Defiant Hope: Kelly Kapic on Lament, Finitude, Community, and the Cross
“I want to encourage Christians to stop trying to explain away evil and take people to the cross. And that is the strangeness of the Christian story. If someone has been abused, you don’t say, ‘This is why it happened’ or ‘Look how you’re going to grow through this.’ In their pain … they ask you, ‘Why would God do this? What does God think about this?’ Your only answer is, ‘Let me take you to a bleeding and dying savior.’”
Kelly Kapic is Professor of Theological Studies at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia. But, perhaps more central to this conversation, he is a human living through both the pains and the joys of being on this earth. That is what we talk about here, guided by Kelly’s newest book, Embodied Hope: A Theological Meditation on Pain and Suffering. In this episode, Kelly reflects on the linkage between theology and biography, the need for lament, the finitude and goodness of the human body, and the meaning of hope in the context of pain and suffering.
- 3:48—On theology and biography.
- 6:52—On pain, the goodness of human bodies, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and dependency.
- 7:15—“Pain itself tends to make us more aware of our bodies. One of the challenges for people who suffer though is then to start to hate your body, to think that your body is the problem.”
- 8:21—“We confuse dependency with sin all the time. And the way I would put it is we confuse finitude and sin all the time.”
- 9:10—“The heart of western culture in the last several hundred years where we’ve bought into this myth of rugged individualism and the autonomous self. I make myself. I am myself. No one should tell me. That just doesn’t fit with reality, of how we live. And all that happens in suffering is it makes us much more aware of that if we’re paying attention.”
- 10:31—On lament and the danger of justifying evil.
- 12:45—On the problem with theodicies, the sovereignty of God, and the meeting of pain and hope at the Cross.
- 13:25—“People often think that when their friend is suffering that they need to explain why this is happening. And I would basically say I think theodicies have a place in the classroom. It’s a legitimate philosophical discussion. Has no place in the home of the griever.”
- 16:53—“The cross and resurrection allow radical honesty about our pain while also maintaining hope. What happens is we tend to choose hope and then eliminate the honesty, or the honesty and eliminate hope. We shouldn’t choose. Lament allows us to be as brutally honest as we need to be and yet still have hope.”
- 17:34—Ad Break: “Charting a Course Through Grief” A free 8-week ecourse with a variety helpful resources on grief. cct.biola.edu/grief
- 20:24—On a “defiant hope,” Job, and the geography of suffering.
- 20:56—“We have this defiant hope, a defiant hope which is both lamenting and hopeful. And the hope does not undermine the lament, it makes sense of the lament.”
- 22:30—“In grace you don’t just have to live there all the time, but let’s not pretend it goes away.”
- 25:13—On community, faith, hope, and love.
- 26:15—“The faith is not something we generate, it’s something we receive. It’s a gift from God, it’s the faith. It’s the faith of the saints before us, the church’s faith. So I need to have faith, but it’s the community. So what happens then is when you’re suffering, often we struggle to have faith, and the people of God believe for us. And in that way they represent us to God. And they believe when we can’t. And similarly with hope, when we’re suffering, it’s very hard to generate hope, to cling to hope. But the people of God can embody hope for us and in that way they represent God to us. And then love is the context, otherwise it becomes plastic.”
- 28:03—“It would surprise a lot of Christians to realize people who are seriously suffering, whether from surgeries or from psychological or other kinds of things, they commonly will say the hardest time for them in their week is Sunday morning, actually going to church.”
- 30:35—On commitment, the myth of autonomy, and witness.
- 32:03—“The way we love those who suffer is we remain faithful, and we have to remember that it’s not just us caring for them. They actually care for us… They teach us about God. They teach us about ourselves. It’s got to be mutual.”
- 35:56—“If you have not developed the muscles of lament and of empathy, because if you yourself haven’t experienced it, you think it’s not real. And that’s a denial of our world. That’s a myth, and that’s a problem.”
