Life Theology

Why Theology Matters in a World of Suffering

Theology. Scary for most. But it’s one of the most important words to understand, not to mention, the most important concept to grasp if Christians are to make sense of the reality they live in.

Reality. Unavoidable for most. And without a proper understanding of theology, reality can send our faith into a tailspin. I’ll explain why shortly.

The central message of Christianity is that God entered into human reality in the life of Jesus Christ; in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. God entered into reality! This is why every Christian should have a basic understanding of theology (theos meaning “God,” logia meaning “study of”) if they are to practice their faith in a world where reality isn’t always pretty.

Suffering. Unavoidable. We have sinned. Sin leads to death and suffering. Evil feeds off sin and death.

Jesus. The “God-Man” who enters into reality to share the pain of God’s children. Why? So He can defeat sin, death and evil and bring salvation to the faithful. But suffering remains? Yes. So does sin and death. Confused? Here is why theology is important.

There will come a time in your life when you will face a level of suffering (and evil) that will appear to disprove the existence of a loving and all-powerful God. And when that time comes, you need to be prepared for how you will think about God. Yes, Christians should think! I know, it’s a hard concept to understand. And good theology helps you think clearly about God when reality sends the message that God doesn’t care about human suffering.

Ok, so remember. God enters into reality through His Son Jesus. The culmination of His time on earth is the event of the cross (although some would disagree) where He suffers agonizing pain, doubts the love of the Father, and faces death with (so it appears) despairing finality. Jesus becomes weak and powerless in the world. What?! Why does God become weak and powerless when everything in our broken and harsh reality calls for him to be the opposite?

To find out, let me introduce you to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a theologian and pastor that lived during the peak of World War II and all the atrocities that accompanied it. Studying in the Lutheran tradition, Bonhoeffer’s “theology” (there’s that awful word again!) provides a way for us to think about God and to live through reality when suffering and evil seem to triumph over humanity.

The typical question we all have is, “Why does God allow suffering and evil to continue in our world?” But I don’t think this is the right question to ask. I think the right question(s) to ask are, “How does God respond to suffering and evil in the world?” and in turn, “How should we respond when we experience suffering and evil?”

Here are Bonhoeffer’s answers:

God responds to suffering and evil by voluntarily allowing Himself to be “pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us.”[1]

In turn, Bonhoeffer tells us that our response to God lowering Himself to identify with our pain should be peace and courage. He writes,

There are so many experiences and disappointments that drive sensitive people toward nihilism and resignation. That is why it is good to learn early that suffering and God are not contradictions, but rather a necessary unity. For me, the idea that it is really God who suffers has always been one of the most persuasive teachings of Christianity. I believe that God is closer to suffering than to happiness, and that finding God in this way brings peace and repose and a strong, courageous heart. [2]

Now, hold on a second. Surely God isn’t just about suffering? I mean, what about love, peace, healing, relief…what about resurrection!? I know, at this point it seems a bit depressing. But let’s qualify (or categorize) our theology to make it more clear and not so grey.

The most important thing you need to know about God’s suffering is that it doesn’t define Him. Love is God’s essence; His ontological predicate (I know, too wordy, sorry!). Let me put it this way: God hides Himself in the weakness of sinful flesh to reveal His love to humanity. In other words, suffering occasions His love (the essence of His being). We should also note that God’s suffering is voluntary. Is that better?!

So, God voluntarily suffers on the cross in order to reveal His love to humanity. This is where Bonhoeffer directs us for peace and courage. God identifies with our pain, our sin, our suffering. God responds not like we think God would or should respond, but How God chooses to respond to human pain: through suffering solidarity.

Recently my family has undergone some fairly intense suffering. In the past three weeks, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, my wife’s mother was diagnosed with Leukemia, and my wife had a miscarriage (the latter two happening within the same week!). It’s been difficult, my wife has taken the brunt of the “assaults” (as Luther would call them). Reality is sometimes not pretty. It’s not easy. Now I’m not discounting the pain and the fear we have when our loved ones lives are at risk. But I have come to trust in God the same way Bonhoeffer did (and Luther before him).

Basically, I know that Christ can identify with our pain and that through His becoming weak, He defeated sin, death and evil. Yes, this “evil-triad” still remains, but friends, it doesn’t reign (to borrow from John Wesley). God has suffered and become weak to swallow up sin, death and evil. We now wait for Him – all we can do is wait for His arrival. But in the meantime, when evil confronts us in ways that make it appear that God is not with us, we remember that Christ came into reality to save and suffer with God’s children. During these times, “only the suffering God can help.” [3]

Theology matters in our reality where suffering happens. Take the time to think about God and don’t be afraid of the word “theology,” for God uses theology to comfort us in our pain and to reveal His love to us when Satan seeks to separate us from our kind Father in heaven who sent His Son into the reality of our lives.


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1971), 361.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Meditations on the Cross, ed. Manfred Weber, trans. Douglas W. Stott (Louisville: Westminster John Know Press, 1998), 46.

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1971), 360-61.

Josh is an award-winning faith and culture writer and the author of the upcoming book, God Incognito: Bonhoeffer's Theology of the Cross for the Trump Era and Beyond. He holds a master's degree in theology from Tyndale Seminary in Toronto and is the recipient of the Dr. Ross and Carol Bailey Theology Award. He lives in Murillo, Ontario with his wife and their two adorable daughters and has a column at ChristianWeek.org.

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