Tag Archives: suffering

Prayer from the Depths of Despair

November 2017 Credo

19 Remember my affliction and my wanderings,
The wormwood and the gall!
20 My soul continually remembers it,
And is bowed down within me.
21 But this I call to mind,
And therefore I have hope:
22 The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases,
His mercies never come to an end;
23 They are new every morning;
“Great is your faithfulness,
24 The LORD is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I have hope in him.”

Lamentations 3:19-24 (ESV)

These are the first words of prayer (that is, words actually addressed to God), that the Poet of Lamentations has uttered. The word ‘your’ in verse 23 shows he is at last speaking to God – right here in the middle of this chapter which stands in the middle of the whole terrifying book. Verses 22-23 are the only part of Lamentations that most people know, because they generated Thomas Chisholme’s lovely hymn ‘Great is thy faithfulness,’ – even if those who sing that hymn are quite unaware of the shocking context in which those words were originally uttered.

For this is the prayer of ‘the man who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath’ (3:1) – and what affliction, what a rod! Look at verses 1-18. That repeated, accusing word ‘He’ refers to God. Lamentations was written in the immediate aftermath of the siege and capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587-6 BC. That had happened, according to the prophets (and accepted by this book), as God’s judgment for the rebellion and wickedness of the Israelites for generations, in spite of all warnings to turn around and avoid it. And the suffering was incomprehensible – except perhaps by those today caught up in the hell of Syria, or South Sudan, or Yemen, who know only too well what such descriptions mean.

In chapters 1-2, the Poet personifies the city of Jerusalem as Lady Zion, gasping out in the dust for somebody, anybody, – even God if only he would –  to look at her, listen to her, comfort her. She is a woman stripped, gang-raped, beaten, exposed, violated, her children traumatized and dying in the streets. If this is judgment, even if it is deserved, is it not too awful, too cruel? Whatever the moral argument, the suffering and pain is given voice, the tears are allowed to fall, while God remains silent. There is no comfort, but neither is there any rebuke, nor any heartless ‘told you so.’ Suffering is given the dignity of a hearing. Lamentations has been called a bottle for the tears of the world (cf. Ps. 56:8). If it can be called prayer at all, it is the prayer of desperate suffering, of lament, and protest.

Then in chapter 3 the Poet speaks: ‘I am the man…’ His words speak both for himself and for his people. He was there. He had endured what the city suffered, and puts it into searing poetry that pauses at verse 18 with complete loss of hope.

Hope Perishes

Read again through the catalogue of metaphors in verses 1-18. ‘The Man’ has been beaten by a bad shepherd (1-6 are a negative Ps. 23); walled up alone (7-9); hunted, mauled and shot at (10-13); trampled face-down in the dust (14-16). He is left utterly without peace, unable even to recall what happiness felt like (17), and worst of all, with all his hopes gone (18).

Without hope, life is unbearable. Friends in Lebanon tell me of the tragic rate of suicides among women and young girls in the Syrian refugee communities there – for which the prime reason given is, ‘We have lost all hope for any possible future.’

Hope Remembers

All the Man is left with is his memories. But there are two kinds of remembering. There are the bad memories that come unwanted and unbidden, the flash-backs and nightmares of trauma, the tormenting, bitter and poisonous memories that the Man struggles with in verses 19-20. But then comes the intentional remembering of verse 21. This is a deliberate act of will, in which he forces himself to remember what he knows to be true. Literally, he says, ‘This I cause to come back into my mind.’  He chooses to think differently. ‘And therefore I have hope’! What a contrast. Verse 18 ends with all hope gone; verse 21 ends with ‘I have hope.’ What is the ‘This’ that he chooses to remember, that makes such a dramatic difference?

The last word of verse 18 is the name of the LORD – Yahweh, the God of Israel’s history, exodus, covenant and centuries of repeated faithfulness. Yahweh is the God who defined himself as ‘The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness’ (Ex. 34:6). If the LORD is still God, then surely this terrible anger and suffering cannot be his last word? You see, once you let the LORD in, even by the back door at the end of verses 1-18, things cannot remain as they are, and that’s what the Man remembers, and turns into prayer.

What he prays is something like this,

‘My life, my hope, my future feel like they have all ended (v. 18),
BUT this is what I remember (v. 21):
Yahweh’s acts of love, they have not finished
For they have not come to an end, his acts of compassion (v. 22 literally).
Indeed, not only have they not ended,
they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness (v. 23).

The God who had acted in judgment is still the God who will keep his promises to his people and will never abandon his covenant with them, nor his ultimate purposes for the whole world through them. So, with that long-term perspective, the Man decides to wait in hope  (v. 24) … Almost as if he had just remembered Psalm 33:20-22. Maybe he had. It’s another powerful prayer.

