Top Shelf: Suffering (Review)

Top shelf: A guide to the must-read books in important areas of evangelical thought and life.

  • A .Van De Beek, Why: On Suffering, Guilt and God. Tr. J Vriend, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990.
  • D. A. Carson, How Long O Lord?: Reflections on Suffering & Evil. Leicester: IVP, 1990.
  • C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain. London: Harper Collins, 1940. (Reprinted by Found)
  • J. Dickson, A Sneaking Suspicion. Kingsford: St Matthias Press, 1992.
  • C. M. Sanders, Surviving Grief and Learning to Live Again. New York: John Wiley, 1992.

For centuries Christians have been tormented by the question “If God is good and all powerful, why does he allow his creatures to suffer pain?”

The question can be addressed at a number of levels. Van De Beek, for example, guides the reader through a detailed systematic theological analysis. While the book is intended for those with some theological interest and background, the specialist areas are presented in smaller print, allowing the average reader to avoid the more technical discussions and yet make sense of the book. The author acknowledges the Bible as the critical standard to which all thinking must be subject. The book is marked by an extensive and sustained interaction with Scripture. From the biblical point of view, the real problem is not the problem of evil, but the problem of the Evil One. The solution to the problem lies in the activity of Christ and the Spirit as they bring the plan of the Father to fruition. While the book is most stimulating, there is a disturbing element. The doctrine of the changelessness of God is attacked and modified in such a way that one might suspect the author of some form of process theology. He appears to be saved from this by the notion of choice. God’s character is determinative.

The work of Carson is less systematic but no less biblical. The book provides us with the study of a number of biblical themes relevant to the issue of suffering. Among those themes is a study of the book of Job. For Job there is no answer to the question, ‘how?’; rather, Job has to learn to trust the One whose station is infinitely above his and whose compassion cannot be measured. Job has known the character of God and that is enough. For the Christian, the character of God is revealed in the cross of Jesus. Given the character of God, the fact that he is in control and working out his purposes is enough to provide the comfort we need. Carson’s insights are helpful at a number of points. Particularly, this is so when he addresses the free will defence—a popular argument used to explain the presence of evil. As it is frequently portrayed, this defence undermines the sovereignty of God. Carson shows us a way of gleaning truth from the argument and avoiding its pitfalls.

Lewis puts the problem in its proper biblical context. Subtly, and not so subtly, we are reminded that the context is one of personal relations. Like the previous two writers, Lewis would agree that we cannot know why we suffer. The more significant question is whether suffering is meaningful or meaningless. In reference to our relationship with God, pain is significant and full of meaning. It is the way God demonstrates his love towards us. Lewis reminds us that in relationships fortitude, patience, courage, and sympathy are sometimes more important than knowledge.

Chapter 6 of Dickson’s book provides a simple and clear overview of the elements of the partial answer available to us. Its clarity and simplicity make it suitable to give to others who are beginning to struggle with the issue.

Finally, Sanders’ book is not about the why of suffering, but the how. It is not a Christian book but a book about the psychological aspects of bereavement that are common to all people. The great virtue of the book is that it is written by a psychologist who has studied the suffering of grief for many years and has experienced this suffering first hand with the death of a teenage son and her husband. It has many great insights and practical suggestions about how to cope with the processes. In the end these practical aspects must be as important as the theoretical.

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