A Biblical Theology of Suffering – Part 1


This past weekend I had the great privilege and honor to return to my alma mater and speak at the Graduate Christian Fellowship and Chesterton House. My title was “My God, my God, Why Have You Forsaken Me? A Biblical Response to Loss and Catastrophe.” I have a recording of the lecture that I may make available if any are interested. I thought I would share a truncated version now. I welcome any thoughts or comments.

UPDATE: I have collected my various posts, including the 4 parts of this lecture, into a single page. The audio is now also available there.

My God, my God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?
A Biblical Response to Loss and Catastrophe

“Of anything beyond these, my child, beware. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” Eccl. 12:12

When I was a student I carried on my shoulders all the usual, if quirkily my own, burdens of an undergraduate. I worried about what I would do with my life, my “calling,” I wondered if the woman I was dating would become my wife (she wouldn’t), and then I had my own peculiar worries and concerns (why was it taking Jesus so long to return, how did the formation of the biblical canon occur, what does inerrancy mean and is it necessary?). My mind was inquisitive, but eclectic. As I stumbled along into graduate school I eventually found myself studying the Book of Lamentations and Jewish and Christian responses to loss and catastrophe not through some intentional path, but the tried and true result of needing a thesis topic. My doctoral advisor was working on the Targum of Lamentations (the Aramaic rendering of the biblical text) and so I began to work on it. As I developed my knowledge of biblical lament and rabbinic responses to it, I had no idea that more than a dozen years later I would experience my own deep loss and grief when our son Mack died, unexpectedly and in a matter of hours on New Year’s Eve 2012. I feel it is important to present this abbreviated history because while obviously the death of our son colors everything, yet most of my views and convictions on this topic were formed well before that tragedy. So tonight I would like to very briefly take you through what I view as a biblical theology of suffering.

Suffering – It is not God’s plan for us.

I have often heard it asserted “suffering is God’s plan for us.” Certainly there are numerous passages in the NT that encourage us as Christians to be strong in the face of persecution, that suffering increases our perseverance (Rom. 8), and to remind us that we suffer even as Christ suffered (Phil. 1:29). But is suffering “God’s plan for us”? Does the Bible teach that God designed and planned suffering for his people? No. In fact, I think to understand a biblical view of hardship and suffering we have to begin with God’s ultimate plan, with the Creation and the Fall.

God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.

God’s plan was for a heaven and earth where the creatures on, beneath, and above the earth were all in harmony with one another and with him. It was very good. In Genesis 2 the Bible describes God placing the man in the garden to “till it and to keep it.” There was pleasure and joy, purpose and fulfillment. True, he was lonely, so God made the woman, but “suffering” and “grief” were not part of the plan.

At this point one might accuse me of being a bit pedantic, that I am picking on the use of the word “plan.” I am, but it is important that we do so since so many truly seem to believe that God has ordained, designed, and orchestrated our suffering. Not only is this highly problematic from the perspective of a theology of a good and just God, it is also not in keeping with the biblical worldview. That biblical perspective is placed on the backdrop of Gen. 1-2 but it is most clearly stated in Genesis 3.

11 He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”

Whether you are a Calvinist or an Arminian there is general agreement that in the act of the man and the woman disregarding God’s command not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was one of free will. It was not God’s plan that they should rebel in this way, but so that they might love him fully and without condition the opportunity for such rebellion was necessary. (We could go down a long rabbit run after the question of whether God knew they would disobey him. That would lead me to ask, does knowing something as a possibility equate to ordaining that possibility. I think not. But down that trail we will not go tonight.) It is humanity that has turned from God’s plan. The results are plain and felt to this day and for all time.

16 To the woman he said,

“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;

“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;

in pain you shall bring forth children,

yet your desire shall be for your husband,

and he shall rule over you.”

17 And to the man he said,

“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife,

and have eaten of the tree

about which I commanded you,

‘You shall not eat of it,’

cursed is the ground because of you;

in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;

18        thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;

and you shall eat the plants of the field.

19        By the sweat of your face

you shall eat bread

until you return to the ground,

for out of it you were taken;

you are dust,

and to dust you shall return.”

This is the world we live in. It is a broken and fallen world. We are no longer in the garden and peace, comfort, and harmony are fleeting moments in our lives, signs of God’s grace, to be sure, but also a reminder of how far we are from what God intended for us. (And an encouragement too of that which we will someday have when we are once again reconciled through Christ and reunited with God.) Suffering is now an inherent trait of human existence. That was not God’s design for us, it was the choice we made and continue to make.

[pullquote]How are we to understand our suffering, where it comes from, and what do we do with it once it arrives in our lives?[/pullquote]So suffering is not God’s plan for us. Recognizing this fact, however, too quickly leads some to an error of the opposite sort, to declare that once one is a Christian we should never suffer. Far too often I have heard, and I am sure you have as well, sermons and talks where we are told if we are struggling and enduring hardship then we must not be walking in God’s will. If we are truly faithful and actively seeking out God’s desire for our lives, they argue, then we would find only blessing and success. Such assertions are made every day and yet are so patently contrary to the biblical worldview it merits little attention here. I will simply note that Jesus was explicitly doing the Father’s will and suffered “grievously, even unto death.”

From whence comes our suffering?

This is reality it includes illness, hunger, poverty, suffering, and death. The questions to ask now are from a biblical perspective, how are we to understand our suffering, where it comes from, and what do we do with it once it arrives in our lives?

Since suffering is nothing new, it is not surprising that we find many texts and passages in the Bible that deal with the subject. As Christians I think we too often just focus on the NT passages that are concerned with the value of persevering through whatever hardship and suffering may occur. That this is a focus of the NT is understandable since the audience is undergoing persecution for their faith in Christ. Thankfully for those of us in the western world, unlike our brothers in sisters in Syria and Kenya, suffer little for our faith. The OT, on the other hand, speaks often of the more mundane, day-to-day suffering of hunger, poverty, and death.

Consider Cain, the generation of Noah, even Joseph’s brothers. Their wicked actions and their consequences are of their own volition, the result of “the wickedness of humankind” (Gen. 6:5). So we see in our own day the fruits of selfishness, envy and greed, and it devastates our lives. It is natural that in the midst of this we should try and understand and find meaning.

In the next installment (sounds like The Shadow radio drama!) I will look at Deuteronomy, Jeremiah, and Lamentations. After that Ecclesiastes, Job, and the Psalms will be considered before going on to a brief examination of New Testament passages.