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Before Evil Days Come: A Biblical and Practical Reflection of Suffering

KYOSHIN AHN

(참고: 교회 간행물에 게재된 PDF글을 그대로 텍스트로 옮겨 올리고보니 편집자가  덧붙인 글이 혼재 되어 나타나고 있는 점을 양해 바랍니다.)  

Suffering is part of our lives. It can make even mature Christians wonder

about the goodness and love of God. With the increasing amount

of senseless violence against the innocent, the ugly reality of suffering

penetrates every fiber of our being and society, forcing us to ask “Why?” If

God is all-powerful and good, why does He let suffering happen to us?1 This

question is repeated every day as deeply committed Christians try to make

sense of suffering. Their theological understanding of the immanence of God

diametrically collides with their real-life experience of God’s perceived absence

or silence in suffering, as exemplified by Job and Asaph (Psalm 73),

respectively.

Pastors also struggle, at one time or another, with situations they need to

explain of why suffering happens within their family, congregation, or community.

While they recognize their responsibility to lead believers with a balanced

biblical and theological viewpoint, they often find themselves offering

inadequate responses to suffering.2 They are also tempted to make a hasty

call, rationalizing or editorializing suffering without theological and biblical

reflections, resulting in unintended consequences.

In this chapter I will deal with several responses to suffering often heard in

church settings, and discuss their strengths and weaknesses so as to provide

some practical help to ministers.

Common responses to suffering

Many different responses have been made to this issue over the years,

with varying conclusions. Behind these responses lie one’s view of God and

theodicy.3 How we respond to evil reflects our understanding of God and our

worldview. At least six different responses to suffering can be identified in

 

 

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church life, all that draw their basis from the Bible. These responses usually

mean well, intended to be pastoral consolation, and have elements of truth

in them, if not entirely.

 

1. There must be a purpose in suffering. This response is an outcome of

our natural, inherent tendency to make sense of things hard to comprehend.

After all, life without meaning is nonsense. God created the world with His

infinite wisdom and is in full and absolute control. Therefore, there must be

a reason for suffering. We may not know its purpose for now. We will know

the purpose (1 Corinthians 13:12) in God’s

appointed time.

Several so-called “purpose texts” in

the Bible lend their support to this view:

God’s ways and thoughts are “higher”

than our ways and thoughts (Isaiah 55:8,

9); “no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end” (Ecclesiastes

3:11);4 “My purpose shall stand, and I will fulfill my intention” (cf.

Isaiah 46:10, NRSV). These texts seem to indicate that our proper attitude is

to wait and see how His purpose is recognized or accomplished in our life.

This approach is quite appealing and provides Christians a sense of relief

and encouragement that an all-powerful God is still in control of this out-ofcontrol

world.

These texts need, however, to be understood in their context. The context

of Isaiah 55:8, 9, deals with the issue of a genuine change of behavior, stating

two reasons why humans should turn from their wickedness to a life of seeking

God. Forgiveness is possible in God’s thought, and He keeps His covenant

promises. On the other hand, Ecclesiastes 3:1.14 is more about a general description

of God’s absolute power and infinite wisdom than a text addressing

the specific situations of suffering in human life. Besides, these texts do not

assist us very much in dealing with a situation of senseless violence upon the

innocent.

Romans 8:28 is another example of such a “purpose text”: “in all things God

works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to

his purpose.” This text has been extensively abused in the life of the Christian

church. The inappropriate and trite use of this text inevitably creates a wrong

impression that anything can be justifiable. This text in its best popular reading

is understood along this line: God has a mysterious purpose for what is

happening in our lives that makes sense to Him, but not necessarily to us for

now; we are to accept it as it is, bear with it until we come to recognize that

mysterious purpose of God in our suffering. The context of this passage does

After all, life without

meaning is nonsense.

