Providence and Suffering: Can God Be Trusted? (SBD 11)

[Note: I am attempting to keep these SBD installments under 2000 words each, but that is–of course–quite inadequate for the topics covered. Consequently, these contributions are more programmatic than they are explanatory or defenses of the positions stated. You may access the whole series at my Serial page.]

Defending God is not my job. Good thing because I would be awful at it. However, my faith does seek understanding; it looks for answers even when I cannot find them. Exploring the mysteries of divine providence and human suffering is a journey into the recesses of the divine mind and most of it is inaccessible to humans. So, the real question of providence and evil is not can we explain it but can God be trusted with the answer even when that answer is inexplicable or incomprehensible to us or when our best efforts ultimately just don’t make sense. I think the answer to that question is “Yes”.

Providence—A Metaphor

Traditional Language. Providence (God’s provision for the creation as one who “sees ahead”) is traditionally encompassed under three headings: conservatio (conservation or preservation), concursus (concurrentism), and telos (governance toward an end or goal). The first and third are the least controversial in the history of theology. The first affirms that God sustains the creation by divine power. The cosmos is not self-sustaining but is dependent upon the action of God (cf. Hebrews 1:3; Isaiah 42:5). This sustenance includes God’s preservation of human meaning and purpose within the creation. The third affirms that human history and the creation are moving toward a divinely appointed goal (Isaiah 41:20; 43:10; 45:3; 46:10). God so governs history and creation—through whatever means, including natural agencies—that God orders their movements to secure the ends of the divine telos.

The most controversial is concurrentism (concursus). This affirms that divine and human actions (or nature, if a natural phenomenon) are concurrent in every event within the world. In other words, God is always working within every event, and each event is some kind of cooperative effort between God and the creation. God, therefore, is always a cause that works through or alongside other causes both human and natural. Consequently, nothing happens in the world in which God is not somehow involved and where God does not intend that something specific happen. In every event God acts alongside his creatures to accomplish specific goals, even if God’s goal is different from other actors in the drama. For example, whereas a human being may intend evil, God may, through that same event, intend good as in the case of Joseph in Egypt (Genesis 50:20; cf. Isaiah 45:1, 7, 12-13). As a result, God and human agents worked concurrently to produce the event, but with different intentions and ultimately with the divine telos accomplished.

A Game Metaphor. If we imagine that the comos is a field sport (like football or soccer), a broad typology for Providence emerges. In a Deistic theology, God is a mere spectator even though God is also owner and inventor (e.g., Langdon Gilkey). In some versions of postmodernism personalism, God is more like a coach who encourages and directs from the sidelines but does not participate in the field action (e.g., Rabbi Kushner). In more traditional models, God is an owner-player-coach who is actively participating in the game on the field.

Within the traditional framework, we can extend the game analogy to distinguish three further typologies. For some, such as Reformed theology, the game is determined by the owner’s decrees as to how each play will unfold, who will score and which players will win or lose (e.g., Ulrich Zwingli). Reformed theologians, generally, embrace concurrentism but maintain that God is the primary, determinative cause though God also uses real secondary causes (human will or nature; cf. Paul Helm). Thus, every choice that human beings make—whether good or evil–is “already predetermined” (G. I. Williamson, The Shorter Catechism, 1:26-27). To be fair, there are “harder” and “softer” versions among Reformed theologians and some of the “softer” versions are barely—yet still—distinguishable from Classic Arminianism.

For others, such as Free Will theism (or Open Theism), God serves more as an emergency substitute who occasionally intervenes but rarely (e.g., John Sanders). Free Will theists reject concurrentism as do some Arminians (e.g., Jack Cottrell) even though they do not necessarily agree with particular dimensions of Open Theism (e.g., their rejection of traditional omniscience).

“Classic Arminianism” affirms that God is always on the field, active in every play, and directing the game toward its telos (e.g., Robert E. Picirilli). This is would amount to a strong concurrentism without determinism (or compatibilism). Others, less “classic,” would only suggest that nothing happened on the field without specific divine permission even if God was not actively on the field (e.g., Jack Cottrell).

A Concurrentist Providential Theology. Arminian concurrentism suggests that God, as player, is synergistically creating the future with the creation itself. God, as owner and coach, is the ultimate reality in the universe and sovereignly directs the game toward the divine telos. God, then, acts within the creation to secure the divine telos but acts in concert with or concurrent with the created reality. The sovereign God permits players to act—indeed, gives them a moral agency out of which they freely act—but they do not act autonomously as if their freedom is absolute since their freedom is circumscribed by the divine purpose. This divine permission, which empowers other players (both human and natural), is both specific and self-limiting, but it is not impotent. The divine purpose will not be frustrated. Nevertheless, the freedom of creation is an authentic divine gift and undetermined by divine decrees.

The critical question, then, is the nature of the divine purpose or telos. Since God’s ontology is relational (Triune) and God’s identity is holy love, the divine purpose is communion with the creation in a way consistent with God’s own nature to love in freedom. The praise of God’s glory is located in communion with the good creation who loves in freedom just as God does. God sustains history, acts in history, and governs that history toward that telos. God will accomplish the divine purpose while at the same time sustaining the freedom of the creation because God values the authenticity of loving communion.

Suffering—A Problem

Whence Evil and Why? Ultimately, I don’t know. Mystery acknowledges that our finite understanding cannot fathom the purpose and meaning of divine acts or permission. This incomprehensibility does not undermine faith since “for Christians,” as Marilyn McCord Adams has written, “as for others in this life, the fact of evil is a mystery. The answer is a more wonderful mystery—God” (Rationality, Religious Belief, and Moral Commitment, 267).

The Biblical narrative itself raises the question “why?” The particularities of suffering are not answered by a poetic Psalm, a prophetic oracle, a Jesus sermon or a Pauline letter. Instead, the question “Why?” reverberates throughout the narrative on the lips of believers from Moses (Exodus 5:22) to the Psalmists (10:1; 42:9; 44:23-24; 74:1; 88:14) to Job (3:20; 7:10; 10:18; 13:24) to the prophets (Jeremiah 14:19; Lamentations 5:20) to Jesus (Matthew 27:46).

