On Evil & Suffering: Some Thoughts & Some Recommended Resources
By Fred Zaspel
I was asked recently for some thoughts and resources for Christians who struggle both with suffering and the related “problem of evil.” I’ve thought much on the subject for years, have preached on it many times. I’ve long thought that it’s part of the pastor’s job to prepare God’s people for suffering, and then for a significant period, I needed the counsel myself. Here I’ll offer just a few thoughts and then recommend some resources.
Some Miscellaneous Thoughts
First, we must recognize that only once in history did a bad thing happen to a good person – that was at the cross. All other suffering is due to sin, the fall, and the curse (Gen.3) – the world in its fallen state is under divine judgment. God does not owe life – or a happy life – to anyone. We are all sinners living in a fallen, cursed world, and every moment of happiness and prosperity and health that we have is due only to divine grace. It is not a problem of evil, really, but a problem of grace – “the problem of pleasure,” as someone has called it. We are so accustomed to grace that we have come to expect it and in fact, feel cheated with things that go badly for us. But the question is not “Why do bad things happen to good people?” but rather “Why do so many good things happen to sinners?” We have become so accustomed to grace that we have the problem all backward.
Closely related to this is a second consideration: God is sovereign in dispensing grace. We may be sure that final judgment will fall on all sinners outside of Christ, but in the meantime, he dispenses grace sovereignly – not evenly across the board. He does not owe grace to anyone – he is always both free and right both in dispensing and withholding grace. He is God, and to question this is to assume a position of judgment over him. Any “good time” we have is by his grace; any suffering is due to our fallenness and the curse. And in either case, God is sovereign and righteous.
Third, the major lesson from the book of Job is that God is God, and we must always trust him; we must never judge him by our limited – our creaturely & fallen – perspective. We owe him not only our obedience but our trust, and anything less is unworthy of him. For Christians this should be easy – at the cross God has already given us the ultimate demonstration of his deeply committed love. He has given us every reason to trust him, and reason never to mistrust him when we don’t understand his ways.
Finally, as already implied, we must humbly acknowledge that whether or not we understand God’s reasons for any given suffering (say, of his redeemed people), we do know that God knows. And because he is trustworthy, and proven trustworthy, we can trust him.
There is so much more here, and if I pursue them this will become another book. But these “framework” kinds of considerations are needful for a right perspective on the question.
I must admit that I am soon impatient with Christians who question the goodness of God in suffering. How could we ever mistrust the God who spared not his own Son but delivered him up for us all? I’ve struggled with the suffering of a loved one – our daughter, a believer and eager servant of Christ who suffered terribly for years and then died. To question God in this would only have compounded the problem, adding sinful mistrust and rebellion to the grief. God never promised perfect health for 80 years to anyone – and we must trust him in every case. He has given us so much reason to do so! And anyone who acknowledges God in any sense at all should be able to recognize that we are not able always to perceive God’s reasons providence – to acknowledge God is, implicitly, to accept mystery. He is God. The world does not revolve around us – it revolves around him and his grand purpose to glorify himself in human history. Whether we yet see just how this is so is irrelevant.
Some Selected Resources (in no particular order)
- D. A. Carson’s How Long, O Lord? is excellent and very accessible. This may be the most accessible yet comprehensive resource. A refreshing, well-rounded theology of suffering that is thoroughly biblically informed and personally satisfying. His presentation of God’s relation to suffering and evil is well thought out, and his corresponding emphasis on trusting God in the face of mystery is enormously helpful. Definitely a first choice.
- A couple of years ago I edited a collection of essays for The Gospel Coalition. The excellent essay by Greg Welty on the problem of evil is here. His book is here – it is brief but excellent and to the point.
- Currently, Scott Christensen’s What About Evil? is the most comprehensive treatment of the question theologically. It is a huge work, but it repays the time. You can see here and here.
- Sinclair Ferguson’s Deserted by God? is a series of studies in selected Psalms intended to minister to those who, in suffering, feel that God has deserted them. Excellent.
- Brian Edward’s Not By Chance: Making Sense Out of Suffering is simply excellent. It is excellent in its Biblical accuracy, answer the question “Why is there evil?” in a thoroughly Biblical way. And it is simple in its conveying of profound Biblical concepts. Edwards handles the question of suffering — and how it reflects on God — in a way that drives us to consider ourselves, God’s creatures, living in a sinful, cursed world that awaits final judgment. Important reading for every Christian and easily understandable to all.
- Herbert Carson’s Facing Suffering is a very fine pastoral treatment of the subject of suffering. A heavy – and healthy – emphasis on trust in the face of things we cannot understand and some very helpful Biblical case histories – Jeremiah, Job, and Paul. A very helpful work – one of the best for someone presently in suffering.
- John Feinberg’s Deceived By God?: A Journey through Suffering is somewhat unique. There are books that deal with suffering on an academic or theological level (as Feinberg’s The Many Faces of Evil), and there are books of the touchy-feely sort. This is somewhere between: it is a record of Feinberg’s own awful “journey in suffering” but that as a vehicle of teaching important lessons about how a Christian should act and think at such times. A very good read.
- Jay Adams’ The Grand Demonstration: A Biblical Study of the So-Called Problem of Evil, is a simple but helpful look into this question. In chapter 1 Adams takes his text at Romans 9:22-23 and affirms that God allows evil for the purpose of displaying His own glory, a piece of the puzzle that is most often missing and which deserves much more press. The remainder of the book is a treatment of corollary questions: To whom is this demonstration made? Is God fair? etc.
