Archive for July, 2012

Did God will Jesus’ suffering?

Posted: July 11, 2012 by J in Theology

The recent discussions of David Bentley Hart on suffering may have seemed a little unbalanced because they omitted to discuss an important category of suffering: that of Christ and his followers.

It is one thing to say that God does not will evil or suffering in general: it’s another to claim that he doesn’t will suffering for his Son or his people.

The well-known text from Isaiah 53 puts it at its most stark: ‘Yahweh delighted to crush his servant with pain’.

The Cross doesn’t seem to fit into Hart’s general description of God’s distance from human suffering. It seems Hart and co. will need to have a special category for the suffering of the Messiah and his people. Can such a special category be justified? Or is Jesus’ suffering actually paradigmatic for all suffering – pushing us back to a traditional Calvinist position that God wills suffering in general?

I want to explore this in two parts: Christ’s suffering, and our suffering in connection with him.

The Suffering of the Messiah

Jesus knew he had to ‘suffer greatly’ (Mark 8:31). This was his calling: it was ‘necessary’ (Luke 24:26), indeed it was ‘written’, i.e.  in the Jewish Scriptures (Luke 24:46). Suffering was not incidental to the Messiah’s work, but central. This is repeated over and over in the Synoptics/Acts. It is clearly God’s purpose for his son. What is rarely explained there is why. What was  this suffering supposed to achieve?

Paul says very little on this subject: we are largely reliant on John, Hebrews and Peter for direct answers. Peter explains that Jesus’ suffering was ‘for sins’. The context of Jesus’ sufferings is one of sacrifice and atonement. This is difficult for us: the category is so foreign to our culture. But for Jews of Jesus’ day sacrifice was home territory. In their OT Scriptures the suffering of an animal had a cleansing or atoning effect, reconciling people to God. And in 4 Maccabees, this atoning significance is extended to the suffering of martyrs (4 Mac. 17:22). So the idea of a man suffering as a ‘lamb that takes away sins’ (John 1:29) would have made some sense to first century Jews.

It’s not easy for us today to get a sense of how sacrifice ‘works’. Sometimes the idea is substitutionary: the ram is sacrificed instead of Isaac. Other times there is a sharing of fates or pain: Jesus is ‘forsaken’ and ‘handed over’ to the Gentiles – the exact fate which Israel had suffered for the past 600 years (cf. e.g. Isaiah 54:5-7; Ezra 9:6). There is something important about the finality of death: the problem dies with the sacrifice. The death of the animal puts an end to the suffering or guilt or debt of the people. In all of this, we can say that the idea of representation seems to be core. The sacrifice represents or stands for the people in some way.

In view of this sacrificial aspect to Jesus’ suffering we can begin to clarify God’s part in it. The sufferings of the Messiah belong to the category of general human sufferings which Hart says God does not will. The pains Jesus bears are our pains. God did not choose that these sufferings exist or that we should suffer them. We humans chose them for ourselves, and they are inflicted on us by the dark powers that enslave us.

The choice for God was whether we should go on labouring under the power of sin and death forever, or whether Jesus would share it and put an end to it. God chose the latter path.

This suffering is not God’s tool. On the contrary, he hates it and is determined to destroy it. So much so, that God was willing to pay the cost of sending his Son into our sufferings to the point of death.

He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.                 1 Peter 2:24

In this sense Jesus’ pains are in a special category: God does not generally will his creatures’ misery, but he did will that Jesus should bear it for them. This is the uniqueness of Jesus and the uniqueness of the cross. It seems Hart’s position is not threatened by the NT teaching on Jesus’ death.

There is another strand of thinking about Jesus’ suffering, largely in Hebrews: that God intended it to shape and teach him. This seems to mainly relate to Jesus learning to be human.

Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make atonement for the sins of the people.  Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.           Hebrews 2:17-18

There is a clear connection here with Peter’s description of Jesus as an atoning sacrifice. Thus the conclusions about God’s involvement, above, apply to this ‘character development’ strand also. It is not that God generally uses suffering as a teaching tool: but in order for Jesus to identify fully with suffering humanity, he had to submit to this unusual, harsh tuition. He had to learn suffering. In this sense, God willed it.

