Biblical Preaching on Suffering

Gordon Clinard  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 1 - Spring 1959

A sermon, if it is to be vital, must be addressed to human need. This is not to infer that every sermon should be a life situation sermon in a technical sense, but it does mean that only the minister who preaches every sermon with the hungers of his people in his heart can effectively preach to men. 

If the minister is concerned with speaking to the needs of his people, he cannot ignore the problem of human suffering. No problem is more common to man nor a more serious threat to faith. The evils which come from the destructiveness of nature, sorrow, sickness, accident, death, war, poverty, vice, the sufferings of the young, the righteous, the innocent—these are parts of the painful mystery which inevitably causes man to ask of God “why?” The problem is serious for Christianity because it involves the very nature of God. The higher one’s concept of God, the greater is the dilemma of suffering. If there is no faith in a God who is personal, powerful, just, and good, there is no problem with suffering. But if one has a concept of a personal God who presides with purpose over the affairs of men, the ancient dilemma of Epicurus must be faced: God wants to do something about evil, but cannot, or God can do something about evil but will not.[1]The interested reader will find a full discussion of this dilemma in Albion Roy King, The Problem of Evil (New York: Ronald Press, 1952). In either case the Christian view of God is called into question. This is the problem of suffering. More than any other theological problem, this mystery seems to verify “belief in fate rather than in providence.”[2]Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), I, 269. The answer is not simple. 

Certain obligations are imposed upon the minister in connection with preaching on suffering. The first of these has already been stated in essence. The minister must preach on the subject. So long as men suffer they will turn to the Christian minister for a word from God, and they will be disappointed if he is silent! 

A second obligation lies at the point of the seriousness of the issue. The minister cannot give an “easy answer” to suffering without risking great peril. To glibly announce in the presence of every tragedy, for example, that “this is the will of God” is to drive many to despair and even to unbelief. The minister must go deeper than this. He should bring the best of the philosophic and theological thought of the centuries to bear on his message, maintaining the conviction, of course, that there is a word for suffering humanity which goes beyond the best that theoretical thought can offer. 

Of primary importance is the minister’s obligation to deliver the biblical message on suffering. It is at this point that much preaching on the subject falls short. The Bible offers no one solution to all suffering: perhaps it is correct to say that the Bible’s solution to suffering is that there is no universal solution. The Bible has many views on the problem of suffering and each of them, if properly interpreted and related to the purpose of Scripture, is correct. When the minister concentrates on only one or two of these views he fails to preach biblically on the subject. Thus, the liberal may distort the biblical message with his total disregard of the retributive element in suffering, but so may the conservative with his insistence that all suffering is retributive. A careful study of contemporary preaching will reveal that few ministers are grasping the full potential of biblical preaching on suffering. Nothing could be more helpful for a congregation than a series of sermons which presents the Bible’s total message on the subject. The purpose of this article is to review briefly the biblical solutions to suffering and to suggest a limited number of texts which may stimulate the reader to attempt such a series. 

Suffering as Retributive 

The retributive solution to suffering is basic to all others in the Bible.[3]H. Wheeler Robinson, Suffering Human and Divine (New York: Macmillan Company, 1939), p. 35. Stated simply, it is that position which attributes suffering in this life to God’s judgment on man’s sin. The view is closely associated with the attributes of holiness and righteousness in God. 

The Old Testament frequently associates man’s sin with his suffering. This is first seen in the Genesis account of the judgment of God upon man’s disobedience (Gen. 3:16-19). Of this relation of sin and suffering in the Old Testament, Albert C. Knudson writes, “Sin and punishment go together just as sin and guilt do. The three terms are involved in each other…. Indeed, the three ideas were so intimately related to each other in Hebrew thought that the same words were used to express them all.”[4]The Religious Teaching of the Old Testament (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1918), p. 267.

