We're taking a two month journey into the heart of suffering and how to walk with God in the midst of it. If you're just joining us, you can find the reasons why here.
Last week we asked CRM's Staff Care and Development team leader, Alex Galloway, to help us grapple with a biblical view of suffering by sharing his knowledge and experience. If you missed the first part of that conversation, you can watch it here. Today we're asking Alex to explain a tool that can help us examine our hearts to see what we really believe about suffering at our core. It's a "Theology of Suffering Continuum" that lists a biblical view on suffering and a corresponding false belief that many Christians hold. Take a look at the continuum and then listen as Alex guides us through using this tool to realign our hearts with God's truth.
Watch the video.
Read the interview.
Q. You’ve shared a “Theology of Suffering Spectrum” with us. Where did you find this spectrum and how does it help us examine our view of suffering?
A. It was developed by a psychologist who worked with missionaries for forty years or so. She continued to see people who were struggling with a false view of suffering and how it set them up to not thrive on the field. Some would even leave, and part of the reason was their misconceptions about suffering. So she developed a scale—which I’ve tweaked and changed some—and it’s just a helpful way of exposing those areas where we might theologically know what is right, but our heart doesn’t really go there. It can help us realize, “Oh, there are places I need to work on with the Lord to make sure that my heart is aligned with my head knowledge,” as we read God’s word and what it says about suffering.
Q. Can you describe what some of the fall-out might be for someone living more on the left side of the spectrum, someone who is not living from a biblical view of suffering?
A. I think we end up leading shallow, comfortable lives, where ultimately we’re compromised in our effectiveness for the Kingdom. That’s what’s at risk. I think fear of suffering is how many people make decisions, and biblically, that’s actually not how we’re meant to make decisions. Not that it isn’t a factor—we consider consequences and what might happen to us—but that isn’t what trumps what we do or don’t do. If you’re over on the left side of the spectrum there’s something at play that’s trumping a healthy perspective on how to live your life here on earth.
Q. What advice do you have for people who take a look at this spectrum and realize that on the heart level there are things they believe on the left side—the not–biblical side? How can they start to move toward a more biblical perspective in those areas?
A. I think the Bible speaks for itself. It’s worth looking at passages and really diving into them, asking, “What do they say?” There are some passages on the spectrum handout, but there are others as well. You’re not just reading off of some sheet what healthy suffering and a correct theology of suffering are.
I also think it’s worth talking to other people about this. Whenever I’ve used this spectrum, I’ve always done it with a team or with other people. There’s more than one spectrum on the sheet, and other people may struggle in an area that’s different than you. Talking through those places, “Oh, how did you learn that,” or, “What happened to you there?” can help draw us into a deeper understanding and help move us over to the right, toward a healthy theology of suffering.
I also think it’s sometimes good for us to revisit suffering that we’ve encountered in our own lives. Sometimes we’ve not suffered well, or there’s unresolved grief or pain, or some struggle in our lives that we’ve sort of glossed over and haven’t really mined fully for what God wanted to teach us. These things can hold us hostage to being on the left side of the spectrum instead of moving over to the right. It can be helpful to talk to somebody else about that too.
And finally, just lay it out before the Lord. That is what the Psalms is all about, right? It’s David grappling with so many of the injustices in the world, and his fears and suffering. I think it’s great to write a lament or some Psalm with the Lord about that particular category you’re struggling with that you can then lay before the Lord and ask him to speak into.
Q. So to finish up, are there specific instructions or things that would be helpful for us to know as we take a look at this suffering spectrum?
A. I think there are two things in particular that help us in this struggle with suffering. One of them is these eternal truths that we’re told and that somehow we end up forgetting. These truths can “contain” or hold us when we’re really struggling with suffering—either our own suffering or somebody else’s. The first one is this truth that the Lord will never leave us or forsake us, that there’s nothing that can separate us from the love of Christ. That truth helps us go to hard places. If we know that God is holding us, then even if we’re railing against God it doesn’t separate us from him. And he’ll never leave us; no matter how difficult it is, he promises that he is there with us, somehow, in the midst of it. Some of the work that I get to do is help people connect with God in the midst of their suffering.
The second truth is something I learned primarily working among African Americans in Memphis, TN—I learned it from pastors who were teaching me their history of slavery. That truth was how limited, how anemic, our view of Heaven was. What enabled them to endure terrible atrocities on themselves and on the people they loved and their children was that there was something greater out there. In the end, things would be set right. In the end, they would get their final reward of forever with their loving Heavenly Father. There was a Heaven that wasn’t just playing harps on clouds; there was something very real, and that enabled them to endure horrific things throughout their lives.
I think we can oftentimes lose our bearings and even lose our purpose if we don’t hold onto these truths that enable us to work our way through difficult times or help others work their way through difficult times. The truth is that we’ve actually been able to take a look at the end of the book; we know how all things end! And that gives us an assurance that can help us navigate the trials and tribulations of this world, and emboldens us to do things that don’t make sense to the world. We know that at the end of the day, we serve a God who loves us more than we could ever imagine, and at the end of our lives he’s going to welcome us home.
Alex Galloway and his wife Amy have been with CRM since 2003. They live in Malaga, Spain, where they run a hub for missionaries that provides counseling, training, leadership and transition coaching, and spiritual direction. Alex serves as the the director of CRM's Staff Care and Development team.