The Bible has much to say about suffering and affliction.
For instance, laments (groaning amid difficulties) account for roughly a third of the prayers and songs that comprise the book of Psalms. The entire book of Lamentations is a painfully honest journaling in the midst of affliction. And every Old Testament prophetic book but Haggai includes a lament on affliction.
Affliction in the Scriptures, as in our own lives, isn’t neat, tidy, or systematic. Life is often more complex than clear. While there is no way to answer all the questions for those who are afflicted, I thought it might be helpful to pull back and look at 14 kinds of affliction seen throughout the Scriptures.
1. Adamic affliction
When Adam sinned, all of us were implicated, and we inherited a sin nature and were born into a fallen world. As a result, some affliction is simply the result of being part of Adam’s race. Everyone will suffer to varying degrees and ways because of Adam’s sin, our sin, the sins of others, and the curse that permeates all of creation. This will remain the case until Jesus returns, removes the presence of all sin and its effects, resurrects Christians from death, and ushers in a new creation. Subsequently, we must accept that suffering is part of life on this side of the kingdom.
2. Punishment affliction
God judges unbelievers and punishes them for sin. Biblical examples include God’s judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah and on Pharaoh and Egypt. This kind of punishment reveals God’s justice. It brings the work of horrendous sin to an end so that those suffering at the hands of evildoers are given reprieve, reveals to unbelievers the urgent need to repent of sin and place their faith in God to avoid eternal punishment, and encourages believers that God will not be mocked and that faith in him is not in vain.
It should be noted that God does not punish those in Christ in the same sense that he punishes non-Christians, because Jesus already paid the penalty for his people’s sins. Therefore, God would be unjust to also condemn Christians to death. Subsequently, even though a Christian and a non-Christian may endure the same suffering, there is a different use by God for each.
3. Consequential affliction
Sometimes we suffer because of foolish decisions. We see examples of this throughout Proverbs: the lazy become hungry, adulterers reap what they sow, fools suffer harm, and poor financial stewards are impoverished. Practically, much of life’s suffering is consequential, resulting from our decisions.
4. Demonic affliction
Because Satan is alive and at work in the world, demonic affliction is very real. This includes torment, physical injury, deception arising from false miracles, accusation, and even death. Sometimes demonic suffering is difficult to discern; Satan is often blamed for suffering when we’re experiencing consequential affliction from our own decisions. Nonetheless, demonic affliction is real and should not be discounted just because some wrongly blame everything on Satan.
5. Victim affliction
Victims endure affliction by being sinned against. This is a constant, heavy part of pastoral ministry. Since I started Mars Hill Church in the fall of 1996, I can’t recall a week in which I haven’t heard a devastating story about someone who was beaten, raped, molested, stolen from, cheated on, and the like. Those on the front lines of ministry see the tremendous amount of pain people carry as a result of sin committed against them. Evil is real, and its devastating effects are evident in the lives of many.
6. Collective affliction
Sometimes we suffer because we’re part of a people who are suffering. A biblical example is the Old Testament prophets’ frequent repentance of not only their own sins but also the sins of their forefathers and their nation as they lamented the suffering God permitted for their chastisement. We’re all members of families, nations, and cultures—all of whom suffer. Likewise, those born into poverty, famine, hardship, war, and the like experience suffering because of where and when they were born.
7. Disciplinary affliction
God chastens believers to mature them. Examples can be found in the Wisdom Literature, the Prophets, and the New Testament. Scripture is clear that discipline comes from God, who loves us and is like an honorable father who corrects us to mature and save us from the harm that sin causes. We later see the effects of God’s work in this suffering and thank him for continually working for our growth in holiness and fruitfulness.
8. Vicarious affliction
Sometimes those in Christ suffer because the ungodly oppose Jesus. Examples include the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament apostles. Vicarious affliction comes in varying degrees, from opposition to persecution. Physical persecution causes some to painfully die for Christ. Verbal opposition causes others to painfully live for Christ, as they are maligned, lied about, falsely accused, mocked, and harassed.
9. Empathetic affliction
This is the suffering that results when someone we love is hurting. The Bible says this will be common in the church because when people we love suffer, we suffer as well.
10. Testimonial affliction
Some suffering is a demonstration of the gospel so that others will have a deeper appreciation and understanding of Jesus. This kind of suffering tests our identity in Christ, confirms to us that we are true believers, strengthens our fellow Christians, and evangelizes non-Christians. The classic example is Hosea’s marriage to Gomer: God called the prophet to marry and stay married to an unfaithful woman as an example of Jesus’ devotion to the church.
11. Providential affliction
Some of us suffer to teach a lesson about God so that worship of him increases. Examples include Joseph’s imprisonment in Egypt, where his suffering resulted in many people being saved physically from starvation and spiritually from sin. God allows some suffering for reasons that cannot be easily discerned at first glance.
12. Preventative affliction
Sometimes suffering warns us of greater suffering that will happen if we don’t heed God’s warnings. This suffering is indicative of the loving nature of God, who, for instance, allows us to experience lesser degrees of pain (e.g., an ache in our side) in order to warn us of greater pain (e.g., a burst appendix).
13. Mysterious affliction
Sometimes God, in his providence, chooses not to reveal why we suffer. As Scripture says, we know in part. Job is the most obvious example of this kind of suffering, because during his trouble he was unaware of what was occurring between God and Satan. I believe that this category is incredibly important because, if we are humble and honest, the truth is that life is often not as clear as the categories above.
14. Apocalyptic affliction
The Bible speaks of increased suffering that will signal the end of this age, as seen in the prophecies of the Old Testament and of Jesus. While we don’t know when the end of this age will be, we do know Christians living in the final chapter of human history will suffer greatly as a result of being in Christ. While we shouldn’t live in fear of this future, nor seek to predict its timing, these Scriptures will serve as a particularly helpful guide when they are needed most.
This list is adapted from chapter eight of Pastor Mark’s latest book, Who Do You Think You Are?: Finding Your True Identity in Christ.