Seasons of prolonged physical pain are profoundly disorientating. At the outset, there may be confusion as well as the obvious discomfort of the condition itself. Still, there’s a sense that this too will pass, as so many other pains have. But when the days extend to weeks, and the weeks to months, panic and dread slowly set in when you realize the cramps, the shooting pain, the soreness, the headaches—whatever the pain may be—aren’t passing, and may never pass. They’re the new normal, and the new normal feels like hell.
At that point, the mind can go to dark places. Constant pain is a scourge that clouds the mind, accuses the conscience, and torments the faithful. Doubts and fears begin to plague us, and we become tempted to think, in the words of John Owen, “hard thoughts of God.” We’re prone to believe that he hates us and is punishing us for some secret sin, or possibly that he’s indifferent and has abandoned us. To be told he’s a Father who sings and delights over us (Zeph. 3:17) inspires only doubt or even scorn. Kelly Kapic, professor of theological studies at Covenant College, addresses these “hard thoughts” in his new book, Embodied Hope: A Theological Meditation on Pain and Suffering.
Kapic is a professional theologian who writes out of his experience of his wife, Tabitha’s, prolonged suffering from erythromelalgia (“man on fire” syndrome). Both realities shape the work. Aimed at pastors and lay readers, it’s a deft piece of theology, delving deep into specific texts of Scripture as well as the best of the Christian tradition. But it’s also an intensely personal work, connected to the testimonies of his family as well as the many sufferers Kapic has worked with, whose stories are carefully interwoven with theological and pastoral meditations.
Embodied Hope has the elusive virtue of being vulnerable without being maudlin, and theological without being dry and detached. Kapic takes many of his cues from theologians like Luther, Owen, Athanasius, and Bonhoeffer, who knew our theological bones must always have flesh on them.
Meditations on Suffering
That word “meditation” is important. Kapic has written a work of theology on pain and suffering, yes, but it’s not a book explicitly about the problem of evil, nor a theodicy justifying the ways of God to humans. Kapic takes that project to be a particularly modern preoccupation. While legitimate in some respects, trying to find a reason “why” often fails to meet sufferers in their darkest moments of pain. Instead, Kapic turns his attention to the basic practices and doctrines of the Christian faith, and meditates on them to see what they offer in our suffering.
In the first section, he deals with the “struggle” of pain. What’s the role of lament and crying out to the Lord in our anguish? How can we embrace the goodness of our bodies when it seems they’re enemies warring against us? In the second section, Kapic dwells on the unique gospel comforts—the sympathetic high priest who’s intimately acquainted with suffering as the God with a body. In this body he died on the cross for us, and in this body he rose to secure our resurrection. Finally, Kapic turns to the realities and practices that sufferers and churches must embrace, including the blessings of confession and the practicalities of walking alongside the suffering when they don’t seem to “get better,” even after we’ve exhausted our best advice.
In each chapter, Kapic takes these rich truths and connects them to the everyday questions and realities sufferers know well. As someone who has watched family members struggle with long-term pain, and personally dealt with chronic joint and muscle issues for the last seven years, I’m profoundly grateful for this work. I’m typically not a crier—certainly not when reading—but I teared up multiple times as I read Embodied Hope.
Comfort from Confession
A particular chapter that resonated with me was on “confession and the other” (ch. 10). Kapic notes that many who struggle with prolonged pain also struggle with the sense they’re being punished, so they search their lives for some sin to explain it. And lo and behold, just as anyone else would, they end up finding sin!
Others do this as well. Maybe they never say it out loud, but there’s a temptation for the healthy to assume the sufferer must have done something wrong (secret lust, pride, or, worse, insufficient diet and exercise!) and to condemn them in subtle ways. Others rightly reject this simplistic theology of retribution, but end up going so far the other way that they ignore sin as a reality for those in pain.
Neither option is sufficient, nor biblical. We have no reason to think those in pain are particularly sinful, but often they’re particularly aware of the brokenness of the world and their sin. Pain robs us of the ability to “keep it together” and cover our darkness. At those moments, it would be cruel to leave sufferers to their own resources, left to battle accusations and guilt on top of their pain all alone. Indeed, even the helpful practice of “preaching to yourself” shows its limits here; pain is a debilitating reality that often clouds our minds and hinders our ability to know the truth.
Kapic reminds us that the practice of personal confession with fellow believers is a great gift to the church in these circumstances. Walking with other forgiven sinners who can listen to our confessions, struggles, and pains—and then audibly pronounce Jesus’s words “Your sins are forgiven”—helps sufferers receive the forgiveness, healing, and restoration they need. It also helps separate their struggle with pain from their sense that God is punishing them.
Such confession and forgiveness can be a true comfort and source of healing in the lives of our brothers and sisters. There they encounter Jesus in the face of their family in the church, and the “hard thoughts of God” that have been welling up within begin to dissipate once more.
Embodied Hope is a true gift to the church. Kapic has written an outstanding book that I highly commend to those walking through suffering, to those who love them, and certainly to any pastor looking to shepherd them well.
This is what it looks like to apply King Jesus’s gospel balm to the pain and brokenness of the world.
Kelly M. Kapic. Embodied Hope: A Theological Meditation on Pain and Suffering. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017. 192 pp. $18.