The Pauline Concept of Suffering

With respect to the topic of human suffering, many people ask, “If God is a loving and merciful God, as the Bible seems to imply, why does He permit human beings to suffer?”

When we are blessed with something good in life, we are told to give thanks. But when something bad happens, we are told to accept it as from God. Although the Bible does not supply us with all of the answers, it does provide certain guidelines and principles with regard to this important--yet often misunderstood--topic.

The purpose of this article is to discuss the Pauline treatment of suffering, to include the origin of suffering, God’s purpose in allowing people (especially “innocent” people) to suffer, and the rationale and hope for Christians who undergo suffering.

Biblical Origin of Suffering

In the Book of Genesis we find that when God created man, He placed him in a specially prepared paradise on earth, the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:8-17). We are also told that God not only created man in His own image, but also endowed “His prized object of creation with both a self-consciousness and a free will to either obey or disobey his Creator.”[1] Man, as an agent of freedom (which is an attribute of his personality) thus possessed the ability to choose for himself right or wrong, through his obedience or disobedience to God’s commandments. The Bible then tells us that it was man’s willful disobedience to God’s will that resulted in his sin (Genesis 3:1-15) and that human suffering is a by-product of man’s sin (vv. 16-24).[2]

God’s Omnipotence vs. Man’s Will

Many people ask why an omnipotent God did not create a world free of sin and suffering. After all, God’s omnipotence implies that He can do with power anything that power can do, for He possesses all the power there is or could be.[3] However, God’s omnipotent power to do everything and anything implies His power to do all that is intrinsically possible; that is, something that is not impossible or self-contradictory within itself (Psalm 66:7). For example, one cannot say, “God can give a creature free will and at the same time withhold free will from it”; for such a statement has no meaning, and meaningless statements do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we add the prefix “God can” to them. Two mutually exclusive alternatives cannot be carried out for the simple reason that “nonsense remains nonsense,” even when we talk about it in the light of God’s character and power.[4]

This holds true with regard to God’s creation of a society of free men without, at the same time, creating a relatively independent and “inexorable” nature. Man’s self-consciousness (the recognition of a creature by itself, as a self) cannot exist except in contrast with something that is not the self. Each individual’s self-consciousness in order to be real must exist in an environment of other selves, for the individual’s own awareness to be unique. The freedom God endowed man with must mean the freedom to choose, and a choice implies the existence of things to choose between.[5] If man had no environment, he would have no choices to make. Thus, man’s freedom, like his consciousness (if they are not the same thing), demands the presence to the self of something other than the self.[6] Therefore, according to the Bible, suffering was not a product of God’s creation (Genesis 3:16-19); but rather, it was a by-product of man’s willful disobedience to God’s commandments (Genesis 2:15 to 3:15).

If God had created a world where He could at every moment correct the results of man’s abuse of his freedom of will, such a world would be one in which wrong actions were impossible, and man’s freedom of will simply could not exist.[7] Freedom, by its very nature, implies the freedom of choice to do what is right. When one willfully chooses to disobey his Creator, he is rebelling against God, and God’s holy nature demands that sin be punished (Romans 3:23; 6:23). Consequently, suffering, both physical and spiritual, is the price man pays for his willful disobedience to God’s moral law.

God’s Utilization of Suffering

Although suffering is a by-product of man’s sin, God nevertheless utilizes man’s suffering in making him aware of his own finiteness and inadequacies and his dependence on his Maker. Thus, suffering serves the divine purpose of bringing the individual to a state of repentance. The concept of “God’s divine goodness” refers to God’s grace, love, and mercy toward man in his sin and need.[8] This concept is portrayed by the fact that even when man sins, God still comes after His creation.