Other Old Testament texts which explain suffering as retributive include Deuteronomy 28:20-21; Exodus 9:15; Leviticus 26:14-16; Numbers 12:9-10; 14:26-31; 2 Samuel 12:11-12; Isaiah 3:11; 40:2; 43:22-28. In Amos there is not only confirmation of suffering in Israel in the form of famine, pestilence, earthquake, and defeat in battle as a penalty which anticipates God’s final judgment on sin, but there is also the idea that suffering is retributive in the case of pagan nations as well (Amos 1:3-15; 2:1-3). Psalm 62:12 expresses the idea of individual retribution. Psalm 37 maintains a confidence in the destruction of the wicked and is, in that sense, retributive. 

The minister will find many texts for sermons on the retributive view of suffering in the New Testament also. In John 3:36 Jesus uses the term orge of God in speaking of the state of one outside of Christ. This term is one which not only refers to God’s fixed hostility to sin, but also to the manifestation of that hostility through acts of retributive justice.[5]Marcus Dods, The Gospel of St. John (“The Expositor’s Greek New Testament.” Vol. I; Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, n.d.), p. 722. Sermons may be preached from God’s punishment upon Zacharias (Luke 1:20), the fatal judgment against Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11), or the visitation of blindness upon Elymas the sorcerer (Acts 13:9-11), to show that suffering may be a direct punishment from God. Perhaps the outstanding New Testament text is Romans 1:18-3:20, with the key verse being 1:18. Here Paul seems to indicate that the wrath which follows man’s sin is as surely from above as is the righteousness which justifies from sin.[6]Cf. Albert N. Arnold and D. B. Ford, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (“An American Commentary on the New Testament”; Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1889), pp. 45-46, and C. H. Dodd, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans (“The Moffatt New Testament Commentary”; New York: Harper and Brothers, Publishers, n.d.), pp. 19-24.

In preaching on suffering as retributive the minister must be careful to note that Jesus rejected the view as the only solution to suffering (John 9:13; Luke 13:1-5), that he refused to identify prosperity with righteousness (Luke 16:19-23), and that the view undergoes many purifications in the Bible. Nevertheless, it is a legitimate biblical solution to suffering. It is wisest to say that the Bible teaches that, though not all suffering is the result of sin, all sin brings suffering. 

Suffering as Disciplinary and Educational  

This view is closely related to the retributive view. It considers affliction as a visitation from God, but for a reason other than punishment. God disciplines his people that they may be brought closer to him. The purpose is often educational — to train and to mature through pain. The view makes much of God’s love and of man’s freedom. If God loves his children he must, like a father, discipline them.[7]C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan Company, 1943), pp. 28-34. If man is free, he must mature spiritually by struggle and discipline. 

Jeremiah contains several interesting confirmations of the disciplinary view of suffering. The nation’s distress is so interpreted in 1:14; 4:6; 7:14-15; 8:16; 9:15-16; and 25:8-9. The prophet’s own confessions, as in 12:1-13; 15:10-11; and 20:7-12, illustrate individual discipline in the creation of a new man with new values. Jeremiah 18:1-10 pictures discipline in the figure of the potter. In a basic passage, Proverbs 3:11-12, the chastening of God is compared with the discipline of a father. Psalm 66:10-12 confirms the disciplinary act of God in testing his people. Biographical sermons on suffering as educational are possible with Abraham (Gen. 22:1-19), Joseph (Gen. 42-44), Jonah (Jonah 1-2), and many others. 

The New Testament evidence for the disciplinary view is abundant; indeed so much so that at least one scholar believes it is basic to New Testament thought on suffering.[8]Albert C. Knudson, Basic Issues in Christian Thought (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1950), pp. 95-96. The clearest preaching passages are Hebrews 2:10; 5:8-9; and 12:5-11. The first two interpret the sufferings of Christ as disciplinary, and the last passage presents chastening as a token of genuine sonship. Other New Testament texts include Romans 5:3-5; James 1:2-4; 1 Peter 1:6; and Revelation 3:19. 

Suffering as Probational and Evidential 

A third biblical view on suffering is that pain is probational and evidential. Three major ideas are included in this view: (1) Since the world is evil, the godly must wait for the disposition of wickedness and righteousness which is sure to come. (2) In this probational period man’s faith is submitted to a rigid test which determines the real character of his faith. (3) In the New Testament this struggle is seen as inevitable for the Christian life, and hence is evidence that one is a Christian. It is clear that this view is a purification of the retributive view, dealing with the key problem of that solution, the prosperity of the wicked and the suffering of the righteous. 

