How Long, O Lord? by D. A. Carson
D. A. Carson has written How Long O Lord? as a manual for Christians to understanding suffering. He includes personal anecdotes and a proficient use of Scripture as he makes his case for an intelligent, faithful understanding of the hardships of life. While the book isn’t a great comfort to the imminently suffering, or a theological and philosophical treatise on the problem of evil, it is a greatly beneficial manual for the average Christian who wants to prepare themselves for the suffering that is undoubtedly coming, how they should see it, think about it, and handle it. In the process of exposing the truth, gracious few saints will come away without encouragement, a hunger for the Word of God, and a heart for the sufferings of the world around them.
Carson’s thesis distinguishes the intended audience for his book: “This is not necessarily a book that should be read by someone who is going through deep suffering. It might help some people; most certainly it would not help others. It is more in the way of preventative medicine: that is, I have tried to establish some firm structures to help Christians think about evil and suffering in biblical ways before hard days descend on them” (221). He holds to his thesis, unfolding what is something between a comforting work of pastoral and a theological treatise. It is not a white-hot work (like some works by Joni Earekson Tada), nor is it ivory-tower in its unapproachability (like some by C. S. Lewis). If this book is intended as preventative medicine, it does a good job of finding the balance between these two.
This book is about suffering, something most Christians don’t like to even think about. Most American Christians are totally isolated from the real hardships of life which cause really hard questions to be raised; therefore, they don’t see the purpose in even asking them. They remain oblivious to the issues brought up in this book. Their faith takes care of the tensions that break the head of those who are really going through the ringer of life. While suffering in itself is an undeniable evil, it does provide the Christian a valuable service in awakening him or her to the reality of life. They are forced to repspond in either blind faith or in great dogmatism. “Our certainty and dogmatism give us such assurance, our systematic theology is so well articulated, that we leave precious little scope for mystery, awe, unknowns” (26). But either way they are caused to act, to think, and to find their beliefs confronted in daily life; and that is a good thing indeed.
In searching for answers, the classic tension that is probed and dissected is what is called the “problem of evil.” Carson admits he is not writing in order to solve that problem, but he does bring it up as the obvious pink elephant in the room anytime people discuss suffering and hardships. The problem itself is defined by the tension between God’s goodness and the presence of evil in the world. How could a good God allow evil? The answers either limit the goodness of God, limit the evil, or limit God himself. The issue climaxes in the theological debate between God’s sovereignty and man’s free will. This is the tension that Carson deals with very eloquently. It is a tension that is unresolvable by us as humans because it is buried in the nature of God Himself. The reason the tension is so hidden is because God Himself is so hidden to our small minds.
The omnipotence of God says that He is able and powerful to do anything and everything. His goodness says that He is apt and desirous of working things out for good. His sovereignty is the will that drives it all. We ask his sovereignty why He doesn’t act, why He doesn’t intervene and change things into the way we would like them to be. We want to know why He allows things to happen. Carson points us to the will of God as revealed in Scripture. That which is revealed is what we must cling to, but that which isn’t revealed we must entrust to God Himself (Deut 29:29). If He is truly good, and if he is truly omnipotent, then His sovereign control of our lives must be right, good, and intentional.
This tension is seen in Scripture best in the warring God of the Old Testament. Sometimes God kills whole swarms of people. And we as humans look on with our self-centered, humanistic worldviews, and ask the question of why. Why would God do that? We don’t understand or leave room for God’s wrath, something Carson reveals fairly thoroughly. He is quick to remind us that we don’t know; we don’t understand. Job is the book in the Bible that tries to communicate to us all that we don’t know about God. Some come away from Job wondering why God treats Job the way He does—particularly why God doesn’t answer Job’s questions at the end of the book—while Carson points out that God doesn’t give answers because we are unable to understand. More on that later.
Bringing this issue to a close, Carson introduces the reader, very thoroughly, to the theological concept of compatibilism: the doctrine that God’s sovereignty and man’s free will are totally and completely compatible—that the paradox is only a paradox to our human understanding, that it is not in conflict in reality. Somehow, God wills for everything to happen in complete sovereign control, and yet we as people have the freedom to act, make mistakes, and exert our wills upon the world.
Moving beyond the theological and philosophical beginning, Carson enters the more pastoral section of his book. My personal favorite parts of the book were those where he used the Bible to explain these issues, and when he gave personal anecdotes and pastoral advice to the readers. He helps the Christian think through how to handle suffering personally, and how to help others get through. Many times in the Reformed circle, Christians are quick to cite a passage like Romans 8:28 in an attempt to sort of justify God, justify their suffering, and find meaning in what seems like random, meaningless pain. It’s a tough issue that he handles with care as he explains the tension of the suffering Christian.