This doctrine was first manifested in Scripture when God went after Adam and Eve after they had sinned (Genesis 3:8-11). It was further manifested in God’s dealing with the Children of Israel (throughout the Old Testament), and it is epitomized in the atonement provided by God’s Son, Jesus Christ, and in His call for man to repent. Although not good in itself, suffering is utilized by God to bring about the sufferer’s submission to the will of God. Although God hates sin, He loves the sinner, and since tribulation is a necessary element in redemption (1 Peter 4:1), God will continue to employ it until the world is either fully redeemed or no further redeemable.[9]

Like his predecessor, the man of our time is confronted by a great variety of problems that involve human suffering. Unfortunately, before man can seek solutions to the problems, he must first recognize their spiritual origin, as well as the fact that he himself is unable to successfully solve and eradicate the problems. Spiritual problems require spiritual medication. Unfortunately, man’s sins blind him to God’s truths.[10]

Furthermore, atheists and agnostics often utilize the reality of suffering to argue for the nonexistence of God, or for God’s unfair dealing with man. They fail to consider the human origin of suffering. Instead, they do not acknowledge God when everything goes well, and they blame Him when things go wrong. However, even if all men were atheists, God’s goodness would still exist (Psalm 34:8). Therefore, to call unregenerate man back to himself, God sometimes employs human suffering as a “megaphone,” and thus human misery, although not pleasant in itself, can nevertheless serve the purpose of providing sinful man with the opportunity for amendment and reconciliation with his Creator.[11]

Is Suffering Only for Sinners?

Although the above may very well explain both the origin of human suffering and God’s utilization of suffering, it does not explain why God seemingly permits the innocent to suffer along with the guilty. Again, if we search the Scriptures, we find that the manifestation of sin was not restricted to Adam and Eve. Unfortunately, the propensity to sin, as well as sin’s by-products, has spread to and affected all mankind (Romans 5:12). This is also stated in Romans 3:23: “Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (RSV).

Therefore, according to the Bible, all men are born with the propensity to sin, which ultimately results in the manifestation of sinful acts in their lives. Furthermore, the manifestation of sin brings its consequences, including suffering, death, and hell; and, as sinners, all men become candidates for these.

In spite of the fact that no one is innocent in the spiritual sense, one can still ask why certain people seem to undergo more suffering than others, especially when their conduct appears to be “less sinful” than that of others. The answer that is often given to this question is as follows: God is a God of love—a love that has been poured forth on mankind since the beginning of time (John 3:16; cf. Ephesians 1:4-12). Man was created to serve as the object of God’s love.[12] Although God permits suffering, He does so to bring man to a state of repentance and submission to His divine will. The individual who is fully redeemed and living according to God’s rule will not undergo further suffering.

This view permeates even Christian circles under the guise of “Prosperity Preaching” or “The Health and Wealth Gospel.” In essence, its basic message is, “Serve God and you will get rich and be healthy,” or, “God wills your prosperity and health.” Advocates of this view claim it is in the Bible, and, since God has already said it, a person needs only to think God’s thoughts, claim “the divine promise,” and it will automatically become his.

According to this view, it would appear that anyone who is undergoing any form of suffering is willfully disobedient to God. However, the question now arises concerning the individual who has both repented and is living a godly life, yet undergoing his share (or perhaps more than his share) of suffering, seemingly through no fault of his own. Is there no Biblical rationale for the righteous who suffer? One of the beautiful aspects of the Bible is that it presents a realistic viewpoint of both life and humanity; the whole nature of man and God’s intervention in man’s life is clearly portrayed.

The Old Testament presents an excellent example in the Book of Job. The main character, Job, appears to be undergoing a great deal of suffering—all under divine providence. The Book of Job attacks the view that a great sufferer must of necessity be a great sinner (Job 1:1,8,22; 2:3; 42:6,7). Furthermore, throughout the Old Testament, as well as in rabbinical literature, the distinction is made between the outrageous sinner who is getting his just rewards and the pious individual who, through seemingly unjustifiable reasons, is nevertheless afflicted. With respect to the latter, one finds the theme that suffering is a proof of God’s favor, rather than His displeasure (Deuteronomy 8:5; Job 5:17; Psalm 94:12; Proverbs 3:11-12).

