A Brief Theology of Suffering: The Story of God and Man

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There can be no missing that something is terribly wrong with the world.  One need not look far to conclude this.  Sin and evil; death and suffering; sorrow and loss abound.  Not that there is never life and hope or blessing and goodness, but that all things are not well with this world we live in.  How one understands this in the light of the Gospel of Christ is another matter that must be considered carefully.  What follows is a brief personal understanding of the biblical theodicy offered as the story of the suffering God[1] and of the ultimate satisfaction.
In the Beginning…and a World Gone Mad
Everything that is was created by God and for God (Gen.1:1; John 1:3; Col.1:16; Rev.4:11; 10:6) in the very beginning.  This is to say that nothing is an accident of chance or of “fate,” but of purpose and intention.  We, indeed, were created as his special “workmanship” to carry out God’s plan of the ages (Eph.2:10) having been made in the very “image” and “likeness” of God (Gen.1:26-27).  If we were created for such blessing and goodness then why is there such suffering and evil?  Obviously, something in this world of ours has gone terribly wrong…was it God’s plan that failed?  Or was God unable to keep His plan on track?  God is sovereign and God is love so what went wrong?  Let’s look closer.
God IS and It Was Very Good
The Scriptures begin with the simple statement of God’s existence (Gen.1:1 – בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים).  He just is and out of the divine freedom of His love He created all that is.  His existence proved (and still proves) to be the very foundation of continuing existence for everything and everyone (Luke 20:38; Acts 17:28; Col.1:17; Heb.1:3).  Existence is therefore a matter of grace and not of necessity.  Life consists always as a gift of God and never more.  This is the nature of His ever abounding Self-giving love that is confessed in the creeds of the Church in the form of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
In the account of God’s creating, the repetitive refrain that God saw it was “good” (טוֹבGen.1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25) is concluded by God seeing everything that he had made as “very good” (טוֹב מְאֹד Gen.1:31).  This does not imply any kind of philosophical perfection (as if to leave no room for any possible fall…which would deny the nature of the “gift” of life as truly “gift”), but it still refers to a world where goodness reigned and happiness was the rule.[2]  Their world was one where loss was yet unknown, because humanity was still clothed in the glory of obedience and the world was all as it should be.
The Fruit of a World in Rebellion
Then through disobedience to the word of God, sin entered and by it…death.  The loss of the wholeness that had been the worlds and humanity’s prior to that moment was no more…lost in an instant.  What had been blessed was now cursed.  The curse of death reverberated even from that very first family (Gen.4:8) and became the morbid litany of all the generations (and of creation itself) to follow despite the longevity attributed to some of them (וַיָּמֹת “and he died” Gen.5:5, 8, etc.).[3]  The world was now a place filled with death and sorrow, pain and loss.  There were moments of happiness to be sure (the birth of sons and daughters, creativity and music – Gen.4:21-22), but none of it could overcome the sign of the curse that hung as a heavy shadow over everything.
Redemption…Now…But Not Yet
In the midst of the world of chaos, God called and covenanted Himself to a man (and to a people).  In so doing, God revealed Himself as the unchanging forever faithful  יהוהwho Himself would save His people and by so doing would work the redemption of the whole world through the redemption of His people (Gen.22:14-18).  His people Israel would not (indeed…could not do this) and so David’s greater son Jesus of Nazareth was the faithful deliverer bringing light to those who sat in darkness…to the Jews and to the Gentiles (Matt.1:21; 4:16; Luke 2:32).  This was a message of redemption and hope for the whole world (John 3:16), but it actually meant the suffering of God with us.  Our redemption was not simply purchased.  God has entered into our very suffering and born our sorrows (Isa.53:4).  God intimately knows our pain and by his own suffering our Lord Jesus has purchased our redemption (1 Pet.2:24).  In the shadow of the cross and the light of the resurrection suffering has been borne and redeemed by God Himself – not that suffering (and death as its sting) has suddenly been denied, but that now it has been swallowed up in victory.
He has not only purchased our salvation, but he has given “gifts” (χαρισματα) by his Spirit to his Church in order that in the midst of suffering and difficulties we may be sustained and built up as the Church (Rom.12:6-21; 1 Cor.12:4-28; Eph.4:8-16).  We must be sustained through encouragement, through timely prophetic messages, pointed teaching confronting us and directing us in the way we should go and acts of mercy when we are down-trodden.  We act in love towards one another by the Spirit which we have received as sons of God and co-heirs with Christ (1 Cor.13; Rom.8:14-17).  In these workings of the Spirit we live as Christ in the midst of a world of suffering declaring that this world belongs to the Lord (1 Cor.12:1-28).  That very Spirit which groans within us in the midst of a world in travail and agony also begs for our glorification that is yet to be revealed in us at the Day of Christ’s coming (Rom.8:18-28) because it will entail the restoration of all things and the end of death.
And yet we wait (not in passivity, but in Spirit-empowered activity) for our Lord’s return and the final establishment of His kingdom where all our tears will be wiped away and these bodies will be changed from loss to immortality (Rom.8:23; 1 Cor.15:53, 54; Titus 2:13; James 5:8; Rev.21:4).  In that Day, suffering will cease.  In that Day, suffering will have new perspective.  Answers seem trite today and overly simplistic (as evidenced by the friends of Job and even Job’s own response or that of the “Teacher” of Ecclesiastes).  But in light of that Day suffering has meaning, because in light of the day of Christ crucified (and risen)…suffering has been given meaning beyond measure in the overflowing free gift of God’s love for us.

Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics. 14 vols. Hendrickson Pub, 2010.  Harris, R. L., G. L. Archer, and B. K. Waltke. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Moody Press, 1980.  Sittser, Gerald Lawson. A Grace Disguised: How The Soul Grows Through Loss. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 2004.

[1]  Karl Barth wrote that one must remember “we have to do with the God who Himself suffers pain because of our sin and guilt, for whom it is not an alien thing but His own intimate concern” in Church Dogmatics II/1 (Hendrickson Pub, 2010), 373; and see also the discussion of the God who suffers in Gerald Lawson Sittser, A Grace Disguised: How The Soul Grows Through Loss (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2004), 158, 159.
[2]  cf.טוֹב  793 by Andrew Bowling in R. L. Harris, G. L. Archer, and B. K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Moody Press, 1980).
[3] With the notable anomalous exception of Enoch who it is said of that he “walked with God, and then he disappeared because God took him away.” (Gen.5:24 NET)  He may be one who serves as a “type” looking forward to the eventual undoing of death itself in the eschaton as the work of Christ – see 1 Cor.15:26.
This entry was posted in 1 Corinthians, Eschaton, Genesis, Jesus Christ, Karl Barth, Redemption, Revelation, Suffering, Theodicy. Bookmark the permalink.

0 Responses to A Brief Theology of Suffering: The Story of God and Man

  1. That is a good story, God's great story of redemption that is ! 🙂

  2. Best story I've ever heard (or told) :-).

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