Philosophers have attempted many strategies to answer the question without much success though some perspective has been gained. For example, Free Will Theodicists claim that God created a world with the possibility of evil and has a good reason for doing so (e.g., a world of free beings is better than a world of coerced ones or no morally significant beings at all). The Free Will Defense argues that free will means that God can not guarantee the absence of evil once God decided to create beings with free will (Alvin Plantinga). But this, even if successful, does not begin to answer the “why” questions that consume so many (e.g., tornadoes, tsunamis, etc.).

The Soul-Making theodicists argue that the process of maturing human beings involves a refining fire. Suffering is a necessary condition for the maturation of human beings. It claims that there is good(s) that is worth the existence of evil (John Hick; Austin Farrar; Thomas B. Warren). But this does not explain the quantity, quality and intensity of the evil present in the cosmos, and it often assumes a Deistic understanding of how God relates to the world.

Natural Law theodicists (Bruce Reichenbach; Richard Swinburne) argue that natural law establishes cosmic parameters in which freedom can be deliberately exercised. Natural law enables predictability for choices, but that predictability entails natural “evil” as those laws function independently of human or divine choices (Bruce Reichenbach; Richard Swinburne). But this distances the Creator from the creation as if nature has autonomy and it does not explain why God does not sometimes—particularly in major catastrophes—intervene. Surely God would make some exceptions.

The Christian Metanarrative. But the Christian narrative does not leave us totally in the dark as if we were wholly blind though the light is dim due to our finitude, feebleness, fallibility and fallenness.

The story, as I read it, begins with the divine intent to share the Triune love in communion with creation and ends with the divine purpose fulfilled. This loving communion entails a freedom to love that is rooted in our relational ontology that images God’s own love. Yet, the risk of love entails the possibility of hate and thus rejection. Humans have consistently chosen to reject God’s love. This is a part of the evil in the cosmos.

God, in response, pursues us with an unrelenting love and sometimes a “tough love.” God, the Psalmist declared, does whatever God pleases (Psalm 115:3). Humans have no concept of the radical nature of evil until they see it or experience it. Human history, unfortunately, is strewn with examples and God—as the biblical narrative tells it—has unreleased the evil human heart in order to allow evil to fully reveal itself and permitted natural chaos to refine humanity.

God is willing to use “tough love” to remind humanity of their relationship to the Creator and move them toward embracing the divine purposes for human existence. Ultimately, as I once learned from Philip Yancey through his reflections on Job, God is more interested in our faith (loving communion) than in our pleasure (in the way broken humans think about happiness).

The Purposes of Suffering in the Story
. One size does not fit all in the biblical narrative. There are multiple purposes for suffering; some overlap, some are distinct. Some apply to one, and sometimes none seemingly apply. These purposes certainly do not dictate how we should view our own experience of suffering though some may apply as we interpret our situations. Nevertheless, they are present in the story as lights to guide us in our reflections on suffering.

In particular, the story unveils—as I see it—these purposes (and my list is not exhaustive): (1) punishment and deterrence (Amos 3:6); (2) cosmic and/or personal testing (Job 23:10; Genesis 22:1); (3) pedagogical discipline (Hebrews 12:7) like a refining fire; (4) gifting and equipping for ministry (2 Corinthians 1:3-7); and (5) painful but redemptive experiences for the sake of others (Genesis 45:7-8; 50:20).

Living within the Story

Living within the story means seeing ourselves as part of the biblical theodrama. We are players on the field and actors in the drama, but we did not create the game or write the play. God lovingly calls us to participate in the story and see the world through the lens of divine intent, actions and goal. Living within the story is ultimately faith seeking understanding.

In relation to the problem of suffering, we will have to decide whether we trust (believe) because we have resolved our cognitive (rational) and existential (personal suffering) difficulties or whether faith is the mode in which we seek understanding. Is there reason to trust? Can God be trusted?

This is where Christology functions in my theodicy. Christology provides the ground for trusting God even in the darkness of our suffering. We have reason to trust because we hear and see the “good news of the kingdom” enacted in the ministry of Jesus. We have reason to trust because we see the love of God demonstrated in the cross of Jesus. We have reason to trust because we see the victory of God over death in the resurrection of Jesus.

The incarnation reveals both divine intent and divine love. God seeks communion with humanity by uniting God and humanity in Jesus. The love of God shines through the empathy that God shares with humanity. God’s incarnational involvement in the world to redeem, restore and heal through suffering is a testimony to God’s ultimately redemptive relationship to suffering. God will resolve the problem of suffering in a renewed and restored creation free from mourning, death and pain. This is the “eschatological verification” of God’s project (John Hick).

So What?

While the mystery of evil is disconcerting and generates questions, the denial of God seems to create more questions, problems and conundrums. To choose the mystery of God over the mystery of evil is neither dishonest nor irrational. For example, apart from God, what grounds ethics so that “evil” is something more than personal or social taste? Can we speak of “evil” without God? In other words, does naturalistic intuitionism justify/define good without recourse to some more fundamental religious intuition? The existence of objective evil means there is some ground for why evil is evil. Again, as another example, is there a religious intuition (encounter) for which the denial is more problematic than the problem of evil?

The mystery of evil emerges within the biblical narrative through the practice of lament which contains protest, complaint and questioning doubt. Lament can be a faith-filled response for people living within the story. Lament—even angry complaint against God (Job 7:11-21)—should not be discouraged. It is an expression of faith as it addresses God as the one responsible for the cosmos.

The mystery of providence means that God is at work in the creation to move the world towards the divine telos. God uses various means to accomplish this goal, including human freedom, natural events, nation states, etc. God’s actions—and human actions concurrently working to co-create the future with God—have meaning. We do not always know nor see the meaning, but the sovereignty of God gives meaning to everything within the creation.

Ultimately, we don’t know, but God does and God cares. Ultimately, we don’t understand, but God has reasons. I have reason to trust the God of Israel and Jesus. Therefore, despite my pain, hurt and suffering, I will continue to trust the Creator who loves me more than I love myself.

Further Reading


Michael L. Peterson, ed., The Problem of Evil: Selected Readings (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992).

William L. Rowe, ed., God and the Problem of Evil (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2001).

Steven Davis, ed., Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981).

Marilyn McCord Adams, ed., The Problem of Evil (New York: Oxford University, 1991).

Classic Modern Theodicies or Defenses

John Hick, Evil and the God of Love (New York: Harper & Row, 1966).

Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (New York: Harper & Row, 1974).

Austin Farrer, Love Almighty and Ills Unlimited (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1961).

Richard Swinburne, Providence and the Problem of Evil (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

Bruce Reichenbach, Evil and a Good God (New York: Fordham University, 1982).

58 Responses to “Providence and Suffering: Can God Be Trusted? (SBD 11)”

  1.   rich constant Says:

    woh slow down….
    for one thing i have a problem with your use of the word you know, that oops, back up word…
    and now i have a problem with two more.
    yes john mark i will count them for you … that is one + two that is three count them .

    the two i have yet to name,has a story behind them.
    also in one way or another should have or a bearing
    on your ability to jump the existential hurdles of the
    evil that is predisposed in us because of a cultural imperative and indicative that forms the perspective of the rules of the game, if the game by which the owner the manager and the coach plays in. to facilitate the teams win then they must conform to certain parameters the goal of coarse is to instruct the team in such a way as to allow them to become better players.(even though all the players think they are very good) although that is a compared to what.
    that would be as anyone can see is the owner…
    the manager is the best player the world has ever known,
    the coach knows him as only a father can know a son.
    the coach tells each player how to play his position personal instruction of as intimate a nature as the player will allow because of the predisposed attitude and the biggie desire to be taught..
    or in this case to be the best you can be if the coach is allowed to do his work in developing the team to the highest potential he can taking into consideration the afore mentioned predispositions of
    the team (they all are self confessed saints)very good from a subjective point of view.and have been for 2000
    although we do not have to look back at history too far to see that our subjective perspective is skewed.
    the owner knows it,and considers this as a learning curve,and is pacaient to a flaw.
    he knows he could cheat and make everyon winners although at the reunion that big party he has planed what is he to say about his team…its ok guys i lost your competors in the desert so now you are the winners.
    i think not

    he just keeps cheering us on saying for get about yesterday boys lets PLAY THE GAME BETTER TODAY.
    my brother
    to much fun

  2.   rich constant Says:


    we all know what a good team needs every once in a while … is a pitcher that can throw two hundred pitches and not get tired.
    and at times a pitcher that throws a good screw ball…
    or is a scerw ball
    but none the less on the team…
    we think …
    takeing into concideration the afore mentioned parimeters of the imparatives and indictive”s of the clutuaral compatition…

    blessings john mark

  3.   Howard Holmes Says:

    It seems to me that even suggesting there are problems with the world is throwing mud into the eye of the maker. God did the best he could do. Why must we see it as defective? Sure, there is death, but why does that have to be a defect or a problem? Why is it that since we have life we automatically assume it should last forever or else there is a problem? Maybe it is good for things to die.

    Maybe it is good that there be in the world what we term evil. One man’s evil is another man’s diversity. Science supports the notion that most people are satisfied with thieir lives. Most people do have joy and peace most of the time. Is there something wrong because we are 100% happy, 100% of the time. I enjoy a little sadness and stess every once in a while just for variety.

    For my money, I cannot think of any improvements I would make to this world even if I were God. I can’t begin to understand it all, but from where I sit, it appears just about as fine as it can be.


    •   K. Rex Butts Says:

      One only needs to walk through the Holocaust Museum, pay attention to the news the next time there is a report of a child being abducted, abused, and murdered, or observe how the poorest and weakest of any given community suffer the most when a natural disaster (tsunami, hurricane) strikes to see that there is something fundamentally broken in this age (world). If there is nothing to be fixed or improved upon from the current state, then Jesus died for nothing.

      “Maybe it is good that there be in the world what we term evil.” Pick up a copy of a little book by Ren

      •   Howard Holmes Says:

        I note that all your examples of suffering are suffering by others. How can you know if others suffer? You are only imagining that you would suffer if (for instance) you are poor. I happen to believe the “homeless” are the wisest among us and live at least as good of lives as I do. They alone know that all that we own and consume does not bring happiness. If I cannot find happiness in a labor camp, it is out of choice. Those who were in the labor camps tried to continue living because they found living to be good. Do I look forward to death? No, of course, not. But it is inevitable and not a proof of suffering or evil in the world.

        Did Jesus die in vain? He would have died anyway. His death does nothing for me, so it matters not to me.

      •   K. Rex Butts Says:

        I know others have suffered because I have listened to their stories. Some I have listened to face to face as they told be their stories. Others I have listened to through literature they have left us with telling of their suffering…such as Elie Viesel’s “Night” or Nicholas Wolterstorff’s “Lament for a Son.” Lastly, I know their suffering through my own shared experience of having a son die.

        Grace and peace,


    •   K. Rex Butts Says:

      Pressed the submitt button to quickly.

      “Maybe it is good that there be in the world what we term evil.”

      Pick up a copy of a little book by Renee Altson called “Stumbling Towards Faith” and then tell me how evil could even possibly be a good thing. Here is the web site for Renee Altson:

      Waiting in hope for the coming of Jesus,


  4.   rich constant Says:

    OK Howard
    i will bite
    what form of philosophy(religion,as defined as your way of perception of self) do you attribute your bases of the concept of reality.

    •   Howard Holmes Says:

      What I highly recommend against is taking some vague writings and trying to find truth in them. There is plenty of truth in everyday life which can be used as a starting place.

      In everyday life, there is no substantial suffering. Suffering is not something brought upon us by circumstance, but rather a choice in how we want to view things. Most people are happy most of the time.

      Also, people do not do evil intentionally. Socrates was right about this, but I can find it in everyday life as well. I have never run into an evil person. All people I find want the same things I want: to be happy, to love and be loved, to laugh, to cry when called for, to respect and be respected, to learn, to be correct in their thinking. All people want these things. There are no evil people.

      There is no evil or suffering in the world. I start with what is. I assume the reason it is (the cause) intended it to be this way. I assume anyone who sees the world as full of evil, who imagines others as evily intended, who sees himself as better or happier or more worthy or righter than others is simply incorrect.


      •   randall Says:

        How is it possible that you can believe there is no evil or evil person in the world? You do not seem naive nor uneducated. You know about the holocaust and the killing fields even if you have not walked there as some have. It is my opinion that an educated person should recognize these are not isolated events even if they do appear to be beyond our everyday experience.

