The online journal of Luke Dockery

Tag: Suffering (Page 1 of 5)

2020 Blog Review

 

The end of the year is a good time for reflection, and one of the things I like to look back on is my yearly blogging here at The Doc File.

Overview

Since I started writing here back in 2006 (wow, it is hard for me to believe it has been that long!), I have been very up-and-down in how much I write each year. Last year, I lamented that I had written less in 2019 than any other year since The Doc File began; in 2020, I blogged 50 times, which is the most since 2014. This increase in production was largely due to two factors, I believe:

  • First, the lockdown situation that arose from COVID-19 back in late winter/early spring. It is not so much that this left me with an abundance of free time, but rather that I was sensing the great anxiety that so many were feeling (and feeling some of it myself), and wanted to produce some content that might, perhaps, be encouraging.
  • I engaged in a few different ongoing series this year, which helped give me direction in what to write (more on that below).

The increased frequency of posts combined with the popularity of several posts (see below) meant that The Doc File had over 31,000+ hits in 2020—the second-highest total since I started writing.

Top Posts

By traffic totals, here are my most-read posts during 2020 (posts in bold represents those actually written in 2020):

  1. A Christian Response to COVID-19, March 12, 2020
  2. A New Heaven & A New Earth: What the Bible Teaches about Eternity, April 9, 2020
  3. The Role and Character of Elihu in the Book of Job, December 3, 2010
  4. Lessons from David: Sin Has Consequences, March 17, 2014
  5. Creation and New Creation: Connections Between Genesis and Revelation, April 25, 2017
  6. Links Between Daniel and Esther, October 10, 2011
  7. Scattered Reflections on Race-Related Issues, June 9, 2020
  8. A New Heaven & A New Earth: What the Bible Teaches about Eternity Part 2: Distractions, April 16, 2020
  9. Moral Evil and Natural Evil, February 24, 2015
  10. A New Heaven & A New Earth: What the Bible Teaches about Eternity Part 3: “Problem” Texts: 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18, April 23, 2020

Five of the top ten posts were not written this year, and four of those (Elihu, David, Creation/New Creation, Evil) were in my top posts from last year as well. Those posts must be particularly accessible to search engines based on their enduring popularity.

“A Christian Response to COVID-19” was my most popular post of the year, and went somewhat viral (pun intended). I wrote it in the early days of the pandemic, and it clearly struck a chord with a lot of people. Similarly, “Scattered Reflections on Race-Related Issues” was read a lot, and also reflected on current events that were dominating all forms of media. The three posts on “A New Heaven & A New Earth” were all part of a much longer series that a lot of people read and seemed to benefit from.

The Year of Blog Series

That last sentence helps me transition to one of the biggest changes in my blogging in 2020, which was the extent to which I wrote multi-post blog series. Over the years, I have written several series on The Doc File, but it is something I have struggled to do (often taking a really long time to complete series or even abandoning a series midstream). With that in mind, I was proud of my perseverance in completing a few series in 2020:

A New Heaven & A New Earth: What the Bible Teaches about Eternity: I had taught on this subject back in 2019, but blogging through all of this material enabled me to polish my notes and provide citations as well as refine my thoughts. This series summarized what has been a significant theological shift for me over the past decade, one which has provided a great sense of purpose, hope, and excitement. Additionally, I felt that it was a fitting topic for the extended season of fear and uncertainty that Spring/Summer 2020 turned out to be.

It was a significant project—12 posts and some 37,000 words—and had I realized how much work it would take, I’m not sure that I would have begun it. I am really glad I did, though—in addition to the satisfaction of bringing a project of this size to a state of semi-polished completion, it also led to a lot of good conversations and feedback, and three of my most-read posts from 2020 were from this series (with several more just outside the Top 10).

Ranking Narnia: Early in quarantine, I began reading through The Chronicles of Narnia, which I found to be very good reading for the craziness of 2020: it provided imaginative distraction from current reality, and also helped re-orient me from fear to trust.

