The Problem of Suffering: A Father’s Hope, by Gregory P. Schulz. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2011. 144 pages.
Greg Schulz is an ordained Lutheran pastor who also holds a doctorate in philosophy. He is currently a professor of philosophy at Wisconsin Lutheran College in Milwaukee.
“Theodicies” are mankind’s ultimate attempt at problem-solving. Faced with a world full of wickedness and suffering that seem so out of step with the nature of a loving and gracious God, philosophers and theologians often seek to vindicate God’s goodness and justify the suffering that we see around us.
Schulz is indeed a philosopher and a theologian, but he does not set out to be a problem solver. His most eminent qualifications to explore “the problem of suffering” aren’t his degrees in theology and philosophy, but rather his experiences as a father watching his two children pass through terrible illnesses on their way to our Savior’s arms, and his faith in the Word of God that he was driven back to during (and after) the deaths of his children.
As a theologian bound by Scripture, Schulz’s point isn’t to supply an answer to the problem of suffering. He knows that in many respects, the Lord doesn’t give an answer for why he allows a particular hardship to face his people or what blessings he seeks to bring through it. Instead, this little book is more of a travelogue of pain, loss, struggles with the actions of God, and undying hope in his promises. It – intentionally, I believe – gives voice and air to the dark thoughts and painful questions that many Christians experience in suffering. Schulz then provides a model or example of how those honest complaints are laid at the foot of the cross unanswered, but surrendered to faith and entrusted to the One who alone knows the true purposes.
The most powerful tool that Schulz uses in this endeavor is the personal journaling of his own family’s experiences. At points throughout the book, the author brings you into the moments that he spent with his dying infant daughter and the discussions he had with his suffering teenage son. In the first person, he shares his laments, his hopes, his despair and his love in a vivid and unforgettable way. Those sections are reminiscent of the words of Asaph or King David as they lay their cries bare for all believers to read.
The book ends entirely unsatisfactorily – and that by design. There is no conclusion, no resolution to the problem of suffering. Indeed, Schulz promised from the beginning of the book that none would be given. There’s great wisdom and value in this. He doesn’t offer the reader anything that Scripture doesn’t offer us; he does, though, offer us precisely what the Bible does: the knowledge that even though we can’t grasp God’s design in every instance of our suffering, we do know and hold to his promise of salvation through faith in Jesus.
Throughout the book, Schulz is thoroughly scriptural (though one might quibble with his choice of words when describing the relationship between love and faith on p. 96.) He makes generous use of Luther and other Christian writers across the ages. The book concludes with an epilogue of poems and prayers written by sufferers, many of which are wonderful models of how to cry out to God from the depths, aware of the darkness yet confident in his light.
It’s hard for a pastor to read this book without asking himself: Would I put this in the hands of a grieving member? This reviewer didn’t come to a firm conclusion. The book is very worthwhile for any pastor or counselor to read – especially one who hasn’t been through any great suffering of his own. The only hesitation in sharing it with those in grief is the rawness of the emotion and the honesty of the despair and anger found in its pages. These are important items for Christians to confront. The author, though, takes us through deep waters that may be a bit too much for those who aren’t firm in their faith, or are in too fragile a state because of the nearness of their own pain. It’s a book well-worth sharing with those who are suffering, if one is convinced they’re capable to accompany the author on his journey.