September 25, 2020

My Karma Ran Over Your Dogma

As we work through the first book in the iMonk Book Club, Tullian Tchividjian’s Glorious Ruin, we are finding that this book really is not so much about suffering as it is about God’s mercy and grace. So where does suffering fit it to the mercy and grace God wants to give us?

We all suffer to one degree or another. A friend of mine lost her job this week. She is a hard worker, a generous and kind person. Yet when cuts had to be made at her workplace, she was considered expendable. She and her husband, a firefighter, have two children in high school. They will need to find a way to replace her income so their needs will be met.

What did she do to deserve this suffering? Is it just karma? Is she now suffering because of something bad or wrong she did in the past?

Or is her suffering because God wants to “teach” her something? Is she to use this suffering to grow into a better and stronger person? (The author refers to this as the “Oprah-Fication” of suffering.)

Or is she suffering because she lacked faith? After all, we are told so often, God does not want us to suffer. Ever. If we would just work up enough faith, we would never have to suffer. Ever.

Tchividjian works through each of these excuses for suffering. What do you make of them? Is there even a hint of truth in any or all of these?

And does God ever want us to suffer? Yes, he allows it. Does he desire it? If so, why?

Good questions, huh? Now I’m waiting for your good answers.


  1. A fire fighter makes about 80,000 per year. I don’t think a dual income small family is suffering in the USA with 3 cars and a 4000 sq ft house with a cottage on the lake.

    • Presume much?

      • Suffering is extremely contextual.

        I have no doubt there are glorious mansions filled with souls in anguish.

        Perhaps I want to first slap them for being selfish d-bags, but that doesn’t make their suffering false. And it doesn’t diminish my Christian obligation to act with compassion [even when that compassion is difficult for my petty little soul to muster].

    • Jeesh Bob, who said the family was suffering? She is suffering. My wife went through a similar experience. She did every thing right and yet had the rug pulled out from under her. We dealt but she had to come to grips with a lot of hurt and anger. Or is suffering only experienced physically?

      • I agree…I think mental sufferigngis more intense than physical suffering. ESPECIALLY when you have played by the rules and you stil get burned. I was a very conservative evangelical and I played by the rules, and man did I get fried. Others who did not play by the rules got away with murder. Well not literally but you know what I mean.

        Mental suffering has an anguish that can be brutal.

    • I think firefighter wage varies greatly based on region. Most I have known were volunteers.

      • And in some regions of the country $80,000 really isn’t all that much. Where I live a three bedroom house sells for less than $150,000. I have a friend in the west where that same house might approach ten times that value – and what he pays for *rent* on an apartment is more than twice my mortgage payment (for a three bedroom house). And his salary is considerably `more` than mine.

    • Um… adult daughter’s firefighter boyfriend makes $160K per year in SoCalif., thanks to tons of overtime. Hard to feel much sympathy here.

  2. > Or is she suffering because she lacked faith? After all, we are
    > told so often, God does not want us to suffer. Ever. If we would
    > just work up enough faith, we would never have to suffer. Ever

    Perhaps this is an aside –

    I know this is a very common meme of this site. But who says this? Even in my years in evangelicalism I don’t recall every hearing be-good-an-you-will-not-suffer? People around me criticize evangelicalism and even Christianity in general as a religion of the spiritual-slot-machine (generally, these people know next to nothing about either, OK, but they file this gripe anyway).

    I am a long ways from evangelicalism now, and have *lots* of charges against it. I’d even consider myself “hostile” to evangelicalism. But I just didn’t and don’t hear this.

    I imagine this exists in prosperity-theology clubs, but aren’t they really a very long way from even the Evangelical mainstream.

    Seriously, are there links to sects that openly purport this framework of suffering avoidance?

    • Adam,
      about 13 years ago, when I was in my early 40s, I was in a congregational meeting with an Evangelical Free Church District Superintendent. Wanting to clarify what I thought I heard him say while I was taking notes, I raised my hand and asked him point-blank, “Are you saying that if Christians live a moral life nothing bad will ever happen to them?” Without much of a pause, he said, “Yes.” This man was rather young, in his early to mid-30s; perhaps he never had anything bad happen to him. But he was addressing sincere Christ-loving, moral people I know had undergone suffering of various kinds. For myself, by my mid- 30s I had experienced difficult relationships, my father’s death and 2 miscarriages of very wanted children, among other sorrows.

