Righteousness and Suffering are two concepts in Western/Christian theology that have been historically contended, debated upon, and preached. The sheer amount of arguments and perspectives for and against these concepts bring about productive discussions and new narratives. Notwithstanding a plethora of contexts in the bible within which these concepts are preached, the different perspectives shed light on some of nature’s essential truths. Righteousness and Suffering within the context of theology, at first glance, can seem limited or inhibited. But the dense and profound nature of the literature used to preach these concepts suggest otherwise. This paper will explore both concepts in depth. The primary purpose of this essay is to understand these concepts in certain contexts and see if they shed on a universal truth (in terms of morality).
The definition of suffering, in biblical terms, is a departure from the notion put forward by eastern religions and philosophy viz. Buddhism. According to Buddhism, Suffering is a constant state of existence that every human finds himself/herself in. By living, you suffer. Buddha defines life to be enriched with suffering which serves as fodder to the ones seeking to elevate themselves. Acknowledging the suffering and pursuing nirvana is something that is preached by Buddha. Thus, according to Buddhism, suffering, in a way, forms the fabric of life and is the norm.
Suffering, according to Christian theology, on the other hand, is temporary and meaningful. Suffering is the state of discomfort, pain, the cause of which can be due to a variety of reasons. It is often considered that suffering is a reaction to stimuli. The stimuli mainly being sin, blasphemy, or atheism. Suffering can also seem arbitrary or unjustified which leads to believers questioning the providence of God. Although those claims hold some ground, Suffering is much more profound than that.
The narrative/story of Job is a perfect example for understanding the significance of suffering. Job, a faithful, moral, and just devotee in god was subject to a lot of suffering. The suffering was at hands of Satan who challenged god. Satan believed that the faith of Job in god is conditional and commensurates the amount of wealth and prosperity god provides him. Job goes through suffering not because of sin or atheism. The reason seems to be much more arbitrary (in the eyes of Job). The motive of the suffering was to test Job’s faith in god. Suffice to say, the faith stood the test, barely. Job, even though tempted to curse God for this meaningless suffering, endured.
“The Spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives me life.”Hartley, 1988, Job 33:4
The whole ordeal deepened the affection that Job had for god and strengthened the faith.
This narrative sheds light on the significance of suffering as a medium to imbibe life lessons. It also stands as testimony to the fact that Suffering is temporary.
Suffering, in the bible, is often used in conjunction with the mention of the son of God, Jesus Christ. It is repeatedly mentioned that if Jesus, the son of God, suffered and died on the cross, so will others.
“Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because whoever suffers in the body is done with sin.”Hartley, 1988, 1 Peter 4:1
Suffering, unlike that in Buddhism, may not be the part and participle of life but it surely encompasses a universal truth. The bible preaches that suffering is supposed to be endured by everyone for the son of God himself went through it. A more joyous future is also assured to the ones suffering. The pain and suffering endured by the followers and believers will not go in vain.
“Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.”James, 2020, James 1:12
The bible goes as far as claiming suffering to be a good sign. Suffering can be god testing one’s faith. It can also lead to the betterment of an individual and edification on all fronts.
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”James, 2020, James 1:2-4
“Enduring suffering is an act of perseverance that is unmatched. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”Rendell, 1999, Romans 5:3-4
The suffering endured can thus be considered as a parameter for judging moral and righteous behavior. A verse in the gospel of Luke preaches the sufferers to be true devotees. The rich, wealthy and opulent possess the means to evade suffering which is also a reason why Jesus and James hold the rich in contempt. In the verse, “And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Barclay, 2001, Luke 14:27), bearing the cross signifies the process of enduring suffering.
The bible also preaches faith and belief in God and his son as being tools that help in enduring suffering. Following in the footsteps of the son of God himself, the one who endured unspeakable suffering, is an ideal way to tackle suffering. Not only the emulation of Christ’s actions but faith in his reverence can help believers endure suffering. This thought is mentioned in the verse, “And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.” (Forbes, 2014, 1 Peter 5:10).
Furthermore, suffering is also a path to salvation. The sinners, wrongdoers, and non-believers can repent in the form of suffering and achieve salvation in the eyes of God and his son. It is mentioned in the second chapter of Hebrews, “In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered.” (Bruce, 1990, Hebrews 2:10)
Studying suffering in various contexts from the bible leads to many productive and meaningful inferences. The bible exhumes positivity and optimism when preaching about suffering. The fact that suffering is temporary can be a profound inference. Many people find it hard to endure suffering and often struggle with it. The positivity, optimism, and hope highlighted in the bible can be just what people need to get that extra push.
“Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.”Forbes, 2014, 1 Peter 4:12-13
Inferences regarding suffering being a great teacher are also valid and productive. Treating suffering as something other than a burden can help people tackle it well. As previously mentioned, Christian theology suggests that suffering is a good sign and is something that should be seen in a positive light.
Thus, suffering exists for the edification of humans. It is temporary, profound, assuring, strengthening, and humbling. Suffering is not a sign of misery but an indication of a better future to come.
“In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.”Forbes, 2014, 1 Peter 1:6-7
The biblical definition and interpretation of righteousness may seem counterintuitive. In general, Righteousness is a trait that arises out of righteous behavior, just actions, and an honest demeanor. It is a trait that is highly desirable and cherished by many. The interpretation of righteousness according to the bible varies from this general definition. This passage will highlight the two varying interpretations that are observed in the old and new testaments. The literary objective of righteousness will be analyzed and this analysis will potentially lead to several fruitful inferences.
The first, most common, and prevalent interpretation of righteousness is a departure from the general meaning of the word. Righteousness is defined as a trait that doesn’t arise due to righteous actions but is a gift from god. Righteousness is bestowed upon the worthy and faithful. This bestowment leads to or is caused by a change of heart. The bible preaches that righteous actions from an impure soul are superfluous and malicious. Thus righteousness, according to the Bible, doesn’t arise by righteous actions. Righteous actions arise out of a righteous heart and soul.
One might infer that righteousness is then easy to achieve. But it is further from the truth. Several verses in the bible refer to god being righteous and mortals (except his son) cannot be termed righteous. As no individual stands in comparison to god, no individual can thus be truly righteous. The righteousness of man is also referred to as being ‘filthy rags’ in comparison to god and son’s righteousness.
“We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.”Isaiah: A new translation; with a preliminary dissertation, and notes, critical, philological, and explanatory, 1793, Isaiah 64:6
God and Jesus Christ are the epitomai of righteousness. It is rightful to question the authenticity and achievability of righteousness when it is held to such a high standard. In the verse, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”(The Gospel according to Matthew: Authorized King James Version, 1990, Matthew 5:20), Jesus Christ informs his disciples that humans, who are tarnished by sin and worldliness, banished from the garden of Eden, cannot be as righteous as God. The bible provides a respite of sorts by preaching how an individual could achieve righteousness. Righteousness, according to the bible, is majorly achieved through faith and belief in god. By letting Jesus, the righteous one, live through you, you become righteous. It is mentioned in several verses, the few of which are highlighted below.
“Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.”Rendell, 1999, Romans 4:4-5
“This righteousness is given through faith in[a] Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”Rendell, 1999, Romans 3:22-25
For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”Rendell, 1999, Romans 1:17
“and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,”The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, 2016, Philippians 3:9-10
Immense value is placed on the belief in Christ and the all-knowing nature of providence. The interpretation suggests that faith in God is necessary for a change of heart which leads to righteousness. It is imperative then, to discuss why one should strive to achieve righteousness. Although the trait helps put one in the good graces of God, how does it benefit an individual in a more worldly sense? The benefit of righteousness varies but is plentiful for individuals to strive for it. Belief in God will set an individual free from hedonism. It will help elevate an individual and see the profound truth of life. In the verse, “In order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” (Rendell, 1999, Romans 8:4-6), righteousness is termed as a quality which will set free an individual, indulging in the desires of the flesh. A lifted spirit is a result of the profound impact that righteousness has on one’s soul. According to the Bible, the righteous will live an assured, eternal, and quiet life. It is mentioned in the verses below.
“The work of righteousness will be peace, and the effect of righteousness, quietness and assurance forever.”Isaiah: A new translation; with a preliminary dissertation, and notes, critical, philological, and explanatory, 1793, Isaiah 32:17
“And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”The Gospel according to Matthew: Authorized King James Version, 1990, Matthew 25:46
Upon analysis of this specific interpretation of righteousness, one can arrive at the inference that righteousness merely requires an honest faith in god. Righteous and just actions stand no ground when it comes to achieving righteousness. The other interpretation of righteousness dispels this notion and reassures the importance of being honest, just, and righteous. The verse, “He who walks righteously and speaks uprightly, who despises the gain of oppressions, who shakes his hands, lest they hold a bribe, who stops his ears from hearing of bloodshed and shuts his eyes from looking on evil, he will dwell on the heights; his place of defense will be the fortresses of rocks; his bread will be given him; his water will be sure. Your eyes will behold the king in his beauty; they will see a land that stretches afar.” (Isaiah: A new translation; with a preliminary dissertation, and notes, critical, philological, and explanatory, 1793, Isaiah 33:15-17) highlights the importance of acting righteous and doing good. Righteousness might arise from faith in God and transformation of the heart, but that isn’t an excuse to stray away from righteous actions.
