Thursday, October 10, 2013

God Bless Johnny Cash: A Theology of Suffering

What do you do when you've never really had a tough life and you see a man almost die in front of you from being homeless and cold? What good do your worship choruses on Sunday do on Wednesday when you are stopped by a man with one eye who smells like he crawled out of a gin bottle to ask you for 75 cents? What do I say when a panhandler tells me his name is Paul, but sometimes he acts like Saul?

Maybe I'm a little like Saul sometimes too.

It's been said that Americans don't have a theology of suffering. Most people don't even know what that phrase means, so I guess I can say it's true. Your theology of suffering is how you see suffering in light of the truths of God's love and your experience of it both through scripture and experience. Sometimes being able to exegete life is more important than being able to exegete the Bible when it comes to suffering. When the worst happens, you really don't want to hear about all things working together for the good of those who are loved by Him and called according to His purposes. It really doesn't help the crap in your life in that moment. When you're homeless, a tract doesn't feed you. It doesn't give you a fix for the raging craving that surges through your veins and compels you to seek out the next hit. What do you do with that?

Nihilism starts to creep in if you aren't careful. You start to believe that everything is destined to fail and that life is miserable. You could also become a theological escape artist who dismisses suffering as "part of life in a fallen world" while your hope remains in the good life to come. One glad morning, when this life is over, I'll fly away. Just a few more weary days and then--I'll fly away.

Seems like that's a cop-out.

Right now I'm reading Cash by Johnny Cash. His last autobiography, Cash goes through his entire life and all he has learned. He goes through all the pain in his life--both the pains he experienced himself and the pain he put on the shoulders of others through his addictions and ego. Throughout the entire book, there is a thread of light being sewn into the story of Cash's life. His suffering, his pain, was all real and most of it brought upon his head by his own actions. Yet, there was redemption. His family and friends and pastors were always ready to usher him back into the light--where he belonged. He seemed to always know God was right there by his side, protecting him and waiting for him to make a choice to return.


At the end of his life, Johnny Cash recorded several albums with producer Rick Rubin. These albums featured a stripped-down, raw sound and Cash's popularity soared. Why? Because people relate to the gravel in his voice. When Cash sang a song, it grabbed you somewhere deep. He could cover a song and make it sound like he lived those words. His music resonates with hipsters and hippies and cowboys because it is real. His theology of suffering was one we can all relate to. Suffering is a necessary part of life. It is a part of a fallen world. But suffering is not the whole story. There is a light that the darkness cannot overcome. God is light. God is always there in our suffering. God is made strong in our weakness, and God can use our most feeble state to build us into the best version of ourselves. Cash isn't Cash without his struggles. Life is full of pain, but God is great--and God is good. Cash is boring without the parts about his addiction. Your story is going to involve suffering, but grace is there too.

God bless Johnny Cash. 

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About Drew

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A follower of Jesus, trying to build myself and others up from the inside out.