Suffering and Anguish

Some twelve Hebrew words and twenty-one Greek terms (too many to list here), convey such ideas as: to suffer, to endure suffering, suffering, distress, anguish, pain, to cause pain, to be distressed, to be hard pressed, to torment, to permit, to leave or to let alone. Generally, suffering is mental distress which may or may not include physical pain. Anguish is intense suffering.

The Biblical contexts suggest some answers to the extremely difficult question as to why there is so much suffering in the world. Suffering may be an effect of: (1) divine judgment for sin, (2) empathy for another’s misery, (3) the vicarious bearing of another’s penalty, (4) authentic repentance and faith in the Lord, (5) a warning to prevent a greater evil, or (6) discipline for training in Christlikeness. The appropriate response to each kind of suffering is as different as its raison d’etre. Such significant differences make generalizations about the purpose of all suffering improper and misleading. In an attempt to avoid the error of generalization as far as possible, each type of suffering is considered separately in the following order:

More than one of these purposes may be operative in any given instance of suffering. When that is the case, however, the reasons may be more readily recognized if first clearly distinguished.

Judgmental suffering

How did mankind become subject to suffering? As created, men and nature were “very good” (Gen 1:31). What made life on earth a “vale of tears”? Neither a capricious act of God nor fate. It was man’s pretentious and unbelieving violation of God’s will. The pains of childbirth and of hard labor may be traced to divine judgment upon the first sin (Gen 3:16-19).

In a fallen world we may bring suffering upon ourselves by failure to employ our God given resources in accord with wisdom. An “idle person will suffer hunger” (Prov 19:15). “He who walks with wise men becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (13:20). “A prudent man sees danger and hides himself; but the simple go on, and suffer for it” (22:3; 27:12). “One man gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want” (11:24). Apparently God sustains a providential order in which people are judged for laziness, lack of foresight, companionship of fools and greed. Furthermore, distress may result from social pressures to condemn an innocent man. Pilate’s wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much over him today in a dream” (Matt 27:19). Of course, no Christian ought to suffer for wrongdoing (2 Pet 2:13).

Judgmental suffering also follows for sins against God’s revelation through prophets and apostles. Israel’s adults, so wonderfully delivered from Egypt, nevertheless continually murmured against Moses and God. For their “faithlessness” they suffered and died in the wilderness. Their children also suffered (Num 14:31-33). Awareness of family and national solidarity was explicit in the culture. However, the children suffered only temporarily; they entered the Promised Land. Influential in William Hamilton’s case for the death of God is suffering—and particularly the suffering of children. That is brought to the attention of the modern Christian by Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan cannot believe that children “share their fathers’ responsibility for all their fathers’ crimes” (emphasis mine). Is it taught in the Bible that they do? As in the wilderness, judgment upon the head of a family or nation may have its temporal implications for those in the family or national unit. But Ezekiel made it clear that a righteous father may have a wicked son, or a wicked father a righteous son. “The soul that sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself” (Ezek 18:20).

Repeatedly Israel faced judgmental suffering for her iniquities (Ps 107:17) and her guilt (Isa 24:5, 6). Jeremiah cried out, “My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain! Oh, the walls of my heart! My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent; for I hear the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war” (Jer 4:19). Judah was destroyed because of the greatness of her iniquity (Jer 13:22). Jerusalem lay in ruins and Zion suffered bitterly for “the multitude of her transgressions” (Lam 1:5). Later Nehemiah confessed, “they were disobedient and rebelled against thee and cast thy law behind their back and killed thy prophets, who had warned them in order to turn them back to thee, and they committed great blasphemies. Therefore thou didst give them into the hands of their enemies, who made them suffer” (Neh 9:26, 27).

The New Testament portrayal of judgmental suffering is equally severe. For premeditated lying to the apostles and the Holy Spirit Ananias and Sapphira suddenly died (Acts 5:1-11). Those who profaned the Lord’s body and blood at the communion table faced judgment. “For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (1 Cor 11:29, 30). As a result of sin the creation is subjected to futility and in bondage to decay until the revealing of the sons of God (Rom 8:18-21).

In the judgment the believer’s works of “wood, hay, stubble” will be burned up and “he will suffer loss” (1 Cor 3:12, 15). At death Lazarus went to Abraham’s bosom, but the rich man in Hades called out, “I am in anguish in this flame” (Luke 16:24). When the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in flaming fire, taking vengeance on those who do not know God and do not obey the Gospel, “They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thess 1:9).

Empathic suffering

In the face of intense suffering the prophets were appalled. Concerned for the church at Corinth, Paul wrote “out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears” (2 Cor 2:4). All of us are to weep with those who weep (Rom 12:15). Some suffering arises, not from sin, but love. We may enter fully through imagination and concern into another’s feelings. Empathy with others who suffer produces suffering.

