The Mystery of Suffering
When approaching the topic of suffering all of us come to the table bearing scars of one kind or another. We reflect on this issue united not only by common experience, but by the One who eternally bears the marks of his crucifixion. The content of the following article will not be an assessment of the various theodicies of evil1. Whilst a theodicy encourages reflection to account for God's allowance of evil, it is ultimately limited in scope to be able to comfort and strengthen the individual sufferer. After all, viewing evil as a ‘privation of good’ – though it may better enable us to grasp how sharp are its teeth – cannot help us tame the malevolent beast. Nor can we be protected from its bite as we better comprehend ‘evil as a perversion of a straight line’2, for example. The intention of some of these explanations in many of our apologetic endeavours is clear: to reasonably and attractively communicate the Gospel, provide clarity and bring others to an understanding of the reality that we all inhabit3. This is not to say we should not think as widely and deeply as we possibly can, to the bottom and out to the edges, as we seek to glorify God. It is more the question of what, or, who do you trust when you fail to be able to rationalise painful events? I wish to focus on another side to suffering; it’s mystery.
The 'Why?' Question
One of the most pertinent questions put forward in the whole of human history is ‘why?’ ‘Why do I exist?’ ‘Why do giraffes have long necks?’ ‘Why is good, good?’ … ’Why do I suffer?’ These ‘why’ questions form a quest for knowledge. They are an attempt to gain understanding of the purpose of the operation and mechanisms of reality. The scope of these questions, however, extends further than the observational ‘what?’ and ‘how?’ enquiries. They look for a rationale and operate on the premise that we are due one. I have often wondered to what extent the ‘why’ question is a product of the Fall, arising primarily out of our fractured relationship with the Father4, and our sinful longing for knowledge of good and evil; in essence, our desire to be like God5. So then, is there room to ask this question well? Will we always receive a word of explanation? This article will look at what it means to trust God in suffering when answers are not seemingly forthcoming. We will do this by focusing on Habakkuk's story. It is to that we now turn.
One man particularly acquainted with phenomenological angst in regards to suffering was Habakkuk. When we read the book of Habakkuk we are technically reading an oracle (1:1), which is of particular, wonderful import. An oracle is a form of prophecy literally meaning “something lifted up, burden”. These were often spoken against the nations that threatened Judah. Characteristically, oracles are somewhat abrupt. The objects and subjects contained within them often chop and change without notice, and extraordinarily, Habakkuk’s oracle includes both sides of the conversation! We do not just receive Habakkuk’s words, but the Lord’s as well. In addition, most unusually, Habakkuk is told to write this oracle down, whereas many prophets would have delivered them orally.
Very little is known about Habakkuk outside of this book, yet it may be reasonable to assume that he is a singing prophet connected to the temple in the Jerusalem (1 Chron. 25:1) due to his concluding psalm. The date of the complaint is placed roughly between 609-601BC when the corrupt Jehoiakim ruled in Jerusalem. Let us not also forget the significance of his name: ‘someone who clings or embraces’, as we take a brief look at his complaint.
Habakkuk witnessed great corruption and innumerable social injustices commonplace amongst God’s own people. In great distress, he is compelled to complain directly to God about them in v. 2. Significantly, Habakkuk is highly suspicious of God's activity. In v.3a, he continues to question God in how he can possibly allow such wrongs and evil to continue. The wrongs to which Habakkuk refers comprise of the paralysation of the law (owing to the extent of destruction and anarchy in society) and the perversion of justice as no one listens. It looks like the wicked are actually winning! Furthermore, in 1:5-11 Habakkuk hears God's response of how he is going to use the debauched and exceedingly violent Babylonians to bring judgement on his people. This is completely perplexing! Why would God use a far more corrupt Kingdom in judgement against his own people? Habakkuk continues to seek answers of God as he establishes camp on the city's walls to await a full explanation of this dubious turn of events (2:1). God responds resolutely by asserting, “But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him” (v.20). What a marvellous reassurance to Habakkuk as he is reminded and rebuked that in the midst of suffering, God is actually there, continuously residing in the temple. This signals a dramatic change in Habakkuk as he moves away from questioning God to trusting him as displayed in vv. 17-19. Habakkuk rejoices in the Lord who will give him strength to endure all circumstances. The Lord is in control, he hears the cries of his people, he sees the injustice and he does not tarry in bringing judgement. He acts in accordance with his perfect will and ways (Isaiah 55:8-9), and so, Habakkuk is silenced and moved to offer a song of prayerful submission to the Lord as he prays for renewal of God’s deeds to become obvious to all (3:2). He remembers how faithful the Lord has been to his people through the Exodus, whilst not forgetting how powerful and able he is as he praises the Lord’s power displayed in nature. By reminding himself of the character and nature of God, Habakkuk's attitude changes from doubtful enquiry to rejoicing. He is able to rejoice and declare that The Lord is his strength.