Then another shock (for us) in verses 25-27. Each of those verses begins with the Hebrew word for ‘good’. ‘Good…good…good’ he says!  How can somebody who has just described the horrors that God had inflicted in verses 1-18 turn round and say, ‘The LORD is good…’? Yet he does. He affirms it as the bedrock of Israel’s faith, of biblical truth, and of Christian worship. As the Africans say, ‘God is good; all the time. All the time; God is good.’

But, this does not at all deny or lessen the pain of verses 1-18. Nor does it stop him from going back to that pain very soon after – in the second part of chapter 3 and on into chapters 4-5. But if the God who judges or allows suffering is the God who is good, then even God’s wrath cannot be the last word for those who turn to him – as this Poet is urging his people to do. God will have a good purpose ahead. So even if it cannot be imagined at this moment, even in the midst of the unbearable pain, ‘it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD’ (even though ‘quietly’ is hardly the mood of this whole book).

The swings between gut emotion and theological affirmation in Lamentations are vital to its message. Aren’t there times when singing ‘Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father’ seems hollow, hypocritical and bitter because of the stress and suffering of the moment? And yet other times when it expresses exactly what you do believe and need to affirm?

Hope Explains

We still wonder, though, how the turbulent desperation of verses 1-18 can reach the calm prayers and advice of 22-30. So the Poet obliges with his explanation. Each of verses 31-33 begins, in Hebrew, with the word ‘For.’ He is saying ‘Here’s why…here’s why…here’s why!’ These three verses begin with the middle letter of the Hebrew alphabet, right in the middle of the whole book. In the midst of the pain, sin, rebellion, judgment and suffering – here is what we must know.

  • Yes, God may reject his people when they rebel — but not forever (31).
  • Yes, God causes grief when he punishes – but his compassion and love will return (32).
  • Yes, God afflicts (or allows affliction) – but ‘not from his heart’ (literally; 33).

We should not equate God’s anger and God’s love, as if they were equal and opposite eternal characteristics. They are both realities. God’s anger is his reaction against all sin and evil that opposes his love and goodness. But anger does not define God in the way love does. ‘God is love.’ God is not anger – on the contrary, God defined himself as ‘slow to anger,’ and Micah affirms that this is something that makes Yahweh the God of Israel unique – ‘You do not stay angry forever, but delight to show mercy’ (Mic. 7:18-19).

So in his prayer, the Man drops anchor into the bedrock of God’s eternal, unchanging, faithful,  covenant love. That gives him security. But it does not give him release from the suffering. The anchor is down, but the storm still rages and his ship tosses – as chs 4-5 will show. Nevertheless – at the centre of the book and the centre of his faith, God’s eternal love has been affirmed in faith and in prayer. I doubt if the Man could have sung this song just yet, but its truth is close to his experience and testimony:

You are my rock in times of trouble;
You lift me up when I fall down.
All through the storm, your love is the anchor;
My hope is in you alone.


Rev Dr Christopher Wright is the International Ministries Director, Langham Partnership.





Mental Illness: A Christian Perspective

October 2016 Pulse

In an article entitled, ‘Let’s End Stigma of Mental Illness’ published by TODAY online on 1 May 2014, it was reported that one in six people in Singapore suffer from some form of mental illness. ‘It is quite likely’, it states, ‘that patients include our friends, colleagues or family members’.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, ‘A mental disorder is a syndrome characterized by clinically significant disturbance in an individual’s cognition, emotion regulation, or behaviour that reflects a dysfunction in the psychological, biological, or developmental processes underlying mental function’.

Elaborating on this basic definition, The Mayo Clinic states that ‘[m]ental illness refers to a wide range of mental conditions – disorders that affect your mood, thinking and behaviour’. It adds that ‘Many people have mental health concerns from time to time. But a mental health concern becomes a mental illness when ongoing signs and symptoms cause frequent stress and affect your ability to function’.

Although some forms of mental illness are not reckoned as a disability by the law, there can be no doubt that all forms of mental illness are in some sense disabling.

The TODAY article points out that although mental illness is not uncommon in our society it is ‘still stigmatised by prejudice, ignorance and fear’. It emphatically calls for putting such stigmatisation to a decisive end.

Christians should without qualification echo this call because we believe that all human beings – including those who are suffering from mental illness – are created in the image and likeness of God, and must therefore be valued and respected. To stigmatise or discriminate against people living with mental illness is to violate the dignity that God has given to them as bearers of his image.

However, some Christians may espouse a different view because they locate the divine image in the mental faculty of the human being. Such a view, if taken to its logical conclusion, would deem the mentally ill as possessing a compromised humanity that could no longer reflect the divine image.

This view, however, is unacceptable because it works with a defective understanding of what it means to be human.

In his 1996 address entitled, ‘The Image of God in People with Mental Illness’ Pope John Paul II deals with this issue directly by exposing the reductionism of those who privilege mental abilities in their understanding of the human being. ‘It should be made clear’, he writes, ‘that the whole man, not just his spiritual soul, including his intelligence and free will, but also his body shares in the dignity of “the image of God”’.

