Youth and a Theology of Suffering

This post is by Syler Thomas, a friend of mine who pastors youth in Chicagoland’s suburbs.

Clearly present in Andrew Root’s theology (co-author of The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry with Kenda Creasy Dean) is a focus on the presence of suffering and pain in the world, and God’s connection to it. This is helpful because any youth minister will tell you that ministry to young people will always involve those who are wrestling with those questions.

Do we have this kind of a theology of suffering in our churches today? Do we point people to the crucified Savior as One who can identify with their suffering? What do you think of his assessment of how we handle those who aren’t healed versus those who are?

Root is at his best when he is urging us as youth pastors to probe the darkness, doubt, and difficulty for God’s presence.

On page 82, he says that “theology starts with a crisis, the very crisis of reality itself. The crisis is the fact that you live, that you have a life to live. …The crisis is the very mystery of our existence and the yearning for there to be some kind of meaning to it.” He then continues the crisis language, explaining God’s crucial role in the crisis. On page 86, he states that a “theologically rich ministry begins with inviting young people to articulate what haunts them.”

How refreshing is that? Crisis? What haunts you? Those kinds of statements are so shocking because it’s not what is generally accepted in church life, particularly in evangelical circles. Fear is often pushed to the sidelines, to make room for certainty and confidence.

I particularly appreciated his discussion about the subject of healing (chapter 8). In some circles, the healing of sick people is expected…it’s the norm. Root points out that it is our job as ministers to “first acknowledge the presence of God not with those who’ve been healed but with those who are suffering. To be healed in this world is to be abnormal. …Healing is wonderful, but weird; it is to be celebrated but not glorified… To suffer, however, is to be embraced by the crucified God; to hear no answer to your pleas for help is to find community with One crucified. …[W]hen someone suffers without healing, their perceived Godforsakenness is the very thing that assures us that they are with God and God is for them.”  And when we hear word of a congregant healed, while giving thanks to God for the healing, our very next thought must be for those whose loved one was not healed.

Do we have this kind of a theology of suffering in our churches today? Do we point people to the crucified Savior as One who can identify with their suffering? What do you think of his assessment of how we handle those who aren’t healed versus those who are?

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • phil_style

    “any youth minister will tell you that ministry to young people will always involve those who are wrestling with those questions”

    When I was a “youth” we had a little bit of this, but there wasn’t really a place where one could be brutally honest about existential issues. This kind of thinking was scary, and dismissed with “it will be OK” platitudes, which simply don’t appeal to a teenager – especially when the alternative sides of secular culture offer some really thorgh explorations of this.

    When in my 20s’ I noticed another trend. The church appeared to have completely “popularised” itself. The focus of youth ministry was inspiration, motivation and relevance. – which is essentially a desperate attempt by the church to prove it’s not uncool, or boring – yet still remain “straight”.

    No-one in the church was going to introduce me to Dostoevsky, Girard, Kierkegaard, Mahler et all…

  • http://transitministry.com transitpastor

    If I’ve learned anything at all in almost two decades of youth ministry, it’s crucial to allow students to question everything. Youth ministers are too often addicted to, and/or pressured into, giving answers to questions. I think the heavy influence of “worldview” and apologetics based curriculums had a lot to do with this. The Josh Mcdowell type of “proving” the tough issues of faith also dangerously muddied the water for Youth Ministers to be free to express their own doubt, as well as gently loving students through their own struggles with their faith. We should be free to admit our inability to answer some questions, and we should constantly be striving to provide a safe place for students to journey through doubt and confusion.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    What haunts me? I can’t help but think of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Christ-Haunted church.”

  • http://www.nateweatherly.com Nate W.

    This is perfect. I was “saved” at 3 years old, but My faith es nearly shipwrecked until I was allowed to question and doubt.

    To follow Christ is to Live by joining Christ in loving others by suffering death and unknowing daily. Any other Gospel creates a church of whitewashed tombs.

