Category Archives: Suffering
Francis I. Andersen, Job (Tyndale OT Commentary), 68:
Men seek an explanation of suffering in cause and effect. They look backwards for a connection between prior sin and present suffering. The Bible looks forwards in hope and seeks explanations, not so much in origins as in goals. The purpose of suffering is seen, not in its cause, but in its result. The man was born blind so that the works of God could be displayed in him (Jn. 9:3).
But sometimes good never seems to come out of evil. Men wait in vain. They find God’s slowness irksome. They lose heart, and often lose faith. The Bible commends God’s self-restraint. The outworkings of His justice through the long processes of history, which sometimes require spans of many centuries, are part of our existence in time. It is easier to see the hand of God in spectacular and immediate acts, and the sinner who is not instantly corrected is likely to despise God’s delay in executing justice as a sign that He is indifferent or even absent. We have to be as patient as God Himself to see the end result, or to go on living in faith without seeing it. In due season we shall reap, if we do not faint.
The following 4-minute video captures the moving testimony of one family faithfully enduring pain and suffering. Says the father John Knight: “I have a little boy who is blind and has Autism and growth hormone deficiency. He doesn’t eat well or sleep well. My wife lives with stage four cancer in her body. I have a hope and I have a future. I have a Rock. I cling to my Jesus.” Simply amazing. Watch their story here:
The son of Yale theology professor Nicholas Wolterstorff died at the age of 24 in a mountain climbing accident. After the accident Dr. Wolterstorff wrote meditations about the hole left in his life due to the passing of his son. They were originally intended to be private, a place for him to voice his grief, but they were eventually published as a short book, Lament for a Son (Eerdmans, 1987). His meditations provide a penetrating glimpse into the grieving heart of a Christian enduring deep personal suffering. The following excerpt comes from that little book [pp. 34–35]:
What do you say to someone who is suffering?
Some people are gifted with words of wisdom. For such, one is profoundly grateful. There were many such for us. But not all are gifted in that way. Some blurted out strange, inept things. That’s OK too. Your words don’t have to be wise. The heart that speaks is heard more than the words spoken. And if you can’t think of anything at all to say, just say, “I can’t think of anything to say. But I want you to know that we are with you in your grief.” Or even, just embrace. Not even the best of words can take away the pain. What words can do is testify that there is more than pain in our journey on earth to a new day. Of those things that are more, the greatest is love. Express your love. How appallingly grim must be the death of a child in the absence of love.
But please: Don’t say it’s not really so bad. Because it is. Death is awful, demonic. If you think your task as comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance away from me. Over there, you are of no help. What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.
I know: People do sometimes think things are more awful than they really are. Such people need to be corrected—gently, eventually. But no one thinks death is more awful than it is. It’s those who think it’s not so bad that need correcting.
Some say nothing because they find the topic too painful for themselves. They fear they will break down. So they put on a brave face and lid their feelings—never reflecting, I suppose, that this adds new pain to the sorrow of their suffering friends. Your tears are salve on our wound, your silence is salt. And later, when you ask me how I am doing and I respond with a quick, thoughtless “Fine” or “OK,” stop me sometime and ask, “No, I mean really.”
Yesterday as a family we hunted used books. Generally I return home empty handed. But while thumbing across the bottom shelf in a dusty corner of a book warehouse I discovered an attractive collection of sermons by Brooke Foss Westcott titled The Victory of the Cross, a remarkably well preserved first edition published in 1888. Westcott was a noteworthy theologian in 19th century England and served as the Bishop of Durham for over a decade.
When we returned home the kids napped and I sunk into my reading chair with hot tea in hand and the snow falling outside the window. Not surprising, Westcott’s sermons are rich with insights, the gems of a life devoted to the serious study of the Bible.
At one point Westcott speaks of the Savior’s suffering. Christ’s sufferings were heavy, not merely because they were aggressive acts personally directed at him but because they were the acts of spiritually blind sinners. We can harden ourselves to opposition, Westcott writes, but Christ did not. He could not. It was his compassion that compounded his suffering. Listen carefully to what Westcott writes:
“We arm ourselves against pain by checking our emotions, by hardening ourselves to opposition, by closing our eyes to the extent of the evil about us. But it was not so with Christ. No isolation of absolute purity separated Him from the outcast, while His sinlessness was the measure of His loathing at sin. Every denunciation of woe which He uttered was wrung from a righteousness which was but the other side of love. The wrongs which He endured were more terrible as a symptom of spiritual blindness in those who inflicted them than as a personal agony. How often when He was threatened, and rejected and reviled, must the prayer have arisen in His heart which found a final expression upon the Cross: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. They knew not, but He knew, and even then He bore the burden of their hardness and unbelief.” (p. 67)
That line, “The wrongs which He endured were more terrible as a symptom of spiritual blindness in those who inflicted them than as a personal agony,” is worthy of reflection. It seems that the Savior’s compassion, in light of the sinner’s ignorance, compounded the Savior’s suffering to a degree that we cannot imagine.