Thus, John Paul II states categorically that ‘whoever suffers from mental illness “always” bears God’s image and likeness in himself, as does every human being’. This means that ‘he “always” has the inalienable right not only to be considered as an image of God and therefore as a person, but also treated as such’.

The other question that often arises when Christians reflect on mental illness is that of sin. Could mental illness be the consequence of the sin of the person who suffers from it?

Here, it is extremely important to understand the fact that mental illness is often the result of a very complex confluence of factors. These not only have to do with physical and biological factors like brain chemistry and inherited traits. They also include environmental or circumstantial factors such as abuse, trauma, warfare and even poverty.

Instead of attributing mental illness to the sin of the sufferer, Christians should see it as an instance of the brokenness and tragedy of the fallen condition that all of us share. Mental illness is one of the many signs that the world we now inhabit is not the world that God had intended when he created it.

What about the relationship between metal illness and demon possession? Although sometimes the person who is mentally ill may exhibit the same ‘symptoms’ as someone who is suffering from demonic subjugation, the two must never be confused. Here is where the Christian psychiatrist and the discerning pastor or minister must work closely together.

The church must therefore be a place where hospitality is extended to people living with mental illness. It should be a place where the hurtful and ostracising stigmatisation that is prevalent in society of people who are mentally ill is consciously and conscientiously rejected.

Such generous hospitality would address some of the most damaging discriminations and injustices that people suffering from mental illness sometimes have to endure. It would address the alienation that the mentally ill sometimes experience because of social ostracism, an alienation that might lead to a tragic lost of dignity.

The church must be a place where the mentally ill are valued, cared for and loved. It must be a place where the family members and caregivers of people who are living with mental illness can receive support and encouragement. And the church should always be a place where they are constantly reminded of their hope in a loving, faithful and unchanging God.

Finally, Christians must not only minister to people with mental illness or who are in recovery. They must also be open to being ministered to by them.

As a document on mental illness and the church prepared by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has so beautifully put it: ‘The church can be a powerful and welcoming place for people who are in recovery and experiencing healing, as they return to tell their stories of hope. The church can be a locus for proclaiming the good news of healing of body and relationships, not just to people living with mental illness, but from people living with mental illness’.

Roland Chia (suit)_Large
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Paganising Christianity

September 2016 Pulse

The unprecedented emergence of religious fundamentalism and fervour across the globe in the final decades of the last century has led to the demise of the so-called secularisation theory proposed by philosophers and sociologists in the 1960s. Instead of being made obsolete by the seemingly unstoppable advance of secularism, the religions are experiencing something of a revival.

This phenomenal “re-sacralisation” has brought to the surface spiritual sensibilities or predilections that are best described as “neo-pagan”. In her insightful book, New Age and Neo-pagan Religions in America, Sarah Pike helpfully characterised neo-pagan beliefs and practices as eclectic and inclusive, “traditional” and inventive, embracing both old and new.

This new religiosity is nourished and energised in different ways by a confluence of diverse (and sometimes seemingly contradictory) cultural forces that are at work in our world: postmodernism, consumerism, individualism, relativism, anti-authoritarianism, secularism, panpsychism (all things have consciousness) and many others.

Unfortunately, this new syncretism has infiltrated the Christian church, resulting in the creation of “bastard faiths”, a term coined by the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder. The poisonous commingling of neo-pagan occultism, secularism and Christianity has given birth to such profound and serious distortions that the Gospel of Christ itself is undermined, resulting in what the Apostle Paul has called “a different gospel” (2 Corinthians 11:4).

Examples of the miscegenation (or inter-breeding) of Christianity with neo-pagan elements are not difficult to find.

Take the so-called “Health and Wealth Gospel”. Unknown to many, this unorthodox teaching is in fact a toxic blend of Christianity and New Thought Metaphysics.

Kenneth Hagin – the father of the “movement” – was greatly influenced by the Pentecostal preacher E. W. Kenyon, who in turn drew heavily from Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (1802-1866), the alleged founder of New Thought.

Quimby taught that sickness and suffering originate from the mind, and that they are the result of incorrect thinking. He believed that we could eradicate suffering by creating a new reality through positive visualisation and positive confession.

Hagin and the health and prosperity teachers simply “baptised” this New Thought doctrine with their distorted concept of faith. Following Kenyon’s dictum, “What I confess, I possess”, they fused their understanding of faith with positive confession.

Another example of this deadly syncretism is found in the teachings and practices of the self-styled apostles and prophets of the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR). The most prominent leaders of this movement include Bill Johnson, Bill Hamon, Rick Joyner, Mike Bickle, Lou Engle, Patricia King and Che Ahn.

Perhaps one of the most disturbing aspects of NAR is their acquiescence to and legitimisation of neo-pagan and shamanistic practices such as contact with angels (or spirit guides), angel orbs, portals of glory, teleportation and ‘grave-sucking’ (the belief that one can obtain the anointing of the deceased servants of God by visiting their graves).

