2 Corinthians, A Preparation for Suffering in an Evil Day, Affliction, Biblical Counseling, Discipleship, Edward Polhill, Evil, Hope, Job, Lamentations, Philippians, Problem of Evil, Problem of Harm, Puritan, Stoic, The Mute Christian Under the Smarting Rod, Thomas Brooks
The trouble of suffering, of evil constitutes a philosophical problem with which academics (typically) wrestle. There is a second category of problem, the actual subjective experience of evil, which drives one to ask, “How long O Lord!” (Psalm 13:1).
The philosophical discussions matter little to the sufferer. While I have cherry-picked a bit, I do not believer a suffering philosopher (or a philosopher on her death bed, awaiting the prospect of eternal judgment) will be comforted by
In slightly more detail, and using ‘Pr(P/Q)’ to stand either for the logical probability, or for the epistemic probability, of P given Q, the logic of the argument is as follows:
(1) Pr(O/HI) > Pr(O/T) (Substantive premise)
(2) Pr(O/HI) = Pr(O & HI)/Pr(HI) et cetera …..
The proof of God, despite suffering, or the “hope” that no God exists who will call to account matters less than (1) what I believe to be true of reality; (2) reality, itself. In the end, most of the philosophical arguments must be wrong in whole or part, because reality does not bend to my logical construct — however, well crafted and accepted by contemporary peers.
Arguments tell us nothing that we need. The man holding a bleeding child, the woman with cancer, cannot drink analytic philosophy — it will not digest. We would sooner feed scrap metal to a baby. The metal may good its place, but it will not ward off hunger.
The responses to suffering set forth below will answer to various philosophies, but they are in a very different form.
Suffering admits of only three responses. First, one can deny the reality of evil. This will also entail the denial of good, of love and joy and peace. The Stoic denial of all response is inhuman. And while a bit of peace may be had, the resignation of a stone to the rain does not end the rain. Rain will wear away the hardest stone. The stone may not rage, but the stone does not hope.
The drunkennes of cultures, flooding the senses with nonsense to obviate the real, a pornographic violence to the sense which wears away the soul merely mimics the Stoic without a hint of character or trial:
11 Woe to those who rise early in the morning, that they may run after strong drink, who tarry late into the evening as wine inflames them! 12 They have lyre and harp, tambourine and flute and wine at their feasts, but they do not regard the deeds of the LORD, or see the work of his hands. Isaiah 5:11-12
Thomas Brooks notes and rejects such a stoic resignation in his book The Mute Christian Under the Smarting Rod:
And so Harpalus was not at all appalled when he saw two of his sons laid ready dressed in a charger, when Astyages had bid him to supper. This was a sottish insensibleness. Certainly if the loss of a child in the house be no more to thee than the loss of a chick in the yard, thy heart is base and sordid, and thou mayest well expect some sore awakening judgment.1 This age is full of such monsters, who think it below the greatness and magnanimity of their spirits to be moved, affected, or afflicted with any afflictions that befall them. I know none so ripe and ready for hell as these.
Aristotle speaks of fishes, that though they have spears thrust into their sides, yet they awake not. God thrusts many a sharp spear through many a sinner’s heart, and yet he feels nothing, he complains of nothing. These men’s souls will bleed to death. Seneca, Epist. x., reports of Senecio Cornelius, who minded his body more than his soul, and his money more than heaven; when he had all the day long waited on his dying friend, and his friend was dead, he returns to his house, sups merrily, comforts himself quickly, goes to bed cheerfully. His sorrows were ended, and the time of his mourning expired before his deceased friend was interred. Such stupidity is a curse that many a man lies under. But this stoical silence, which is but a sinful sullenness, is not the silence here meant.
This may seem odd, because the Christian response does entail an element of resignation, yet it is a resignation coupled to hope — I will bear this to gain that:
10 I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity.
11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.
12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.
13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
Paul bears with his circumstances, not by denying but by transcending:
7 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:7–10 (ESV)
A second response is to curse. Job’s wife provides a memorable example of such:
7 So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD and struck Job with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.
8 And he took a piece of broken pottery with which to scrape himself while he sat in the ashes.
9 Then his wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die.”
10 But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.
Job’s response provides the appropriate example: the Christian may not respond with cursing or anger to God’s providence. Job seeing through the secondary causes, through Satan and the bridgands, through the storm and the disease in his body, looks to the ultimate cause: God. God has given this, therefore we must willing accept this providence.
A third response is resignation without cursing coupled to hope. The poet of Lamentations does not deny the trouble brougth by God:
7 He has walled me about so that I cannot escape; he has made my chains heavy;
8 though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer;
9 he has blocked my ways with blocks of stones; he has made my paths crooked.
10 He is a bear lying in wait for me, a lion in hiding;
11 he turned aside my steps and tore me to pieces; he has made me desolate;
12 he bent his bow and set me as a target for his arrow.
13 He drove into my kidneys the arrows of his quiver;
14 I have become the laughingstock of all peoples, the object of their taunts all day long. Lam. 3
Yet he sees through the trouble to kindness of God to come:
19 Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall!
20 My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me.
21 But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:
22 The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
24 “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”
25 The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him.
26 It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD. Lam. 3
Polhill lays this truth at the heart of his response. To perserve in the midst of trial, we have a hope which transcends our circumstance:
THE sixth direction is this: if we would be in a fit posture for suffering, we must get a lively hope of eternal life. As our life is a sea, hope is compared to an anchor, which makes us stand steady in a storm; as our life is a warfare, hope is compared to a helmet, which covers the soul in times of danger; as the body liveth spirando, by breathing, so the soul lives sperando, by hoping. A man cannot drown so long as his head is above water; hope lifts up the head, and looks up to the redemption and salvation that is to come in another world in its fulness and perfection. Hope doth three things; it assures good things to come; it disposes us for them; it waits for them unto the end: each of which will, be of singular use to fit us for pious sufferings.
Edward Polhill, The Works of Edward Polhill (London: Thomas Ward and Co., 1844), 346.