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Ann Thakkar on Suffering, Spiritual Formation, and the Problem with Theodicy

October 31, 2017
Because of what Jesus has done, suffering becomes an instrument of our formation, not an instrument of our destruction.

In this interview, Ann Thakkar, Scholar-in-Residence at Regent (2017-18), explores the relationship between suffering and Christian spiritual formation. Find out what unexpected spiritual practice helped her through her own path of suffering, and hear her not-so-glowing review of disembodied approaches to theodicy.

Ann is a recent graduate from Carey Theological College where her research focused on the relationship between spiritual formation and suffering. Her work here at Regent will be in the same vein, exploring each Christian’s need to enter into and walk alongside others suffering as Jesus did. The dimensions of her research include how embodied and historical practices of faith prepare believers for the challenges of suffering, how suffering is understood in a variety of Christian contexts, and how the church has historically responded to suffering.

Tell us about your time studying at Regent

During my time there, I came to think of Regent as my spiritual home. There’s something very special about the student body…

I chose the MTS over the MCS, because at that time the MTS involved a verbal comprehensive exam. I wanted to do the exams mostly because Dr. Packer and Dr. Houston were the examiners. I had a little bit of an insecure need to take on Dr. Packer. Which was very foolish.

Take him on?

(Laughter) Well, you know—he has very strong feelings about certain aspects of Calvin, and in my youthful naivety I disputed and… anyway...

Who won?

Oh—there wasn’t even a contest. There was lots of “ho, ho, ho…my dear, ho, ho, my dear…” (Laughter) Dr. Houston just shook his head and said, “I told you not to do it! I told you!” But I was like, “You say black, I have to do white…”

Your current work is on suffering, spiritual practices, and spiritual formation. Were those strains of thought already beginning when you were at Regent? 

Yes. I arrived at Regent as a burned out para-church person, and my faith was in quite a fragile state. At that time if you wanted to do a focus on spiritual theology—since it was entirely new in the Protestant evangelical academic world—you had to go and meet with Dr. Houston.

My time with Dr. Houston literally began with me walking in trying to be ever so charming, and impress Dr. Houston. And he very quietly—if you know him—very quietly sat and watched me make an utter fool of myself. Then he looked at me, leaned forward, and said, “My dear, was your father a workaholic?”

To this day I am not even sure what happened except there was some kind of work of the Spirit because I just fell to pieces. He proceeded to describe my dad to me in intimate detail. It was an unnervingly accurate portrayal of the father I grew up with and the impact it had on me—and consequently of my understanding of how God perceived me. I was quite a fragile emotional, spiritual invalid. By the time I left Regent, I really felt as though the Lord had begun a work of healing, and gave me in some ways the chance to get up on my feet again. So I wouldn’t say I was running, but I was starting to walk, starting to hobble in faith. 

How did your understanding of faith and suffering develop after your time at Regent? 

Within a short time of leaving Regent, there was some very painful things that happened. The birth of our first child was proceeded by discovering that she had a very serious health issue, so she had emergency surgery at birth, had more surgery, and more surgery. By the time she was eight months old, she had an organ transplant, and many extenuating medical crises followed that. It led to some difficult family crises where both my former husband and I were trying to deal with the pain of watching our child in so much pain. Then my daughter got diagnosed with cancer. There was just one crisis after another…

So my interest in Spiritual Theology has never waned. And my need to understand what good work God was doing and could do through that. 

Was it after you’d experienced that intense hardship that you started considering further studies?

Mmhm. In fact, two of my professors here at Regent encouraged me in that regard. One of them told me about the Doctorate of Ministry program. My academic snobbery kicked in… Then I began to pray and I looked at how the program described itself and I thought, “Oh. Oh! Actually, yes!—it actually has enough academic meat to it.”

I knew right from the beginning of my DMin that my interest was to understand, to build, to attempt to produce some sort of theology of suffering for myself. To try and work out some of what my own experiences had worked so deeply into me.