While some of these preachers introduce these teachings and practices covertly to their unsuspecting followers, others promote them quite openly.

For example, in his 2006 book Dreaming with God, Bill Johnson of Bethel Church, Redding, asserts that it is mistaken to think that New Age practices like clairaudience (the ability to perceive sounds or words from outside sources in the spirit world) are from the devil. According to Johnson, they are “tools that God has given us for success in life and ministry”.

In similar vein, Jonathan Welton argues in an essay in The Physics of Heaven (2012) that occult practices like auras and clairvoyance (gaining information through extrasensory perception) are actually God’s gifts to the Church that the practitioners of the New Age have stolen. The Church must therefore reclaim that which is rightfully hers.

Welton writes: “I have found throughout Scripture at least 75 examples of things that the New Age has counterfeited, such as having a spirit guide, trances, meditation, auras, power objects, clairvoyance, clairaudience, and more.”

“Every time a counterfeit shows up”, he continues, “take it as the Lord presenting you with an opportunity to reclaim … the Church’s stolen property.”

About two millennia ago, in a letter addressed to a Church besieged by heresy, the Apostle Paul warns: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” (Colossians 2:8, ESV)

In the wake of this new religiosity, the Church of today must take this warning from Scripture with complete seriousness.

Roland Chia (suit)_Large

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article is first published in Methodist Message.


Thinking about Disability

In recent years, a number of fine monographs have been published on disability from the Christian perspective. Many of these publications have encouraged deeper and more nuanced reflection on the complex issues associated with our understanding of people with disabilities. They have also helpfully brought to light some prejudices that have subtly shaped certain societal attitudes, norms and conventions. Embedded deeply in our collective consciousness and in our culture is the proclivity to view disability in generally negative terms. Disability is often seen as a ‘tragedy’ or a ‘problem’. Consequently, the disabled person is often looked upon as an object of charity. This medical model of disability (about which I have more to say later in this article) is very influential and pervasive in modern society.

Our attitude towards people with disabilities is sometimes tellingly betrayed by language that habitually if unconsciously makes the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’. We should never dismiss this as just a question of language. Such distinctions reveal the psychological and relational distance between ‘normal’ people (an expression that must be subjected to careful theological analysis and critique) and disabled people, a distance mostly due to the former’s perception of the alien-ness and strangeness of the latter’s condition. Very often our response to a person with disability is not dependant on our understanding of his or her experience. Rather it is based on what psychologists call sympathetic imagination, that is, the uneasy feelings aroused within us as we put ourselves in the place of such people. Again, it is imperative that we should never take this sentiment lightly. Sympathetic imagination arguably may well be that powerful visceral impulsion behind the support for euthanasia, eugenics and abortion.

It is this amorphous and often unarticulated dread of disability that leads certain members of society to stigmatise people with disability. In his classic treatment of the subject entitled, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, Erving Goffman explains that a person possesses a stigma if he or she is marked by ‘an undesired differentness from what we had anticipated’. A stigma is something that we project onto the person who does not conform to our ideas of normalcy. As Goffman points out: ‘One can therefore suspect that the role of normal and the role of stigmatized are parts of the same complex, cuts from the same standard cloth’. Once stigmatised, people with disabilities are treated as taboos. Like the stigma, the taboo is also a social construct based on how the dominant group defines nature or the natural. That which does not fit into our concept of the normal is deemed deformed and dysfunctional. And this includes people who are crippled, maimed and diseased. The intellectually challenged – the idiot, retarded and imbecile – must also join their ranks.

One of the reasons why disabled people are perceived so negatively is the prevalence of the medical model of disability. In criticising this model, I am not disparaging the marvellous advances in medicine and biotechnology that have alleviated human suffering, including that of disabled persons. But in reducing disability only to a problem of diagnosis and treatment, the medical model has fostered a narrow and even jaundiced understanding of disabled people. Because of the medical model, disability is often seen as a liability from the standpoint of society. Needless to say, this perspective is so powerful in modern society that many disabled persons see themselves as victims of personal tragedy and as a burden to society. ‘The medical model and its stress on cure and rehabilitation’, writes theologian Thomas Reynolds perceptively, ‘not only fails to address this broader issue, it inadvertently perpetuates processes of disempowerment, exclusion, and isolation, concealing deeper attitudinal, employment-related, educational, and architectural obstacles to genuine inclusion’.

In order for society to reflect more deeply on disability, a more profound vision of what it means to be human and of human sociality is needed. I believe that Scripture and the great theological traditions of the Church can inspire such a vision. The most profound teaching of both Scripture and tradition is that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-27), and therefore must be valued, respected and loved. This includes the disabled person, who even in his or her disabilities, mysteriously and beautifully reflects the Creator. On the basis of this theological premise, it follows that the person with disabilities, like every human being, possesses innate, sacred and inviolable rights that must be respected and honoured. At the heart of this Christian teaching is the conviction that no disability, handicap or impairment, however severe and crippling, can rob the disabled person of his or her dignity as a creature made in God’s image.

