We all live on this side of the Fall (Genesis 3). This has implications for all of life in this fallen world. One of the great questions/problems of humanity since the Fall is the question of evil and suffering. Many excellent responses have been given over the years, but the question persists.
All will experience trials, tribulations and sufferings at one point or another in their life. No one is exempt. That is a certainty. There are also two different times to discuss this question: one is as a theoretical question in a classroom; another is in the crucible of life in the midst of a present experience of suffering, or when someone we love is suffering.
The time to teach about suffering is not in the midst of suffering (because we live in a fallen world, there will never be a time at which there will not be some form of suffering, one is experiencing either directly or indirectly). It ought to be part and parcel of faithful teaching of the Bible. Then when, not if, one does experience suffering, there is a solid and firm foundation undergirding the person. And it is important to know that foundation is a Person, the Trinitarian God who is good and has a good plan.
D. A. Carson has written one of the most theologically and pastorally helpful books on this topic: How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil. Recently Carson lectured on this subject, “Going Beyond Clichés: Christian Reflection on Suffering and Evil,” and after distinguishing between evil that is natural, malicious and accidental, he identified six pillars of a Christian view of suffering.
- Insights from the beginning of the Bible’s storyline – All God created was good and beautiful, but it was marred by sin, defiance and rebellion against God. We all now live in a world marked by the effects of the fall.
- Insights from the end of the Bible’s storyline – Our sure and certain hope is that God, through the work of Christ, will set the world aright. But until that time, there is no utopian dream that we or anyone or anything else can make it right.
- Insights from the place of innocent suffering – There are times when we simply will not see clearly. But we will trust the Lord! This is the message of Job. Carson reminds us that Job 42, the end of his life, is to the rest of Job what Revelation 21-22 is to the rest of Revelation.
- Insights from the mystery of providence – Here Carson focuses on two truths: God’s absolute sovereignty; man and woman are responsible moral creatures. Related to this are two corollaries: God’s sovereignty does not remove human responsibility; human responsibility never make God contingent on them or their actions. All of this is affirmed because it is all taught in the Bible.
- Insights from the centrality of the incarnation of the cross – Neither God the Father nor God the Son were surprised by the cross. Rather, it was God’s sovereign good plan to redeem sinful humanity. And it is supremely in the cross that God’s love and God’s holiness are most clearly manifested. The cross was, indeed, the throne.
- Insights from taking up our cross (learning from the persecuted global church) – Unlike the way most in the Evangelical church talk about suffering today, in the New Testament suffering is mostly identified as Christian suffering, i.e. suffering because of one’s faith in Christ. This is the testimony of the global church, and is, in fact, more normal than our own experience in the West.
Carson concludes with this reminder:
A robust theology of suffering is necessary but not sufficient, Carson insists, for at least two additional attitudes characterize mature Christians: (1) they admit their guilt before God and cry to him for renewal and revival (see, for example, Neh. 8-9), and (2) they are quick to talk about the sheer goodness of God.
Resting in the goodness of God and His good plan, we can cry with Job, “though he slay me, yet will I trust Him” (Job 13:15). And we look to the cross, and we have a sure and certain hope!