Analysis of righteousness and its various interpretations leads to many fruitful inferences. The analysis says a lot about how to live life and practice righteousness. The concept of righteousness is a trait that is inherited and can deter many people from being righteous. But it also sheds light on the importance of being righteous for righteousness’s sake. Unfortunately, there are scores of people out in the world that act righteously for the sake of a benefit. The benefit could be establishing trust (that is later exploited) or achieving goals made with malicious intent. Thus, the interpretation of righteousness as an inherited trait pushes people to be righteous not because of the benefits that it provides but because it’s moral and the right thing to do.
Transforming the nature or heart of an unrighteous individual would require deep introspection and rectification of many preconceived notions. This has the potential to edify individuals. Malicious intent is also quashed when someone acts righteously because he recognizes himself/herself as righteous.
The ‘inherited’ interpretation of righteousness does come with its fair share of drawbacks. As highlighted before, it can deter people from doing righteous actions. It can also lead to delusions of grandeur and ignorance. Thankfully, the bible also places value on righteous actions and the significance of it. Both the trait and the actions hold equal value according to Christian theology. This provides an individual with guidelines and laws that he/she can abide by in order to stay righteous.
Righteous actions influence righteousness and enhance the impact it has on the world.
The laws, ethics, or rules have righteous actions, intent, and beliefs embedded in them. A righteous, just and compassionate demeanor is encouraged through these rules.
Righteousness can be achieved through faith in god. But for the atheists and agnostics, this faith can be redirected towards goodwill and prosperity for all. Faith in a better, more just, and compassionate world will drive individuals to transform and become righteous.
Overall, the main takeaway is that an individual should act righteous, while simultaneously striving to transform himself;/herself to truly being righteous.
“If a man is righteous and does what is just and right— if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman in her time of menstrual impurity, does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, does not lend at interest or take any profit, withholds his hand from injustice, executes true justice between man and man, walks in my statutes, and keeps my rules by acting faithfully—he is righteous; he shall surely live, declares the Lord God”The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, 2016, Ezekiel 18:5-9
Sifting through abundant mentions of righteousness and suffering while cataloging each interpretation/perspective was a fruitful effort. The inferences made in the passage tell how one can live a great life. The wisdom of western thought and theology is unmatched. The number of inferences and takeaways stand as testimony to that fact.
Barclay, W. (2001). The gospel of Luke. Westminster John Knox Press.
The book of job: Aesthetics, ethics, and hermeneutics. (2014). The Book of Job, 1-8. https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110338799.1
Bruce, F. F. (1990). The epistle to the hebrews. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing.
Coogan, M. (2020). The contexts of the Bible. The Bible. https://doi.org/10.1093/wentk/9780199383047.003.0005
The epistle to the romans. (n.d.). Romans. https://doi.org/10.5040/9781472556356.0005
Forbes, G. (2014). 1 Peter. B&H Publishing Group.
The Gospel according to Matthew: Authorized King James Version. (1999). Canongate U.S.
Hartley, J. E. (1988). The book of job. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing.
Holy Bible: English standard version, silver sword, Trutone. (2016).
Isaiah: A new translation; with a preliminary dissertation, and notes, critical, philological, and explanatory. (1793).
James, K. (2020). The epistle of JAMES. Sublime Books.
Rendell, R. (1999). The epistle of Paul the apostle to the romans. Canongate Books.
Schofield, J. N. (1965). ‘Righteousness’ in the Old Testament. The Bible Translator, 16(3), 112-116. https://doi.org/10.1177/000608446501600302
Suﬀering in the Bible, part I: Old Testament. (2012). The Theology of Suffering and Death, 21-37. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203079928-8Suﬀering in the Bible, part II: New Testament. (2012). The Theology of Suffering and Death, 38-51. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203079928-9