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.
How did mankind become subject to suffering? As created, men and nature were “very good” (
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” (
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 (
Repeatedly Israel faced judgmental suffering for her iniquities (
The New Testament portrayal of judgmental suffering is equally severe. For premeditated lying to the apostles and the
In the judgment the believer’s works of “wood, hay, stubble” will be burned up and “he will suffer loss” (
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” (
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” (
“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” (
Some misunderstanding of God’s relation to suffering arises from a failure to do justice to His immanence and transcendence.
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” (
Paul explained and proved from the Jewish Scriptures that it was necessary for Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead (
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.
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, asexplained 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 (
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” (
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 (
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” (
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.
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 (
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 (
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 (
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.”
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
(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" (
(4) "To undergo punishment": "Think ye that these Galileans were sinners above all the Galileans, because they have suffered these things?" (