Archives For suffering

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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!




The Lord has used Walt Kaiser in significant ways over the years, through his teaching, preaching and writing ministries. He taught and trained many Free Church pastors during his years of ministry at TEDS from 1966 until 1992, during which he was also ordained in the EFCA. From 1992 until his retirement in 2006, Kaiser served as professor of Old Testament and president at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. We are grateful that many of Kaiser’s years of ministry were within the EFCA.

In an excellent essay written a few years ago, Kaiser addresses “Eight Kinds of Suffering in the Old Testament,” in Suffering and the Goodness of God, Theology in Community, ed. Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 65-78.

Kaiser frames this essay by outlining the eight ways to understand suffering according to the Old Testament:

I would offer another organization of the kinds of suffering in the Old Testament: (1) retributive suffering, (2) educational or disciplinary suffering, (3) vicarious suffering, (4) empathetic suffering, (5) evidential or testimonial suffering, (6) revelational suffering, (7) doxological suffering, and, finally, (8) eschatological or apocalyptic suffering.

In the rest of the essay, Kaiser defines and explains the various kinds/types of suffering, which I only list and summarize. I find this extremely helpful.

Retributive Suffering: One of the fundamental principles by which God governs the world is retributive or judgmental suffering. It is the most comprehensive type of distress or suffering mentioned in the Bible.

Educational or Disciplinary Suffering: Another type of suffering is educational or disciplinary suffering, which does not necessarily come upon us because of our misconduct or rebellion against God and his word; instead, it is a constructive use of suffering for our growth as believers and for the shaping of our character.

Vicarious Suffering: A third type of suffering is called vicarious suffering. It is the enigma seen at times in the prophets, where in their roles as the messengers of God they experience suffering and abuse from the very people they want to rescue from the coming destruction.

Empathetic Suffering: Often the pain and grief that come from suffering affect not only the sufferer, but also the lives and feelings of those who know, love, and watch the sufferer. Accordingly, empathy produces another form of suffering.

Evidential or Testimonial Suffering: The first two chapters of Job are classic examples of evidential or testimonial suffering. Despite his intense suffering, Job refused to give up the integrity of his trust in God.

Revelational Suffering: Often our Lord uses suffering to bring us into a deeper knowledge of himself.

Doxological Suffering: Sometimes our Lord calls us to go through suffering not as a result of our own sins or to teach us some needed lesson but in order to show his own purpose and glory.

Eschatological or Apocalyptic Suffering: The historical period of this present world age ends, according to the plan of Scripture, with a period of intense suffering. The depth of the darkness and the intensity of suffering during those days will assuredly end with the triumphant appearance of the kingdom of God.

Even though there is not a definitive explanation of evil and suffering, Kaiser concludes with the sure and certain hope of God’s purposes and plans that ultimately find their consummation in the Lord Jesus Christ and his return, which is consistent with God’s Word.

The hope of the world is found in the God who cares and knows about our suffering, hurts, and disgrace. Even if it has not been necessary for him to give any kind of definitive explanation as to why he ever allowed evil in this world in the first place, he has assured us that all of the misery, suffering, hurt, and pain do fit together in a plan that he is working together to the honor and glory of his own name. This plan is seen even more clearly in the New Testament, especially in the Son of God’s  incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and second coming.

This is one of many reasons we cry “maranatha! Come Lord Jesus!”

Don Carson responds to a question about how we are to understand “discipline” (Heb. 12:6-7), and how that relates to retribution, suffering, sin, etc. Carson’s response not only provides an excellent theology of “discipline/suffering” but also an excellent model of a pastoral response:

As we look to the Bible, Carson notes that it is easy to think of passages of Scripture in which . . .

  • “God sends catastrophic judgment in a purely retributive way, without an ounce of cleansing discipline (e.g., the destruction and death of Saul, for whom Samuel was ordered to cease praying).”
  • “a human being experiences years of suffering entirely unconnected to any immediate human sin (e.g., the man born blind in John 9)”
  • “long-term suffering (e.g., the man paralyzed for 38 years, John 5) and even death (1 Cor 11) is the direct result, not of the entailments of the Fall, but of particular sins.”
  • “suffering is clearly not deserved for any direct offense, and where the only “explanation” given is not so much an explanation as a powerful appeal to trust the living God whose power and knowledge are infinitely greater than ours (Job).”

From these Scriptures addressing various reasons and purposes of discipline/suffering , Carson draws “three important inferences with substantial pastoral implications.”

First, we are likely to make exegetical and theological mistakes when we take any one of these passages and treat it as if it explains all suffering.

Second, in any suffering, or in any other event for that matter, God is doubtless doing many things, perhaps thousands of things, millions of things, even if we can only detect two or three or a handful.

Third, it follows that when we face suffering of any kind, we should use the occasion for self-examination. God may be speaking to us in the language of a wise heavenly Father who chastens those he loves.

Carson’s conclusion contains a great deal of wisdom.

We sometimes observe that hard cases make bad theology. But easy, formulaic answers to questions of suffering are invariably reductionistic—and they make bad theology, too.

I encourage you to read Carson’s response in full. It is one you will want to ponder and pray through, not only for your own life but also for those to and with whom you will give pastoral care. And make sure to file it away because until we are in glory we will need it again, as will someone else.