“We’re Going On a Bear Hunt” (Or Why We Need a Better Theology of Suffering)

We’re going on a bear hunt.
We’re going to catch a big one.
What a beautiful day!
We’re not scared.

Mud! Thick oozy mud.

We can’t go over it.
We can’t go under it.
Oh no! We’ve got to go through it!

We probably read this book to our kids dozens if not hundreds of times. This family goes on a walk together and they keep on encountering obstacles to their journey: inclement weather, scary forests, and hard to navigate terrain. Realizing the only way to continue moving forward is to go through and not around the obstacles they face, we get their refrain, “We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Oh no! We’ve got to go through it!”

There is wisdom in children’s books.

Somehow a lot of Christians and a lot of churches think that following Jesus and being a person of faith ought to solve all of our problems or take away all of our suffering. They think that the Christian life ought to be a lovely, beautiful, problem free walk. Lots of sunshine, and no clouds. Like the family in the book, we pretend to be going on a bear hunt but we don’t actually expect to come across a bear.

Worse, we tell people who are suffering that they just need more faith and to pray harder. And when it happens to us, we even conclude sometimes that God is mad at us. Our adversity is the consequence of God’s disappointment with us. It’s all our fault.

Now, sometimes we do face difficulties because of our poor–and, yes, sinful decisions–but the rain falls on the just and unjust. Life includes hardship. As the book says, We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Like it or not, sometimes we simply have to go through it.

Some of us shake our fist at God, angry that he would allow us to go through such suffering. Often this betrays a kind of works righteousness. We think that if we’ve lived as we should, then God should bless us–which we take to mean being exempt from suffering. If I’m a good person, in other words, God owes me. Our relationship to him turns into a mathematical calculation.

This is why we need a better, more biblically faithful and robust theology of suffering. The problem, of course, is that we’re not always very well equipped to deal with suffering. We mostly want to avoid it or distract ourselves from it or deny it. Or when we are suffering, often we want to downplay it. Someone is always worse off. Which, while true, doesn’t change the fact that we, too, hurt. Indeed, sometimes we hurt a lot.

So what do we do with this? Do we simply put up with it? I suppose in part, yes. Of that we have no choice. Suffering of one kind or another will inevitably come our way. But is it only about surviving the storm? Do we only hunker down, cover our heads, and hope that it passes sooner than later?

What if God allows suffering in our lives so that perhaps we would realize all the more how utterly dependent on him we are? C.S. Lewis, in his book The Problem of Pain, famously wrote: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” More than that, what if God actually seeks to grow us spiritually in the midst of suffering? What if by permitting hardship he is conforming us more and more to Christ, our Lord who, while now risen, had to undergo the pain of rejection, humiliation, and suffering unto death?

It’s easy for us to live as though we’re self-sufficient or in control–and even to believe it. Times of suffering strip this illusion away. Whether we lose a job, a relationship, or our health, without something else underpinning our sense of self and our place in this world we’ll end up in an existential tailspin that will leave us bitter or hopeless. With our usual sources of comfort and security gone, where do we turn? On what–or who–do we depend?

And in the church we need to do better. We need to handle suffering better. We need to be a safe place where people can process and work through their pain and loss without judgment. We need to quit acting as though everything is ok when it clearly is not. We need to stop telling people to pull their socks up and move on. We need to practice lament. The Psalms, after all, are full of lament, of songs that bring grief, confusion, and even anger into the presence of God through prayer and worship. Because it’s there that we discover and experience the hope we have in Christ.

Psalm 34:18 says that The Lord is near the brokenhearted; he saves those crushed in spirit. And it’s in the presence of the Lord who is near to us when we suffer that we eventually find healing and transformation. That’s what we really need. Suffering will come to each of us. We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Oh no! We have to go through it. But not alone. Instead, with one another, weeping with those who weep, in the presence of the Lord who knows our tears and draws near to us through them.

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