What Does the Word Suffer Mean in the Bible

RVWD is my abbreviation for Religious Vocabulary Word of the Day. (You can read my introduction to the RVWD series here.) I do not intend for these word investigations to be exhaustive, but I hope they stimulate some thinking about assumptions. Possibly they will help with honest evaluations about what is truth and what is unnecessary baggage in life.

The word suffer in the New Testament of the Bible is translated from about 7 to 13 Greek words, depending on how you look at it. Some of the words in the longer list are from adding Greek prefixes and suffixes that result in their own explanation in Vine’s Expository Dictionary (Vine’s). Suffer is used almost twice as much in the King James Version (KJV) as any other translation of the Bible, many of those times in the KJV also being in the Old Testament in what would probably be considered a more archaic use of the word. However, the word suffer is most concentrated in the books of Acts, Matthew, Mark, and Luke in any version of the Bible that I looked at (see blueletterbible.org search results for suffer, which give word counts in the sidebar). A summary of the meanings are:

  • To let, permit, allow
  • To permit further
  • To endure, bear with
  • To send away
  • To hold under
  • To ill treat
  • To do wrong or injustice

You can see that there tends to be a negative connotation to many of the meanings; but then, it certainly is not negative when Jesus says, “Suffer the little children to come to me,” so a reader should be careful to not assume negativity in usage, especially if the meaning of a passage seems ambiguous.

The four brief entries for suffer in Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th edition, (WNWCD4) mirror Vine’s, but with two meanings that can give insight into the potential positive aspect of this word. Let’s start by looking at how the English word suffer is derived from the Latin suffero/sufferre, by adding sub-  (meaning “up, under”) and -fero (meaning “to hold or carry).” Thus, the meaning in Latin is “to hold up or support.” (See WNWCD4, the Online Etymology Dictionary [OED], and Cassel’s Latin Dictionary). I suppose that in Latin, one could “suffer the groceries” to get them in from the car, which is undoubtedly work, but not necessarily causing any significant anguish?

OED and WNWCD4 show that the new Middle English word suffern replaced the Old English word polian/prowian, which literally meant “to submit meekly,” and was also taken to mean “undergo, to be subject to, be affected by, experience, to be acted on by an agent.” This Middle English word came by way of French and Vulgate Latin. I recently experienced cold and snow, changes which I had no control over. I wasn’t all that thrilled with it, but I know a lot of people who were delighted, giving more evidence that suffering winter is different for different people.

Meanings 1 and 4 in WNWCD4 for suffer are along the lines of “undergoing or bearing up under” something difficult. Almost in contrast, meanings 2 and 3 simply speak of having an experience or allowing something that causes change or needs permission. There are many good things in life that take effort or can require dealing with change that we do because we know of the good results. Suffer me to get married, anyone? How we go through the process, that is, how negative it is, depends more on our attitude than anything. I think of working in my garden. It involves exerting effort, problem solving, using time I might use for other things, but the work is made pleasant not only by my vision of the outcome, by also by choosing to enjoy the whole experience.

This positive perspective seems to be in mind in Matthew 11:12 and Luke 16:16. The construction of these sentences by Jesus also invite investigation into the words violence and force, which will be studied in the near future in another RVWD article. Suffice to say, until then, these verses apparently describe a concept (translated in the two different Gospels) meant to engage the imagination and inspire passion. Meanwhile, any suffering I do is best qualified with a description of “what” is suffered, in order to get a more complete meaning, whether positive or negative. There is some suffering of the heart and body that results from the hatred of others, but I can suffer the process of a massage without much trouble.

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