      Other things were going on before and after this incident, both within that church and within me, but that answer was really the straw that broke the camel’s back. It wasn’t long after that that I left evangelicalism. I thought I would eventually return, but a different path opened for me, very much shaped by a few years of reading all of N.T. Wright’s work I could get my hands on. (And no, it wasn’t Anglicanism, though I thought about going that direction…)

      But the point is that the EFC is about as “evangelical mainstream” as could be. In my history as an Evangelical, there was not much room in the theology of the different groups with which I was involved for Christians undergoing suffering, especially prolonged suffering. A notable exception to this was the Vineyard – yes, the Vineyard.


    • I’ve rarely seen it directly stated, but if you actually really think about what is being taught or at least implied it’s the only possible theological understanding that makes sense. It’s not being taught so much as it’s being assumed.

    • My Baptist Pastor preached on this concept last Sunday. His primary point was that we suffer primarily because we live in a broken world suffering the effects of the fall. Their may be individual exceptions to that, but that is the primary reason.

    • I don’t think McChurchianity denies suffering so much as it emphasizes victory over it, and overcoming our pain – which usually amounts to denial and the stiff upper-lip approach.

    • Alan Olson says

      Joel Osteen is the best example of this “theology.”

  3. Okay…I haven’t read through this book. I’m reading the one by Paul Coban and eagerly anticipating that discussion.

    BUT..I’ll take the bait.

    Why do some Christians think that they deserve suffering? Why do some Christians think suffering is needed. Why do some Christians always attach meaning to suffering. Why is their meaning for everything. Can’t Christians just accept that suffering might be an unknown mystery?

    When I was 25 I thought there was a reason for pain and suffering and I thought I was immune. I suspect this holds true for many people as it’s always those who have not experienced it who know all the answers, and lecture others.

    When I was 30 I still thought that I was immune from suffering and thought it was the result of sin.

    When I was 35 my family had been hit by a lot. And I was asking the “why?” question. One thing I have sought is that I have spoken to those who have suffered or been susceptible to the problem of evil and really wanted to listen. The answer I recevied a lot is “I don’t know”

    Can Christians be like that and say, “I don’t know?” Or do they MUST have an answer for everything. Trying to explain why a fire fighter loses his job, why someone gets lung cancer, why a 6 year old was molested by the Youth Pastor at 1 Baptist, or why a worker goes into a plant and starts shooting people to death.

    I don’t know why things happen…and I think that could be a grace filled answer.

    • “I don’t know” is the right answer. Certainly some suffering is the result of our own sin. If I rob a liquor store or cheat on my spouse, my resulting suffering definitely is my fault. But much suffering is the result of others’ sin, and still more seems inevitable and random. Christianity doesn’t set out to give a complete answer as to why, but to provide comfort and hope in place to those that despair. That’s why its focus has to stay on Jesus, ie, the theology of the cross, the only place to find comfort and hope. Christianity gets goofy or harmful if it looks elsewhere.

    • Eagle, your answer is the one I would want hear. “I don’t know why .,,”
      The blog The Christian Monist had a series themed your god is too small. So much of christianity has reduced God to something less; an illusionist who hides the ‘truth’ of creation 6000 years ago, a rich uncle who rewards your good behavior/tihes (yes, that was told to me by a well meaning friend, tithing holds God to his word)… an enviorment has been created that requires our little god to be responsible and accountable for each little thing. Is it possible that the weather system put in place by God leads to hurricanes that cost people their lives instead of god manipulating weather to get some individual to learn a lesson?
      To be honest, we have reduced the bible (literal infallibility) and it’s story in the same way. Each event is an example of god’s activity, a christian example, a moral truth. Israel (the nation) suffered so we are required to suffer, Job was rewarded with greater riches so will be also rewarded with greater (physical) riches.
      A real big ME in the picture and a little god supporting me.
      I’m still working this out in my mind, so don’t hold my feet to the fire on all I said.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        a rich uncle who rewards your good behavior/tithes (yes, that was told to me by a well meaning friend, tithing holds God to his word)

        How does that differ from sorcery, where the sorcerer pays off the supernatural being and the supernatural being then gives the sorcerer his Magick? With the mortal sorcerer (arguably) in control of the whole arrangement and the supernatural (hopefully) bought-and-paid-for?

        • I doesn’t, does it? And that was my point of making God a small god. While the words sound right, the message says you (the big ME) will be rewarded for action, not you are re-acting to action (grace).

    • > Why do some Christians think that they deserve suffering?

      Because I do. Well, at least I believe I have no claim for an exemption from suffering; I’d be more comfortable putting it that way.

      > Why do some Christians think suffering is needed.

