Many folks find the topic of evil and suffering something rather taboo to discuss in terms of answers. Suffering and evil have no answers, it is said. Or, if answers are given, they are expressed tentatively, with approbation, and with the pious sounding absence of the definite article ("an answer" or "some answers").
Thankfully, there are still men who speak with conviction born of the Spirit of God and borne upon the sound doctrine of Scripture. I recently discovered a short book by John Currid, a professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary (I believe he is now at the Charlotte campus).
The book is broken into ten chapters divided into four major sections. The divisions are as follows:
Part I: God and Calamity
1 Suffering and the Sovereignty of God
2 Suffering and the Character of God
Part II: Why Do Christians Suffer? The Benefits of Affliction
3 Solace in God
5 Conforming to the Image of Christ
6 Perseverance of the Saints
Part III: Why Do Unbelievers Suffer?
7 Suffering as Forewarning
8 Suffering as Condemnation
Part IV: Attitudes in Suffering: Encouragement for Believers
9 The Cross Comes Before the Crown
10 Conclusion: A Question of Prosperity
All in all the book is a wonderful theological primer on the subject of suffering and evil, providing sound systematic treatment drawn from faithful exposition of key texts, and including a healthy (i.e. not gluttonous, but neither impoverished) dose of confessions, historical examples, and poignant anecdotes.
Part I deals primarily with Theodicy, or the vindication of God's justice, goodness, and power. Currid affirms God's sovereignty to the full while preserving the unity of His will. Although he uses the unfortunate use of God's "permissive will," his affirmations do not create the contradictions that so often result from this use. God's "permissive will," is not passive, affirms Currid (then why use language of permission, which naturally entail passivity?). Currid affirms secondary causation, God's decretive determination of all things, and the distinction between God's treatment of believers and unbelievers with regard to suffering and calamity (i.e. God uses suffering and calamity for different purposes, which Currid fleshes out in the later parts). Although Currid does not provide the desired demonstrations for these affirmations, the affirmations remains a breath of fresh air.
Part II considers the various reasons why God brings suffering and calamity upon the Christian. The first chapter under this section aims to prove that suffering leads us into greater fellowship with God. First, it does so by giving us greater impetus to pray. Lax in our comforts, God grace is revealed in our suffering when afflictions drive us to pray more frequently and more fervently to Him, leaning upon His Sovereignty as we ought to in any circumstance. Second, afflictions drive us to doubt confidence in ourselves, which subsequently drives us back to our source of knowledge and true comfort, the Word of God. Third, affliction drives out the love of the world from our hearts in order that God may be more firmly rooted therein. Fourth, afflictions humble us by revealing our weakness and utter dependence upon God's grace.
The second chapter under part II considers sufferings as a measure of discipline. Sufferings for the believer at the hand of God are not condemnatory, but are born from God's love for us. As children, we often walk as children, in the foolishness of our ignorance and careless desires. Afflictions remove the childishness from our hearts (often because it drives us into the activities and results of the last chapter discussed). Discipline also refines our souls. Like soldiers who are made strong by physical hardships in the work of warfare, so the Christian is made strong in the forge of suffering. God also uses suffering as preparation for later tasks He has in store for us. As Moses became a lowly shepherd for forty years (shepherds were despised by the Egyptians) from his former state of comfort in order to be God's instrument in leading Israel out of Egypt, so too God uses afflictions in our lives to prepare us for the work of restoration in the lives of others, for the glory of God and the expansion of His kingdom. Affliction also disciplines us in knowledge, for we are instructed by God's Word as we turn to it for answers and support. Currid also discusses the means by which God disciplines His people by looking at Habakkuk.
The third chapter under part II considers the work of suffering in conforming us into the image of Christ. Currid affirms the truth that Christ suffered, details the nature and scope of Christ's suffering, the purpose of Christ's suffering, and the reasons why Christians must follow in Christ's suffering. My focus on the chapter is brief, not for lack of substance, but rather because it is better read entire than summarized here.
The fourth chapter under part II looks at perseverance as a reason for Christian suffering. It matures our faith through its disciplining effects. It proves our faith as it separates us from the world and delivers us into glory. It witnesses to the truth of the Gospel of God as a display of its power to uphold us in our affliction. It confounds the wisdom of the world by its supernatural power and effect upon the believer who overcomes. It improves our efforts for Christ and His kingdom through the removal of remaining sin that would lead us toward self-reliance. It is training for glory because it instructs us to look for our heavenly home, which is greater than this earthly one. It serves to magnify God's promise to preserve His people through every manner of trial and adversity. It serves the glory of God in all these ways, which affirms our chief end.
Part III includes two chapters on why unbelievers suffer. The first discusses how suffering leads sinners into repentance and into great workers in God's kingdom. It focuses upon several historical examples, including John Newton, Robert Murray McCheyne, the Plague of 1665, and the thief on the cross next to Jesus. The second discusses the suffering of unbelievers unto their temporal and final condemnation under the wrath of God. Against the realities of temporal and eternal wrath, Currid asserts the only answer to suffering and evil is the grace of God revealed in His only son, the God-Man Christ Jesus. It is by His work that one may be made right with God; it is by His death that our dead spirit is made alive; it is by His resurrection that we are assured that we too shall have eternal life in the presence of God without sin, shame, or shuddering.
Part IV also includes two chapters. The first is a veritable homily on the necessity and expectation of suffering that believers must apprehend and embrace. Currid focuses primarily upon Foxe's Book of Martyrs and Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. The last chapter handles the problem of prosperity, that is, why do the wicked prosper? He provides brief commentary on Psalm 73 and Ecclesiastes 6-7, both of which provide ample answer to the so-called problem: from the end of things all the answers to our problems are solved in the glorious wisdom of God's determination. We must therefore trust in God, and be cautious in how we judge the circumstances surrounding us. It is not always true that the righteous prosper and the wicked suffer. It is always true that in the end the righteous shall be blessed and the wicked shall be condemned. We cannot judge a life by its present condition, but only by its completed course. Many an apparent believer has been revealed a blasphemer (consider Judas), and many a blasphemer has become a mouthpiece for God's glory (consider Paul). Can we judge with certainty what any man shall end up? But woe to we who fail to judge the present condition of men's confession and comportment.
Currid's book is better than Carson's book (another book on suffering I've reviewed, in part, on this blog), How Long, O Lord? both in its brevity, its perspicuity, and its theological precision. Both are worthy for your personal library.