Habakkuk is acutely aware of the consequences of the Lord bringing Babylon against them. The Lord’s judgement most likely signals death for Habakkuk, and yet will he rejoice in him, for the Sovereign Lord is his strength and enables him to navigate deeply perplexing and difficult situations. Not because Habakkuk understands what the Lord is doing, but because he knows that the Lord is Sovereign, he is in his holy temple ruling at all times. Submit to me, Habakkuk. Who are you to question what the Lord is doing (1:13)? What he is doing is certainly not because he has not seen, for he has (1:5; 2:9). It is not because he is deaf, for he heard Habakkuk. It is not because he is unwilling, look at the Exodus [and how faithful he is to his promises, and even to rescuing his anointed one in ensuring there is a people, a certain line from whom and into which this ‘anointed one’ can be born into (3:5,13,14-15)]. It is not because he is not powerful enough; look at his mighty deeds. It is not because he is not compassionate; look at his promise for justice (2:3; 3:16).
None of this really answers all of Habakkuk's questions. Nor would it have been thoroughly satisfying for the Lord's people as the weight of the Babylonian army bore down upon them. It also may not sufficiently explain why you may be suffering or will suffer in the future. It does not answer why I had a car crash in early February (after speaking on the topic of suffering at a lunchbar!); it may not answer why you left the house at the time that you did and broke your leg on something that would not have been there an hour later; it does not answer why you are suffering the way you are after your parents’ divorce; that broken or unfulfilled relationship or sudden, unexpected bereavement. There are a lot of things we do not know the answer to. Whatever the reason, it is not because God has turned a blind, divine eye away from you. It is not because he does not care. It is not because he has abandoned you. It is not because he is not able to stop it. It is not because he is not good.
In a surprising way, this is liberating - we do not have to have all the answers. Along with Habakkuk let us cry out to God. Let us ask him what is happening, and let us pray and patiently wait for him to respond and bring revelation. Let us long for the renewal that Habakkuk so longed for in supplying justice and knowledge of the Lord’s deeds. However, let us, most of all, trust the Lord no matter what. Why should we do this? Because he is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him (2:20). This does not mean blind, automata- type, servile obedience, for we have immense worth and freedom as creatures made in the image of God. As we know and are known by Jesus, we can trust that whilst each one of us on this earth will one day die, and whilst there are many untold injustices currently occurring all over the world, God gives us hope of restoration, renewal and judgement. This is true, even for whatever may be happening in your life right now. The righteous live by his faith (2:4b).