I have enjoyed these books since college, and the idea of blogging about them had been in my mind since at least 2007 or so. What began as a plan to write a post or two ranking the various books in the Narnia series continued to grow and expand, ultimately resulting in an 8-part, 23,ooo word series. In a sense, these were book reviews. I have never particularly enjoyed reviewing books, and so I didn’t get a lot of pleasure from writing this series, but I was really proud of the result for a few reasons. First, these posts represented growth for me as a writer as these reviews reflect greater depth and thoughtfulness than what I have done in the past. Also, spending so much time thinking and writing about Narnia helped me to appreciate the series even more and yielded new theological insights. Finally, I pushed through and finished[1] this series of posts despite the fact that almost no one read them.[2] In other words, while this series was not as long as the “A New Heaven & A New Earth” series, I am more impressed with it in the sense that I didn’t get a dopamine hit from lots of likes and comments every time I would share a post, but I still finished the series regardless.

Lament For A Son: One of my favorite books in 2020 was Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Lament For A Son. It was a short book, but I thought Wolterstorff shared so many compelling thoughts on the topic of suffering that I decided to write a series of short reflections and basically grouped them as a sub-series of posts under a larger, loosely-united series entitled A Theological View of Suffering (which dates back several years). Like Narnia, this was not a particularly popular series, but I thought Lament For A Son was an important book and worth writing about.

Politics From a Christian Perspective: One of the reasons I write The Doc File is because it helps me work out my thinking on certain topics, and that was certainly the case for this three-part series that I wrote in late October/early November in the midst of a rancorous election season. As a person of faith, I’m convinced that Scripture has a lot to tell us about the way we view politics, but I was dissatisfied with the political engagement I was witnessing from many professed Christians, and I wanted to wrestle with my own views against the background of biblical teaching.

I was under no illusion that my thoughts would change anyone’s mind (and in an election where an unprecedented number of people voted early, this series of posts came a little too late anyway), but this was a popular series that I got some good feedback on, and it was helpful for me to write about and work through my own beliefs.


So, that was The Doc File in 2020! I’m not sure what 2021 will look like, but it is my hope to continue to write about once a week (the rough pace of my blogging in 2020), and to continue with some multi-post series as well. Thanks to everyone who continues to read and follow, and especially to those who comment and join in the conversation. May God bless each of you in the coming year!


[1] As the length of these posts grew, they became more and more difficult to write and I was sorely tempted to revert to old habits and abandon the series. This can be seen in the release dates of the various posts: May 18, May 26, June 16, June 30, July 20, August 24, October 13, October 23. I went from eight days between the first two posts, to about two weeks between posts, two three wees, to a month, and then seven weeks. The concluding post was shorter and easier to write than the others, and came ten days after the last review.

[2] There were, of course, exceptions, as several people told me how much they enjoyed this series and a few actually reached out to me to see when (or if!) the next post would come out. But on the whole, these posts were amongst the least-read of what I wrote in 2020.

Lament For A Son: The Demonic Awfulness Of Death

This is part of a sub-series of posts under a larger, loosely-united series entitled A Theological View of Suffering.


I have been writing some reflections on Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Lament For A SonOne of many elements of the book that I appreciated was Wolterstorff’s emphasis on the “demonic awfulness” of death (p. 54).

All too often, I think that Christians can lapse into a very naturalistic worldview where we say things like, “death is just a natural part of life.” We say this to help bring perspective to our circumstances, and in the sense that, yes, all humans die, this statement is true.

But it is decidedly untrue in the sense that death is not a part of God’s plan; it is not a feature of life as God envisioned it and is, thus, wholly unnatural. Death became a reality as a result of sin (this is, in fact, precisely what God warned Adam and Eve about). Paul describes death as the “last enemy to be defeated” and in John’s Revelation, Jesus is depicted in magnificent glory as the Living One who was dead but is now alive, and who holds the keys to Death and Hades: through His resurrection, Jesus has cracked open the tomb of Death and declared His mastery over this ancient enemy, and the Day will come when it will be no more.



From a Christian perspective, we can realize that Death does not have the last say because of the victory of Jesus and that the sting of death is minimized in the face of this reality, but Death is still an enemy. It is not something to be civilized or sanitized with platitudes about it being a “natural part of life”.

Referring to sentiments similar to this, Wolterstorff says:

“I find this pious attitude deaf to the message of the Christian gospel. Death is here understood as a normal instrument of God’s dealings with us. “You have lived out the years I’ve planned for you, I’ll just shake the mountain a bit. All of you there, I’ll send some starlings into the engine of your plane. And as for you there, a stroke while running will do nicely.”