The disabled, according to the Christian understanding, should never be stigmatised or regarded as taboo. They must never be seen as a liability or as a burden to society. Rather, in a profound sense their presence enables us to discover the deepest meaning of our shared humanity. The disabled opens up to us new vistas of human existence, and avail to us fresh insights into personhood. They point us to the true nobility and dignity of a human being as the privileged bearer of the divine image and thus enable us to get in touch with the essence of our own being. The disabled in some ways also ‘force’ us to acknowledge our own vulnerability and neediness (perhaps that is precisely why we shun them!). They remind us that we too are part of this fallen reality, and thus in need of the promised healing, restoration and salvation in Christ. And they teach us how to wait patiently for God’s salvation. Put simply, in their limitations and suffering, the disabled quietly teach us how to be.

As the community of believers who has experienced the saving and transforming grace of God, the Church should openly and lovingly welcome people of disabilities. She should do so not condescendingly out of pity, but generously, recognising the disabled other as a person whom God loves. Christian hospitality is motivated by the unconditional and generous love of God that Christians have received in abundance in Christ: ‘We love because he first loved us’ (1 John 4:19). Such hospitality creates a relationship of reciprocity where mutual giving and receiving takes place in the spontaneity of agape love. In welcoming people of disabilities the Church must not only ask what she can do for them. She must also empower the disabled to find their own place in the community and to creatively use their gifts to build up the Body of Christ. And it is in this relationship of mutual love and respect, what the Bible calls koinonia, that both the one who welcomes and the one who is welcomed are transformed by the power of the Spirit.

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. 
This article was published in Word@Work (March 2014).

It is Finished!

‘It is finished’ is the sixth of the seven words of Christ on the cross. From the late eighteenth century, meditation on the Seven Last Words of Christ on the cross became a very popular form of devotion. In some churches today, the last words of Jesus are heard in the liturgy of Holy Week, when the passion narrative is read in its entirety. Reflection on the last words of our Lord can be a deeply rewarding experience, for they are pregnant with spiritual and theological meaning.

‘It is finished’ is the cry of our Saviour just before he commends his spirit to the Father. These words must not be understood merely to mean ‘It is over’. They must be taken in the sense of consummatum est – it is consummated, fulfilled and brought to perfection. These words, then, should not be understood as the final cry of someone who has come to the end of a terrible ordeal. Rather it is the assertion that the task that Jesus came to perform is now completed. The work that Jesus set out to do has been accomplished, and brought to perfection. His goal is achieved, and there is nothing else left for him to do!

What was this work that Jesus came to do? He came to offer himself as a complete and perfect sacrifice in order to atone the sins of humanity and make available the salvation of God. The theme of sacrifice and atonement is replete in the New Testament. Paul in Ephesians tells us that ‘Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God’ (Ephesians 5:2). Comparing the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and the high priests of Israel, the writer of Hebrews asserts: ‘Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself’ (Heb 7:27). And John in his first letter maintains that Jesus ‘is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world’ (1 John 2:2).

To skeptics the death of Jesus does not signal victory. To them, ‘It is finished’ simply means ‘He is finished’! But for the Christian, ‘It is finished’ is not a death gurgle. It is the cry of victory! As Stanley Hauerwas has put it, ‘It is finished’ means that ‘God has finished what only God could finish. Christ’s sacrifice is a gift that exceeds every debt. Our sins have been consumed, making possible that glow with the beauty of God’s Spirit’. Far from being a sign of defeat, the cross points to victory! In this sense, ‘It is finished!’ points beyond the cross to the Resurrection. It brings together Good Friday and Easter.

Nicholas Lash has summed this up eloquently in his book Believing Three Ways in the One God:

Out of the virgin’s womb, Christ is conceived. Out of that world threatening death on Calvary, life is new-born from an empty tomb. Christ’s terror is God’s Word’s human vulnerability. But, it is just this vulnerability, this surrender, absolute relationship, which draws out of darkness finished life, forgiveness of sins.

More, however, must be said. It is finished. But it is not over! It is finished. But time marches on! It is finished. But evil and suffering persist! How are we to make sense of this?

This situation is perhaps best described by the use of an analogy. The victory over sin and death by the death and Resurrection of Christ is like the liberation of an occupied country from Nazi rule towards the end of World War II. To understand the excitement of the liberation, we must imagine what it must be like to live under the shadow of Nazi presence. We must appreciate something of the utter hopelessness of the situation in order to sense its true poignancy. Many in that situation had resigned themselves to the thought that nothing could be done to turn things around.

Then, suddenly, news of a battle fought somewhere far away came to them. Some call it D-Day. And this battle is turning the tide of the war. The war seems to be brought to a new stage, and the enemy is now in disarray. Its back has been broken. Before long the Nazis will be driven out, and occupied Europe will be liberated. This is exhilarating news indeed!

