I recently had a fascinating discussion with a couple hospital chaplains about theology and what I would call “therapeutic ministry” to the suffering. By “the suffering” I mean those who are ill or wounded and their grieving loved ones.
Let me preface what follows by saying how much I admire chaplains; they have extremely difficult jobs and, for the most part, carry them out very well. I could not do what they do—spend hours every week with people in pain and misery comforting them and praying with them. My complaint is not so much about them as about the professional culture I fear they are forced to adapt to when they enter chaplaincy.
Over the years I have heard many chaplains say that their job, as it has been taught to them, is not to “talk theology” with the suffering but only to be a “comforting presence” with them in their pain, worry and grief. Some chaplains will admit that if the suffering ask them a theological question they feel free to answer, but they usually qualify that by saying their answer should be something the suffering find comforting.
I fear this is not only an issue among chaplains; I see it becoming the interpretation of ministry to the suffering across the board in Christian churches and institutions. To put it in a nutshell, the widespread belief is that a Christian’s duty with the suffering is only to be to them a comforting presence, a channel of God’s love and suffering with them.
I certainly don’t disagree that we are to be a comforting presence with and to suffering people. However, I don’t think that’s the whole duty of a Christian ministering to suffering people. Most suffering people, especially those in crisis, ask Christians who come to minister to them theological questions. For example: “Why is God punishing me this way?” Or “What did I do to deserve this?” Or “Where is God?”
In my opinion, which I realize is controversial, a Christian minister’s (whether ordained or not) duty in such situations is to be a comforting presence and answer-giver to theological questions. What I mean is that I don’t think a chaplain or other Christian care-giver should wait until the suffering person demands a theological answer. If the suffering person raises one of the questions above or something similar I think the Christian care-giver’s job is to offer an answer.
But what answer? There are multiple answers to such questions. Different Christian traditions have different theologies of God’s sovereignty, activity and intentions in relation to physical, mental and emotional suffering.
The Christian care-giver’s duty is to say something like this when a suffering person asks such theological questions in the midst of suffering: “Would you like me to share with you what I believe about that?” If the person indicates yes, whether explicitly or implicitly, it is the Christian care-giver’s duty to tell the suffering person the truth as his or her own Christian tradition sees it. For example, if the care-giver is a Calvinists he or she should say something like “God designed, ordained and is governing your suffering for his glory, so it is not meaningless or merely accidental. It serves a wonderful purpose and therefore has meaning. God intends to use it to bring him glory and good for you if you offer it up to him in trust.”
If the Christian care-giver is an Arminian he or she should say something like “God is not causing your suffering but permitting it for reasons we cannot fully understand. But, as Christian writer C. S. Lewis said, suffering is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world to its need of him. You’re not suffering because of some sin you committed, but your suffering is a result of living in a fallen, broken world that has rejected God. And God will bring good out of it if you offer it up to him in faith.”
These are two very different, but somewhat overlapping, answers to the “Why?” question suffering people often ask. There is no generic Christian answer that satisfies. And a particular suffering person may not find the answer given satisfying. But the Christian ought to know what he or she believes and offer a theological answer tailored to the suffering person’s ability to understand. If the suffering person responds “No! I don’t believe that!” the Christian care-giver should say “I understand, but that’s what I believe and you agreed to hear what I believe. Would you like me to call a pastor or chaplain who will tell you a different answer, perhaps one from your Christian tradition?”
What I am getting at is that there is a way to be sensitive to suffering people and still tell them theological answers to their theological questions—going beyond just being a comforting presence with them to attempting to satisfy their need to understand God in relation to the suffering.
My fear is that our contemporary American tendency is to avoid theology as much as possible. The only exception, I’m afraid, is fundamentalism and because of fundamentalism most non-fundamentalists avoid theology altogether. Fundamentalists have given theology a bad reputation. But giving up on theology altogether in ministry to the suffering is a great sacrifice. So great is it that, in my opinion, the outcome is something other than authentic Christianity.