What's Stewardship of Suffering? Christian Minister Explains

Michael Kelley, a Christian minister from Tennessee, explained how his two-year-old son's cancer helped him realize the importance of being a good steward of his painful experiences and not just of his money and talents.

Kelley, director of discipleship at LifeWay Christian Resources in Nashville, Tenn., told Philip Nation at The Exchange that the realization dawned on him when he saw his then two-year-old son Joshua reading his book, Wednesdays Were Pretty Normal, which chronicles experiences his family went through during three-and-a-half years of chemotherapy.

Joshua, who is now seven and has recovered, knows he had the disease but he doesn't remember a lot about the experiences, Kelley said. "I went to his bedroom last night, and found he was in the bed and reading the book. It was like my breath caught in my throat," he told Nation on Wednesday. "It was a reminder, I think, of the responsibility that God gives to all of us – and it's very acute for us right now because we are stewards of this story because he doesn't remember… If we do nothing, he will remember nothing… We did want him to remember some of this so that he knows that God really took care of all of us."

The book is about the journey of Joshua's cancer treatment and how he would go through painful chemotherapy every Wednesday, "which became normal." Over 85 percent of his blood was affected, and it took three-and-a-half long years for him to recover.

Kelley said it was important for parents to understand how a loving God can allow suffering. A Christian who is suffering in any way needs to know that one thing common among those honestly wanting to walk with the Lord is that at some point in their lives they go through serious trials, he said. The book shows that "pain is a common denominator of humanity."

The minister said he had learnt theology, understood and taught about God's sovereignty, and preached the faith, but those circumstances challenged all that. When suffering comes, he added, humans tend to escape, rather than go through it. He said he also resorted to "movie entertainment" – watching action movies from the 1970s – to turn his mind off.

Kelley said he didn't find some of his fellow Christians' response helpful. Often times, people say the Lord must be teaching something great, based on Romans 8:28. While that's true, it's not a helpful statement at all, he stressed. It's only in retrospect that you realize that God was actually taking care of you during that time.

Some of his friends also told him if he had a stronger faith, God would heal his son. That didn't help either. Sometimes we think it is our responsibility to defend God, but God can defend Himself.

The friends who were most helpful were ones who were just around at the time, Kelley said. He recalled he was fond of watching the World Series on TV, and one day his friends came to meet him at a hospital waiting room with hotdogs to watch a match with his family. They gave him "permission to grieve and lament," as the Bible does, he said. And people continued to show up, rather than debate theology. "The church is like a string around its own finger to remind ourselves of the good promises of God during the times of difficulty and suffering."

Dealing with legitimate suffering is a long, long road, and pastors should not try to solve everything in one sitting, he suggested. However, suffering does bring some blessings early on, he added. An emergency room in a hospital, for example, is a lot like the kingdom of God, he said. "There's no black, no white, no rich, no poor… people are united in tragedy."

We typically ask the question "why" without realizing that answers do a lot less than what we think they do. While it is important to understand, in a general sense, why God allows suffering, we might not get the answer in our specific cases, he cautioned.

Kelley said suffering also brings temptation. He said he found himself wanting to tell people about the suffering of his son to validate his own faith, taking pride in his suffering. That's a twisted human tendency.

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