Like prosperity, suffering introduces a test into human lives, both disclosing and forming character. For religious people, suffering comes as a special trial, particularly its unjust distribution. Belief in the goodness and power of God implies a just distribution of misery. When good persons experience undeserved suffering, it becomes difficult to maintain the conviction that God controls a universe that operates on a principle of reward and retribution. One biblical response to this dilemma was daring: chosen individuals voluntarily take upon themselves the suffering of the guilty. Less bold, but also significant, is the view that suffering offers an opportunity to learn something worthwhile, especially patience (James 1.2–4).

The world of suffering is special, causing everyone to think that the experience of pain is unique and consequently focusing the ego inward, which heightens self‐centeredness. Suffering takes place in solitude, isolating one from the community and generating a sense of alienation. At the same time, suffering strives toward the building of community, for its power extends from the greatest to the least. Genuine sympathy is possible precisely because others have felt pain and isolation. Hence the language of suffering is readily comprehended by all who are searching for meaning in a hostile world.

In ancient literature suffering was often expressed in lyrical poetry. Emotion‐laden speech tends to exaggerate, but even such hyperbole fails to evoke the full range of feelings in suffering. Personal pronouns abound in laments, focusing remembered joy and present pain, individualizing both in a powerful manner. Simile and metaphor call attention to language's poverty in describing the misery resulting from invasion from outside by hostile forces.

Drawing on ancient insights from Mesopotamia to some degree, biblical attempts to explain suffering throw considerable light on the problem, although failing to clarify the mystery altogether. An early explanation seized the partial truth (well articulated much later by Paul in Rom. 7.15) that most individuals do evil even when willing good, and hence suffering is in a very real sense punishment for sin. The book of Proverbs regularly insists on this retributive understanding of evil, and the same view is shared by the Deuteronomic history and by Israel's prophets. When reportedly offered an opportunity to endorse this view of suffering, Jesus refused to do so (John 9.3). Job's friends appealed to parental discipline of children, assuming by analogy that God punishes those who enjoy divine favor. The profound story about the divine test of Abraham (Gen. 22.1–18; see Aqedah) and the prologue to the book of Job suggest that adversity may indicate a divine test to which God's “favorites” are submitted.

Confidence in God's integrity and character resulted in an eschatological hope that deliverance would come in the end, setting all things right. Apocalyptic literature found this view compatible because of the extreme suffering of the periods in which it arose. Injustice could elicit the daring hope in survival beyond earthly existence (Dan. 12.2; see Afterlife and Immortality). In some circles suffering was seen as redemptive, both for self and for others. Doxologies of judgment dared to praise God in the face of execution (Josh. 7.19), and the “servant poems” in Second Isaiah (especially Isa. 53) envisioned the death of their leader as vicarious, a view that Christians shared in reflecting on Jesus' passion.

In some instances biblical writers thought of suffering as transitory, resulting from an illusion that resembles a dream, while others believed that God's revelatory presence in suffering compensated adequately for any amount of misery (Ps. 73). The astonishing conclusion to the dialogue in the book of Job acknowledges a seeing of God that corrects hearsay information and leaves the sufferer speechless but content (42.5–6). At the same time, the poet admits that an adequate answer to Job's suffering cannot be offered, and hence the mystery remains. A wholly different response occurs in Ecclesiastes, in which the author accuses the distant, divine despot of indifference to the human suffering that distresses him, a mere human being (4.1).

Both Judaism and Christianity find the problem of suffering especially acute because of their elevated view of God as ethical, that is, their belief in theodicy. These religions further suggest that suffering is not merely a human phenomenon, for God also suffers because of rebellion on the part of men and women. The prophets emphasized divine pathos, and Christianity adopted this understanding of God. The suffering of Christ manifests the divine response to evil, culminating in victorious resurrection. Christians are called on to enter into the suffering of Christ for the sake of the Kingdom.

Suffering, therefore, is rooted in divine mystery, and at the same time it is profoundly human. God's redemption of the world employs suffering in its numerous forms to enable persons to recognize their own humanity and to acknowledge their true selves. As a result of this divine pedagogy, suffering offers potential for enriching faith and life itself. Nevertheless, some suffering, by its very intensity, lacks this positive dimension, introducing destructive powers that ultimately triumph over its victim. In the face of this kind of suffering, believers find their faith tested to the limit. Neither Judaism nor Christianity has denied the existence of such suffering, nor did they trivialize it by offering simple answers. Instead, moving beyond tragedy, they insisted that evil is under the dominion of God.

James L. Crenshaw