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Your Pain

Six Lenses to Help

Photo by Shandi-lee.

“Dear Child of God, I am sorry to say that suffering is not optional. It seems to be part and parcel of the human condition, but suffering can either embitter or ennoble. Our suffering can become a spirituality of transformation when we understand that we have a role in God’s transfiguration of the world.” Bishop Desmond Tutu 1

In this series, Sabbath rest in a 24/7 city, we have been looking at factors that keep us from Sabbath rest, and ways that we can find healthy rhythms even in a city that never stops. This month we will look at how the pain and suffering in the city keep us from Sabbath rest.

Pain in the City: Layers of Pain and Loss

“Suffering is not optional.”

These words from Archbishop Desmond Tutu may not surprise us when we consider his pain-filled role in the struggle to end apartheid in South   Africa. Those of us who have given our lives to work with urban youth also know about the suffering Tutu writes about. We see the brokenness around us, the traumas some our kids have to live with, the lack of resources that is part of everyday life, and the many losses experienced in urban families.

When I first moved to central Los Angeles, I expected some sacrifices and struggle. I imagined that my suffering would stem from my adjustment to an environment that looked very different than the one in which I grew up.

But trading cow manure for cockroaches was not that big of a deal after all.  The streets that felt so “other” and foreign soon became home as I rooted myself in both a missional community and the neighborhood. This neighborhood that appeared so filled with fear looked different on the inside. Within a few months, I became used to many aspects of the environment and it began to feel like home. The warm welcome from my neighbors helped.

Yet there was an unexpected source of suffering far greater than the new environment: the real-life stories of my new friends’ suffering and pain.  Listening as kids and families poured out their stories of pain, trauma and loss became more difficult the longer I lived and made my home in the city.

As youth workers faced with daily pain in the city, we need tools to navigate the landscape of suffering, as well as tools to deal with our own faith struggles as we encounter this pain.

Six Lenses to Help Navigate the Landscape of Pain and Suffering

The questions about suffering are not unique to life in the city, but they are often magnified in urban life. Historically, many have tried to make sense of the problem of evil and suffering in the world. These attempts have been called theodicies. The word theodicy is specifically related to the problem of evil. We see evil and suffering around us in the world, yet we know that God is a good God, who is also all-powerful. How do we reconcile this? This is the work of theodicy.

The following are six different approaches, or lenses, that we can use to view the relationship between suffering and God. A lens is a way of seeing and interpreting reality, and this is what we need when we encounter pain.

The Free Will Lens: Free Will Theodicy

This approach is the oldest lens as it dates back to the early history of the church. God is indeed a good God, all-powerful and all-knowing. God created a good creation, which included giving humankind free will. Evil exists in the world not because of God. Evil exists because of human sinful choices. This free will lens is primarily a rational theodicy whose purpose is to defend God as a good God in a world where there is so much obvious evil. Those who are suffering may not find it satisfying because it offers little comfort to the sufferer.  2

The Lens of Encounter: Encounter Theodicy

In the “encounter” approach, the one who is in pain is encouraged to continually cry out to God for God’s justice, in the tradition of the Old Testament. “The hope of this justice is lived in the moment through incessantly questioning God and refusing to accept life’s circumstances.”  3 The reason for suffering is actually to encounter God. The point of the questioning is not necessarily to find consolation, but rather to find God. We see this lens lived out in the story of Job. Job felt free to protest and question God when he encountered suffering. His experience of suffering did not fit with the God he knew. And he lets God know. He does not back off, but continues to encounter God in his suffering.

The Lens of the Compassionate God: A Suffering God Theodicy

In this approach, God is not left unmoved by our pain and suffering. Rather, God is the compassionate God who enters into suffering with us. This is the lens that reminds us that “Jesus wept” (Jn 11:35, Lk 19:41) and God the Father grieves the loss of the Son. In the gospels, the phrase “moved with compassion” is found twelve times, always in reference to Jesus or his Father. According to Nouwen et al in their book Compassion: A Reflection of the Christian Life, the actual Greek word refers to something that is not a passing sympathy, but rather is located deep in the gut, felt in the deepest place of our being.