- 36:34—““God is faithful” doesn’t mean that, if this is an evil thing, it’s a good thing. It just means that God can and does even show up there. And His grace can be found even in the midst of the hurt and suffering.”
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Evan Rosa: The “Table Audio” is made possible by the generous support of the John Templeton Foundation, and the Templeton Religion Trust.
Kelly Kapic: What I want to encourage Christians is to stop trying to explain away evil and take people to the cross. And that is the strangeness of the Christian story. If someone has been abused, you don’t say, “This is why it happened,” or, “Look how you’re going to grow through this.”
In their pain you say… and they ask you, “Why would God do this? What does God think about this?” Your only answer is, “Let me take you to a bleeding and dying savior.”
ER: I’m Evan Rosa, and you’re listening to the Table Audio. A podcast about seeking Christian wisdom for life’s big questions.
Where were you and what was happening around you when those two planes crashed into the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001? I was just waking up in Berkeley, California, a freshman college student in flannel pajamas watching CNN in utter disbelief and fear with my dormitory floormates.
The look of the sun that morning, the smell of the building, who was there—it’s all quite clear to me. I don’t know about you, but I remember the whole morning vividly. I have a few of these memories—some good, some bad—throughout all my life.
I’m sure you can think of a handful of life events just like this maybe that you’re reliving right now with something close to that clarity and pinpoint accuracy of your current conscious experience. Psychologists call this kind of memory a flashbulb memory.
Coined in 1977 and still debated today about what kind of mechanism produces them and what model best explains them, flashbulb memories seem to be triggered by events with two key factors—critical levels of surprise and consequentiality. That is, these events seem to come out of nowhere, and they matter a lot.
My guest today describes his own deeply worrisome and wounding flashbulb memories in his recent award‑winning theological memoir and meditation on pain and suffering. On June 9th, 2008 Kelly Kapic, theologian at Covenant College near Chattanooga, Tennessee, had a sudden premonition of dread that something was very wrong with his wife, Tabitha, who was out on an errand.
Coming home late, he was convinced that she’d been in a car accident. As he drove down Lookout Mountain to the city, he was relieved to see her driving back home. When they got back to the house, she broke the news to him. No car wreck, but cancer.
After months of diagnostics, surgery, treatments, and the weight of battling cancer as a family, in May 2010 Tabitha called Kelly from the side of the road, this time experiencing severe shooting pains through her limbs.
It took six years to diagnose her connective tissue disease with symptoms of severe nerve pain in all four limbs and eventually erythromelalgia, the extremely rare “Man on Fire” syndrome.
I met Tabitha when Kelly was a research fellow at the Center for Christian Thought in the spring of 2014 and can attest to Kelly’s point in the book that in meeting and knowing Tabitha you’d never guess she was going through debilitating physical pain at that very moment. We take so much for granted about the inner lives and sensations of others, don’t we?
In this conversation, Kelly Kapic and I discuss his recent book Embodied Hope, a theological meditation on pain and suffering which won the Christianity Today 2008 Book of the Year Award for Theology and Ethics.
Here, Kelly reflects on the linkage between theology and biography, the need for lament, the finitude and goodness of the human body, and the meaning of hope in the context of pain and suffering.
So theologians are people too.
KK: Oh yeah, yeah for sure. I’m a big advocate that the reality is all theology is related to biography. That’s probably too tight to say all theology is biography [laughs] or autobiography.
ER: You’ve got to say more about that.
KK: It’s very close. All of us write out of our stories. The book Embodied Hope is me wrestling with questions before God and others and with my wife’s encouragement and blessing is just me trying to publicly wrestle.
Because I don’t really know what I think until I have to write it. That sounds weird to people. It’s having to go through the process of thinking and wrestling and asking questions. Not just others asking me, but hearing my own heart and the questions and seeing when I don’t like my own answers and having to write. That’s how I find out what I actually believe.
