This short essay is dedicated to a brother who I know through a mutual friend (Pastor Carlos Velasquez a la Redondo Beach, CA), Sean Mathison. Sean just underwent a cancer resection surgery today (March 24, 2014) to remove a cancerous tumor from his brain; he still has one tumor that remains inoperable. Sean is just a young guy (mid-thirties) who loves Jesus, and serves the Lord at church through music-worship and other ways (I am sure!). Sean was only diagnosed with this condition just last week as he became symptomatic; so this is all happening ever so fast. I dedicate this post to Sean Mathison for the primary purpose and call on all of you who are reading this to keep him and his family in prayer. His prognosis is bleak (humanly speaking)–but then so was my cancer diagnosis–but we do not serve a God who is bounded by the ‘bleak’, but who is all powerful, and who is all loving! I will reflect on human suffering throughout the remainder of this essay.
Karl Barth in his short book Dogmatics In Outline, which is his explication of The Apostles’ Creed, offers a deep and rich reflection upon suffering, the cross of Christ, and how we ought to approach suffering in the light of God’s wondrous grace demonstrated therein. Let’s here from Uncle Karl:
But the present time of His life is really suffering from the start. There is no doubt that for the Evangelists Luke and Matthew the childhood of Jesus, His Birth in the stable of Bethlehem, were already under the sign of suffering. This man is persecuted all His life, a stranger in His own family—what shocking statements He can make!—and in His nation; a stranger in the spheres of State and Church and civilization. And what a road of manifest success He treads! In what utter loneliness and temptation He stands among men, the leaders of His nation, even over against the masses of the people and in the very circle of His disciples! In this narrowest circle He is to find His betrayer; and in the man to whom He says, ‘Thou art the Rock . . .’, the man who denies Him thrice. And, finally, it is the disciples of whom it is said that ‘they all forsook Him’. And the people cry in chorus, ‘Away with him! Crucify him!’ The entire life of Jesus is lived in this loneliness and thus already in the shadow of the Cross. And if the light of the Resurrection lights up here and there, that is the exception that proves the rule. The son of man must go up unto Jerusalem, must there be condemned, scourged and crucified—to rise again the third day. But first it is this dominant ‘must’ which leads him to the gallows.
What does it mean? Is it not the opposite of what we might expect from the news that God became Man? Here there is suffering. Notice that it is here for the first time in the Confession that the great problem of evil and suffering meets us directly. Already, of course, we have frequently had to refer to it. But according to the letter this is the first time we have an indication of the fact that in the relation between Creator and creature everything is not at its best, that lawlessness and destruction hold sway, that pain is added and suffered. Here for the first time the shadowy side of existence enters into our field of view, and not in the first article, which speaks of God the Creator. Not in the description of creation as heaven and earth, but here in the description of the existence of the Creator become creature, evil appears; here afar off death also becomes visible. The fact that this is so at least means this: that discretion is demanded in all descriptions of wickedness and evil as being to some extent independent. When that was done later, it was more or less overlooked that all this enters the field only in connexion with Jesus Christ. He has suffered, He has rendered visible what the nature of evil is, of man’s revolt against God. What do we know of evil and sin? What do we know of what is called suffering or what death means? Here we get to know it. Here appears this complete darkness in its reality and truth. Here complaint is raise and punished, here the relation between God and man is really made clear. What are all our sighs, what is all that man thinks he knows about his folly and sinfulness and about the lost state of the world, what is all speculation about suffering and death beside what becomes manifest here? He, He has suffered, who is true God and true man. All independent talk on the subject—that is, talk cut loose from Him—will necessarily be inadequate and imperfect. Unless talk on this matter goes out from this centre, it will be unreal. That man can bear the most frightful strokes of Fate and comes through untouched by anything as through a shower of rain: that can be seen by us to-day. We are simply untouched either by suffering or by evil in its proper reality; we know that now. So we can repeatedly escape from the knowledge of our guilt and sin. We can only achieve proper knowledge, when we know that He who is true God and true man suffered. In other words, it needs faith to see what suffering is. Here there was suffering. Everything else that we know as suffering is unreal suffering compared with what has happened here. Only from this standpoint, by sharing in the suffering He suffered, can we recognize the fact and the cause of suffering everywhere in the creaturely cosmos, secretly and openly.
As usual there are a diverse amount of rich threads ready to be pulled upon by this tightly packed précis on suffering by Barth, but I want to focus on the dominant thread. The thread which dominates Barth’s indomitable commitment to a Christ-centered reading of everything; in this case, suffering. What Barth develops is the idea, as we just read, that we do not really understand suffering and its purpose within the grander scheme of things apart from understanding it in Christ. When we suffer, according to Barth, it is not part of some sort of random, abstract thing fragmented from other things and other people; but it is part of the grand narrative that God in Christ has entered into for us, and where our understanding, as with everything else, becomes informed by God’s life which sustains and undergirds all of reality; including the foreign reality brought on by the atmosphere of evil, sin, suffering, and a host of other attendant things.
When I was living through my own experience of cancer I had moments where something like what I just wrote might have helped me and my perspective, but most days, it would not have. And so this kind of thinking about suffering (above) might be more for people around Sean, in particular, and those of us praying for him in general.
One of the scariest things for me, when I first found out that I had cancer, was this idea that some sort of alien force had entered my body, and that it was running around in my body in an insidious way as if it was totally out of control. I remember, specifically one night, when I was at work (Toyota Logistics Services at the time), driving around in new Toyotas (at this point I only knew I had a large mass in my body, presumably cancer, but we did not know what kind it was yet), and thinking about this invasive monster in my body. And as I was just beginning to think this way, and give way to the fear that came with it, the Lord broke into my heart and contradicted this kind of demonic inspired thinking; he said to my heart: ‘that He is the Lord of my body, and that He is even Lord of this mass in my body,’ and this instantly brought peace to my heart, at least in regard to this line of fearful thinking.
We are all different, and respond to trauma inserted into our lives in different ways, and even as Christians, based upon where we are at with the Lord, etc. But whatever way we respond, whatever kinds of fears we entertain or rebuke, the Lord suffered first. He is the touchstone of all suffering. He places it into its proper and intelligible order within the economy of his life, and thus provides us with the conceptual capacities to know how to think about suffering when we are able. When we are faced with tragedy upon tragedy like this (like Sean’s cancer), we don’t do so independent from God’s life, but right from the center of His life for us in Jesus Christ.
I am praying for you, my dear brother, Sean, and for your family and friends as the days and nights continue to unfold for you and you all within the domain of God’s life in Jesus Christ for you. amen.
 Karl Barth, Dogmatics In Outline (London: SCM Press, 1949), 102-04.