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A Theology of Suffering

Malcolm Duncan is one of my favourite N. Ireland Bible teachers. I first heard him live at New Horizon in 2014, a few months after Leah had died. My concentration and attention span were limited but Malcolm’s preaching really held my attention.

Malcolm’s charge at New Horizon in 2014 was to preach each night from the Sermon on the Mount. On the Thursday night Malcolm announced that he felt that God wanted him to depart from what he was scheduled to speak on, in order to talk about suffering and grief in a message entitled His Presence in our pain. It was such a God moment. There were many friends and family there that night who were grieving deeply for Leah. Not to mention the many others in the 2,500 strong crowd who were grieving for loved ones or who were experiencing other kinds of suffering.

Malcolm said that night:

“Have you ever cried out to God, “Why?” How can we not be moved when we hear the stories of Christians around the world that are suffering such horrific persecution? At some point in their life, every Christian will go through something that causes them to ask, “Why?” Mary and Martha went through that experience when Lazarus died.

The sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one who you love is sick.” Never think that sickness or death or suffering or unanswered prayer are an indication that God does not love you.  There is a cruel theology in the church that says if you are facing illness or sickness it is because you don’t have enough faith – that is NOT the case.  Suffering does not mean that God is punishing you.”

Within weeks of this event, Malcolm Duncan was going to know grief and suffering like he had never known it before. In the months that followed, three members of his close extended family died by suicide, while three other family members – his mother, his wife and his brother, were simultaneously hospitalised in three different hospitals, for very serious illnesses.

Two podcasts that Malcolm subsequently recorded with Dave Criddle, entitled Hard Times and Hard Times Part 2 have been such a blessing to me. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve listened to these podcasts and sat writing notes in my journal.

In these podcasts Malcolm and Dave talk about how they’ve attended church feeling weak and broken and that it’s ok to not be ok. They said that although sometimes they have felt God’s presence in a very real way in their suffering, there have been many other times when they don’t feel God at all, they just continue on because they believe.

Malcolm talks about his faith being less ‘fluffy’ now and about being clearer about the difference between joy and happiness – happiness is fleeting and depends on our circumstances, whereas joy is deeply rooted in something much more meaningful. He says that emotional pain has caused him to dig deeper for meaning, but he also acknowledges that for many people, pain and suffering become the fulcrum on which their lives turn away from God.

How many times I have stood sobbing at Leah’s grave (this past week included), contemplating one of her favourite verses inscribed on the kneeling plate and wondering how it is possible to feel joy in my circumstances:

“The joy of the Lord is your strength.” Nehemiah 8:10

Malcolm’s life has turned further into God, which he describes as ‘a work of grace’. He talks about saying to God “Unless you get me through this, I won’t make it.” Ah, but how those words resonate with my own heart.

He asks “How does one travel with sadness – the absence of a sense of God’s presence – because finding God in the midst of suffering is not a given?” He says “What do we do with a God who doesn’t heal, one who doesn’t always answer prayer?” Malcolm courageously admits to having thousands of questions. It is like the Balm of Gilead to my soul to at last encounter a Christian leader who admits to being plagued with many of the same questions that I have wrestled with. He says that one day God will answer all of our questions, but on that day, the questions won’t matter anyway.

Near the end of the first podcast is my favourite line of all, when Malcolm says that our churches are caught up with thinking about a theology of healing, when perhaps what they/we really need is a THEOLOGY OF SUFFERING!

Vicky Whyte

Vicky lives in Northern Ireland with her husband and two younger children. All she ever wanted in life was to get married, have kids, serve Jesus and love other people. Just quietly and without too much excitement. Her favorite spare time activities are catching up with friends or getting lost in a good book. Then, in 2013, family life changed forever. Leah, the second eldest of their four children, was diagnosed with a rare genetic mutation and went through a bone marrow transplant. Nine months after her initial diagnosis, Leah developed a rare side effect of her treatment and died shortly after her 16th birthday. Devastated and heartbroken by her daughter's death, Vicky has found that blogging helps her to trace the rainbows through the rain and see God's hand in everything.

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