ER: There is that phenomenon of just listening to yourself and maybe sometimes being surprised. There’s all the stuff about the self‑deception that…
ER: It’s like self‑knowledge. I just find I’m just obsessed with self‑knowledge. Maybe that’s telling…
ER: …my own biography.
KK: It’s very interesting you mention that. I think there are two sides. One is to ignore those inner voices and say they’re irrelevant. The other is to let them dictate. Even in the book, there’s a chapter on confession.
I’ve come to believe that confession really matters. Not because someone who’s suffering has sinned more or anything, but they’re more aware of the brokenness of the world because they’re more vulnerable. The Psalmist speaks to himself, says basically, “Trust in the mercies of God.” I do think we need to preach to ourselves.
ER: There’s that self‑talk.
KK: Yeah, self‑talk. I think that’s helpful, but it’s not enough because we don’t trust ourselves. It gets back to the community part. I think we need other people to look Evan in the eyes and say, “Oh brother, it’s enough. You’re OK. The Father delights in you.”
You can say it to yourself all day, but it’s when someone looks you in the eye and says it and puts her hand on you, then I think we can believe it.
ER: Yeah, so what if we started there? In some sense, your book begins and has its end in an embodiment. This has been a theme for you for the last several years in some sense. How can you get us started on thinking through just that kind of element that we’re all built for a kind of embodied relationship?
This is to be human. Our humanness includes this apparently necessary component of embodiedness, of physicality, and perhaps, thereby, of relatedness. We don’t know each other through our thoughts. We know each other through our perceptions and our sense experience and of touch.
All these things are heavily reliant on embodiment. Give us that high‑level view. Dig down whenever you want. How do you think about embodiment? Where is that placed in your theology? How is it finding its expressions?
KK: It’s a great question. The reason this relates to suffering is we don’t actually tend to be aware of our bodies until they’re hurting, until they’re crying out. The pain mechanism is a gift actually. There’s a great book—some parts are controversial—a great book on the gift of pain. It’s exploring leprosy and other things.
Pain itself tends to make us more aware of our bodies. One of the challenges for people who suffer though is then to start to hate your body, to think that your body is the problem. As Christians, in classic Christian orthodoxy, we would say that our bodies are good, that God made them good, but that something has happened, that there is a brokenness to that.
ER: Look, there’s this struggle with narcissism throughout the history of the church, too.
ER: You’re honing in on something that is a false inference that has been a plague to Christian ethics for a long time.
KK: This relates to this book on suffering I did in my current research right now which is on finitude. Dietrich Bonhoeffer explores this really richly in a volume he has on the “Creation and Fall.” What Bonhoeffer says is even before you would talk about sin, humans were made with dependency. And our bodies represent that.
We are limited by space. We’re limited in time. We need each other to be able to eat, to be able to perform, to be able to live. We confuse dependency with sin all the time. And the way I would put it is we confuse finitude and sin all the time.
Well the reason that matters is then Bonhoeffer says sin doesn’t make you dependent. Sin perverts the dependency. So now, rather than viewing your neighbor in neighbor love: I need you. You need me. Now, we view our neighbor as a threat.
Either we need to win our neighbor, whether it’s a spouse or an enemy or whatever. We need to win. We need to conquer them, or we need to ignore them. But they make demands on us. And those demands are a problem.
ER: Because every dependency implies someone who’s responsible. [laughs] Dependency implies some sense of responsibility, if you go willfully at least, I suppose.
KK: What he’s getting at is really the heart of a Western culture in the last several hundred years where we’ve bought into this myth of rugged individualism and the autonomous self. I make myself. I am myself. No one should tell me. That just doesn’t fit with reality, of how we live. And all that happens in suffering is it makes us much more aware of that if we’re paying attention.
ER: This is the kind of pride that is at the core of maybe the modern project, that I can do it myself. Really that pride has been [laughs] there all along. As Augustine says, that’s the seed of sin.