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not allow us to see an easy way out of suffering. Instead, the text maintains

that bad things are happening to God’s people in this world and are part of

the groaning of the universe (Romans 8:22ff). God is at work for the “good of

those who love Him” even in the midst of such misery. There might not be a

purpose in suffering, but we are to be assured that God is with us, and for us.

In suffering we naturally cry out, “Why, oh Lord?” Quite a few people in

the Bible did that in their quest for God and meaning of life. Instead of an

attitude of resigned acceptance toward suffering, we actively seek God to understand

and experience Him more, and eventually pursue the justice of God

in situations such as systematic oppression or suffering caused by human

cruelty.

2. Suffering is a punishment. This argument has both theological and biblical

foundations to make this claim. Based on the theological doctrine of

retribution, this view sees suffering as the result of our wrongdoing. Ample

evidences in the Bible support this approach: the righteous will be rewarded

while the wicked will be punished (Deuteronomy 28; Psalm 1:6; Isaiah 3:10,

11; Proverbs 12:21; Ecclesiastes 9:2); Miriam was afflicted with leprosy because

she questioned Moses’ role (Numbers 12:1.10); and, an innocent child

was punished unknowingly due to his father David’s sin (2 Samuel 12:14.18).

Suffering is viewed as a direct result of human responsibility. After all, God is

punishing our transgression. God ordered the world in a way that every human

receives a reward or punishment based on conduct. And this is certainly

true of many situations in human life.

This approach, however, cannot explain some situations where innocent

people suffer without any reason or cause on their part. In fact, people in

the Bible began to voice their difficulty in applying the simple principle of

“blessing and curse” (Deuteronomy 28) to every situation, as early as Jeremiah

(12:1, 2). Job and Proverbs stand in diametrical opposition to each other

over this issue. Job does not agree with the idea that human suffering is always

deserved, or that the righteous do not always get rewarded (Job 1:21;

13:15; 19:25, 26). Proverbs, however, primarily suggests that the righteous

are rewarded and do not suffer (Proverbs 10:3.21; 11:18, 21, 31; 13:21; 16:31,

20:7). This should not be considered as contradictory but complementary in

pointing out the complexity of life situations.

Retributive justice does not fit nicely into many situations such as terrorist

attacks, airplane crashes, a transmission of HIV by a contaminated needle,

natural disasters, and so on. These situations do not show any phenomenon

of cause-and-effect. Jesus, too, dismisses the universal applicability of this response

in John 9:3, “ ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus, ‘but

Before Evil Days Come: A Biblical and Practical Reflecti on of Suffering | 203

this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.’ ”

3. Suffering is a lesson. According to this view, suffering educates and trains

us, and purifies our character. As insisted by Elihu (Job 33:29, 30; 37:13), it

helps us to be molded into the likeness of His image. We grow because of

suffering. It refines us (Romans 5:3, 4; 1 Peter 4:12.16, 19). God is disciplining

us to be a better Christian and His follower. No doubt suffering does build

character. It matures and improves us. We become purified through suffering

in life. The Bible carries several stories of people whose faith and characters

were developed through suffering. This educational aspect of suffering

began with Christ, who “learned . . . from what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8).

Hebrew 12:11 also reinforces this idea: “For the moment all discipline seems

painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness

to those who have been trained by it” (RSV).

This approach is applicable to certain situations, playing a teaching role

in the life of those suffering. Universal application of this approach without

considering various situations of suffering is, however, problematic, if not

destructive. Why? For some people suffering becomes the main source of

disconsolation and near despair, often shattering their faith in God. In addition,

this view could also imply a wrong impression that evil is necessary for

people to mature.

4. Suffering is a test. In this approach, God allows suffering to those whom He

knows will pass the test. Suffering is seen not as a tragedy, but a spiritual test. The Bible renders its support for this approach too: Abraham was “tested” by God

to offer his only son Isaac (Genesis 22:1, 2); the book of Job is a story of testing

for a purpose; and, the New Testament

Christians were told, “Count it all joy,

my brothers, when you meet trials of

various kinds, for you know that the

testing of your faith produces steadfastness”

(James 1:2, 3, ESV).