In summary, the NT teaching about God’s involvement in Jesus’ suffering cannot be abstracted and generalised into a paradigm for all suffering. It must be read in the context of salvation history, and in particular of the unique calling of the Messiah.

Tomorrow: God’s will that we should suffer in Christ

That’s how I see prayers going in times of suffering, for Hartian and for Calvinist-thinking Christians. A few questions occur to me, largely on the pastoral front:


  • Does the Hartian approach create new pastoral possibilities at the darkest time when otherwise pastors are warned to stay silent?
  • Which position would you rather be in, out of these?
  • Which sort of prayer would you rather find yourself praying when you’re suffering?
  • Which sounds more like the prayers of desperate believers, in Scripture?

Extreme Prayer

Posted: July 8, 2012 by J in Discipleship, Theology

When suffering becomes extreme, and faith is really strained, how would the prayers go?

When the Hartian-sufferer feels pushed to the limit, and runs out of patience with God, the tendency I think will be to pray the same thing, only LOUDER. He’ll put more emphasis on the call for action, maybe less or none on his own need for patience. For given the gospel announcement of God’s victory over evil, the sufferer’s experience of drowning under it suggests that God has a problem here. Everything in his mindset is pushing him increasingly outwards, to confront God with his need for deliverance. As part of that confrontation he might well express disappointed or angry feelings toward God, for leaving him in the middle of this without help. This believer has a case to argue with God, and he’s likely to stick at it until he gets resolution.

The more extreme the distress, the more the prayer-content would tend to get reduced to a cry of ‘HELP!’ with maybe the addition of ‘ARE YOU HEARING THIS?’


When the Calvinist-sufferer reaches the end of his tether, he finds the simple equation of this suffering with God’s goodness, too much to stomach. He cannot bear to hear it. It sounds cruel and hollow. God starts to sound evil or sadistic. The reassurance that God is in control begins to seem like a threat.

In this situation of overwhelming grief, counsellor-trainers warn us pastors not to offer consolations like Romans 8:28, for it can sound terribly cruel.

What would happen to this person’s prayer? If they let go of the theology and just get back to core faith responses, they might cry out in the same way as the Hartian. But if they continue to experience their faith through the grid of Calvinist theology at that time?

I cannot see that much of their earlier prayer is possible for them now. I’ve seen people go in two ways. One is an obsession with the reason for their suffering. If it can all be explained in God’s good purposes, they want the explanation. They want meaning. They may go active in prayer and cry out ‘What does this mean, God? What is it for?’ Generally no explanation arrives. Prayer may then become impossible – there’s little left to say.

Other people get angry with God. God has done this. He has killed my baby/He has disgraced me in the eyes of all who know me/He has taken away my manhood and left me an object of pity. God has a lot to answer for. C.S. Lewis when his wife died of cancer, found himself seriously confronted by the question: could God be evil? This person will probably have no prayers.

Suffering Prayers

Posted: July 7, 2012 by J in Discipleship, Theology

How would the sufferer pray differently depending on which view they took, the Hart view or the Calvinist?

Prayer for the person with a Calvinist view of suffering might take this form:

‘Father, I am hurting so badly that it’s hard to pray. I can’t understand the meaning of any of these things I’m suffering. They just seem all wrong. But I believe that through you they are right. I know you have a plan in all this for my good. Help me to trust in your wisdom and not get angry or bitter.’

It’s simple. It’s about trusting God. An interesting thing about this prayer is, it’s pretty inward-focussed.  The goal is for you to change, and to come to a place of acceptance. In terms of its stance towards the world, it’s fairly passive. That’s because the problem is not the suffering, the problem is with your heart. The prayer moves in the direction of minimising negative emotions.

Any activeness in prayer is going to be for the spiritual athletes who manage to thank God for the ‘gift’. They want to respond, because God has done something good. Nothing needs to change inside or out for the one who can give thanks for cancer. All is well.


