Despite advances in science, pain and death remain an inevitable part of life. Where is God when suffering abounds and tragedy strikes in the form of cancer, tsunami, wars and abuse? For some, it is an intellectual question to reconcile the existence of a loving and all-powerful God in the face of seemingly purposeless evil. For others, it is an existential cry from the heart. D. A. Carson wrote this book to help Christians not only to find assurance that their beliefs are consistent but to apply and draw comfort from them in the dark seasons of suffering.
In Part I, Carson cautioned us against false security that we could be insulated from suffering and radical evil through our own resources. Sometimes, we expect immediate relief from pain through our prayers and forget that God works for the good of those who love Him precisely in the midst of misery. It is not a promise to remove suffering altogether in this side of heaven. We may also draw false comfort from biblically indefensible notions of God as a sympathetic but less-than-omnipotent god or as a deistic Watchmaker who stay uninvolved with the world after setting natural laws in motion. Such attempts at justifying God’s ways with humanity (or theodicy) are sub-biblical, Carson argues, because Scripture reveals God as personally involved with the world and His omnipotence is not constrained with human freedom.
In Part II, Carson explores selective biblical themes relevant to the problem of evil and suffering to locate it within a Christian framework. From a survey of redemptive history, we find that an originally good creation is corrupted by human sin. Sickness and death entered the world as a result. While it does not mean that every bit of suffering is necessarily the immediate consequence of a particular sin, there is a profound sense that we are sinners who take part in and deserve the sufferings of a fallen world. We have forfeited any “right” to a life of ceaseless comfort. It is by God’s mercies that we are not destroyed. While discussing social evils, Carson pointed out that Jesus was not surprised by the prevalence of wars, famines and earthquakes (Matthew 24). Instead, the Lord treats natural disasters and injustices as incentives to repentance: “Unless you repent, you too will all perish”. It thus runs counter to our default expectation that we deserve prosperity and health while suffering and death are grossly ‘unfair’.
There are also sufferings peculiar to the people of God as a form of discipline for their ultimate good and intended to help them to fight sin. It is not necessarily a consequence for the lack of faith or prayer. Sometimes, mature Christian leaders may experience suffering closely connected to opposition to their courageous witness so that through their weakness, the life of Christ may be revealed and nourish the church (2 Corinthians 4:8-12). The chapter on Job is also a provocative challenge to the mistaken notion that the righteous will not suffer or those who suffer must have directly deserved it: The real question is whether we are more interested in seeking God for His own sake or for personal gain? Will we still worship Him when all worldly comforts are stripped away?
Another helpful biblical theme is God’s promise to right all wrongs and wipe away all tears at the End. It assures us that wickedness will not prosper ultimately. Death will not have the last word. From that eschatological perspective, we cultivate homesickness for heaven in God’s presence and avoid putting our hopes on all things finite. Ultimately, however, only the cross of Calvary reveals to us the kind of suffering God that we can trust despite not having all the answers. It is not “a kind of immanentist identification of God with all human suffering” (page 189). The cross is the supreme display of God’s justice and love. Christ suffered once-for-all to reconcile His people to the Father. He knows first hand what suffering is and therefore, He is able to sympathize with our weakness. Whatever hidden reasons God has for allowing tragedies and disasters, the reason could not be that He does not care. Only the God who carries the scars of wounds on Himself could really speak to and heal our own brokenness.
In Part III, Carson discusses the mystery of providence in how the Bible affirms God’s all-encompassing sovereignty in a way that is compatible with meaningful human responsibility. It consists more of biblical expositions than philosophical speculations. God’s loving providence teaches us to trust and obey in spite of not having all the answers. “God is less interested in answering our questions than in other things: securing our allegiance, establishing our faith, nurturing a desire for holiness” (page 245).
Finally, the book concludes with some pastoral reflections that often in the midst of suffering, the most comforting “answers” are simple presence, practical help and silent tears with those who mourn. Overall, I found it to be most helpful to anchor our faith in solid biblical insights so that we will stand firm when the storm of inevitable of pain and death comes. It challenges our false demands for how life ought to be and our idolatrous dependence in our own resources to insulate life from pain. It offers much wisdom and sensitivity in dealing with the problem of suffering in a gospel-centered perspective.