[The Greek concept of compassion] 4 is related to the Hebrew word for compassion, rachamin, which refers to the womb of Yahweh. Indeed, compassion is such a deep, central and powerful emotion in Jesus that it can only be described as a movement of the womb of God….When Jesus was moved to compassion, the source of all life trembled, the ground of all love burst open, and the abyss of God’s immense, inexhaustible, and unfathomable tenderness revealed itself.  5

This lens leads us into the embrace of the compassionate, loving God who understands our suffering because he too has suffered.

The Lens of Character Development: A Soul-Building Theodicy

In this approach, we accept that suffering produces character that cannot come to us any other way.  In other words, through suffering the soul is built in ways that would not happen without suffering. In Romans 5:3, we are told to rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, which produces character, which then leads to hope. Likewise, scripture informs us that “All things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28).

So through this lens, God allows evil because of the growth that will come from it. This is reflected in the life of Joseph when his brothers sold him into slavery. “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good” (Gen 50:20).  6

The Spiritual Warfare Lens: A Warfare Theodicy

While the previous four lenses can all be helpful in their own way, they all seem to neglect an important reality. God does exist, but so does Satan. In God at War, Gregory Boyd describes a worldview that acknowledges that there is evil in the world, but does not try to justify God in relationship to this evil.  7  Rather, in this view, although Satan has been ultimately defeated on the cross, he still has power and wants to destroy God’s children. In some cultures, evil events and suffering are therefore blamed on the work of Satan, who “roams around like a prowling lion” (1 Peter 5:8) to destroy the work of God.

The Relationship Lens: A Posture of Trust

Some of the lenses above try to give answers to how there can be evil and suffering in the world when God is good and powerful. In the relationship lens, the focus is not on a theodicy of figuring out answers, but instead on a posture of trust. Because God is God, and we are human, there is much that we cannot understand. This lens protects us from the disillusionment that can come when simple answers fall short.

One of my urban friends talks about this disillusionment. 8 In a conversation we were having about his pain and his view of God I asked him if he questioned God and God’s goodness. He said:

Yes, for a few years I had a hard time because I suffered so much. You’re given this faith, like an egg, and it crumbles in the hardship of life. You’re brought up to think one way, and then it cracks. And what do you have left? So you are in a crisis. I had to come to realize that Jesus is with me in the struggle, that I need to hold on to Jesus.

The Need for Multiple Theodicy Lenses

Our lenses shape how we act and respond to pain and suffering, even if we don’t acknowledge that we’re looking through them. Sometimes to make life simpler we’re tempted to hold tightly to one perspective. But this can be dangerous when our lens doesn’t seem to explain what we’re experiencing, or when the way we hold onto only one lens causes us to misunderstand or critique others because they view things differently.

We need different lenses to help us see a broader perspective. And we may need to adjust them throughout life, depending on our evolving circumstances and our growing faith. Having more sets of lenses gives us more ways to interpret a difficult reality.

Some of us may find several lenses helpful at the same. The lenses do not necessarily exclude each other.  We can embrace the suffering God, cry out to God in protest, while also rationally understanding how human choices have led to so much suffering in the world.

It is helpful to understand different lenses of theodicy, but we also need help navigating our response to suffering. How do we respond to these layers of pain?

Choosing a Path in the Landscape of Pain and Suffering

Pain and suffering are givens in this life, but our response is not. Tutu tells us that pain can either embitter or ennoble. So what will be our response to pain? Responding is not a one-time decision but a way of life, a way of choosing life over death (Deut. 30:19).

