Why Does Suffering Exist

Week of January 12, 2020

The Point:  Suffering is a part of living in a fallen world.

God’s Punishment Declared:  Genesis 3:16-19.

[16] To the woman he said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” [17] And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; [18] thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. [19] By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”    [ESV]

“The Curse of God [3:16-19]. We have seen how God graciously came to Adam and Eve in the garden following their fall and held out hope of a final glorious deliverance: I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel. But we are not to think, just because God is gracious in failing to visit the full measure of punishment on Adam and Eve immediately, that He is indifferent to sin or will allow our first parents to escape its consequences. On the contrary, we are now to see God’s judgments on the man and woman. It is significant that neither Adam nor Eve are said to have been cursed personally. God does curse Satan [14] and the ground for Adam’s sake [17]. Although they are not cursed personally – being objects still of God’s tender concerns and mercy – Adam and Eve nevertheless experienced the doleful effects of sin and thus participate in the curse of God against sin indirectly. The Woman’s Desire [16]. God’s judgment on the woman is in two parts, the first an “increase” of pain in childbearing, the second a change in her relationship to her husband here said to have rule over her. We do not need to say much about the first of these two judgments except to note that it probably concerns more than mere childbearing. The parallel statement may indicate that there is an increase in everything having to do with children, not just the childbirth. The pain associated with children’s births will continue in other ways throughout the mother’s life as these who are now born in sin dishonor their parents and experience in their own lives the consequences of their own disobedience. The second of the two judgments of God on the woman must chiefly concern us, for there is disagreement as to what it means. It reads: Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you. In what sense is the woman’s desire to be for her husband? And what is the relationship of this part of the judgment to the second, which deals with the husband’s rule? In Genesis 4:7, the word desire is used to indicate that sin desires to control Cain and the Lord instructs Cain that he must rule over sin, not letting it control him. If desire has the same meaning in both verses, then the woman has the same sort of desire for her husband that sin has for Cain, a desire to possess or control him. This desire disputes the headship of the husband. As the Lord tells Cain what he should do, i.e., master or rule sin, the Lord also states what the husband should do, rule over his wife. As a result of the fall, man no longer rules easily; he must fight for his headship. Sin has corrupted both the willing submission of the wife and the loving headship of the husband. The woman’s desire is to control her husband (to usurp his divinely appointed headship), and he must master her, if he can. So the rule of love founded in paradise is replaced by struggle, tyranny and domination. What is the solution? Well, it is not the abolishing of the man’s place as head of the home, as some women’s liberation spokespersons suggest. It is rather the transformation of the attitudes and aspirations of both the man and woman through the indwelling Spirit of Christ, so that, as Paul clearly writes, wives will be able to “submit to their husbands as to the Lord” and husbands will be able to “love their wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” [Eph. 5:22,25]. In this life each of these will always be done imperfectly, but they are better accomplished imperfectly than not at all. The Man’s Judgment. After God has pronounced judgment on Eve He turns to the man, judging him last because he had sinned last. The judgment on Adam has three parts. First, the ground is cursed because of him. Before, it had produced fruit and every good plant in abundance. Now, although it will still produce what is good, it will produce thorns and thistles faster, and growing the food necessary for survival will become a chore. Second, Adam is condemned to live by the sweat of his brow. Before, his work had been pleasure. Now, although the nature of work is in itself still good, it will be accompanied by pain and weariness so that Adam might well say, as Job did later, “Does not man have hard service on earth? Are not his days like those of a hired man? Like a slave longing for the evening shadows, or a hired man waiting eagerly for his wages” [Job 7:1-2]. Third, there is an end decreed, an end that is not release but disaster. It is death, the dissolution of the total man. God speaks of it, saying, you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust and to dust you shall return [19]. There are two things that we should see about this: (1) that life is filled with pain and sorrow, and (2) that in many respects it grows continually worse. Life is filled with countless unpleasantries, whether we acknowledge them or not, and they do not go away. Consequently, we must either acknowledge this, recognizing the unpleasant things and looking to God for strength to bear up through them and occasionally change them, or else be lost in frustration.” [Boice, pp. 220-226].