God may give us a test for a purpose.

Abraham and Job were, however,

unique cases. The situation for

Job was especially an extreme case

that is not applicable to most believers. Truncating its historical and cultural

context and unilaterally applying those stories to modern-day believers will

certainly not create a healthy dynamic in the lives of those suffering. One implication

in this approach is a heroic model of faith to seek instead of addressing

the issues of many forms of suffering in an individual’s life. In addition,

For some people suffering

becomes the main source

of disconsolation and near

despair, often shattering

their faith in God.

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who decides whether suffering is a test or not? It is certainly not a job of the

preacher to do that.

5. Suffering points to an eternal glory we will experience in the future.

In this approach, the present affliction, pain, or hardship is something that

should be endured, because its rewards are far beyond description. Romans

8:18, “our present sufferings are

not worth comparing with the glory that

will be revealed in us,” and 2 Corinthians

4:17, “For this slight momentary affliction

is preparing for us an eternal weight of

glory beyond all comparison” (RSV), are

often used to support this approach.

The suffering in 2 Corinthians 4:17

must be seen in its literary context too.

Paul experienced some unspecified afflictions

so severe that it forced him to renounce

all hope of survival in his evangelistic campaign (1:4, 8). He may have

experienced an extreme form of persecution. And so were the Corinthians

(1:6, 7), who may have been excluded and victimized because of their faith.

Against this backdrop, Paul makes a contrast between this age, temporary

and visible, and the age to come, forever and invisible (4:18). It is in this context

that Paul makes a statement about suffering.

Universal application of this approach to a Christian’s life with suffering

is also problematic. First, it could encourage hiding or enduring the emotional

pain, which could lead to deeper, long-lasting psychological illnesses.

Secondly, this approach is less likely to pay attention to identifying the cause

of suffering. The tragic consequence of that position weakens our stance in

removing some causes of suffering from the world. The future glory we will

have does not exonerate us from the present responsibility to make the created

world a better place.

6. The devil is the source of all suffering. In this view, all of our affliction,

pain, tragedy, and misery are attributed to the devil. After all, the Bible describes

a cosmic conflict between the superhuman figure of God’s enemy, the

devil, and God (Revelation 12:7, 8; 19:1, 2; 20:2; 1 Peter 5:8; Ephesians 3:10;

6:12, 13). A recent article in Ministry magazine summarized it well.

This view is quite dramatic and persuasive, especially with cosmic conflict

serving as the worldview. The primordial story of cosmic conflict provides

us a framework through which we examine our existence that is exposed to

suffering and evil in this world.5

The future glory we

will have does not

exonerate us from the

present responsibility

to make the created

world a better place.

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This story line may be surprisingly appealing to modern readers too, if

properly expressed. Yet the sweeping focus on this meta-discourse has an

unintended consequence: individual life situations may be sidelined in the

cosmic scale struggle. Furthermore, it tends to regard the suffering of the

innocent as a casualty in this cosmic conflict to the point of being justified.

Can the suffering of the innocent be considered a casualty or justifiable?

Further reflections

To be sure, some find consolation and strength in these responses, because

they have some elements of truth as it pertains to the problem of suffering

in the individual’s life. These responses, however, often come up short, especially

when applied universally, in addressing the complexity of suffering

in a complicated life situation. When it is used universally, and without a

reflection of its theological ramification, it often becomes a reason of deep

alienation and resentment in the life of the afflicted rather than providing

comfort and hope. A balanced biblical understanding of suffering is needed

in our attempt to minister to those who are suffering.

