David Garland shows how the suffering occurring with Paul in 2 Corinthians, and therefore with us, is the opposite of the plot, The Picture of Dorian Gray:
In that story the vain Dorian Gray has his portrait painted; and when it is finished, he laments: “How sad! I shall grow old and horrible, but this picture never will be older. If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! I would give my soul for that!” He got his wish. The portrait became a mirror of his soul, which showed every sign of evil and aging. He locked it away to prevent the world from seeing the truth about himself and deceived others with an outward appearance of one who was young, pure, and handsome.(Garland, 2 Corinthians, 175)
Christians conceal their real selves just like Dorian does, or rather, have our real selves concealed. Even as we age and whither and die, as we are becoming sanctified, our souls become more and more beautiful, become more and more like what they were created to be, and that will be fulfilled at our deaths.
Suffering is Necessary
As Christians, it is important to remember that when people are in the bowels of suffering is not necessarily the correct time to try to have a philosophical discussion. “Those who are not feeling it, but are seeing it in others, will have a host of philosophical, social, psychological, and moral questions about it. On the other hand, those who are in the grip of pain and difficulty now cannot treat it as a philosophical issue” (Keller, Walking with God, 7).
It is also important that Christians practically understand that they will not always see a good that comes out of the bad, even though God promises to work all things for good.. “Not that these bad things produce these good things automatically, or in some neat quid quo pro way. Suffering produces growth in us only when we understand Christ’s suffering and work on our behalf” (Keller, Walking with God, 52). But we will not understand, just like Job never learned about Satan and the heavenly council. Christians have to accept the potential of not knowing.
One of Tim Keller’s emphasized recommendations for applying this knowledge as a Christian is to prepare for suffering before suffering occurs. “Preparation, if it is to be effective, should happen before we are actually experiencing the searing pain. As we have seen already in this book, most of the central truths and themes of biblical theology can serve as very powerful comforts and resources to sufferers.” (Keller, Walking with God, 196). Reading the Bible, praying, and meditation are all ways to try to know God, who is the main source of support in suffering.
When Christians are suffering, Christians should feel comfortable to be real with God. Job’s grief was expressed with powerful emotion and soaring rhetoric. He did not “make nice” with God, praying politely. He was brutally honest about his feelings. And while God did—as we will see later—forcefully call Job to acknowledge his unfathomable wisdom and majesty, nevertheless God ultimately vindicated him. Job is called God’s servant (Job 42:7), and Job’s anger towards God was never accorded to Job as sin. We are allowed to be angry. We are encouraged and commanded to keep seeking God.
Keller points out that reading the Bible in the midst of suffering will not always be to try to change emotions. “Instead, he counsels that you should study the Bible for content. Get the truth out of the text. Remind yourself of who God is, and who you are in Christ, and what he has done for you.” Keller says that reading the Bible in a studious manner at this point, as opposed to a devotional one, will be better because when the heart fails, the head can prevail (Walking with God, 242, 291).
Suggested Articles for Further Reading
Richard Bauckham is one of the authors I’d recommend without hesitation, and this article, while less about the question of evil and more about Christians reactions to suffering, highlights the 2 Corinthians passage.
This article goes back to the free will theodicy argument, challenges it, and then answers that challenge. This article also looks at things from a secular viewpoint.
This article turns the question of suffering on its head a bit, and uses a real world example.
One part of this brief that is not delved as hoped is the idea of Christians and lamenting. This article gives a woman’s true experience in suffering and her view of the place of lamenting in the Christian life.
This article truly articulates the idea that God is in the midst of suffering, giving us what we need in the midst of that suffering, without necessarily fixing the problem.
This is a comprehensive presentation of the problem of evil and the theodicies, with case studies from Scriptures. It looks at Joseph, who isn’t mentioned in the brief, and also gives numerous Scripture references.
This article defends the idea of lamenting and exhorts the reintroduction of lamenting in churches. It also gives a presentation of what lamenting can practically look like.