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February 11, 2017

Re-Embracing a Theology of Suffering

By Shelley G. Trebesch

It may be that when we no longer know what to do

we have come to our real work

and that when we no longer know which way to go

we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

“The Real Work” by Wendell Berry, from Standing by Words, 1983

Journal entry: 4:00am, October 31, 2014,

My allotted three bags are packed and the rest of my belongings are in a container on a ship heading back to Los Angeles. The apartment is clean and ready for the next tenant. My second international move in thirteen months. I’m waiting for Joe, my good friend who will accompany me to the airport. I return to the States from Singapore dejected and anxious, homeless and soon to be jobless. How the heck did this happen?

My work was so fulfilling. Each day I awakened with purpose and anticipation. Leading and being a part of a team endeavoring to rebirth vision and effectiveness in a worldwide organization—creating, working hard, struggling and then taking the next steps toward the clear road ahead. And yet, after only a year and a half everything fell apart, through someone else’s moral failure—no fault of my own.

Now, two years later, it’s still difficult to make sense of the above experience. And there are still no answers for Why? Why did this happen? Why did I have to leave? Why didn’t the organization honor my commitment? Why was I “let go?” Where is justice?

O LORD, how long will you forget me? Forever?

How long will you look the other way?

How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul,

With sorrow in my heart every day?…

But I trust in your unfailing love…  Psalm 13.1-2a, 5a

We can ask the whys as lament, and often the Psalmists do, along with “how long?” But the whys and how longs are rarely answered. There’s only the beauty of what a loving Creator calls forth.

Berry’s poem reveals truth I find difficult to accept. Still, after many years following Jesus, I reject suffering, yet suffering exposes my belief, my culture’s belief in “magic.” That is, if I suffer something must be wrong. I’ve left God. God has left me. If I don’t have the answers, if I don’t know where I’m going, something is not right. Perhaps if I pray harder, serve more, try… things will get better. But what if they don’t? What if these days of silence, loneliness, and boredom continue?

As the author of Isolation: A Place of Transformation in the Life of a Leader, I’ve “written the book” on times in our lives that God sets us aside from our normal work / ministry. Places us “on the bench,” even when we’re performing well and at the height of ministry fruitfulness.

For me, this space invites me to re-embrace a theology of suffering. I believe Wendell Barry points us toward the hidden gifts of suffering. Because our God creates, even during suffering. Most all cultures reject suffering. Appease a god. Offer more sacrifices. Obtain merit through prayer. Accept Allah’s will. Take a pill. Have surgery. Get therapy. Drink. Take drugs. Have sex. Binge on Netflix. Lose one’s self in ministry.

Remember, there’s no part of God’s story that excludes suffering for his people, either because of our own idolatry, the ways we give power to the created, through failure, or because of others’. Therefore, like the Psalmist, I, we, must live into the Real amid suffering, and trust in God’s good, unfailing (hesed) love.

Whether you’re at the height of fruitfulness or in the dark days of questioning, know that all have their place. In my next article, I’ll offer more of my journey and current practices that keep me—somewhat—sane.


Shelley G. Trebesch

Shelley G. Trebesch (PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) has served as vice president for capacity development for Prison Fellowship International, as well as assistant professor of leadership and organization development at Fuller Theological Seminary and in Singapore as global director for Membership Development for OMF International. An active consultant, trainer and seminar leader, Trebesch has facilitated complex change processes and developed leadership curricula for churches and organizations around the world.


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