some biblical ‘angles’ on suffering

I’ve been pondering the problem of suffering as I prepare workshops for our mid-year Summit (our theme is In His Image’ on Genesis 1-3).

I find I’ve got lots to say. Far too much! Although, I’m convinced that information transfer is a lower priority than carving out the emotional space to wrestle honestly with the problem of suffering — a problem the Bible affirms rather than solves (or dissolves), pointing to God’s victory over it in Jesus rather than explaining it (e.g., as some sort of cosmic necessity).

The opening chapters Genesis are our key texts for the week. So I’m entertaining the idea of highlighting three intersecting biblical ‘angles’ on suffering that emerge from the pages of Genesis 3:

  1. Idolatry — The story of the first temptation sets the pattern we all follow: doubt God’s goodness and pin our hopes for fulfilment, satisfaction, and autonomy on created things rather than the Creator. This is the root of so much suffering because not only do created things inevitably fail to deliver (an ‘idol is nothing in all the world’, 1 Cor 8.4) but they also unleash powerful toxic — even demonic (see 1 Cor 10.19-20) — forces.
  2. Exile — The Genesis story suggests that lots of the suffering we experience is bound up with the fact that ever since our first parents were expelled from the Garden we’ve been in ‘exile’ — cut off from the source of life, estranged from one another, and blocked from enjoying the God-given order and harmony represented by the Garden.
  3. Salvation-through-Judgement — There are clear hints in Genesis 3 of God’s grace — not only in the midst of the judgement (e.g., providing Adam and Eve clothing, indicating the painful but still open possibility of ‘filling’ and ‘subduing’ creation, and promising that one born of the woman will eventually crush the serpent) but also in the form of judgement (e.g., limiting the potential for human sin to wreak havoc by ruling out access to the tree of life).

What I’d love from you is what your gut says about whether these ‘angles’ will help or hinder honest personal wrestling with the problem of suffering in light of God’s victory.

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7 comments

  1. Looks and sounds very good to me! I am one that believes that grace is always experiential, grace somewhat changes or surmounts nature. Certainly not completely in this life, but “faith in Christ” puts to death the old man! Note it is Christ, and “the new man” in Him! (Col. 3:10)

  2. Hey Chris,
    I like how you use idolatry and exile to address suffering as a result of the loss of our true centre – God himself. It is tied to our rejection of God as the centre of life. I like this approach because it enables the problem of suffering to be understood from the perspective of human rebellion, rather than always looking at God and trying to come up with some philosophical explanation for the existence of evil and suffering. I have just preached on Gen 1-11 and what I was struck by was the consistent theme of human rebellion (resulting in human suffering) and God’s grace (trying to mitigate human suffering and sin and pride). This pattern is reversed in the media where God is the result of suffering and humans are all good and loving and peaceful. One more thing – exile and idolatry seem to address the God-Human and Human-World relationships – but I wonder what Gen 1-3 has to say about the God-World and Human-Human relationships?
    BTW – thanks for the newsletters and praying for you guys.

    1. Hey Steve,

      Lovely to hear from you. And thanks heaps for your interest and prayers!

      I’d love to hear what you turned up in your work on Genesis 1-11 — especially with regards to God-World and Human-Human relations. I’m always up for additional angles on this question (although I recognise it’ll always fall short of a total explanation — which is a good thing too: the Bible seems much more interested in pointing us to God’s victory over suffering in the suffering of Jesus than in explaining our situation, or worse, explaining it away).

  3. I guess I am not saying anything new with regards to God-world and Human-human relations. But sin has resulted in suffering and evil penetrating all levels and structures of society. There is no place in which sin has not tainted and spoiled and twisted – from the human heart to the political structures of society.

    In terms of Human-human relations there is;
    1. Domination over one another, rather than humanity having dominion together as God’s representatives, so misusing and destroying each other
    2. Lack of trust, openness and intimacy in relationships symbolised by covering our nakedness immediately after Adam and Eve rebelled against God (2:25 & 3:7 interesting how nakedness/clothing is the vehilce for expressing the break down in relationship once God is dethroned)
    3. Division of humanity, rather than united humanity, so another human person is competition and threatening.

    In terms of God-world there is;
    1. Cursing the ground in 3:17 is the most obvious which is interestingly picked up in 8:21 where God promises to not curse the ground again with a flood but remain committted to solving the problem of sin. Also Lamech cries out for relief and rest from the curse of the ground in 5:29. God graciously provided meat for humans to eat (animals were not cursed) as an alternative & abundant food source to ease the painful toil of working the ground to produce food. Sweat and frustration and pain in work should have made Adam’s family remember the fruitfulness and abundance of life in the Garden which was all about the life giving presence of God. But sadly they forgot about Eden and moved on to built a new centre for humanity – the city where human pride and arrogance ruled.
    2. The world outside the Garden is somehow different to the world inside the Garden because God is in the Garden. This point may have more to do with World-Human relations, but for humanity the world becomes a scary, daunting and fearful place, once they lose connection with God. The building of the city by Cain’s family and Noah’s family are attempts to construct and socially engineer a new centre for humanity, whereby humanity can control their purpose and destiny apart from God.

    Thanks for the opportunity to chat and share some stuff.

    BTW – like reading your posts so keeping linking them to facebook

    1. Thanks Steve. Lots to chew on here! I love your attention to the way the details of the story forecast the disintegration of human-human relationships.

      I’m curious about the emphasis you place on city-building in describing post-fall God-world relationships. I know it’s a pretty big deal in the OT (and Genesis 1-11 in particular). And I’m keen to think more about it. But I do find it interesting that the goal of redemption history — according to Revelation 21-22, anyway — is portrayed as a city, albeit a city with God and the Lamb at the centre…

  4. Let me quickly fill in the details on the place of the city in Gen 1-11 as I preached it.

    Cain builds a city by refusing to submit to God’s punishment of wandering on the earth. His life as a fugitive on the earth should have reminded him of the Garden of Eden which his parents would have told him about and came back to God on the east side of Eden, but instead he went further east to the land of Nod and established his family in a city to protect his life from family retribution.

    Likewise, Noah’s family after the flood move further east (further and further away from the Garden of Eden) in order to settle, unite and build a city. God told Noah’s family to spread and fill the earth but they unite and build a city. Why unite and build, because they have become displaced and alienated from the true centre of life – God himself. When God gets displaced from the centre then humanity needs to make up a centre to replace God. Why did God place Adam and Eve in a Garden and not a City? Because everything in the Garden is provided by God so they were meant to learn that all of life comes from the hand of God, that’s the point of the garden. But humanity outside the Garden has lost this connection with God. So the city-building project is a way of taking control of life and generating a purpose and meaning in life apart from God. The natural environment apart from God is a daunting prospect – it is filled with anxiety and fear and loneliness. But when you take a piece of the natural environment and start to build walls, a floor and roof, what you are doing is taking control of space, setting up a boundary, creating something that comes from your hands, it gives us a sense of purpose and meaning in what we have made and constructed and designed. So in the end humanity has set themselves up as the ultimate creators and rulers of the world through the city-building project, replacing God at the centre with a system of life grounded in human pride, rather than on the foundation of God as Creator and Ruler. What humanity has forgotten is the Garden of Eden where God is the source of life.

    The final word on the human city project is 11:9 where God judges it as “babel” which means “confusion” and “folly”. That is, all human projects like city building or technology systems or political structures which are founded on human pride and arrogance are judged as folly by God, but there is hope in the city of God such as that which Abraham was looking forward to or the city of God in Revelation.

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