Suffering: Toward a Biblical Theology of Affliction, Part 1

Dave Shive lives in Catonsville, MD, and has been married to Kathy for 52 years. They have 3 married children and 11 grandchildren. Dave writes, not as a clinician or therapist, but as a pastor. His thoughts on suffering emerge from his study of the Bible, reading widely, pastoral counseling, and personal experience. This is Part I of a multi-part series on suffering.

In a few months, precisely April 1, 2021, I will celebrate the 30th anniversary of my entry into what I would come to label my “night shift.”[1] On that day I was initiated into the spiritual crisis that St. John of the Cross described as the “dark night of the soul.” Though I have never properly experienced “clinical depression,” I learned that day what it means to be immobilized by the gloomy clutches of despair. And I was powerless to claw my way out of the mire of hopelessness and fear into which I had sunk.

I had been the pastor of a church for eight years when Kathy and I realized in 1991 that it was time for a change. The work had been hard, but we were moving on with optimism for our future and high hopes for the continued success of the church. As soon as I tendered my resignation at the church, an exciting opportunity arose immediately for me to work with a growing mission agency. The offer came out of nowhere and it looked like my dream job. We were elated.

And then the bottom fell out. Decisions were made by the leadership of the mission agency that resulted in the job offer being withdrawn. We were deeply hurt by this as we found our lives turned upside down. At the time, Kathy and I found our confidence in the future to be shaken. In the aftermath, we discovered that we were not well-versed on the Bible’s teaching on suffering. This necessitated a lengthy period of reflection to help me begin to unravel my inadequate “theology of suffering.” The process continues to this day.

The nature of my “night shift affliction” may seem minor: it was short-term, I was only “sidelined” for 30 months, no one died, and the outcome has been more than positive. This description of my affliction may lead readers of this blog to assume that they have suffered far more severely than me. They are undoubtedly right. And there are therapists and counselors who have counseled individuals undergoing far worse affliction than I have ever encountered. But this season was uniquely seismic for me as I was being led kicking and screaming into a wilderness experience.

In 1991 I was ignorant of the problems in my life that needed correction, nor did I understand how they had come to control my life. I was unaware (or was unwilling to admit) that I was fearful, insensitive, and prideful. The illusory persona of competence, confidence, and humility that I had unconsciously crafted shielded me from introspection or outside examination. Because I did not understand the depth to which this false image of myself was embedded, remedial instruction was required to expose my façade and put me on a course of rehabilitation.

April 1, 1991 was anything but “April Fool’s Day” for me. It was on that day that my re-education began. Just the day before, Kathy and I had been devastated by disappointment. Now we were raw and floundering, but I hadn’t yet realized how deep the wound had penetrated. Arriving early in the morning to teach a weekly men’s Bible study, I unconsciously carried my pain with me. As I sat down, put on a brave face, opened my Bible, and prepared to teach, I realized I had nothing to say. I was an empty shell devoid of a heartfelt message. Without a word, I looked around at the men, closed my Bible, got up, and walked out, leaving a handful of men stunned. What they did next remains a mystery to me, but I returned home in great defeat with my life at the lowest ebb imaginable.

The expression “nothing in this world can be said to be certain except death and taxes” is just plain wrong. A third inevitability is easily overlooked: suffering.

You may not think you’re a great sufferer, but the afflictions we all endure loom large for each. For example, I may be agonizing with a throbbing toothache when someone decides at that moment to disclose to me that he is suffering from a terminal disease. Though the implications of his disease are far more serious than my discomfort, I might be forgiven should I be more focused at that moment on my dental anguish rather than his life-threatening cancer.

When the subject of suffering is raised, each of us naturally envisions something different. After all, afflictions are rarely comparable. We interpret the idea of suffering through our own perspective which is shaped by our unique experience. For instance, someone may suffer by getting a flat tire, but this is a minor ordeal of limited duration and easily resolved. Rather than calling this “suffering,” we better recognize it as an inconvenience with little personal pain involved. Others might remember dislocating an elbow, a more personal and much more painful experience. Nevertheless, the resolution for this trauma is generally speedy and easily available. Still others may be in the throes of something more serious, like getting COVID. The outcome of this is far from certain. Finally, there is the individual who has undergone the ultimate tragedy, the death of a child. By all accounts, there is no comparable affliction. Suffering is not “one size fits all.” One person’s affliction may be another’s “inconvenience.” We naturally know better than to confuse the inconvenience of a flat tire with the all-consuming despondent pathos of losing a child.

Regardless of the severity of our suffering, we are all enrolled in “the school of affliction.” Therefore, suffering is woven into the fabric of human existence and is our shared experience. I am concerned with this question: Do we possess a healthy, robust, dynamic biblical worldview on suffering that is grounded on God’s perspective?

My April 1, 1991 collapse led me into the wilderness where the Bible came alive. I would spend the next 30 months immersed in Psalm 40:1-3 where core Scriptural principles on suffering were gradually opened up to me. It is possible that I may never have discovered my new insights if I remained in the pastor’s study. Like Jesus being “cast out” (Mk. 1:12) into the wilderness so that he could “learn obedience through the things that he suffered” (Heb. 5:9), I had to be forcibly propelled from my comfort zone (the pastoral life) into the arena of affliction (driving oil trucks and tour buses) if I were to begin developing a biblical philosophy of suffering.

When I “graduated” from my 30-month program in “night school,” I subsequently found myself re-enrolled for more instruction in the ways of God. My education in God’s School of Affliction seems to be ongoing. In subsequent posts, I will offer my insights from Psa. 40:1-3 acquired through ongoing matriculation in “night school.”

[1] The background for this terminology is developed in my book, “Night Shift” published in 2000. 

  • Joy Gould
    December 28, 2020

    Great intro. Looking forward to Part II.

    • RobinBarnes
      December 28, 2020

      Thanks for reading! Part 2 coming soon.