If the church became acquainted with one thing during 2020, it is suffering. Many church members entered the new decade resolved to start a fresh chapter in their story. However, three months into the new decade, a pandemic and new revelations of racial injustice hit their communities. “Maybe 2021 will bring a fresh start …”
These times forced God’s people to wrestle with loneliness, financial instability, mental, emotion, and physical health issues, uncertainty, and insecurity. As the pandemic wanes and people begin to readapt to “new life”, there is a sense of loss—former ways of life, friends, and families claimed by a micro-organism and injustice. It is tempting to suppress this time and move on, seeking to blaze a better path through uncharted territory. However, what if God is calling his people to do something different with their suffering? This premise is the foundation to Dr. Dan B. Allender’s work The Healing Path: How the Hurts in Your Past Can Lead You to a More Abundant Life.
Allender’s thesis in The Healing Path, although not novel, is important and relevant. He proposed that the church’s understanding of suffering is shallow and to be avoided. Instead, he argued pastorally that suffering should be embraced when it visits. He framed his book around Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church where he calls them to “faith, hope, and love” (1 Corinthians 13:13, ESV). Life can cause “doubt, despair, and disappointment” to flourish (x). However, God guides his people from doubt, despair, and disappointment and into faith, hope, and love. Thus, this redemption enables believers to know the power of God’s miraculous healing. Not only that, but the healing process from one’s own suffering enables the church to minister to one another.
As a counselor, Allender is equipped to dissect the process of healing. Allender’s prior work focused on sexual abuse victims’ healing in his work, The Wounded Heart. Recognizing that the process of suffering and healing in sexual abuse is more universal (albeit, sometimes on a less intense scale), he wrote this work for those who suffer in other ways. In The Healing Path, he covered stories such as a child being run over by a car even though the parent was absent for a minute (3-4ff), someone losing their job even though they did not commit a fire-able offense (17-18ff), and a wayward child because of parental abuse (31-34ff). Even though readers may not know these people, they are gripped by these stories. This reaction could be attributed to experiencing trauma firsthand or realizing how common suffering is and how swiftly it visits. Essentially, Allender wrote The Healing Path for those who have experienced suffering in everyday life.
Allender prosecuted his thesis in two way: first, recognizing the realities of persistent suffering in this life because of the fall, and second, exploring how God uses the suffering of his people to stir them up in sanctification (x). When suffering visits, it can destroy faith, hope, and love, or it can cause them to flourish (5). While most people will not experience intense suffering, everyone will experience some sort of hurt on a constant basis: “to live is to hurt” (4). While this may seem foreign to those who have lived a relatively comfortable life, it is the truth for so many people.
However, two options are presented to those who suffer: they can choose to let it wreck their lives and stunt their spirituality, or they can allow God to guide them through the hurt into growth (5). For example, faith means relying on someone else to promote flourishing in their life (113). However, trust is often broken because of our fallenness. While faith is placing trust in someone else, hope is desiring a certain outcome to an oftentimes dire situation (137). Jesus’ disciples had hope that he would transform the kingdom of their day into God’s kingdom, only to have that hope snuffed out at his death. Coupled together, faith and hope produce love. When either one of these are lacking, love recedes from life (164). When faith, hope, and love are lost, God still leads his people through the darkest valleys. While it is not pleasant to experience such a dark time—to feel suffering in a personal way—these times purge the sin and evil out of the Christian’s life and bring about sanctification. This process of healing is similar to the process of refining metals. When a precious metal like gold or silver is heated to its melting point, the impurities will sink to the bottom, leaving the pure metals on top. Then, the smith can rake off the pure metal, leaving the dross behind.
Allender’s work is convincing because he identified the meaning behind intense and common suffering and demonstrated how God redeems it for his purposes. First, he argued that the point of healing is not healing in and of itself, but to engage with God and with others (189). Engagement means that those who suffer are called to use their suffering for God’s purposes (189). Second, as a result, sufferers can use their pain to enter other stories so that they can help address their misery (212). Not only that, but then they are enabled to continue this process of healing for others (212). Finally, as this cycle progresses, more and more people are called to flee their low view of pain and into this radical narrative of redemption where their life has renewed purpose (237).
For all the good Allender’s thesis can create, its weakness lies in learning about how redemptive suffering is not an easy task. For instance, if a mother has just miscarried or a serious car wreck maimed the breadwinner, counseling them that God has a purpose for their suffering is not always immediately comforting. Surely, God does have a purpose for their intense misery, but pointing them to the broader purpose that God can use their suffering to minister to others is not all that comforting. The most common objection to this counsel is “Why did God pick me and give me this burden? Could God not pick someone else?” Allender readily recognized this difficulty by arguing that the best time to learn how to deal with pain is in between visits, not in the midst (5). However, he omitted how to broach this topic with others. More consideration on this topic is required since he places so much emphasis on walking alongside church members who are suffering.
Allender’s work provides a thoughtful reflection on how the church should approach and live in suffering. While those currently suffering should read this work (in a time that they are not as emotionally vulnerable), Christians who have not suffered greatly should read it because it will provide a helpful framework for processing through others’ pain. Immediately, this is relevant for the church during “covidtide.” As the church recovers from the reeling loss of finances, jobs, health, and life, she will need to start processing through this suffering in order to prepare for future suffering and ministry. In a way, this processing and preparation fulfills what John wrote in his apocalypse: “The one who conquers will have this inheritance and I will be God to him, and he will be my son” (Revelation 21:7, my translation).
This post was originally an academic paper submitted to Drs. Michael Willians and Daniel Zink and Professor Aaron Goldstein in God & Humanity: Foundations for Counseling at Covenant Theological Seminary. It has been modified from its original version, is more technical in nature, and longer than previous posts.