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Hermeneutics of Suffering
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Hermeneutics of Suffering

Considering Biblical Interpretive Options...

by John J. Parsons

Preface: The following entry briefly explores some aspects of how we may understand suffering from a Biblical perspective... It is of course only a very brief discussion of an incredibly complex subject. Please skip it if it doesn't help you, friend. Shalom.

Philosophically considered, suffering is a problem of meaning, since without a coherent narrative of why we suffer, our sense of order, intelligibility, and even our very sanity may be threatened. The problem of suffering is therefore the problem of interpreting our life experiences without succumbing to the threat of semantic nihilism and despair. Faith justifies our struggle, giving it meaning, purpose, and a glorious end; an honest conviction must give voice to our anguish and yet still be able to say "yes" to the validity and significance of hope itself. We walk by faith, not by sight; we make visible what is unseen; we mediate the flux and changes of life through connecting with the Eternal.

The existential problem of suffering is really a problem that arises from faith, not unbelief... Indeed, suffering is often most keenly felt within the framework of a theology that esteems God's power and will as sovereign and absolute, since then the experience of suffering must be reconciled with the all-encompassing divine perfection. Is suffering something "inside" or "outside" of God's sovereign purposes for our lives? Surely the One who knows the number of the hairs on our head also knows the anguish that lacerates our hearts in grief; surely the One who cares for the lilies of the field also watches over the sheep of his pasture...  But in either case, we are confronted with painful experiences, and this leads us to ponder why a loving and all-powerful God would permit suffering in our lives....  Are we to passively accept its presence in submission to God or are we permitted to protest it, to lament our fate, and even to complain to heaven about our troubles? Does faith in God's infinite perfections imply that this is the "best of all possible worlds" or does the occurrence of seemingly gratuitous suffering defy the "comfort of meaning" surmised in our theological rationalizations?

The ancient pagan world generally believed that suffering was the manifestation of divine wrath provoked by the impiety of the sufferer. This is the basic idea of "karma," or reciprocal justice, found in many eastern world religions, though karma is also expressed in terms of punishment for disobedience to God's will given in the Torah, and the New Testament also includes the principle that "what a man sows, that shall he also reap" (Gal. 6:7-8). However, as the story of the Book of Job reveals, the righteous (not the wicked) can and do suffer, and therefore appealing to divine justice as a modality of moral reciprocity cannot suffice to explain all suffering, and indeed the great suffering of Yeshua, his vicarious mesirat ha'nefesh (self-sacrifice), vindicated not only God's justice but also his love and salvation. Surely Yeshua was not a victim of deserved suffering, though by his suffering we find healing and life.

In this connection we should note that the Scriptures simply do not present a "monolithic" or uniform explanation for all cases of suffering.  In general terms, the Torah of Moses regards suffering as punishment from God, and the narrative portion of earliest human history begins with the transgression at Eden which resulted in the just verdict of exile from paradise and spiritual death (Gen. 3). Other examples abound. Adam and Eve's firstborn son Cain was doomed to wander the earth in punishment for the murder of his brother (Gen. 4); the great flood destroyed all life on earth except for the family of Noah and those animals that were preserved in the ark (Gen. 6); the Tower of Babel was upended by God because of the globalist secular vision of Nimrod (Gen. 11); the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because of the wickedness of their inhabitants (Gen. 18-19), and so on.  After the Israelites were rescued from Egypt during the great Exodus, they were brought into covenant with God at Sinai. The terms of the Sinai Covenant made provision for divine retribution: blessing would come for obedience and the curse would come for disobedience (Deut. 11:26-28). God would visit the iniquity of the fathers upon their children and children's children for breaking faith with him (Exod. 20:1-5). Indeed Moses' repeated exhortations to Israel culminate in the grave warning that sin – both national and individual - would lead to great tribulation, exile, and progressively more intense sufferings (see the "tochechah" sections of Lev. 26:16-39 and Deut. 28:15-68). Tragically, the Sin of the Spies led to the judgment that the Exodus generation was doomed to perish in the desert as punishment for denying the truth of God's promises (Num. 13-14). Moreover, the later history of ancient Israel in the promised land – both with the advent of the "judges" and the later rise of the two kingdoms – presents the same theme of judgment for sin that would inevitably lead to exile, captivity, and hardship. The Hebrew prophets, of course, explained the relationship between the people's suffering and their impiety, and they often lamented the harrowing times of trouble that would befall Israel if they refused to repent from their sins...

Despite these examples of suffering as a punitive response from heaven, however, the Scriptures also provide other interpretations for suffering that transcend the idea of karma and "retributive justice." For instance, Israel's afflictions are said to not be based on God's harsh justice but should instead be understood as the means of imparting discipline to God's people (Deut. 8:5, Amos 3:2, Prov. 3:12). In other places suffering is understood to "test the righteous" (Psalm 11:5; James 1:12), refining their character and helping them to grow in godliness (James 1:3-5; Psalm 119:71; 1 Cor. 11:32). In yet other places suffering is regarded as simply inexplicable, or known only to God (for example, see Luke 13:1-3; John 9:1-3). Perhaps the most important understanding of suffering as something more than corrective punishment for sin is revealed in the Suffering Servant and the concept of vicarious atonement (Isa. 52:12-53:12). At the cross of Calvary the Messiah willingly took upon himself unspeakable suffering and anguish of heart to give us eternal healing and life...  The Scriptures attest that all suffering will ultimately be healed in the world to come, despite the present appearances of reality (Mal. 3:16-17; Rom. 8:18-39). Because of Yeshua, all our suffering will be reconciled with a promised future state that is unimaginably comforting and that will eternally vindicate God's love and justice (Dan. 12:2-3; Isa. 25:8-10; Rev. 21:4-7).