      It seems like it is. I witness a potent correlation between suffering an compassion.

      > Why do some Christians always attach meaning to suffering.

      I dunno. It is *very* annoying. I even walk of out movies these days because of this. I am *so* tired of the “religious person” being to one who “sees the meaning” in crap; note that the meaning is always politely vague and nebulous.

      > Why is their meaning for everything.

      There isn’t. Some stuff just sucks.

      > Can’t Christians just accept that suffering might be an unknown mystery?

      Or that is just sucks. No meaning or mystery.

      > When I was 30 I still thought that I was immune from suffering and thought it was the result of sin.

      I believe it is the “result of sin”. But not necessarily mine specifically [although I have contributed…]

      > Can Christians be like that and say, “I don’t know?”

      Yes. I have no clue. And Job raises the notion that I need to accept it is simply above my pay grade.

      > Or do they MUST have an answer for everything.

      I hope not. I know numerous Christians with sufficient intellectual honesty to *not* feel compelled to drop a meaningless @&^@*&@)@ cliche when they encounter suffering.

      > Trying to explain why a fire fighter loses his job, why someone gets lung
      > cancer, why a 6 year old was molested by the Youth Pastor at 1 Baptist, or
      > why a worker goes into a plant and starts shooting people to death.
      > I don’t know why things happen…and I think that could be a grace filled answer.

      +1 I’ve experience just silent presence to be some of the best comfort one can offer.

  4. God is more concern of the person’s character than his comfort. To argue that suffering is caused by “karma” and is deserved by the person is tantamount to saying that Jesus Himself deserved to suffer the scorn, shame, and pain of the Cross.

    • > God is more concern of the person’s character than his comfort.

      A terrifying thought, honestly. I am sooo screwed.

      > To argue that suffering is caused by “karma” and is deserved by the
      > person is tantamount to saying that Jesus Himself deserved to suffer
      > the scorn, shame, and pain of the Cross.

      Score! I am so going to use this the next time I have to listen to a everybody-gets-what-they-deserve riff.

      • Adam, clearly Karma is from another relgion entirely (Buddist? Hindi??) and not Christian at all. In addition, some people don’t get the comeuppence they deserve, at least not in OUR personal judgement.

        But I will state that everyone does get what they deserve (minus the influence of God;s grace) over infinity. But surely not in this world, where the innocent can suffer horrors and the evil live bloated lives of safe prosperity, at least to outward apperances.

      • Adam – it’s from the Christian perspective, because we believe that today’s sufferings are nothing compared to the glorious eternity that awaits those who have placed their faith and hope in Christ. This world is a fallen one, cursed by sin, and yes Pattie, some sufferings are indeed consequences of our own wrongdoings (less God’s grace, for He still doesn’t treat us squarely as we really deserve), but there are some sufferings that are not direct consequences of the very person who’s suffering, and this individual may even be entirely innocent of it, but was affected by the wrongdoing of someone else, like when a “promiscuous” mom who contacted AIDS and gave birth to an infant who sadly got the virus as well. The child may have been entirely without fault but because of the mom’s own doing, was nonetheless affected and is also suffering.

        There’s no justice in this scenario, if you come to think of it, from an earthly perspective…but from Christianity’s view even the child’s suffering may be an opportunity for him to know and experience God’s miracle in his life, at times in a form of miraculous healing, or of spiritual healing…whichever the case may be, the suffering can be an opportunity for God’s power to be demonstrated, for He is Lord over sufferings, greater than any afflictions, diseases, and pain…

        Yet not in all times do this happen, but wherever a soul gets healed, a soul turns to Christ for salvation, whether the sickness is gone or not, sufferings become incomparable to the glory that awaits him in eternity with God. That is the glorious hope of all Christians, the coming of Christ. For we believe we’re just but pilgrims in this world, and heaven is our destiny.

        Hence, several Christian martyrs gave their lives for the Cross, not fearing sufferings, persecutions, nor death, and counted it an honor to die for the Lord…Where the world retaliates when wronged and harmed, Christians would turn the other cheek, pray for those who persecute them, and give their life when needed, for the message of the love of Christ to be shared and received too by others.

  5. I don’t believe in karma, but sometimes suffering is the natural result of bad choices that people make. To use a common example taken from our culture, a woman reaching age forty who is neither married nor has children might despair her situation, which could have been avoided if she had not prioritized a career over finding a husband and getting married in her twenties. Or a young man might be afflicted by crushing debt as a result of taking out loans for a college education he couldn’t really afford. Sometimes suffering is a result of poor decision-making.

