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The Table Video

Miroslav Volf

Vanquishing Suffering: Apostle Paul and the Victory Over Suffering - Miroslav Volf

Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology, Yale Divinity School / Founding Director, Yale Center for Faith & Culture
March 25, 2019

Except for the unknown writer of the book of Job, no other biblical author has written more about suffering than the Apostle Paul. Theological wrestling with the problem of suffering must therefore begin with Paul, and do so by placing Paul into conversation with Job. Surprisingly, studies of Paul’s theology of suffering are rare; even rarer are attempts to relate Paul to Job. In this lecture, Miroslav Volf makes a small step toward remedying the lack. He sketches some elements of Paul’s theology of suffering and, where it proves fruitful, compare and contrast his take on suffering with that of the book of Job.

Thank you Evan and thank you Laura. What a team you are. This thing is running so smoothly, it’s absolutely fantastic. I do small groups so my team organizes and somehow you managed to do it without anybody noticing that anybody’s making any effort to have this thing done. Amazing, extraordinary. And what a conference, what two days, and what a line up of speakers, all of them. The last one too, very hard act to follow. So I won’t try to in any way compete with this because it will be impossible. My comments are relatively modest. As I was trying to figure out what to talk about with regard to suffering, I decided to first turn to Martin Luther, then after reading him I decided I didn’t like him enough on suffering.

And then I started reading the person whose thought he’s articulating or he thinks that he’s articulating and this was Apostle Paul and so I decided I’m gonna speak on Apostle Paul, but I like Job also. So you can see that I’m a bit well, I don’t know if you like Job, right? Actually I feel Paul is also my favorite. Thessalonians. But both Job and Paul are difficult folks to wrestle with and maybe it’s this difficulty of living with them and trying to kind of garner wisdom from their work that is so attractive to me. And this ended up growing to be a really big text so I’ll limit myself to two sections and one of those sections is on Paul and Job and dialogue and one of those sections is called Journey Toward Silence of Non Understanding.

It’s important is the journey also there. And the second one is about Conquest Over Suffering so they’re kind of two sections that are interrelated. Now when innocent people suffer we are morally outraged and as a result many of us feel temptation to abandon our faith and this temptation is not just a modern one, it’s an ancient one. In the book of Job, Job’s wife, a woman of great dignity devoted to her husband and proud of his integrity, represents a particularly stark version of that option. Curse God and die, she advises Job. Job who was afflicted by pain beyond measure. Now those who reject her advice, tend to address tension between the just God and innocent suffering in one of two ways.

By either finding ways to justify God, or by complaining to God about seeming injustice of God’s ways. Now the whole book of Job in a sense takes up these two options that are available to those who reject this first option which Job did. Now Job’s comforters represent this first option. They defend God, the defend God who they maintain established and upholds the moral order of the world according to which evil and good deeds have corresponding consequences. The comforters, they charged Job with wrongdoing. From the mere fact of his suffering, they deduce that Job had had to have acted unrighteously. Therefore they fume at the insolence of Job’s insistence on his innocence and his complaint against God. From their perspective what is the true moral outrage in this situation? It isn’t Job’s suffering, but it is his own complaint against God because he is undergoing deserved suffering. But from the beginning of the story of course, we know, readers know, that Job, that Job’s friends aren’t profoundly mistaken. In Job’s case at least, suffering isn’t the payment for wrongdoing.

Now Job himself represents the second possibility. Complaint against God. He was innocent and expecting the just God wouldn’t inflict suffering on the innocent, he complained to God about his unspeakable vows. Now Job never directly charged God with wrongdoing, though he came a hair’s breadth away from it. He get as close as you could to it. Now, had he insisted that this charge was justified, that would have amounted of course, to abandoning faith in God as God. Maybe retaining faith in God as some kind of an evil genius behind, but faith in God as God would have been abandoned. This would be a milder version and even possibly reasonable reaction to innocent suffering whose representative is was his own wife.

But, had Job embraced this option, he would have robbed himself not just of faith, but also of the possibility of moral outrage and of complaint. For without the reality of the God, God the creator, the world simply, well it simply is what it is. Tectonic plates move. Storms get whipped up. Wild beasts kill and rapacious bands plunder and all we can do is seek protection and mourn the loss if we can find protection. Without God, we must either suppress the protest, or admit that moral outrage against unmoral realities though understandable is nothing but mere empty venting.

