A Biblical Theology of Suffering – Part 2

This is a continuation of my lecture given at the Cornell Graduate Christian Fellowship and Chesterton House in early April. 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 am slowly posting the content, hopefully with some revisions. I welcome any thoughts or comments.

Read Part 1

From whence comes our suffering?

This is realityContemplation_MOMA; 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,
  • 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 themselves focus upon 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, we 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. The problem is that we tend to only consider those NT passages while failing to take into account their immediate context. The result is that while they are often misapplied, more revenant passages in the OT are missed altogether.

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 for what we are experiencing. The Book of Deuteronomy seems to make it very simple for Israel in this respect.

Deut 28:1   If you will only obey the LORD your God, by diligently observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth;  2 all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the LORD your God…

28:15   But if you will not obey the LORD your God by diligently observing all his commandments and decrees, which I am commanding you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you…20   The LORD will send upon you disaster, panic, and frustration in everything you attempt to do, until you are destroyed and perish quickly, on account of the evil of your deeds, because you have forsaken me.

It seems rather straightforward, at least for the nation of Israel. When we obey God’s commandments then we will be blessed with security, food, and wealth. When we disobey God then disaster will come upon us: famine, war, and pestilence.

Understandably many have read this as a personal message and backwards. That is to say, they assume if things are going well in their life, if they have a good job, income, and healthy family then they must be doing what God wants. And conversely, if there is hunger or hardship then they must be displeasing God. Sadly this sort of thinking rarely involves actually considering what Scripture says or whether we really are doing what God desires. We simply look at results and try and make a judgment from there. This would be bad enough when we do assess our own lives in this way, but all too often others are making such a judgment about others.

The prophet Jeremiah preaches a similar message when the Babylonians lay siege to Jerusalem. Nebuchadnezzar is God’s instrument and through him God is punishing the nation for their disobedience to his law.

Jer 2:29               Why do you complain against me?

You have all rebelled against me,    says the LORD.

30        In vain I have struck down your children;

they accepted no correction.

Your own sword devoured your prophets

like a ravening lion.

31        And you, O generation, behold the word of the LORD!

Have I been a wilderness to Israel,

or a land of thick darkness?

Why then do my people say, “We are free,

we will come to you no more”?

32        Can a girl forget her ornaments,

or a bride her attire?

Yet my people have forgotten me,

days without number.

Jer 27:1   In the beginning of the reign of King Zedekiah son of Josiah of Judah, this word came to Jeremiah from the LORD.  2 Thus the LORD said to me: Make yourself a yoke of straps and bars, and put them on your neck.  3 Send word to the king of Edom, the king of Moab, the king of the Ammonites, the king of Tyre, and the king of Sidon by the hand of the envoys who have come to Jerusalem to King Zedekiah of Judah. … 8   But if any nation or kingdom will not serve this king, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, and put its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon, then I will punish that nation with the sword, with famine, and with pestilence, says the LORD, until I have completed its destruction by his hand.  9 You, therefore, must not listen to your prophets, your diviners, your dreamers, your soothsayers, or your sorcerers, who are saying to you, ‘You shall not serve the king of Babylon.’  10 For they are prophesying a lie to you, with the result that you will be removed far from your land; I will drive you out, and you will perish.

It seems fairly clear cut. And in light of such passages we can understand why people like Jerry Falwell claimed that the attacks of 9/11 where the result of “[T]he pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians … who have tried to secularize America.” [mfn]http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/story?id=121322[/mfn] Pulling apart that broken theology is beyond this talk (the USA is not 7th century BCE Israel for starters), but we have to acknowledge the consistency of such exegesis of contemporary events. Falwell and Robertson simply viewed themselves as modern prophets. But even within the Bible this view is more complicated than we often want to recognize.

Jeremiah was preaching before, during, and after the Babylonian siege. The Book of Lamentations gives voice to those who survived the atrocity of that months long siege.

Lam 1:9              Her uncleanness was in her skirts;

she took no thought of her future;

her downfall was appalling,

with none to comfort her.

“O LORD, look at my affliction,

for the enemy has triumphed!”

Lam 1:10            Enemies have stretched out their hands

over all her precious things;

she has even seen the nations

invade her sanctuary,

those whom you forbade

to enter your congregation.

Lam 1:17            Zion stretches out her hands,

but there is no one to comfort her;

the LORD has commanded against Jacob

that his neighbors should become his foes;

Jerusalem has become

a filthy thing among them.

Lam 1:18            The LORD is in the right,

for I have rebelled against his word;

but hear, all you peoples,

and behold my suffering;

my young women and young men

have gone into captivity.

The poet speaks powerfully and eloquently about the suffering and grief that Jerusalem and her inhabitants endured. There are moments when it is acknowledged that Judah sinned and that “the Lord is in the right” for punishing her. But then the poet reminds us (and God) of the innocent who suffer.

Lam 2:11            My eyes are spent with weeping;

my stomach churns;

my bile is poured out on the ground

because of the destruction of my people,

because infants and babes faint

in the streets of the city.

Lam 2:12            They cry to their mothers,

“Where is bread and wine?”

as they faint like the wounded

in the streets of the city,

as their life is poured out

on their mothers’ bosom.

Lam 2:20            Look, O LORD, and consider!

To whom have you done this?

Should women eat their offspring,

the children they have borne?

Should priest and prophet be killed

in the sanctuary of the Lord?

2:21            The young and the old are lying

on the ground in the streets;

my young women and my young men

have fallen by the sword;

in the day of your anger you have killed them,

slaughtering without mercy.

Where are we now? What has this brought us to? We have a covenant between Israel and God with stipulations, blessings and curses, and the apparently inevitable results that all of it had been ordained “long ago” by God (Lam. 2:17). The poet of Lamentations does not reject this conclusion, but he insists that we confront to atrocity of it, the horror of cannibalism and the slaughter of innocents. The only portion that most Christians know of Lamentations is in the heart of the book, the middle of chapter 3.

Lam 3:19           The thought of my affliction and my homelessness

is wormwood and gall!

20        My soul continually thinks of 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 will hope in him.”

25           The LORD is good to those who wait for him,

to the soul that seeks him.

26        It is good that one should wait quietly

for the salvation of the LORD.

This chapter, in a far different tone then chapters 1-2 or 4-5, shows greater reflection and distance from the events which precipitated lamentation and seems to say that the only faithful response to suffering is to accept it and wait patiently (and quietly) for the Lord. “27 It is good for one to bear the yoke in youth, 28 to sit alone in silence when the Lord has imposed it.”

But while the poet insists that the active hand of Jerusalem’s destruction is the Lord, he also states that this was not how God intended to treat his people.

3:31           For the Lord will not reject forever.

32        Although he causes grief, he will have compassion

according to the abundance of his steadfast love;

33        for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.

There we have what would seem to be a clear-cut argument: we sin and we suffer because God punishes us. God it is not God’s plan for us to suffer, he does not willingly afflict us, but we bring it upon ourselves.

Then we remember Ecclesiastes and Job…

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