I think you’re honing in on something important here, that the gift of pain, if there is a gift there, is to develop a sense of mindful awareness of the body, that we are familiar with our limits in our finitude, our dependency, as Bonhoeffer says, but then it can go wrong.
It can veer toward hatred of the body. It can go toward a desire for escaping the body and perhaps just escaping pain and suffering at all levels, which sounds quite noble. No one wants to suffer. Suffering is something to be avoided, but it also invites us into unrealistic unreality about the nature of it.
KK: I mention the book on the gift of pain because I think there is something there neurologically and otherwise that is helpful to keep in mind. That’s not really my focus. I do worry a little bit about that emphasis. I think it’s true there’s a truth there we should not be ignorant of.
The danger when we talk too much about the gift of pain is we can start to justify evil. [laughs] This is where when we’ve we talked about lament. The Christian tradition has lament. It’s very important in the Psalms and elsewhere and in the tradition.
As soon as you admit the importance of lament, you’re admitting something’s not right. We’re not living in shalom. We do want to say God made our bodies so that if you put your hand in a fire, you pull it out. [laughs] There’s real danger when you lose those abilities.
But at the same time, we also don’t want to say suffering in the form of living through abuse or something like that is a good thing. These are not goods. That’s just part of having to navigate through that carefully.
ER: And the experience of it, the ability to identify, locate and become aware of, as opposed to numbing the pain and numbing the suffering. This is where we get into hot water when we begin to talk about the goods that can emerge from suffering.
We want to stipulate. No, this is the enemy. Suffering is the enemy of humanity. We are fragile. This is the part of the salvation story, to wipe away the tears and to wipe away grief. Yes, there is lament and grief in this world, but we have a vision of what’s before us.
Let’s get into that hot water business. There are all sorts of suggestions throughout the history of philosophy and theology that suffering has a purpose and that there can be meaning found in it or that there can be growth through adversity.
Maybe we can utilize some of the tools of lament and hope. Maybe we need to get into a little bit of theodicy and the problems there. What are some of your starting points for thinking about the problem of growing through suffering?
KK: Well, to be perfectly honest with you, I get a little nervous when we start there. Definitely, God can and does often grow us through suffering, but I always think of the Genesis 50:20, “You intended it for evil. God brings about good through it.”
It is not a good thing that his brothers threw him in a pit and sold him into slavery. It’s not a good thing that he was treated so harshly, but God can and does bring about good through things that are evil. I want to say both of those things. We really can grow.
ER: Who’s doing the speaking in Genesis 50, that’s important. It needs to come from Joseph.
KK: Exactly. That’s right. That’s the problem with theodicies. People often think when their friend is suffering that they need to explain why this is happening. And I would basically say I think theodicies have a place in the classroom. It’s a legitimate philosophical discussion. Has no place in the home of the griever.
Because even when they’re asking what appear to be questions about please defend God, you should not play by those rules. Despite their words saying, “Tell me why God did this,” you and I are not qualified to answer that. And as soon as you do, we’re going to get the wrath because we’re not qualified.
Christians fall into this all the time and say, “Well, maybe your child is dying of cancer because the nurse is going to become a Christian through it.” [laughs] That’s a terrible thing to say. Christians do this all the time. They come up with justifications.
What happens if your child dies? That nurse who became a Christian abandons the faith two years later. What happens if this terrible suffering, all of a sudden people say, “Well, look. It brought renewal to the church,” and six months later the church is back where it was?
ER: What if the nurse comes to realize the problems of theodicy and [laughs] starts to think, “Is my salvation dependent on the [laughs] suffering of this child”?
KK: Yeah, exactly. We have to admit ignorance. We really don’t know.
ER: Why do you think this is a tendency? Is it a human tendency? Is it a Christian tendency? What makes us want to answer pain with theodicy?