So so far, I have identified three alternative approaches to suffering of the innocent in the book of Job. Denying the reality of God of justice and love or bit stronger, cursing God, charging sufferers with wrongdoing, and complaining against God. Now I come to Apostle Paul. Apostle Paul could not take the first option. He was the zealous Apostle, first zealous defender of the tradition of his Jewish ancestor who then turned and became Apostle. To be to abandon faith for him in response to his own suffering would have been to deny himself and to undo himself at the deeper level than suffering could ever undo him. Moreover, what a jerk he would be, right, had he done that, right? He’s been persecuting these folks, now he gets to be persecuted and then promptly he abandons the faith, right? You can’t flip that quickly.

So, that’s option is closed, but what about these two other options between Cater in book of Job. Now, Paul didn’t seem to have taken entertain either of them. He never blamed sufferers for their suffering and, this is maybe surprising, he never complained to God about letting the innocent suffer. At least must of thought it wouldn’t be quite right to do so because he never actually in his text does that. Maybe he was grumbling inside, but in his Epistles, he doesn’t complain. So you might want to ask this, had Paul absorbed only part of the lesson of the book of Job, part where God chastises the comforters for blaming those who suffer, but not the part where God affirms Job an unbreakable sufferer who insisted on taking God to court, that that person has spoken rightly of him. That’s at the very end of the book of Job. Job has spoken rightly of God. Or might Paul have had reasons for not imitating Job in his complaint. Now the book of Job presents in fact a fourth response to innocent suffering in addition to previous three.

An option which arguably constitutes the main point from the book, of the book of Job. From God’s response to Job and to Job’s friends, we learn that a certain kind of complaint against God is good which is the option three, but that a certain kind of silence before God is better which is option four. Now not all silences are equal and Stacy has spoken quite eloquently in some forms of silence in the face of suffering. Job’s wasn’t a muffled silence of terror because before the sheer immensity of an amoral power that’s out the foundation of the universe and is free to inflict unimaginable pain at whim, though that could be a possible way to interpret God’s self presentation to Job. It is better I think to interpret Job’s silence as an expression as self aware, non understanding before the being and relation to the world as the God who is the source of world’s entire reality and of all it’s goodness. But perhaps Paul did learn just this from Job. The silence of non understanding. Perhaps I’m right because Paul never quoted, well no Paul quoted Job only once. And never referred either to God’s speech at the end of the book of Job or Job’s response to it.

But the more immediate possible source for what seems to have been deliberate rejection of complaint was available to Paul, It was the story of Jesus Christ, read to the description of Isaiah’s suffering servant, text from the Hebrew Bible which Paul quotes multiple times. What was true of the suffering servant, Paul thought was true of Jesus. He was oppressed, he was afflicted yet he did not open his mouth, like a lamb that was lead to the slaughter, like a sheep that before it’s shears is silent. Paul interpreted his own and his community’s persecution, the main source of their suffering with the help of the same image. We are counted as sheep to be slaughtered. As suffering’s servant, Christ did not complain to God. In Paul’s mind, Jesus Christ was the God’s son come in flesh the expression of God’s being and the one truly innocent person who did not open his mind to complain, but why? Because precisely in the suffering of the crucifixion no less than in the glory of the resurrection. He was the embodiment of God’s utter love for human beings. This love Paul believed is the victory, the source of the victory over suffering. Now you might think, well did Paul ever read the gospels? Did he hear this cry of dereliction? My God, my God why have you forsaken me? I’ve planned actually to add to read a section on that passage, but I’m don’t think I’m gonna have the time. If I do, you’re gonna hear kind of response to that. He either never it most likely or he, I think what’s possible also that he kind of took the lesson of it from what followed after the cry of dereliction rather than the cry of dereliction itself. Whatever it was.

I come to my second point, victory over suffering. The problem of evil is largely problem of suffering and the common theological strategy of dealing with the problem of suffering or evil is to show how the reality of suffering is compatible with the existence of a God who is powerful and wise enough to create and loving enough not to let creatures suffer without reason. This is the project of theodicy. In one of it’s strands Augustinian, it consists largely in demonstrating that what from a close up appear to be horrendous evils are in fact not evils when perceived from a distance and as elements of the totality from God’s vantage point of my modestly, it consists in demonstrating that such evils, though admittedly evil do not undermine either God’s power or God’s goodness.

