Talking About Suffering

I recently had the opportunity to lead a session at the Midlands Gospel Partnership Ministry Training Course on the question of suffering.  Here are some background notes I prepared.  I relied heavily for them on Tim Keller’s brilliant book “Walking with God through pain and suffering”.  So you may do well to skip my notes and simply buy his book.  But if you want a taster, read on.

Three questions If… Why…. How…..

The question of Suffering can be divided into these three questions

  1. “If” is primarily concerned with apologetics. If God is good, loving and sovereign then why does he allow suffering?
  2. “Why” takes us to a more pastoral dimension –why does suffering occur and more specifically why do I and/or those I love and care about suffer?
  3. “How” takes us to the nub of our pastoral responsibility. Does our preaching/teaching and pastoral care help people to know how to live with suffering and not only to live with it but to grow in their relationship with God and experience fruitfulness in Christian service even through suffering?
  • If

Suffering is seen as disproving the existence of a loving, sovereign God. A loving God will hate pain and want to stop it so either God is love but unable to stop the suffering –weak or he is sovereign and therefore wilfully permits suffering –therefore not good and loving

  1. Accounting for evil and suffering –different attempts

Key word “Theodicy” –attempts to justify God in relation to evil and suffering

  • Accounts that emphasise conflict between good and evil

–Dualism – Good and evil in competition/battle –some accounts may see them as equally matched (e.g. Eastern mysticism).[1]

-I include here accounts that place a high emphasis on human freedom[2]

e.g. – Open Theism is one contemporary example –it wants to absolve God of guilt and so emphasises that  God is love but insists that human autonomy is an essential consequence of God’s Love.

–  True human freedom requires that God does not predestine our acts and decisions.  However it must also logically require that he does not eternally foreknow..


– recognises that evil is serious and not good.

– Human freedom variants emphasise our responsibility for evil (choices) though some forms of dualism will see evil as a matter of fate


-It denies God’s complete sovereignty and requires that we either ignore or reinterpret much of Scripture.  God becomes just a friend pleading with us to love him

–hope is crushed because Jesus is not Lord of Time.

Accounts that emphasise fate and destiny

-High emphasis on another power doing this to me –fate, chance is present in a lot of belief systems including traditional polytheistic religions and Islam[3]

-May be seen as emphasising a sovereign deity

-however, does God become seen as complicit/responsible?

-Fate is impersonal unlike the personal God of the Bible  in fact even monotheists can make their “god” a lesser God subject to fate as an impersonal force

-evil/suffering may be seen as senseless


  • Accounts that emphasise evil as fulfilling a function[4]

Sometimes described as the moralistic view[5]

– God uses suffering to manufacture souls –particularly associated with Irenaeus[6]

– Explanations for who we are and why/how we are here that rely heavily on evolutionary theory may fall into this category so that suffering and evil are seen as “the waste matter of evolution”[7] (this may also be a form of fatalism)

-Eastern religion -karma[8]

-Romans 5 –God does use suffering for our good and His glory to produce perseverance etc.

-However we can overplay the place of suffering and ultimately deny the reality of and evil –why should we be angry if suffering is just part of the process?

1.4. Evil as negation

Two sides to this

  1. The temptation to play down the reality of suffering

e.g. poems that describe death as “nothing” –“he is just in another room”

n.b. risk of a gnostic view that links evil and suffering to matter and denies the reality of matter (e.g. Christian Science”

Linked to this would be positive thinking approaches and “word of faith” groups where you are told to speak faith/health over your life.

  1. More positively an attempt to describe what evil really is in ontological terms[9].

-Approach associated with: Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas and in modern times CS Lewis.  Evil is not a substance that God made –rather, evil is the negation of the good. Evil is parasitical on goodness[10]

Augustine also adds another helpful distinction

-God is sovereign over good as its creator

-God is sovereign over evil as ruler –acknowledges that God uses evil for good but not as its originator because it is not a thing to create. [11]

  1. A Biblical account of suffering

-Evil and suffering come into the World because of sin (Genesis 3).

– A consequence –but more than that.  It is God’s righteous judgement on sin and rebellion.