Does God experience empathic suffering? In the days of Noah when the Lord saw that the imaginations of man’s heart were only evil continually, “the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (Gen 6:6). In man’s sin God takes no pleasure. He permits it, or in the older Eng. suffers it. As H. Wheeler Robinson has said, “The only way in which moral evil can enter into the consciousness of the morally good, is as suffering.” God is not an impersonal principle, but the living Lord of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. With loving empathy He entered fully into the sufferings of Israel.

“In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old” (Isa 63:9).

Some misunderstanding of God’s relation to suffering arises from a failure to do justice to His immanence and transcendence. Karl Barth’s earliest writings had an extreme emphasis upon divine transcendence far beyond anything even analogous to human suffering. Recognizing this, Barth later stressed the humanity of God in the incarnate Christ. Barth held that in Christ God suffered all that man suffers. God in Christ suffered intensely during the passion week right up to the cross. At that point Barth, with the historic church, stopped. On the cross God the Father did not die. Others, however, did not stop, for their God died never to rise. They stressed God’s immanent involvement with humanity to the exclusion of His transcendent power over the deepest anguish of death itself. In God the suffering ones, as all others, live and move and have their being (Acts 17:27, 28). At the same time, however, God’s transcendent wisdom overules death itself for good.

Belief in a God who permits suffering, others think, destroys human freedom to alleviate it. One must remember, however, that permission is not pleasure. The God who suffers with the suffering encourages removal of the cause. “Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of any one, says the Lord God, so turn and live” (Ezek 18:31, 32). Although God permits suffering, He has acted at inestimable cost to provide a just ground on which to justify the ungodly.

Vicarious suffering

Paul explained and proved from the Jewish Scriptures that it was necessary for Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead (Acts 17:3; 26:23). The writer of Hebrews stressed the vicarious nature of Christ’s agony in that Jesus suffered death for (in behalf of) everyone (Heb 2:9), Christ’s substitutionary atonement is frequently mentioned in the New Testament. Furthermore, Jesus, as the Pioneer of salvation, was made perfect through suffering (Heb 2:10). He suffered temptation so that He could help the tempted (2:18). He did not suffer death repeatedly, but once for all (9:26). Just as sacrifices had been burned outside the camp, Jesus “suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood” (13:12).

Through faith in the One who suffered in their place men are delivered from eternal anguish. No Stoic denial of suffering will change our sinfulness. Resentment does not help. To alleviate the suffering which is bound up with judgment on our sin, we must repent and trust Christ.

Testimonial suffering

Inner distress, however, may result from genuine commitment to a Christlike life. Although believers receive a new nature, their old nature is not annihilated. Daily the Christian must combat temptations to serve the flesh. Genuine Christian living is not merely for pleasure. It is not only an aesthetic existence, Səren Kierkegaard insisted. Neither is it a life of hypocritical law keeping. A merely ethical existence is not a Christian existence. The genuinely religious life is one of continuous repentance and continuous commitment. Aware constantly that he is not living up to the perfect ideal, and is nothing apart from the grace of God, the Christian casts himself upon God’s grace. So, as Edward John Carnell explained in The Burden of Soren Kierkegaard, inner suffering is a doorway to all the blessings of the Christian life. The real satisfactions of life lie in the area of suffering, not indulgence and pleasure. So this type of suffering may testify, not to judgment on sin, but to an authentic Christian commitment.

Through intense suffering Job gave testimony to the integrity of his trust in God. Satan charged that Job’s faith depended upon temporal benefits received. Thereupon, God allowed the devil to test Job’s allegiance by taking away all that he possessed (Job 1:9-12), and even his health (2:4-6). Calamity in Job’s case was not judgmental for certain sins. To his “comforters” it seemed that Job must have been a hypocrite or a liar, but his plight was not penal. It was a test of his integrity as a testimony to others.

Jesus’ disciples also fell into the error of thinking that all sickness was the result of some sin. Upon seeing the man born blind, they asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him” (John 9:2, 3). The healing of the man born blind ended a life of suffering permitted that he might become a key witness to the messiahship of Christ.

What response is appropriate when we experience suffering as a testimony to our unhypocritical trust in the Lord? Remembering Christ’s example of endurance under stress, we shall follow in His steps (1 Pet 2:21). One should not forget the heroes of faith who “suffered mocking and scourging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, ill-treated” (Heb 11:36-38). Like Moses, one may consider suffering abuse for Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt (11:26). So believers shall complete the suffering necessary for the building of the Church (Col 1:24), knowing that it assures future glory (1 Pet 4:13). In comparison with that eternal glory, the present momentary affliction is slight (Rom 8:18; 2 Cor 4:17).

Preventative suffering

God may allow physical suffering to keep one from more serious spiritual problems. Paul found it so. He said, “to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated” (2 Cor 12:7). Because of this weakness, Paul had to rely more completely upon God’s grace. In the midst of energetic service under most difficult conditions he found that grace sufficient. When weak in himself, he was strong in the Lord (2 Cor 12:8-10).

