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Suffering, Difficulty, and the Problem of Evil
Book Reviews and Notices
Fred G. Zaspel
Deserted by God? by Sinclair Ferguson (Baker Book House, 1993)
Ferguson is a theologian, but he's more than that. He is a pastor with a pastor's heart, a true theologian of the heart. I've heard him preach on the theme of suffering on several occasions, and it has always been blessed. This book, which is a series of studies in the Psalms, is a book intended to minister to those who, in suffering, feel that God has deserted them. Most of us have been there, and who better than the Psalmist to teach us. A very, very good book for pastors in sermon preparation (be careful -- you will be tempted to steal these sermons!) and for anyone looking for the comfort God gives His people by revealing Himself to them and teaching them about Himself. Highly recommended.
How Long, O Lord? by D. A. Carson (Baker Books)
This is the one. If you can afford only one book on the subject, make it this one. Carson provides a refreshing, well-rounded theology of suffering that is both Biblically accurate and personally satisfying. His presentation of God's relation to suffering and evil is well thought out, and his corresponding emphasis on trusting God in the face of mystery is enormously helpful - and needed. His chapter on Job is probably the best summary of that book you will find. Carson writes with an understanding of and sympathy for those who suffer, something which allows him to present the whole matter in a way that is both academically informative and spiritually and psychologically therapeutic. He proposes to provide "preventative medicine," and he does so very well. Excellent reading. Highly recommended.
Not By Chance: Making Sense Out of Suffering by Brian Edwards (Evangelical Press)
This book is simply excellent. It is excellent in its Biblical accuracy, answer the question "Why is there evil?" in a thoroughly Biblical way. And it is simple in its conveying of profound Biblical concepts. Edwards handles the question of suffering -- and how it reflects on God -- in a way that drives us to consider ourselves, God's creatures, living in a sinful, cursed world that awaits final judgment. Important reading for every Christian and easily understandable to all.
Deceived By God?: A Jorney Through Sufering, by John S. Feinberg (Crossway Books)
Until last month I somehow never heard of this little book and only stumbled on to it at a religious book "seconds" sale. There it was, and I figured it had to be worth two bucks. I was right. Feinberg - as many others - has dealt with the so-called problem of evil elsewhere in a more academic way (The Many Faces of Evil, Zondervan). And there are plenty of books of the more touchy-feely sort. This is somewhere between: it is a record of Feinberg's own awful "journey in suffering" but that as a vehicle of teaching important lessons about how a Christian should act and think at such times. It is an excellent book. I have just recommended it to our church ladies fellowship for their monthly "book report." Well worth reading.
The Grand Demonstration: A Biblical Study of the So- Called Problem of Evil, by Jay Adams (EastGate Publishers)
A simple but helpful look into this common "problem." In the first chapter Adams takes his text at Romans 9:22-23 and affirms that God allows evil for the purpose of displaying His own glory, a piece of the puzzle that is most often missing and which deserves much more press. The remainder of the book is a treatment of corollary questions - To whom is this demonstration made? Is God fair? etc. Adams leaves little talk of mystery, a fact which much be recognized in any treatment of this subject. But his approach is a good one and worth reading. Recommended.
"The Problem of Evil" in Apologetics to the Glory of God by John Frame (Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing.
Frame begins by taking Adams to task on his (Adam's) treatment of the problem of evil (mentioned above). He says Adams is too simplistic. Well, perhaps. But I would give Adams a much higher mark than Frame would. In fact, I may even give him a higher mark than Frame. Frame wants to talk more of mystery than Adams (which is good), but for the life of me I can't see why this shows Adams' answer to be inadequate. But then, I've been called simplistic also! Otherwise Frame provides one of the simplest and clearest explanations of the various philosophical theories offered to answer the problem of evil, and he keeps a close eye to the overall Biblical framework involved. He is a good writer, and this is very good reading. Recommended.
Suffering & God, by Alister McGrath (Zondervan)
A brief overview of the main points involved in the problem of human suffering, and a restatement of his primary points found in his chapter on evil in Intellectuals Don't Need God. Not a tremendous contribution to the discussion, but I do greatly appreciate his emphasis on the Christian hope as that which provides stability in suffering.
"The Problem of Evil" in Faith and Reason by Ronald Nash (Zondervan)
If you care for the philosophical approach to this question you will enjoy these three chapters of Nash - although they are almost entirely lacking in exegetical substance. I can't say that you'll find yourself in a great many conversations and / or sermons that demand a theistic justification of the existence of evil; but the question does arise, and it really is helpful to be abreast of these things. And Nash is as good here as any I've read. Someone defined a philosopher as "Someone who takes something very simple and makes it very difficult and then makes you feel like it's your fault"! Too often true, but Nash is a happy exception.
