Abstract Students of human grief have developed various models that track typical grief responses. However, their models fail to assess whether the responses correspond to God’s process for hurting and hoping. Biblical sufferology identifies eight scriptural stages in our response to life’s losses. Our biblical theology of suffering equips helpers to competently sustain and heal sufferers so that they can face suffering face-to-face with God.
Learning Objectives Biblical Sufferology will equip readers to:
Understand and develop a biblical theology of suffering—a sufferology.
Use candor, complaint, cry, and comfort as four diagnostic indicators for assessing where people are in the biblical grief process.
Use waiting, wailing, weaving, and worshipping as four diagnostic indicators for assessing where people are in the biblical acceptance process.
Use scriptural explorations and spiritual conversations (trialogues) as biblical treatment interventions that empower people to find God in the midst of their suffering.
Author:_Robert_W._Kellemen,_Ph.D.___Position'>Author: Robert W. Kellemen, Ph.D.
Position: Chairman, Master of Arts in Christian Counseling and Discipleship Department, Capital Bible Seminary, Lanham, MD
Author: Soul Physicians: A Theology of Soul Care and Spiritual Direction
Author: Spiritual Friends: A Methodology of Soul Care and Spiritual Direction
Author: Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction
Founder: RPM Books: www.rpmbooks.org
Founder: RPM Ministries: “Seminars for Changing Lives with Christ’s Changeless Truth”
Biblical Sufferology: How to Bring Hope to the Hurting The Big Picture: Creative Suffering
Though everyone suffers, few suffer creatively. Frequently we seem unable to move through hurt to hope.
Frank Lake, British Christian psychiatrist, describes God’s school of creative suffering. “There is no human experience which cannot be put on the anvil of a lively relationship with God, and battered into a meaningful shape” (Lake, Clinical Theology, p. 97). Notice what the anvil is—a lively relationship with God. Notice the process—battering. Notice the result—meaning, purpose.
Another individual, this one intimately acquainted with grief, also pictures creative suffering. You may recall Terry Waite. The British hostage released in 1991 after nearly five years of solitary confinement in Lebanon was chained to the wall of his room for almost twenty-four hours a day. Reflecting on his circumstances, he noted:
I have been determined in captivity, and still am determined, to convert this experience into something that will be useful and good for other people. I think that's the way to approach suffering. It seems to me that Christianity doesn’t in any way lessen suffering. What it does is enable you to take it, to face it, to work through it and eventually convert it (Waite, Taken on Trust, p 11).
Creative suffering doesn’t simply accept suffering, through the Cross it transforms it.
Biblical Sufferology seeks to equip you to empower others to experience the life-changing power of creative suffering. It does so through the following focus:
Students of human grief have developed various models that track typical grief responses. However, their models fail to assess whether the responses correspond to God’s process for hurting and hoping. Biblical sufferology identifies eight scriptural stages in our response to life’s losses. Our biblical theology of suffering equips helpers to competently sustain and heal sufferers so that they can face suffering face-to-face with God.
Biblical Sufferology compares and contrasts research-based models of grief with a revelation-based model. This revelation-based model teaches that when tragedy occurs, we enter a crisis of faith. We either move toward God or away from God. Biblical Sufferology explores what factors decide the direction we take, and what relational competencies we can use to assist sufferers to face suffering with Christ, not without Him.
I. Biblical Sufferology: Toward a Theology of Suffering
How do we move from suffering to creative suffering? How do we help others to suffer face-to-face with God rather than turning their backs on God during suffering? To answer these core questions, let’s begin with a theology of suffering.
A. Why We Need a Biblical Sufferology
1. The Bible Has One and We Don’t! Why do we need a theology of suffering? Because the Bible has one, and we don’t! Theologians have developed a theology of Creation—how God designed us. They call it anthropology; counselors call it biblical psychology. They’ve developed well thought through models of sin—how sin marred and depraved us. They call it hamartiology; counselors call it biblical psychopathology. Theologians teach a theology of redemption—how salvation restores us. They call it soteriology; counselors call it biblical psychotherapy.
Unfortunately, we’re left us without a theology of suffering. Suffering is everywhere in the Bible from Genesis 3 to Revelation 19. Yet, we’ve not done the hard work of studying the Bible from cover to cover to uncover a theology of suffering—a sufferology. This must change.
Frank Lake explains why. “The maladies of the human spirit in its deprivations and in its depravity are matters of common pastoral concern” (Lake, Clinical Theology, p. 37). True pastoral/Christian counseling not only studies depravity—the sins we have committed, it also must examine deprivation—the evils we have suffered.