    The Kobriner (i.e., Rabbi Boruch Yosef Sack) once said: "When a man suffers tribulation, he should not say 'this is evil,' for the Lord sends no evil. He should rather say: 'I am undergoing a bitter experience.' It is like a bitter medicine which a physician prescribes to help cure the patient. Indeed "every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights (אֲבִי הַמְּארת) with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change" (James 1:17).

Still, there are heart-rending cries of lament in Scripture, even complaints directed toward God for our present miseries and troubles (Hab. 1:2-4; 13; Jer. 12:1-4, Psalm 13:1-2, etc.). The Scriptural inclusion of complaint, lament, heartache, grief, and so on indicate that that God is not offended at our lamentations of heart. How do we handle seemingly unanswered prayer? How long will God hide his face? Why do the wicked prosper? Why do the rulers of this world set themselves against the Lord and His anointed? Why does God withdraw, refraining to intervene and help? Why the criminality, vice, and depravity of the world? Why the rise of Herod? Why the Holocaust? Why Christian persecution throughout the world?

The Book of Job, of course, is the prime example in Scripture that seeks to explore the question of why the righteous suffer... Job's friends offer the "traditional view" that the righteous do not suffer, that suffering is always caused by sin, yet at the outset of the book we learn the that righteous Job will be tested by God in a "wager" with the accusing angel (i.e., the devil), and therefore we come into the story knowing beforehand that the "karmic" view is not applicable in this case. When an exasperated Job finally and dramatically accuses God of injustice and calls him to court, God intervenes and reveals his overmastering power and inscrutable wisdom within the whirlwind of created reality.... In response, Job's heart is softened and he repents in "dust and ashes" (Job 42:6). Nevertheless, the reason for Job's suffering remains unexplained and left unanswered. Note, however, that the narrative implies that the assumption of karma may rightly be questioned and challenged. After all, at the end of the story God was angry at Job's friends for their supposed "defense" of Him, but he blessed Job despite his grievous protest and stridulent complaints.

    Why are we taught to bless the Lord for the evil as well as for the good? Because the Lord does everything for the good of man... Therefore, in the face of adversity or distress, we affirm gam zu l'tovah (גַּם זוּ לְטוֹבָה) this too is for good, even if at present that good is hidden from view. Our faith says that suffering works a greater end in compassion than otherwise would be the case were it not prescribed...

Lastly, the Book of Ecclesiastes interprets suffering as essentially unexplainable, with good fortune and bad befalling both the pious and impious alike, without discernible reason. Here are a few quotes from this profoundly existential work of theological philosophy, written thousands of years ago: "Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless" (Eccl. 1:2). "In the place of judgment – wickedness was there, in the place of justice – wickedness was there" (Eccl. 3:16). "When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, you cannot discover anything about your future.... No one knows when their hour will come: As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so people are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them" (Eccl. 7:14; 9:12).  "There is something else vexing that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless" (Eccl. 8:14). "So I reflected on all this and concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God's hands, but no one knows whether love or hate awaits them" (Eccl. 9:1). In the end Kohelet is "agnostic" about the "why" of suffering, though he states that the best we can do is pragmatically keep the commandments of God for the sake of prudence, even if this life seems absurd or vain (Eccl. 12:1-14).

    The sages said: "The Lord says to us, 'You shall be holy' (Lev. 19:2). If we do not choose to be so, He compels us through suffering. Therefore we should avoid suffering by honoring our parents, keeping the Sabbath day, and performing the other commandments. If God does send us afflictions, however, we must not rationalize them, but feel them, and allow them to move us to do teshuvah...

This brief overview of the way Scripture explains suffering is meant to guard us from taking an overly simplistic approach about such a sensitive subject. While there are valid reasons for connecting suffering with acts of moral disobedience, it is a mistake to assume that this exhausts all we can say on the subject. Indeed, it is misguided to surmise there is a single answer to the problem of suffering revealed in Scripture, and indeed Scripture itself presents various perspectives to interpret its purposes. In some cases suffering may indeed be punitive, while in other cases it may be disciplinary, corrective, or even refining. In yet other cases suffering may be enigmatic and mysterious: only God knows why Job suffered, why the man was born blind, or how the suffering of Yeshua effects vicarious atonement for those who trust in him. Indeed the most sacred place of all cosmic history was shrouded in the darkness that covered the cross as our Savior bore our sins and carried our iniquities. The dark night of the soul, the garden of His pain, the agony and passion of his broken heart – all bespeak the most grievous suffering borne by the most loving of hearts...

    Suffering should help us come to teshuvah, to move us to change our thinking, and to bring us close to God. Merely changing your outer circumstances will not bring lasting remedy, however, since "wherever you go, there you are," and that means your pain will pursue you to other circumstances. The real cure is repentance – turning to God and praying from the heart, asking God for mercies and healing.

In the end, suffering must be understood eschatologically, as a matter of faith, wherein every tear will be wiped from our eyes and God's love and righteousness will forever be realized within us. The Spirit celebrates the victory of faith that overcomes the power of death and decay. He is Risen!  Yeshua is the Center of all meaning and purpose in the midst of our suffering, and His comfort is more than enough to sustain us on the way. Amen.

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