Stoicism, Suffering, and the Christian Response

I just discovered Abraham Kuyper, Dutch theologian of last century.

I read a excerpt from his book “To Be Near unto God” that hit closer to home for me than anything I have read in a long time. It was the realness and the rawness of our experience with God in hard times – in what almost felt like unorthodox terms.
In the conservative Christian circle, I think we are timid about admitting the depth of pain, or the pang of suffering, or the reality of doubt. We believe in a sovereign and a good God, so much that we can’t allow ourselves to feel anything that counters that, even though we do.

The book in which I found the excerpt from Kuyper is called From Grief to Glory – a book of comfort for grieving parents. A book which explores the responses of many heroes of the christian faith who have experienced the death of a child (or children) – one of those being Kuyper. He was bold enough – or contemptuous enough – to ask “Where now is the love of God? My child has been torn from my heart, to be carried out to the grave.”

Christian’s don’t talk like that. Christians can’t talk like that. Which raises the question of Christian stoicism. Must we refuse to feel, to respond, because we must submit to the will of our all-sovereign God?

Is the only answer to pain and grief, “God is in control.” Or is there any way to expound on that in order to reach the soul lost in doubt and despair when confronted with suffering beyond their understanding?

We, as Christians, acknowledge that there is a call to suffering. That we, as Christ’s followers, must suffer as he suffered, must suffer to be refined, must suffer to learn He is trustworthy. But I wonder if we always acknowledge it correctly. I wonder if, because we know the end suffering should bring, we downplay the process of suffering itself in hopes to fast-forward to that glorious end.

I know we can’t dwell in it. But I also know that we can’t escape it. And I’m afraid that in trying, maybe we miss the point.

Maybe suffering is supposed to hurt.

Maybe suffering is supposed to raise questions in our heart.

Maybe suffering is not supposed to have easy answers.

Paul :”We were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.”

That was Paul? The Paul I know who suffered shipwreck and beating and lived to tell…? The Paul who proudly went were no man had gone before…err…?

Yet his conclusion: “Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” (2 Corinthians 1:8-9)

That is quickly becoming my favorite verse on suffering. It doesn’t sugar-coat it in the least but it doesn’t hold out on the truth or purpose either. And although so many well-meaning Christians are excellent at not holding out on the truth or the purpose – we are so prone to try to sugar-coat the pain; to downplay it; to say, “I’m fine, how are you?” *forced smile*

Because the pain can’t be so bad that we want out of it. Wouldn’t that be rejecting God’s will for us?

Apparently not, as my husband kindly reminded me of our own dear Christ begging for his cup to be taken from him the night he sweat tears of blood in anticipation of the cross.

Come on, he’s the God-man! Couldn’t he have just sucked it up? He knew it was coming. He knew he’d come out with his own throne and the glory of the world. It was just three days of bearing the weight of the wretched world. He had no reason to whine his way out of it.

But… “we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15)

Oh… hmm…

Maybe weakness isn’t the sin, then. Maybe it’s okay to struggle, to hurt, to feel the burden of the cross. To refer back to Paul’s statement – how can we know, truly know the God who raises from the dead without knowing, feeling, truly acknowledging the burden and despair of the sentence of death? We can’t run or hide from it – I think we are all well aware of that. I think we need to stop trying.

To maybe help this all make a little more sense, here are some excerpts from the excerpt I read out of Abraham Kuyper’s “To Be Near unto God”. (Although I strongly recommend getting hold of at least the whole excerpt. I plan on getting ahold of Kuyper’s original book.)

“When for the first time in our life the cross with its full weight is laid upon our shoulders, the first effect is that it makes is numb and dazed and causes all knowledge of God to be lost… ‘Where now is the love of God? He did not spare my dying child or come to aid of my prayer’… in the end, this must bring it about, that we attain to another, a better knowledge of God, which explains his dealings with us. But at first what our heart feels is that we cannot square this with our God as we had imagined Him, as we had dreamed Him to be. The God we had, we lose, and then it costs so much bitter conflict of soul, before refined and purified in our knowledge of God, we grasp another, and now the only true God in the place thereof…
You suddenly become aware that this great God does not measure nor direct the course of things according to your desire; that in His plan there are other motives that operate entirely outside of your preferences. Then you must submit, you must bend… And then begins the new endeavor of the soul, to learn and to understand this real God. Then begins the questioning, the guessing, the pondering, why this Almighty God should be the way He is and do the things He does…. The soul abandons the theory of Job’s friends and, like Job, receives the answer from God Himself out of the whirlwind.”

And then, in the words of James W. Bruce III, author/editor of “From Grief to Glory”, summarizing the account, “At first, there is the appearance of defeat as the woman’s world is torn apart by the death of her child. God seemed farther away from her than when she was enjoying herself and her pleasant life. Yet what looked like ruin was, in reality, victory as the sovereign majesty of God burst through the darkness to illuminate the woman’s heart.”


“Then Job answered the Lord and said: ‘I know that you can do everything, and that no purpose of yours can be withheld from you… I have heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.'” (Job 42:1, 5)

Let us not be so trapped by our perceived “will of God” that we, with our stoic doses of the truth, get in the way of or even delay those who are suffering (including ourselves) from “seeing” God (even if it’s not always pretty or orthodox along the way.)

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1 Comment

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One response to “Stoicism, Suffering, and the Christian Response

  1. Missina

    I just stumbled on your blog. :) I love it already after reading this post. I’m now going to read more and bookmark it!

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