Identification of Thesis and Summary of Text Content
How Long, O Lord? is a primer on how to think biblically about evil and suffering. D.A. Carson seeks to show the importance of maintaining several lines of biblical thinking when considering the pervasive and palpable problem of evil and suffering in a fallen world. The book is addressed to believers and is designed to “help other Christians think about suffering and evil” (p. 11). The book is, in Carson’s words, essentially “preventative medicine.” It is intended to help lay a foundation of biblical truth that believers will then be able to stand upon when faced with the numerous existential challenges presented when suffering comes—and come it will, as Carson makes plain. The book is divided into three parts. In part one (chapters 1-2), Carson introduces the topic and immediately addresses false responses to evil and suffering. In part 2 (chapters 3-10)—the meat of the book—Carson looks at various aspects of a Christian worldview and how it relates to suffering. Among other things, he considers sin as the root of all suffering, the unique suffering of God’s people, the reality of death, the need to keep eternity in mind, and finally, the death of Christ as central to a Christian understanding of evil and suffering. In part 3 (chapters 11-13), Carson begins to dig a bit deeper into issues of providence, sovereignty, and human responsibility, especially as it relates to evil and suffering. He closes with some brief pastoral reflections, a fitting conclusion to a book on a topic every pastor must address, both from the pulpit and in private counseling.
Analysis of Text
Carson does a commendable job not getting bogged down in philosophical conjectures during his initial foray against unbiblical responses to evil and suffering. However, he correctly identifies the problem in the minds of many people: “If God is both omnipotent and perfectly good, how can he permit…evil?” (p. 17). Instead of attempting to defend the biblical God at the outset, Carson graciously demolishes “false steps” in attempting to address the problem of evil and suffering. These “false steps” are of two broad categories: erroneous views within the Christian worldview and erroneous views “deriving from a non-Christian worldview” (p. 27). This is an incredibly insightful (and pastoral) approach that ought not to be skimmed over.
The strength of Carson’s book is not philosophical gymnastics or advanced rhetoric. Carson has provided something else for the saints: a highly readable collection of thoughts on the topic of suffering and evil, all based on texts of the Bible. As identified in the introduction, this is a book for believers. It is not for atheists—though they may find it insightful, they are not the readers Carson has in mind (p. 11). As such, Carson opens his thoughtful attempt to bring together various parts of the evil and suffering puzzle where any Christian ought to start: sin. In doing so, Carson lays a distinctly Christian framework: sin is at the root all evil and suffering. He summarizes: “evil is the primal cause of suffering, rebellion is the root of pain, sin is the source of death” (p. 40). This may not bring immediate comfort, but it is essential to having a proper response to evil and suffering. Carson writes, “If in fact we believe that our sin properly deserves the wrath of God, then when we experience the sufferings of this world, all of them the consequences of human rebellion, we will be less quick to blame God and a lot quicker to recognize that we have no fundamental right to expect a life of unbroken ease and comfort” (p. 44). Carson’s interactions with various facets of living in a world marred by sin—poverty, violence, crime, war, illness, death—largely focus on what the Bible says about these things. The result is a unique collection of mini-sermons and expositions on various passages that touch on evil and suffering. The strength of this approach is that it provides a rather comprehensive view of the problem, all through the lenses of Scripture. While it may not provide the “magic bullet” to answer the problem of evil, it may do all we can ask for: root the believer’s interaction with the problem of evil on the rock solid foundation of God’s revealed Word. Most notable in this effort is Carson’s masterful treatment of Job. Job provides a picture of the Christian undergoing suffering. Struck down, but still retaining faith in God. The foundation of God’s truth could not be removed from Job’s heart, even amidst great suffering and affliction. Job does indeed struggle, but “all his struggles are the struggles of a believer” (p. 142). Carson’s intention, no doubt, is to encourage Christians to lay up a good foundation of biblical truth and trust in God’s goodness in order that they might struggle as a believer when suffering comes.
While some might argue that Carson’s rather limited treatment of the traditional problem of evil and suffering is a weakness, others will see it as a strength. There is, as Carson makes plain, a great deal of mystery when dealing with the problem of evil and suffering. To reduce the problem to a philosophical one is to limit this mystery. Better, perhaps, is to take in as much truth from the pages of God’s Word and seek to reflect on evil and suffering with a biblical mindset, knowing all the while that the answers we seek may be to the wrong questions. Carson does not adequately address the objections of non-believers, but he never set out to. Instead, he provides insight from God’s Word on various aspects of evil and suffering, hinting at a real answer: the solution to suffering is to find comfort in the God who has revealed himself to us in the Bible and in the man, Jesus Christ. Near the end of the book, Carson briefly deals with the doctrine of compatibilism. Here Carson’s instruction is noteworthy: in dealing with biblical truths that seem contradictory to us, we must not minimize one in favor of the other—we must permit biblical truths to “function in biblical ways” (p. 210). Finally, the reminder that trusting in God’s providence is the greatest antidote to evil is a welcome one. Many Christians, Carson notes, “drink more deeply from the grace of God, revel in his presence, and glory in whatever it is—suffering included—that has brought them this heightened awareness of the majesty of God” (p. 218).
In a field where authors can quickly find themselves speaking to fellow academic deans and professional debaters, Carson has provided a book that is accessible to the average Christian. This turns out to be a good thing, because the average Christian needs as much encouragement to deal with the problem of evil and suffering as the philosophy student does. The solution Carson finally offers is not “proud theories” or philosophical gymnastics, but rather “endurance, perseverance, and faith in the God who has suffered, who has fought evil and triumphed, and whose power and goodness ensure that faith resting in him is never finally disappointed” (p. 219). This approach makes How Long, O Lord? an intensely practical book that helps Christians step back and view the problem from a different angle. The journey Carson takes his reader on is a refreshing and challenging one. For the theological student, you will even be treated to interesting and capable treatments of the doctrines of divine impassibility and the doctrine of compatibilism, among other things. A bonus section in the appendix on the subject of AIDS is both enlightening and sobering. Overall, Carson provides enough substance to make his book deep, but also enough practical insights to make it accessible. He has done a fine job and his book is worthy of contemplation by anyone who will one day face suffering.