        Our capacity to deceive ourselves exceeds our desire to recognize what we are capable of, and may actually prefer to peace. The heart is deceitful above all things,

      •   Howard Holmes Says:

        I do not deny death. Death comes to all, but it is not suffering, unless we choose to define it as such. As to time of death, does death at twenty become suffering when death at 80 is not? Who grants us three score and ten?

        As for evil, do we call killing evil? We kill every day to live. Is it evil? It is part of the way things are. Take away killing, and you could not exist. Do we just call it evil when others kill for their reasons? Those who committed the holocaust had their reasons as we had our for Iraq. Were we “well-intention” while they were evil. I have know “rascists”. None I have known were evil–only ignorant. If ignorance is evil, we are all evil.

      •   John Mark Hicks Says:


        If you are a avid reader–or perhaps “disciple” of Epictetus–then your comments makes sense to me here as he believed good and evil were only located in our prohairesis (that is,a faculty that distinguishes us from other beings such that we have power to choose how we will react, and the only evil is really to react badly such that it disturbes our serenity). Evil does not exist “out there” or in external things, but only in our prohairesis

        I don’t know if you have, but it seems you have chosen Stoicism over Christianity. Others have throughout history as well. Would this be an accurate characterization of your perspective? It just helps me to listen to you when I understand from whence you are coming intellectually.

        Peace to you, John Mark

  5.   K. Rex Butts Says:


    There was once a time when I wanted to know why suffering exists. I suppose there is still a part of me that wants to know but it is not a real big desire anymore. I understand why people would like to know but even if I discovered the absolute reason for human suffering, and particually mine, it still would not bring my son, Kenny, back to me. I enjoy listening to the narrative story in scripture because, while it does give some insight into the origins of suffering, it reminds us that God has not only joined us in our suffering but has also answered the reality of suffering (evil, natural and moral) to the point that suffering is coming to an end (telos). Or to say, God has providentially acted to life to his goal (telos) – the redemptive victory of Jesus Christ. That is what gives me hope

    Grace and peace,


    •   Howard Holmes Says:

      It might be interesting to note how little suffering is in the now. Suffering is something we experience when we are attempting to experience the past or the future. I’ll risk being called insensitive (again). As a disclaimer, I have never lost a son, so I admit I do not know what I am talking about. I am not trying to be insensitive.

      With that disclaimer, let me say, your experience with relation to your son is not in the present. You had your son in the past and lost your son in the past. The only way that can affect the present is by your choice to allow it to do so. (Again, I am not accusing you as I do not know you–I am only talking theoretically). What I am saying is that I sit here with a beautiful Sunday morning before me. You do the same. We have the same present regardless of what has happened in the past. That present has the same potential for beauty and joy and peace for either of us. Anything else is in our imagination.

      Epictetus said (I highly recommend Epictetus) that if someone else loses a son, we say “These things happen.” When you lose your own son, say as well, “These things happen.” (For the third time, please don’t take this as preaching–I assume you are doing just fine and do NOT need my advice–I am merely philosophizing). La Roucafeld (spelling issue?) said something like: “We all have the capacity to bear the burdens of another.”

      Bottom line, it is all in attitude. Pain is only temporary; the suffering we do from the pain can be interminable if we wish it to be, or it can never arise at all. Even in pain, there is not a necessity to suffer.

      Suffering does not need to be explained because it exists only in our imagination.


      •   Todd Says:

        Where does Christ teach suffering is only in our imagination?

      •   Howard Holmes Says:

        As I said, if you wish to be correct you should start with the reality which we see around us. No truth will contradict the reality we see around us. Did Jesus teach us that suffering was real? I don’t know. Did he? I would be glad to consider any evidence of that. For now, I’ll assume that he certainly lived a life of joy and peace even though he “had not where to lay his head.” I know of no suffering Jesus did other than a few hours at the end–small potatoes when considering the life as a whole. Oh, yes, there was the thing about the forty days in the wilderness, but I assume he did that because he chose to do it–he enjoyed it. Otherwise he would not have done it.


      •   K. Rex Butts Says:


        Throw your theories out the window and listen to those who have suffered. Perhaps they are not misrepresenting themselves but actually stating how they feel, which means instead of dismissing their claims as a “misrepresentation of self” that we must concern ourselves with their pain in a pastoral manner.

        Second thing… while an event only a singular *cause* within historical time, the *effect(s)* of that cause carries into the future becoming a historical present event. Listening to the stories of those who survived the Holocaust or a child who survived an abusive childhood confirms this much. To say that how the past cause affects the present is entirely up to the choice of the sufferer is not entirely true. While we can make certain choices as to how we deal with suffering (i.e., do we deal with X in a healthy or unhealthy manner?), we CANNOT choose to make the cause and subsequently its effects differently. I tell people in regards to the death of a child that one never gets over that death, but we do learn how to live in light of it (if we are to go on living). But part of being able to live with the death of a child or any form of suffering is to have the feelings (efect) validated rather than minimized and even dismissed. In my experience, those who have had their feelings minimized and/or dismissed have only been hurt more.

        Grace and peace,


  6.   Howard Holmes Says:

    To Rex:

    To say we “know” based on the report of others is a bit weak. Others habitually misrepresent themselves. I know a lot of people who “enjoy” wallowing in their suffering. If someone is to get strokes or pleasure from their “suffering” of course they must ham it up. In just the same way, others can accept what comes with equinimity (spelling?). Cf. Viktor Frankl. It is simply a choice. As Epictetus says: “Men are disturbed not by the things which happen, but by the opinions about the things.” or again “There is only one to happiness and that is to cease to worry about things which are beyond the power of your will” or “It is not he who reviles you or strikes you, who insults you, but your opinion about these things.”

    Peace and joy

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      Actually, Howard, Frankl had to work through it over years, and the acceptance that some found in the camps was actually a loss of meaning whereas the acceptance of others saw meaning in the moment and thus hope.

      There is much to value in Stoicism (Epictetus) and I have learned some of the wisdom there in my own habits. Having read some of Epictetus, I think I understand better where you are coming from on this point.

      One of the differences between Epictetus and myself would be that while he might say “Let go and accept fate,” I would say something like “Let go, and let God.” The God of the story in which I find myself living is a God who invites us to “let go” but invites us to engage in co-creating the future with God as well as inviting personal engagement with God about what is happening in the world (thus, lament).

