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How Long, O Lord?: Reflections on Suffering and Evil Paperback – September 1, 2006
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From the Back Cover
Primarily, this is a book of preventative medicine. One of the major causes of devastating grief and confusion among Christians is that our expectations are false. We do not give the subject of evil and suffering the thought it deserves until we ourselves are confronted with tragedy. If by that point our beliefs--not well thought out but deeply ingrained--are largely out of step with the God who has disclosed himself in the Bible and supremely in Jesus, then the pain from the personal tragedy may be multiplied many times over as we begin to question the very foundations of our faith.
About the Author
D. A. Carson (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He has written or edited more than forty-five books, including An Introduction to the New Testament, The Gagging of God, and The Gospel according to John.
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He prefaces the book by expressing that this is not intended for those who are currently going through such struggles, but describes his work as a "preventative medicine", so that when (not if) suffering happens, we will have an idea as to what is going on and Who we can turn to as our sovereign refuge.
A number of questions are addressed, such as "If God is good, how could He allow suffering and evil?" and "If he is good, is he incompetent to prevent it? or is he just unwilling?" These are very good questions that people will tend to ask when tragedy strikes. But sadly, many will ask these questions and assume one or the other and come to a conclusion without seeking the truth. This is why such a book was written.
When we grasp that the root of evil is found within and not from without, we begin to attain an awareness of why things are the way they are. Most people can look at the world and see that there is a problem, but WHY there is a problem is usually misinterpreted. Some might say, "If God is good, why doesn't He just eliminate the evil in the world?" That question comes with the presupposition that the evil is "out there", and assumes that God runs off of our standard of goodness. If He were to truly take out evil, you and I would be swept away with the current, since we have done evil.
Though we have a root of how evil entered the world (Genesis 3) and while Carson brings to light many of the reasons why it may happen in the lives of believers and non-believers alike, the question of why God allows it to persist is not for us to declare. We simply do not know, but we can rest in His promises that He will do away with it one day (Revelation 21:1-7), and in His great mercy He has stepped in to save us from our evil by the death of His Son Jesus. His physical resurrection being the stamp on death itself, putting death to death.
Through repentance and faith in Jesus for a right relationship to God, we are given assurance of a future hope, though the world is decaying around us. By faith we are united with Him in a very tangible way. "For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his." (Romans 6:5) The resurrection of Jesus was to be the first of many more to come. And a physical eternal heaven with God is the greatest reality to look forward to for those who are in Him! "And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose." (Romans 8:28)
Though suffering and evil persist, we know that God is good, and that He will make all things new. An amazing reality to look forward to!
"When we suffer, there will sometimes be mystery. Will there also be faith?"
Carson's purpose for the book is explicitly stated from the get-go - this is a book of "preventative medicine" so Christians "will think deeply on the subject of suffering and evil." I think that this is wise counsel. We should think about suffering BEFORE it happens. Make no mistake, however, in thinking one can completely prepare for the shock of suffering. So Carson describes suffering with a frank and vivid analogy - "It is like jumping into a bitterly cold lake; you can brace yourself for the experience all day, but when you actually jump in, the shock to your system will still snatch your breath away" (pg 141). This book will not "solve" all of the dilemmas of suffering, but it does provide a Biblical framework through which to view them.
Carson organizes the book into 3 parts:
Part 1 - Thinking about Suffering and Evil
Part 2 - Parts of the Puzzle: Biblical Themes for Suffering People
Part 3 - Glimpses of the Whole Puzzle: Evil and Suffering in the World of a Good and Sovereign God
I have organized my understanding of his insights into the following broad themes: 1.) What a bad theology of suffering believes/does, 2.) What a good theology of suffering believes/does, 3.) a Biblical Analysis of Providence, 4.) the Suffering of Job, and 5.) Viewing one's Suffering in light of the Cross.
1.) A bad theology of suffering...
o Is only satisfied in one's own temporal security. "We want security; we want it desperately. But it has very little to do with the security of belonging to God..." (pg 25)
o Does not consider that the Bible is full of suffering: Carson says, "We remember the wonderful triumphs of Joseph, Gideon, and David...We are less inclined to think through the sufferings of Jeremiah, the constant ailments of Timothy, the illness of Trophimus, or the thorn in Paul's flesh" (pg 25).
o Does not account for mystery. We may have such a well articulated systematic theology, that "we leave precious little scope for mystery, awe, unknowns." (pg 26)
o Views that God "is limited and [only] involved with human beings in the grand enterprise of trying to relieve evil and suffering" (pg 29) instead of seeing him as sovereign over it.
