“Would you pray for me?” she asked us.
We had finished an evening Bible study at our little church in Priluki, Ukraine. We chatted about the Bible study, about life, and lingered in the warmth of community. We were a small body of believers in a big unbelieving world, forestalling our exit from this haven, and bracing for the cold dark walk home. Some were bracing for home itself.
Like many Ukrainians she lived in a multigenerational home; kids, parents and grandparents sharing small spaces and often, big problems. That she lived with alcoholic men was, in Ukraine, hardly remarkable. But her family dynamic also included serious mental health issues. Some diagnoses had been made, but the available “cures” might be worse than the disease, so they lived with it. Several of us knew the specifics, and so when she asked for prayer before going home, we knew what she meant. And as always, our Church was quick and ready to pray for one another.
Our church lived Ephesians 6:18 and prayed, at all times, with all kinds of prayer, for everything. And God kept on answering. It was beautiful.
That night God used my Ukrainian brothers and sisters to teach me something deeper about prayer, and about myself. And He also began a deep work of challenging and changing my understanding of Him.
As we started to pray I was full of confidence. I was sure I knew just what she needed, and just how God could fix it. As a Pastor in the USA I knew several examples of how psychotropic treatments could radically transform family realities like hers. I think I offered a tacit plea for healing, but I prayed mainly and earnestly that God would fix it by providing the medicines I knew could treat it.
Others prayed in turn, but for a different kind of divine intervention. They prayed for endurance in suffering, divine strength, and God’s help to live and respond gracefully to suffering from which there was little chance of escape.
Our prayers ended, our sister was encouraged, and we went out into the night. But a question began to stir in me about the divergent streams our prayers had taken and why. As a missionary I was constantly discovering new questions and cross-cultural complexities, but this was different. It poked at deeper issues. As I considered the discomfiture, it was obvious that we had very different responses to suffering, but it also began to see that we might also have different expectations of God’s help in our suffering.
Ukrainians know about suffering. They have lots of experience. That doesn’t mean they are immune to the pain, but I’d say they have a significantly higher threshold. I’d also say they find suffering less surprising. Suffering is, as you might say in Russian, “Normalna”: normal, unremarkable.
What about Americans? Suffering? Normalna? Not so much.
It’s not that Americans don’t experience suffering. We are members of the fallen Human race. We suffer, some of us intensely. But on a macro level, it would be hard to argue that systemic suffering that is common in the much of the World is common here. Suffering isn’t a competition, but on the other hand, the field is hardly level. We are privileged. If you doubt that, just ask the rest of the world if they want to trade places with you. Exactly.
Living and ministering around the world has been a continual education in the human experience of suffering. And since it is ubiquitous, all of us are always responding to it at some level. Well or otherwise. Some of my most profound lessons have been in learning how and why I respond to suffering as I do.
Reflecting on his life of ministry and of teaching ministers Dr. David Veum recently said to me that he is increasingly convinced that our main work as ministers is to prepare people for suffering. I’m convinced that standing at the back of that church in Ukraine, ten years earlier, I was not prepared to prepare people for suffering.
Praying for a miraculous healing is not wrong, nor is praying that God would provide medicines, as long as you realize that you are asking for water from a rock. Those drugs simply did not exist in Ukraine. Praying for medicine might say something about my weak faith in healing, as well as my ignorance of medical realities in Ukraine. But that it was the main way I imagined God helping her also says something about the weakness of my Theology of suffering, and my expectations of God.
I knew, or thought I knew how God could help them escape, but I knew little of how He might help them endure. Though it felt bold to pray for a miracle, it was desperation.
This was one of my first encounters with systemic suffering; people living in lives, cultures, economies, and histories that are not going to be fixed easily or possibly ever.
I was in over my head, and my theology felt shallow in these deep waters. She needed more than prayers for a lifesaver she didn’t have. Unless she could be pointed to God’s strength to sustain her, and help her swim in a sea of suffering, she was going to drown, and eventually so would I. Luckily others held her up with other prayers and assured her of God’s provision of Grace.
"When I was put in the squeeze of suffering, what came out of me was the theology I had absorbed" - Tweet this
Like a swimmer who first experiences a rip current, I realized my strength as well as my theology left something to be desired. There were lessons about my weak faith to be sure, but there were also lessons about my weaknesses in The Faith. It’s not that I didn’t have a theology so much as that I had the weak one, and in many respects a wrong or at least distorted one.
What was weak was a theology of suffering. What was distorted was my expectation of God at work in suffering. I began a slow awakening to what Luther would call a Theology of Glory in place of a Theology of the Cross. Or as John Piper puts it, a Theology that delights in God making much of us, rather than delighting in us making much of Him.
No one was more shocked than I was to discover what was inside of me. But when I was put in the squeeze of suffering, what came out of me was the theology I had absorbed.
I was beginning to discover my “Middle-Class Prosperity Gospel.”