Now the point why I’m giving you this sketch of kind of response to suffering, theodicy is a response to suffering, is to indicate as a backdrop that Paul never attempted anything like theodicy. This may be a controversial statement, but that’s how I read Paul. He never explained why. The reason cannot be he is indifferent to suffering, in fact he spent quite a bit of his Apostolic career trying to wrangle support for suffering Jerusalem Christians. In fact, lots of, many of his Epistles mention precisely that great great effort. He taught his churches also to care for those who are in varieties of ways suffering. Now but it could be, just could be, and maybe that’s just me reading into Apostle Paul, but it’s clear I think that theodicies sit uneasily with activists like Paul.

In all justification of God in the face of suffering, most of us think that we can detect at least a whiff of a putrid odor of attempts to justify suffering itself. The long speeches of Job’s friends are the case and point. theodicies are all about showing that in some ways suffering is appropriate. According to theodicy of Job’s friends, Job deserved to suffer. The absence of theodicy in Paul echoes one of the main points of the book of Job. Namely that the silence of non understanding honors great suffering in the way that explanatory and justificatory speech cannot in that it is intellectually and morally more honest. Fitting the scope of any possible knowledge we could have about both God and the world. But perhaps more importantly, Paul’s non theodical approach toward suffering stands firmly in tradition of Exodus. The pragmatic way of contending with suffering in the Bible. Now the story of Exodus, you know it all, it begins with cruel oppression, attempt at the genocide, and the groaning of the oppressed. At no point in the text is there even a whiff of an explanation why God hasn’t acted either to prevent the affliction, or to deliver the Israelites from it before it became extreme. In fact the Israelites seem not even to be grumbling against God. Fascinating thing about this is that grumbling begins after the liberation. You know, now you know that he’s there right? Come on, do something.

It seems that they’d forgotten God in a sense before that. Pharaoh’s fear and greed are the only reasons for the suffering for the children of Israel the story gives As the groaning of the Israelites rose up to God, God’s response was not you kind of deserve it, repent and accept the punishment, or something good will come of it. It was instead, I have observed the misery of my people and have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians and to bring them out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey. God’s response to suffering was liberation not an explanation. The same as in the book of Job. Now all three of the stories that I have mentioned, Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, Job’s suffering and subsequent abundant blessing, Israel’s slavery and entry into the promised land, I think they still leave open the question whether the refusal of theodicy, ought to be temporary or principled. Whether the justification of God which I believe is not possible with the damaged life and before the end of history, might be achievable in the world made home.

For Paul, unknowing to some degree at least in the face of some suffering is ineradicable. I say to some degree and some suffering because Paul will have a lot to say about how we perceive suffering, what we read suffering as, how we frame suffering, and so forth. Still in Paul there is this unknowing in the face of suffering that is reminiscent of Job after God’s response to Job’s complaint. Now in Paul, here’s what I want to emphasize. The unknowing takes form of a unique kind of non theodical speech, that both is and isn’t complaint. A kind of speech in which we engage, but do not know and know that we are incapable of knowing how to engage in that speech as we ought to. Importantly, the unknowing doesn’t concern primarily the existent state of affairs, but that may be applied as well for when we suffer, we are often at a loss about what is happening to us. The unknowing concerns the expectation. The content of desire for that which is not yet.

Now the formal category of speech to which Paul is referring is prayer. But it’s a strange kind of prayer. For Paul’s sufferance aren’t in fact strictly speaking addressing God, they’re not addressing God either in complaint as Job did before God’s response or in supplication. They are groaning under the burden of what is and longing for freedom and glory that is yet to be. This kind of prayer expresses in kind of inarticulate way the experience of suffering itself and the desire for something good though that good remains indeterminate and under determined. The point is not that we cannot name our pain. The vocabulary of pain is very rich in fact. Point is that we are not good at knowing either what we should push against or what we should long for. We do know what we do not want. But we don’t what we ought to want and therefore we don’t know either how to pray against, what to against or what to pray for. Of course we think that we do. Point of Paul is that we might just step back.

So Paul writes the spirit helps our weakness. Interceding for us with the spirit’s own groans, too deep for words. The spirit of God, which is spirit, which is God in our hearts and lives and the agent of the new age is groaning with us, is groaning through us, and for us before God. The spirit Paul thinks. I don’t know what to make of this, frankly. I don’t know how to translate this, but I maybe simply ought to kind of let myself into spirit’s leading, but here’s what Paul thinks. Spirit takes our disoriented woundedness, our sighing, struggle to understand what is happening to us and why, and our groaning ignorance of what in fact would constitute the glory and the freedom for which we long and how that longing might be satisfied. The spirit takes all of this unknowing, and folds it into God’s knowing and willing interceding according to God’s will. What is this groaning of ours? Is it a lament? A complaint? A protest? Supplication, all folded into one? Whatever it is, the spirit takes up as spirit’s own, and articulates it to God according to God’s will.

