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Suffering in the New Testament, Part Two

Sep 30, 2010

It is not just Paul of course who speaks about suffering so often. The rest of the New Testament also has much to say about this important topic. The book of James for example has a lot to say about suffering and affliction. Several passages are worth considering.

James 1:2-4 and 1:12 are important verses which encourage believers in their suffering, and even take a positive view of such sufferings. Of course it is not suffering itself, but what suffering produces, that causes James to have such a high view of affliction. As Douglas Moo comments, “The reason that believers should react with joy when faced with various trials is that these trials are means of testing through which God works to perfect faith.”

As David Nystrom points out, the “Hebrew word that stands behind the Greek word ‘trials’ (peirasmos) is nasah, which means to prove the quality or worth of someone or something through adversity.” This produces endurance and maturity says James. Thus we are to respond to such trials with joy. Because of the good effects which come from responding to suffering in the right spirit, such trials are even to be welcomed. James says later that those who endure such trials are considered ‘blessed’ (5:11). Yet, there “is no room here for the idea of seeking out trials as a way of ‘proving’ faith to oneself or to others. The trials James assumes here are unexpected and, at least initially, unwelcome.” No Christian masochism here.

And it seems that James has more than just persecution in mind here. Indeed, Alec Motyer sees the whole gamut of affliction being presented here. Commenting on James 1:2, he notes, “The small word it contains the whole of life. It sums up in its tiny compass every one of the various trials which the present may contain, the future may bring, or the past may keep stored in memory. . . . There is no trial, no calamity or small pressure, no overwhelming sorrow or small rub of life outside that plan of God, whereby it is a stepping-stone to glory.”

Or as Moo puts it, “the ‘trials’ James mentions include more than religious persecution. By stressing that the trials were of ‘many kinds,’ James deliberately casts his net widely, including the many kinds of suffering that Christians undergo in this fallen world: sickness, loneliness, bereavement, disappointment.” And given the many references to wealth and poverty in the letter, “poverty must certainly have been prominent among [the trials he mentions]”.

Blomberg and Kamell also see this text as having a wider scope: “One dare not limit this subsection just to the kind of trials of economic exploitation that James’s audience was experiencing. The use of the adjective for ‘various’ or ‘many kinds’ (v. 2) highlights this point. Against those who think, for example, that God never wants people to be sick or poor, so that believers should ‘name and claim’ health and wealth, v. 2 forms the first of several texts in James that confront and decry this heresy bluntly.”

C.L. Mitton also argues for the broader meaning of the term. He explains that the word may be used “of those disappointments, sorrows, hardships, which befall us all; or it may indicate special sufferings inflicted upon the Christians by hostile pagan neighbours or government officials”. He continues, “it seems probable that in this context James is thinking primarily of outward afflictions which human life must face. . . . There is nothing in the context to suggest that James is thinking particularly of troubles brought on by persecution, though these are by no means excluded. Probably, however, he has in mind those inevitable disappointments, griefs, sorrows and annoyances which no human life can avoid”.

The same can be said about verse 12: the “RSV translates the word as ‘trial’, an ordeal which a Christian is urged to face with steadfast courage – such things as illness, unpopularity, financial loss, sorrow, persecution.” Or as Moo puts it, “As in v. 2, ‘trial’ refers to any difficulty in life that may threaten our faithfulness to Christ: physical illness, financial reversal, the death of a loved one. James’s wording suggests that he is not thinking of any particular trial, but of the nature or essence of ‘trial’.”

James 5:13 is another passage that deserves inspection: “Is any among you afflicted? let him pray” (KJV). The verb used, kakopathei, is translated in various ways: to be afflicted, to suffer, to face adversity, to be in trouble. The word, says Motyer, “is wider than the sufferings of sickness. Jeremiah suffered opposition, Ezekiel bereavement, Hosea marital breakdown. It is any ill circumstance which may come upon us, any trial, anything of which we or an onlooking friend might say ‘That’s bad’.” It is a comprehensive term and seems not to be limited to mere persecution.

Other commentators concur. Simon Kistemaker for example says that “the simple facts of life are that from time to time the believer is in trouble. This trouble can be physical, mental, personal, financial, spiritual, or religious – to mention no more”.

The first epistle of Peter contains much on the issue of suffering. Indeed, each of the five chapters contains something on the subject. I. Howard Marshall notes that twelve of the forty-one uses of the verb ‘to suffer’ (pascho) occur in this epistle. And four of the sixteen occurrences of the noun form are found here. “These figures indicate clearly that suffering is a major theme in 1 Peter.”

What the source of this suffering is, is not so clear. Persecution is certainly a major part of the equation. But given the wide audience he is writing to, he may not have known all the troubles, and thus refers to suffering in general. As J. Ramsey Michaels writes, “Because Peter does not have direct knowledge of the particular ‘ordeals’ facing the churches to which he writes – any more than of the sufferings of the ‘brotherhood throughout the world’ (5:9) – he uses vague terms … to encompass a whole range of possible troubles.”

Just one of the many references to suffering in 1 Peter is worth examining. In chapter one Peter says the following: “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (vv. 6,7).

Philip Graham Ryken comments, “He does not mention any specifics here, but when Peter speaks of suffering grief in all kinds of trials (1:6), he obviously intends to include every kind of suffering there is. His point is not so much how often we suffer, but how many different ways we suffer.”

Whatever these various kinds of trials are – persecution of physical affliction or whatever – Peter sees great value in them because something that God desires greatly – purity in his people – can result. Says Scot McKnight, “Like James in James 1:3, Peter sees in suffering a situation from which the believers can learn and grow.”

