Suffering and the Need for a Theological Interpretation of Life

All human thinking must be subject to some kind of norm, some kind of criterion against which to measure our thoughts and actions. If we don’t, we’re left swimming in a sea of subjectivism, which will lead inevitably to nihilism. (The fact that proponents of moral relativism do not embrace nihilism proves that their worldview is unlivable. The way they actually live their lives proves they know better.[1]) But having their thoughts constrained by some kind of norm is the one thing many contemporary people do not want.

Writing in 1958 theologian J. I. Packer observed that fallen, sinful human beings “cherish” a “craving for a thought-life free from the rule of God.”[2] Rather than constructing an interpretation of life informed and constrained by the Word of God, we seek to construct “a private interpretation of life out of the resources of [our] own independent judgment.”[3] As a pastor, this is a pressing issue because one of my goals is to help people interpret their life experiences through the lens of the Bible. Indeed, this is a major part of my calling.[4]

Given that our culture’s current way of understanding life and the world is quite different from the premodern period, one wonders how we got here.

How We Got Here

Well, the very short answer is that, for a number of reasons, during the modern period people lost confidence in the Bible while confidence in human reason grew. Renè Descartes exemplified this assurance in human reason when he wrote, “Good sense is, of all things among men, the most equally distributed.”[5] For a number of reasons, however, confidence in the autonomy of reason eventually waned. In fact, the postmodern critique of the Enlightenment can be quite vicious.[6] Although one would not necessarily want to embrace all of postmodernism hook, line, and sinker, the purveyors of the worldview have at least reminded us “that humans cannot live by mind alone.”[7]

Nevertheless, if human thought is not subject to any criterion, what else can we live by? As you move forward in history, this loss of confidence in human reason ran up against pluralism, a word used to describe the fact that not all people in all places of the world think and reason alike. Competing worldviews abound. When pluralism met relativism they mated and gave birth to our present state of affairs: No confidence at all in human reason.[8]

So, what’s happened? The renowned expert on modernism, Charles Taylor, spelled it out for us in his 700-plus page book A Secular Age. He notes that the modern person does not get his or her sense of “fullness,” or meaning outside of himself because he does not believe that truth or meaning exists outside of the mind. Nothing exists beyond this world; transcendent realities are a farce; therefore, human beings look within themselves for meaning.[9] This turn inward has led to people creating new self-undestandings. Add this to the fact that America is no longer a community-based culture, and one can easily see how we have become an aggressively individualistic and narcissistic people.[10] We look inside ourselves to find ourselves and then express ourselves; hence, the phrase “expressive individualism.”

As an aside (but nevertheless germane to this discussion) expressive individualism is present in the arena of sexual expression. For instance, some people find the language of sexual orientation unhelpful and offensive since it smacks of determinism. Instead, they argue that people should use the phrase sexual preference because it “keeps sexual expression in the realm of choice.”[11]

What’s Needed

We need a theological interpretation of life. I can’t know myself until I know who God is and how I’m supposed to relate to him. I won’t take time to defend this thesis. Instead, I want to address a key issue in everyone’s life: suffering.

More than any other issue, during incredibly challenging seasons of life we are tempted to disbelieve in God and doubt his love and care for us. But why is that? One reason is because at heart we’re all legalists. We all naturally think that if we live a good life, God owes us health, prosperity, and an above average lifestyle.[12] Even as Christians we fall prey to this kind of thinking. In turn, when adversity strikes, rather than running to God, we run away from him.

However, if we interpret our life experience theologically—biblically, that is—we get a completely different picture. While I may feel that God has abandoned me, I can know that he hasn’t. His Word tells me that no matter what happens, he never withholds his love from me (Ps. 66:20). He will never leave me nor forsake me (Heb. 13:5-6). His plan is still to prosper me (Jer. 29:11). His love never fails (Ps. 109:26) and nothing can separate me from his love (Rom. 8:31ff.).

Far from abandoning me, in every circumstance of life I’m living out God’s faithfulness to me. He’s keeping his promise to conform me more into the image of Christ.[13] Every trial is a fresh “opportunity to forsake self-reliance” and “a reminder that there is nothing life-giving in this mortal body but only in Jesus risen from the dead.”[14] He is our only hope! Such a truth often proceeds out of our mouths as a perfunctory matter, but when we’re in the pit we feel our need for this truth more than ever.

We don’t come to know who God is by evaluating our experiences. Our personal feelings and experiences are not a strong enough foundation on which to build a doctrine of God. Doctrine interprets life. Theology interprets life.

As Alister McGrath says, “Doctrine aims to interpret experience, in order to transform it. . . . Doctrine interprets our feelings, even to the point of contradicting them when they are misleading.[15]

Conclusion

Doctrine is anything but cold and sterile. Theology leads to doxology because it informs, forms, and shapes our lives. God’s Word shows us how to interpret and respond to all of life’s various circumstances, all the vagaries of our existence, all the curveballs thrown at us during our earthly pilgrimage.

 

[1] I think John Piper is right: “People don’t embrace relativism because it is philosophically satisfying. They embrace it because it is physically and emotionally gratifying. It provides the cover they need at key moments in their lives to do what they want without intrusion from absolutes” (Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God [Wheaton: Crossway, 2010], 102).

[2] J. I. Packer, Fundamentalism and the Word of God (1958; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 171.

[3] Ibid., 139.

[4] See, e.g., M. Craig Barnes, The Pastor as Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 89; Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan, The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2015), 107, 109, 112, 114.

[5] Discourse on Method and the Meditations (trans. John Veitch; Amherst: Prometheus, 1989), 11.

[6] Roy Porter, The Enlightenment, Studies in European History (NY: Palgrave, 2001), 8. Trace the footnotes to their original sources.

[7] Dennis P. Hollinger, Choosing the Good: Christian Ethics in a Complex World (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 122.

[8] I highly recommend Steven D. Smith’s book The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010), 17, 65-67. I should note at this point that while Christians affirm the reality of the noetic effects of sin (i.e., that the fall effects the way we think), we do believe that because human beings are created in the image of God, God has endowed us with the ability to think, reason, communicate, and comprehend what is written or spoken. See, e.g., John Bolt, “Sola Scriptura as an Evangelical Theological Method?” in Reforming or Conforming? Post-Conservative Evangelicals and the Emerging Church, eds. Gary L. W. Johnson and Ronald N. Gleason (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 62-92. Nevertheless we also believe that “Sin creates a moral deficiency within us by which we are indisposed to truth” (R. C. Sproul, John Gerstner, and Arthur Lindsley, Classical Apologetics [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984], 51).

[9] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 15.

[10] Ibid., 22, 35, 42.

[11] For more on this discussion see Ted Peters, Playing God? Genetic Determinism and Human Freedom (NY: Routledge, 2003), 103.

[12] Tim Keller calls this “the basic premise of religion” (The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism [NY: Riverhead, 2008], 189).

[13] David Powlison, Speaking Truth in Love: Counsel in Community (Winston-Salem: Punch Press, 2005), 67.

[14] William R. Edwards, “Participants in What We Proclaim: Recovering Paul’s Narrative of Pastoral Ministry,” Themelios 39:3 (2014): 455-469. See esp. 463.

[15] Alister E. McGrath, Studies in Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 262-263, emphasis mine.

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