My personal reaction to this book was less positive than I thought it would—or should!— be. But, with that said, I have more positive to say than negative. For example, I thought his appeal for Christians to be thinking about these hard things to be persuasive and effective. He said, “Christian beliefs are not to be stacked in the warehouse of the mind; they are to be handled and applied to the challenges of life and discipleship. Otherwise they are incapable of bringing comfort and stability, godliness and courage, humility and joy, holiness and faith” (20). Suffering is real, and it makes the Christian think crazy things, which, upon close analysis aren’t crazy after all; they are just really real, raw snapshots of life. Commenting on these thoughts Carson says, “I suspect that the reason why it is so hard for many of us to live out these implications of our theology is that we do not deeply feel the truths we formally espouse. My creed may tell me I am a miserable sinner, that I deserve hell, that all that I enjoy in life is a gracious gift from God, that I am in no position to expect to escape suffering. But when it comes right down to it, I simply feel my own suffering is unfair” (46).
My main critiques are less critical because he caveated the book with the thesis that it isn’t for suffering people, nor is it for philosophers. But that, to me, left it in the semi-boring land of recycled information. Having personally been through incredible trials, I found myself wanting more, wishing for either more depth on the one hand, or on the other more poetic comfort. Staying in the middle makes a safe book, but it also makes a boring read. While I don't want to leave the impression that this book was boring, I would probably only recommend it over other books of its kind to a certain subset of people—generally the more non-intellectual Americans who aren’t really readers, who aren't currently suffering.
There are two great examples of my critiques, the first one is here: “It is important to recognize that God does not here charge Job with sins that have brought on his suffering. He does not respond to the “whys” of Job’s suffering, nor does he challenge Job’s defense of his own integrity. The reason he calls Job on the carpet is not because of Job’s justification of himself, but because of Job’s willingness to condemn God in order to justify himself. In other words, God does not here “answer” Job’s questions about the problem of evil and suffering, but he makes it unambiguously clear what answers are not acceptable in God’s universe” (151).
His position on the meaning of Job is a little too pastoral (maybe coming from an understandable over-simplification), as if he forgets his own advice and defends God at the cost of losing the raw meaning of the book (earlier in the book he encourages Christians to cry and mourn when they suffer since the Psalmists did it, and since God knows we are human). The raw meaning of Job is that there aren’t any answers, to be sure; but the book ends with a resounding, pregnant silence that is waiting to be filled. Carson ends his book with the same pregnant silence, as if to say we too can’t have the answers that Job sought of God—when in reality we can--at least more than Job could. God gave us His special revelation in order to fill that gap, and He Himself came in Jesus Christ and revealed to us an incredible amount such that our questions of "why" can— and should!—be answered in big, God-glorifying ways. I certainly agree that there are tons and tons of questions that are unknowable about God (eg. Deut 29:29), however, I am merely appealing for a fuller understanding and appreciation of the role Christ played in illuminating the mind of God to us, and the role the Bible plays in that process. This, to me, was a lapse in an intellectual, philosophical way, and he may not have meant to get into that with his projected audience. But to me, it would have been more than worth the effort.
Another example is here: “But perhaps it is better to put the matter the other way round: the God who put Job through this wringer is also the God of whom it is said that, with respect to his own people, “he will not let [them] be tempted beyond what [they] can bear. But when [they] are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that [they] can endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13). God could not trust me with as much suffering as Job endured; I could not take it. But we must not think that there was any doubt in God’s mind as to whether he would win his wager with Satan over Job!” (156).
I personally struggle with his interpretation of 1 Corinthians 10:13, and his quasi-humility about his ability to persevere through suffering. No one thinks they can persevere when they are broken, reduced to a mumbling ball of spit and urine, thrown about by hormones, cortisol, and neurological breakdowns. No human is capable of that. If Joni Earekson Tada has done anything with her ministry, I think she would hope that she has dispelled the belief that those people who suffer were spiritual giants to begin with, as if God only hammers those people who have broad shoulders. That’s a joke. There is no hierarchy of capability when it comes to suffering. The Corinthian passage is meant to point to the power of God coursing through the individual, the power of God that can’t defeat itself. The logic is that if God lives in you, and God is the outside one, sovereign over trials, then obviously, God will win in and through you as you persevere. That doesn’t mean that you as an individual have that power, as if you were a spiritual giant; it just means that God is just going to get you through it. If we take Carson’s account seriously, and his application of Corinthians seriously, then I think people could be led astray into that same error: namely, that we must persevere by our strength, that some Christians are better sufferers than others, and that if D. A. Carson of all people is unable, then surely I am too!
With that said, I admit my biases and understand that these are not doctrinal issues, only preferences. I am thankful for this book; it helped me think through a lot of things. His personal accounts were great, full of beautifully rare wisdom. He handles the Bible extremely well. The Word of God and the will of God is made much of here. I found that my favorite chapter was number thirteen, entitled “Pastoral Reflections.” I will refer to it often.