Future Glory:  Romans 8:18-25.

[18] For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. [19] For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. [20] For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope [21] that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. [22] For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. [23] And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. [24] For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? [25] But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.   [ESV]

“The glory of God’s children [18-27]. Paul now moves on from the present ministry of God’s Spirit to the future glory of God’s children, of which indeed the Holy Spirit is the firstfruits [23]. Suffering and glory is the theme throughout this section, first the sufferings and glory of God’s creation [19-22] and then the sufferings and glory of God’s children [23-27]. Four general, introductory points about them need to be made. First, the sufferings and the glory belong together indissolubly. They did in the experience of Christ; they do in the experience of His people also [17]. So the sufferings and the glory are married; they cannot be divorced. Secondly, the sufferings and the glory characterize the two ages. The contrast between this age and the age to come, and so between the present and the future, between the already and the not yet, is neatly summed up on the two terms. Moreover, the sufferings include not only the opposition of the world, but all our human fraility as well, both physical and moral, which is due to our provisional, half-saved condition. The glory, however, is the unutterable splendor of God, eternal, immortal and incorruptible. One day it will be revealed to us [18]. Thirdly, the sufferings and the glory cannot be compared. Suffering and glory are inseparable, since suffering is the way to glory [17], but they are not comparable. They need to be contrasted, not compared. The magnificence of God’s revealed glory will greatly surpass the unpleasantness of our sufferings. Fourthly, the sufferings and the glory concern both God’s creation and God’s children. Paul now writes from a cosmic perspective. The sufferings and glory of the old creation (the material order) and of the new (the people of God) are integrally related to each other. Both creations are suffering and groaning now; both are going to be set free together. As nature shared in the curse [Gen. 3:17ff.], and now shares in the pain, so it will also share in the glory [19]. Eager longing depicts somebody standing on tiptoe or stretching the neck in order to be able to see. And what the creation is looking for is the revelation of God’s children, that is, the disclosure of their identity on the one hand and their investiture with glory on the other. This will be the signal for the renewal of the whole creation.