It is also wonderful to discover Habakkuk’s questioning forms a significant part of the oracle that our Father intends for us to hear today! This means there is a legitimate platform from which to ask ‘why?’ There is, however, a difference between self-righteously demanding an answer, and honestly asking, ‘what is going on here, Lord? Why are you working in such a way?’6 Does then the book of Habakkuk promote a purely fideistic approach to suffering?7 Not at all. This is a God who speaks! He has revealed himself. We do not put hope in faith, but in the object and source of our faith. We have reasonable faith in a person. Will we always receive an explanation for what we suffer? I do not know. But we can certainly pray for one and not be surprised if he provides us with an answer we did not expect! Often the way we frame our questions to the Lord reveals a lot as to what is really going in the situation and in our hearts as well. God spoke to Habakkuk and promised to bring judgement, but he did not say why he waited or why he allowed it to grow to such an extent. For each particular instance of suffering, we do not know why. Yes, free men may in some circumstances be exerting their free-will, but what does it look like for God to be in control of that situation? That he stops it? That he prevents it? That he brings justice? That he provides healing? That he brings good out of the situation? We cannot be certain. He certainly will bring some of these things about, and he promises that he will ultimately. Yet, in times of difficulty we cannot lean on our intellect to rationalise what the Lord is doing and thereby only trust him if we understand what is happening and why. Habakkuk asked God, he did not look within himself for answers he was never going to find (1:5b).
Most importantly we need to remember the Lord’s mighty deeds; personally, in God’s community, and in history. It is The Man, Jesus who constitutes the edifice of our trust. Look at what he endured and achieved in his life, execution and resurrection! What great hope we have to walk beside him in a new creation. He himself experienced this soul-wrenching questioning as he cried out on the cross “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” What a way for us to share in his sufferings… It is very difficult to speak of suffering in the abstract; in fact, I wonder if doing so is the problem. It is not a neat, theological investigation which we can bolster with Christian arguments; it is a deep and painful personal reality that required the tearing of one’s skin and flesh. It required broken bones and enduring love as the entire weight of a body came crushing down on a chest causing slow and agonising asphyxiation. Since Jesus carried our sorrow and sin on the cross to death, we cannot say that God has turned a blind eye to suffering, that he has does not care, that he has abandoned us, that he is not able to stop it, or that he is not good. As I was so timely once reminded by Os Guinness, “You cannot sink so low that God has not gone lower still”. I certainly desire the kind of faith that Habakkuk had; not in substance, but in what he beheld as its source. I want my view of the Lord to be so big, that come feast or famine, I can rejoice in him.
Have I got what it takes? Who does?
The purpose of this article is not to provoke an unhelpful self-examination centring upon the question “do I measure up in trusting God enough?” Wonderfully, our salvation does not lie in how tightly we can grasp onto God, but the fact that he has eternally cleaved himself to us in Jesus Christ. Instead, it is to help us to reflect, in line with the significance of Habakkuk’s name, who do we cling to and embrace? How do we dilute/avoid the Gospel in a vain attempt to make it more palatable, thinking that rationalisations will bring healing? How little do we stand in awe of God (3:2), if this is our common response? What of the man who walked through fire with his friends (Daniel 3:24-25), the man who commanded waves (Mark 4:39), forgave sins (Luke 5:17-26), brings life where there is death (John 10:10;11:1-44; Exodus; Col.1:12;), will never leave us or forsake us (Deut. 31:6; Heb. 13:5), who has endured the cross due to the hope set before him (Heb 12:2), who sank into darkness with the weight of our sin (Matt. 27:45-46), who experienced stress of such magnitude that he sweated blood (Luke 22:44)? What of the man who spoke stars into being and can plumb the depths of your soul, and still love you (Romans 5:8)? How often do we in times of trial present a God who is not able, either to ourselves by diminishing his ever-present reality, or to others by consoling them with weak, diluted words of comfort, which is really no gospel at all (Gal 1:7)? How sad are our empty attempts to rationalise our sufferings, and thereby paint a God who, only in so far as we can fathom his movement, is able. And how able he is! He is able to comfort you because he knows your sorrows (Isaiah 53:3), only the grace of his Spirit, the Paraclete (paráklētos), is able to move you towards Jesus and bring that sweet solace that only he can provide. He is able to bring a great hope of restoration and, alongside Habakkuk, give you strength8. Ask the Father to strengthen you to endure the heights when comfort looks like a thousand miles away. Rather, take comfort in him.