Indeed, one gets the feeling that only by means of such trials can this refining process take place. Moreover, such trials seem God-sent. Alan Stibbs, commenting on the KJV, says this: “If need be may simply recognize that such an experience is a possibility, i.e. circumstances may make it inevitable. But the word deon suggests a probable reference to the kind of divine necessity that Jesus Himself saw in His own sufferings. Such trials are sometimes a ‘must’ for God’s people if His will is to be done (cf. iii 17).”

This phrase “if necessary” is also commented on by Thomas Schreiner: “The idea is that the sufferings believers experience are not the result of fate or impersonal forces of nature. They are the will of God for believers (cf. 1 Pet 4:19). The New Testament regularly sees sufferings as the road believers must travel to enter into God’s kingdom (cf. Acts 14:22; Rom 5:3-5; Jas 1:2-4).”

Karen Jobes says that although for Peter’s original audience persecution was mainly in mind, there is wider application here: “Peter’s exhortation to trust in God as Father and faithful Creator in the midst of suffering may be more broadly applied to those suffering from all sources, such as bereavement, illness, the vicissitudes of aging, and even the consequences of sin.”

Comments by Craig Blomberg on 1 Cor. 4 serve as a helpful summary to this discussion: “The New Testament never commands believers to seek suffering or martyrdom, indeed Jesus and Paul often fled them. . . . Neither does Scripture ever assign any atoning value to Christian suffering. . . . On the other hand, Scripture consistently points out the positive value of affliction. Paul’s very next letter to the Corinthians supplies a veritable catalog of reasons why God allows his people to suffer…. [G]iven Paul’s remarks about his ‘thorn in the flesh’ (2 Cor. 12:7-10), almost certainly a reference to some physical affliction, it probably is legitimate to extend Paul’s principles about suffering to natural disaster, disease, and disability, to the extent that they are not brought on by our own sin or negligence.”

Part One is found here: billmuehlenberg.com/2010/09/30/suffering-in-the-new-testament-part-one/

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7 Responses to Suffering in the New Testament, Part Two

  • Thanks Bill
    Thomas a Kempis, who wrote the Imitation of Christ, points out that: “Jesus has many who love His Kingdom in Heaven, but few who bear His Cross, He has many who desire comfort, but few who desire suffering. He finds many to share His feast; but few His fasting, All desire to rejoice with Him, but few are willing to suffer for His sake. Many follow Jesus to the Breaking of Bread, but few to the drinking of the Cup of His Passion.
    Many admire His miracles, but few follow Him in the humiliation of the Cross. Many love Jesus as long as no hardship touches them. Many praise and bless Him, as long as they are receiving comfort from Him. But if Jesus seems to withdraw Himself, they fall to complaining and utter dejection.”
    A few years ago I stopped off at a certain place which was on fire. It belonged to an old lady, who was being comforted by people who obviously had assisted at trying to put out the blaze. As I walked closer to her, presuming she would be angry or at least upset, I heard her say softly: “Praise be to God” over and over again. I have never been so touched as I was on that night. Instead of being angry she accepted the Hand of God in her ordeal.
    Her house was totally destroyed and everything in it.
    I often think of her when trials come my way and wish that I could be like her and accept what God hands out.
    Anne Van Tilburg

  • Thanks Anne

    When the topic of evil and suffering comes up, there is a huge discussion about the role various parties play: ourselves, God, Satan. It is quite complex and involved, and not easily discussed in short comments or articles. Does God cause suffering, or just allow it, or use it, or something else, or some combination? Lots of questions need to be sorted out from the biblical material. But I will try to add some articles on this topic in the days ahead.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • You are of course right. I had forgotten those passages. I guess the next question is how then to we respond to our suffering?
    Kylie Anderson

  • Thanks Kylie

    Another great (big) question. You just want me to write another article! Will see what I can do.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • I am having the deepest trouble responding to the trials which are besetting me with joy. Just keeping my head above the waves is a battle, and one I would not be able to attempt without the Grace that can only come from the Lord Jesus Christ.
    Kenya Lee Lowther

  • Hi Bill I would like to share a little testimony if I may.
    It always seemed to me that suffering in what ever form brings one to the end of natural strength and then when it seems to late God comes on the scene. Then I see a pattern through out scripture of suffering preceding glory over and over again. It is a bit like the work of the cross, coming to a death, and when that point is reached experiential in the life of the believer then miraculously resurrection takes place. Just this past week I was despairing of life after a long ten year period of continual disappointments, of my family living in several undersized cramped rented houses, culminating in being forced to vacate because of a sale and not being able to find a place anywhere to live or buy that brought me to an end. And then in absolute amazement almost like a spectator, God moved in an incredible way and within two days we have found ourselves owners of a wonderful unique water front property which we move into a couple of days before we were to be homeless.
    It was the same with receiving a wife. After many years of suffering and desire in this area and outright despair and disappointment of which God got amazing mileage in my life. One day when I reached my forties along came my wife as a pure gift and again all through the process I stood by as almost a spectator. Suffering precedes the glory, it is Gods gift, though I don’t think I could ever get used to it.
    Rob Withall

  • I always receive comfort and assurance in times of suffering by remembering and re reading the first chapter of Job, where Satan was given permission by God to afflict Job, but God set the conditions and limits of Satan’s activity. It is an important reminder that when it seems like all is spiraling out of control, it actually isn’t. The hands that shaped the earth and set it on its axis and stops it spiraling off into the universe, are the same hands which shaped you and moulded you, and have numbered the very hairs on your head – the hands of the One who has named you with a name that He alone knows. That One is in control – everything works for the good of those who love Him. Give thanks in all things for this is God’s will (the giving of thanks) for you, in Christ Jesus. Be still (cease striving) and know that He is God.
    Kerry Letheby

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