The Bible speaks instead of God’s overcoming death. Paul calls it the last great enemy to be overcome. God is appalled by death. My pain over my son’s death is shared by his pain over my son’s death. And, yes, I share in his pain over his son’s death.” (67)

But, although death is awful, Jesus tells His disciples, startlingly, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” From the perspective of a society that champions youth, achievement, and happiness, and where people put on a smile and declare that things are “fine” while they are dying inside, this seems like a bizarre statement from Jesus. Why would He say such a thing?

“Who then are the mourners? The mourners are those who have caught a glimpse of God’s new day, who ache with all their being for that day’s coming, and who break out into tears when confronted with its absence. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm of peace there is no one blind and who ache whenever they see someone unseeing. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm there is no one hungry and who ache whenever they see someone starving. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm there is no one falsely accused and who ache whenever they see someone imprisoned unjustly. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm there is no one who fails to see God and who ache whenever they see someone unbelieving. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm there is no one who suffers oppression and who ache whenever they see someone beat down. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm there is no one without dignity and who ache whenever they see someone treated with indignity. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm of peace there is neither death nor tears and who ache whenever they see someone crying tears over death. The mourners are aching visionaries.

Such people Jesus blesses; he hails them, he praises them, he salutes them. And he gives them the promise that the new day for whose absence they ache will come. They will be comforted.

The Stoics of antiquity said: Be calm. Disengage yourself. Neither laugh nor weep. Jesus says: Be open to the wounds of the world. Mourn humanity’s mourning, weep over humanity’s weeping, be in agony over humanity’s agony. But do so in the good cheer that a day of peace is coming.” (84-86)

Death is awful. It is an enemy, and it should drive us to mourn. But as Christians, we mourn with the knowledge that the days of death are numbered, and the Day will come when mourning will be no more.

Lament For A Son: Speaking Into Suffering

This is part of a sub-series of posts under a larger, loosely-united series entitled A Theological View of Suffering.


I have been writing some brief reflections on Nicholas Wolterstorff’s excellent Lament For A SonOne aspect of this little book that I really enjoyed was Wolterstorff’s discussion of what we should say to people when they are suffering.

Hopefully, many of us have heard and heeded the warnings to not be like Job’s friends, who sat with him in comfort for several days and then began to talk, only to make matters much worse. I would wager that anyone who has experienced significant pain and loss has also dealt with “miserable comforters” like Job’s friends.

And yet, while we should be careful about what we say to those who are suffering, we should not let the fear of saying the wrong thing prevent us from saying anything or from avoiding the suffering person altogether.

“What do you say to someone who is suffering? Some people are gifted with words of wisdom. For such, one is profoundly grateful. There were many such for us. But not all are gifted in that way. Some blurted out strange, inept things. That’s OK too. Your words don’t have to be wise. The heart that speaks is heard more than the words spoken. And if you can’t think of anything at all to say, just say, “I can’t think of anything to say. But I want you to know that we are with you in your grief.”

Or even, just embrace. Not even the best of words can take away the pain. What words can do is testify that there is more than pain in our journey on earth to a new day. Of those things that are more, the greatest is love. Express your love. How appallingly grim must be the death of a child in the absence of love.” (34)

While Wolterstorff offers grace to those who blurt our “strange, inept things,” he does offer a caution for the sort of thing that should not be said:

“But please: Don’t say it’s not really so bad. Because it is. Death is awful, demonic. If you think your task as comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance away from me. Over there, you are of no help. What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.” (34)

And, finally:

“Some say nothing because they find the topic too painful for themselves. They fear they will break down. So they put on a brave face and lid their feelings—never reflecting, I suppose, that this adds new pain to the sorrow of their suffering friends. Your tears are salve on our wound, your silence is salt.” (35)

This brings us back to what I said in the beginning. While care should certainly be used in what we say to those who are suffering, ignoring the sufferer out of concern that we may say something hurtful is, itself, a hurtful act. In many ways, it may feel like just being with those who are suffering and expressing our love for them is “the least we can do”, but in a very real sense, it’s also the most we can do.

It reminds me of a Swedish proverb that I have come to love: “Shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is half a sorrow.”

Increasingly, I have come to realize how much we live in a society that seeks to avoid and minimize death as much as possible. In such an environment, the sort of meaningful presence that Wolterstorff suggests does not feel natural, and is something that we may be tempted to avoid. But as followers of Jesus, we must seek to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6.2); we must speak into the suffering, whether we use words or not.

