A biblical survey on human suffering

Why does pain exist? Why do good people suffer? How is suffering used for God’s purposes? Stories of suffering permeate the Bible and these passages bring insight into God’s purposes for suffering. The following study will give a broad survey over suffering as it is found in the Bible. Specific topics covered include the origin of suffering, the relationship between sin and suffering, forms of suffering and God’s purposes for suffering, with additional attention given to the story of Job and the expectation of suffering for Christians.

First, it is important to recognize the origin of suffering. When the earth was created, it was made good (Gen. 1:31).  Soon after, Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit (Gen. 3:6), and sin entered the world for the first time. God said, “Because you have done this, cursed are you more than all cattle…” and then He stated the pain would dwell in lives of people from that moment forward (Gen. 3:14). Therefore, when sin entered the world, “suffering also entered in the form of conflict, pain, corruption, drudgery and death.”[1] Because of the fall of man, the world is no longer free from the adverse consequences and suffering resulting from sin.

Sin and suffering are related in a couple of ways: suffering can be the result of living in a fallen world (i.e. natural disasters; Mk. 13:7-9; Lk. 13:1-15; 2 Chr. 7:13-14; Job 15:20; 2 Pet. 2:12-13) or it can be a direct result of sin.  Suffering as a direct result of sin is God’s judgment, and people bring it on themselves. For unbelievers, suffering as a result of God’s judgment can be “reaping what they sow” (Job 15:20; Gal. 6:7-8), as well as eternal punishment (Ps. 1:6; Prov. 10:16, 12:21; Mt. 25:41-46; Jn. 3:18; Rev. 20:11-15).[2]

Ungodliness and oppression also bring God’s judgment and suffering. Ungodliness leading to suffering is when an individual sins and suffers from the consequences of this sin. For example, David committed adultery with Bathsheba and a direct consequence he had to suffer was that she became pregnant (1 Sam. 11:5). Oppression, on the other hand, “involves sinning and forcing others to suffer the consequences, or imposing our sin on others” (Ps. 44:24, 43:2, 72:14; Job 35:9; Deut. 26:7, 28:33).[3]

Suffering can take several forms including physical, spiritual, mental and emotional, as well as interpersonal. In the Bible, physical suffering is mentioned the most (Job 14:22; Rev. 21:4), exceedingly in the examples of childbirth (1 Sam. 4:19; 1 Chr. 4:9; Isa. 13:8, 21:3, 26:17-18, 51:2; Jer. 6:24, 22:23; Hos. 13:13; Mt. 24:8; Jn. 16:21; Rom. 8:22; Rev. 12:2) and “agonies of approaching death” (Hos. 13:14; Acts 2:24; 1 Cor. 15:55; Heb. 2:9, 14-15; Rev. 21:4).[4] These ailments were addressed specifically in Genesis 3:16, 19 at the Fall (cf. Rom 5:12-21). While physical suffering is noted most frequently, the Bible also mentions spiritual suffering (Ps. 22:1; Mt. 27:46), mental and emotional suffering (Isa. 13:8; Jer. 4:19; 2 Cor. 11:28) and interpersonal suffering, (people hurting people because of their sinful natures; Ps. 41:9; 2 Cor. 2:1-4). [5]

While sin offers an explanation for the entrance of suffering (in all its forms) into the world, the Bible provides insight into God’s purposes for suffering outside of judgment. When sin and suffering entered the world, the need for the redemption and the grace of Jesus Christ was created. Christ was sent to suffer and die for the sins of the world, and so that He may rescue man from the entrapment of sin (Mt. 1:21) and “deliver man from suffering, corruption and death (Rom. 8:21; 1 Cor. 15:26).”[6]  John Piper wrote the following about the purpose of Jesus Christ’s suffering:

    The ultimate purpose of the universe is to display the greatness of the glory of the grace of God. The highest, clearest, surest display of that glory is in the suffering of the best Person in the universe for millions of undeserving sinners. Therefore, the ultimate reason that suffering exists in the universe is so that Christ might display the greatness of the glory of the grace of God by suffering in himself to overcome our suffering and bring about the praise of the glory of the grace of God (Suffering and the Sovereignty of God 2006, 89).

While this display of glory and grace is key to understanding the presence of suffering in the world, there are other reasons for suffering the Bible dictates. One common belief is that suffering is a result of divine punishment, and the Bible mentions instances where this is true. In the story of David and Bathsheba, when David learns Bathsheba is pregnant, he orders for her husband to be killed to cover up his sin. As punishment for the adultery and cover-up, God killed the child that was born (1 Sam. 12:15). While suffering can be punishment, it is important to remember that suffering also exists outside of punishment and sometimes the righteous suffer.

The story of Job illustrates suffering outside punishment and suffering of the righteous. Job was an upright, God-fearing man, with great wealth and a large family. Satan challenged God and claimed that Job was only faithful because he had everything going well for him. Satan claimed that if Job were stripped of his possessions, then he would curse God (Job 1:11). God allowed Satan to test Job and despite Job’s outstanding character and lifestyle, he was put through an intense amount of suffering. It is important to note that God gave Satan permission to test Job, but God is the One who holds the ultimate power over suffering: “Though Satan is regarded as having power to make men suffer (2 Cor. 12:7; Jb. 1:12; 2:6), they suffer only in the hand of God, and it is God who controls and sends suffering (Am. 3:6; Is. 45:7; Mt. 26:39; Acts 2:23).”[7]

Job’s flocks, possessions and children were all taken from him and his health was compromised, but still Job remained faithful. Even when his wife urged him to curse God, Job said, “You speak as one of the foolish women speaks. Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?” (Job 2:10). However, despite his faith, Job became frustrated because he did not know the reasons for his suffering.

