The German pastor/theologian Helmut Thielicke once observed about American Christians: “They have an inadequate theology of suffering.”

Who could disagree? How could we expect a theology of suffering to emerge from a society that has survived two centuries without a foreign invasion, solves all meteorological discomfort with “climate control,” and prescribes a pill for every twinge of pain?

At least part of our difficulty may come from how we read the Bible. I have found at least five biblical approaches to suffering, and if we focus on one of these approaches exclusively, we risk not only an inadequate, but a heretical, theology of suffering. Because they appear progressively through Scripture, I call these five approaches the Hardship Stages.

Stage 1: A person living right should never suffer. We experience this stage, often dubbed the “prosperity gospel,” almost as a reflex. A 30-foot golf putt rims the cup but does not fall: “You must not be living right!” A Christian leader comes down with cancer: “How could this happen to such a saint?”

We should at least acknowledge that similar sentiments do appear in the Bible, especially in the Book of Proverbs, which implies that right living will earn its reward in this life. And consider the sweeping promise of Psalm 1:3 to the righteous man: “Whatever he does prospers.”

You would have to go back to Exodus and Deuteronomy to understand the source of this theology. In his covenant with the Israelites, God guaranteed prosperity if the people would follow him faithfully. But the Israelites broke the terms of that covenant, and a book like the Psalms reveals the Jews’ anguished adjustment to new realities. Almost a third of the psalms show a “righteous” author struggling with the failure ...

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