Lament For A Son: Lament As Love Song

This is part of a sub-series of posts under a larger, loosely-united series entitled A Theological View of Suffering.


As I mentioned previously, I recently finished Nicholas Wolterstorff’s excellent Lament For A SonI enjoyed the book so much that rather than do a standard review, I decided to do a series of short posts based on some of the different ideas the book discusses.

In the preface at the beginning of the Lament For A Son (written more than a decade after the death of his son), Wolterstorff speaks of the lasting nature of grief, and of lament as well.

Grief is a lingering wound:

“Rather often I am asked whether the grief remains as intense as when I wrote. The answer is, No. The wound is no longer raw. But it has not disappeared. That is at it should be. If he was worth loving, he is worth grieving over. Grief is existential testimony to the worth of the one loved. That worth abides.” (5)

A lot has been written about grief, and there are several generally-agreed upon principles: there is no single “correct” way to grieve; there is no proscribed pattern for how to “get through it”; no fixed timeline for how long grief lasts; there are healthier and less-healthy ways to deal with grief.

Grief is not fun; it does not make us happy, but as Wolterstorff references above, there is something good and valuable about it because it testifies to the worth of the person we are grieving over. The person worth loving is worth grieving over. I would suggest that lament is a healthy response to grief, and in a similar vein, lament is rooted in and motivated by love:

“A friend told me that he had given copies of Lament to all of his children. “Why did you do that?” I asked. “Because it is a love-song,” he said. That took me aback. But Yes, it is a love-song. Every lament is a love-song.

Will love-songs one day no longer be laments?” (6)

It is love that prompts us to lament. We mourn the loss of a family member, we grieve the life-threatening illness of a dear friend, we cry out at the injustice that plagues the oppressed, we react in shock and sympathy at the indifferent destruction of natural disasters. Love of neighbor—a kingdom value—prompts us to look around at our world of Sin and Death and lament that God’s kingdom has not yet come “on earth as it is in heaven.”

But Christian hope prompts us to look ahead:

1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

5 And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”

(Revelation 21.1-5a)

Will love-songs one day no longer be laments? The testimony of Scripture says yes: we await a Day when every tear will be wiped from our eyes, when death shall be no more, and neither shall there be crying, mourning, nor pain.

But Love will remain. The God who is Love will make His dwelling among us.

Reflections on Lament For A Son

This is part of a sub-series of posts under a larger, loosely-united series entitled A Theological View of Suffering.


I recently received Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Lament For A Son, which is a series of short essays composed after Wolterstorff’s 25 year-old son was tragically killed in a climbing accident. Wolterstorff is a Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology at Yale, and in Lament For A Son, he certainly writes from a theological perspective, but overwhelmingly, he is writing as a grief-stricken dad.

Suffering is a topic of interest for me;  I have written quite a bit about suffering, and specifically, viewing that topic from a theological perspective; I’ve also read a good deal about suffering as well. Lament For A Son is unlike other books I have read; rather than delve deeply into the topic of suffering in an analytical, systematic fashion, it delves deeply through emotional, soulful lament.

The book is short, and the essays are brief and disjointed, but I have found it to be incredibly profound. So much so, in fact, that rather than post a typical review, I decided to do a series of short posts highlighting some of the different ideas brought out in the various essays.

For example:

“Death is the great leveler, so our writers have always told us. Of course they are right. But they have neglected to mention the uniqueness of each death—and the solitude of suffering which accompanies that uniqueness. We say, “I know how you are feeling.” But we don’t.” (25)

I think this is a helpful reminder. With the absolute best of intentions, we seek to enter into the pain of others we care about. We want to break into their isolation and sit with them in their grief. We want them to know that we are with them, and that someone understands what it’s like to feel what they are feeling. But that empathetic impulse, as noble as it may be is also, unfortunately impossible to realize. We may imagine how another person feels, but we cannot know; we can neither clone the relationship that the other person had with their deceased loved one, nor can perfectly replicate the emotional responses of another person.

Each person, each relationship between people, and thus, each death which severs the relationship between two people is unique. Let us come close to those who are grieving and let us sit with them. Let us listen to the words and emotions that they share. Let us seek to understand. But let us not heighten the sense of isolation experienced by those who are grieving  by saying, “I know how you are feeling” when they know good and well that we do not, truly.

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