Now the great story of redemption in the Bible, the liberation of the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt, it begins with groaning. Paul used exactly the same word, to describe the response of the creation human included to bondage to decay as did the Greek translation of Exodus to describe the response of the Israelites to the bondage to forced labor. God came down to deliver after hearing the groaning. That’s what we read in Exodus. In Romans, God hath already come down. As God’s whose name is the one who is present, yeah, well that’s how God reveals God’s self to Moses and who remained with the liberated people of Israel and in Paul’s case, as the God who is the father who gave his son and poured out the spirit the beginnings, or the first fruit of the new age following the new Exodus. Consequently the relationship between God and groaning is much more immediate in Romans then at the beginning of the story of Exodus.

For groaning isn’t just what the afflicted people do. Groaning, the same word is also what God’s spirit does. God is always already there groaning with the groaning creation. You can put it slightly differently in the Exodus story groaning is the trigger for redemption. Humans groan, God hears the groaning, God acts to redeem them. In Romans, in contrast, groaning is always already within the movement of redemption God does not have to come down to attend to our affliction, God is not just present among us, God is within us groaning and longing as we suffer under the weight of affliction.

Now the groaning of the spirit is one key moment in Paul’s account of God’s conquest of suffering. Christ’s death and resurrection is the other. Referring to God Paul writes, he who did not withhold his own son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not also give us everything in him or with him? Now, those are the words need unpacking and I think that in handing over God’s the meaning is handing over of God’s very self for this I think is what the father’s handing over son means. In handing over God’s very self to suffering and death for all of us, God has promised to give us everything else. Now you might say, everything? Well yes. At least Paul thinks that that’s what it takes to overcome suffering. A new self and a new world. A new self in a new world. God suffering and dying on the cross and leaving an empty tomb behind is an enacted promise of the new world, glorious and free from suffering. This is God not in us as the spirit, but God with us, sharing in human suffering and death and becoming the first born from the dead, first to enter the new creation.

Now there’s a third moment in the conquest of suffering which is Christ parousia coming again in glory. Between this completion of victory against over suffering and parousia on the one hand and Christ’s death and resurrection and the spirit’s outpouring on the other, is what Paul describes a time of hope. Which is our always, our time. And then Paul says for in hope we are saved. Now this is a puzzling statement. Hope is about future, but Paul describes salvation as a present reality. How can we be saved when we are still waiting for salvation in hope. To put it more concretely using Paul description of the experience of early Christian just in that same context, how can we be more than conqueror’s in times when as Paul says, we are being killed all day long? Interpreting the phrase in hope we are saved, Martin Luther, I had to insert him, he’s my hero with lots of words.

So interpreting this phrase in hope we are saved, Martin Luther suggested that just as love transforms the lover into the beloved, so hope changes the one who hopes into what is hoped for. Now, but how does Luther’s suggestion actually help, sounds good, but how does it actually help? After all we don’t see and know what we are hoping for. If we saw it, we could no longer hope for as Paul puts it, no one hopes for what is seen. Now that’s exactly I think Luther’s point. Hope does, which is I think trust on it’s tip toes, stretching itself towards something. That’s probably the best way to describe, comes from a British New Testament scholar CFD Moule of a earlier generation. So hope stretches itself to things, does not stretch itself according to Luther to things that we see and we know to the contrary.

Following Paul in Roman’s eight, Luther believed and this is the key key comment, that the key feature of hope is that it transfers a person into the unknown, the hidden, the dark shadow so that he and she does not even know what he or she hopes for. We’re back to Miguel. Hopes that can be specified that can then see function as opiates. So we are back at the realm of unknowing. The place where God left Job after responding to Job’s accusations in a cultic space in which we cannot tame with reason and morality. But in hope, this trust on tiptoes, we are safe in darkness, at least that’s what Paul believes. We can live in it, not with shuddersome premonition of our undoing, but with dauntless expectation of victory. This expectation itself is of victory is victory. The reality of our affliction and of our growing not withstanding, how is such victory? Victory is hoping in the darkness of unknowing possible, for Paul it is possible because God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence things that do not exist, is with us in two principled ways. Both of them acts of God’s love. God’s spirit is groaning in our groaning and God’s son died and rose again an enacted promise of our own and of world’s rising. I think my time’s up. Very good. We’ll skip my the end conclusion.