Can we have some humility about suffering, Ms. Story?

August 30, 2012

Today, for the first time, I heard (or at least paid close attention to) a popular contemporary Christian song called “Blessings,” written by a prominent contemporary Christian singer-songwriter and worship leader named Laura Story. According to Wikipedia, the song was a hit in 2011 and recently won a Grammy award. As I listened to it, I thought it was nearly a great song, bravely tackling the difficult subject of faith and suffering—not a frequent theme in the happy-clappy world of most contemporary Christian music.

Upon further reflection, however, I hate it. If people in the midst of suffering and grief find comfort in it, as apparently Story herself did when her husband was diagnosed with a brain tumor, to God be the glory. But I couldn’t stand beside a deathbed and share these sentiments with either a dying person or the loved ones who are left behind. I hope I’d lose my credentials as a United Methodist pastor!

The first verse sounds promising:

We pray for blessings, we pray for peace
Comfort for family, protection while we sleep
We pray for healing, for prosperity
We pray for your mighty hand to ease our suffering

That’s certainly true. But listen to the verse’s turnaround (emphasis mine): “All the while, you hear each spoken need/ Yet love us way too much to give us lesser things.”

Lesser things”—you know, like healing, comfort, protection, and peace. Apparently, for Story, the greater things God would rather give us—for our own good, mind you—may include terminal illnesses, war, genocide—pick any evil, natural or human. We may pray against evil, as our Lord himself taught us to do, but if we receive evil in spite of our prayers, we should thank God because even these bad things—as Story implies in the song’s chorus—”are your mercies in disguise.” In other words, they aren’t really evil at all.

Didn’t I just complain yesterday about how John Piper’s hyper-Calvinist vision of God’s sovereignty attributes human sin and evil to God’s authorship—because even sin and evil serve his (at times) inscrutable purposes. How is Laura Story not saying the same thing?

Does your spouse, for example, have a brain tumor? According to the song’s theology, God gave it to him or her. Remember: If God wanted to give someone a “lesser” thing like a healthy brain, he would do so. God’s motives for giving someone cancer are blameless: “What if a thousand sleepless nights/ Are what it takes to know you’re near?/ What if trials of this life are your mercies in disguise?” In other words, you needed this bad thing to happen; therefore, our merciful God obliged by giving it to you. God will do “what it takes.”

To make matters worse, if the suffering person to whom Story directs these words doubts the hard truth of what she’s saying—and isn’t completely comfortable with the idea that God constantly sends evil-disguised “mercies” our way—we can be sure that God himself “longs” that “we’d have faith to believe.” Here, she says, doubt isn’t faith’s necessary correlate, as classic Christianity teaches, but is instead the opposite of faith. I should throw out every sermon I’ve preached on “doubting Thomas,” that’s for sure!

Am I being too hard on the song? After all, she asks, “What if?” As if she’s wondering aloud. But listen to the song and tell me that she means it as an open question. The most charitable reading is that Story got a bit sloppy with her words and meant to say, simply, that God takes all these bad things—including sin and evil—and uses them for his good purposes; or that God is continually bringing good out of suffering; or that God is incredibly merciful in the midst of suffering. That’s what I would like the song to say. In which case I would agree wholeheartedly! In C.S. Lewis’s masterful book The Problem of Pain, he writes that God is “mercenary” about using suffering for our good. But using suffering isn’t the same as causing it, especially when doing so makes God complicit in sin or evil.

Don’t misunderstand: I am not even arguing that God never sends suffering our way. That wouldn’t be biblical. I haven’t changed my mind since last week, when I wrote the following:

The Bible teaches that sometimes God punishes people in history for their sin—whether by not sparing them from the natural consequences of cause-and-effect or even by actively afflicting them with discomfort, disaster, or disease. Moreover, God’s purpose in doing so is good. I’m happy to report that, at least in the tiniest of measures, God has let me suffer for my sins—at least enough to bring me to repentance. I consider this kind of punishment an act of severe mercy on God’s part.

What I’m arguing is that when it comes to human suffering, there are things we can say with theological certainty—based on the Bible and two millennia of Christian thinking on the subject. But there is also a great deal of mystery, especially as it relates to God’s involvement and agency in suffering. We owe it to those who suffer to speak with circumspection and humility. Unfortunately, this song fails to do that.

9 Responses to “Can we have some humility about suffering, Ms. Story?”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, this is a pretty tricky subject. First, I definitely agree with you (I think) that God does not wish terrible things to happen to us “in the first instance.” In other words, he doesn’t want us to get cancer or have a car wreck. However, at the same time he “wishes to get our attention,” for example, and sometimes those things are what do so. And paying attention to God is a greater thing than not having cancer, or driving safely. So, “all things balanced,” it may actually be “better” for us to have the “terrible thing” happen.

