The following fifteen categories of biblical suffering include both kinds of suffering that Peter mentions. Before proceeding, three items merit noting.
One, some suffering will be impossible to categorize. Human life is more complex and less clear than theological categorization, so whereas this series of blog posts may be helpful, there is no way for those of us who formally or informally counsel others to correctly categorize everyone’s suffering.
Two, the suffering of one person rarely fits into just one category. So, when counseling someone, it is often necessary to explain multiple categories of suffering
Third, when there is widespread suffering (e.g., flood, famine), multiple, if not all, categories of suffering are in effect and are being applied to different people differently. All of this to say, while there is no way to answer all of the questions surrounding suffering, this series of blog posts is a humble and simple introduction offered in an effort to help those who are suffering and help those who help those who are suffering.
1. Adamic Suffering
Because Adam is our first father, representative, and head, when he sinned all of us were implicated; we inherited a sin nature (Rom. 5:12–21) and were born into a fallen world (Rom. 8:18–23), so there is some suffering that is simply the result of being part of Adam’s race. Practically speaking, this means that everyone will suffer to varying degrees and in varying ways because of Adam’s sin, our sin, the sins of others, and the curse that permeates all of creation. This will remain the case until Jesus returns, removes the presence of all sin and its effects, resurrects Christians from death, and ushers in a new creation. Subsequently, Christians must accept that suffering is part of life on this side of the Kingdom; instead of questioning the existence or goodness of God, they must devote their energies to not wasting their suffering but rather using it for God’s glory, their joy, and others’ good.
2. Punishment Suffering
God judges unbelievers and punishes them for sin. Biblical examples include Sodom and Gomorrah, and God’s judgment on Pharaoh and Egypt. This kind of punishment serves many purposes. First, it reveals the justice of God. Second, it brings the work of horrendous sin to an end so that those people suffering at the hands of evildoers are given reprieve. Third, it reveals to unbelievers the urgent need to repent of sin and place their faith in God to avoid eternal punishment. Fourth, it encourages believers that God will not be mocked and that faith in him is not in vain. Lastly, God does not punish Christians in the same sense that he punishes non-Christians. This is because Jesus already paid the penalty for the sins of a Christian and therefore God would be unjust to also punish Christians. Subsequently, even though a Christian and a non-Christian may endure the same suffering, there is a different cause and consequence for each.
3. Consequential Suffering
Suffering is reaped because of foolish decisions. Examples are littered throughout Proverbs: the lazy become hungry, those who choose evil friends suffer the consequences, people who enjoy the company of adulterers sin, fools suffer harm, and poor financial stewards are not blessed by God. Practically, much of the suffering that people deal with is consequential suffering as a result of foolish life decisions. Examples of suffering from my own recent pastoral experience are largely consequential suffering. A Christian woman was dating a non-Christian and got pregnant by him and was unsure what to do. A man did not live off of a budget for many years; his home was in foreclosure, his credit cards were seized, and he found himself destitute despite the fact that he had earned over $100,000 a year for many years. Another man had eaten poorly and not exercised for many years, neglected his doctor’s counsel, and found himself in chronic pain and continual sickness with no one to blame but himself. The sad reality of consequential sin is that many people do not repent of their lifestyle sins with any sense of urgency until they have done such great damage to their own well-being and the well-being of others that they are in crisis.
4. Demonic Suffering
Because Satan is alive and at work in the world, he and the demons in his service cause very real suffering. This includes torment (Acts 5:16), physical injury (Acts 8:4–8), false miracles (2 Thess. 2:9–10), accusation (Rev. 12:10), and even death (John 8:44). Sometimes demonic suffering can be difficult to discern, and, sadly, Satan is too often blamed for seemingly all suffering so that people are not held responsible for any part they may also play in their suffering. Nonetheless, demonic suffering is real for some and therefore should not be neglected just because some people wrongly blame shift everything to Satan.
5. Victim Suffering
This is the pain endured by someone who has not sinned but rather has been sinned against. In pastoral ministry, this is a constant and heavy part of the work. Since I started Mars Hill Church in the fall of 1996, I cannot recall a week in which I have not heard about someone in our flock who was beaten, raped, molested, stolen from, cheated on, and the like. A recent example is a woman who lost her virginity at the hands of her father who raped her. All I could do was bawl my eyes out as she told me of the violence she endured. Those who are not on the front lines of ministry cannot imagine the amount of painful suffering people are carrying inside them as a result of sin committed against them and how evil evil truly is.
6. Collective Suffering
This is what happens by virtue of being part of a people who are suffering. One obvious biblical example is the Old Testament prophets’ frequent repentance of not only their own sins, but also the sins of their forefathers and nation as they lamented the suffering God had permitted to come upon them for chastisement. The truth is that we are not isolated, autonomous individuals. We are born into this world as members of families, nations, and cultures. Subsequently, some suffering is experienced simply because of who your family is or what your nation is. Practical examples in our day would be Christian children born into nations and cultures hostile to the gospel; they will suffer by virtue of their parents’ devotion to Jesus in a place opposed to him. Likewise, those born into poverty, famine, hardship, war, conflict, and the like experience suffering simply because of where and when they were born.