KK: Christians tend that way, but there is probably something human about it. We want to believe we live in a meaningful world. Part of what’s interesting about Christian theology is it says that God is sovereign. There’s debates about what that means in different traditions, but really we want to say God is sovereign. He’s the king.
We don’t want to say everything in His kingdom, everything in the world that’s happening, He Himself is doing it. If someone gets abused, we’re not going to say God is doing that, but it happens under His sovereignty. That gives a strange dynamic in Christian theology, because it allows you to ultimately not blame God, but in the end you still have to wrestle with Him.
Some Christian theologians will deny this, but the classic tradition always wants to say, “At a minimum, He could have prevented it.” The reality is we do have to wrestle. Those are really hard questions. I think it brings up deep pastoral questions like, “Is God good?”
And so when people are dealing with serious suffering, whether it’s their own or someone else, they often will say, “I just don’t even know if I believe God exists anymore.” I would encourage people to hear those words as often they’re really not saying, “Philosophically, I’m denying a deity.” That often is code language for “I just don’t believe He’s good.”
ER: It’s a trust issue.
KK: I just can’t imagine what kind of God we’re dealing with. What I want to encourage Christians is to stop trying to explain away evil and take people to the cross. That is the strangeness of the Christian story.
ER: I love that you go there. This is utterly strange.
KK: It’s so strange. If someone’s been abused, someone’s been raped, you don’t say, “This is why it happened” or “Look how you’re going to grow through this.” In their pain, they ask you, “Why would God do this? What does God think about this?”
Your only answer is, “Let me take you to a bleeding and dying Savior. What he thinks about this is he wept and he took it so seriously, he came and died. Yet he rose bodily, physically. And there is hope.”
The cross and resurrection allow radical honesty about our pain while also maintaining hope. What happens is we tend to choose hope and then eliminate the honesty, or the honesty and eliminate hope. We shouldn’t choose. Lament allows us to be as brutally honest as we need to be and yet still have hope.
ER: Stay tuned. After the break, Kelly and I discuss the deep need to correct the mistaken thought that grief and hope are at odds, seeking what he calls a “defiant hope which is both lamenting and hopeful, hope that doesn’t undermine but makes sense of lament.” Stay with us.
ER: Hello, friends. Thanks for giving us a place at your table. It’s a gift for us to bring these conversations into your life. We hope you find them meaningful and memorable. Throughout season three of the podcast, we’ll be offering a brand‑new online course.
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Check out the link and description in the show notes, or head over to our website to sign up. Again, that’s cct.biola.edu/grief. Of course, thanks for listening to The Table audio. Now back to our conversation.
You’ve introduced this different frame for thinking about the interplay between lament and hope. There’s an unreflective way of thinking about lament and hope that’s binary or it’s on only one spectrum.
KK: That’s right.
ER: You add another dimension.
ER: I wonder if you can explain some of those dimensions and just dig in a little bit because I think you’re correcting an important mistake. You’re showing that lament and hope can exist together. This is where most of us start off in the wrong place. We feel like the moment that we go toward grief, public lament, we’re in some way denying goodness.
We’re denying the possibility of redemption. We’re denying hopefulness. That’s at least part of the feeling, but it’s based on an error. I wonder if you could just explain more.
KK: The book has a graphic which might be more helpful. But basically, on the one hand, if you treat it as binary and you only have lament, which is a way of saying you only have this ache about the pain in the world and in your life, you end up in utter despair. On the other hand, if you only have what people are calling hope and you don’t talk about lament, you have a naive optimism.
What the Bible does is it doesn’t pit those against one another. We have this defiant hope, [laughs] a defiant hope which is both lamenting and hopeful. And the hope does not undermine the lament, it makes sense of the lament. My wife is very helpful. One time she said to me, “People ask about pain.” She’s gone through quite a bit of physical suffering.
People will ask, “When do you get past it?” or whatever. She talks about some of these things more like geography than a timeline. It’s a place.
ER: Oh, that’s so helpful.