The Enigma of Evil: Can We Believe in the Goodness of God? (formerly titled The Goodness of God) by John W. Wenham (Zondervan)
This is the third book I've read by Wenham (also The Easter Enigma and Christ and the Bible), and I have come to have a great admiration for the man and his writings. He is faithful in his Biblical reasoning, concise yet thorough in his presentations, and pleasant to read. The opening chapters of this book reaffirm both "the goodness and severity of God," His omnibenevolence and His sovereignty, and investigates the value of suffering and its general purposes. The other chapters investigate specific related questions - hell, the supposed "cruelty" of God in the OT, the imprecatory Psalms, and so on. My only disappointment was his (surprising) briefly-mentioned yet evident capitulation to annihilationism when speaking of the duration of suffering - and this after such insightful cautions to the contrary. This only arose once (that I noticed), and as I say, it was seriously disappointing. But the remainder of the book is well worth reading - if nothing else for his helpful summaries of the reality of evil in both life as we know it and in the Scriptures. He does not dodge the issue but faces it squarely.
Evil and the Cross by Henri Blocher (InterVarsity Press)
You're not likely to find a book which better deals with the various philosophical questions related to the problem of evil in light of the related Biblical data. I've already hinted that I'm not terribly fascinated by the various explanations offered by philosophers, but Blocher surveys these explanations simply very well. His evaluations are insightful and Biblical and lucid. His focus on Christ's cross is satisfying. His insistence on accepting the mystery involved in this discussion is refreshing. And his emphasis on hope and the end of evil is thoroughly Biblical. Recommended.
Facing Suffering by Herbert Carson (Evangelical Press)
A very fine pastoral treatment of the subject of suffering. A heavy - and healthy - emphasis on trust in the face of things we cannot understand and some very helpful Biblical case histories - Jeremiah, Job, and Paul. A very helpful work, perhaps the best for one who is presently in suffering. Recommended.
The Sovereignty of God in Providence by John Reisinger (Sound of Grace)
This book is not really about suffering but it deserves mention here. John has a great ability to take these doctrines and explain them simply and practically. A very good overview of Divine providence with some good attention to the subject of evil and suffering. Highly recommended for the new-comer to the understanding of God's sovereignty.
The Roots of Evil by Norman Geisler (Zondervan, 1978)
I bought this book years ago thinking it would provide a penetrating insight into the issue and that it would also provide good, clear, Biblical answers. I was wrong. Geisler does make some helpful distinctions along the way, but overall he is most disappointing - His god is just too small.
When Faith is Not Enough by Kelly James Clark (Eerdmans, 1997)
This book is not written specifically to the issue of suffering and difficulty, although this is the focus at points; it is simple enough, but it is not really a significant contribution of any kind. Worse, Clark's god who cannot deal with evil more effectively and decisively is not worth your attention. I for the life of me cannot understand how after arguing for such a god he (Clark) can call on us to trust Him! "Trusting" a god who cannot decisively intervene against evil is an odd concept indeed. We could well look to such a god for sympathy, but it would be difficult to trust him. Clark strings together ideas and quotes from many philosophers and other writers in an interesting way but to little real benefit, in my judgment. Clark does contribute two ideas that are helpful to the discussion and to the Christian. 1) his ruggedly honest and humbling appraisal of the merely fleeting impact of our lives; most all of us are really very insignificant when measured against the big picture of history. 2) His analysis of our selfish drive for approval and self-worth, even at the expense of others, is likewise insightful and humbling and needful. Other than this, the book is of little value.
Sickness by J. C. Ryle (Gospel Mission)
Well, Ryle is just always worth reading. This little booklet is written to believers primarily to instruct them concerning God's purposes and our responsibilities in times of sickness. Ryle's counsel is simple, brief, faithful, and right on the mark. Valuable reading for any believer. Valuable also for distribution to those in sickness or suffering of whatever kind. Highly Recommended.
A Lifting Up for the Downcast by William Bridge (1649; reprint, Banner of Truth)
Puritan preachers were (and are) known for their great efforts to preach practically to the needs of their people, and scarcely few preachers of any age have ever worked pastorally through this subject of suffering as did William Bridge. He is known to us as a true physician of souls, and we are greatly in his debt for his work. This books consists of a series of 13 sermons which Bridge preached at his church in London in the year 1648. He takes Psalm 42:11 as his text - "Why art thou cast down, O my soul? And why art thou disquieted within me?" - and expounds to great length the various causes and cures for our various kinds of discouragements. Sadly, few people today are willing to examine this issue "from the roots up" as Bridge does, but it will be to their own loss. "The saints and people of God have no true reason for their discouragements, whatever their condition be" is Bridge's contention, a contention he establishes well on gospel ground. His counsel is clear, thorough, and very helpful.
Christians Grieve Too by Donald Howard (1979, Banner of Truth)
This little book (one of Banner's booklet series) is a most helpful introduction to the subject of grieve, particularly as it relates to death and bereavement. Howard speaks from personal hard experience - both personal and pastoral - a fact that places him somewhat ahead of many other writers. Perhaps his chief contribution is his counsel to Christians who seek to minister, informally and non-professionally or otherwise, to those in such grief. I intend to make sure our elders and deacons each have a copy. Most valuable and helpful.