St. John of the Cross describes what happens when we look only at personal sin and neglect or even reject personal suffering. “Incompetent spiritual directors know no way with souls but to hammer and batter them like a blacksmith.” When we talk about depravity and not deprivation, when we talk about sin and not suffering, then we become like Job’s counselors, who Job labeled “miserable comforters.” They mistakenly called his suffering, sin and cruelly claimed that he was suffering because of personal sin. Biblical Sufferology offers biblical, logical, and theological proof that true biblical counseling deals both with the sins we have committed and with the evils we have suffered.
There’s a second reason why we need to develop a biblical sufferology. The world has one, but it’s inadequate. As we’ve noted, students of human grief have developed various models that track typical grief responses. However, these models fail to assess whether these responses correspond to God’s process for hurting and hoping.
We must understand something about research in a fallen world. At best, it describes what typically occurs. It cannot, with assurance and authority, prescribe what should occur. Research attempts to understand the nature of human nature are thwarted by the fallenness of our nature and of our world. As Dallas Willard explains:
Secular psychology is not in an “at-best” set of circumstances. The question of who we are and what we are here for is not an easy one, of course. For those who must rely upon a strictly secular viewpoint for insight, such questions are especially tough. Why? Because we do in fact live in a world in ruins. We do not exist now in the element for which we were designed. So in light of that truth, it’s essentially impossible to determine our nature by observation alone, because we are only seen in a perpetually unnatural position (Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, p. 45).
Does this mean that Christians should not be involved in psychological research? Not at all. Does this mean that Christians should ignore psychological research? No. It simply means that we must understand the limitations of psychological research, and that we must always test psychological research against the findings of biblical revelation.
B. How We Develop a Biblical Sufferology
This leads into the question, “How do we develop a biblical sufferology—a theology of suffering?” You deserve to know how I developed my model. I also want to teach you how to fish as well as give you a fish. That is, I want to teach you, at least in introductory fashion, how you can develop your own biblical model of suffering.
Here’s the Reader’s Digest version. To develop a biblical model of suffering, read the Bible from cover to cover. Here’s the detailed version. To develop a biblical model of suffering, read the Bible from cover to cover researching six core questions.
1. Biblical Sufferology Research Question One: What Pattern of Responding to Suffering
Do We Find in Scripture? I literally read from Genesis to Revelation collating how people responded to suffering. As I did, I looked for patterns, trying hard not to force responses into any preconceived stages.
In answering this research question, we have to realize that not every response is going to be a biblically healthy one. For instance, when Saul responded to his loss of respect compared to David, he reacted by trying to spear David through the heart. Biblical sufferology is not going to say, “Stage two biblical sufferology suggests heart-spearing of perceived enemies.”
2. Biblical Sufferology Research Question Two: What Prescriptions Concerning How to
Respond to Suffering Do We Find in Scripture? That’s why we ask question two. Here we collate not only the grief response, but also the Bible’s commentary on the wisdom or foolishness of such responses. Clearly, Saul is not applauded as a healthy model. We’re also looking here for biblical teaching on healthy grieving—things such as Paul telling us to grieve with hope in 1 Thessalonians 4:13 and to groan with desperate desire in Romans 8:22-23, as well as Jesus modeling godly grief at the death of Lazarus and godly acceptance in the Garden of Gethsemane.
3. Biblical Sufferology Research Question Three: What Procedures for Helping Others to
Progress through Suffering Do We Distill from Scripture? Since the Bible teaches truth for life, we also ask a procedural question. Here we look for models of how people helped others to move through grief. Sometimes we record negative models such as Job’s miserable comforters. Other times we record positive models such as Paul helping Timothy to come to terms with Paul’s impending death.
4. Biblical Sufferology Research Question Four: What Patterns, Prescriptions, and
Procedures Have Our Predecessors and Colleagues Discovered in Their Study of
Scripture? If we’re arrogant, we’ll stop at question three and assume that because we examined sufferology, it’s true. If we’re humble, then we’ll continue with question four. What have other students of sufferology found in their biblical research—both our contemporary colleagues and our past predecessors? I call this a validity check. If my “stages” are off base and no one else has ever discovered them in 2000 years of Church history, then I may want to go back to the drawing board.
5. Biblical Sufferology Research Question Five: Are These Patterns, Prescriptions, and
Procedures Practical in the Real World?
If question four is a validity check, then question five is a reality check. Since the Bible is relevant, if my studies are accurate, then they will fit in the real world. When I relate them to sufferers, they will be meaningful and even successful. If my stages of suffering seem off the wall to real people with real problems, then I will want to return to the Scriptures.
6. Biblical Sufferology Research Question Six: How Do These Patterns, Prescriptions, and
Procedures Compare to Psychological Research? Question six uses biblical revelation to test psychological research. Let’s relate this to today’s topic of the stages of grieving. Notice in your outline two popular research-based models of the grief process.
a. TEAR: Jane Bissler Jane Bissler (Counseling for Loss and Life Change) promotes a model, which uses the acrostic TEAR:
T: To accept the reality of the loss.