The person with a more ‘Hartian’ view of suffering is likely to pray a different sort of prayer:

‘Lord, this terrible thing has happened, and – where are you? It’s unbearable, and only you can save me from this. Aren’t you going to act? I know you’ve won the victory over evil, and you’re restoring all things – but I can’t see any signs of that victory around here. When are you going to come and turn things around? It’s so hard to wait.

‘I remember now that you’ve called me to share with Jesus in his sufferings, for a time. You did warn me! If I have to suffer this for a while, please make me patient until you fix things. Because Lord, it’s bad down here. It’s really bad! Come quickly!’

By comparison this prayer is more complicated, there’s more to pray. There’s less simple clarity, and more confusion. It’s also much more active and outward turned. It’s a prayer for change: change in the outward situation. It’s active in calling on God to do something. It’s got a complaining note to it. There’s not so much sense here that these evil events will add up to something good – the main game is deliverance. The prayer is a vehicle for expressing strong negative emotion: deep hurt and powerful longings.

There is an inward dimension to the prayer, but this too is different from the Calvinist prayer above. There’s no prayer for resignation, but only for patience. This suffering is evil, but for some reason it must be born for a time as part of belonging to Jesus. Then it will be swept away in resurrection and God’s justice. The prayer is, help me to wait, to keep trusting your future, to hold on until you fix things.

Suffering Virtues

Posted: July 6, 2012 by J in Discipleship, Theology

What virtues or graces are recommended by these differing takes on evil and suffering?

 In the Calvinist view the chief virtue when suffering must surely be resignation. Faith would take the form of submission, patient submission to the will and wisdom of him who has brought this suffering to me. The refusal to give in to anger, to despair or self-pity or bewilderment. We may not understand, but we trust the one who does.

And in fact, historically resignation has been espoused as a major way for faith to operate in suffering. Think of Jonathan Edwards, so impressed when David Brainerd showed no hint of disappointment in adversity. A. W. Pink warns that to grumble at the weather is to grumble at God. Resignation is a key mode faith should take in suffering.

Feelings of anger or frustration, an unquiet or distressed heart, these are undesirable and potentially expressions of unbelief. How can you be angry when you know God has sent this grief for your good? Anger at the injustice of your situation could well be secretly anger at God.

So contentment is key to godliness – not just contentment with your salary or car – contentment with everything. For all comes from the hand of a loving Father.

Some go beyond this and advocate actual thankfulness for suffering. C.f. John Piper speaking of the ‘gift’ of cancer, for example.

The virtues suggested by the Hart view would be almost the opposite ones. Since God stands with the sufferer against the suffering they are experiencing, submission is not relevant. Anger and frustration may be appropriate expressions of faith, for God also rejects what is happening. He is angry about it. As Alyosha explains when angry in the face of suffering, in Dostoyevsky’s Brother Karamazov, ‘I am not rebelling against my God; I simply don’t accept His world.’

This anger would involve an aggressive enmity to suffering and a drive to destroy and relieve it wherever it exists. The Hart view would tend towards activism in the world. Since God is fighting evil, we should also.

In other words, discontent is a better expression of faith than resignation is. God is not content with the world, and neither should we be. Contentment may even imply an indifference to evil or a lack of desire for God’s kingdom to come. Resignation would suggest a loss of hope, a giving up.

But the promised future rescue also suggests a kind of patience – not the passive resigned kind but a restless, longing, complaining sort. The sort that refuses to let go of God’s future even in the darkest place.

I recently wrote a review of David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea.

I’m interested in exploring Hart’s critique and alternative to the Calvinist view of evil and suffering, from different angles – especially pastoral ones. Does Hart’s approach offer any help in the difficult area of comforting those who suffer and grieve? Does it offer any resources for the sufferer that might make inject hope and strength into the midst of their darkness and despair? How would it affect the way we pray or teach others to pray in times of distress, if we adopted his view?

What I have in mind is, sometimes when a teaching of the church doesn’t seem to work that well for most people, even for believers, that may be a sign that the teaching is faulty. Certainly worth investigating further. And if an alternative teaching seems to work better for Christians, that might be a sign that it’s closer to the mark. Not conclusive, but significant.

