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07.29.12 How Does the Bible Explain Suffering, Various Passages, Sermon Outline

by on July 30, 2012

The Bible, being a diverse document, catalogues a number of ways to explain suffering. Here are six of them, with an indication of where they offer hope.

Summary Points

  • Six perspectives on Suffering from the Bible
  • Questions for Discussion and Reflection

(1) The title “Ecclesiastes” means “preacher,” and the book in the Bible by that name presents itself as perhaps the last sermon of a life-long preacher. After all the Bible study, prayer, preaching, and pastoral care, this is what a retired preacher wants to say.

Being an ancient book, it has been edited, most obviously at the end. Ecclesiastes concludes with a tidy, orthodox message capping what is otherwise a rather cynical outlook. The perspective from Ecclesiastes is “Stuff Happens” (that’s the pulpit version). It is captured in verse 2: “As it is with the good, so with the sinful; as it is with those who take oaths, so with those who are afraid to take them.”

In other words, good people suffer just like bad people. Even religious people (those who take oaths) suffer just like irreligious ones. Everyone suffers, says Ecclesiastes, so just deal with it. Where is the hope in this perspective? It is to enjoy life while you can. “Better to be live dog than a dead lion,” the preacher says. So enjoy what you can, while you can, as much as you can, because suffering and death are inevitable. What about when suffering results from a cause?

(2) Another perspective comes from Job 3:23-4:9. Job is also an ancient and edited book, especially at the beginning and end. As with Ecclesiastes, Job ends with a paraphrase of the fairy tale ending, “and he lived happily ever after.” The beginning sets the stage as a contest between God and one of his emissaries (ha-satan in Hebrew, which would later evolve into the person of Satan) for Job’s allegiance. Ha-satan bets God that Job will crack if he suffers. God takes the bet and sends ha-satan to do his worst.

In the long and painful middle section of the book, Job has three friends—joined by a fourth later—who represent the theologically sanctioned view about human suffering. His friend Eliphaz puts it this way: “Think now, who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? As I have seen, those who plough iniquity and sow trouble reap the same.”

This is the “You Deserve It” perspective, and a lot of people hold this view. It argues that suffering always has cause, and that cause is personal sinfulness. Where is the hope in this perspective? There are two aspects. First, Job’s friends represent the hope that there is order in the cosmos, that good is rewarded and evil punished. We will see this hopefulness expanded when we look at Revelation. Second, this perspective offers the hope that forgiveness and restoration follow repentance. What about when suffering has no cause?

(3) A third perspective also comes from Job, this time from chapter 40:1-9. After 35 chapters of “you deserve it”, Job finally snaps. He turns from defending himself against his friends, to accusing God of injustice. “There is no way my suffering is deserved,” Job reasons, “so God is unfair.” What follows is four chapters of reframing in which God invites Job to realize Job doesn’t know and cannot hope to know the explanation of everything, especially something as mysterious as suffering.

This is the “Keep It In Perspective” perspective. Job answers God’s questions by admitting, “I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken, but will proceed no further.” No matter how much we want an explanation, some suffering simply has no cause, or at least has no cause that we may discover. Where is the hope in this perspective? It is simply that God can be trusted, regardless of how unjust or inexplicable one’s suffering might be. That’s a tall order, one that can only be embraced by faith, a faith that can only be sustained by the grace of God. But that’s where Job ends up.

(4) When we turn to the New Testament, we find some additional perspectives. First Peter is widely recognized as a letter to those who suffer. Their suffering has some particular characteristics. It appears to be localized within the given community where the church exists. It is a social suffering, not so much the physical suffering resulting from violent persecution. First Peter’s audience lives righteously, and their neighbors marginalize them for it.

First Peter 3:13-18 advises such people: “it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. For Christ also suffered for sins once for all.” This is the “Righteous Suffering” perspective, being persecuted for doing what is right. First Peter recognizes that there is a conflict between right and wrong, between light and darkness. First Peter suggests ways to reduce the conflict, sometimes in ways we realize are inappropriate (for example, we no longer adhere to his advice on how women should dress).

But if conflict can’t be avoided, 1 Peter invites us to suffer in faith, even as Christ suffered for doing right. In this way, Luther’s observation that Christians are as “little Christs to our neighbors” makes sense. Where is the hope in this perspective? First, there is hope to be found in that by suffering as Christ suffered, we are becoming more like Christ. Second, 1 Peter reminds us that God redeems the lives of those who suffer for doing right, even as Christ was resurrected from the dead. Finally, there is hope that by our goodness, others will come to recognize God’s presence in Christ. But what about extreme suffering that exceeds the social suffering 1 Peter addresses?

(5) We find such a situation in the context giving rise to the book of Revelation. Here we find extreme persecution marked by destruction, violence, and even death. What these people need, according to the author is an apocalypse, that is, a “revelation.”

In highly symbolic language often referring to events contemporary to the author which are beyond our historical knowledge, Revelation asserts that “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.”

This is the “Wait a Little Longer” perspective. It applies when we are experiencing severe suffering that can only be ceased by a divine intervention. When God finally intervenes, Revelations promises, wrongs will be righted, the just will be rewarded, evil will be punished, and God will triumph.

Where is the hope in this perspective? First, Revelation’s perspective helps us to realize that evil exists on a cosmic scale. It helps to know that we are not suffering alone, simply as individuals on account of our own sin (like Job’s friends believe). Evil exists as a powerful, universal force, and we are victimized by it. But second, Revelation shows that God’s faithfulness matches and even exceeds the power of evil. Finally, Revelation assures us that extreme suffering resulting in martyrdom is vindicated when God intervenes. But how long do we have to wait for God to intervene?

(6) According to Paul’s perspective, God has already intervened in Christ’s death and resurrection. This is not to discount a final event of right-making, vindicating, judgment. But the decisive event has already happened, and we suffer in light of Christ.

Having spent four chapters arguing that Christ’s death reconciles us to God, and that we participate in this reconciliation by faith and faithfulness, Paul talks about our suffering in this light. His conclusion is that, “if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.” This means we can “rejoice in our suffering,” according to Paul.

This is the “Suffering Happens, But So Does Salvation” perspective. In Christ, God has already intervened on behalf of all who suffer. This means that God is already with us in our suffering, and that God will be present till our suffering ends. That end, in Paul’s words, is “glory,” and we have a foretaste of it, having already been revealed in Jesus Christ. In the mean time, we can rejoice, we can grow in faith, and we can have hope. The hope in this perspective is that God has already won, that God is with us now, and that God will deliver us to glory.

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  • As you look back at times of suffering in your life, or consider how you are suffering now, which of these biblical perspectives offers the most help?
  • How have you grown in your own perspectives on suffering relative to these found in the Bible?
  • For a more in depth biblical look at suffering, consider reading J. Christaan Beker’s Suffering and Hope: the Biblical Vision and the Human Predicament, on which this sermon relied heavily.
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