First and foremost, one has to recognize that not every evil is the same in

terms of origin or intention. These evils have to be distinguished from one

another in ministry settings: (1) natural evil that human decision is not particularly

involved in (e.g., floods, tornados,

tsunamis, droughts, etc.); (2) accidental evil

with unintentional consequence impacts

the life of another person (e.g., a building

collapse, HIV transmission by contaminated

blood transfusion, etc.); (3) moral evil

resulting from human being’s sinful nature

(e.g., the Holocaust, child abuse, murder,

sexual assault, slavery). These evils, however,

are not uniquely Christian challenges.

Everyone experiences these evils regardless of where they are in their journey

of faith. Suffering can come to us through different evils, not necessarily

with a particular action on our part. Our responses to suffering should begin

by recognizing these differences.

Suffering never makes perfect sense. There is simply no perfectly satisfying

solution to the problem of suffering. Yet it is real and, to a certain extent,

strange and mysterious. While the Bible considers it a reality in life, it does

not provide us the complete picture about suffering and evil in this world. It

First and foremost,

one has to recognize

that not every evil is

the same in terms of

origin or intention.

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also does not explore a philosophical inquiry into it. Therefore, there is not

much data available to construct our understanding of it. We do not know

much about evil, yet we see its consequences every day.

Second, there is no single perfect approach that answers the question of

suffering. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses. In other words, no single

approach to suffering perfectly accounts for it. Each situation is different

and requires a different set of approaches. Consequently, any sweeping statement

that implies a universal answer to suffering is always inappropriate

and should be avoided.

Third, some of the approaches tend to seriously restrict a human’s quest of

God in the face of suffering. Human beings are created to ask questions. Any

approach that denies such ability on our part is not rendering the best service

for the life of a Christian seeking God in his or her own suffering.

Fourth, there are many situations where no direct relationship exists

between sin and suffering. Suffering quite often comes to us randomly and

incidentally (cf. Luke 13:1.5). The disciples of Jesus presumed that there was

a direct correspondence between the blind man’s sin and his suffering. Jesus

was clear in his stance that logical fallacy should not be committed and that

there was an alternative (John 9:1.3). We may experience suffering not necessarily

as the judgment of God but because we are all under the sentence

of death. Fifth, the suffering of the innocent is not God’s will. It is the result

of the stark fact that we are all under the sentence of death. God will abolish

suffering of the innocent, but they must learn to wait in hope.

Practical implications

From these discussions we can deduce some practical wisdom in addressing

the problem of suffering in the ministry setting.

First, refrain from making speculative linking of suffering with sin and

spirituality. We often hear statements such as, “This must be happening because

you have committed some grave sin”; “Your lack of faith in God has

been one of the main reasons for your suffering”; and “This suffering is to

help you mature in your spirituality.” As discussed, these responses usually

lack biblical basis in light of many unexplainable afflictions, and they distort

the reality and variety of causes. Furthermore, it is up to God to decide

whether there is any connection. There may even be situations where pastors

want to remove speculative reasoning on the part of their members by saying

that there is no connection between their current suffering and a specific sin

they committed in the past.

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Second, avoid rationalization. We often hear, “All things work together for

good”; “There must be a good reason that you had to go through this”; or

“This suffering will prevent you from getting into a more problematic situation.”

Instead of providing consolation and encouragement in dark times,

this rationalization may become a source of deep alienation and resentment.

Third, stay away from editorializing. Pastors sometime feel the urge to explain

away suffering, persuade sufferers with philosophical theories, or say,

“We will all die one day.” This mistake is often made when pastors are not

adequately equipped to deal with situations of suffering. Silence serves us

better in many crisis situations.

The best response comes from pastors’ deep reflections of the biblical

passages, ministering to those who are suffering, standing by those who are

oppressed, the avoidance of easy (and/or instantaneous) answers, openness

to the multidimensional nature of suffering, proper use of language, and a

Christian character of humility. This takes study and reflection, but it will

reward them immensely.

The theology of the Cross

The Bible may never give us the full answers to the questions of sin and

suffering. But there is one approach to this issue that comforts us and provides

courage and strength, even without a sufficient theoretical solution to

it. It is not theodicy.

