How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil

Carson, D.A. How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006. 240 pp. $22.99. Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Christianbook.com | Westminister Bookstore

Dr. D.A. Carson, Research Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, provides a book of “preventative medicine” regarding the reality of evil in suffering in our world (11). Exposing our deepest questions of God’s sovereignty and mankind’s moral responsibility, Carson provides a significant text imminently helpful in dealing with the ever-present reality of suffering in a fallen world. By exposing bad theology and cursory responses, Carson helps readers to understand cultural and philosophical misconceptions surrounding the problem of evil and suffering. By pointing readers to solid biblical exegesis and questioning philosophical assumptions, Carson helps readers to find comfort in God’s mystery and the triumph of love and justice in the cross of Christ.

Divided into three sections, Carson moves from incorrect to correct thinking and inappropriate to appropriate responses in considering the question at hand. Part one helps readers to understand alternate responses in dealing with evil and suffering. Such “false steps” are dangerous because they devalue Scripture and create a God who either doesn’t care, or is unable to act.  Part two provides a report of biblical themes regarding evil and suffering. These themes include war, poverty, illness and death, eschatological perspective and the essence of the cross. Additionally in this section, Carson provides a valuable chapter on Job regarding the nature of mystery and faith. Part three gives readers a map for putting these pieces together as well as pastoral applications for ministering to those who suffer. A brief appendix on the nature of AIDS and HIV concludes the text.

Carson helps readers understand that alternative perspectives of God cannot provide meaningful satisfaction. All attempts to adopt comfortable elements of Scripture put us “in desperate danger of creating a god in our own image” (30). Such an idol ultimately “mock[s] our grief” and destroys God’s mystery and ability to help (31-3). Carson helps readers to center on the reality of God’s goodness and sovereignty within a gravely fallen world. Sin has created evils both social and personal and its grasp can be felt at all levels of society across time. Suffering, however, is not necessarily linked to personal sin or divine retribution. The mystery of God’s sovereignty and suffering is too comprehensive to narrow its complexity. The example of Job bears this out. The book of Job “teaches us that…there will always remain some mysteries to suffering” (153). Cold theologizing and impersonal observations simply will not do. Carson reminds readers that grief and despair are proper and expected responses to suffering, yet we must resist the temptation to reject God’s sovereignty and compassion.

Carson helps the reader by consistently drawing attention back to Scripture. God’s Word must shape a proper Christian response to this question. While there is room for philosophical speculation, a departure from Scripture leads one into dangerous terrain. Carson’s exegesis goes beyond mere proof-texting. Instead, it provides readers with a proper foundation to ground their questions. Carson is quick to remind readers (as God did with Job) that many questions will go unanswered. This does not diminish, however, the reality of God’s sovereignty and man’s moral obligations (Carson explains this in his chapter on compatibilism). Missing from this text is regular reference to secondary literature and footnotes, which some readers might find helpful.

How Long, O Lord? is a worthy text regarding the question of suffering and evil. It should adorn the bookshelf of every pastor’s office and should be highly recommended to parishioners wrestling with this issue. Carson does not seek to answer the question; rather, he affirms its validity and attempts to shape proper biblical and theological thinking regarding the question. It is the question that God’s people have asked since the beginning and will continue to ask until the Lord returns. This text has helped me to primarily ground the question in Scripture rather than philosophy. In this regard, I have been encouraged to evaluate my thinking regarding a suffering God and deal more carefully with the emotional language of Scripture regarding God’s nature, rather than defaulting to cold platonic notions.

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