A classic illustration of this view is in Habakkuk. How God can honor a wicked nation, the Chaldeans, above a divinely appointed one is the question in the prophet’s mind as he comes to argue with God’s justice. The answer which he receives is that the condition is only temporary. The people are to be patient, for retribution is promised (Hab. 2:6-20). The same solution is illustrated in Malachi 2:17 and 3:14-18. Psalm 37 affords a matchless text for the preaching of the view in a more personal manner. The prologue of Job is a striking expression of suffering as a testing of faith, and A. B. Davidson feels that the entire book is to be interpreted as teaching the probational view of suffering.[9]A. B. Davidson, The Theology of the Old Testament (7th ed.; Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1949), p. 286.

New Testament texts for presenting the evidential view are numerous. E. Stanley Jones interprets Luke 21:8-19 as presenting nine sources of suffering which are inevitable for the Christian simply because he is a Christian.[10]E. Stanley Jones, Christ and Human Suffering (New York: Abingdon Press, 1933), pp. 21-40. In Matthew 10:24 Jesus involves his followers in his own sufferings, and in John 15:18-21 he speaks of a basic enmity with the world which assures suffering. Paul speaks of suffering as evidential in 1 Corinthians 12:26; 2 Corinthians 12:10; and Colossians 1:24. 

Suffering as Revelational 

The view that suffering is revelational refers to physical evil as the occasion of man’s entry into a fuller knowledge of God. The fact that many have found the true glory of God in suffering confirms the truth which is implicit in Scripture. 

One of the best Old Testament evidences for the revelational view is found in Israel’s sufferings. It was in the period of her greatest suffering and doubt that her highest concepts of God were reached. The clearest sermonic text is the experience of Hosea, whose sufferings opened his mind to the love of God which persists against all the infidelity of his people (Hos. 1:8-11). Job’s experience may also be regarded as revelational, especially in light of Job 42:5. 

Romans 5:3-5 may be interpreted as revelational in the sense of the insistence on a new hope and confidence in God attendant on suffering. First Peter 3:17 makes a similar allusion, and 1 Peter 4:12-14 describes the blessings of intimate fellowship with Christ which accompany the Christian’s suffering. It is well to recall that John’s triumpant vision of the living Christ came in the midst of great tribulation (Rev. 1:9-20). Sermon thoughts are abundant in these passages. 

Suffering as Redemptive 

The biblical solution to suffering here called “redemptive” refers to two closely related but distinct theories: physical evil may be redemptive as it is suffered for others; and it may be redemptive for the sufferer in the sense that God can achieve victory in spite of, and even through, suffering. 

The Old Testament, wrestling with the problem of the suffering of the innocent, reaches what is called “its deepest solution” to the riddle in the concept that the innocent may suffer for others.[11]Wheeler Robinson, The Religious Ideas of the Old Testament (9th ed.; London: Gerald Duckworth and Company, Ltd., 1952), p. 176 The Suffering Servant passages of Isaiah 40-55 form the chief illustration of the view. That the sufferings of Christ are vicarious is demonstrated clearly in the New Testament in such passages as 1 Peter 1:18-19; 2:24; 4:1; Hebrews 2:9 ; 9:26-28 ; Galatians 3:13 ; Romans 5:8 ; John 10:11 ; and 15:13. But, can Christians bear sufferings in any redemptive fashion similar to that of Christ? It is the contention of H. Wheeler Robinson that such texts as Colossians 1:24; Philippians 3:10 ; and 2 Corinthians 12:7 assert that God’s redemptive purpose may be advanced through the Christian’s suffering.[12]Η. Wheeler Robinson, Suffering Human and Divine, pp. 192-93.