  1. The sufferings and glory of God’s creation [20-22]. The apostle now makes three statements about the creation, which relate respectively to its past, future and present. First, the creation was subjected to futility [20]. This reference to the past must surely be to the judgment of God, which fell on the natural order following Adam’s disobedience. The ground was cursed because of him. Paul sums up the result of God’s curse by the one word futility which means frustration, emptiness, purposelessness, transitoriness. The basic idea is emptiness, whether of purpose or of result. Secondly, the creation itself will be set free [21a]. The word hope is the pivot on which Paul turns from the past to the future of creation. Its subjection to frustration will not last forever, God has promised. One day it will experience a new beginning, which Paul terms a liberation, with both a negative and a positive aspect. Negatively, creation will be set free from its bondage to corruption [21b]. Nature is enslaved, locked into an unending cycle, so that conception, birth and growth are relentlessly followed by decline, decay, death and decomposition. Positively, creation will be set free … and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God [21c]. God’s creation will share in the glory of God’s children, which is itself the glory of Christ [17-18]. The future glory is beyond our imagination. What we do know is that God’s material creation will be redeemed and glorified, because God’s children will be redeemed and glorified. Thirdly, the whole creation has been groaning … until now [22]. These groans are like the pains of childbirth, for they provide assurance of the coming emergence of a new order. Verse 22 actually brings together the past, present and future. For not only is the creation groaning now, but it is groaning until now. And since its groans are labor pains, they look forward to the coming new order. Although we must be careful not to impose modern scientific categories on Paul, we must hold on to his combination of present sufferings and future glory. Each verse expresses it. The creation’s subjection to frustration was in hope [20]. The bondage to decay will give place to the freedom of glory [21]. The pains of labor will be followed by the joys of birth [22]. There is therefore going to be both continuity and discontinuity in the regeneration of the world, as in the resurrection of the body. The universe is not going to be destroyed, but rather liberated, transformed and suffused with the glory of God.
  2. The sufferings and glory of God’s children [23-27]. Verses 22-23 draw an important parallel between God’s creation and God’s children. Verse 22 speaks of the whole creation groaning. Verse 23 begins: Not only the creation, but we ourselves … groan inwardly. Even we, who are no longer in Adam but in Christ, we who no longer live according to the flesh but have the firstfruits of the Spirit, we in whom God’s new creation has already begun, even we continue to groan inside ourselves as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. This is our Christian dilemma. Caught in the tension between what God has inaugurated (by giving us His Spirit) and what He will consummate (in our final adoption and redemption), we groan with discomfort and longing. The indwelling Spirit gives us joy, and the coming glory gives us hope, but the interim suspense gives us pain. Paul now highlights different aspects of our half-saved condition by five affirmations. First, we have the firstfruits of the Spirit [23a]. Although we have not yet received our final adoption or redemption, we have already received the Spirit as both foretaste and promise of these blessings. Secondly, we groan inwardly [23b]. The juxtaposition of the Spirit’s indwelling and our groaning should not surprise us. For the very presence of the Spirit (being only the firstfruits) is a constant reminder of the incompleteness of our salvation, as we share with the creation in the frustration, the bondage to decay and the pain. So one reason for our groaning is our physical frailty and mortality. But it is not only our fragile body which makes us groan; it is also our fallen nature, which hinders us from behaving as we should, and would altogether prevent us from it, were it not for the indwelling Spirit [7:17,20]. We long, therefore, for our fallen nature to be destroyed and for our body to be transformed. Thirdly, we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies [23c]. We have, of course, already been adopted by God [15], and the Spirit assures us that we are His children [16]. Yet there is an even deeper and richer child-Father relationship to come when we are fully revealed as His children [19] and conformed to the image of his Son [29]. Again, we have already been redeemed, but not yet our bodies. Already our spirits are alive [10], but one day the Spirit will also give life to our bodies [11]. More than that, our bodies will be changed by Christ to be like his glorious body [Phil. 3:21]. Bondage to corruption will be replaced by the freedom of the glory [21]. Fourthly, in this hope we were saved [24a]. We were saved is an aorist tense. It bears witness to our decisive past liberation from the guilt and bondage of our sins, and from the just judgment of God upon them. Yet we remain only half-saved. For we have not yet been saved from the outpouring of God’s wrath in the day of judgment [5:9], nor have the final vestiges of sin in our human personality been eradicated. Not yet has our sinful nature been obliterated; not yet has our body been redeemed. So we were saved in hope of our total liberation [24a], as the creation was subjected to frustration in hope of being set free from it [20]. This double hope looks to the future and to the things which, being future, are so far unseen. Fifthly, we wait for it with patience [25b], that is, for the fulfilment of our hope. For we are confident in God’s promises that the firstfruits will be followed by the harvest, bondage by freedom, decay by incorruption, and labor pains by the birth of the new world. This whole section is a notable example of what it means to be living ‘in between times’, between present difficulty and future destiny, between the already and the not yet, between sufferings and glory. And in this tension the correct Christian posture is that of waiting eagerly with keen expectation, and waiting patiently, steadfast in the endurance of our trials. We are to wait neither so eagerly that we lose our patience, nor so patiently that we lose our expectation, but eagerly and patiently together.” [Stott, pp. 237-244].

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What are the consequences of Adam and Eve’s sin?
  2. What four general introductory points does Stott give us in this passage? Why does sufferings and glory “belong together indissolubly?”
  3. What does Stott call “our Christian dilemma?” What five affirmations does Paul make in 8:23-27?
  4. The title of our lesson is “Why Does Suffering Exist?” In light of these two passages, how do you answer that question? How does Paul instruct us to handle suffering in this present world?


Genesis, vol. 1, James Boice, Baker.

Genesis 1-11:26, Kenneth Mathews, NAC, B & H Publishers.

Genesis 3, Edward Young, Banner of Truth.

The Epistle to the Romans, Leon Morris, Eerdmans.

Romans, Thomas Schreiner, BENT, Baker.

Romans, John Stott, Inter Varsity.

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