      I, too, think “acceptance” is key. Perhaps you accept fate as Epictetus while I accept the will of God. It seems to me, however, my acceptance involves personal engagement with emotion, lament, seeking for renewal and the promise of the future.

      Epictetus saw no future, and saw no hope. I assume–perhaps wrongly–that you accept that your future has no future other than your own death and the world has no future other than continuing as is.

      You choose the narrative in which you decide to live, and I have chosen to live in a different narrative. We each have our own reasons which don’t seem particularly convincing to each other. So be it.

      Peace to you, Howard

      •   Howard Holmes Says:

        Nice thoughts. You mention that your path involves lament. I understand and accept that. I would characterize the lament as lament, not suffering. That is our only difference if we have any.

        We both see the future the same as well–neither of us can control it. It is the unknown coming at us. If you think God is controlling it, this would “theoretically” give you some assurance, but the reality of the future is still unknown. Our futures are the same in that you believe you can accept what God throws at you (“bear any temptation” etc etc) and I believe (somewhat stoically) that I can accept any future as well. Neither of us fears the future (if I may be presumptive).

        I do not agree with the characterization “Epictetus saw no future and saw no hope”. All any of us have is now. I don’t think I will live forever, but I think I am alive now and will continue alive until I am not. I have no feeling of “hopelessness”. When I first stopped believing in eternal life, I did go through a week or two of adjustment, but it was very painless. The principal part of the “adjustment” was the realization that the extra infinity of years that had been part of my plan was of no consequence. Both you and I only have today.

        I am arguing that those who have hope in eternal life think it is important to them. It is not. They only think this. If you lost that “hope” you would lose nothing of value; you would lose no happiness.


  7.   rich constant Says:

    you know Howard
    that is very good…and i agree with you to a point.
    the point being,that if there is no god that defines good and evil we can call a pig a cow. does that make the pig a cow. it depends on who you can convince the cow is a pig…

    you are right as far as that goes,
    just as Paul says,
    1st.Corinthians 15.12
    NOW IF CHRIST IS PREACHED, that he has been raised from the dead, how is it that some among you say there is no resurrection of the dead

    but if there is no resurrection of the dead , not even Christ has been raised.

    and if Christ has not been raised’then our preaching is vain and our faith also vain.

    moreover we are also found to be false witness of god.
    because we testified against god that he raised Christ.
    who he did not raise ,if in fact the dead are not raised for the the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised.

    and if Christ is not raised and you(our) faith is are still in your(our) sins.

    then those who have also fallen asleep in Christ have perished.


    there are rational points of reference to a belief in god.
    or you can go by a pig put that pig in the back yard and call that pig a cow.

    although if there is a reason to believe then Sir you are doing a disservice to every one that will listen to you or come in contact with you as these fine men that have lost a a primary aspect in there life that brought nurtureing joy and love to them..
    you Howard should be ashamed of yourself and say that you are sorry and ask john mark a proper question don’t say i don’t know what a proper question is on this blog you are smarter than the bait you are throwing out. if i get it they do.
    every one here is kind enough to dumb it down for the likes of me.
    so in my opinion you are just being mean (which is defined by god as evil)
    or just socially an ignoramus.

    but you see Howard you might have just read the wrong books first

    …. i truly feel for your situation i call it a mind bind.
    although you are right to a point.

    •   Howard Holmes Says:

      Thanks for saying your mind. No since in beating around the bush. I’m not sure what question you want me to ask John Mark. I asked him if his life was full of joy and peace. I got all the answer I need. Are you still wondering something?


    •   John Mark Hicks Says:


      I would ask that we tone down the rhetoric a bit here. There is no need for assessing a person’s post as “mean” or characterize a person as as “socially an ignoramus.”

      We can disagree without sarcasm and without pushing the discussion toward more personal descriptions.

      Thanks, my friend.

      John Mark

  8.   Howard Holmes Says:


    I am not claiming people do not feel pain when hurt or sadness at a loss. I define suffering hanging onto that emotion beyond the rather immediate. The actual pain or sadness is relatively short lived. If someone chooses to hang onto that pain or sadness it is a choice. I am not saying it is a bad or good choice, but it is a choice. If you choose to enjoy your “suffering” I am not one to belittle that. I am merely saying there is nothing about the experience itself that necessitates the “suffering.” Others might choose to put it behind them.

    Again, I am totally speaking out of school. I have never lost a child. I understand you to say that one cannot “get over it.” Maybe we don’t mean the same thing. I’m sure you never forget the child. I sure you never lose the ability to think what life might have been like if it had been different.

    I don’t think that has to be “suffering”. My opinion is that people are generally happy and pleased with the way their lives are going. I would guess that a perosn could lose a child and later still be happy and pleased, in general, with the way their life is going. If a person views themselves as generally happy and at peace, I do not define that person as suffering. My life is “good”. Their life is “good.” There is nothing to complain about or explain. No one gets everything they want. We all can be happy on less.


    •   K. Rex Butts Says:


      Perhaps we are getting somewhere with this conversation:-). Yes, even after loosing a child, I can and am happy with my life which includes a very loving wife, two other children, and an otherwise comfortable and blessed life. I have much reason to celebrate and give thanks to God. But my happiness does not mean I forget or am without grief and suffering. It has been almost seven years ago since my son died. Three weeks ago at a conference I ran into an old aquaintance who had heard that my wife and I had this particular child but did not know that our son had passed away. Having to tell that person that our son passed away is just one small event that brings what happened nearly seven years ago into the present. This is but one example of many. This does not mean my life is without happiness and joy but neither does it mean my life is now absent of suffering.

      Grace and peace,


      •   Howard Holmes Says:

        We probably are (getting somewhere). I certainly understand. No one should ever forget that or fail to honor it. I don’t think, however, that honoring your child with memory is the same as what I would call suffering. If death was “suffering”, we all suffer both our deaths and many loved ones. Is it suffering? Again, if it is, we all suffer, and I am wrong about that. On the other hand, death is part of life, just as natural as birth. It is just as expected. I see it as not needing explanation or in need of any more reconciling with God’s providence than does birth. If life was meant to be relatively short and non-permanent, which I believe it was meant to be, then to rail against a part of “the system” is like railing against it all.

