Attention fellow Methodists: making sense of suffering isn’t always wrong

October 16, 2013

keller_bookThis following story comes from United Methodist pastor, theologian, and bishop William Willimon, as quoted in Tim Keller’s new book on suffering. (I blogged about the book last week.)

Once, Willimon was paying a visit to a woman in his church who had just delivered a baby. When Willimon got to the hospital room, the wife and husband were anxiously awaiting word from the doctor. They had just received the “ominous news that ‘there were problems with the birth.'”

When the doctor arrived, he told the couple that the child had been born with Down syndrome, but he also had a minor and correctible respiratory condition. He said, “My recommendation is for you to consider just letting nature take its course, and then in a few days there shouldn’t be a problem.” The child would die “naturally” if they just left things as they were. The couple was confused and asked why they shouldn’t fix the problem. The doctor looked at them and said that raising a Down syndrome child would create enormous amounts of stress in the marriage, and that studies showed that many parents of Down syndrome children separated or divorced. He then said, “Is it fair to you to bring this sort of suffering upon your other two children?”

At the word suffering, the wife suddenly seemed to understand. She countered that her children had lived a safe and comfortable life with every advantage in the world. They had known, if anything, too little of suffering and the difficulty of life in the world. She spoke of “God’s hand” and said, “I could certainly see why it would make sense for a child like this to be born into a family like ours. Our children will do just fine. When you think about it, it could be a great opportunity.”

The doctor was dumbfounded and turned to the minister, urging him to “talk some reason into them.” Willimon of course knew that the couple needed to be given good instruction as to what lay ahead so that they did not take up their parenting of this new child with naïveté. But, he wrote, the couple was using reasoning, though it was a reasoning foreign to the doctor. In the dominant cultural narrative—reflected in the reasoning of the doctor—”words like ‘suffering’ are unredeemably negative” because “it is important to avoid pain at all costs” since “our lives are [valued] by nothing more significant than our desires.” The couple, however, was thinking about life through the logic of the Christian story, namely the Fall and the redemption of the world through Jesus Christ, and in that story, suffering can be redemptive, a way of serving others, and a way of glorifying God.[†]

God’s hand is in this, said the mother. I can see why it would make sense…

I’ve said many times that I disagree with that harmful bumper-sticker theology that says, “Everything happens for a [good, God-ordained] reason.” For one thing, it doesn’t make sense to pray that “God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven” if God’s will often isn’t done on earth as in heaven. And God isn’t the author of evil, so if evil happens it doesn’t happen because God caused it.

But to say that everything doesn’t happen for a God-ordained reason isn’t to say that nothing—or at least things that we perceive to be bad—happens for a reason. If the mother is right, God wanted her to have a Down syndrome child.

And why not? Do you think that this mother wasn’t incredibly grateful to God for this child? Do you think that she perceived her Down syndrome child as defective? Do you even think that this mother would want her child to be someone other than who he or she is? Inasmuch as this child causes suffering in the family, wouldn’t the parents say that it’s totally worth it to have this person in the world?

If so, then how can this child’s Down syndrome be a tragic mistake rather than a gift from God?

Maybe I’m writing this blog post to myself because I’m the one who has often been allergic to the idea of God’s sovereignty. Leave it to a good Wesleyan like Willimon to remind me that there may not be as many accidents in the world as I think.

Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 78-9.

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