The second approach to a redemptive view of suffering is also closely related to the death of Christ.[13]A full discussion of this point is available in Gustaf Aulen, Christus Victor, trans. A. G. Hebert (6th ed.; London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1950). It is usually based on a limited dualism which attributes suffering to the power of the devil, but which sees God as “redeeming” the evil in his victory over this satanic power. The victory comes to the sufferer as God takes that for which he is not responsible and makes it work for his own purpose.[14]For a clear statement of this view by one who uses it almost exclusively in preaching on suffering, see Leslie D. Weatherhead, The Will of God (New York: Abingdon Press, 1944). Evidence that disease and suffering are considered as evil and as obstacles to God’s will may be found in Jesus’ miracles of healing and in his commission to his disciples that they engage in healing. Paul’s verification of this basic conflict may be seen in such representative passages as Acts 26:18, Galatians 1:4; Colossians 2:15; and Ephesians 2:2. One of the best texts for preaching on this view of suffering is Romans 8:28-39, the passage which so clearly confirms that God can be in suffering to turn it from deteat [sic] to redemption. 

Suffering as Resolved Eschatologically 

The eschatological solution to suffering sees the answer beyond the present conflict. It is expressed in a faith that in the time of greatest darkness and fear, God will suddenly burst into history to reveal himself, to triumph over evil, and to redeem and to reward his own. 

Two primary texts are available in the Old Testament. One is found in Isaiah 24-27, and the other is in Daniel 7-12. Psalm 73 is eschatological in the sense that the future state of the wicked is offered as a solution to the problem of the prosperity of those who defy God. The view is also seen in Job 19:23-29 in the conviction that death does not close the issue of suffering. 

The eschatological view comes to maturity in the New Testament with a clearer concept of life after death and with the view that the final consummation is not so much a compensation for the sufferings of the believers as the result of them Preaching passages include: Matthew 24:13; Romans 8:18; 2 Timothy 2:12; 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4; Revelation 1:18; 6:2; 11:15; 14:13; 19:16; 20:4; and 20:11-21:5. 

Suffering as Mysterious 

The Bible often confesses the mystery of suffering, and herein the minister may find one of his stronger words to those in pain. The view usually infers four truths: (1) God has a sovereign purpose with man and with history. (2) It is impossible to judge this purpose fully in circumstance. (3) A theoretical solution to suffering is both impossible and unnecessary. (4) Thus, the solution to suffering is practical and is in a faith which perseveres in spite of circumstance. 

The key text for the mystery view of suffering is the book of Job.[15]Excellent discussions at this point may be found in H. Wheeler Robinson, The Cross of Job (London: Student Christian Movement, Ltd., 1916), Theodore Ή. Robinson, Job and His Friends (London: Student Christian Movement, Ltd., 1954), and Paul Scherer, The Book of Job (“The Interpreter’s Bible,” Vol. Ill; New York: Abingdon Press, 1954), #p. 877f. Careful study of the book will reveal that all four aspects of the view are clearly seen in Job’s experience. Someone has to say that man will serve God for nothing—in spite of all suffering—and Job says it. When God answers Job in Job 38:1-42:6, none of the sufferer’s theoretical questions is answered. But in the end Job has God, and that is enough. Thus, at last, in this book and in other key texts, such as Luke 23:46, faith in spite of circumstance emerges as a strong biblical solution to suffering. 


It should be noted, at last, that biblical preaching on suffering must be centered in the cross. There are many lessons on suffering to be learned here—lessons which will strengthen the sufferer who passes through the darkness of life’s greatest mystery. Among them, man may learn here that God is not standing helplessly by while evil does its work unmolested, for God is doing something about evil, physical and moral ; he may learn that God suffers with him and for him; he may learn that God’s highest purpose for man is redemptive, and he may no longer judge life only by the standard of comfort; he may learn that one can joyfully choose to suffer for others, and thus find one of the best keys to unlock the dilemma of his own suffering; he may learn that suffering will ever remain a mystery beyond the knowledge of finite minds, for the “why” of the cross is forever reflective of the “missing link” of every theoretical solution to suffering; but, best of all, he may learn that here is a victory over suffering, a power which is available to him through faith and which can enable him to rise above his suffering and to find inner security and joy in the midst of all his pain. It is this lesson which brings the wise Christian minister to say finally of suffering: “I really do not know the answer fully. But here is a power which is available to you. Accept it, and God will bring light out of your darkness.” The minister will not say a better word than this! 


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