Understanding Suffering, Preaching Hope: Part 3
Part 3: Our Preaching & a Theology of Hope
Last week we began to discuss some of the ways in which science is both throwing light on the causes of suffering, and is offering some ways in which its effects can be reduced. We considered both natural disasters (such as earthquakes) and natural evils (most noticeably disease).
Science is also helping us to understand how our actions can lead to large-scale suffering, namely in the area of climate change. Science also offers us means to reduce the harm we are causing and, potentially, prevent some of the suffering that would otherwise result. Science has shown us, for example, that we need to reduce our carbon emissions. Technology has allowed us to develop means of using renewable sources of energy that will help us achieve that goal. Science has also helped us to understand how organisms work together in ecosystems, and what happens when those systems are disrupted. We know, for example, that planting trees not only helps to capture carbon, but also prevents soil erosion and helps land to absorb and hold water, reducing the risk of flooding.
What these examples demonstrate is that, when we preach about suffering, we can also preach about how our God-given gifts of intelligence, imagination, and ingenuity can, through science, help us to alleviate that suffering (think of Luke, described as a physician in Colossians 4.14 – someone who would have used the best scientific/medical knowledge of his day to alleviate the suffering of others). Because we are called to do something about suffering when we see it. In fact, Jesus taught that the relief of suffering ( of humans and animals ( is important enough to override Sabbath regulations (Luke 14.1(6). Likewise, the letter of James tells us that when a member of the Church is sick, the elders (i.e. leaders) of the congregation should pray for that person so that he or she may be relieved from suffering (James 5.13-15). We should not hide our suffering from one another, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, when one suffers, all suffer (1 Corinthians 12.26). When we preach about suffering, it is appropriate to give our congregations permission to be honest about their own suffering. It may be, that there is something that others in the congregation can do to help alleviate that suffering, even if it is nothing more than encouraging someone to seek the appropriate help and care.
A theology of hope:
Science can help us to understand what underlies some of the things that cause suffering, and can also provide ways of preventing, mitigating, or alleviating the suffering that results. Our theology can help us understand that suffering may, at times, serve a deeper purpose. Ultimately, we are a people of hope and called to preach a theology of hope, even in the face of suffering. Some hope may come from what science and technology can offer us. But science doesn’t have all the answers. Paul deliberately connects suffering with hope, through the development of endurance and character. Saying that outright might not, however, be particularly helpful to someone who is in the midst of suffering. So, what else can we offer in the way of a theology of hope?
God’s intention from the beginning was that the earth and its creatures would exist in a state of mutual flourishing and peace (Genesis 1.29-2.3; Isaiah 11.6-9). Paul refers to this in Romans 8.19(25, when he speaks of the whole creation groaning, waiting for the revealing of the children of God – in other words, human beings acting towards one another and creation in the way that God intended that we should: as care-takers and peace-makers. Paul mentions hope several times in that passage. We don’t just wait. We and the whole creation wait with hope. It is not a futile wait. What we are waiting for will come to pass. And what we are awaiting is nothing less that the reconciliation of all creation in Christ (Colossians 1.19(20 & Ephesians 1.9(10).
Finally, it is often to recognise God’s work or presence or purpose only when we look back on a period of difficulty or suffering. In the moments (and, admittedly, for some things that moment might not come in this lifetime) when we can look back and say, ‘ah, now I see what God was doing,’ we can affirm what Paul wrote to the Romans, ‘We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.’ (Romans 8.28). But for those for whom the suffering is too great, the wound too deep, it may fall to us as pastors, preachers, and fellow Christians to affirm this, not to them but to ourselves and the community, and hold on to hope on their behalf.
Jennifer Brown, Director of Training, College of Preachers