    You agree, too, that sometimes God uses “bad things” to “spank us,” if you will. God “chastens” those he loves, Hebrews 12 says. So, those “bad things” in such instances are “blessings in disguise.”

    How does this work with God being holy and loving and hating evil? This is where we tread on ground that angels themselves likely tread lightly on. However, I think it may be fair to say that God “orchestrates” events that the people/demons want to do, for evil purposes, to “bring good out of them.” Thus, for ourselves we do the very things that are otherwise right and good “in themselves,” and God will reward us accordingly. And he will punish those who, out of their own hearts, do what is bad. But, as I say, God puts people in the times and places that he does so that even those evil things will accomplish what God wants done in our lives and in history.

    Consider a few examples. Jesus says, “Offenses must needs come, but woe to those by whom they come.” Joseph says to his brothers, “You meant it for evil (to sell him into slavery), but God meant it for good, to save many people alive, as it is this day.” Jesus says, “This man was not born blind because of any sin, but that the power of God might be revealed.” God says to Moses, “Who made the blind and the mute; have not I, the Lord.” Somewhere God says, “Is there a calamity, and I have not caused it?” And God allowed Satan to test Job (to an extent with limits) to “make his point” to Job at the end. And what about the greatest of all examples? What is the worst and greatest event that ever happened? The killing of the Christ, which demonstrates the evil of human hearts, and yet simultaneously accomplishes their redemption.

    So, I am not so sure Laura is totally off base with her (pretty) song. We see the evil, as it is by those who perpetrate it (or caused by nature run amok), and it is proper for us to be angry with those people who perpetrate it and do what we can to avoid such calamities. Yet, simultaneously, we seek to see what God is ultimately about in “allowing” such events to occur–because, at least with respect to the “major” events, God is, indeed, up to something–and something ultimately good.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I’m not sure she’s totally off base, either—meaning there are some “easy cases” when I could affirm what she’s saying about suffering—and God’s role in it. But think of the hard cases of suffering. Name some senseless, brutal, absurdly evil human act. Would you turn to the victim and say, “This suffering that results is really a mercy in disguise,” that this is “what it took” in order that… Yuck. If my theology doesn’t ring true in the hard cases, maybe it misses the mark.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Well, I agree there are easier cases and harder cases. But recall the examples of Jesus and Job, if not Joseph as well. Just because the events are terrible does not necessarily mean that God is “absent,” as it were. Judgment Day and eterrnity will “set things straight” as far as what was “wrongly” endured. “For I reckon that the troubles of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory which will be revealed in us,” says Paul, who suffered more injustices than most of us.

  2. brentwhite Says:

    Good point, Tom. The equal and opposite mistake (which tends to afflict people of my tribe, mainline Protestants like United Methodists) is that God is an absentee landlord or powerless or not really able to do anything about suffering. I totally believe that God is working through suffering, and God will balance the scales somehow, and make it all work out in judgment and resurrection, if not before. We need judgment, heaven, and resurrection for justice to be done.

    • Nicholas Silveus Says:

      So what you are discovering is the “Problem of Pain”. The solution is simple enough: Our God is in the heavens.

  3. LIsa Martin Says:

    I find David B. Hart’s article linked below esp helpful when thinking about God’s role in suffering both global and personal. If you don’t have time for the entire article the last two paragraphs nicely summarize his views.

    http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2010/01/tsunami-and-theodicy

    • brentwhite Says:

      Oh, yeah! This is just absolutely a classic. Hart expanded this editorial into a small book called “The Doors of the Sea.” I reviewed it just today to make sure that I wasn’t off-base in my critique of this song’s theology.

  4. Nicholas Silveus Says:

    I am sorry to say this, but you missed the e the point. I just lost my father to a sudden heart attack, and I am only 14. My father was a very Godly man, and yet he was taken from m this world at the age of 50, so I understand what you are trying to say. However, this song is very biblical. It reminds us that our suffering IS temporary, and further more also makes us think: should I try to fill my heart rt with something that won’t satisfy? (i.e., Sex, money, power, food, or idols of pleasure in general?) Or does this situation exlose a greater thirst? We need a wake up call, for we have filled our hearys with countlesd things. Story is talking of the sehensuct that Lewsis is well jnown for promoting. If you fill your heart with anything else, it will just rattle around.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Not sure what you’re saying there at the end (I’m guessing your auto-correct is off), but I did a 180 on this song, as I blogged about later. I like it a lot now. Seriously!


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