        To me it would be like a frog saying he suffers because he is not a prince, or a pig suffering because he is not a horse. Part of all life is to be born, live and die. It makes no sense to label a part of it as suffering and another part as a gift of God. It is a package which must be accepted as a whole package. If we had not been born, we would not die, but that is the only way we would not die.

        Sort of reminds me of the guy who did not want to get old “but it was better than the alternative.” One could call “getting old” as suffering as well. How about that with all the new and asorted ailments. Suffering, to me aet least, is a characteristic of a life. A life is generally full of peace and joy or it is not. At least that is the way I define it. I just happen to believe there are none of the latter type.

        Nuf of that for me.

      •   K. Rex Butts Says:


        I have enjoyed this conversation even though we do have some big dissagreements on the nature of suffering. I have never read Epictetus and if that is indeed the framework you are coming from, then it appears to be an entirely different narrative than I operate from. Nevertheless I do think we had a helpful exchange and even though blog posts can come off as being cold and even indignant at times, my intent has never been to scorn but simply to understand others and help others understand.

        Any ways…as I understand you, suffering is a choice we have. Events happen in our life and we either choose to suffer them or not. Thus our reality (suffering or joy) is what we choose. I don’t agree with that but I am trying to understand you. If that is a misunderstanding, then feel free to correct me.


        One thing I would say about the frog or prince not suffering because they are not a prince. Frogs and princes were never created to be princes. But suffering can even be observed in many animals (e.g.,), a female dog gives birth to a liter of puppies but some/all of those puppies do not live (a neighborhood friend of mine as a child had a dog give birth and whn the liter of 3 puppies did not survive, the mother dog did not eat for a week but just laid around with a slight but constant whimper). Suffering seems to exist when we must endure that which does not belong to our created intent and purpose in life. Love, life, self-dignity, being-human, etc… are all part of our created (not fallen) intent and purpose. When these qualities (and others) are taken from us through events such as death, divorce, abuse, neglect, etc…, then we suffer.

        Well I have enjoyed the exchange. I hope we understand more of each other.

        Grace and peace,


      •   Howard Holmes Says:

        I technically disagree about the characterization of the dog. The dog is not aware itself even exists as a self; it is not aware these puppies belong to it. It is aware only of desires to tend the puppies which happen to be there. It does not know they are puppies and does not know what they are doing there.

        That aside, even if the dog was sad for a week, it was only a week. The emotion was sadness, not suffering.

        Let me use and example. A person can hit his thumb with a hammer. One person might curse and go on, “suffering” only for the few minutes it took the pain to subside. Later, when someone asked about the purple thumb, he says “Oh, I hit my thumb earlier.”

        Another person might immediately make a deal out of it, label it as suffering (labeling is the key as this creates the reality of suffering), find other to commisserate with is suffering, etc.

        My point is that we create reality by labeling. Suffering does not exist in the world. There is death. There is pain. There is sadness. There is joy. There is laughter. These are what they are. They are not something else. They are not a state of being. They are not us. It takes work to hang onto suffering. Hanging on to suffering is not necessary.

        I do not agree that it is necessary to suffer, even if a child dies. Accepting and moving on is not denial. Acceptance is acceptance. Nothing you could do could change the facts. If we take a while to accept, we are merely taking a while to accept. In the end, we will accept. If we are totally present and totally aware we realize that we might as well accept now as later.

        We do not need to explore providence in any of this. That you had the child at all was a blessing from God. It was not some sort of “negative blessing” that you did not have him as long as you would like. It was never intended that you would have him any longer. The only thing was that you did not know this at the time. You were sad to find this out since your expectations were not met.

        But the reality is that your TOTAL experience with your child was a blessing. Regrets are only for what was never to be to begin with. The frog and the prince was a sorry example.

        A better example is if someone gives you a coffee pot for Christmas, instead of being thankful, you ask “why not a capuccino machine?”

        I apologize again for unintentional crassness if this discussion on my part. I am talking about a child as if it is a coffee pot. We are only talking theory here. I don’t know if I could actually hit my thumb and only curse. I might have to cry a bit and even go get a little consolation.



      •   John Mark Hicks Says:


        Your Stoic convictions are obvious in the above post which flattens life into a fatalistic acceptance as if there is no meaning except one’s own acceptance of reality as it is. We embarce different worldviews.

        Acceptance is certainly part of life and living in the present is part of that acceptance, but hope for the future and the coming a new reality is also part of my worldview where God reverses death, wipes away tears and renews the earth. A new creation will emerge that gives meaning even to what seems meaningless.

        Stoic fatalism–a trust that life is as it was supposed to be–appears to me too impersonal, too hopeless, and too meaningless.

        Perhaps you find more there, but I don’t see it.

        Peace, John Mark

  9.   rich constant Says:

    no Howard i said what i said and to the point.i meant what i said.
    quite being so arbitrary.

  10.   rich constant Says:


    those two words that keep smacking me up the side of my head you use…
    and of coarse there is and underlying characteristic
    that is involved…
    did i here an oh no again…
    this deals with our underlying psychological predisposition
    yes Dr. rich is in… 🙂
    i read along time ago
    Abraham maslow’s father reaches of human nature.
    deals with a healthy person and an unhealthy person.
    i am the one that had to read all of this STUFF mind you and it wasn’t for my dog and cat!!!!
    maslOW deals with a self actualized be sure from a humanistic point of view.
    since i love to write
    to the point rich…
    well something stuck in my head
    and it was in categorizing emotional moods and possible application to to ourselves an indicator of a journey through this life of peaks and Vally’s.

    do we need to see the doctor to have our glasses changed the prescription that we might have might no longer be appropriate for our perception of reality that we find ourselves in to day because of emotional growth.
    and of course the doctor is always our objective selves as we hike on down the trail.






    SO WHAT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!





  11.   Jr Says:

    Howard: First, if by calling the Scriptures “vague writings” you hoped to prove a point of some kind; you did not succeed – unless your goal was in pointing out your own ignorance of what you speak. It drips from your keyboard.

    I will not toss the pearl into your sty; only offer a piece of advice that you learn a bit more on the apologetic side of things; never mind historical. I yawn at the simple-minded pseudo-intellectual tripe. If you truly sought Wisdom; you would find Him who is Wisdom.