But the Nazis are still present in that occupied country. Thus, in a sense, the situation has not changed at all. But in another sense, the situation has totally changed! The Nazis are defeated, and they will be driven out of that occupied country. The sweet scent of liberation and victory is in the air. This brings about a dramatic change in the psychological climate to the citizens of that occupied country. The whole atmosphere is changed. The gloom is lifted and the citizens of that country could rejoice as if they were free, even though freedom still lies in the future.

It is finished! But it is not over. Evil, suffering and pain still persist in our sin-scarred world. But the horror does not have the last word! At the heart of this horror is hope, because at the heart of the horror is Christ who has declared, ‘It is finished!’

In addition, at the foot of the cross, we realize that we are not merely victims of a senseless fate. At the foot of the cross we realize that we are participants of the drama of salvation, for our stories have become part of the story of the One who was crucified. Here at the cross the suffering of all time, the suffering of every human being is gathered to his suffering. The out-stretched arms of Jesus on the cross reach out to embrace, complete and make whole every human moment of horror. All the victims of evil, those who suffer in hospitals and at home, the victims of genocide, rape and murder, the innocent victims of war, and those who are crushed by injustice– their suffering need not be ‘senseless’ if they are caught up by faith in that once-for-all-time sacrifice of Christ on the cross for which it is said ‘It is finished’.

The cross of Christ does not give us all the answers to the world’s troubles and to ours. But the cross of Christ enables us to face these troubles without any answers because through it God has opened up a way for us to live without answers. In a statement that must surely be enigmatic to some Paul asserts ‘Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church’ (Colossians 1:24). Paul is surely not saying that the suffering of Christ on the cross was insufficient. Rather Paul is saying that he is able to suffer because the work of the cross is finished.

It is finished! But it is not over.

We live in a time between the times. The kingdom of God has begun in Christ, but it will not be consummated and perfected until the end of the world. But the Good News is our Saviour has won that decisive far-off battle on Golgotha. The enemy is defeated! Its back has been broken! Although everything looks pretty much the same, the situation has totally changed. That is why the church throughout the ages could echo the words of Venantius Fortunatius, who in the sixth century wrote:

Sing my tongue, the glorious battle, Sing the last, the dread affray;
O’er the cross, the victor’s trophy, Sound the high triumphal lay:
How, the pains of death enduring, Earth’s Redeemer won the day.

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. 
This article was first published in the Trumpet (TTC).

A Good Death?

May 2015 Feature Article

Many reasons are being offered to support making euthanasia (meaning “good death”) and assisted suicide legal. Some arise from sensitivity to the suffering of terminally ill patients, who desire to end their sufferings by speeding up their death through medical intervention. On the surface, it seems the most compassionate action that society can take to allow this. However, there are serious problems that require careful consideration.

Firstly, there is the question of suicide. In assisted suicide, the patient voluntarily takes his life. Hence the term “suicide” is used, as it was by Singapore’s Minister of Health in 2008. In many societies, including Singapore, suicide is an offence. While social values may be changing, suicide is still prohibited by the law, and for good reasons. The underlying logic, whether legally, socially or religiously expressed, is that the right to life cannot be extrapolated to the right to die. Life is sacred and one does not have the freedom to take one’s own life, no matter what the extenuating circumstances might be. This was echoed in 2002 by the European Court of Human Rights in its interpretation of Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

Proponents of euthanasia argue that patients have the absolute right to exercise autonomy. Even so, can a patient make a free and voluntary decision? In the first place, he depends on information regarding diagnosis and prognosis given to him by doctors whose knowledge is not perfect. Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, in his lecture to the Singapore Medical Association in 2013, rightly cited the case of Singapore lawyer Suzanne Chin who was diagnosed with brain stem death. Her husband was advised by doctors to “pull the plug” but against all odds she recovered completely and is well.

When doctors are involved in the decision making, there is potential conflict of interest. Patients may also depend on information from the internet which may be misleading. In addition, patients may make their decisions in a state of depression, and if treated, studies show that they may think differently. There is also potential pressure on the patient from family and care-givers, and society at large.

Secondly, there is the problem of murder. Physicians are asked to be involved in euthanasia and assisted suicide, an involvement that would contravene the nature, identity and ethics of the medical profession. For more than 2000 years, physicians have held to the principles of the Hippocratic Oath: the goal of medicine is to heal, care, and bring relief. Harming patients or killing them is strongly prohibited. The World Medical Association has, over the years, repeatedly stated that euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are unethical and contrary to the practice of medicine. In its most recent statement in 2013, it reiterates the call for “physicians to refrain from participating in euthanasia, even if national law allows it or decriminalizes it under certain conditions.” The doctor-patient relationship which is based on trust would be adversely affected if physician-assisted suicide is allowed.

