Luke Timothy Johnson on Sin, Suffering, and Scripture

This is from an essay in Johnson's book Living Gospel that I am reading for school. This is some heavy and important stuff that enables us to have some hard and crucial conversations about the nature of suffering. Consider what he says:

...It is nevertheless important that those of us sufficiently free from pain at the moment to think at all should think hard and well about suffering, for it falls into one of those fundamental categories which, when we get wrong, we also go wrong. And I think there is a lot of bad thinking in our world today about suffering, which actually adds to people's pain.

I have in mind primarily the contemporary heresy that more or less identifies suffering and evil. This is a dreadful error, first of all because it makes evil a cosmological rather then a moral category, with the unitended consequence that suffering is trivialized and evil is made banal. It also deprives suffering of any positive value. A reality that is actually deeply ambiguous and polyvalent is reduced to something simply negative and is thereby distorted. ...

The easy equation between suffering and evil results in part, I think, from a failure adequately to formulate what we actually mean by suffering. ... Let us think of suffering as the pain of a system in disequillibrium. ...To feel pain, then, requires life. But to be alive means also always to be in disequillibrium, for change is the single constant of mortal life. Therefore all living things suffer as a consequence of existence. ...

...When pain is inflicted on another in order to make the organism sick or damaged, or in order to bruise another's heart, or in order to confuse another's mind, then it is legitimate and even necessary to speak of evil. To cause needless suffering is to do evil. But the evil resides in the intent to do harm, not in the suffering itself, which is a natural function of all living beings.

It is critical to observe, however, that systems also fall into disequillibrium -- and therefore experience pain -- from positive causes. Bodies that grow in size experience pain -- ask gangly adolescents and bodybuilders -- and bodies that give birth experience enormous pain. The cost of physical life itself is suffering. Likewise, a soul that grows in compassion does so through pain. And all learning involves pain, a truth so obvious the ancient Greeks coined the motto, mathein pathein, 'to learn is to suffer'; a contemporary rendering is the one used by athletes, 'no pain, no gain'.

...It is our contemporary culture's tragedy to have lost any sense of suffering as a positive dimension of human existence. ... We consider the equation between evil and suffering so self-evident that we make avoiding suffering the equal of fighting evil. ...

...It is important to note that the New Testament's perspective on suffering -- and therefore also our perspective -- is not shaped by an infusion of a new philosophy, but by a new experience of God in Jesus Christ that enabled human thought to reach a point it had not before. Three aspects of this deserve emphasis. First, we see in Jesus' ministry and, above all, in his death and resurrection, a mode of suffering that is life-giving. Second, in Jesus and the sending of the Holy Spirit we see the self-revelation of God's own inner life. Third, what we have learned of God in Jesus enables us to think about human suffering in terms of creation rather than simply in terms of destruction.

...He [Jesus] not only experiences what all other humans experience of pain and loss and grief, he reaches out to the pain of others and participates in it.

...We seek to live even as God has shown us God's own life in Christ. We therefore do not avoid suffering as evil, we do narcotize ourselves against pain, we do not seek to hold our lives securely as a system in perfect balance. Rather, we recognize that stress and suffering are not only intrinsic to all life, they are entries into the deepest mysteries of life itself. In the name and in the power of Jesus, we therefore embrace the suffering that comes to us as the opportunity for transfiguration, as the path towards transformation into that self-emptying giving and being fillied again ever more richly that is God's own life.

What do you think? Is it dangerous or even wrong to equate evil and suffering? Is Johnson onto something important here? How might our day-to-day lives and our understanding of God's work in our lives be different if we understood suffering in this way?

Certainly some important things to consider.

Suffering for the Sake of the World...

We have been in a series I've entitled Kids Stories for Adults at Central, and this last week we talked about Daniel in the Lion's Den. What is the real message behind this story that we somehow seem to forget to read or tell when we are adults? A little background might be helpful...

The story itself is from Daniel chapter six, but the context is greater than that. Judah has been carried off into captivity into Babylon. The best and brightest young men have been taken in order that they might be assimilated into Babylonian culture and lead ultimately to the disolving of Israel in the sea of Babylonian culture and religion. Daniel is one of those men. He along with others (we know them as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) begin their training. God honors the integrity of these men and their exclusive committment to him. He blesses them in excelling above all the others in this attempt to remove their cultural and religious identity. These men remain steadfast.