Did you find there was already a set of spiritual practices or a theology of suffering that had grounded you through all those experiences? Or did you emerge thinking, “I need to construct something?”

My gut—my knee-jerk response—is no! I had nothing. Because it certainly did reveal the cognitive poverty of my own spiritual heritage. But probably more blatant was that it revealed a lack of embodied practices. I come from a pretty wide spectrum of church upbringing but none of them, save my Anglican experience, taught me that my body must also be brought into the discussion of formation. That my body also needed to learn to live, die, and be resurrected. My body also was the very medium through which I was experiencing suffering and so it also needed to have memories worked into it, to resource me in order to meet the challenges suffering posed.

One physical practice I threw myself into was running. I had always been a runner, so I ran. And I learned to take up swimming, and I learned to dance again, because I had no words. So often I had no words.  And the Lord had given me this love for physical movement and I cannot tell you the number of times I went out running and I would describe it as I would have to pull over because I would just sob, and sob, and sob—I couldn’t breathe. It was as though the Lord was giving me, through my body, a means of literally working out my grief, and working out my anger, and working out my sorrow.

How do you see the role suffering plays in spiritual formation?

I think that suffering has an intimate role to play, an essential role to play, in our formation as the people of God—if for no other reason than because we live in a fallen world. Suffering is the context in which we are being formed. But it’s almost like we are the frogs in that warm water: we don’t realize, or we become so inoculated to it, or we have learned to perceive suffering as your thing, that’s not my thing. Or it’s your fault and you need to get your life together.

But even though suffering has a role to play in formation we have to remember that suffering is not the goal. And if suffering is not the goal, what is the goal? And I keep coming to that word where Paul says it’s the love of Christ that compels us. I think if I have begun to smell, to hear, and to see anything in the midst of my suffering, it is that God loves me. I’m not abandoned. It is his love that birthed Creation. He so loved Creation and came to us. He so loved us that he said, “Thy will be done.” He so loved us that he hung there when he could have called the angels down. He so loved us that he went into the bowels of hell. The point isn’t suffering, it’s that we would know the love of God. I don’t know that there is any more poignant way that we see and taste and feel God’s love than in the darkest aspects of our experience.

I really do believe suffering apart from Jesus is ridiculous: there is no meaning to suffering apart from Jesus. But we can welcome suffering because Jesus has already entered into the suffering with us—for us, ahead of us, and assured us that it is not our destination. It will not be the end of us. Suffering is an instrument that we as people, as cruciformed people, need not be afraid of: because of what Jesus has done, suffering becomes an instrument of our formation, not an instrument of our destruction.

What do you think of theodicy? How do we continue to trust God’s goodness amidst suffering?

When you watch your children and your husband suffer you can’t fully, honestly, not deeply doubt. Not cry out in anguish, “My God, my God—why have you forsaken us?” And you begin to deeply distrust the Lord. Where are you? Are you going to be present? How come these things just don’t seem to quit coming? And hope becomes a dirty word, and you get to the place where if anyone would talk to me about theodicy I wanted to kill them. Theodicy seemed like a sacrilege to me. It was so disengaged, so heady, so theoretical, so entirely other than what I saw of Jesus—there is no theodicy going on during the crucifixion. I mean, I am looking at a picture [Ann’s office window looks out on the recreation of the Grunewald crucifixion image at Regent] and that’s not a theoretical reality, that’s flesh and blood and emotion.

What are ways that people can engage with this or engage with you if your story or your research connects with them.

They can just come up to the office. I will be here every day, even though my office hours are Mondays, Wednesdays, and Friday. I’m here Tuesdays and Thursdays after noon. I’d be happy to have people email me. There is a reason why I leave my door open. I don’t mind being—in fact I welcome—being interrupted. 

I just know there are rich narratives and therefore rich ways and means through which God longs to encourage me and others here. And I know it’s part of the reason why God has allowed me to be here. 

Thank you for sharing some of your work and life with us. 

If you want to get in touch with Ann, she welcomes your emails at [email protected]. Please put the word “Regent” in the subject heading.  

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