For previous parts of this series, see:
The supposition that individual sin lies behind suffering pervades a great deal of both biblical (e.g. Ezek 18) and extra-biblical thought. More often than not, however, the biblical material reflects upon the inadequacy of individual sin as a viable explanation for one’s sufferings. The prime example is Job: his friends assume that his suffering is related to some transgresssion and encourage him to confess and seek forgiveness from God, but the prologue is at pains to point(!) out that, whatever the real reason is, individual sin is certainly not the reason for his suffering.
The most obvious place to start when discussing suffering is with sin. The opening chapters of the Bible (Gen 2–3) are an aetiological tale which functions to describe the original state of the world and explain why it is no longer in that original state.
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Some time ago I heard a sermon entitled “How could a good God allow suffering?” There’s not much that can be covered in the brief time allocated to a sermon, but while (or perhaps “instead of”) listening I set about thinking of reasons offered in the Bible for suffering. This introductory post is simply to list those I could think of before (hopefully) examining each one in more detail. So here are reasons which came to mind:
- Human sin in general (e.g. Gen 3; Rom 1; 8:22);
- Individual sin (numerous places, particularly in the OT);
- Character building (Rom 5);
- Discipline (Heb 12);
- Preventative (Job 33);
- Glorification of God (e.g. John 9:2–3);
- “Completing” Christ’s afflictions (Col 1:24);
- Persecution (2Tim 3:12);
- Escaping evil (Isa 57:1–2)1;
- Mystery (Job).
If you can think of other reasons offered for suffering by the Bible, I’m happy to expand on this list.
A couple of brief introductory comments are warranted. First, the items on the list are not all mutually exclusive. Second, aside from (1) and perhaps (3) and (6), it is not really possible to be sure these apply to any specific situation without direct divine revelation (and, conversely, it is not always possible to be sure these do not apply).
- This isn’t really an explanation for suffering, at least for those “taken away,” but those left behind would suffer loss.