    The patience of God is astonishing enough that I was called – I urge you to lay down your rebellion and recognize all the common grace He gives to you. The God who knit you together in your mother’s womb sends the rain and sun to you and allows you to witness the sounds and sights and smells of a beautiful Sunday morning even while you spit in His face. It is only by grace that we are allowed to breathe this day. One day it will not happen. Don’t waste your life, Howard.

    And in ending your comments with “peace” or “joy” you are only fooling yourself; because for what is True and eternal; you have neither.

    I suppose I could have been nicer; but I chose these words over burning coals.

    Shoot the wolves, brothers.

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:


      I don’t think it is our task to shoot any wolves. I would request that you dialogue with respect and speak the truth in love, my brother.

      John Mark

    •   Howard Holmes Says:


      Thanks for the response. I love to chat. I was not trying to “prove a point” by my comment. I was merely expressing a personal opinion. I have no expectation that my opinions will be accepted. I do not seek to prove anything as that would entail changing your mind, which I will not accomplish (I am not that skilled).

      I am not seeking to learn. I just love chatting about these things. However you characterize my intellectual ability, thanks for seeing fit to respond. Always love your thoughts.

      As to peace and joy, we have a large disagreement here. I find that all people experience lives of peace and joy. I feel my life is a vacation every day. Maybe I only imagine that. Maybe I am very stressed and suffering, but as long as I don’t know that, what’s the difference. I would say this that all of you who find lives devoid of peace and joy it is always lives of others. Your own lives are full of peace and joy. It is always someone else. Maybe since you cannot get into my head, just maybe you might be mistaken about what is there.

      Peace and joy,

      •   Jr Says:

        First, thank you Howard for being able to stand in the kitchen in which you cook. Though I disagree with your position; at least that is a refreshing quality of yours. This is, in fact, a rare quality in men.

        A part of what you are saying, I propose, is that suffering is all a frame of mind. In that I would agree to an extent; for as Christians we are told to find joy in suffering in the cause of Christ. Even Jesus, for the joy set before Him, endured the Cross. For this, it is a matter of perspective. To die is gain for a faithful Christian; while many in the world and who call themselves followers of Christ are scared of death – or turn and run at the confrontation of pain for what they believe.

      •   Howard Holmes Says:

        Good point on Christians and death. I take the typical Christian’s view of death (their real feelings) to indicate their true beliefs: they do not believe in the afterlife. They “hope” for the afterlife, but do not “believe.” Hope is simply another word for disbelief. To hope is to say, “I would desire this thing if it were so; but I cannot accept it as so.”

        Hope is what the majority of Christians mistake for faith. If Christians believed in the afterlife there would be joy and celebration at funerals, death would be longed for, not dreaded. We ask ourselves: How would we act if we REALLY believed in the afterlife. The answer lets us know whether we do. I don’t believe in the afterlife, but, then again, most don’t either.

        The same is true of prayer. Christians do not ACT like they believe God answers prayer. If a person believes God answers prayer and if that person had a broken leg, he would pray for healing, then stand up. He would have no need for medical insurance and no need for doctors. Anything short of that is pure jargon. I don’t believe God answers prayer, but, then again, neither do most people.

        Whether I actually believe in God is not relevant. I am almost exactly like those who (claim to?) do. My life is exactly the same as yours. I don’t believe God really acts in the present, and neither do most Christians. For all practical purposes we believe the same.

        Please don’t take the last sentence as presumptive. I don’t know you. Maybe you don’t have medical insurance.


  12.   Gardner Says:

    I won’t comment on the exchange which may be getting a little out of hand, but highly appreciate the original post as an excellent and understandable summary of how different people have wrestled with this super tough issue. The game metaphor was especially helpful. Thanks

  13.   rich constant Says:

    i do have some more stuff to say on this post.ya all
    from the aspect of natural law and going beyond

    which makes pre 21 cent. nothing more than a stepping stone and obsolete in a way where by we leave ethics
    as what is and climb into what was in times past called magic….
    in a few words how the coach helps jell the team in a post natural law imperative and inductive so doing the team may take ad vantage of weak points in the competitors strength. thus the perimeters of the in the cultural dynamic can shift back into the good of god and facilitate more developed players…

    got to go but be back later

    sorry bot that john mark you are used to feilding those hot shots down the line and have developed what is called soft hands and a good glove …..

    as far as i see you don’t commit a lot of errors

    except those three words

    all rich

  14.   rich constant Says:

    i would suspect john mark that Howard might be trying to balance an Epicurean concept and a stoic concept a balance that in stead of enhancing desire in a good loving godly,suppresses desire and mutes emotions and likewise feelings to the point of so what…

    ever look at it that way Howard what kinda kid still lives in you is there wonder in every day of your life…
    or are most days flat.
    look to your self and an honest answer is critical

    blessings rich

  15.   rich constant Says:

    by the way Howard there are a lot of flaws in christian thinking that we are fixing them here 🙂
    aren’t you happy you dropped by
    and don’t you find this interesting
    i do hope you do enough th consider what is up in your world and try to seek out a better one the doctor is in and i am not speaking of any one on this blog i am speaking of everyone
    it is so nice when you find a little help isn’t it
    and by the way a finer bunch of guys you have never meant

  16.   Keith Brenton Says:

    My operative theory is that there is evil in the world in order for us to be able to make a true choice – between good and evil. The choice between good and nothing else is not much of a choice, and God wants to bless us with the ability to make our own decisions. Yes, it’s kinda free will-ish, kinda yin-yangish … but it makes sense to me as part of The Really Really Big Picture.

    And, of course, I believe that there will come a point in eternity at which God obliterates evil because of its destructive, self-defeating, ultimately annihilationist nature.

    •   Howard Holmes Says:

      Just assuming evil is in the world doesn’t put it there. Why try to explain why it is there when it does not even exist? Have you ever met an evil person? Aren’t we all ok? If you have met an evil person, describe him or her for me. I have never met one.

      If evil did exist, that seems a strange explanation for it. None of us would want to choose evil over good. I cannot imagine why anyone would. Everyone desires the good. Why would God not just let us have the good?

      Well, there I go, trying to make sense out of something that does not even exist in the first place.


