What is suffering? Are there different kinds of suffering? Why do we suffer at all? Can we eliminate suffering? What about the kind of suffering Jesus talks about? These kinds of questions have been running through my mind recently. It started with a discussion I had with a good friend—Mike Ayotte—about the terrible way Christians deal with suffering. Christians tend to either passively endure suffering, dismiss its impact or chalk it up to the grander plan of God—or some combination of all three. I think as Christians, we have a basic deficiency in the categories we use to think about suffering, by which I mean that there is more than one kind of suffering—four, actually. They ought not to be treated the same way.
1. Suffering as punishment for our own evil. Any serious reading of the Bible will notice that every once in a while God uses suffering to punish people for their sin.1 A clear example is the forty years of wandering in the desert:
Your children will be shepherds here for forty years, suffering for your unfaithfulness, until the last of your bodies lies in the desert. For forty years—one year for each of the forty days you explored the land—you will suffer for your sins and know what it is like to have me against you (Numbers 14:33-34).
As well, there is Nadab and Abihu’s death by fire (Leviticus 10), the leprosy of Miriam (Numbers 12), Achan’s death by stoning (Joshua 7), the drought in Ahab’s reign (1 Kings 16:29—17:1), and very prominently, the exile of Israel to Assyria (2 Kings 17) and Judah to Babylon (2 Kings 24—25). Most potent is the entire book of Lamentations. For New Testament examples, there are the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11), the death of Herod (Acts 12:19-23), and the blindness of Elymas the sorcerer (Acts 13:6-12). However, not all suffering is for our own evil—this cannot be emphasized enough. At the same time, the possibility ought not to be entirely excluded.
2. Suffering at the hands of another. Perhaps the most potent biblical example of this kind of suffering is the story of Joseph and his brothers, who sell him into slavery (Genesis 37). Joseph is subsequently sold to the Egyptians, falsely accused of rape and imprisoned for a period of years.2 More generally, this category encompasses all sorts of oppression and injustice. It has nothing to do with the character of the sufferer (as do the first and last categories) but with the evil character of the one causing suffering.
Examples of oppression include Israel under slavery in Egypt (Exodus 1:8-16; 3:7), David in conflict with his enemies (Psalm 42:9-10; 55), and many instances of the unjust actions of the rulers of Israel against orphans, widows, and the poor (Psalm 94:4-7; Isaiah 1:15-17; Ezekiel 22:6-7). The entire prophetic work of Amos was calling Judah back to social justice:
You who turn justice into bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground … you hate the one who reproves in court and despise him who tells the truth. You trample on the poor and force him to give you grain. Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine. For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins. You oppress the righteous and take bribes and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts (Amos 5:7-12).
It is in this context that Amos speaks the phrase famously used by Martin Luther King, Jr.: “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24). This is the sort of suffering that Christians should fiercely oppose and ardently work to overcome.
3. Suffering because life just sucks like that. There isn’t a plethora of biblical examples for this kind of suffering, which is alright, because not everything can be brought back to the Bible. What I’m thinking of here is the sort of suffering that is the unavoidable, everyday, part of life kind—things like accidentally hitting your head or sweating in the sun to finish your daily work. There are larger things, too, like being swept up by a river current or stepping out onto the road at the wrong time.3 It is often these events that are so difficult to come to grips with, precisely because of their senseless and meaningless nature. They are, however, simply part and parcel of the physical world we inhabit.4
4. Suffering for doing good. This is the kind of suffering that the New Testament talks about almost to the exclusion of the other three. This kind ought to be endured, and, though not sought, welcomed with “pure joy … because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance” (James 1:2-3). There is a key verse in the teaching of Jesus that represents this: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10). When we side with the oppressed, the poor, the underprivileged, the immigrant, the orphan, the elderly—it is then that we suffer for the sake of righteousness. When we proclaim the love of Christ that alone can repair the brokenness of the world, and are mocked and ridiculed—it is then that we suffer for the sake of righteousness.
This sort of other-worldly behaviour invites suffering because this world is “under the control of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). When the life of heaven is invited to earth through our words and actions, the thief who “comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10) seeks us out. We have caused an interruption of his usurped dominion, and have irked the “rulers … the authorities … the powers of this dark world and … spiritual forces of evil” (Ephesians 6:12). “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood…” This is the true meaning of spiritual warfare. Therefore, when you encounter this type of suffering, endure it “like a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:3). And take heart, your suffering will end and you will be vindicated, because Christ has “overcome the world” (John 16:33).
1Sin, by the way, tends to fall into two categories: idolatry, or hatred toward God; and injustice, or hatred toward people. There is a way in which self-hatred is also sin, but it doesn’t seem to come up as much in Scripture.
2The story of Joseph, importantly, is also one of the earliest places where we find that God desires to save us from our suffering. “The second son he named Ephraim and said, ‘It is because God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering’” (Genesis 41:52).
3One might also make the case that contracting cancer or AIDS is a similarly serious and tragic example of the same category, though potentially—yet definitely not always—these are examples of the first category. Similarly, I would argue that rejection by a love interest should be included in this category. There are ways that this belongs in the second category as well, but certainly God has created us, through the evolutionary process, with certain biological, emotional and psychological predispositions toward certain types of people—predispositions that are sadly not always mutual.
4This is to raise the larger question of whether Adam and Eve hit their heads accidentally prior to the Fall and whether we will still hit our heads on the new earth. In other words, this raises questions about our doctrines of creation and the eschaton.
III: Creating Space for the Sufferer
II: Suffering in Community
I: Types of Suffering