This post is the substance of a chapel message I gave to the students of Kyiv Theological Seminary on October 14 of last year (2014). At the time Ukraine was (and still is) in the midst of brutal conflict with Russian-backed separatists in the eastern regions of the country. All of the students present had been impacted by the conflict, some profoundly either by burying church members, relatives, and friends, or by answering conscription summons. No one in the country has been left untouched by the crisis.
I offer these thoughts here because suffering and crisis and loss may come to those around us at anytime. We need the mind of our Lord to enter into such a house of sorrow or pain and be his instruments for healing.
The Mind of Christ Today
In his book, Inhabiting the Cruciform God (Eerdmans, 2009), Michael Gorman builds upon the thesis that Philippians 2:6-11 is Paul’s Master Story—the narrative that shaped his life and ministry. Here, in this short hymn to Christ, Paul found everything: his understanding of God, of Christ, the cross-shaped character of his own life and salvation, his calling, and where the world’s Story is going.
Among the many points Gorman sees in Paul’s Master Story is Paul’s view of God, more specifically here, his view of God the Father. In verse 6 Jesus Christ is described as “being” (hyparchon) in the form of the Father (theos in context with other members of the Trinity is a reference to the Father in Pauline theology). Now, while the text does not say this explicitly, it is common to read the beginning of verse 6 as a concessive—“although he was in the form of God,” and this is fair given the context. Many excellent versions read it this way. What Gorman and other exegetes (N.T. Wright, Moule, Hawthorne, Bockmuehl and Crossan) want to promote is the additional understanding captured in the word “since” or “because” — “since he was in the form of God.” The addition serves to immediately bring the Father, and the Spirit really—the entire godhead—into the picture of kenosis emptying. This is usually a place we do not go with this text, for typically we confine the concept of self-emptying to the Son. But should we? Reading the verse “because he was in the form of God,” makes Gorman ask provocative questions: “Is kenosis not just about Christ, but about God … not a passing exercise in ultimate obedience but a permanent revelation about the nature of God? [my emphasis]... Does, then, a kenotic Son reveal a kenotic Father, a kenotic Christ image a kenotic God?”
They are good questions. Besides the exegetical feasibility entailed, the Trinitarian theology of such a move is unassailable if Jesus was correct (he was!) that seeing him was seeing the Father (John 14:9). Self-emptying for the good of others, even self-emptying that takes on pain and suffering, is the very nature of our God—Father, Son and Spirit.
The implications from this for us as servants of Christ seem clear. For Paul says we are to be minded this same kenotic way as Christ and our God (Phil 2:5). A kenotic God for Paul means kenotic servants. And kenosis is about taking on suffering.
In this day of crisis and suffering in Ukraine, entering into the sufferings of others is the ministry of Jesus Christ. It is our Master Story just as it was Paul’s. Kenneth Hauck’s observation here is right on target and it subtly joins Gorman’s thesis about Phil 2:5-11. He says, “You may never be more Christlike than when you participate in the sufferings and sorrows of a hurting world, wrestling with the pain and providing the comfort of community” (Hauck, Don’t Sing Songs to a Heavy Heart [Stephen Ministries, 2004], 33).
But how does one take this kenotic step and enter into the sufferings of another? Hauck’s excellent little book on the subject titled after Proverbs 25:20 has been a good counsel to me:
Like one who takes off a garment on a cold day,
or like vinegar poured on soda,
so is one who sings songs to a heavy heart (Prov. 25:20)
The book itself is the result of the author’s surveying more than 4,200 people who experienced a time of deep suffering or loss. (In fact, he was one of them as the caregiver to his wife who eventually died of cancer.) Their first hand accounts of words and actions of others that were helpful and that were not are used skillfully to speak very practically to how we can weep with those who weep (Rom. 12:15) and bear the sufferings of one another (1 Cor. 12:26). Let me briefly give three bullet points (however, don’t let this keep you from getting the book for yourself—it is gold).
In general, the posture of the one who would be a guest in the house of another’s pain is the same as at any house: you follow the rules of the house. Just as you would not try and redecorate your host’s house to suit your tastes, help yourself to the refrigerator, or enter closed rooms, so you must follow the lead of the host in the house of suffering. Let them set the tone of what to talk about and not. As the guest, it is all about them, not you.
Practically the comments of respondents of the Hauck’s inquiries fall into three broad applications:
1. Presence is key—your presence and the presence of the One who is already waiting for you as you go to visit. Aloneness is a horrible burden for people made in the image of God, especially in times of suffering. Presence is worth more than words according to the respondents, which means that listening should be more prominent than talking from us. Saying little in visits with those hurting was commonly reported as being the most helpful.
2. Join the sufferer in their pain (“I’m sorry this is happening”); don’t try to fix the situation from your own needs. The focus of the guest in the house of suffering must be on the host, not on the needs of the guest. Remember they set they rules, not you. This means that we don’t answer our own uncomfortable feeling of helplessness with attempts to deny the pain or solve the situation. It means we don’t avoid the one in pain because we don’t know what to say (see the first point above). We don't try to cheer them up, exhort the “stiff upper lip,” or the “you’ll feel better over time” lines. They don't work even though they may make us feel better. Avoid any “you should” or “shouldn’t” directive talk. Not fixing things according to your needs may also mean you have to stuff your “standard of truth” as your host takes on God wailing against his injustice and meanness. There will be other times to help with bad theology than in the house of suffering. Similarly don’t go to the “it’s God’s will” or “God doesn’t give any more than you can handle” unless the host goes there first.
3. Finally, remember that there is only One who is Healer. He’s already in the house of suffering before you get there, and he is doing his work faithfully and gently. Learn to lean on him, to invite him to work to make clear what you should do by how he is healing the one in pain at the moment. Let him be the help for your own discomfort and the pain of the host.
As “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4), God says we are fully equipped to minister to others. His kenotic example stands tall in the person of Christ and pulses deep within our hearts by the immanent Spirit. May the Lord himself give you grace to have this mind today, which was also in Christ Jesus.