The quest for an answer to the problem of suffering is universal. People often treat the Bible like a manual, looking for a single clear response that explains the presence of evil and suffering. Perhaps the Bible does not have one but many responses to suffering. To pick out one theme is to hear the sopranos but miss the choir. We need to listen to the whole biblical narrative to appreciate its multifaceted handling of the problem.
What compelled you to write a book about the Bible’s perspectives on suffering?
Brian Han Gregg: How does one make sense of a good and powerful God who allows his people to suffer? Sooner or later every Christian is forced to wrestle with this question. As a professor of Bible at a Christian University, I have experienced the joy and burden of entering into this struggle with many students. I wrote this book because so many of them are inadequately prepared to navigate the suffering they experience. My hope is that fewer of them may fall away when “trouble or persecution arise” (Mark 4:17).
What do you mean when you write, “When it comes to suffering, the Scripture’s approach is more like a complex harmony”?
Brian Han Gregg: In my experience, it’s easy to assume there are one or two “right answers” when it comes to suffering. It’s tempting to reflexively use these to interpret every instance of suffering. Frankly, we desire an easy answer to the problem of suffering. Such an approach simply doesn’t do justice to the biblical witness. In reality, the books of the Bible spend an enormous amount of space wrestling with suffering, and they approach the topic in a number of different ways. In that sense, they’re like a choir with sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses all singing their own parts. One who listens to only the sopranos fails to recognize that the sopranos are meant to be heard alongside the rest of the choir.
To that end, merely seeing the scope of possibilities is worthwhile. Here’s a list of 12 different biblical responses to suffering that I treat in the book. The discussion of each is grounded in a particular scriptural passage in order to keep the focus on the Bible. It’s my hope that consideration of the various ways God responds to suffering will enable us to hear all of the voices in the choir.
- The Two Ways: Suffering and the God of Justice
- Sin Is Lurking at the Door: Suffering and Choice
- The Purposes of God: Suffering and the Sovereignty of God
- The Accuser: Suffering and the Devil
- I Am: The Mystery of Suffering
- God Wins: Suffering and the Future
- Running the Race: Suffering as Training
- Confronting the Truth: Suffering as Testing
- Jars of Clay: Suffering and the Power of Weakness
- Pass It On: Suffering and the Comfort of God
- The Cruciform Path to Glory: Following God into Suffering
- To Suffer for Another: Participation in the Suffering of God
Provide more insight into one of these perspectives.
Brian Han Gregg: One source of suffering in each of our lives is weakness. We all know what it is to come face to face with our limitations, failings, and deficits. The world tells us to hide our weakness, pretending it doesn’t exist. God, on the other hand, makes good use of our weakness—if we let him. In “Jars of Clay,” my chapter on weakness, I explore Paul’s argument in 2 Corinthians that, “We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us” (2 Cor. 4:7). We do not need to fear weakness. Rather, our weakness reminds us of our dependence on God, builds our trust when he acts on our behalf, and demonstrates to the world that he’s powerfully at work through his simple servants.
How and why does God want suffering to play a role in a person’s spiritual growth?
Brian Han Gregg: One of my chapters, “Running the Race,” explores the idea that God uses suffering to shape us, grow us, and mature us. This understanding of suffering’s role in “soul-making” has a long history in the church. Anyone who’s experienced great suffering knows first-hand that it changes you. When God participates in the process, that change can lead to a deepening awareness of God, self, and the world. Ironically, the experience of suffering becomes an opportunity for us to see more clearly, feel more deeply, and understand God more fully. However, I think it’s misguided to assume that God has, in every circumstance, intentionally brought distress and pain into our lives. Rather, his work to shape us in the midst of suffering is best understood redemptively. This is one of my favorite things about God. He has the capacity to take what is inherently bad and bring good out of it.
Explain your statement, “There is always a degree to which suffering will remain a mystery to us.”
Brian Han Gregg: In the process of working on the book, I have occasionally had a conversation with someone who’s interested to know how I “solved” the problem of suffering. While I think that the book opens up new ways to explore the question and usefully focuses a spotlight on the variety of biblical responses to the problem, I’m quite convinced that there will always be a significant measure of mystery surrounding the problem of suffering. So many things in the Christian faith remain beyond our understanding. God is bigger than we are and as the book of Job shows us, sometimes we must be content with that knowledge. While I can testify that our search for truth and understanding is extremely profitable, the fact remains that mystery will continue to be part of the equation.
How important is it to know the answer to the question “Why”?
Brian Han Gregg: When suffering happens, our first inclination is to seek out “why.” We want to solve the difficulty, remove the challenge, avoid the pain, so we go into problem solving mode. However, close examination of the Bible makes it plain that the “why” question is not God’s chief concern. As I say in the book, “The focus seems to lie on God’s various responses to suffering. What is God doing through suffering? What is God doing to address suffering? What is God doing to defeat suffering?” (pg. 18)
What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App?
Brian Han Gregg: The more tools we have to explore Scripture the better! When passionate people invest in the Bible together, good things happen.
Bio: Brian Han Gregg (PhD, University of Notre Dame) is associate professor of biblical studies at the University of Sioux Falls in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He is a contributor to the and . His ministry experience includes college and missionary work with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship as well as pastoral ministry in California, Indiana and South Dakota.