I want to ask first what comfort each position might hold out for sufferers.

Those holding the Calvinist view trust that everything that happens to them comes from the hands of God. He controls all. Nothing can escape from his overarching will. Even the evil that God hates, when it happens to us, God has intended it for us, for our good. For God is good. Behind all evil, is the God who is able to, who has promised to, bring good out of any situation, even out of great evil. The evil things happening to us then are no threat to God’s sovereign rule. Though events seems random and grievous, they are really all part of the plan of God. Suffering is ‘God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world’ (C.S.Lewis).

This view holds out comfort at the ‘world-view’ or existential level. All is not lost with the world, as it often seems to be. God has not abandoned us to meaningless suffering. He is very near, and is in control. There is a rational explanation for all of this evil, even though to us it makes no sense. If we can bear to accept it, the idea that a loving God is behind our suffering might help us hold on and not feel lost or terrified.

In Hart’s view, events that happen cannot be simply equated with God’s will. His rule is not completely followed in the world at present. He leaves creatures free to act against his wishes. The evil that God hates, is not his intention for us. For God is good. God is not behind evil. While he is able to bring good out of anything, evil and suffering are not simply to be thought of as his tools. Rather, the evil things happening to us are a real threat to God’s sovereign rule – a threat he will thoroughly deal with. Events seem random and grievous, out of control – and they really are. Futility is the curse the creation has fallen into. But God will rescue us.

This view of the world is much bleaker at one level. The suffering of children really is futile and just plain evil, not working for a greater good. God has given up the world to meaningless suffering. There is no rational explanation for much that happens. It makes no sense to us – and no sense to God too.

Somehow, however, sufferers do say that they find this sort of talk helpful and comforting. It seems to acknowledge their pain and validate their experience in a way nothing else does. It agrees with their instinctive rejection of the evil happening – this thing is wrong!

In Hart’s approach, the actual hope is largely future. God will not leave things as they are – he has brought evil into judgement at the cross, and is extending his rule over the creation once again. Rescue is coming.

Perhaps acknowledging the parents’ misgivings, Simeon further develops this controversial aspect of Jesus’ future role. He tells Mary: ‘Indeed, this child is destined to cause the fall and rise of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be opposed’ (v.34). Again we hear of the overturning of the social order, so that the high-placed fall and the despised receive honour. This is the theme of reversal which Mary herself had welcomed as the manifestation of the Lord’s judgement (Luke 1:51-54). However, this upheaval will not be universally welcomed, and so Jesus will become ‘a sign who will be opposed.’ This is our first real hint of the intense conflict and violence in store in Luke’s narrative.

The effect of this conflict will be revelatory – it is part of the judgement Jesus will bring.  People’s reaction to this child will expose their true nature: ‘that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.’ Simeon is describing a division in Israel: some will rise, others fall. Some will welcome the Messiah and receive blessing; others will reject him and exclude themselves from God’s salvation. In the judgement of God which this child is bringing, people will in a sense pronounce the verdict on themselves. This idea of self-judgement will become a powerful theme later in the Gospel and into Acts (cf. Luke 6:38; Acts 13:46).

Mary and Joseph will not be immune from the conflict nor the judgement: ‘a sword will pierce your own soul also’. While this expression is often taken to refer to Mary’s pain at Jesus’ crucifixion, Luke never records Mary’s presence at the cross – that is found only in John. Context suggests we hear it as a continuation of the theme of judgement. Simeon’s prophecy is very like the saying in Hebrew 4:12:

The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

In Hebrews the sword that pierces and reveals the heart is a metaphor for the testing, exposing power of the gospel of Jesus. It gets right to the core of the person, to uncover ‘what they are made of’. In this sense the gospel brings the judgement or verdict of God. Probably Simeon employs the metaphor in a similar way here, with regard to Mary. The purpose of God for his Messiah will confront and test Jesus’ family also, as Luke will show in the next episode (2:45-48) and again later in his Gospel (cf. Luke 8:19-21).