KK: It’s interesting. We always say, “Don’t be Job’s friends.” They were impatient. When you actually read Job, Job’s friends at first put ashes on themselves.
ER: They were together.
KK: They hung out. Then, when the time of grief ended, they said, “OK. Now suck it up, Job. It’s time to move on.” Well, we tend to have those timelines, too. Anyway, she says it’s geography. It’s a place. When that’s very real and near, we tend to live in that place for a long time.
Hopefully, by God’s grace, through the community, through time we leave that place, but we never leave it completely behind. We revisit it. Often it surprises us when we find ourselves in that location. I think that’s very helpful because that location’s always there. People want to say, “Well, are you past your grief?” [laughs] That is it. That’s part of my story now.
It’s a location, and sometimes I revisit it. Sometimes I want to. Sometimes I don’t, but it’s there.
ER: It’s a place on your map.
KK: It’s a place on your map. In grace you don’t just have to live there all the time, but let’s not pretend it goes away, basically. Hope that makes some sense.
ER: It does. It does. I want to hang out even on the outside‑in perspective. In some sense there’s very deep, practical measures that we need to talk about here, about the experience of suffering from the first‑person perspective and then from the third‑person perspective or second‑person. Relatedness to suffering is deeply different.
It’s a different kind of suffering undergone when you are related to a first‑person sufferer than when you are yourself the first‑person sufferer. You get comments. I’m coming back to this because the sense that you get from when Joseph can say, “What you intended for evil God intended for good.” He’s allowed to say that as the first‑person sufferer.
The second‑person sufferer or the third person, we hear that. We think, “Oh, could this be a scenario?” Then we feel so impatient. We feel impatient with suffering of others. We’re trying to help work them through because we acknowledge it’s bad. We want to see them get through it, but that impatience is really effective.
I wonder if that’s a vice that we need to deal with. Even in our contemporary society, which is more and more fast‑paced, we’re seeking control, autonomy. This is the medical‑technological revolution. We want to eliminate suffering by our own agency.
KK: We don’t understand our bodies. We really do. We talk about this all the time. Even the metaphors we talk about our bodies. “I need to recharge. I’m spent.”
KK: They’re economic. They’re technological, and they’re inhumane. We are not our cell phones. You don’t just plug us in for a couple hours and we’re fine. We still treat it that way. As long as you’re functioning fine, as long as you’re not having any big hiccups, you can live in that, but that’s a myth. That myth is not sustainable.
ER: It falls apart once you really do encounter some kind of deep trouble.
KK: Right. All of us encounter it at some point. All of us get older, aches and pain. These things can heighten our awareness. Let me go back to where you were going on that. I really think the community’s crucial here because one of the chapters is on faith, hope, and love. One of the things that I became interested in is how these ideas of faith, hope, and love can go together.
We, again, think of them individually. “I have faith in God. I trust God.” Well, when you’re suffering or you’re with people who are suffering, it’s very common we don’t believe. I have a friend who’s a retired theologian. He used to tell me, “Kelly, I wake up every morning an atheist. At 9:00 in the morning, I might be a monotheist and…
KK: ….by noon I’m a Christian.”
ER: By the noonday office.
KK: I love that because, man, that speaks to truth [laughs] because there is this problem where we think, especially in the Protestant world where we rightly emphasize the importance of faith, that wrongly then can make it all dependent on some kind of cognitive function on our behalf. Do I have enough faith? What does that faith mean? What does it look like? Rather than this bigger community.
The faith is not something we generate. It’s something we receive. It’s a gift from God. It’s the faith. It’s the faith of the saints before us, the church’s faith. So I need to have faith, but it’s the community. So what happens then is, when you’re suffering, often we struggle to have faith, and the people of God believe for us. And in that way they represent us to God. And they believe when we can’t.
And similarly with hope, when we’re suffering, it’s very hard to generate hope, to cling to hope. But the people of God can embody hope for us and in that way they represent God to us. And then love is the context, otherwise it becomes plastic.