This was especially true of God’s relationship with the nation of Israel; her chastisement for her sins was proof of God’s fatherly love and care for her. This theme became prominent in rabbinical thinking, whereby affliction served the purpose of reconciling the “son to the father.” A common rabbinical view was that if a man went forty days without any trouble, he was past hope, since this was a sure sign that God had given him up in despair.[13]

The theme that suffering is a proof of divine favor on an individual was present also in the literary works of the Roman philosopher Seneca (who served as an advisor to Nero, composing his speeches and supplying advice on public relations). Although Seneca was not immune to the vices of his time, he nevertheless was a wise administrator and advocated moral principles far above those held by most of his contemporaries.[14] With respect to the topic of human suffering, Seneca wrote that virtue served as “the bridge of friendship” between good men and the gods. Furthermore, he believed good men are not pampered by the gods, but rather, they are severely tested and trained by them, as a strict father trains his child, to mold and prepare them for a closer resemblance and relationship with them. With respect to its philosophical significance, this view was more Stoic than Epicurean.[15]

Although Epicureanism, in its original state, sought to define pleasure as the absence of pain, its practitioners soon embraced an attitude of self-gratification and hedonism. As a result, Epicureans, although striving to reduce suffering to a minimum in their own lives, nevertheless welcomed it in the lives of others if it satisfied their own lust for pleasure, as evidenced by the bloody spectacles that characterized the Roman arenas.

Stoicism, on the other hand, advocated one’s conformity to reason as the highest good. This, in turn, was achieved through personal self-control unmoved by sentimental considerations, since personal feelings were regarded as either immaterial or harmful because they tended to unbalance the rational solution to human problems. Thus, Stoics, although denying the existence of pain and suffering on one hand, in reality, readily welcomed them as part of their fatalistic attitude toward life.[16]

Unfortunately, philosophers like Seneca, who advocated high moral sentiments and lofty ideals, represented the minority and their ideals were more often discussed rather than practiced. The attitude of personal pleasure through one’s sexual licentiousness and gluttonous feasting, coupled with the debasing influence of the theater and arena, permeated Roman society and set the model for the empire.[17]

Paul’s Terminology with Respect to Christian Suffering

The following is a listing of the Greek verbs for suffering that Paul utilized in his epistles, along with their corresponding Biblical references:[18]

1. sumpaschō—“to experience pain jointly or of the same kind.” Can also mean “to suffer with” (Romans 8:17; 1 Corinthians 12:26; 2 Corinthians 1:6; 7:12; Galatians 3:4; Philippians 1:29; 1 Thessalonians 2:14; 2 Timothy 1:12; also used by Peter with respect to Christian suffering in 1 Peter 2:20,21,23; 3:14,17,18; 4:1,15,16,19; 5:10).

2. diōkō—“to ensue, follow (after), given to (suffer), press toward, persecute” (Galatians 5:11; 6:12; 2 Timothy 3:12).

3. hupomenō—“stay under (behind), remain, to undergo, bear trials, have fortitude, persevere” (“abide, endure, take patiently, suffer”; 2 Timothy 2:12).

4. epitrepō—“to allow, let, permit, suffer” (2 Corinthians 7:12; 11:25).

5. zemioō—“experience detriment, be cast away, receive damage (loss), suffer loss” (Philippians 3:8).

6. propaschō—“undergo hardship previously, to suffer before” (1 Thessalonians 2:2).

In addition to the above, the following is a list of Greek words that Paul used to characterize the Christian life, along with their meanings and Biblical references.[19]

1. thlipsis (thlibō—“to press, squeeze, afflict”)—“tribulation, pressure, affliction” (Romans 5:3; 8:35; 12:12; 2 Corinthians 1:4,8; 2:4; 4:17; 6:4; 7:4; 8:2; Ephesians 3:13; Philippians 4:14; Colossians 1:24; 1 Thessalonians 1:6; 3:3,7; 2 Thessalonians 1:4,6).