At this point things take an unexpected turn, as Simeon introduces the idea of the nations. God’s salvation has been prepared ‘in the presence of all peoples’; the light which Zechariah welcomed has dawned not only for Israel but ‘for the nations.’ It is not only Israel but the whole world which has long been in darkness. The phrase phos eis apokálupsin ethnón is often translated ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles’, which could be taken to mean no more than that the nations will be witnesses of God’s mercy to Israel. However the original setting for these words, in Isaiah 42, suggests a stronger translation. There, it is clear that nothing less than the salvation of the nations is in view:

I have given you as…
    a light for the nations,
    to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
    from the prison those who sit in darkness.               Isaiah 42:6-7


Simeon adds to the prophet’s phrase the word ‘revelation’. In the New Testament ‘revelation’ followed by the genitive case is always used in the material sense, where the genitive phrase identifies the thing revealed. In this case the genitive phrase is ‘of the nations’, suggesting that the nations are themselves revealed by this light. The translation should probably read not ‘revelation to the nations’, but ‘the revealing of the nations’. As the Messianic light goes forth from Israel it will illuminate or reveal all nations, bringing them out from their age-old darkness. It will be Israel’s honour to become the source of worldwide salvation.

This was probably not what Mary and Joseph were expecting to hear! They were ‘amazed’ at Simeon’s words. Given what they had already heard from the angel and the shepherds, what is there in Simeon’s prophecy to produce such a surprised response? Not his identification of Jesus with ‘salvation’, or ‘glory for Israel’ – they have heard those things already. No, the new element here, is Simeon’s reference to the nations. Most Jews were hoping Israel would be saved from the nations. It was no part of the ordinary Jew’s hope for the future that the nations should be saved. Jesus’ parents would have been unlikely to relish the prospects Simeon was opening up.

However, though salvation for the nations was not part of the typical Jew’s hope at that time in history – it was part of the hope projected by Israel’s prophets of old. That’s the point of hearing it from the Simeon, of all people. There can be no doubting his credentials as a son of Israel. The message which shocks Mary and Joseph comes from the lips of a prophet-like figure who has practically stepped forth from the pages of their Scriptures to speak with them ‘live’. It is set at the heart of the most Jewish scene in the entire Gospel. And so this tension between Simeon and Jesus’ parents is revealing and (once again) representative. We see that devout Jews of that time were out of step with the prophets of their own Scriptures. And the direction they had drifted was away from God’s creation-wide purpose of blessing, and towards nationalism and xenophobia.

Luke hints that if Israel was to listen to the true voice of the prophets afresh, they like Mary and Joseph would be surprised and perhaps disturbed by what they heard.

Simeon provides us with an insight into how the devout old covenant believer thought the consolation of Israel would come about: he was waiting for the coming of the Messiah.

It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.

In receiving this promise, Simeon stands as a representative Israelite, in a sense symbolising the nation. Israel is in ruins, scattered and exiled for six hundred years. It looks as if the nation is well and truly finished. But the Spirit has revealed through the prophets that Israel will not finally perish but instead be visited and restored by God’s Messiah.

The welcome Simeon gives to the child also represents the nation. He cradles the child in his arms with delight. His song, ‘Now you release your servant in/into peace’, may or may not refer to his own impending death. But either way, what is notable is that Simeon employs the Jubilee imagery and vocabulary of a master releasing his slave (luw, doulos – cf. e.g. Leviticus 25:44; Psalm 146:7; Isaiah 58:6). His prayer takes on a symbolic significance which may be missed on first reading. For in the prophets, Israel is the Lord’s servant (doulos, pais – e.g. Isaiah 48:20; 49:3), awaiting release from captivity. We have already been reminded of this usage in Mary’s song (1:54). And so here at Jesus’ presentation the attentive reader hears the annoucement: finally Yahweh has come to bring the long-awaited release to his servant, Israel. In this moment considered “the climax of the Lukan infancy narrative”[1] as we see Simeon “released into shalom,” we get a foretaste of Isaianic Jubilee for the nation (cf. Luke 2:14).

This theme of release from captivity has by now been established as core for the expectations Luke sets up for his story.

At this point things take an unexpected turn…

Tomorrow: those pesky nations

[1] Tannehill 1996, 71