  • http://aprilkarli.com AprilK

    I love this. And I think it’s crucial for all of us, not just the “youth” as I’m in the under 40 crowd! In fact, I think some of us don’t really begin to experience or understand suffering until we get older. I hope to bring this sort of attitude to conversations with my own kids as they grow up and wrestle with these things.

  • EZK

    [W]hen someone suffers without healing, their perceived Godforsakenness is the very thing that assures us that they are with God and God is for them.”

    I can’t think of many Christians who understand this truth. I think you have to actually suffer to understand this. When church see healing, they interpret that as the presence of God, and they give Him glory and praise for that–the kingdom of God on Earth. But so rarely does anyone acknowledge the presence of God in his perceived absence. Mother Teresa’s book was fabulous in helping me understand that paradox.

  • http://www.nateweatherly.com Nate W.

    “theology starts with a crisis, the very crisis of reality itself. The crisis is the fact that you live, that you have a life to live. …The crisis is the very mystery of our existence and the yearning for there to be some kind of meaning to it.”

    What a great perspective. As I posted regarding death before the “fall” yesterday, the very act of creation is almost more like God choosing to remove himself from what “is” than in making something that didn’t exist. In order to share knowledge of Himself with an other there needed to be something “not God” from which God could be distinguished. Essentially all of creation is an event of God’s withdrawal in order that knowledge of him might be entered into by an other. Christ is the perfect picture of this as he emptied himself into death and forsakeness.

    The mystery of existence is that we exist, but it feels like God (in all that his name represents) does not. this isn’t something to be suppressed, or fought against, but is the very thread that binds us to Christ and all of humanity. Whatever meaning there is, it is not something to be found and known, but is found and known in giving it away.

  • T

    In my experience, groups tend to have a theology of healing or theology of pain but rarely both. Jesus clearly taught and, more importantly, lived both. We needed to a better job with both.

    I’m love the quotes about crisis, doubts, and teens.

  • Dave

    We often forget that the name Israel means wrestles with God. The whole story is a story of struggle and we ignore that at our peril. It is uncomfortable, but we aren’t called to comfort. I’ve found it freeing to remember the deepest roots of the faith come out of Jacob fighting with God and receiving a new name and blessing out of it, along with a permanent limp.

  • Scott Courey

    Thank you Andrew and Kenda for this gutsy message. For the past 20 years, much of my work as a therapist has been to give Christians permission to suffer. Larry Crabb observed years ago: “The Church must recovery a theology of suffering”, he was right and so are you.
    Our teens long for us to let them wrestle with God but do not see us doing so productively in our own lives. They become disillusioned far more with our pretenses than with God . They can’t relate to a God who seems to award co-dependent followers who work hard to keep him happy.
    I walked away from God between 14 and 20 because I had no idea I could struggle with God in a way that would help. No adults believed that idea.
    But God is in our unrelieved pain, pouring faith, hope and love into our fickle hearts. That is the miracle. My faith has been endlessly revived by looking into the suffering, joyful faces of my clients far more than by staring at the back of a bunch of heads on Sunday. I love Sunday mornings – but it’s not deep community.
    Recovering a theology of suffering means recovering the place of communal suffering; particularly around the kind of suffering that cannot be seen unless it is drawn out, spoken, and received with mercy and grace. “How are you doing. No, really, I want to know…I’m in this with you. So is God”.

  • http://www.syberspace.typepad.com/ Syler Thomas

    Thanks so much for these thoughtful comments, everyone!

  • http://believing-thomas.com Tom Welch

    If this chapter or discussion grabbed your interest, I highly recommend Root’s book, The Promise of Despair.

    In it, he describes four cultural deaths: of meaning, authority, belonging and identity. Then, he re-envisions the way of the cross as the way of the church.

    Provocative stuff. Despite Root’s thick theological writing in places, this book is full of stories, Biblical reflections, vivid imagery, and helpful discussion questions.


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