2. diōgmos—“persecution”(Romans 8:35; 2 Corinthians 12:10; 2 Thessalonians 1:4; 2 Timothy 3:11).

3. dokimion—“trial, proof” (2 Corinthians 8:2).

4. pathēma—“affliction,suffering” (Romans 8:18; 2 Corinthians 1:5,6,7; Philippians 3:10; Colossians 1:24).

Paul’s View of Suffering

Paul’s view of suffering appears to have been influenced by his Jewish heritage. To Paul, suffering was not a sign of sin; but rather, it was something the Christian must expect in his struggle for the right. According to Paul, the Christian lifestyle, in essence, was an uphill struggle; it was worthwhile, but desperately hard. Paul’s own life was one of intense sufferings, characterized by persecution, hardships, and imprisonments (2 Corinthians 11:21-33). Although many Gentiles would have looked on Paul’s experiences from a variety of viewpoints—ranging from the Stoic attitude of fatalism to one of Paul’s having incurred the “wrath of heaven” for his sins—Paul constantly reminded his fellow Christians that his conformity to a life worthy of the gospel would of necessity result in suffering, and that they too must expect persecution (2 Thessalonians 1:4,5). In fact, their constancy to Christ in the face of severe testing revealed their true nature, and their steadfastness was the guarantee of God’s righteous judgment toward them. This not only served as a source of pride to Paul, but also afforded a proof to the Christians that their righteousness was genuine (2 Thessalonians 1:5; cf. Romans 5:3; 2 Corinthians 4:17).[20]

Paul pointed out that even Jesus and the prophets underwent suffering (1 Thessalonians 2:15), and since believers were actually “in Christ,” they not only participated symbolically in Christ’s sufferings (Galatians 2:20), but also should regard their sufferings for Christ’s sake as both a privilege (Philippians 1:29) and something to which they were appointed (1 Thessalonians 3:3). Unlike the Stoics, who rejected the idea of showing any pity for the one who suffers (because they felt suffering was of no consequence in one’s life), Paul emphasized both the reality of suffering and its divine origin. As such, Christians should regard suffering as a real gift of grace and as a challenge enabling them to realize their highest dignity: their complete identification with Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:24; Philippians 3:10).[21]

Thus, for Paul, his sufferings as a Christian marked his road to glory (Philippians 3:10). Yet, unlike the Stoics who regarded their suffering as an obligation or duty, Paul never denied the reality of his struggles, especially the spiritual warfare that was taking place behind the scenes (Ephesians 6:11-18; cf. Romans 7). For Paul, Christ’s atoning work at Calvary ensured the final victory and, since God is for the believer, the opposition is virtually powerless (Ephesians 2:4-10; Romans 8). Therefore, the afflictions present in this life are, in essence, powerless in the end, and the future glory of Christians will overshadow their present sufferings.

Paul’s Rationale for Christians Undergoing Suffering

Prior to his salvation, Paul (as well as other Pharisaic Jews) regarded the vicarious suffering and death of Jesus Christ as a stumbling block to their belief in Him.[22] After all, it was one thing for the nation of Israel to undergo suffering and divine chastisement for their sins, but it was another thing altogether for the Jewish Messiah (whoever He might be) to suffer indignities at the hands of “the uncircumcised.” To the average Jew of Paul’s day (as well as today), this thought was both inconceivable and repulsive. Yet, after his conversion, Paul had come to see that Jesus, in spite of his “shameful” death, not only had the approval of God, but also His suffering and death gave credence to His deity and messiahship. To Paul, the completeness of the Messiah’s sacrifice—one life laid down for all—attested to the truth of His claims (Philippians 2:5-11; cf. Leviticus 16:5-10,20-22, 29-34; Isaiah 42; 53; 60; 61).[23]

In addition to the above, Paul’s own life as a believer gave credence to the fundamental reality of suffering in the life of every believer. Since self-denial and renunciation were chief characteristics of Christ’s own life, these characteristics must also be prominent in the believer’s life for him to be truly conformed to the Lord.

