if "season" lasts for some indefinite time).  But sometimes the self-perceived suffering of a church or its leadership is the result of reaping what has been sown for years.  Does this mean there's no room for any sympathy in the midst of that kind of suffering?  No, of course not.  It's entirely possible to read Psalm 3 with sympathy for David even while realizing that he had to realize (and did realize) that this disaster had befallen him as the Lord had forewarned.

There are times when we have to accept that a disaster is really a disaster and that it has come to us providentially due to the long-term effects of things we have said and done.  We can still pray the Lord will deliver us in the midst of this self-caused and self-inflicted disaster but notice how David ends Psalm 3 by asking for a blessing upon God's people. But this has quickly become a post that began on one topic and mutated into another so I think I'll call it a day on this post and move on to others.

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