Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in December 2017.
The first sentence of professor Kelly M. Kapic’s new book, “Embodied Hope: A Theological Meditation on Pain and Suffering,” pulls no punches: “This book will make no attempt to defend God.” Kapic continues, telling readers, “I will not try to justify God or explain away the physical suffering in this world. Instead, I wrestle with nagging questions about our lives, our purpose, and our struggles.”
In Kapic’s view, Christians avoid the subject. We approach suffering as if it were a math problem, he says; we tend to be analytical and detached. As a result, we rarely come up with answers that are more — or better — than an academic explanation. We must be more honest. We must deal with pain and suffering truthfully — as Scripture does — and following the example of Christ. That, he says, will reshape our understanding of suffering. Moreover, it will make us participants in our embodied hope.
ByFaith editor Richard Doster spoke with Kapic about his book.
Early in the book you talk about how physical suffering sometimes causes “hard thoughts” about God. Such thoughts concern God, you say, because they keep us from Him. Can you talk about that?
Our view of God has consequences when we are suffering. It will either draw us near Him as a compassionate Father, or it will cause us to distrust Him as a mad scientist who treats us like lab experiments.
One of the core concerns in this book is that suffering often causes people to struggle with God and with their view of God. But sometimes they try to avoid the struggle by saying something like, “I don’t even know if God exists.” When we hear this, rather than dealing pastorally with the wounded, we are tempted to engage their words at an abstract philosophical level, trying to argue for God’s existence or to explain away the problem of evil.
“In the Messiah we are enabled to affirm the grief and hurt in this world: there are tears and blood found on the Savior as He hangs from a cross; but we also affirm the promises of new creation secured by the risen King.”
We need to become better listeners and hear the questions behind their questions. What they are really saying is often closer to, “I thought I knew what God was like, I trusted Him, and now I feel like He abandoned me.” Or, they might be saying, “God seems cruel and uncaring.” But since those statements sound so harsh at a personal level, people put their doubts into a more abstract form, like questioning God’s existence, since that somehow appears less confrontational. In some ways, they are actually trying to protect God, not just themselves. I can’t get into the psychology of this here, but it is more common than we sometimes realize.
With this in mind, my focus in the book is trying to help Christians—my main audience—understand how they can both affirm the beauty and love of God while being honest about their pain and suffering. In my opinion, this can only be done with a robust view of the person and work of Christ.
In the Messiah we are enabled to affirm the grief and hurt in this world: There are tears and blood found on the Savior as He hangs from a cross, but we also affirm the promises of new creation secured by the risen King. We don’t pick between honesty and hope.
You tell readers that lament is a legitimate, even necessary form of fellowship with God. Why is that?
Lament deals with reality. It presupposes a God who hears, who loves, and who is powerful; this is the basis for lament, which is a combination of complaint, grief, questions, confusion, desire for rescue, and expectation of divine faithfulness. Laments are often messy and not easily categorized. Why? Because they grow out of the difficult and complex situations of our lives. I’m especially interested in how hope and lament work together.
I find that we Christians sometimes feel that it is inappropriate to ever voice complaint, question, or fears to God. This comes, not from the best of the Reformed tradition, but from pagan Stoicism. One cannot read (or better, pray!) the Psalms without lamenting. Scripture’s hymnbook is filled with songs of praise, but also with painful laments.
Any attitude that emphasizes hope while ignoring lament comes from a naïve and unrealistic optimism that contradicts our actual experiences. Lamenting without hope, on the other hand, is equally unrealistic, a kind of unfaithful cynicism that ignores God’s activity and crushes us in its unrelenting despair. Sometimes we find Christians who then avoid both lament and hope, but that is the path of detached stoicism, not Christian hopeful realism.
I use a phrase, “faithful suffering,” to indicate the mindful cultivation of hope even as we give space for lament. This, it seems to me, reflects the fullness of the biblical testimony on these matters. I regularly get emails from people who have read the book and speak of discovering the role of lament as if for the first time. That tells me, if I am hearing correctly, that we might not be doing a very good job of displaying this biblical expression in our corporate worship and Christian experience.
Throughout the book, you make the case that our bodies are a crucial part of who we are. You also point out that, “In every degree of limitation our bodies have purpose and dignity.” Can you explain this connection between limitation and purpose and dignity?
In our conservative churches we are not always sure how to think about our bodies; we sometimes live as if when God originally made humans, He didn’t call us — including our bodies — “good.” This goodness was not merely about a floating spirit, but about our embodied existence. And part of our being a creature is having limits. To be a creature entails dependence, which means such dependency is a gift, not a punishment. Mutual dependence is not a sin, but rather, the distortion of this dependency is the sin.
“Any attitude that emphasizes hope while ignoring lament comes from a naïve and unrealistic optimism that contradicts our actual experiences. Lamenting without hope, on the other hand, is equally unrealistic,
a kind of unfaithful cynicism that ignores God’s activity and crushes us in its unrelenting despair.”
While it is true that sin has affected the entire cosmos — including our bodies — we must be careful that we don’t end up hating our bodies. I find this far too often among Christians who, for whatever reason, think of their bodies in almost wholly negative terms. Simply to have a body, however, is certainly not sinful — we worship a resurrected Lord who rose bodily. Our Creator God gave us our bodies, and you can’t rightly understand who we are apart from them.