Paul also affirmed the fact that God would never permit the believer to undergo any temptation that would be too unbearable for him, and in every temptation, God’s grace would enable the Christian to “weather the storm” (1 Corinthians 10:13; 2 Corinthians 12:7-9). This was especially true with respect to Paul’s own affliction, his “thorn in the flesh.” Whatever this “thorn” was, it was something that was difficult for Paul to live with. Instead of complying with Paul’s request to have this affliction removed, God informed Paul that He would supply him with the divine grace needed to live with it.[24]

In addition, the Christian suffers not only because of his identification with Christ, but also because of his lifelong battle against the forces of evil (Ephesians 6:10-20). For Paul, his life was that of a soldier for Christ, and he looked upon it as both a “battle to be fought” and a race to be run (2 Timothy 2:3-5, 10-12; 4:6-8). No compromise was possible, nor could excuses be accepted. Furthermore, not only did Paul exhort Christians to maintain an uncompromising attitude of loyalty and fidelity to the moral character they bore, but he also emphasized that they must wage a continual battle against evil. Sin, in all its forms, is contrary to God’s holy nature (Romans 3:23; 6:23). As such, the Christian’s vigilance against the “wiles of the devil” is a lifelong battle (1 Corinthians 10:12; cf. Ephesians 6:10-20) that is often characterized by affliction and persecution.

Although suffering was never intended to be looked upon as something pleasant, it nevertheless pays tribute to the believer’s love and commitment to his Lord.[25] In addition to his identification with, and dedication to, Jesus Christ, the believer’s faith will also be strengthened during times of suffering. According to Paul, the Christian can always take solace in the fact that God allows everything that takes place in his life, including periods of trials and suffering, and nothing happens by accident (Romans 8:28; Philippians 1:28,29).

If a Christian’s life were free from suffering, he not only would fail to mature spiritually (Romans 5:3; cf. Hebrews 12:7), but also would be unable to empathize with, and testify to, a non-Christian (especially one who has or is undergoing suffering) of the “blessedness” that he (the Christian) now possesses since his conversion to Christianity, and which now provides him with a genuine feeling of inner peace, joy, and gladness even in the midst of his suffering, forlornness, and misery (2 Corinthians 1:3-7; Ephesians 2:1-10). Paul experienced this reality in his own life and, therefore, he exhorts the Christian to maintain an attitude of thanksgiving toward God in all circumstances and situations (Philippians 4:11-13; 1 Thessalonians 5:18). This is not an easy thing to do by any means; it involves self-mastery and spiritual perception (1 Corinthians 4:12,13; 10:12; cf. James 1:12). Thus, in all circumstances involving suffering, the Christian should always remember that even in the severest adversity, God is ever present and is moderating the impact, sustaining the individual, and turning evil into good (Romans 8:28; Philippians 1:28,29; cf. Genesis 50:20); and the Christian’s suffering will result in greater spiritual maturity (Romans 5:3-5).

Observations

With respect to the previous discourses, the following observations can be made:

  1. Suffering’s origin was spiritual in nature and resulted from man’s willful sin against God.
  2. God’s love has been poured forth on mankind since man was first created.
  3. The epitome of God’s love was Christ’s atoning work at Calvary.
  4. Suffering serves the divine purpose of bringing lost sinners to God, as well as confirming God’s relationship with those He loves.
  5. According to Paul, believers suffer because of their identification with Christ, their resistance to evil, and to make them stronger Christians.