- John Wenham’s The Enigma of Evil: Can We Believe in the Goodness of God? (formerly titled The Goodness of God) is excellent, even if with one serious flaw. The opening chapters of this book reaffirm both “the goodness and severity of God,” his omnibenevolence, and his sovereignty, and investigates the value of suffering and its general purposes. The other chapters investigate specific related questions – hell, the supposed “cruelty” of God in the OT, the imprecatory Psalms, and so on. My only disappointment was his (surprising) briefly-mentioned yet evident capitulation to annihilationism when speaking of the duration of suffering – and this after such insightful cautions to the contrary. This only arose once (that I noticed), and as I say, it was seriously disappointing. But the remainder of the book is well worth reading – if nothing else for his helpful summaries of the reality of evil in both life as we know it and in the Scriptures. He does not dodge the issue but faces it squarely. This book is out of print, but perhaps you can find a used copy at some reasonable cost – not like this!
- Henri Blocher’s Evil and the Cross deals with the various philosophical questions related to the problem of evil in light of the related Biblical teaching. Blocher surveys these explanations simply and very well. His evaluations are insightful and Biblical and lucid. His focus on Christ’s cross is satisfying. His insistence on accepting the mystery involved in this discussion is refreshing. And his emphasis on hope and the end of evil is thoroughly Biblical.
- John Reisinger’s The Sovereignty of God in Providence is not really about suffering, but it deserves mention here. John had a great ability to take these doctrines and explain them simply and practically. A very good overview of Divine providence with some good attention to the subject of evil and suffering.
- Sickness by J. C. Ryle was written to believers primarily to instruct them concerning God’s purposes and our responsibilities in times of sickness. Ryle’s counsel is simple, brief, faithful, and right on the mark. Valuable reading for any believer. Valuable also for distribution to those in sickness or suffering of whatever kind.
- Scarcely any preachers in history have worked pastorally through the subject of suffering as did the Puritans, and almost none as thoroughly as William Bridge. His A Lifting Up for the Downcast consists of a series of 13 sermons preached at his church in London in the year 1648. He takes Psalm 42:11 as his text – “Why art thou cast down, O my soul? And why art thou disquieted within me?” – and expounds to great length the various causes and cures for our various kinds of discouragements and examines the issue from the roots up. “The saints and people of God have no true reason for their discouragements, whatever their condition” is Bridge’s contention. His counsel is clear, thorough, and very helpful.
- Horatius Bonar’s When God’s Children Suffer is warm, stirring, and instructive. Possibly no other book available strikes such a wonderful balance of both instruction and comfort. Though not highly theological in handling the “problems” of the subject of suffering and evil, it is highly biblical and helpful in its presentation of God’s designs in our suffering and the comforting hope of the gospel.
- W. Pink’s Comfort for Christians may be the “warmest” Pink I’ve ever encountered. Pink at times can leave a sour taste, but not in this little work. Seventeen brief chapters of expositions of various biblical texts relating to the believer’s comfort, some of which are excellent.
- John Bunyan’s Heart’s Ease in Heart Trouble consists of warm and practical counsel from John 14:1-3 – in typical Bunyan fashion. Very good specific identification of the various kinds of “heart trouble” which God disallows and especially practical counsel on what it means to “believe God.”
- Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ Spiritual Depression is a series of sermons preached by “the doctor” in Westminster Chapel in the early 1960s. An excellent analysis of the various causes and cures of depression. True to form, Lloyd-Jones consistently reminds us to think like Christians, with a gospel frame of reference and bringing Christ to our defense.
- Why Does God Allow Suffering? by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. This book was published at the outset of the second world war under the title Why Does God Allow War? It has now been brought back under this more generic title, and as anyone familiar with Lloyd-Jones should expect, Lloyd-Jones addresses the problem squarely and handles it biblically. With a thoroughly biblical insight into the nature of this fallen age, this “prince of expositors” directs our attention back to our sin and away to a God who alone can save us.
- Be Still My Soul by Martyn Lloyd-Jones. One thing that many Christians are slow to learn is that the comfort which the Bible offers is not at all like what the world offers. It is not a mere psychological stroke, and it does not come by ignoring the problems. It comes by facing the problems head-on and viewing them from the perspective of the gospel and its blessed hope. Lloyd-Jones understood this well, and in this series of messages from John 14:1-3 you will find him at his best.
- Christians Grieve Too by Donald Howard. This little book (one of Banner’s booklet series) is a most helpful introduction to the subject of grieve, particularly as it relates to death and bereavement. Howard speaks from personal hard experience. Perhaps his chief contribution is his counsel to Christians who seek to minister, informally and non-professionally or otherwise, to those in such grief.
- Behind a Frowning Providence by John J. Murray is another of Banner’s booklet series, this is a good overview of the subject of our suffering as it relates to God. To finish out his discussion, Murray perhaps could better have enlarged on the subject of the end of suffering and our blessed hope, but otherwise this concise summary of the subject is very well done.
- Some years ago I preached a series of messages from Job on suffering. You can access them here.
- The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis is a somewhat classic study of the problem of evil that has many profound thoughts but is of little practical value. Lewis was scarcely evangelical (if at all, truly) and no theologian, and while his treatment is interesting and at times helpful, it is short on biblical investigation. Lewis was a great writer and a profound thinker, but to me at least this work is just not so satisfying as some of his others.
Some Others (Not So Recommended)
- When Faith is Not Enough by Kelly James Clark is not a significant contribution of any kind. Worse, Clark’s god who cannot deal with evil more effectively and decisively is not worth your attention. I for the life of me cannot understand how after arguing for such a god he (Clark) can call on us to trust Him!
- God, Freedom, and Evil by Alvin Plantinga. I bought this book years ago, but I never bought his thesis. I’m not even renting it. Plantinga’s “Free Will Defense” of the problem of evil is indefensible exegetically and does serious damage to the Bible’s presentation of the nature and sovereignty of God. It “solves” the problem by domesticating God to human proportions – a solution that is much worse than the problem.