E: Experience the pain of the loss.
A: Adjust to the new environment without the lost object.
R: Reinvest in the new reality.
b. DABDA: Elisabeth Kubler-Ross Swiss-born psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, in her book On Death and Dying, popularized a five-stage model of grieving based upon her research into how terminally ill persons respond to the news of their terminal illness. Her five stages, which have since been used to describe all grief responses, are:
Denial: This is the shock reaction. “It can’t be true.” “No, not me.” We refuse to believe what happened.
Anger: Resentment grows. “Why me?” “Why my child?” “This isn’t fair!” We direct blame toward God, others, and ourselves. We feel agitated, moody, on edge.
Bargaining: We try to make a deal, insisting that things be the way they used to be. “God, if you heal my little girl, I’ll never drink again.” “If I’m very good, then God might relent and be very good to me.” We call a temporary truce with God.
Depression: Now we say, “Yes, me.” The courage to admit our loss brings sadness (which can be healthy mourning and grieving) and hopelessness (which is unhealthy mourning and grieving).
Acceptance: Now we face our loss calmly. It’s a time of silent reflection and regrouping. “Life has to go on. How? What do I do now?” With one’s own impending death, it’s a time of quiet contemplation almost void of feelings. Sometimes it includes contentment, other times despair.
These various stages in the grief process claim to record what does typically occur. They do not attempt to assess if this is what is best to occur, or if it is God’s process for hurting and hoping.
My study of biblical sufferology suggests an eight-stage process for moving hurting people to hope in Christ. Biblical Sufferology examines this biblical process, exploring how we can offer competent biblical sustaining and healing that empowers people to face suffering face-to-face with God.
Stage Two Anger/Resentment Complaint: Honest to God
Stage Three Bargaining/Works Cry: Asking God for Help
Stage Four Depression/Alienation Comfort: Receiving God’s Help
Healing in Suffering
“It’s Possible to Hope in the Midst of Grief.”
Stage Typical Acceptance Response Biblical Acceptance Response
Stage Five Regrouping Waiting: Trusting with Faith
Stage Six Deadening Wailing: Groaning with Hope
Stage Seven Despairing/Doubting Weaving: Perceiving with Grace
Stage Eight Digging Cisterns Worshipping: Engaging with Love
II. Sustaining Sufferology: Candor, Complaint, Cry, and Comfort—Biblical Diagnostic Indicators and Treatment Interventions for Assessing and Assisting in
the Grief Process Sustaining is a term that describes the first phase in historic soul care. Today, we use terms like empathy, entering, compassion, rapport, and connecting to describe this phase in the counseling relationship.
I like to picture it with the rather macabe image of climbing in the casket. Your counselee or parishioner is grieving like the Apostle Paul was in 2 Corinthians 1:8-9. “We don’t want you to be uniformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death.” You’ve been there. Our counselees have been there. Our parishioners.
When our spiritual friends feel like this, how do we help? By climbing in the casket with them. By entering their agony. Why do we help like this? Because shared sorrow is endurable sorrow. Because we want them to know that it’s normal to hurt and necessary to grieve. Sustaining sufferology climbs in the casket of candor, complaint, cry, and comfort—the four biblical stages that define the grief process.
A. Stage One: Candor—Honest with Self Rather Than Denial 1. Denial Described
Candor contrasts with the typical first stage of grieving—denial. When suffering first hits; when we first hear the news of the unexpected death of a loved one; when we’re told that we’ve been fired; we respond with shock. We can’t believe it. Life seems unreal.
I experienced this when I was ten years old. It was December and I was coming home from Riddle’s Pond where we were playing hockey. Billy Trapp and I were in a fight. Billy Trapp and I were always in a fight. My Mom pulls up, rolls down the window, and says, “Get in the car. Grandpa died.”
My response? “You’re kidding.” Like my Mom would kid about something like that.
Denial is a common initial grief response. I believe that this initial response is a grace of God allowing our bodies and physical brains to catch up, to adjust. However, after the necessary period of time, long-term denial is counter-productive. More than that, it is counter to faith, because true faith faces all of life.
I worked with a Youth Pastor who struggled to move past denial. His wife died while giving birth to their only child. He denied the reality for months. He went on preaching, continued ministering. He never grieved, never wept. He put on a happy face. Behind the scenes, he was a mess. He constantly hallucinated that he saw and heard his deceased wife. He neared a breakdown, largely because he could not move out of the stage of denial and into the stage of candor.
2. Candor Defined What exactly is biblical candor? Candor is courageous truth telling about life to myself in which I come face-to-face with the reality of external and internal suffering.