Furthermore, the Pauline concept of suffering is not a unique theme; it is found throughout the New Testament, especially in the writings of Peter. Like Paul, Peter mentions that Christians undergo suffering because of their identification with Christ (1 Peter 4:12,13), because of their struggle against evil (1 Peter 2:19), and to strengthen their faith (1 Peter 1:7; 5:1,10). In addition, Peter also affirms God’s presence and faithfulness to the Christian while he is undergoing suffering (1 Peter 4:14,19); suffering for Christ’s sake is a privilege (1 Peter 4:14,16); it involves self-discipline (1 Peter 4:19); and the believer’s blessedness outshines his suffering (1 Peter 4:13). Furthermore, both Paul and Peter verify that suffering is divinely regulated (1 Corinthians 10:13; 1 Peter 5:10) and that the believer’s faithfulness and commitment to God will be rewarded (1 Corinthians 3:8-17; 1 Peter 4:13; cf. Matthew 5:10-12).

Conclusion

In essence, then, both Paul and Peter emphasize that serving God is serious business involving personal sacrifice and cross bearing (cf. Matthew 16:24-27) and will be characterized by times of trials, afflictions, and persecution. Christ himself instructed His followers that a servant is not greater than his master (Matthew 10:24), and if one’s Master (Jesus Christ) had to suffer, then the servant (the Christian) should also be prepared to suffer. Christ also taught His followers the importance of suffering for righteousness’ sake, and that those who do so will be amply rewarded (Matthew 5:10-12; cf. 1 Corinthians 3:8-17; 1 Peter 4:13; 5:10). Although it may appear that good people suffer more than evildoers, they (the good) can take comfort in the fact that God’s blessings for men of faith include something far better than the experiences of this life (Hebrews 11:40), and whatever a man sows in his earthly life, he will reap the rewards of in the life hereafter (Galatians 6:7,8).

The verification of this theme is seen not only in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1 to 7:27), but also in many of His parables, including the Parable of the Wheat and Tares (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43), the Parable of the Fish Net (Matthew 13:47-50), and the Parable of the Nobleman (Luke 19:12-27). Christ’s unmerited love for man is epitomized by His suffering and death for man’s sins. Christians, in turn, are exhorted to pattern their lives after the life of Christ (Romans 6:1-11; 1 Corinthians 11:1; 1 Peter 2:21-23), to include their willingness to endure suffering (Acts 5:41). Although God does not remove the reality of suffering from one’s existence, the “Blessed Hope” possessed by the Christian not only remains with him during times of suffering (Romans 8:1-39; 1 Corinthians 15:12-58; cf. John 3:16; 11:25,26; 1 John 3:2-3), but also enables him to look beyond his present discomfort and misery to his future reunion and fellowship with his divine Master and Savior (2 Timothy 2:11,12).

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©2006 by Howard W. Stevens


[1] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: MacMillan Co., 1966), 29-48.

[2] Paul E. Little, Know Why You Believe (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1974), 48.

[3] James Oliver Buswell, Jr., A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), Vol. 1, 63, 64.

[4] Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 28.

[5] Steven M. Cahn, A New Introduction to Philosophy (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1971), 71.

[6] Bernard L. Ramm, The God Who Makes a Difference (Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1972), 129.

[7] Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 33.

[8] Buswell, A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion, Vol. 1, 69.

[9] Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 114.

[10] Ibid., 55-68.

[11] Ibid., 95, 96.

[12] John W. Wenham, The Goodness of God (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1974), 48.

[13] Morton Scott Enslin, The Ethics of Paul (New York: Abingdon Press, 1957), 222, 223.

[14] Merrill C. Tenney, New Testament Times (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971), 282-97.

[15] Enslin, The Ethics of Paul, 223, 224.

[16] Merrill C. Tenney, New Testament Survey (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972), 76, 77.

[17] Tenney, New Testament Times, 297.

[18] James Strong, Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (New York: Abingdon Press, 1970).

[19] Robert Young, Young’s Analytical Concordance to the Bible (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1972).

[20] Enslin, The Ethics of Paul, 224, 225.

[21] Ibid., 225.

[22] J. Gresham Machen, The Origin of Paul’s Religion (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1970), 63, 64.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Enslin, The Ethics of Paul, 227, 229.

[25] Ibid., 229-30.

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