Book Review: Christ and Human Suffering by E. Stanley Jones

Reviewed by Rebecca Lewis

Is God the author of human suffering? Why should we do anything about it? These are timeless questions asked the world over that E. Stanley Jones eloquently addresses in his book, Christ and Human Suffering, (published 1933). No one is better able to address this than Jones, who spent much of his adult life living in China and India, where suffering of the masses, and of the individuals trying to help them, was extreme.

Jones begins by honestly addressing the fact that God does not deliver the righteous from all suffering as we often expect or hope. He concludes, " something better than deliverance [is what] we must search for" if we are to understand Jesus' solution to the problem of suffering. He then proceeds to distinguish between "evils from within," due to choices of our own wills in self-injurious defiance of the moral laws of the universe, which we call sin, and "evil that comes from without," which we call suffering.

In order to address the full spectrum of suffering, Jones identifies nine different types of suffering based on Jesus' warnings about the end times in Luke 21:8-19. He faces these with humility and compassion, fully empathizing with the disillusionment of those who, doing their best to serve the Lord, find themselves bereaved of children or spouses, homes, or health, or those subjected to violence from man or nature, persecution, or, the most intimate of suffering, unhappy families.

All of humanity recoils from the injustice of suffering, so any discussion of the topic is inadequate without delving into the various ways that humans have decided to explain and to face suffering. Here Jones' global experience is invaluable, as he again shows humility and understanding of the answers societies have found.

 In brief, he explores the following:  Stoicism of the West — suffering is inevitable and impartial, courage equals "unyielding despair" (B. Russell); Buddhism — suffering comes from desire, cease suffering by ceasing desire/being; Hinduism — suffering is just, Karma, accept suffering as your due for deeds done in previous lives; Vedanta Hinduism — suffering is illusion, Maya, withdraw into Atma/the unconscious mind of the universe; Islam — suffering is God's will, the godly submit to it and accept suffering as God's plan; Judaism — suffering will be made right, ultimately God will bless the righteous and punish the wicked; un-biblical Christianity — suffering is God's way of developing our character.

While all of these viewpoints nobly try to make sense of the problem of suffering, they all produce inaction in the face of both individual and corporate suffering.

Jones dedicates the rest of his book to going step by step through the ways that Jesus spoke about and addressed suffering. He shows that Jesus teaches that, while people do reap the consequences of "internal evil," their own sins and the sins of those around them ("the fact is we do not break this [moral] law, we break ourselves upon it"), that the suffering of "external evil," is neither inherited nor authored by God, nor is lack of suffering a sign of God's special favor.

While all of these viewpoints nobly try to make sense of the problem of suffering, they all produce inaction in the face of both individual and corporate suffering.

Jones argues that Christ, far from withdrawing from or submitting to suffering, "represents the most amazingly active method of dealing with life," not merely teaching but showing us how to overcome evil with good. "With little explaining and no explaining away," Jesus shows us how to take hold of life at its direst points, and proactively turn what Satan intended for evil into victory. He came to give life and life more abundant, not primarily through the miracles of healing and deliverance from suffering, which he does do on occasion;  but, as he works out in his own life, by a "victorious vitality" that brings a greater life from the ashes.

 "The religion of Jesus does mean these three things: victory over sin, victory over self, victory over suffering."

Through the giving of many examples from the life of Jesus and those who know him, both in history and in his current experience, Jones shows that "the will of God was to be done, not by acquiescence but by activity — it was to be done by taking hold of the whole miserable business and turning it into a triumph of the love of God." Far from nursing our own hurts through self-pity, self-protection, apathy, anger, or noble despair, "Jesus would call us to sound the depths of life and to live dangerously there, to grapple with the great issues of life and show Life through them," what Jones calls "the highest expression of the will to live."

With depth and perception, Jones spends six chapters working out the objections to, difficulties, and results of the peaceful but purposeful activity that comes from this faith. Before his crucifixion Jesus said, "You will leave me all alone. But I am not alone, the Father is with me. I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world" (John 16:32b-33).

Indeed, the victorious Christ is also with us always, and just as "God was in him reconciling the world to himself," so also God's Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, is in us. As his disciple, John affirmed from his own experience, "You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world" (I John 4:4).

I highly recommend this book to anyone struggling with the problem of suffering and seeking to understand and, most importantly, to live God's way, overcoming evil with good, the way of Christ.

Rebecca Lewis studied history at both the BA and MA level, and holds an MA in International Development from WCIU. She taught at the university level for over ten years and has worked on curriculum development for 30 years. She has lived on five continents, most lately in India with her children and grandchildren, where she consulted on curriculum development for Indian government school teachers.