In a recent blog comment Tom posted a gem from C. S. Lewis’ twisted little satire Screwtape Letters. It forms a nice complement to the previous Lewis quote. Here we see how Lewis articulates the Christian’s growth in godliness when the desire to obey has vanished but the intention to obey has not. Multiple themes converge here in this rich, little paragraph. I commend it to you for your slow contemplation.
“He [God] leaves the creature [believer] to stand up on its own legs—to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish. It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be. Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best. We can drag our patients along by continual tempting, because we design them only for the table, and the more their will is interfered with the better. He cannot ‘tempt’ to virtue as we do to vice. He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles. Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger, than when a human, no longer desiring, but intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.” (p. 40)
What word comes to mind when you think of the life of Job? Trial. Affliction. Suffering. Endurance. Patience. But what about prosperity? The beginning and the conclusion of the book highlight Job’s prosperity. Note the chiastic structure that develops from the book’s introduction and conclusion:
A – Job’s prosperous life (1:1)
B – Job’s prosperous family (1:2)
C – Job’s prosperous wealth (1:3)
D – Job’s priestly mediation for his family (1:4–5)
D’ – Job’s priestly mediation for his friends (42:7–9)
C’ – Job’s abundantly prosperous wealth (42:10–12)
B’ – Job’s abundantly prosperous family (42:13–15)
A’ – Job’s abundantly prosperous life (42:16–17)
And notice the final verse of the book, this sort of epitaph etched on Job’s grave: “Then he died, an old man who had lived a long, full life” (42:17 NLT). Or as James says, “You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy” (James 5:11 NIV). Trials, affliction, suffering, endurance, and patience are all key themes in the book of Job. But we miss something when we fail to see “what the Lord finally brought about.” Which is the OT’s way of saying that God uses trials for our good. To those who love God, affliction is the pathway to blessing (but of course this is no promise of financial wealth).
“When we lock our eyes on our cancer, arthritis, fibromyalgia, diabetes, or disability, self-pity and bitterness can creep in. When we spend our days rehearsing the tragic death of a loved one, we will interpret all life through the darkness of our suffering. How much better when we focus upon Jesus!
‘Let us fix our eyes on Jesus…who for the joy set before him endured the cross.’ The following verse commands us, ‘Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart’ (Hebrews 12:2—3).
However great our suffering, his was far greater. If you feel angry at God, what price would you have him pay for his failure to do more for people facing suffering and evil? Would you inflict capital punishment on him? You’re too late. No matter how bitter we feel toward God, could any of us come up with a punishment worse than what God chose to inflict upon himself?…
If you know Jesus, then the hand holding yours bears the calluses of a carpenter who worked with wood and carried a cross for you. When he opens his hand, you see the gnarled flesh of the nail scars on his wrists. And when you think he doesn’t understand your pain, realize that you don’t understand the extent of his pain. Love him or not, he has proven he loves you.
If you hate suffering, does it make sense to choose eternal suffering when God has already suffered so much to deliver you from it?
In your most troubled moments, when you cry out to God, ‘Why have you let this happen?’ picture the outstretched hands of Christ, forever scarred…for you.
Do those look like the hands of a God who does not care?”
—Randy Alcorn, If God is Good: Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil (Multnomah, 2009), pp. 218—219.
“I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross… In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time after a while I have to turn away. And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in Godforsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in light of his.”
—John Stott, The Cross of Christ (IVP, 1986), pp. 335—336. As quoted in Randy Alcorn, If God is Good: Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil (Multnomah, 2009), p. 217.
“I used to think it was a ‘cruel’ doctrine to say that troubles and sorrows were ‘punishments.’ But I find in practice that when you are in trouble, the moment you regard it as a ‘punishment’, it becomes easier to bear. If you think of this world as a place intended simply for our happiness, you find it quite intolerable: think of it as a place of training and correction and it’s not so bad.”
—C.S. Lewis, Answers to Questions on Christianity.
Last month I told you about the D. A. Carson conference at Omaha Bible Church on the topic of suffering. The audio is now online:
- Making Sense of Suffering – Part 1
- Making Sense of Suffering – Part 2
- Making Sense of Suffering – Part 3
- Making Sense of Suffering – Part 4 (Gospel Reflections on Trials and Tribulations)