o Spends all time and energy wondering how to exonerate God of suffering and misses the obvious - that we should be considering how we ought to be responding to the suffering by calling upon the Lord for help. (pg 59)
o Fails to see the many examples of suffering that are without a specific sin that caused it and without any associated miraculous healing: Paul's illness that directed him in the first instance to Galatia (Gal 4:13), Timothy's frequent illness (1 Tim 5:23), Trophimus being left behind due to illness (1 Tim 4:20) (pg 101).
o Does not have a large enough framework: Instead, health and wellness theology "...tries to establish a theology of healing and power encounter without a theology of suffering...a theology of victory without an adequate theology of the cross...a theology of life without proper reflection on death...discusses God's power but rarely wrestles with God's predilection for displaying his power in the context of continuing weakness...encourages triumphant faith, but does not establish a broad enough grid to show that triumphant faith may be exactly what is displayed where there is raw perseverance in the face of incredible suffering...[appropriately] sees sin and suffering as intrinsically evil, but fails to think through how a sovereign God in some way stands behind them..." (pg 111)
o Fails to see that God's true healing is never trivial or ambiguous. "...there is no record of Jesus himself holding a healing service, inviting people to be healed, or offering generalized prayers for healing and inviting people to come forward for a laying on of hands." (pg 111)
o Fails to preach and teach in such a way to make "heaven the Christian's hope and goal" (pg 130)
o Puts trust in other people or other vain confidence (Ps 146:3)
o Arrogantly assumes that "everything that takes place in God's universe ought to be explained to us" (pg 152)
o Is infatuated with moral and spiritual ambiguity. "The pluralism of our age delights in moral ambiguity - but only as long as it costs nothing. Devotion to contemporary moral ambiguity is extraordinarily self-centered. It demands freedom from God so that it can do whatever it wants. But when the suffering starts, the same self-centered focus on my world and my interests, rather ironically wants God to provide answers with sparkling clarity." (pg 155).
o Ignorantly cries for "justice." Carson says of this, "Justice alone will destroy us all. Only the triumph of justice and love will meet our needs; and this triumph is so integrally linked to the very heart of the gospel, the cross of God's dear Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, that we dare not, as Christians, take our eyes off this perspective." (pg 163)
2.) On the other hand, a good theology of suffering...
o Explores the parts of the puzzle of suffering, and locates evil and suffering within a certain Biblical "framework." (pg 37)
o Understands suffering in light of the "Bible's Storyline" and meditates on "the price of sin". Carson says, "If in fact we believe that our sin properly deserves the wrath of God, then when we experience the sufferings of this world, all of them the consequences of human rebellion, we will be less quick to blame God and a lot quicker to recognize that we have no fundamental right to expect a life of unbroken ease and comfort." (pg 44)
o Sees suffering from the perspective of the eternal kingdom. "If we can get over our tendency to evaluate everything that transpires from a merely individualistic perspective, and glimpse at least a little of the broad movements of God in redemptive history, we may not only be a little less surprised when we suffer, we may also find it is somewhat easier to `make sense' of suffering: at least it fits into a pattern that Jesus himself predicted." (pg 123)
o Understands that I have, in a sense that I have participated in sin, caused by my own death. W must face up to our corporate as well as our individual responsibility (pg 99-100)
o Understands that Jesus did not treat wars and natural disasters "as agenda items in a discussion of the mysterious ways of God, but as incentives to repentance. It is as if He is saying that God uses disaster as a megaphone to call attention to our guilt and destination, to the imminence of his righteous judgment if he sees no repentance." (pg 61) (c.f. Luke 13:1-5, Amos 4)
o Understands that suffering is part of God's discipline for our good that we might share in His holiness (Heb 12:5-12). It is important to see that at least some of God's means of discipline, all designed for our good, can simultaneously be viewed as calamitous evils (pg 66).
o Follows Habakkuk's example of "taking the long view" in "assurance that God's justice will prevail over the oppressors even though the oppressors are instruments in God's hands to punish..."(pg 69-70) Such a one continues to delight in the Lord and praise (Hab 3:17-19).
o Glories in suffering because we know that suffering produces perseverance as it is mingled with faith and delight in our being reconciled to God (Rom 5:1-4) (pg 71). Rightly accepted, pain "cleanses us from self-centeredness, gives us insight into the nature of this fallen world, prepares us for death, makes us remember the sufferings of Christ and of others." (pg 108). As Welsh hymn-writer and evangelist William Williams testifies that he gained on his deathbed more knowledge of himself, and more knowledge of the goodness of God, than during the pervious forty years of his life (pg 108).
