I have read quite a few books concerning suffering. D. A. Carson wrote a good one called How Long, O Lord? And many authors of the Christian stripe include sections on suffering in their books regardless of the subject matter of the book itself. They are not, for that matter, all Christians either. Some authors, in their exploration of suffering, have actually discovered what they believe to be God’s Achilles heel. “Aha,” they say. “Suffering and evil in the world prove there is no god or God.” Alcorn does not view it that way: “…we can follow the lead of Scripture and embrace the belief that God is accomplishing eternal purposes in the midst of painful and even tragic events” (73). That’s a difficult proposition, to be sure. But if our point of view is only from this world, horizontal, we will surely abandon all hope. Rather, Alcorn writes, we put our faith in God’s character and God’s promises.
I’ve read some good books on suffering. He Leadeth Me by Walter Ciszek is a fascinating book by a Catholic priest who was convinced that the time he spent in Soviet slave labor camps in Siberia had meaning. “It is much easier to see the redemptive role of pain and suffering in God’s plan if you are not actually undergoing pain and suffering” (119) he wrote. He went on to write,
It was only by struggling with such feelings, however, that growth occurred. Each victory over discouragement gave an increase in spiritual courage; every success, however fleeting, in finding the hand of God behind all things, made it easier to recapture the sense of his purpose in a new day of seemingly senseless work and hardship and suffering (119).
He learned during his time in the camp. He learned about faith, humility, humanity, death, freedom, and the kingdom of God. He met Jesus and became acquainted with his sufferings.
Leaving Church by Barbara Taylor Brown is another exciting book about suffering. When she began to lose, and eventually lost, she, too, learned about Jesus: “The second thing that happened when I lost my power was that I got a taste of the spiritual poverty that is central to the Christ path…Only those who lose their lives can have them” (163). Indeed. Yet sometimes we are not so willing to give up those lives and they have to be taken from us. We do not enjoy that taking away so we fight and kick and scream like little children who have had their favorite toy taken from them by a tired parent. We cannot prevail.
N.T. Wright’s fascinating look at suffering is found in Evil and the Justice of God, yet it is difficult to read through any of Wright’s books without finding a paragraph or two, chapter or two, devoted entirely to helping the wayfarer discover meaning in suffering. Couching his argument entirely in the historical death and resurrection of Jesus, Wright writes, “The new life of the Spirit, to which Christians are called in the present age, is not a matter of sitting back and enjoying spiritual comforts in a private, relaxed, easygoing spirituality, but consists rather of the unending struggle in the mystery of prayer, the struggle to bring God’s wise, healing order into the world now, in implementation of the victory of the cross and anticipation of the final redemption” (119).
Many authors of fictional work have written brilliantly on the subject of suffering. Some of my favorite books The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas), Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky), and King Rat (James Clavell) are books that delve deeply into philosophical and theological explorations of suffering. Another favorite, Silence by Shusaku Endo, is simply brilliant. The priest suffers mightily in the story, but at the end Endo writes, “…he was not betraying his Lord. He loved him now in a different way from before. Everything that had taken place until now had been necessary to bring him to this love” (191).
There are others. Annie Dillard, Philip Yancey, Flannery O’Connor, Henri Nouwen, Eugene Peterson, C.S. Lewis, and many, many others have written either overtly or through a glass about suffering. So now is added to the plethora of books on the subject of suffering, God, and justice Randy Alcorn’s thin The Goodness of God. Inherent in all the books I have mentioned, and not absent from Alcorn’s, is the idea that our suffering means something. There is some point to pain and sadness and darkness, we are told, that we may or may not understand while we are suffering it or being blinded in darkness. The problem, of course, is coming up with answers that in some way or other cover all possible scenarios. Alcorn does ask a very important question a little more than halfway through the book: “Whose purpose in your suffering will prevail? Whose purpose are you furthering?” (79). I agree this is a most important question to ask and, frankly, I wish this had been explored a little more than it was in the book.
I know that Alcorn is not intending his book to be a tour de force explanation of suffering. His book is one-hundred, seventeen pages; I read that many pages before breakfast. Still it is a helpful book, I think, for the beginner. Those who have taken a few more steps on the journey of faith will likely find the book to be a bit shallow while those who are just getting started, so to speak, will find nourishment. The book is milk, not meat. I think there are a lot of times when Alcorn gives us some good one-liners that we can jot down in our journals or on note cards for handy reference. This book, while theologically sound, is not taking us to greater heights or depths, but again, it is not intended to. Nevertheless, there are some rather profound insights in the book that I appreciated and have given much thought to. I’ll note two in particular.
First, he wrote, “Most people today understand evil as anything that harms others; the more harm done, the more evil that action. The Bible uses the word evil in a broader way to describe anything that flows not from loving God but rebelling against him” (9). I think this is healthy. I recently had a friend ask me that question, “What is evil?” Interestingly enough, before I read Alcorn I gave a very similar answer: Evil is anything that works against God, his righteous plans, his purposes in Jesus. Not everyone buys this, of course, but apart from such a righteousness (God’s righteousness) how else can we define evil? If I am the measure of all things, then my standard necessarily prevails against yours, and you had better hope you don’t violate my standard! Either everyone is wrong, or no one is. And if one person is wrong, then clearly we are all wrong.
A second important point comes from a later chapter where he wrote, “….there’s a fault in the logic of the major premise of the problem of evil… ‘it shouldn’t be limited to only two attributes of God—being loving and powerful—but it should include all of them—merciful, faithful, wise, holy, patient, glorious, etc.’” (33). Again, this is true. Often when considering God and his relationship to suffering we see on earth we limit God to one or the other of these two categories: power and love. And when we do, God is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. We are never fully satisfied with God’s answers to our suffering—the suffering and evil that we tend to bring upon ourselves.
I disagree with Alcorn on a couple of points. His discussion of hell being a moral necessity if God’s justice is to be real in chapter 9 was a bit sketchy for me. I don’t believe our modern constructs of hell are fully in line with the Scripture and thus I think that some of Alcorn’s points here are a bit antiquated and missing the mark.
I also disagree that suffering and evil necessarily define what is and is not a good worldview: “And I believe the greatest test of any worldview is how it deals with the problem of evil and suffering” (34). I believe that the greatest test of any worldview is how it deals with Jesus.
The book is riddled with some of the more troubling Christian clichés about suffering. Of course the story of John Newton and Amazing Grace are recounted. C.S. Lewis’s tired saying about suffering being God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world is quoted. Stories about the perplexities of suffering under noted Atheists like Hitler and Stalin are paraded across the pages. We are told the story of the Eliot’s and the Saint’s too. Predictably, Harold Kushner, Richard Dawkins, Viktor Frankl made appearances. And, finally, we are told that undeniably banal story of the train operator who had to choose between saving his son or saving a hundred people on a train if he didn’t pull the switch. There are so many, many, many other authors and stories to pay attention to when talking about suffering—not least of which is Endo, Dostoyevsky, Dillard, Chesterton, Tolkien, Hemmingway, Buechner, P.T. Forsyth, John Donne (who wrote a great book on suffering called Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions), Thornton Wilder (The Bridge of San Luis Rey)…and so many others. All I’m saying is that some stories in the repertoire ought to be laid to rest forever and authors who want to write in popular level theologies on suffering and evil and God ought to have to give us better illustrations. (To be sure, Chesterton and Dostoyevsky both make appearances in the book, but it is the clichéd stuff we might have expected, not the unexpected we might hope for.)
In the few short pages, Alcorn gives us a robust portrait of the God who allows our suffering. There is no doubt about that. But there is not enough help understanding God’s silence–which I believe to be the biggest problem for Christians. Christians for the most part get suffering; we struggle with God’s silence. Who could write that book without falling back to the, “Oh, God is sovereign and wants you to grow up a good jelly-bean that’s why he is being quiet” kind of clichés we have grown accustomed to in pop-Christianity? What we least like about suffering is God’s silence. This was Job’s complaint, but when God answered—ah, then it was Job’s turn to be silent. We despise God’s silence, I suppose, as much as we despise his noise. That is, I dread not hearing his voice, but when I do I am frightened of what he is saying. I’m not sure, after reading Alcorn’s book, I have heard that voice—even if I did happen to hear traces as if through a static filled radio.
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**I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah for this review.