July 21, 2014


Suffering and the Search for Meaning: Contemporary Responses to the Problem of Pain, Richard Rice, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 2014, 170 pages, US$18.

If you’ve already solved the mysteries of the universe, and if your concept of God can be wrapped neatly inside a box with a bow on top, this book is not for you.

If, on the other hand, you’re confounded by the senseless tragedies so common in the world, and simple, trite answers leave you feeling empty if not outraged,
Suffering and the Search for Meaning will not only give you something serious to consider, but also remind you that you’re not alone.

Richard Rice, a professor in the School of Religion at Loma Linda University, has written a book that isn’t ashamed to admit that the problem of pain and suffering is one of the greatest reasons people cite for giving up on God. Writes the author in the preface: “This book is driven by one central question: How can ideas about suffering help those who face the experience of suffering?”

The question of suffering is, in fact, a question about God, and how He relates to His creatures. To help answer this and other questions about God, Rice introduces readers to the word “theodicy,” which is an attempt to justify or defend God in the presence of evil. And while
Suffering and the Search for Meaning was published under the imprint “IVP Academic,” one needn’t be trained in theology to understand and appreciate Rice’s contribution to this subject. “Theodicy is too important to be left to professionals,” he writes. And for the most part his style is easy to read, absent a lot of technical, theological jargon.

Rice devotes most of the book to discussing variations of the seven most significant theodicies developed by Christian thinkers over the centuries: perfect plan, free will, soul making, cosmic conflict, openness of God, finite God, protest. In addition to describing their main points, he helps dissect their strengths as well as their weaknesses (and they all have both).

But the greatest strength of
Suffering and the Search for Meaning is the last chapter, in which the author guides readers in assembling their own personal theodicies. In the process he gives readers permission to develop statements that are different and unique. That’s because suffering, by nature, explodes stereotypes and often forces us to reevaluate the foundations on which we have based our spiritual experiences.

In sharing his own convictions Rice is unapologetically Christian. Christ, the cross, and Christ’s resurrection feature prominently in his search for answers. But beyond that, he observes that merely finding answers is inadequate when it comes to being fully engaged in this process as Christians. Our answers are satisfactory only to the extent that we use them to minister to those who labor under the crushing weight of their own personal tragedies. You know, those times when clever or trite answers are best left unsaid.