The medical profession will be under pressure to attend to patients who want assisted suicide. Though the involvement of doctors is voluntary, there is no guarantee that it will be strictly so, especially if there is pressure from superiors or from one’s institution. Dr Christoph Hufeland, Goethe’s doctor, articulated it well in 1806: “The physician should and may do nothing else but preserve life. Whether it is valuable or not, that is none of his business. If he once permits such considerations to influence his actions, the doctor will become the most dangerous man in the state.”

Some argue that the practice of euthanasia can be well-regulated to prevent abuse. But actual experience proves otherwise. Sundaresh Menon notes: “These concerns are not to be dismissed as patently fanciful. One study shows that whereas legal restrictions and safeguards have been enacted wherever euthanasia or assisted suicide has been legalised, these have been ‘regularly ignored and transgressed’ often without prosecution…”

Thirdly, allowing euthanasia and assisted suicide would have negative social consequences. There would be a widening of its application.

In Belgium, legislation was passed in early 2014 to extend euthanasia to children who can request for it if they are “in great pain” and no treatment is available. Not only is this open to abuse (for studies show that many doctors have been practising euthanasia without following the rules), but it will be a door to many more applications. In the Netherlands, one need not be terminally ill to be euthanized. That one cannot have a “livable life” is ground enough, as the Groningen Protocol (which allows infant euthanasia) shows.

Recently, a court in Belgium granted the request by a prisoner for assisted suicide. He is imprisoned for murder and rape and has pleaded to be put to death because of mental anguish caused by his violent impulses. It is significant that he is not suffering from terminal illness or physical pain but from mental anguish. Will this open the flood gates to those who are in a similar situation?

Terminally ill patients would not be able to escape pressure, either imposed by others or by themselves, to seek death and not trouble their loved ones and care givers or incur significant medical costs. In the longer term, legalising euthanasia would shape our society and affect the way we look at ourselves, and how we care for the vulnerable. It has been noted, for example, that hospices are not as well developed in the Netherlands (where euthanasia is legal) as in other European nations. A social mindset that has a “cure or kill” solution would have inadequate space to explore the responsibility to care for the dying and to help them die with dignity. It would affect private and public conscience and alter our society where utilitarianism will dominate and social responsibilities will diminish.

Some use pragmatic economic reasons to argue for euthanasia. However, economic concerns should not be used to support euthanasia. Patients’ lives should not be shortened simply because they occupy hospital beds or it costs money to care for them. We cannot reduce the value of human life to dollars and cents. If we do, we reduce human dignity and value and will think likewise about those who are considered a “burden” to society.

How, then, can we care for the dying? How can we help people dying painfully and feeling that their continuing suffering is pointless and meaningless? The solution of offering euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide has many serious moral and practical problems, a situation where the medicine offered is worse than the malady. A study in Holland showed that in 10% of euthanasia and 30% of assisted suicide, untoward complications arose. They included patients who recovered from an induced coma, vomiting and fits, and technical problems with administering the lethal substance.

Our response to such patients should be one of compassion. There are two points that will help us enable people in such situations to receive compassion and care and die with dignity, without resorting to solutions that will end up with patients taking their own lives or physicians being asked to terminate their lives. It is humane to want to do something to help someone who is suffering. However, euthanasia and assisted suicide are not as humane as they may seem. Pope John Paul II observed that in reality, “what might seem logical and humane, when looked at more closely seem to be senseless and inhumane”.

We should not seek to eliminate the sufferings of a person by eliminating him. There are better and more humane and ethical ways.

Firstly, we have the Advanced Medical Directive. This allows people to express their wish that should they be terminally ill, that “heroic” but futile medicine be excluded in their treatment so that their lives are not artificially and needlessly prolonged. This is different from speeding up death through suicide or homicide. It is a decision that can be rationally and carefully taken before the storm of pain and suffering that may mark terminal illness and cloud judgement.

Secondly, palliative medicine is being significantly improved and offers dying patients relief of pain and compassionate care that enables them to travel the last stage of their lives with dignity and in the company of caregivers. As a society, we should promote palliative medicine and find ways to care for the dying, thus emphasising the dignity of persons and a society that takes responsibility to care not only for the living but also the dying.

Palliative medicine must be mainlined to become part of the normal course of health care. As a medical science and art it must be further developed and offered to all who are dying, so that they can die comfortably and in dignity as recipients of compassionate care.

As a society, we should promote palliative medicine and find ways to care for the dying, thus emphasising the dignity of persons and a society that takes responsibility to care not only for the living but also the dying.


Bishop Emeritus Dr Robert Solomon served as Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore from 2000-2012. He had served previously as a medical doctor, church pastor, principal of Trinity Theological College and president of the National Council of Churches of Singapore. Dr Solomon has degrees in medicine, theology, intercultural studies, and a PhD in pastoral theology from the University of Edinburgh. He has contributed many articles to books, theological dictionaries and journals and authored 20 books, including ‘The Race’, ‘The Conscience’, ‘The Enduring Word’, ‘The Virtuous Life’, ‘The Sermon of Jesus’ and ‘Apprenticed to Jesus’. He now has an active itinerant ministry of preaching and teaching in Singapore and abroad.