Our Present Sufferings by Peter Jeffery (1982, Evangelical Press)
Not a significant contribution to the discussion (the book is but 40 small pages) but some helpful thoughts for consideration. The second half of the book consists of brief testimonies of individuals who have passed through various kinds of sufferings, something which may be helpful for those in similar situations.
Behind a Frowning Providence by John J. Murray (1990, Banner of Truth)
Another of Banner's booklet series, this is a good overview of the subject of our suffering as it relates to God. To finish out his discussion, Murray perhaps could better have enlarged on the subject of the end of suffering and our blessed hope, but otherwise this concise summary of the subject is very well done.
Be Still My Soul by Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Vine Books / Servant Publications, 1995)
One thing that many Christians are slow to learn is that the comfort which the Bible offers is not at all like what the world offers. It is not a mere psychological stroke, and it does not come by ignoring the problems. It comes by facing the problems head on and viewing them from the perspective of the gospel and its blessed hope. Lloyd-Jones understood this well, and in this series of messages from John 14:1-3 you will find him at his best. A warm and excellent series of messages expounding the comfort that is available to every Christian in whatever kind of "heart trouble." We could use more preaching like this. Highly recommended.
God, Freedom, and Evil by Alvin Plantinga (Eerdmans, 1974)
Well, I bought the book, but I'm not buying the book's thesis. I'm not even renting it. Plantinga has become famous for his "Free Will Defense" of the problem of evil, but his thesis is indefensible exegetically and does serious damage to the Bible's presentation of the nature and sovereignty of God. It "solves" the problem by domesticating God to human proportions. His "solution" is much worse than the problem -- don't waste your money.
Help for Hurting Christians: Reflections on Psalms by Derek Thomas (Evangelical Press)
The Psalms are given to us, in part, for those times when we hurt. Thomas here analyzes nine of the Psalms and puts them to use for just such occasions. A very helpful use of the Psalter for those who hurt and very good devotional reading for anytime.
When God's Children Suffer by Horatius Bonar (Kregel Publishing, reprint)
I am glad that this 19th century classic by the author of one of my favorite hymns ("Here, O my Lord, I see Thee Face to Face") is available again from Kregel; it deserves to be. It is warm, stirring, and instructive; possibly no other book available strikes such a wonderful balance of both instruction and comfort. Though not highly theological in handling the "problems" of the subject of suffering and evil, it is highly Biblical and helpful in its presentation of God's designs in our suffering and the comforting hope of the gospel. One of the best you can distribute for general reading.
Comfort for Christians by Arthur W. Pink (Baker Book House, 1976 reprint)
I have not read any of Pink for a long time, and it was enjoyable reading this book for the first time and again becoming acquainted with Pink. Pink often can leave a sour taste, granted; but not in this little work. It is probably the "warmest Pink" I have ever encountered. Seventeen brief chapters of brief expositions of various biblical texts relating to the believer's comfort, some of which are excellent. Good devotional reading.
Death: Jesus Made it all Different, edited by Miriam Moran (Pivot Books / Eternity Magazine, 1977)
Twenty brief chapters of simple, practical instruction concerning dying, death, bereavement, grief, funerals, and the ministry of comfort by various authors including Packer, Stott, Barnhouse, C. Everett Koop, Elizabeth Elliot, etc. Some of the chapters are rather ho-hum, but a few are particularly helpful. Worthwhile if you come across it.
The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis (1940; reprint, Macmillan, 1977)
This somewhat classic study of the problem of evil has many profound thoughts but is of little practical value. Lewis was scarcely evangelical (if at all, truly) and no theologian, and while his treatment is interesting and at times helpful, it is short on Biblical investigation. Lewis was a great writer and a profound thinker, but to me at least this work is just not so satisfying as some of his others.
Heart's Ease in Heart Trouble by John Bunyan (Bible Memory Association, 1983 reprint)
Warm, practical counsel from John 14:1-3 in typical Bunyan fashion. Very good specific identification of the various kinds of "heart trouble" which God disallows and especially practical counsel on what it means to "believe God." This is available in Bunyan's Works and is available separately, I think, from several publishers.
Spiritual Depression by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Eerdmans)
A series of sermons preached by "the doctor" in Westminster Chapel in the early 1960s. An excellent analysis of the various causes and cures of depression. True to form, Lloyd-Jones consistently reminds us to think like Christians, with a gospel frame of reference and bringing Christ to our defense.
Why Does God Allow Suffering? by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Crossway Books)
This book was published at the outset of the second world war under the title Why Does God Allow War? It has now been brought back under this more generic title, and as anyone familiar with Lloyd-Jones should expect, Lloyd-Jones addresses the problem squarely and handles it Biblically. With a thoroughly Biblical insight into the nature of this fallen age, "this prince of expositors" directs our attention back to our sin and off to a God who alone can save us. Very good reading -- as always from Lloyd-Jones!