If the experience of suffering does indeed permeate the Bible then it should be easy to find examples. This is the case. For example, using the New International Version (NIV) text, any form of the word “suffer” (e.g., suffer, suffers, suffering, etc.) occurs 59 times in the Old and 86 times in the New Testament. The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible article on this topic contains over 60 Old and 210 New Testament biblical references. Thus, the real difficulty is to select a subset of representative examples.

It’s also clear that interest in the topic of suffering increases drastically from the Old to the New Testaments. Using the number of occurrences as counted by word usage or biblical reference, and taking into account that the Old Testament is approximately three times longer than the New, then the “density” of suffering in the New Testament is between four and ten times that of the Old.

This result shouldn’t be surprising given that the central event of Christianity involves suffering at a depth that recedes into the darkest infinity and at a scope that encompasses the entire creation. Christ’s suffering reached its climax on the cross. But the incarnation itself involved the setting aside of His rightful glory to accept hatred, hunger, exhaustion, torture and death. As summarized by the Apostle Paul in Philippians:

2 6Who, being in very nature God,

     did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,

   7but made himself nothing,

     taking the very nature of a servant,

     being made in human likeness.

   8And being found in appearance as a man,

     he humbled himself

     and became obedient to death—

         even death on a cross!

Thus one of the first post-resurrection theological problems facing the Apostles was to understand how the suffering of God had been transformed into the salvation of the world.

Before Christ, suffering was just one of many experiences that required placing into the context of relationship with God. Thus, it was important but not central. And yet, at the peak of Old Testament theology, its prophets discerned the mysterious, amazing dialectic resolution by which God synthesizes suffering and love into a means of salvation.

Consider Joseph, who had experienced profound suffering caused by the betrayal of his brothers: separation from his beloved father, false accusations by his master’s wife and near extinction in the depths of Egypt’s dungeons. Then, after having risen to the peak of power in Egypt, to a position that would allow any retribution he desired upon his brothers, God’s synthesis between suffering and love is revealed from the depths of Joseph’s heart (Genesis 50:19,20).

50 19But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God?   20You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.

The Everest peak of the Old Testament occurs in Isaiah, where the prophet sees not just into the synthesis, but beyond to the Person by whom it will be ultimately, eternally completed (Isaiah 53:4-6).

53 4Surely he took up our infirmities

       and carried our sorrows,

       yet we considered him stricken by God,

       smitten by him, and afflicted.

   5But he was pierced for our transgressions,

       he was crushed for our iniquities;

       the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,

       and by his wounds we are healed.

   6We all, like sheep, have gone astray,

       each of us has turned to his own way;

       and the LORD has laid on him

       the iniquity of us all.

And so, both Old and New Testaments point towards new, unexplored possibilities for the experience of suffering.

Suffering is a language. God’s Word is made up of words. But they are like the tip of an iceberg, visible tokens of something vastly larger. That is, the words point to experience that constitutes a deeper language than the words themselves can support. Thus, the experience of suffering is actually a language through which God conveys teachings that are too deep and immense to be contained in mere words.[1]

As we study the Biblical record, let’s focus on the experience of suffering, seeking to gain insight into this deeper language. We’ll also have to examine our own experiences of suffering. The light of God’s Word will illuminate this topic in ways too wonderful to imagine. Let’s begin the journey.


[1] A word of caution is in order here. These thoughts are self evidently true, but also easily prone to be misused. Just to be absolutely clear, the experiences inferred from the words of the Bible cannot contradict the clear meaning of the words themselves (or the words from other places in the Bible). In other words, the words themselves in God’s Word have absolute first authority in terms of theological interpretation. However, within the context of this clear understanding we are free to explore the deeper implications of experience that the words point to. We must do so with great humility and care, giving ourselves over to the gentle, sure guidance of the Holy Spirit.

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