While humans respond to suffering

and evil with the question “Oh

God, why?” God responds in the

most powerful way. He comes to us

in Jesus Christ (John 1:14) as a “man

of sorrows” and “acquainted with

grief” (Isaiah 53:3, RSV). He experiences

our suffering in the Person of

Jesus, who made that unimaginable,

darkest cry of suffering, “Why have

You forsaken Me?” He, Himself, not

just the Incarnate Son of God, suffers. For God suffering does not imply “deficiency

of being, weakness, subjection, instability,”6 but in identifying with

those who suffer.whether innocently or guiltily. A pathway to reconciliation

and ultimate freedom was opened up through the suffering of Jesus Christ.

God created the world and allowed His creatures to make their own

Instead of providing a

theoretical or philosophical

response, our God chooses

to bear our suffering and

pain because He knows that

“only the suffering God can

help” us.

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choices, including departure from Him. God, because He is love, did not have a choice but to suffer with His creatures. Before there was a cross on the hill of Calvary, there was a cross in the heart of God.7 The Cross reveals the divine nature, the love of God, in its most extreme form: that God willingly suffers with and for those He loves. Jesus Christ was nailed on the cross for us, suffers with us and for us until the regeneration of all things takes place (Romans 8). By the way, the resurrection of Jesus is “not merely consolation in suffering; it is also the sign of God’s protest against suffering.”8

Instead of providing a theoretical or philosophical response, our God chooses to bear our suffering and pain because He knows that “only the suffering God can help” us.9 Because God chose the way of love on the cross and because Jesus is risen, we can now place our hope in God’s sovereign control over the future, not because we can figure out the future but because we believe His kingdom will renew all things and wipe away every tear. We anticipate that our worst sufferings, full of misery and ugliness, may look beautiful in the light of God’s redemption that we will enjoy permanently.

 

미주

1. David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, edited by Martin Bell (London: Penguin, 1991), 108, 109.

2. For a concise survey of this issue, see Stephen T. Davis, “The Problem of Pain in Recent Philosophy,” Review and Expositors 82 (1985): 535.48. Though not aimed at the Adventist audience, Richard Rice’s book also provides a concise summary of various theodicies. Richard Rice, Suffering and the Search for Meaning: Contemporary Responses to the Problem of Pain (Downers Grove, IL; InterVarsity Press, 2014). For a complicated philosophical discussion of the Christian faith in this regard, see Alvin J. Plantinga, God, Freedom and Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974). For additional reading, you may want to start with the following: Timothy Keller, Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering (New York, NY: Dutton, 2013); Don Carson, How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006); Thomas G. Long, What Shall We Say? Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith (W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, 2011).

3. It was an eighteenth century philosopher, Leibniz, who first coined this word to denote theological and philosophical attempts to defend God’s providence in light of evil and innocent suffering.

4. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture is from the New International Version.

5. Richard Rice extensively dealt with this response in his recent article “An Enemy Hath Done This: Cosmic Conflict Theodicy,” Ministry (March 2015), 6.9.

6. Richard Bauckham, “Only the Suffering God Can Help,” Divine Passibility in Modern Theology. Themelios 9.3 (April 1984), 6.12.

7. Horace Bushnell, Vicarious Sacrifice (London: Alexander Strahan, 1866), 31.

8. Jurgen Moltmann, Experience of God, trans. Margaret Kohl (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), 12.

9. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers From Prison (London: SCM Press, 1967), 361.

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저자 소개

Kyoshin Ahn

Kyoshin Ahn, PhD, is associate secretary of the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists. Ahn has served in the Adventist Church for a number of years, beginning with pastoral ministry in Virginia. Before assuming his present responsibility, he served as executive secretary of the Illinois Conference.

Ahn is married to You Mi and has two daughters who are currently studying at Andrews University. In his spare time, he enjoys hiking and traveling, especially to Bible lands.

 

Posted by KAHN0211

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