ER: Then what it does is it creates, to think in the geographical metaphor, space, a freedom to move about in that experience and give the suffering, give the pain its fullness and allow it to work itself out instead of adopting a perspective where the faith depends on me. [laughs] That depends on my ability to muscle through, my ability to find answers to why.
My ability to drum up enough character, drum up enough resilience or virtue to get through it. I love the emphasis here on community, on the role of supporting one another through our struggles and through our sufferings. Again, looking into the suffering of others. Let’s think practically.
KK: I’ll give you a real practical example because researching this, speaking about it publicly, and then writing the book, I’ve done a lot of interviews. A lot of people write me letters. A lot of conversations.
It would surprise a lot of Christians to realize people who are seriously suffering, whether from surgeries or from psychological or other kinds of things, they commonly will say the hardest time for them in their week is Sunday morning, actually going to church, which is interesting, especially people with pain.
I have people who will say, “For me, I’m not really able to stand up during the singing. I feel embarrassed or it makes me self‑conscious.” Story after story about that. It’s just so much. This betrays the fact of, even as we’re together, we’re still thinking individually. If we could help our whole communities and that way serve the sufferer where the reality sometimes…
My wife and I have been at church, and there’s no way we can sing. We don’t feel it. We don’t think it. There’s no way. To be able to sit there and hear the people of God sing when we can’t, when they pray when we can’t, that’s a gift. They have to be comfortable with us not. We have to be comfortable with them representing us, that kind of thing. We still need to go. God still meets us.
This is a special kind of thing He does in a mysterious way. I just wish we could think more communally about that stuff.
ER: This comes back even to the cultural acceptance of the honesty of lament because if we’re in a community in which flourishing is set by a standard of outward appearance, set by a standard of spoken positivity as opposed to spoken negativity. And I think we all are familiar with being around people who are genuinely suffering and hearing so much of that that it makes us uncomfortable.
We look in on that suffering. And the suffering in our communities represent to us these really painful reminders of our finitude.
KK: Absolutely. This is why we don’t bring people into our homes when they’re dying. We leave them in hospitals.
ER: That’s right.
KK: We don’t want the smells. We don’t want the tastes and sounds.
ER: We farm out our old people to old‑folks homes.
KK: It’s really brutal. It raises all kinds of questions.
ER: What can be said about practical measures we can take to express the theology that you’re trying to get after here? What are the practices that you have in mind for first‑person sufferers, for people in their lives? What can we do as a culture to begin to unravel some of these individualistic streams? How can we create the space for both lament and hope?
KK: No, it’s a good question. The last chapter of the book really uses some key words to go through some of that. But I’ll just mention a few. One is commitment. That word actually doesn’t sound very good in our day. It sounds like “duty.” Duty has a very negative bias. There’s actually a really beautiful thing about commitment.
A gentleman I know is in his 50s. His wife’s in her 50s. She was a college professor, very able, and all of a sudden was hit with early Alzheimer’s, and basically is around the house all day and needs someone to be with her all the time.
ER: Oh, wow.
KK: When he’s not working, he’s with her all the time. He has to set out all of her clothes. This is a massive task. As painful as that is and filled with legitimate lament, there’s something beautiful when he talks about it. He’s committed to her. He loves her. There is something freeing about that like, “OK. This is what I need to do.”
When we lived in Britain, and this is still Britain, I’d go to the grocery store and there’d be three kinds of floss. I’d pick it up, right? [laughs] When we came back to the States after living overseas, my wife found me at Target 10 minutes after she sent me to get floss. I was there. I was overwhelmed. There were 30 different kinds of floss.
ER: What if I get the wrong one?
KK: Just all the possibilities.
ER: My teeth will fall out.
