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How Does the Bible Explain Suffering?

How Does the Bible Explain Suffering?

Exploring the Theme of Blessing and Curse in Scripture

The word “blessing” brings to mind a variety of images for all of us. We say “Bless you!” after a sneeze or “so blessed” when life is good, and we tag Instagram photos of a recent vacation with #blessed.

Blessed is a religious-sounding word that we use a lot. But what does blessing mean?

In the Bible, blessing refers to flourishing and the multiplication of life. But it doesn’t always look like these things, and for many of us, life often looks and feels like the opposite.

We look around us and find a broken world filled with suffering, corruption, poverty, and war. We experience chronic illness, family dissension, and addiction. Our minds and bodies endure abuse.

For many of us, it feels more real to say life is about suffering than life is about blessing. And perhaps there’s a feeling within all of us that something has happened. Something has gone wrong. This is not the way it should be.

The Bible has a name for this kind of dysfunction—the curse.

In the Bible, the curse is when God hands people over to the consequences of seizing blessing on their own terms. It is a curse because, instead of abundance and life, we end up with scarcity, isolation, and death.

But where did this curse come from?

And is there hope for reversing it?

Origins of the Curse

The story of the Bible begins with God bringing life out of darkness, ordering our beautiful world, and blessing all its creatures.

The first blessing in the Bible is when God creates animals. God blesses the animals, saying to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the land” (Gen. 1:22). God’s blessing is about flourishing and the multiplication of life. And God shares his life-producing ability with others and invites them to participate with him in extending the blessing throughout all of creation.

God gives humans an additional blessing that sets them apart from the animals. Not only are humans one of God’s creatures that can generate new life, humans are appointed as God’s representatives to rule and oversee the entire flourishing world on God’s behalf (Gen. 1:27-28).

The blessing is conditional, however. We’re told that this gift of life and abundance is contingent upon the humans trusting and following the one divine command: not to eat of the tree of knowing good and bad (Gen. 2:16-17). This does not mean God only offers the blessing to the people who behave well; it simply means that choosing to trust God’s way of life and love is also a choice to enter into the blessing of real, ongoing life.

This tree represents a decision for the humans to trust God’s will or to trust their own—to trust God’s description of good and bad rather than trusting their own. Almost as soon as they face this decision, the humans encounter a deceptive, slithering creature who says they can trust their own instincts more than God’s instruction. In fact, this slithering creature says they should! So they go for it and immediately experience the curse.

Effects of the Curse

God laments as he reminds them about the consequences of their choice. He had already told them that a rejection of him would end in a rejection of life, which means death. So he curses the serpent (Gen. 3:14-15), and he curses the ground (Gen. 3:17). The humans have chosen the curse of death instead of the blessing to rule and to reign. But take note: God does not curse the humans.

Instead, the humans will experience the effects of the curse. Instead of fruitfulness in the land, there will be famine. When it comes to conceiving children, the circumstances will be fraught with painful, complicated relationships that cause emotional and physical pain. Being fruitful and multiplying will now be replete with suffering such as infertility, jealousy, and sexual abuse. The ability to flourish, multiply, and share God’s life-producing ability with others will not disappear, but it will be disfigured and marred.

The curse affects the ability to experience fullness of life, and as the humans choose to distrust God’s direction and, therefore, leave the life-giving blessing of the garden, they enter into the realm of the curse. Death is inevitable.

But even so, God gives them a promise as they leave. When God curses the deceptive creature who fooled the humans, he declares that a true human being will enter the world to ultimately destroy the creature and the curse (Gen. 3:15). Death may be inevitable, but this promise says it will not be permanent.

The big question: Who will this human be?

Reversing the Curse

The curse spreads.

Humans are fruitful, and they do multiply, but they end up multiplying grief, hardship, and violence instead of life. They spread so much death that they soak the ground with the blood of the innocent (Gen. 4:10, 4:23-24, 6:1-4).

God continues the plan to reverse the curse and restore the blessing to humanity by blessing one family—the family of a man named Abraham (Gen. 12). And the promised human who would one day reverse the curse? That human is going to come through Abraham’s family.

Abraham and his family spread blessing to the nations (Gen. 12:1-3), but like the humans in the garden, they are also deceived by false “trees” of blessing. They seize and grab at blessing on their own terms (Gen. 16:1-4). Years later, Abraham’s family, now the Israelites, grabs at blessing by choosing a man to be king so they can be like all the other nations (1 Sam. 8-9). And the king’s reign leads them to destruction. A later king, David, tries to seize blessing by taking another man’s wife (2 Sam. 11), which leads to his family destroying each other.

