Book Write-Up: What Does the Bible Say About Suffering?

Brian Han Gregg.  What Does the Bible Say About Suffering?  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

Brian Han Gregg has a Ph.D. from Notre Dame and teaches biblical studies at the University of Sioux Falls in South Dakota.

In What Does the Bible Say About Suffering?, Gregg discusses the Bible as it addresses the issue of human suffering.  Often in the book, Gregg prefers to interact in an in-depth manner with specific biblical passages rather than covering the topic of suffering in the Bible in a comprehensive sense.  Among the topics with which Gregg interacts are: God’s reward of the righteous and punishment of the wicked in the Hebrew Bible; Cain’s choice to do evil in the Book of Genesis; God using evil for good, as in the biblical story of Joseph; suffering as an attack by Satan, which occurs in the Book of Job and is mentioned in the New Testament; suffering as a test or as a means to assist people in their spiritual growth; suffering as a way for Christ to make himself known to others through us, amidst our weakness and vulnerability; God’s comfort of believers amidst their suffering, and their comfort of others; and Christ’s suffering acts of sacrificial service, which believers are to follow.  Gregg believes that all of these biblical interactions with suffering should be considered, and that to focus on one alone to the exclusion of the others disrupts the symphony that the Bible conveys.

Here are some thoughts about the book:

A.  Chapter 2 was excellent.  This chapter was about God rewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked.  Gregg astutely notes that this is a significant theme in the Hebrew Bible, but that the New Testament shifts reward and punishment more to the afterlife, or to the eschaton.  Gregg also effectively addresses a question: How can we tell if our suffering is God punishing us for our sins?  Gregg responds that God does not send us on a wild goose chase to identify some sin for which God is punishing us, but that God often tells people explicitly when God is punishing them for a sin.  This chapter was sensitive to problems and potential objections, and it was biblical.

B.  Chapter 2 was the strongest chapter in the book, and the chapter after that was all right.  In Chapter 3, Gregg shows how God reached out to Cain in love even after rejecting Cain’s sacrifice, and he briefly addresses thorny topics surrounding human free will (i.e., mental health issues).

C.  It was at the end of Chapter 5 that I began to be disappointed with the book.  Chapter 5 had good points: for example, Gregg argues that Satan in the Book of Job appears rather sinister, perhaps to argue against biblical scholars who regard Satan in the Book of Job merely as God’s prosecuting attorney.  Near the end of the book, Gregg was astutely discussing the weaknesses that can accompany blaming Satan for our suffering.  Then, Gregg was about to address a question: How can we tell if our suffering is from Satan?  I was expecting for Gregg to knock this question out of the park, as he did with the question in Chapter 2.  But he did not; my impression is that he felt that he could not, and that we really cannot make that determination, apart from God’s guidance.

D.  In the final chapter of the book, Gregg attempts to address the larger question of whether believers can identify the reason for their suffering.  Is it a test?  Is it punishment?  On page 164, he says, “There is no formula for discernment, but God has promised to lead his children through the valley.”  Gregg says that Scripture, the Holy Spirit, and insight from others can assist one in discernment.  There may be some wisdom to this, but it is not iron-clad.  The appeal to Scripture leaves us exactly where we started: Scripture has all these rationales for suffering, and believers want to know which rationale fits their situation.  Regarding the Holy Spirit, there are Christians who claim some pretty wacky things that they attribute to the Holy Spirit!  And insight from others can be helpful, but not necessarily: Gregg is aware of how unhelpfully Job’s friends advised Job!  My hope was that more of the book would be like Chapter 2, but it was not exactly.  Granted, no formula or criterion for religiously accounting for suffering is perfect, but the book would have been better had Gregg offered more guidelines.

E.  People who have already read a lot about theodicy or religious explanations of suffering may not find much that is new in Gregg’s book.  Gregg did well, though, to share stories about suffering, including his own.  And there were areas in which the book was edifying: when he talked about how his wife as a hospital chaplain “bore witness” to people’s pain (page 157), and how quadraplegic Joni Earickson Tada felt a deep need for Christ after her accident, a need that she did not feel before.

F.  Not long ago, I read the book Between Pain and Grace, by Gerald Peterman and Andrew Schmutzer, and something that I liked about that book was that it taught me things I did not know about the thought of Augustine and John Calvin.  Gregg’s book would have been better had it done something like that: peppered his insights with references to theologians.

G.  Gregg often felt a need to stress that God does not cause certain forms of suffering, but that God can use suffering for our benefit, or can bring good out of suffering.  Occasionally, Gregg’s insight was supportable by Scripture: for instance, God in the wilderness did not directly cause the Israelites’ harsh surroundings, but he used those surroundings for their spiritual benefit.  Often, though, Gregg did not really support this insight with Scripture.  The insight is understandable, for God would look horrible if he were to be deemed the cause of certain forms of suffering.  And yet, Gregg should have wrestled with Scriptures such as Exodus 4:11, which seems to say that God makes people deaf, mute, and blind.  Randy Alcorn, in his lengthy tome If God Is Good, actually interacts with this verse.

H.  Chapter 12 was all right: it talks about service, and how Jesus tried to “redirect” his disciples’ “ambition” for greatness rather than suppressing it (page 148).  That may qualify the biblical passages that exhort people to deny themselves, and it presents Jesus as one who realistically recognizes and acknowledges human egoism.  At the same time, on page 146, Gregg states that those who “looked not to [their] own interests but to the interests of others” “will partake of the glory of the resurrected Christ.”  Does that imply salvation by works?  Gregg most likely believes in salvation by grace, which means that people cannot earn their salvation.  Still, he should have addressed the question of how what he says on page 146 would relate to salvation by grace.

I.  In Chapter 13, Gregg wrestles with the enigmatic statement in Colossians 1:24 that Paul is completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.  Gregg could have been more direct in saying what exactly was lacking in Christ’s afflictions.  Gregg does say that Paul can “bear [suffering] in the flesh in a way that the risen Jesus no longer can” (page 156), and Gregg does say beautiful things in his interpretation of that verse.  But, overall, I am still unclear about what Gregg thinks that Colossians 1:24 means.

J.  Gregg uses the word “symphony” more than once in this book.  After reading this book, how the Bible addresses suffering does not strike me as a harmonious symphony.  Rather, the Bible says different things about suffering, and people can take those different things in helpful and unhelpful directions, as Gregg shows.  I would not necessarily go to the other extreme and embrace Bart Ehrman’s view that the Bible is contradictory and discordant.  Still, after reading Gregg, I do wonder how many of these biblical ideas on suffering can fit together.  Something else to add: Gregg himself may not have been using the word “symphony” to imply harmony, as much as to argue that we should take everything in the Bible under consideration, as opposed to focusing on only one thing in the Bible.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

 

 

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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