Let’s explore the last part of this definition first. We can divide suffering into two levels. Level one suffering is what happens to us and around us—external suffering—life’s losses. Level one suffering is what we are facing. It’s the external stuff of life to which we respond internally. I lose my job, my child is ill, I face criticism, experience abuse, and the like. I like to say it like this: the world is fallen and it often falls on us.
This is bad, even traumatic, but level two suffering is worse. Level two suffering is what happens in us—internal suffering—life’s crosses. Level two suffering is how we face what we are facing. This level of suffering is the suffering of the mind that gives rise to fear and doubt as we reflect on our external suffering. It is the crisis of faith. Do we doubt, fear, and run away from God? Or, do we trust, cling, and face our suffering face-to-face with God? I like to say it like this: The world is a mess and it often messes with our mind. In candor, I admit what is happening to me and I feel what is going on inside me.
I had to move from denial to candor after the death of my father on my 21st birthday. In fact, it was not until my 22nd birthday that the process truly began. I had been handling my loss like a good Bible college graduate and seminary student—I was pretending.
On my 22nd birthday I went for a long walk around the outskirts of the Grace Seminary campus. I started facing my loss. My loss of my Dad. The reality that I would never know him in an adult-to-adult relationship. The fact that my future children would never know their grandfather. As I faced some of these external loses, the tears came. Then I began to face some of the internal crosses. What was happening in me. I felt like a loner. Fatherless. Orphaned. Unprotected. On my own. The tears flowed. The process of candor began. The floodgate of emotions erupted. I was being honest with myself.
3. Candor Biblically Supported Was it a biblical process? Can candor be biblically supported?
David practices candor in Psalm 42:3-5. “My tears have been my food day and night, while men say to me all day long, ‘Where is your God?’ These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go with the multitude, leading the procession to the house of God, with shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng. Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me?”
Notice how David is honest about his external suffering—he describes his losses—the loss of fellowship, leadership, and worship. He also is candid about his internal suffering—he depicts his crosses—accurately labeling his soul as downcast and disturbed within him.
If we had time, we could examine how biblical character after biblical character practiced candor—Job, Jeremiah, Solomon, Asaph, Heman (Psalm 88), Jesus, Paul, and so many more.
The Apostle Paul does not tell us not to grieve; he tells us not to grieve without hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). He chooses a Greek word meaning to feel sorrow, distress, and grief, and to experience pain, heaviness, and inner affliction. Paul is teaching that grief is the grace of recovery because mourning slows us down to face life. No grieving; no healing. Know grieving; know healing. The only person who can truly dare to grieve, bear to grieve, is the person with a future hope that things will eventually be better. When we trust God's good heart, then we trust Him no matter what. We need not pretend. We can face and embrace the mysteries of life.
Candor or denial. The choice is a turning point. It is a line drawn in the sand of life, a hurdle to confront. Faith crosses the line. Trust leaps the hurdle. We face reality and embrace truth, sad as it is. If facing suffering is wrestling face-to-face with God, then candor is our decision to step on the mat.
4. Candor and Competent Biblical Sustaining: Relationally Competent Interventions How do we help others to step on the mat, to move from denial to candor? What are relationally competent interventions? We could spend our entire time just on this point since there are many biblically effective ways to empower people to move through the grieving process. However, we’ll focus on one category of interventions.
a. Trialogues: Scriptural Explorations and Spiritual Conversations
I’m labeling this category “trialogues.” In a monologue, I speak to you and/or at you. In a dialogue, we converse back and forth. In a trialogue, a third Party joins us in our conversation—God. Every Christian counseling session must have this three-way communication: you and your counselees listen to God, exploring how His Word relates to their situation.
I’ve outlined two broad types of trialogues. Scriptural explorations explore specific, applicable passages to empower people to relevantly relate God’s Word to their struggles. Spiritual conversations ponder broad biblical principles to empower people to face life face-to-face with God. We’ll illustrate the subtle difference throughout our time.
But before we do, ponder the importance of trialogues. Unfortunately, even in Christian counseling, we often follow extremes in our use of the Scriptures. Some people think preaching a thirty-minute sermon to a counselee is biblical counseling. Others are so afraid of being preachy and over-spiritualizing everything, that they never use the Scriptures other than perhaps recommending a few pertinent verses to read in-between sessions. As you’ll see with our use of trialogues, there is a much better way. A way that respects our client’s ability to relate God’s truth to his or her life and a way that demonstrates our confidence in the power of God’s Word to change people’s lives.
You’ll notice that our sample trialogues start with basic empathy and slowly build toward biblical exploration. You’ll also notice that many candor trialogues focus on granting permission to grieve, since many Christians wrongly believe that if you’re spiritual enough then you will not need to grieve.