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The Problem of Suffering: A Response from 1 Peter

 

After Jesus’ death and at his second coming, he identifies himself by his wounds.

God himself suffered the loss and death of his only son. Since it is so important to him, he makes it possible for us to personally participate in that suffering—when we suffer; we mysteriously glimpse part of God himself that is unreachable in any other way.

It is our suffering which most reveals the Man of Sorrows. Wolterstorff explains this idea. “Through our tears we see the tears of God.…God is not only the God of the sufferers but the God who suffers. The pain and fallenness of humanity have entered into his heart. Through the prism of my tears I have seen a suffering God. Instead of explaining our suffering God shares it.”12

Jürgen Moltmann, professor at Tübingen University, Germany, also finds suffering at the very heart of God. In his book, A Broad Place, he explains his own anguish over the annihilations during the holocaust and how it led him to struggle with the question “Where is God?” He finds his answer in his “theology of the cross.”13 Moltmann’s concept is too expansive to summarize here but the main idea is that suffering is the heart of God. In fact, he says that we can be certain that God shares our suffering “because in the heart of God stands the cross of Christ.”14 Hence, according to Moltmann, in the midst of suffering there is hope. In fact, it was his “theology of the cross” which led to the development of his ‘theology of hope’ for which he is renowned.

Suffering is within the context of God’s broader plan for humanity.

The Bible itself deals with the issue of suffering in different ways, from the book of Job and the prophets like Jeremiah to the epistles of Paul, as in Philippians. 1 Peter is often overlooked. I suggest that 1 Peter offers insight into the purpose and value of suffering and sets it within a context which is extremely meaningful from practical, philosophical, and theological perspectives.

 

Suffering in 1 Peter

The term “suffering” has a long history from before the time of the writing of 1 Peter.15 Its various meanings in Hellenistic culture, Judaism, and the New Testament are distinct yet related. Each of these various uses sheds light on its usage in 1 Peter, although like most writers, the author also gives his own meaning to the concept. A general summary is offered here.

Suffering brings about the genuineness of faith.

One of the primary terms for “suffer” (pascho) found in 1 Peter means in the Greek and Hellenistic world, “to experience something” external, something from without, which must be suffered. Originally, it meant “to suffer evil.” It appears to have retained this negative connotation throughout its history. Relatively old is the use of the word pascho in terms of “to suffer punishment,” to be punished. In some cases it refers to capital punishment or execution but this is not always the case, so that the word pascho does not necessarily mean “to suffer death.” The term is most often used in the sense of undergoing or experiencing misfortune, blows of fate, disfavor of men or gods. In this sense, it can refer to any of the negative experiences overtaking humans including illness.

 

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Category: Biblical Studies, Fall 2008

About the Author: Rebecca Skaggs, Ph.D. (Drew University), is professor of New Testament and Greek at Patten University in Oakland, California. She also holds an M.A. in philosophy from the Dominican School of Philosophy & Theology, Berkeley. Her commentary on 1, 2 Peter & Jude (2003) is published by The Pentecostal Commentary Series (Continuum).

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