Caring for Our Ill Neighbour

January 2015 Feature Article

Many people have heard the familiar story about the Good Samaritan that Jesus told in answer to the lawyer’s question: “Who is my neighbour?” It was in the context of the Great Commandment that Jesus declared – to love God and to love our neighbour.  That parable focused on an injured traveler who needed help, not unlike the many injured people on our roads today.  The priest and the Levite (recognized religious leaders) avoided the situation, but the Good Samaritan responded with compassion and care, thus defining the “neighbour” that Jesus meant in His Commandment (Luke 10:25-37).

It is significant that Jesus chose a healthcare scenario to explain Himself. It is a very natural and apt example with which to discuss the issue of human caring. Injury and illness are very real human needs that define our humanity (and mortality), and the true meaning of compassion and care as practical expressions of our God-inspired love.

Healthcare is a basic human need, and the way any society responds to it determines to a great extent the type of social compact that exists in that community. Caring for the sick and injured is something Christian ministry can easily identify with, and has a role to play. Jesus led the way for all of us, by showing compassion and healing of the blind, lepers, paralytics, deaf, mutes, the woman with a bleeding problem, and those with unknown illnesses such as fevers.

When a man with leprosy approached Jesus and pleaded, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean” the response was very clear: “I am willing. Be clean!” (Matthew 8:1-3) Those of us called into the health profession would do well to heed the example of Jesus to serve willingly and with compassion. How then should we respond to healthcare needs of our people?

Perhaps the story of the Good Samaritan can give us some guidance. First, we must see the need. The Samaritan saw the injured man and “took pity on him”. The ones who were expected to respond, the religious leaders, didn’t. We have to see what we should see – a fellow human being suffering in need, and have the heart to want to help. We respond either as individual professionals or collectively as a community in the organization of services and programmes to help the sick, particularly needy sick.

Next, we must meet the need. The Samaritan went on to “bandage the wounds, pouring on oil and water” with whatever he had with him at that time. It would be proper for us to do our best in the circumstances, with skill and competence. In our response to health needs, we are reminded of the three important ingredients for a successful and meaningful result – the hardware (facilities and equipment), the software (the application of knowledge and skills), and the heartware (the compassion and care). It is also useful for us to recognize that the need for healthcare is often sudden and unexpected, and it can be great at that point in time. In financial terms, it is quite in order for the ‘haves’ to help the ‘have-nots’ and the well to help the sick.

Last but not least, have good follow-through. The Samaritan passed on the care to the innkeeper, promising to return and pay for the extra expenses. Patients need to be helped as they transit from acute hospitals to step-down care and finally home. The services of St Luke’s Hospital and Eldercare are in that direction – to support families in the recuperation and rehabilitation of their loved ones. So are the many Christian healthcare organizations in Singapore.

Christian involvement in the social development of Singapore began almost as soon as it was founded by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819. Education came first, and then followed by Healthcare. Among the early pioneers was the Anglican Mission, which started a clinic for women and children in Bencoolen Street. This was the forerunner of the St Andrew’s Mission Hospital, which was reported by the Straits Times in 1923 in these words: “…the hospital would prove to be a light in a dark place, … ignorance would be replaced by knowledge and understanding; physical distress by comfort and healing.”

Since then, many other organizations have been established including the Anglican Community Services, Methodist Welfare Services, Presbyterian Community Services TOUCH Community Services and now St Luke’s (an interdenominational initiative). We must also not forget the groups that continue to be involved with drug rehabilitation and aftercare, thus making effective contributions to the control of drug addiction in Singapore.

A useful healthcare system is one that gives ready access to all people in need high quality of care at affordable charges to both individual and community. When it comes to costs, it is not about keeping them low at all cost, but giving good value for what we to have to spend. With our focus on holistic care that encompasses physical, emotional and spiritual health, it is a natural platform for Christian involvement at all levels.

We have a proud and credible heritage, which continues to flourish in modern Singapore. As the nation celebrates its 50th anniversary of independence, it would do well for us to celebrate with thanksgiving the many caring services and professionals who have served quietly and diligently the needs of the sick. Even as we move forward to make further progress in building an economically vibrant metropolis, let us never forget there are still many who need care with love and compassion.

The challenge is to continue to provide cost-effective healthcare at reasonable costs, generously enriched with love and compassion.  May God help us.

“Let us not become weary in doing good… Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people…” Galatians 6:9-10


Professor Philip Lee Hin Peng is Head of the Health Systems and Behavioural Sciences and Head of the Chronic Diseases Programme of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore. He is a member of Hebron Bible-Presbyterian Church. These are his personal views.