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Christian insight on suffering

February 12, 2006
From the Toronto Sun
In response to several readers who asked me to offer some biblical perspectives on sickness and suffering for Christians, I offer you these thoughts today.
The biblical view of suffering is very broad, and in many places quite contradictory to other biblical views. Several books of the Old Testament express the conviction that suffering is the consequence of human sin. In the book of Genesis, the accounts of the Garden of Eden (Gen. 6-7), and the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11) are but a few that have in common the belief that human beings, before they became creatures of history and experience, lived in a trouble-free world from which they fell or were banished because they disobeyed God.
The Psalms and the book of Job express a cry of humankind in pain. Old Testament suffering rises to a climax in Job. After exploring every angle from which suffering can be approached, and developing no new insights, Job concludes that we must accept God as greater than suffering; we must trust God to make sense out of seeming nonsense; and we must completely surrender to God in the face of suffering, pain and adversity.
In the New Testament, Jesus heals people by restoring them to a proper state. He heals persons oppressed by evil spirits (Lk 4:31-37; 11:14). Jesus cures Peter's mother-in -law's fever (Lk 4:38 -39), and Paul in the Acts of the Apostles does much the same for Publius' father who lies sick with fever and dysentery (Acts 28:8). Twice Jesus cleanses lepers (Lk 5:12-16; 17:11 -19). Jesus (Lk 5:17-26), Peter (Acts 3:1-10; 9:32-35) and Paul (Acts 14:8-10) all heal paralytics. Jesus also works cures for the man with the withered hand (Lk 14: 1-6), for an epileptic child (Lk 9:37-43a), for a man with dropsy (Lk 14:1-6), for a blind man (Lk 18:35-43), and even for the slave of the high priest (Lk 7:1-10). Jesus (Lk 7:11-17; 8:40-42, 49-56), Peter (Acts 9:36-43), and Paul (Acts 20:7-12) all raise people from the dead.
Jesus' conduct toward the woman cured of the flow of blood actually serves to demonstrate that he is concerned about the most personal and intimate illnesses and diseases that oppress human beings.
There is no cult of pain and suffering for their own sake found in Jesus' life. The dramatic gospel scenes of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane show clearly that Jesus was well acquainted with the loneliness of pain. Jesus tells his disciples they will indeed undergo pain and suffering by following him (Mt 10,17-39; Mk 13,9-13; Luke 21,12-17). Jesus never suggested his disciples should go out and seek pain and suffering. He makes it clear that remaining a disciple implies that suffering will seek them out and not the other way around.
The New Testament speaks of suffering and pain, of sin and redemption in terms of the theology of the Cross of Jesus. "Taking up the cross" was a figure of speech which had quite a different impact in the first century from the meaning that it has in the present day, when a "cross" may be anything from an incurable cancer to a triple bypass, or a nagging mother-in-law to a thunderstorm during a holiday picnic.
In societies of abundance and super-abundance such as ours, it is very easy to lose our perspective on suffering, and forget that many people really do suffer with significant problems and issues. It's also very easy to forget that suffering is a way to redemption, and can teach us profound lessons about life in this world and the next.
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