Numbing Out or Facing It

Numbing our pain is a huge temptation and our culture gives us many ways to do this. We take a pain reliever at first sign of a headache, and rub Ben Gay at the first sign that our muscles ache. We try to do that with our hearts also. We can fill our lives with food, video games, shopping or drugs that keep us from feeling our pain. Sometimes this can even lead to addictions (we will focus more on this topic next month). Facing pain takes courage, and it is not something we were meant to do alone.

Isolation or Relationship

Pain can isolate us. We can feel that we are alone, and no one understands our struggles. Pain can cause us to feel distant from God and other people. But it is precisely at this point that we need each other. One young friend of mine who suffered much trauma growing up, when asked how his life was different now, responded, “I don’t have to suffer alone anymore.” The scriptures confirm this. We are told to carry each other’s burdens (Galatians 6:2). When we do, we find the burden is much lighter.

Pretending or Lamenting

Some of us grew up in churches in which it seemed we had to be OK all the time. We learned to pretend to be OK even when we weren’t. But God can handle our anger, doubt and struggle when things fall apart. Rather than pretend, the scriptures call us to lament. Few of us have grown up with prayers of lament. The Psalms model this kind of prayer. These are raw Psalms that cry out to God in the midst of suffering and doubt, both in mourning and in protest. They show us that we can take these difficult emotions straight to the throne of God and be heard. They demand to be heard. We are allowed to question God in the midst of pain 9

All of the above responses are just that: chosen response rather than our first reaction. In order to respond rather than react, we need to take a step back. This brings us back to the theme in our series, Sabbath Rest in a 24/7 City. Cities leave little room for space and reflection, and so we need to carve out the space even when we think life is already full. As we work on establishing rhythms that include rest and withdrawal from ministry, we will also have the space to face our pain, and try on a few lenses to see if they are helpful to us.

As we take space for prayer in the midst of our suffering, in time we will find the transforming grace of God at work in our lives. This grace we can then pass on to the youth we care about so much.


  1. Desmond Tutu, God Has a Dream (Image books, 2004) 71.
  2. Note: the first four theodicy categories are adapted from Hall and Johnson, “Theodicy and Therapy: Philosophical/Theological Contributions to the Problem of Suffering.” In Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 2001, Vo. 20. No. 1, 5-17.
  3. Hall and Johnson, 8.
  4. The Greek word is splangchnizomai, meaning “to be moved with pity or compassion.”  See Matthew 9:36.
  5. Henri Nouwen et al, Compassion: A Reflection of the Christian Life, Image/Doubleday, 1982, 16-17.
  6. A note of caution - one of the characteristics of pain and suffering is that it can cause us to feel powerless in the face of the pain. We cannot tell someone else who is suffering that God is building their character, even if that is the case. Youth come to us because they need someone to listen first. Later they may realize God has used the suffering to transform them, but that may not be appropriate early on after a loss or trauma. This is not our role, but the role of the Holy Spirit.
  7. Gregory A.  Boyd, God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict, IVP, 1997. See also, Gregory A. Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil: Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy.
  8. My friend was born in Central America and arrived in the United States when he was a teenager. He has worked with urban children and youth through the public school district, urban boy scouts and through sports.  See the “Going Deeper” interview on the [intlink id=“3481” type=“post”]toolkit page[/intlink] under Month 3 for more of his story.
  9. Lament: Reclaiming Practices in Pulpit, Pew, and Public Square (Brown and Miller, eds., WJK, 2005), xv.  Also see [intlink id=“235” type=“post”]this article[/intlink] on trauma and lament by Brad Griffin and Cynthia Eriksson.
Jude Tiersma Watson

Jude Tiersma Watson, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Urban Mission in the School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Seminary and serves on the Executive Committee for the Fuller Youth Institute. Jude and her husband John are elders with InnerCHANGE/CRM, a Christian Order Among the Poor. Jude has lived in the Westlake immigrant neighborhood in central Los Angeles for 20 years. The InnerCHANGE team in L.A. seeks to see God transform and raise up leaders for a new urban generation. Jude has a special interest in the integration of spirituality in the urban context.

...read more by Jude Tiersma Watson

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