o Views suffering on behalf of Christ as a privilege, a grace granted (Phil 1:29-30) (pg 78).
o Follows Jesus' example of learning obedience by what he suffered. "...though He was Son, he learned obedience from what he suffered, and once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvations for all who obey him." (Heb 5:7-9). Carson says, "if Jesus `learned obedience from what he suffered', what ghastly misapprehension it is-or arrogance!-that assumes we should be exempt." (pg 72)
o Runs to the scriptures (such as Psalm 23 an 90) (pg 98)
o Recognizes that death is "no different in kind from what you and your spouse have lived under all your life; that you have been preparing for this day since your conversion; that you have already laid up treasure in heaven, and your heart is there." (pg 106)
o Will certainly grieve in death of a Christian...but not "like the rest, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep in Him" (1 Thes 4:13-14). It waits for the new heaven and new earth with no more death, mourning, crying or pain (Rev 21:3-4) (1 Cor 15:56) (c.f. 1 Peter 1:3-9)
o Encourages people with terminal illnesses to think about death. It does not rob them of the enormous comforts of the gospel. It engages in helping believers to "die well" (pg 115). It encourages them to think on Rev 4-5 and 21-22, and to "think about God and the salvation He has provided, to develop a certain longing for the new heaven and the new earth, to reestablish the Christian's goal." (pg 131)
o Views the prosperity of the wicked in light of the next world as shown in Psalm 73. As the Psalmist says at the end of the chapter, "Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you. But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign LORD my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds" (v 27-28) (pg 127).
o Sees suffering as under God's providence - "To the eyes of faith, there are, finally, no accidents, only incidents, and in these, Paul assures us, God is working for our good." (pg 214) God works out his purposes for us is far greater than our incessant focus on the present.
o A Biblical defense of "compatibilism" that says 1.) God is absolutely sovereign and that 2.) Humans are morally responsible.
o Since the Bible affirms this view, "...then it must be the case that God stands behind good and evil in somewhat different ways; that is, he stands behind good and evil asymmetrically. To put bluntly, God stands behind evil in such a way that not even evil takes place outside the bounds of his sovereignty, yet the evil is not morally chargeable to him; it is always chargeable to secondary agents, to secondary charges. On the other hand, God stands behind good in such a way that it not only takes place within the bounds of his sovereignty, but it is always chargeable to Him, and only derivatively to secondary agents." (pg 189)
o In other words, if I sin, God is not to be blamed. But if I do good, it is God working in me both to will and to act. God's grace is manifest and he is to be praised. (pg 189)
o "Human freedom cannot include such liberal power that God Himself becomes Contingent" (pg 190)
o "In Jesus, the divine determining and the perfection of human obedience come together in one person...Here we see "free will" at its best!" (reference to John 10:18) (pg 191). "His obedience therefore provides us with a model of how we ought to respond to the claims of God's sovereignty" (pg 212-213)
o A wrong view of free will assumes that it must entail "absolute power to contrary" (pg 194)
o In the Bible, we see God's will of Decree, Desires, Permission (pg 198)
4.) The example of Job:
o In the book of Job, we find that suffering "falls within the sweep of God's sovereignty" (pg 139)
o Job highlights that there IS such a thing as "innocent suffering" (pg 140).
o Within "certain boundaries...it is better to be frank about our grief, candid in our despair, honest with our questions, than to suppress them and wear a public front of puffy piety" (pg 141)
o There are some things you will not understand for you are not God (pg 153). This is why Job's answer is so appropriate. He does not say "ah, at last I understand!" but rather "I repent". "He does not repent of sins that have allegedly brought on the suffering; he repents of his arrogance in impugning God's justice, he repents of the attitude whereby he simply demands an answer as if such were owed him" (42::5-6) (pg 153). "To those who do not know God, to those who insist on being God, this outcome will never suffice. Those who do know God come in time to recognize that it is better to know God and to trust God than to claim the rights of God." (pg 153)
o The book of Job does not "disown all forms of retribution; rather, it disowns simplistic, mathematically precise, and instant applications of the doctrine of retribution." (pg 155)
5.) Seeing your Suffering in light of the Cross:
o When we suffer, there will sometimes be mystery. Will there also be faith? (pg 156) This faith must be praiseworthy by finding repose in a faithful God (pg 159). "If our attention is focused more on the cross, and on the God of the cross, than on the suffering itself" (pg 173)
o "In the darkness of the soul, Christians have something to hang onto that Job never knew. We know Christ crucified. Christians have learned that when there seems to be no other evidence of God's love, they cannot escape the cross. "He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all - how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things?" (Rom 8:32) (pg 171)