7. Apocalyptic Suffering
This is increased suffering that signals the end of this age. Examples include the prophecies of the Old Testament (e.g., Isaiah 24–27; Jeremiah 30–33; Ezekiel 33–48; Daniel 2–12; Zechariah 12–14) and Jesus (Matthew 24–25; Mark 13). While we do not know when the end of this age will be, or when Jesus will return, we do know that Christians living in that season will suffer greatly as a result of their devotion to the forward progress of the gospel of Jesus Christ. While we should not live in fear of this future, nor seek to predict its timing, these sections of Scripture will serve as a particularly helpful guide when they are needed most.
8. Disciplinary Suffering
God chastens believers in order to mature them. Examples can be found in such places as Proverbs (3:11; 13:24; 15:5), the prophets (Zeph. 3:7), and the New Testament (Heb. 12:7). The Scriptures are clear that this kind of disciplinary suffering comes from God who loves us and operates in a way that is akin to an honorable father who corrects and matures his children. While this kind of suffering is not pleasant at the time, later we see the effects of God’s work and thank him for loving us so much that he continually works for our growth in holiness and fruitfulness.
9. Vicarious Suffering
Servants of God suffer because the ungodly oppose them. Examples include the Old Testament prophets, the New Testament apostles, the Christians who received 1 and 2 Peter, and Jesus Christ. This kind of suffering is sometimes physical, but more often verbal. Physical suffering causes some to painfully die for Christ, whereas those who experience verbal suffering painfully live for Christ as they are maligned, lied about, falsely accused, mocked, and harassed.
10. Empathetic Suffering
This is the suffering that comes when someone we love is hurting. The Bible says this will be common in the church (Rom. 12:15; 2 Cor. 2:4). As I write this, one particular woman comes to mind. She is home recovering from her roughly tenth major surgery and is bedridden for the next month after years of debilitating pain. She loves Jesus, loves her husband, loves her children, and serves others faithfully. Because my wife, Grace, and I are close friends of hers, we are both heavy hearted and in frequent prayer for her and her family.
11. Testimonial Suffering
This is suffering that tests and proves a believer’s faith, thereby confirming to them they are true believers, strengthening fellow Christians, and serving as an evangelistic testimony to unbelievers. Examples include the list of faith in Hebrews 11 and the recipients of 1 and 2 Peter. One practical example comes from the Acts 29 church planting network of which Mars Hill is a part. A church planter felt called by God to begin a new church in a poor and historically dangerous urban neighborhood. Upon moving into the neighborhood, he and his family were threatened with violence. As they planted the church, their home and property were vandalized. As their church was established and started growing, someone put a rag in the gas tank of their vehicle parked in front of their home and set it on fire. God in his grace woke up the pastor so that he was able to pull the rag from his vehicle before it exploded, perhaps even killing his family. Rather than moving, he and his family continue to reach that neighborhood and their church is growing both in breadth and depth.
12. Revelation Suffering
Some suffering is a demonstration of the gospel so that a deeper appreciation and understanding of Jesus Christ occurs. The classic example is Hosea’s marriage to Gomer. This kind of suffering is very rare, but real nonetheless.
13. Doxological Suffering
This suffering is not because of sin, but rather is to teach a lesson about God so that worship of him would increase. Examples include Joseph’s imprisonment in Egypt and the man born blind in John 9:1–3. The truth is that God can have more purposes for allowing some suffering than can be easily discerned at first glance. Over time, God’s purposes for some suffering become clearer to those who suspend judgment while waiting in faith for God to use it for his glory and our good.
14. Preventative Suffering
Sometimes suffering warns us of greater suffering that will happen if we do not heed the warnings God is giving us. Examples include the common grace gift of physical pain that God gives us to warn us that we are in danger, as C.S. Lewis wrote about often. This kind of suffering is indicative of the very loving nature of God, who created humanity and our world in such a way so as to permit us lesser degrees of pain (e.g., an ache in our side) in order to warn us of greater degrees of pain (e.g., a burst appendix).
15. Mysterious Suffering
There is suffering that we simply do not know the details about because God, in his providence, has chosen not to reveal them to us; as Scripture says, we know in part. Job is the most obvious example of this kind of suffering because during his suffering he was unaware of what was occurring between God and Satan. I believe that this category is incredibly important because, if we are humble and honest, the truth is that life is not as clear as the taxonomy of suffering that constitutes this series of blog posts.
As one example, my wife, Grace, and I are close friends with a couple who are new Christians and wonderful parents. They desperately wanted to have more children. After suffering multiple miscarriages, the wife called me one day, weeping heavily, and asked, "Why does God kill our babies?" My heart broke for her. I was empathetic to the pain she was suffering because when Grace and I suffered a miscarriage some years ago, I was devastated, and I still choke up if I ponder that loss. I told her that I was unsure what category of suffering she was enduring because in a fallen and cursed world, there is some suffering about which God alone has an objective perspective, while the rest of us have only varying degrees of clarity.
I prayed for her, tried not to give a trite or simplistic answer, assured her that God is good, and quoted 1 Corinthians 13:12, which says, "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known." When we do not know the answer, the most loving and honest thing we can tell a suffering person is that what we do know is that they need God and we love them, are sorry, grieve with them, and will walk with them.