    But in most cases like we’re talking about here, there is no correlation. When people lose jobs, get cancer, are on the undesired receiving end of a divorce, or loose a child in an accident, they’re not being cosmically repaid. Your friend did nothing to deserve her suffering.

    Her suffering is not a result of lack of faith. Suffering is not a punishment received for lacking faith; but lacking faith in God *can* make suffering more difficult to endure, because we are depriving ourselves of our best resource for coping with the situation.

    I would go as far as to say that there is no correlation between this type of suffering and God’s punishment. To say that these things happen solely for God to teach us something is to make our suffering all about us, rather than as an opportunity to grow closer to God. God DOES use suffering to grow us, but not necessarily into better people (Oprah-fication). Rather, he uses it to make us grow closer and more dependent on HIM.

    God MIGHT desire us to experience suffering…. I can’t say. The problem with this idea is that it goes together with making an idol out of explanations. Maybe God has his reasons, but we don’t and can’t know what they are; instead of groping for answers (which proved futile for Job, too), we need to depend on God and trust in his knowledge, not our lack of it.

    • Labelling a woman’s choice to prioritize a career over finding a husband in her 20’s as a “poor decision” smacks of sexism.

      • It IS a poor decision if she regrets not having children when in her 40s.

        My wife and I got married in our early 30s. I now tell anyone who will listen that having children in your 20s and deferring some of the ski trips and heavy job responsiblities till you are 30 or 40 is a much better long term deal than the other way around. Raising children is a job for the younger. The only sexism is if the men involved don’t think they have to be involved and the decision only affects the women.

        I love my children who are now in their early 20s. But all nighters when 35 to 40 with babies and trying to participate in some sports when 50 is just plain hard.

    • I know lots of woman who try to date and find good mates and don’t and therein lies suffering beyond their control- the career is necessity- we all have bills to pay:) I don’t think you meant to be rude, I think you just didn’t think this comment through completely!

      • Of course there are people like you mention. I’m talking about those who make a conscious choice to prioritize one course over the other, and the results that come as a consequence.

  6. The Irenaean theodicy can work on the macro level (suffering is meaningful to the human race, since without it our actions would lack consequences and there would be no opportunity to develop virtues like love), though not very well on the micro level (e.g., this dead child has, despite appearances, benefitted from suffering). At least not without reincarnation–and even then, the fit would be uncomfortable.

  7. Joseph (the original) says

    is God the source of evil/suffering? or do we believe that nothing can separate us from Him?

    does God punish people in this life? really? does He intervene in our existence in such a way as to ‘curse’ us with bad mojo???

    it seems God is content (my perspective) with letting the uncaused bad+good to happen. it ‘happens’. how we respond to it can be a way (as opposed to thee way) God meets us in the midst of our trials, tribulations, griefs, sorrows, etc.

    do we really get what we deserve? do blessings outweigh the bullshit of life? does God really ‘work all things to the good’ for those that are His children??? and does that good have more to do with His perspective than ours???

    sure seems like it to me (other results may vary)…

    all of us have to wrestle with our unique set of circumstances that may, or may not, have similiar elements to them. all of us suffer. all of us are blessed. all of us must decide what we are going to do in the midst of both…

    my suffering is in no way related to yours. how i respond to the ups-and-downs of this life will be something i alone must answer to. scary proposition that. no comparisons to other peoples’ challenges or lack thereof…

    i will give an account of how i reacted to the unique set of circumstances that define my temporal brief existence that is but a breath, or sigh, compared to the extensiveness of all creation…

    i am hoping God sorts it all out in the end, and helps put it into perspective for me. not to garner my approval, but to help me understand where He was in all the BS situations that were contrary to His nature/character…

    Lord…have mercy on us…

  8. Slightly different take on this whole discussion of suffering. In the same way we know that day follows night, the only way we understand & can truly appreciate joy, is because we suffer. (The trick is not bringing undo suffering to ourselves & others through our free will.). Suffering teaches, joy celebrates. It’s in our suffering that we may fully realize our ability to choose, which no one can take away from us, & to choose life & meaning over death & meaninglessness.

    • Aidan Clevinger says

      But Adam and Eve knew true joy, didn’t they? And they didn’t experience suffering. I don’t think we can call suffering good. God can accomplish good through it, but in and of itself it’s the result of sin and not good at all.

      • Just to clarify, I didn’t say suffering was good. Suffering is suffering. But the pain we experience can teach us if we allow it to. This occurs by God’s grace. There is suffering at every level of God’s creation of which we’re a part. However, we are the only part of creation, being made in God’s image, who seek to find meaning in it.