KK: In some ways commitment actually allows you to go, “OK. This is what I need to do.” It doesn’t answer all the questions. The way we love those who suffer is we remain faithful, and we have to remember that it’s not just us caring for them. They actually care for us. Just like when we’re engaged with people in poverty, it cannot just be, “We’re heroes. We’re here to help you.” They teach us. They give to us.
ER: Well, this is huge.
KK: That’s the same thing with a sufferer. It perverts the whole thing when we think we’re the hero always giving to the sufferer. No, no, no. They teach us about God. They teach us about ourselves. It’s got to be mutual.
ER: These are where the hard lessons are. This is where it’s hard to go willingly here, but there are these really broad cultural streams that suggest that we can’t learn anything from suffering. We can’t learn anything from the sufferer. That’s why we end up putting them away. We hide them. We hide our own suffering because we don’t think we have much to offer others when we’re suffering.
When we experience that dependence, the feeling is, “Oh, I don’t want to be a burden.” I remember I read this short article by Gilbert Mylander a while ago. He said, “I want to be a burden.” [laughs] He wants to be a burden to his kids. I think he’s joking at some extent.
But he’s really serious about the ethic of interconnectedness and relatedness, and the way things go as people enter their suffering years, their elderly years. It needn’t be associated with age. Just periods of time where…
KK: It was very interesting recently listening to an economist. This was on CNN or something. The issue they were talking about is grown children living at home, which…
KK: …all of our gut reactions are like, “That’s atrocious. Don’t do that.”
KK: This was a contrarian actually. It was so interesting to hear him. Anyways, he said, “For most of the history of the world and for most of the world even to this day, that’s very normal.”
ER: Of course.
KK: They were talking about healthcare and different things. The politician literally said, “What? You want grandma living in your back bedroom?” Then the economist just said, “Well, maybe that’s not such a bad thing.” He’s talking about it as an economist like, “Can you imagine the grandparents involved with your kids? Just think about all the money that would save with day care.”
[laughs] He talked about the relations, the mutual dependence, and all that. I just thought that’s just a great example of we are living in this myth of autonomy. Now obviously, you got a 35‑year‑old at home who’s not paying rent. That’s all a problem.
ER: [laughs] Stop playing video games.
KK: I’m not denying you got to ask these honest questions. It could be, no, it’s very normal. Someone comes. They live. They save up money. They help in the community. They help in the family. This actually can allow for flourishing. We make people, especially single people, feel like they’re bad.
That’s of this American‑dream mythology that for many of us is stronger than any theologically informed impulses.
ER: It is connected. There are these big broad movements that really affect the way that we talk about and encounter suffering. To do good diagnosis, you’ve got to go to that level about, “What are these elements that are preventing the family commitment, say, or the commitment to bringing in and inviting inward the sufferer?”
KK: Just even when we don’t do this, we’re ill‑equipped to be honest about other people’s pain. You get something like Charlottesville, or you get these social‑injustice issues where people look at it and go, “Why are people so upset?” It’s actually related.
If you have not developed the muscles of lament and of empathy, because if you yourself haven’t experienced it, you think it’s not real. And that’s a denial of our world. That’s a myth, and that’s a problem. Part of the way we deal with this is through the Christian practice of witness. We testify to the reality of the hurt.
Then we also testify that in the midst of it God still shows up and is faithful. We don’t have to pick between those. “God is faithful” doesn’t mean that, if this is an evil thing, it’s a good thing. It just means that God can and does even show up there. And His grace can be found even in the midst of the hurt and suffering.
ER: That is what makes it so beautifully strange.
KK: We need the community to tell a story. An individual can’t do it on their own. Can’t live it. Not just tell it. Can’t live it on their own.
ER: Thanks for listening, friends, and peace to you.
ER: The Table audio is hosted and produced by me, Evan Rosa, and is a resource of the Biola University Center for Christian Thought, which is sponsored by generous grants from the John Templeton Foundation, Templeton Religion Trust, and the Blankemeyer Foundation. Theme music is by The Brilliance.
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