Pain may also be a warning signal of physical dangers. Without pain people would be subject to many calamities. A fourteen-year old girl in London who never felt any pain was covered with the scars of cuts, burns, and abrasions. According to the British Medical Research Council she was normal in other respects. She had bitten off the tip of her tongue, crushed her fingers, and fractured her thigh—all without pain. Previously a young playmate had yanked out handfuls of her hair. An attack of appendicitis would pass unnoticed until too late to operate.

Some suffering in a fallen world is a beneficial warning of the danger of more tragic possibilities. A medical doctor writing on psychosomatic illnesses says, “Pain is a sign that action should be taken; it implies that if action is not taken, the survival chances of the organism are going to decrease.” For such signs one may indeed be thankful. Sometimes physical suffering becomes a sign of spiritual need. If a person flat on his back begins to look up to the Savior, there is also reason for gratitude.

Educational suffering

The greatest good of the Christian life is not freedom from pain; it is Christlikeness. God works all things together for good by surrounding us with conditions which help us conform to the image of His Son (Rom 8:28, 29). Christ’s life was one of total conflict with the forces of evil. As His followers, then, “we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (2 Cor 4:8-10).

God is far less concerned with the comfort than with the character of His people. What produces character? Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character (Rom 5:3, 4). When we fail to endure, we may require discipline as does any child. God disciplines “for our good, that we may share his holiness. 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” (Heb 12:10, 11). Anyone who does not experience the heavenly Father’s discipline is an illegitimate child. “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor lose courage when you are punished by him. For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Heb 12:5, 6).

The follower of the Lord not only passively accepts discipline, but actively disciplines himself. Like an athlete in training, Paul exercised self-control. To keep from being disqualified after preaching to others he pommeled his body and subdued it (1 Cor 9:25-27). The Bible does not support extreme asceticism and self-flagellation as virtuous in themselves; neither does it underwrite self-indulgence as Christian liberty. There is freedom from the domination of sin in order to develop a Christlike character. Respecting that liberty, many count all else refuse in order that they “may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Phil 3:10).

Christianity, Louis Bouyer explained, “does not encourage an unhealthy algolagnia; on the contrary, it offers us the possibility of making suffering, like death itself, fruitful.” In one of his last Letters to Malcolm, C. S. Lewis observed that purification normally involves suffering. Looking back over his life he mused, “Most real good that has been done me in this life has involved it.” To achieve the higher values in a fallen world requires disciplinary suffering. The immature may complain and cry; the mature will accept the fact and by God’s grace discipline themselves.

In summary, we need the wisdom of God to determine whether a given experience of suffering is judgmental, empathic, vicarious, testimonial, preventative, or educational. The very possibility of condemnation and eternal anguish for persistent pride, unbelief, and disobedience is a divine summons to repent. To wait until judgment begins to fall is sheer folly. Today is the day of salvation.

Whoever suffers a conviction of sin can count on divine empathy. God takes no delight in the necessity of judging the ungodly. He so desires their deliverance that He gave His Son to suffer their penalty at Calvary. For that vicarious suffering all believers give praise. Furthermore, they are grateful to be counted worthy of suffering with Him in the battle against unrighteousness. With rejoicing we testify in the midst of suffering to the integrity of our commitment. We accept the warnings of physical pain and act to avoid the dangers signaled. We discipline ourselves and readily accept that of our heavenly Father.

Some experiences may not fit in any of these categories, alone or in combination. From the present limited perspective, no one can obtain all the answers. But the unknowns do not render meaningless that which we do know. As Albertus Pieters argued, “We may know little, but the little that we do know is more valid for our interpretation of the world than the much that we do not know.”

Additional Material


A great variety of Hebrew and Greek expressions, too large to be here enumerated, have been translated by "suffering" and other forms derived from the same verb. The most obvious meanings of the word are the following:

(1) The commonest meaning perhaps in the English Versions of the Bible is "to permit," "to allow," "to give leave to": "Moses suffered to write a bill of divorcement, and to put her away" (Mr 10:4).

(3) "To put up with," "to tolerate": the King James Version, "For ye suffer fools gladly (the Revised Version (British and American) "ye bear with the foolish gladly"), seeing ye yourselves are wise" (2Co 11:1,9).

(4) "To undergo punishment": "Think ye that these Galileans were sinners above all the Galileans, because they have suffered these things?" (Lu 13:2).


  • L. D. Weatherhead, Why Do Men Suffer? (1936);

  • H. W. Robinson, Suffering: Human and Divine (1939);

  • C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (1948);

  • E. F. Sutcliffe, Providence and Suffering in the Old and New Testaments (1953);

  • C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (1961);

  • M. Proudfoot, Suffering: A Christian Understanding (1964);

  • E. J. Carnell, The Burden of Soren Kierkegaard (1965);

  • K. Kitamori, Theology of the Pain of God (1965); W. Fitch, God and Evil (1967).