In chapter 2 Nebuchadnezzar has a dream and no one can interpret it except Daniel, who does so only in the context of the only true God who enables him to understand and interpret the dream. Daniel is promoted to an extremely important and influential position.

The other three men (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) also of immense character have a dilemna arise in chapter 3. They can worship the idol that Nebuchadnezzar has set up or face the fiery furnace. They choose to stay faithful to the One who has always been faithful to them. As we know the story ends not in their demise, but instead their deliverance.

In chapter 6 Daniel is one of the top men in the entire nation and is a man of untouchable integrity. Scripture says, "Now Daniel so distinguished himself among the administrators and the satraps by his exceptional qualities that the king planned to set him over the while kingdom. At this, the administrators and the satraps tried to find grounds for charges against Daniel in his conduct of government affairs, but they were unable to do so. They could find no corruption in him, because he was trustworthy and neither corrupt nor negligent. Finally these men said, 'We will never find any basis for charges against this man Daniel unless it has something to do with the law of his God.'" (Daniel 6:3-5, TNIV). The trap is set, and Daniel unwavering in his integrity and committment to the One True God continues in his faithfulness to YHWH no matter the consequences.

Daniel is eventually thrown into the lion's den presumably to his horrific demise. The king, whose arrogance in legislating that all people pray to him is sick with anxiety at what he has been fooled into doing. The next morning, after a sleepless night, he returns to the lion's den to see if somehow Daniel has survived (ironically in answer to the king's prayer, "May your God, whom you serve continually, rescue you!" (6:16)). God has in fact delivered Daniel from the mouths' of the lions.

But back to our purpose: What does this text have to do with suffering for the sake of the world?

When we teach this story to our kids we often tell them some of the following things:

  • If you are innocent God will protect you
  • God wants us to be obedient even when others want us to disobey
  • Praying to God when you are in trouble is a good thing

These are all truths, but it is my contention that this is not the primary truth of this text (and the preceeding context). Look at the response of the kings to those whom they have caused to suffer for their unwillingess to be disobedient to YHWH, the One True God:

Surely your God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, for you were able to reveal this mystery. (Daniel 2:47, TNIV)


Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants! They trusted in him and defied the king's command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God. Therefore I decree that the people of any nation or language who say anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego be cut into pieces and their houses be turned into piles of rubble, for no other gods can save in this way. (Daniel 3:28-29, TNIV)


At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever.

His dominion is an eternal dominion;
   his kingdom endures from generation to generation.
All the peoples of the earth
   are regarded as nothing.
He does as he pleases
   with the powers of heaven
   and the peoples of the earth.
No one can hold back his hand
   or say to him: "What have you done?"

At the same time that my sanity was restored, my honor and splendor were returned to me fo tthe glory of my kingdom. My advisers and nobles sought me out, and I was restored to my throne and became even greater than before. Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble. (Daniel 4:34-37, TNIV)


Then King Darius wrote to all the nations and people of every language in all the earth:

May you prosper greatly!

I issue a decree that in every part of my kingdom people must fear and reverence the God of Daniel.

For he is the living God
   and he endures forever;
his kingdom will not be destroyed,
   his dominion will never end.
He rescues and he saves;
   he performs signs and wonders
   in the heavens and on the earth.
He has rescued Daniel
   from the power of the lions. 
(Daniel 6:25-27, TNIV)

So what does it meant to suffer for the sake of the world?

Three implications come to mind.

(1) Suffering shapes us increasingly into the image of Jesus.
Paul writes, "Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into thsi grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us." (Romans 5:1-5, TNIV)

(2) Our suffering may be the means by which someone comes to know the One True God.
This is seen all throughout these early chapters of Daniel. But it can be found elsewhere in Scripture. Jesus' suffering on the cross gave the Roman soldier an insight into just exactly who Jesus was (Luke 23:47). The stories of early Christian martyrs have done the same. (For example, the inspiring story of Perpetua.)

(3) Suffering for the sake of the world means a willingness to do so openly. It means that we struggle and wrestle with suffering not in silence and privacy, but in order that others may see God working in and through us.
This means that our openess to God in these difficult times is also matched by a willingness to let the situation serve as a witness to the faithfulness and mercy of God in our lives and the lives of those watching.