A student once asked his Rabbi, “Teacher, why does the Lord allow evil in the world?” The Rabbi responded, “With such a good question, my son, why would you want to ruin it with an answer?” Despite the Rabbi’s clever response, the question “Why does God allow his children to suffer,” remains an apt one—especially in light of current blows such as crashing economies, threatening epidemics, surrounding wars and rumors of wars. My students also ask me this question in various forms. Their pain behind the question drives me to search for answers—answers not to ruin the theological question or to solve a theoretical paradox but ones to encourage them through real hardships.

Seneca

I have studied the Scriptures to see how certain passages handle problems of suffering. But I also became curious as to how those who did not know Job’s God or Paul’s Christ answered such questions.  One of my favorite extra-biblical responses to the problem of suffering comes from a first-century philosopher by the name of Seneca.[1] One of Seneca’s students put the question like this, “If Providence truly reigns supreme, then why does evil befall the good?”[2] Seneca responds to his student by employing three similes: godly people who suffer are like (1) disciplined children, (2) proven soldiers and (3) victorious athletes.

I will explore the first simile today and the other two tomorrow. Seneca’s approach to this question can help us think through the suffering we encounter. His words aren’t to be taken as Scripture, of course, but he can give us some perspective on what the biblical authors are saying.

 

Disciplined Children

According to Seneca, if Providence (i.e., God) governs the world and cares for humanity, then “evil” should be reinterpreted as divine discipline. This is not discipline in the sense of punishment for human sins, but of training for divine service. God disciplines good people because they are God’s pupils, his legitimate children who seek to imitate their all-glorious Father. Like any good parent, then, God rears his offspring for virtue and fosters character in his sons through suffering.

Therefore, the philosopher continues, rather than God spoiling his children, God parents them with severity so that they may become useful to him. Therefore, one should realize that when good people painfully struggle up a difficult path—while at the same time the wicked coast with pleasure—it is because God “does not make a spoiled pet of a good person.”[3] Rather, “he tests them, hardens them, and fits them for his own service.”

When I read this I was surprised at how similar the argument is to the one in Hebrews 12:

Have you forgotten the exhortation addressed to you as sons? “My son, do not scorn the Lord’s discipline or give up when he corrects you.” For the Lord disciplines the one he loves and chastises every son he accepts. Endure your suffering as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is there that a father does not discipline? But if you do not experience discipline, something all sons have shared in, then you are illegitimate and are not sons. Besides, we have experienced discipline from our earthly fathers and we respected them, shall we not submit ourselves to the Father of spirits and receive life? For they disciplined us for a little while, as seemed good to them, but he does so for our benefit, that we may share in his holiness. Now all discipline seems painful at the time, not joyful. But later it produces the fruit of peace and righteousness for those trained by it. (vv. 5-10, NET Bible)

Tomorrow, I will explore Seneca’s two other similes for godly people enduring suffering: (2) proven soldiers, and (3) victorious athletes.


[1] Seneca was a contemporary of the apostle Paul. He lived in Rome and, like Paul, died by the hand of Nero. Seneca wrote a number of moral essays and epistles that have some striking similarities to statements in the New Testament. So much was this the case, that years later, someone penned letters as written from Paul and Seneca to invent correspondence between the two writers.

[2] See Seneca’s  essay On Providence.

[3] The quotations of Seneca in this article are from John W. Basore’s translation in Seneca: Moral Essays, Vol. 1 (London: Harvard University Press, reprint 2003).