He lamented his situation and his friends tried to convince him that his suffering was a result of terrible sin he committed. However, this was not the case. Job cried out to God and God responded to Job with “a series of questions no human could possibly answer.”[8] Humbled, Job remembered God’s power and justice. Job did not suddenly understand why he suffered, but “he disowned his presumption and confessed that God’s plans and purposes were infinitely beyond his understanding.”[9] In the end, God restored Job’s fortunes and blessed him (Job 42).

The story of Job shows that not all suffering is divine punishment. While God never articulated to Job the reason for his suffering, Job was tested by Satan and he learned “that we can’t have happiness without sorrow, that either one is meaningless without the other … Happiness is not a reward, and sorrow is not [necessarily] punishment.”[10] Job’s life illustrates that suffering is compatible with happiness and even might be considered inseparable.

Because not all suffering is punishment and a direct result of our sin, there are other reasons God allows suffering. Just as Job was tested, there are several other instances in the Bible where God uses suffering to “yield holiness and righteousness by testing, purifying, disciplining and giving endurance and maturity” (Ps. 66:10; Jos. 1:3, 12; 1 Pet. 1:7).[11] Similarly, Romans 5 and James 1:2-4 focus on suffering that leads to perseverance and building character.

Also, similar to the story of Job, there are several ways God uses suffering for His purposes even if those suffering do not understand the reason behind their pain (Ps. 119:75; Jn. 9:1-3). For example, God can use suffering to benefit others, “Suffering is the likely consequence in this world of any whole-hearted sacrifice for a great cause: suffering through and for others.”[12] Suffering can also be used to encourage people to pray (Judges 6:1-7; 2 Chr. 7:13-14; Ps. 107:4-6, 10-13; Hos. 5:15; Zech. 13:9) and read Scripture (Ps. 119:71), as well as to “identify believers with Christ and His gospel” (Acts 5:41; 2 Cor. 1:5; Gal. 3:4, 6:12; Phil. 1:29; 2 Tim. 1:8, 2:3, 3:12; Heb. 11:26; 1 Pet. 4:16, 5:9).[13]

Suffering is also used in the Bible to redirect the paths of God’s people (Prov. 3:12; Judges 2:22-3:6) and to “bring [people] closer to God in dependence and fellowship” (Ps. 119:67; Rom. 8:35-37).[14] The presence of pain can be seen as “a test that shatters self-sufficiency and teaches [that] real strength comes from God and from conformity to God’s will.”[15]  Finally, suffering is also seen in the Bible as a way to serve the kingdom of God by “glorifying Him (Jn. 9:1-3; 1 Pet. 4:16) and spreading the gospel” (Acts 8:3-4; Phil. 1:12-13; 2 Tim. 4:16-17).[16]

For Christians, suffering is expected, because Christians are called to share in Christ’s suffering (2 Cor. 1:5-7; Mk. 10:39; Rom. 8:17).[17] While Christians can suffer in many of the ways previously mentioned, suffering for faith and for doing what is right is expected (1 Pet. 3:17). Christians are warned that this will occur (Mt. 5:10-11, 24:9; Rom. 8:17; Phil. 1:29; 1 Pet. 4:13), and are commanded by Jesus to pick up their cross daily and follow him (Lk. 9:23). This is exemplified in the lives of the earliest Christians who suffered persecution in the beginning of the church.[18] While suffering is expected, there are also expectations for how Christians respond to suffering: “Christians are called to follow Christ’s example in relieving the suffering of others and bearing it patiently when it comes to themselves, not returning evil for evil but overcoming evil with good (Cf. Rom. 12:19-21).”[19]

In conclusion, five central claims that can be formed in Scripture regarding suffering include the following: suffering is often directly related to sin and its consequences; suffering can be divine punishment, but often is not; suffering is most mentioned in the Bible in regards to physical pain, but there are spiritual, mental and emotional, as well as interpersonal forms of suffering; suffering can be used by God for numerous purposes (often outside of our knowledge); and suffering is expected in the lives of Christians.

A passage that I will be resting on over the rest of the semester will be Job’s response to God’s answer. It is a great reminder that even if I may not always know the reasons for my suffering, God is all-powerful and his purposes are far beyond my knowledge:

    I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted. You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. “You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’ My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes. (Job 42:1-6)


[1] Inter-Varsity Press, The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Vol. 3 (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1980), 1491.

[2] Henry W. Holloman, Kregel Dictionary of the Bible and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2005), 522.

[3] Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, ed. John Piper and Justin Taylor (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2006), 126.

[4] Holloman, 521.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Inter-Varsity Press, 1491.

[7] Ibid.

[8] The Lockman Foundation, Life Application Study Bible (NASB) (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2000), 882.

[9] William J. O’Malley, Redemptive Suffering (New York, New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997), 77.

[10] O’Malley, 64.

[11] Holloman, 523.

[12] J. Moltmann, On Human Dignity: Political Theology and Ethics, trans. M.D. Meeks (SCM Press, 1984), 109.

[13] Holloman, 523.

[14] Inter-Varsity Press, 1491.

[15] Marie A. Conn, C. S. Lewis and Human Suffering: Light Among the Shadows (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 2008), 45.

[16] Holloman, 523.

[17] Inter-Varsity Press, 1491.

[18] Holloman, 522.

[19] The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Vol. 4., ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988), 649.

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