      •   John Mark Hicks Says:


        The denial of evil in the world is a comfortable way to live with Stoic fatalistic convictions. Neither evil nor God exists; we just are, and then we will just “not be.” So, we simply live within ourselves so that nothing external affects our serenity.

        The peace that comes through the denial of evil is too costly since so much evil exists from rapes, sex-traffiking, abductions, murder, selfishness, greed, oppression, etc. I’m sorry, Howard, I don’t buy what you are sellling. 🙂


      •   Howard Holmes Says:

        Let’s then discuss evil. To be fair, I’ll just choose the first on your list: rape. Rape exists. The question is: Does evil exist? Evil is the label we give to that which does exist to make it into what we want.

        Where is the evil? Shall we look to the raper or the rapee? The rapee isn’t evil, so there is no evil there. You must mean the raper. To call the raper evil, one must judge the raper’s intentions. I’ve never raped, so I don’t understand the intention. I have killed with no intention of harming. (Clarification: I kill chicken to eat, not to harm the chicken). One can kill with no evil intention. Can one rape with no evil intentions? Maybe he just wants sex? Certainly nothing evil about wanting sex. God gave us that desire even before the fall. Why exactly can we presume the raper is evil? What would his mind have to be like to be evil?

        We could go on with the others on your list, but maybe raping is a good start.


      •   John Mark Hicks Says:


        I don’t think our discussion needs to extend any further. There is sufficent orientation to see where each is going.

        Your assumptions are not mine–whether it is about the nature of faith/hope (e.g., hope is trust, not unbelief and there is a basis/ground for hope)or evil (e.g., the act of rape is itself evil despite the intentions, an act of violence against another, but intentions can also be evil).

        Respond if you desire–I will not hinder you, but your statements are themselves so counter-intuitive and outside of my own narrative of faith/reason that I don’t see the point of continuing it.

        John Mark

      •   Rex Says:

        “Can one rape with no evil intentions? Maybe he just wants sex.”

        Are you serious… The very act of rape, regardless of motives, is an act of violence that does harm to another individual. Only in an “intellectual and philosophical test tube” will the claim that Rape is not inherently evil stand.

        I have an aunt who was raped by an intruder in her home. I can tell you this much, she could care less what the man’s motives were. The fact that she was raped did harm to her physically, emotionally, spiritually, etc…

        I don’t know…I have tried to understand where you are coming from Howard but I just do not understand a mindset that could question whether rape is evil or not. Whether you want to call it a paradigm, narrative, worldview, or other, we are operating from a completely different foundation.


      •   Howard Holmes Says:

        JM and Rex,

        You have both responded that the evil is in the act of the rape as opposed to looking to intentions. I can ask, then, would there be “evil” if the rapee were struck by lightning insead (a sturckee rather than rapee)? Would there be evil if she were a tigerattackee (attacked by a tiger) as opposed to a rapee?

        Or do you claim that evil can only be done by humans or is it something that is also done by animals or nature itself? Others questions which must be answered if you consider the act itself as “evil” is what it is that makes the “act” evil. Certainly it is not the penus penetration which is evil? For instance, is it “evil” because a person is harmed (cf. tiger and lightening)? What if a person “accidentally” harms someone? Is this evil? What if the rape is harmless in that it is easy and painless (no worse than normal sex)?

        Copulation is an act. Any label we attach beyond that is addressing intention. My parallel to killing is valid. Is all “killing” evil, or does it depend upon the intent.

        I did not “cause” these things to be questions. They are questions inherent in any claim that the act is evil.

        Thanks for your consideration.

        What I am saying is that I cannot see how you can separate “evil” from intention as a way of discovering evil. If so, what “other” is it that determines an act to “be evil?”

        Thanks for considering these questions.


      •   Howard Holmes Says:

        John Mark,

        BTW, it seems your only objection to my stance was that it was “counter intuitive”. Is that our standard for finding truth: Is it intuitive? It seems you are giving up without a fight.


      •   John Mark Hicks Says:


        I did not intend to “argue” the case but only point out my perspective. I understand the philosophical basis of your argument.

        It is extraneous to my series, but I have been quite willing to permit you to pick a “fight” (your word, not mine). I’m just not biting. I have neither the time nor inclination.

        Peace, John Mark

  17.   rich constant Says:

    now keith that sonds like to me an
    2+2= 4 answer that says i can’t stand it and pay backs are going to be ….tough

    hi keith wondering where you been

  18.   rich Says:

    i was writing that earler and lost the thing.
    i’m tired
    and not in the mood
    john mark around fifteen years or so ago i told an epis. preist i was working on the building.
    that i built a scriptural box of regs and now couldn’t
    now that we have climbed out of the box how many ideas or what i would call restricted thinking or restrected concepts have been left in the box those to me are the consepts that restrict our freedom in excersising our faith.
    and makeing a coach closer and more personaly active through the manager excersising the the word we have the example
    as in partical phsicics and quatom mchanics
    a partical is truly there like the coach and every where even though we can only tell that it was there even though it never occupies the same place and space in time to an obserer although we see that it was there…..
    faith is the assurance of things hoped for
    the evididance of things not seen
    through theroretical we might be able to secure a leap of faith
    gods strength in dealing with this world is in the weakness of inosence of the dove and the wisdom of the snake
    the fruits of the spirit
    the sunnyniss on a rainey day
    why because we give glory to god through christ
    and gods transcendance of this world through our coach if we will climbout of the box

    sorta kinda no biggie just maybe a new lens

    blessings rich constant
    icor.1st ch.
    and cor 15
    gods intent gods

  19.   Joey Tilton Says:

    I would include McGuiggan’s Celebrating the Wrath of God in a reading list on suffering.
    “From whence” is redundant. It is correct to say, “Whence you are coming.”
    Good website.

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      Indeed it is, Joey…and intentionally so. 🙂

      I read McGuiggan’s book in pre-pub for him, and I agree that it has significant things to say about divine sovereignty. I would recommend it as well.

  20.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    Hey, I am going to be writing a series of blog posts addressing the issue of a “Christian Response to Suffering” with five subsequent posts on listening, lament, empathy, compassionate service, and hopeful living.

    My hope is to infuse biblical insight, ministery and personal experience to address these issues as practical biblical/Christian reponses to suffering. I thought you might like to know.

    Grace and peace,


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