Each grab for blessing leads to more curse. And God’s chosen family becomes a conduit of the curse instead of the blessing. Their story is filled with tales of deception and violent grabs for power resulting in the ultimate curse: exile from their land and slavery to foreign nations.

But Israel’s prophets, who live through all of this, still trust in God’s promise to Abraham. They hold tight to the promise of the future Israelite who will reverse the curse and restore God’s blessing for Israel and for all nations.

But who is the Israelite who will reverse the curse?

Jesus Reverses the Curse

Years later, a man named Jesus arrives on the scene. He claims that the blessing is coming in a new way—through himself. He says he is living the way humanity was meant to live. It is 100 percent true, and it is the essence of real life. “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” he says (John 14:6). That’s original blessing language!

One day, Jesus goes into the wilderness for 40 days and nights without food or water (Matt. 4:1-11). He encounters a sinister creature who tries to trap him by offering a shortcut to a blessing. He only has to grab it, according to his own terms. But Jesus does not seize it.

Instead, he trusts in God’s wisdom. He chooses blessing, not curse.

Then, as Jesus begins his ministry, we start seeing a reversal of the curse. Where there are broken bodies, Jesus heals and restores life. Where there is greed, Jesus encourages his followers to be generous, inviting them to deny the curse and live in the blessing. Where there is hatred for enemies, Jesus teaches us to love, to pray—to bless instead of curse. Pockets of blessing begin to push back on the darkness, breaking through the curse.

Jesus also confronts his fellow Israelites who are in power, accusing them of thwarting God’s plan to bless Israel and the nations through them. Seeing themselves as supreme authorities, the religious leaders are furious and plot to arrest and murder Jesus.

The Curse Is Put to Death

On the night of his arrest, Jesus and his friends go to a garden where, like the first humans in the first garden, Jesus faces the ultimate human choice. Will he trust God’s will, or will he trust his own? Will he seize abundance and life on his own terms and by his own wisdom? We feel the tension inside his body through his strong request, “Remove this cup [responsibility] from me.” To avoid being murdered makes good sense, and he sees that as an option.

Ignoring God’s will in the garden of Eden made good sense to Adam and Eve, but they trusted that sense over and above God’s will. Here, Jesus experiences his human “sense,” as well, but he trusts God’s divine will most: “Not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). By doing so, he confronts and reverses the curse.

Jesus is arrested. And instead of fighting against his enemies in order to live another day, Jesus expresses love toward his enemies and allows the curse to fall upon him. He fights the curse by choosing God’s eternal way of love. By doing so, he dies in a way the curse-broken world would call shameful, but in truth, his loving sacrifice is a picture of true trust and the glory of God’s life blessing on display. This man chooses the way of life and blessing toward all, including people who are murdering him.

And just as God brought life and blessing out of darkness in the beginning, so here, through Jesus, God reverses death by raising Jesus from the dead, the firstborn of a new creation. The curse is put to death so that the blessing of God’s life can spread once again.

Life in the In-Between

How does this kind of life spread in a world where our children get cancer diagnoses? In a world where our marriages fall apart, where our friendships struggle, and our environment suffers? In this world, our minds and bodies deteriorate under crippling depression and anxiety. Our jobs are wrought with jealousy, power grabs, greed, and abuse.

Followers of Jesus won’t escape the effects of the curse in this life any more than Jesus did. So how do we live in this in-between before the curse is entirely eradicated?

After his resurrection, Jesus blessed his followers and said his presence would be with them as they learned to trust in God’s blessing and to share with others (Matt. 28:18-20). In a sense, each time people choose to listen to and trust God, they enter into the blessing and reverse the curse.

God’s Spirit empowers followers of Jesus to live lives of blessing. By his Spirit, we become conduits of blessing to others by taking part in the curse reversal that Jesus began. We work to reverse the curse by participating in the upside-down Kingdom of God where we forgive those who have wronged us (Col. 3:13), love our enemies (Rom. 12:14-21), count others more significant than ourselves (Phil. 2), and resist all injustice (Jas. 2:14-17).

And while death and the curse still have a hold on our world, followers of Jesus trust that the power of God’s blessing is stronger. Although we do not live as those without hope, this does not make light of our pain and suffering. Our hope is not a trite “everything happens for a reason!” There is much to grieve, so we weep with Jesus over all harm resulting from the curse (Matt. 5:4).

But we do not grieve as those without hope (1 Thess. 4:13-18), because God promises the blessing will eventually eradicate all remaining traces of the curse and completely heal all that's been harmed.

We will fully and finally experience God’s blessing. And there will be no more curse (Rev. 22:3).

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