So in a book which focuses on pain and suffering, it may seem strange to spend time exploring why our bodies matter. But I don’t think we can properly live, or even lament, without better appreciating God’s original and restorative purposes.
Without properly appreciating the importance of our physicality, we cannot properly care for one another. This gap in our thinking is one of the reasons that concern for social injustice, poverty, and the sick have often not been clear priorities for the contemporary conservative church. Calvin didn’t treat preaching and a concern for the poor as if they were opposites, but too often we do. Behind some of our hesitations on these matters is, I fear, our failure to truly value God as a Creator who loves embodied people.
You explain how, in sending the Son to become incarnate, something incredible happens: God knows what it means to be tempted as a human, as a man, as a particular person. Through the incarnate Son, God gains knowledge of human experience by acquaintance. How does this help us persevere?
When I became a Christian early as a freshman in high school, I remember learning that funny old saying, “Why should the devil get all the good music?” I’m not interested in having a debate here about Christians and contemporary music, but sometimes I feel that sentiment about certain ideas in theology.
Conservative theologians shy away from ideas like God’s solidarity with us because they somehow sound “liberal.” But it is central to the Gospel that God, through His Son and by His Spirit, entered into our human reality by becoming incarnate — taking on a human nature. That means when the Son becomes a man, He becomes like us in all ways, yet without sin. That is profound solidarity. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q. 27) reminds us, the Son’s humiliation included being born, being in a “low position,” even undergoing the “miseries of this life” and ultimately facing death itself. The Larger Catechism (Q. 48) reminds us that His humbling Himself included facing the “temptations of Satan, and infirmities in his flesh, whether common to the nature of man, or particularly accompanying that [of] his low condition.” He went through the “most painful sufferings in his body” (Westminster Confession of Faith 8:4a). All of this points to genuine and radical solidarity with humanity in general, and those who suffer in particular. But we should not end the story here.
Praise God, we shouldn’t just speak of solidarity as if it only means that God “relates” to us in some emotional way. The solidarity we speak of is the event and condition in which God takes on our condition and imparts to us His life. One could say that Jesus Christ is Himself God’s solidarity with us, God’s rescue of us, our redemption, our healing, our recreation. We should not choose between the language of solidarity and the language of redemptive action, because they are inseparable. God’s incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth means that He genuinely understands our weakness, our struggle, the effects of exhaustion and pain, and even the challenges of temptation “as a man.”
We are able to persevere because God not only understands, He also became the solution in the atoning work of Christ and in His resurrection. He rose, and we will rise with Him. Secure in that thought, we are able to press on even amid struggles, questions, and difficulties.
You emphasize the point that our personal suffering is never, truly, just about us. Other believers play an important role in our suffering. How so?
One of the reasons our suffering can be so difficult is that in the West, including in the church, we have become so individualistic. We put all the weight on the isolated person, rather than also seeing that person within a larger community.
Employing the ideas of faith, hope, and love, I try to argue that we need each other if we are to live this Christian life, and that seasons of suffering just make what is true undeniable. I want people to know that amid their difficulties, it shouldn’t surprise them to have really hard questions and doubts about God, about His seeming absence or unconcern, and about their struggles.
During these difficult times, we must lean on other people; when we struggle to believe in God’s compassion and presence, they believe for us; when we find it almost impossible to hope in the promises of the Gospel, they gently hope for us, embodying those promises to us; and when we feel alone and afraid, they are genuine physical representatives of God’s loving presence. Alone we are in trouble, but together, we are sustained in faith, hope, and love.
Psalm 44 describes deep and bitter pain. When Paul quotes from this psalm in Romans 8, you say that he does so “in light of Jesus the Messiah.” What added value and meaning does that bring to suffering?
Originally the psalmist speaks of God’s people “as sheep to be slaughtered,” and then he goes on to utter an agonizing cry to God:
“Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself!
Do not reject us forever! Why do you hide your face? …
Rise up, come to our help!
Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!” (Psalm 44:22-26)
Paul draws on this psalm, but with a remarkable modification: now, rather than applying it to the people of Israel, he applies it to Jesus the Messiah.
Will God hide His face forever? Only in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is this question answered decisively and finally. Jesus stepped into our place to face the violence and hurt so it would not be our final or full story. Once Paul has made the connection to Christ, he is able to declare: “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
Jesus absorbs our sin and enters into our pain, including our physical suffering and even death, not merely to understand it but to overcome it. Thus, Paul can declare: “I am sure that neither death nor life … nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:37-39).
Paul understands that God’s people do ask, like the psalmist, “Why are you sleeping, O Lord?” Paul’s answer is that we discover God is not sleeping, not by examining our present pain, but by looking to Christ crucified. He is a present Lord and Savior who demonstrates His love and grace by entering in and overcoming. That is why God in Christ by His Spirit is the ground of our hope. This is the heart of the Gospel.
KELLY M. KAPIC is a professor of theological studies at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia.
RICHARD DOSTER is the editor of byFaith magazine.