-God has done something –Jesus’s death and resurrection (Isaiah 53, Romans 3:23, 5:1 etc)

God will do something – Christ’s return

God is doing something –The Church

  • Why.

Why me –why am I suffering?

Issues here

Guilt –it is my fault, God does not love me, I am being punished

Blame –it is someone else’s fault –I do not deserve this –why do others avoid it? –God is unfair.

Why do people suffer?

  • Their own wrong and foolish actions[12]

Keller’s examples Jonah and David

-Sin does lead to suffering –take care here but we don’t completely want to avoid the issue of fault and responsibility.

-often it is about stupidity and recklessness

Sometimes it is about bravery –the choice to suffer for the sake of a cause “In fact all who wish to live godly lives will suffer”

e.g. the policemen who went into the burning stand at the Valley Pde fire disaster

Because we live in a fallen world

Includes direct experience of the wickedness and folly of others including betrayal (Paul. Jeremiah)

Suffering through love (Mary and Martha)

  • Suffering is for our growth

Suffering as God’s discipline –nb ths is not penal punishment and may not be aout sin –but does produce perseverance and helps draw out our weaknesses and idolatry (vf Romans 5, Job)

  • Suffering is for God’s Glory

We learn to depend completely and soley on God

The idols of health, success, popularity, power are removed[14]

  • How?

How do I live with pain and suffering?

Ron Dunn –When Heaven is Silent –the risk is that we get stuck on the “Why” and really the answerable question is “What now?”

  • Some key messages

You are not alone

Body ministry (1 Corinthians 12:26 )

Christ our forerunner, example and mediator (Hebrews 4:14-16; 1 Peter 2:23-25)

There is nowhere in space or time that is outside of Christ’s reach (1 Peter 2:18-22; Ephesians 1:10, 18-23)

You are not bearing suffering as retribution (Job, Romans 4:1-12, Eph 2:8, Heb 12:5-6)You are not without hope

The importance of transcendence and the curse of a secular age[15]

The now and the not yet –There is a day (1 Corinthians 15:1-29, Revelation 21-22)

  • Counselling and praying with those who are suffering

-Don’t promise that everything is going to be alright

– Listen, take time to ask questions.  Allow time for answers. Don’t be scared of silence

-It may take a long time for the whole story to come out –especially where there’s a sense of blame/guilt (whether real or false)

-suffering may include a grieving process be ready for anger, regret, blame, guilt, deep sadness

-I’m personally very happy to pray and ask for healing/a positive solution.  We are talking to our Father as His children about what we would like to see. However I tend to place greater emphasis on three things:

  1. That the full truth about the situation would come into the light
  2. That the person will find strength, comfort and hope in Christ to go through suffering

iii. That God will be glorified.

[1] See Keller, Walking with God through pain and suffering, 18-19

[2] Keller, Walking with God through pain and suffering, 90-93.

[3] Keller, Walking with God through pain and suffering, 18.

[4] See Keller, Walking with God through pain and suffering, 18 & 89-90.

[5] Keller, Walking with God through pain and suffering, 18.

[6] Keller, Walking with God through pain and suffering, 89.

[7] See Henrei Blocher’s discussion of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in Blocher, Evil and the Cross, 22.

[8] Keller, Walking with God through pain and suffering, 18.

[9] For discussion on this see Blocher, Evil and the Cross, 26-30 and Keller, Walking with God through pain and suffering,91.

[10] Augustine, Answer to an enemy of the Law and the Prophets, 1.5.7. Cited in Shapers of Christian Orthodoxoy, 246-7.

[11] Augustine, City of God, 361.

[12] See Keller, Walking with God through pain and suffering,207-209

[13] Keller, Walking with God through pain and suffering, 209-211

[14] Keller, Walking with God through pain and suffering, 173-174.

[15] See James Davies, Cracked, Why Psychiatry is doing more harm than good, 215-224. Keller, Walking with God through pain and suffering, 23-27. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, 37-38.


2 thoughts on “Talking About Suffering

    • Hi there – that’s right. The article’s broken down into a few posts on Open Theism. Then we’ll do a few on the atheist challenge. Hope you’ll stick with me!


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