  9. Aidan Clevinger says

    In the end, I don’t think there is AN explanation for *why* people suffer. Job, after shouting at God, “You did this. You made me suffer” is given a simple reply: “Yes. Yes I did. And?” I think that the ultimate reason for any given trial is mysterious and something that we won’t understand this side of eternity.

    Granted, suffering CAN teach us things. It CAN be used as a means to reform our characters, or to make us more dependent on the grace of God. But even though those are things which God accomplishes through suffering, I don’t think that either suffices as the deepest, most fundamental reason for any given pain. In the end, I think all we can point people to is what God Himself as revealed: that suffering in the abstract is the result of sin and not part of God’s original intention for creation, that He has allowed it to be for whatever reason, and that all suffering ultimately finds its fulfillment in Christ’s death, which was His instrument for defeating death, sin, and pain. We’re promised grief and pain in this life and there’s nothing we can do to escape it, but we can have faith that Jesus has conquered suffering by means of the cross, and we can have hope that one day our suffering will come to an end. Beyond that, I think any affirmative answer to the problem of pain is speculation.

    • I think that there probably IS a reason in God’s grand scheme of things – but God usually doesn’t allow us to know it. And that might be because, in our limited wisdom, if we knew the reasons they would just make us mad at God and complain that he’s being unfair/cruel/etc. As is, it’s better for everyone involved if we leave the reasons up to God and trust him instead of trying to offer (or find) an explanation every time.

      • > I think that there probably IS a reason in God’s grand scheme of things – but God usually
        > doesn’t allow us to know it.

        Or we are just, simply, incapable of ‘knowing’ it.

        In UNIX/LINUX speak:
        $ cat /dev/god > /dev/human-brain
        Segmentation Fault (core dump)
        Unable to write core, insufficient disk space.
        Kernel Panic, use sysrq sequence to recover.

  10. My suffering has turned me to God many times when I probably would not have, if everything had been hunky-dory.

  11. In my life, the worst sufferings I have been through (which pale compared to others’ crosses I have seen, at my age and as a nurse!) have made me fall back on God and pay attention to Him because there was NO where ELSE to go. I find it all too easy to put the Lord on a back burner when everything is cruising along all peachy-keen and wonderful. Pain and loss slap me across the face with the need to remember whose I am and why I am even on this planet.

    For the bigger issue of suffering, all I can believe is that we live in a fallen and sin-filled world, which arose from Man’s disobiedience and pride and is reconciled in Christ. He is weaving a tapestry of redemption and grace, but only HE can see the pattern….all I see is broken threads, discordant colors, and knots & tangles, from the wrong side of the masterpiece. Everything else is beyond me, at least until I see the whole cloth from the right side after I leace this world.

    • “leave this world”………………. but we do sort of only’ lease ‘physical life, not buy it!

  12. God allows suffering, not because He made it happen, but He is involved in the process that allows us to work through suffering.

  13. I’ve read the book and read all of your comments. I greatly appreciate the book and agree that “I don’t know” is ultimately the best answer to the question of suffering. And then I will work today and the days ahead on the ICU in our hospital and somewhere in the next week or two I will be standing at the bedside of a dying patient and have a family member ask me, “Chaplain, why is this happening?” And I will say, “i don’t know”. And that family member/spouse will look at me and say “then what good are you?” “WHAT GOOD ARE YOU?????” Doesn’t happen all the time but out of all of the hundreds of situations each year, its not uncommon.

  14. We suffer, animals suffer because we are made of flesh and bone. And if you are one of the fortunate people that are never sick and never have sick loved ones, then perhaps mentally you will suffer. I think humans are more prone to that type of suffering than animals are.

    • > I think humans are more prone to that type of suffering than animals are.

      I certainly hope so; to imagine the alternative is so horrifying. To know raw despair and have no language to express it or even ‘understand’ it? I’ve spent a significant part of my life working with or dealing with animals. They do not generally act like they know despair or loss like we do. But then, once in awhile, they do; and that prospect presents itself. It’s crushing.

      • Adam, I do think animals can experience sadness and loss. I think of a stor of a dog roaming the house looking for their dog friend who was raised with him for 12 years and then died. Or what about dogs whose people have to leave them for the first time while they go on a trip. Some dogs may have a good time at the kennel, but others cannot understand and feel abandoned. Elephants may appear to be sad after the death in their family. Mostly, though, I think about the joy that animals bring to us and about the joy they experience just by being alive.