Keeping watch amidst uncertainty
As we have seen from Habakkuk's story, we do not know why things happen the way that they do. God permits evil, but he also sets boundaries (Job 2:6), and his common grace is at work restraining evil through governments and people’s circumstances (Rom. 13:1,6; Gen 20:6; 1 Sam. 25:26)9. This, however, does not fully justify its existence. The only reason it continues and is not wiped out completely before Jesus’ return, is so that as many people as possible may come to know Him (Rom 8:19). Yet, what is not a mystery is the character and definitive action of our Father through his Son, Jesus, by his Holy Spirit in space-time history. As we have seen, He is not a mystery to us. Is any of our suffering actually unidentified with? Not at all, for he not only sees your suffering, but he identifies with it too in His incarnation (Hebrews 4:15). Suffering, from our perspective, is indeed a mystery, but so is the heart (Jeremiah 17:9). Let us not be negligent in our sufferings and keep watch of our lives and doctrine closely (1 Tim. 4:16). Let's look at Habakkuk's faithful example and pray. Remain faithful, for when we see the Lord for who he really is, why would we want to dethrone him in our hearts and place our intellects (or anything else) in His rightful place?
Longing for explanations may not be your particular struggle. Perhaps you feel too unworthy to even be able to conceive that it is acceptable to rage against personal, communal and global evil. Either way, acknowledged or not, the clanging ‘why’ question stands. Perhaps this line of questioning is a product of our rationalist, Enlightenment roots and the age of Scientism in which we live, which has crept insidiously into the Western church. Yet, regardless of the origins of our response in the face of adversity, it remains a real, deeply human question. We long for meaning and sense to our trials, to know and be assured in some small part that our suffering is not in vain. Explaining the origin of the question, supplying well-meaning reminders to give it time, or presenting veiled encouragements that it will work out for the good does not in some way supersede the existence of this ever-gnawing question and thereby extinguish it. It stands. It stands as a solitary dark mark blemishing an otherwise unstained, brilliant canvas. And it is only Jesus who soaks it in blood.
I have primarily focused on the intellectual suffering we may endure when faced with unexpected and unfathomable situations. This suffering comes if we allow our intellect to become the master of our love, rather than a servant with which to love the Lord, along with our hearts and souls and strength. This can be due to the pitfalls that I often recognise in myself and in other students I have served with who are engaged in some form of academic theological or philosophical study. We wrongly think we have the answers, for we have obviously studied certain topics the most (as though this gives us assurance as to the quality of our studies!). It can, therefore, breed sinful criticism and pride, rather than constructive analysis and joy in the Gospel. Let us reason not to reason, if reasoning means we limit what the Lord can do to what only we can fathom.
"The righteous will live by his faith."
"For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea."
"Soon shall close thy earthly mission, Soon shall pass these pilgrim days hope shall change to glad fruition faith to sight and prayer to praise."
Questions for reflection
- What different perspectives have you encountered on the topic of evil and suffering in the Theology/Philosophy Department?
- Is there any aspect to these approaches that can be celebrated? Is there any aspect to these approaches that do not sit with a Scriptural understanding of the origins and consequences of evil?
- What solutions do these views provide to explain the existence of evil and/or suffering? What hope do these approaches provide, and what is it based on?
- How do these solutions weigh up against the life, mission, death, resurrection, ascension and coming of Jesus? Give particular examples. Which aspect of the Gospel would be compromised if you were to believe the competing claim to knowledge? What difference would that make?
- How does Jesus show his love for us in overcoming sin and death? How does that shape our Christian lives?
- How do you usually respond when you do not understand what the Lord is doing in your life?
- How might God encourage you through the oracle of Habakkuk?
- What grounds your trust in Jesus? What are you tempted to ground your trust in Jesus in?
- What difference does Jesus make to what you are experiencing now?
- Which truth do you need to remind yourself of and ask our Father to cultivate and rouse your affections for Him through by his beautiful Spirit?
Read 2 Corinthians 4.
- What is Paul’s message to the Corinthian church in this chapter?
