Apologetics in the Valley: Can Apologetics Help With Suffering?

Posted by Clark Bates
November 8, 2018

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall

not want.

He makes me to lie down in green

pastures.

He leads me beside still waters.

He restores my soul.

He leads me in paths of

righteousness

for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the

valley of the shadow of death

I will fear no evil,

For you are with me;

your rod and your staff,

they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me

in the presence of my enemies;

you anoint my head with oil;

my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and mercy shall

follow me

all the days of my life,

and I shall dwell in the house of the

LORD forever.

 

It’s not uncommon in the climate of apologetics to think of the practice as purely intellectual.  This is the perception from many Christians outside the field of study, as well as those who are not Christians at all.  In fact, while the intellectual aspect of doing apologetics often appeals to those involved in it, it’s that same aspect that deters others.  For many Christians, apologetics detracts from the “spiritual” and “devotional” side of the Christian faith.  And yet, while most apologists I know would quickly say that it’s still spiritual and theological and that it can help with one’s devotional life, we don’t generally practice it that way.  In practice, there’s the apologetics box, where all the philosophical, historical and textual questions regarding the faith go, and then there’s the devotional box where all the questions about how a Bible passage helps us navigate through life go.  Those two boxes, in practice, rarely connect.  Because of this, when struggles come, we open the devotional box and leave the apologetics box sealed.  But I don’t think it has to be that way.

So, the question is,


“Can apologetics help, like devotional practices do, in times of suffering and struggle?  How do you do apologetics in the valley of the shadow of death?”


My personal life rarely gets shared on this web page, and sometimes I think that’s a weakness in what I do.  The truth of the matter, is that while I study for hours every day over a great many things, and I consider myself to be well-read and learned, I struggle with the same things every one else does.  I doubt.  I cry out to God when I don’t understand.  I struggle with seemingly senseless pain and suffering in the world.  And I even have dark nights of the soul.  I’ve had many, to be honest.

I am in one right now.

For the last few months my family and I have suffered greatly, and many would say unjustly, at the hands of someone who seeks nothing more than to hurt us.  We have incurred a great deal of loss.  There are many questions that have no answer.  There are more fears and stressors than can be counted, and there are sleepless, tear-filled nights of anguish more often than there are not.  But there is also peace and comfort and even joy… at times.  How is that possible?  And what does this have to do with apologetics?

There’s a Psalm for That

When I am struggling in life I often turn to the Psalms.  They’re a safe place for all of my emotions.  Am I scared?  There’s a Psalm for that.  Am I sad?  There’s a Psalm for that.  Am I angry?  There’s a Psalm for that.  Do I need to praise?  There’s a Psalm for that.  And what’s beautiful about the Psalms is that they don’t try to sugar coat the emotions or soft pedal my feelings.  When the Psalmist is angry at God in Psalm 88 it doesn’t end with him being happy.  Sometimes, suffering doesn’t end right away, and sometimes we aren’t happy with the outcome even when it does.  The Psalmists new that, and it shows in their songs.  But what else it shows is that God is okay with me pouring out every range of emotion on Him; even those that would get me in trouble in church.

How does apologetics play into this though?  Because it’s through apologetics that I have the confidence for the very groundwork of all that gives me strength in my sorrows.  I have spent many nights crying out to God for help.  Why?  How do I know that there is a God?  Because I live in a world of design, amongst galaxies of design, possessing rational and logical thinking that could not come about through natural processes.  Because I have a sense of injustice and wrong that points me to the need for an objective moral good and “right” ness that doesn’t exist in the material world.

I cry out to God for help because I know that He cares about His creation.  I know this because of the cross of Christ.  The life, death and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth are the embodiment of a God that cares deeply about the sufferings of His people.  I know this because Jesus wasn’t just crucified for being a political upstart but for claiming to be the very God who designed the universe!  And he proved that it was true through his resurrection from the dead.  I know that he was resurrected because a physical resurrection is the only answer for all the questions surrounding the onset and spread of Christianity.  A hallucination can’t appear to 500 people in the same way.  A hidden corpse or conspiracy cannot be maintained by 12-500 individuals, and it cannot explain the conversion of someone like Saul of Tarsus.  A Jesus who never died on the cross is a physical impossibility.  And if the resurrection is true it means that the God I cry out to hears me and cared enough about me to not leave me in my sins but come and suffer and die for me; and then to conquer death, so that I might have hope in eternity.

What’s more, this same Jesus that I am crying out to suffered in every way, just as I am suffering.  He was mistreated.  He faced injustice on a scale that I will never know.  His family left him.  He felt lonely and tired and scared.  He even cried out to God to spare him from his final act of suffering.  And yet, in all of this, he did not become self-righteous or vengeful, or even slip into pity; though he had every right to.  I’m reminded that I’m following after the one who came to redeem the world but that the world hated him for it, and that suffering comes with the territory.  I’m also reminded that I’m not crying out to someone who doesn’t know what I’m going through.  To cry out to Jesus is to cry on the shoulder of a friend that not only knows me best, but experientially knows everything that I’m feeling.

How do I know any of that is true?  Because it comes from the stories of his life, the gospels.  It comes from the message of the Bible, the most well-attested book of ancient history.  It comes from documents that show evidence of first-hand reporting and inter-connected coincidences that cannot be designed by a storyteller, let alone multiple storytellers far removed in time, location and experience.  It comes from texts that possess more manuscript evidence than any existing body of work and have been repeatedly demonstrated to contain accurate details of the life, teachings, and death of Jesus.

Conclusion

Do I consciously think through every one of these aspects during these weeks as I wonder what comes next?  No, of course not.  I don’t run through the teleological argument prior to prayer, and as much as I love working with manuscripts, I don’t do a quick count on the LDAB to tabulate the number of NT manuscripts before I open my Bible.  I don’t do that because I already know the evidence.  They’re not just a series of carefully crafted arguments that I’ve memorized to look smart in a crowd or win an online argument.  They’ve become part of my foundational belief.  They are part of my devotional life in the truest sense, because they come out from my heart in praise and fear and worship.  They are my confidence in the God I serve.  Do they tell me when the suffering will end?  No.  But they give me the strength to suffer well.  They give me a peace in the storm that I could never have otherwise.  They give me the mindset to suffer as Christ.

And as a believer, that’s all I really want.

If you read this and are a Christian, I would like to ask that you lift my family up in your prayers.

Thank you.

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