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Bible Dictionaries

Holman Bible Dictionary


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Enduring undesirable pains and experiences. The Bible does not treat suffering systematically nor philosophically. It relates how people and nations experience suffering in various ways for a variety of reasons. Clearly an understanding of suffering introduces the problem of evil. Suffering follows the entrance of evil into the universe. The Bible does not attempt to explain the origin of evil. It accepts evil and suffering as givens in a fallen and sinful world. The various writers present multiple perspectives on the causes of suffering and how it can be endured.

Old Testament The Semitic mind dealt with concrete situations rather than abstract forms. Their perspective was not to treat the issue of suffering as an intellectual one. The Old Testament writers, accordingly, sought to identify the causes and purposes of suffering when it happened.

The Hebrews regarded suffering as punishment for sin against the divine moral order. The wicked would surely suffer for their evil ways (Psalm 7:15-16; Psalm 37:1-3; Psalm 73:12-20; Psalm 139:19 ), even though they might prosper for a time (Job 21:28-33 ). Some writers expressed consternation that God stayed His hand of judgment against the offenders of His will (Jeremiah 12:1-4; Habakkuk 1:2-4; Malachi 3:7-15 ). They often interpreted their own suffering as a sign of God's wrath and punishment for sin in their lives. The highly developed sense of corporate identity in Hebrew thought meant that suffering could come as a result of parents' sin (1Kings 21:20,1Kings 21:22,1 Kings 21:29; an idea reflected by Jesus' disciples in John 9:2 , the story of the healing of the man born blind) or the wickedness of the king (2 Kings 21:10-11 ).

The suffering of the righteous posed a problem. It was explained variously as a way for God to gain peoples' attention (Job 33:14; Job 36:15 ), to correct sin into obedience (2 Chronicles 20:9-10; Malachi 3:3 ), to develop or refine character (Job 23:10; Psalm 66:10 ). Ultimately, the writers consigned themselves to trust in God's sometimes hidden wisdom (Job 42:2-3; Psalm 135:6 ).

The prophet gained a vision of a greater purpose in suffering—carrying the sins of others (Isaiah 53:1 ). As eschatological hopes matured in late Old Testament and intertestamental times, the righteous looked forward to the Day of the Lord when they would be vindicated and justice would reign (Daniel 12:1 ).

New Testament Into an evil world God sent His only Son. God is Himself touched by the suffering of Christ on the cross. Christian writers in the New Testament incorporated the trials of Christ into their existing Old Testament understanding of suffering. The purposefulness and necessity of suffering in the life of the Son of God (Matthew 16:21; Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22 ) aided them in coping with their own.

The early Christians recognized the inevitability of their suffering. As Christ suffered, so would they (John 16:33; Acts 14:22; Romans 8:31-39; 1 Corinthians 12:26; 1 Thessalonians 2:14; 2 Timothy 3:12; 1 Peter 4:12-13 ). Continuing His mission, they would incur tribulation (Mark 13:12-13; Revelation 17:6; Revelation 20:14 ) because the world hates the disciples as much as it did their Lord (see John 15:18; 1 Corinthians 2:8; 1 John 3:11-12 ). Suffering for His sake was counted a privilege (Acts 5:41; 1 Corinthians 11:32; 1 Thessalonians 1:4-8 ).

New Testament writers realized there were other types of suffering than that incurred as they lived on Christian mission. These are to be endured patiently rather than rebelliously (1 Thessalonians 3:3; James 1:2-4 ) because God is working His purpose out in His children's lives (Romans 8:28-29 ). Satan would tempt believers to be defeated in their suffering (2 Corinthians 4:8-12; Revelation 2:10 ). Instead, Christians can grow stronger spiritually through trials (Romans 6:4-8; 1 Peter 4:1; Hebrews 12:11 ) and share Christ's ultimate triumph (Mark 13:9; John 16:33; 2 Thessalonians 1:5; Revelation 5:5; Revelation 20:9 ,Revelation 20:9,20:14-15 ) even now as they experience daily victories (Romans 8:37; 1 John 2:13-14; 1 Peter 5:10 ). Therefore, sufferings give rise to hope (Romans 12:12; 1 Thessalonians 1:3 ), for no present suffering compares with the rewards that await the faithful follower of Christ (Romans 8:17-18 ).

T. R. McNeal

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Suffering'. Holman Bible Dictionary. 1991.

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