- What were they in danger of believing/doing?
- How does Paul encourage them?
- What should we expect in the Christian life? Why?
- Why might v.1 and v.16 be significant to Paul’s encouragement?
- Why might ‘losing heart’ be a particular temptation in the face of suffering?
- Out of the list, which one are you most likely to believe?
- How might Paul’s message to the Corinthians speak into your answer to the previous question?
- How does this help to shape your expectations and responses if, and when, you suffer?
- Is there anything you would like to thank our Father for? Is there anything you need to repent of and believe?
Suggested further reading:
Beilby, James, K., ed., 2006. For Faith and Clarity: Philosophical Contributions to Christian Theology (Michigan: Baker Academic)
Copan. Paul. Is God a Moral Monster? (Michigan: Baker Books, 2011)
Craig & Meister God is Great, God is Good (Illinois: IVP, 2009)
Fernando, Ajith. The Call to Joy and Pain: Embracing Suffering in Your Ministry (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2008)
Geisler, Norman L. If God, Why Evil? (Minnesota: Bethany House, 2011)
Green, Rosemary. God's Catalyst: Prayer Counselling
Guthrie, N. ed., 2010. Be Still, My Soul (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press)
Piper, John. Think (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2010)
Piper, John and Mathis, David. Ed., 2011. Thinking. Loving. Doing(Nottingham: Intervarsity-Press)
Reeves, Michael. The Good God: Enjoying Father, Son and Spirit (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2012)
Sibbes, Richard. The Love of Christ (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2011)
Owen, John. The Mortification of Sin (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2009)
1. A theodicy is a response to the evidential problem of evil. One of the most common theodicies is Augustine’s theodicy, which was later strengthened by Aquinas and reiterated and defined in Plantinga’s formulation of the free-will defense refuting the logical problem of evil. See Plantinga, A. God, Freedom and Evil (Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing, 1974) for more. Iranaeus’ theodicy and the helpful moral argument [see William Lane Craig's formulation of the moral argument in Reasonable Faith (Illinois: Crossway, 1994).] are amongst other conceptions accounting for, and defining, evil. Leibniz first coined the term ‘theodicy’ in his Essais de Théodicée sur la bonté de Dieu, la liberté de l'homme et l'origine du mal, first published in 1710. Conversely, a defense, attempts to reconcile the existence of evil with the “omni-God” conception (Nagasawa and Brown, 2003, pp. 209-320). For an alternative defense see Nagasawa, Y. (2008) ‘A New Defence of Anselmian Theism’, The Philosophical Quarterly 223, pp.577-596. Other similar articles are ‘An Irrelevance to Omnipotence’, Philosophy 48, pp.327-333 (Geach, P.T.,1973), and Gibbs, B. (1975) ‘Can God do Evil?’ Philosophy 50, pp.466-469.
3. For a wonderful contribution to the nature and practice of apologetics see McGrath. A, Mere Apologetics: How to Help Seekers and Skeptics Find Faith (Michigan: Baker Books, 2012).
4. Thus giving rise to questions like ‘why do I exist?’ and ‘Why is good, good?’
5. Hence giving rise to questions like ‘why did it have to happen this way?’ i.e. I know better. I am the final, just arbiter of all events in my personal, and even, global, world-life.
6. In the midst of bitterness and distress, Naomi too is able to acknowledge God and trust him in her great sorrow (Ruth 1:20).
7. See Reynolds, J.M. When Athens Met Jerusalem: An Introduction to Classical and Christian Thought (Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 2009) for an introductory overview of the interplay between faith and reason.
8. Strength also to be able to say along with Job: “And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes--I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” (Job 19:26-27). And, along with Paul: “That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet I am not ashamed, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day” (2 Tim. 1:12).
9. "The Bible therefore teaches that the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of truth, of holiness, and of life in all its forms, is present with every human mind, enforcing truth, restraining from evil, exciting to good, and imparting wisdom or strength, when, where, and in what measure seemeth to Him good." - Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology.