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A review of Suffering and the Goodness of God. Edited by Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson.

Feb 12, 2009

Crossway Books, 2008. (Available in Australia at Koorong Books)

Suffering is a universal and perennial problem. No one escapes it, and all are left buffeted and bruised by it. And most people are riddled with many profound questions about suffering. As long as people have been plagued by suffering, they have thought and wondered about it.

As a result, countless gallons of ink have been spilt on this issue. This recent volume looks at the issue through the lens of Christianity. It explores how God and suffering are to be understood in light of biblical revelation. Given that so much has already been written on the subject, it is hard to expect anything radically new or different to appear here.

But the ten essays presented here by eight evangelical authors make for a nice overview of the biblical discussion of the issue. Many similar sorts of things have been written before, but this book offers a nice collection of articles dealing with the main themes.

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Thus there are several chapters on how the Old Testament addresses the problem; how the New Testament treats this issue, how the bible story line as a whole deals with it; the theological and philosophical problem of evil; and other aspects to the debate.

Walter Kaiser’s two chapters on how suffering is handled in the Old Testament are nicely presented. He spends time on the main documents, such as the Book of Job, the Wisdom literature, Lamentations and the lament psalms, and the story of Joseph.

He also looks at eight types of suffering found in the Old Testament. Of course there is retributive suffering, that is, reaping what one sows.  It is “one of the fundamental principles by which God governs the world”. Choices have consequences, and bad choices (sin) invariably meet with negative consequences.

Educational or disciplinary suffering is also clearly taught in the Hebrew Scriptures. That God can use hardships and trials to perfect us, to mould our character, and make us more like him, is a common theme of both Testaments.

The difficult question of the problem of evil is covered by John Frame. Writing as he does from a strongly Reformed perspective, he emphasises the sovereignty of God in all this. But he looks at how God can be seen as in control of all things, while not being the author of evil.

Thus Frame looks at differing types of evil, different ways to understand God’s will, and how a good God can use evil for good ends. In this discussion broader questions of how human freedom and divine sovereignty can be reconciled are also explored. Readers may not agree with all the arguments presented here, but much food for thought is offered.

Perhaps the highlight of the book is the concluding chapter by John Feinberg. Feinberg has written extensively on the problem of evil and suffering. His two masters’ theses, and his doctoral dissertation, were all on these topics. But it was personal tragedy in his own life that really made this become real to him. His wife – and potentially his children – carries a degenerative, fatal disease, which he has had to work through and cope with for many years now.

Such personal encounters with suffering in many ways supplement but go beyond the academic ruminations about the topic. Indeed, Feinberg sees that there is the theological and philosophical approach to suffering which is necessary, but there is also a pastoral approach.

Often when people are in the midst of suffering it is the pastoral approach which is most needed. Being there to comfort and express love may often be more important than just providing theological answers to all the ‘why’ questions.

In this very down-to-earth chapter Feinberg tells us what is not helpful as we seek to comfort those in pain, and what is helpful. But he does not leave out rational argumentation altogether. For example, he responds to the charge that God may appear to be unjust in allowing some to suffer more than others:

“Grace is unmerited favor. That means you get something good that you don’t deserve. But if I don’t merit it at all, it can’t be unjust that my neighbor gets more grace than I do. In fact, God isn’t obligated to treat us with any kind of grace. That’s why it is grace and not justice.”

All in all this is a helpful one-volume look at the biblical discussion of suffering and evil. Those already well-read on this topic will not find much new or different material here. But it is a nice arrangement of the main concerns as addressed by Scripture. For those wanting a good volume which covers most of the bases, this is a good place to begin.

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