“It is a blessed thing to be subject to the sovereignty of God.”
Over the continuum of history there have been questions that have perplexed and discomfited us as human beings. One of the more enigmatic of inquiries has been, and continues to be, why there is suffering in the world.
In contemplating this question, the noted German philosopher and cultural critic Friedrich Nietzsche opined that, “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.” Contrast Nietzsche’s somewhat pensive perspective with that of the French poet and novelist, Alfred de Vigny, who confessed, “I love the majesty of human suffering.”
Since the Garden of Eden, uncounted numbers of God’s image bearers have earnestly inquired of their Creator – and of each other – in an incessant and seemingly interminable quest to find the definitive answer to the dilemma of human suffering. But in reflecting on why humankind has persisted for so long in contemplating such a weighty proposition as the teleology (or ultimate purpose) of suffering, it is interesting that the obverse question is never posited, that of why is there happiness, joy, and pleasure in this world.
We live in a world that unarguably is beset with sin and evil (1 Jn. 5:19b). The evidences of that reality are both ubiquitous and unambiguous. It is a reality that is magnified by the prevalence of so-called “smart devices” that not only allow us to observe the pain, hardship, and adversity of others, but to share ours with them. Nevertheless, by virtue of God’s common grace (Matt. 5:45), we also experience moments of elation, bliss, and contentment in the midst of the afflictions and difficulties we encounter. And yet, why God allows us to partake of such moments of self-satisfaction is hardly, if ever, a matter of inquiry or inspection. We simply embrace them as gifts from God as signs of His unmerited or, in some cases, merited, favor toward us.
After all, isn’t that what a loving and merciful God is supposed to do?
“One of the aims of God in the suffering of the saints is to enlarge their capacity to enjoy his glory both here and in the age to come.” – John Piper, Suffering and the Sovereignty of God
Among the manifold effects of sin on humanity, is that in our finite and fallen state it is our nature to internalize suffering and make it all about us and what we’re “going through”. Even as followers of Christ, seldom, if ever, is our initial response to suffering to reign in our self-centeredness long enough to prayerfully consider what is God’s purpose in allowing our suffering in the first place. To put it differently, what we often lose sight of when it comes to suffering is perspective. Which is to say, we fail to contemplate just who and what it is we are choosing to believe in those moments when difficulty and adversity arise in our life (Eccl. 7:14).
The significance of having a biblical perspective of suffering is highlighted in this doctrinally robust statement from the apostle Paul in Phil. 1:29, “For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake.”
In Scripture, the word ‘suffer’ has both positive and negative connotations (though mostly negative). One positive example would be Matt. 19:14 (KJV) where, in Christ’s exhortation to, “Suffer [the] little children, and forbid them not, to come unto Me; for such is the kingdom of heaven”, the Greek verb “suffer” is the word aphiēmi, meaning to send forth, to permit, or to allow. However, in Phil. 1:29, the word “suffer” is used in a negative context. It is the Greek word paschō, which denotes to undergo, to be adversely impacted by a situation or circumstance, or to find oneself in a dire, distressing, or grievous plight.
In Phil. 1:29a, the pronoun “you” is referring to Christians. Every Christian. It is a personal pronoun, meaning the text is to be understood as if Paul were speaking to each of us individually or one-on-one. What Paul was saying to the Philippian believers – and to you today – is that suffering will be such a constant and ever-present reality in the life of the follower of Christ, it is as if you could replace the word “you” in that verse with your own name.
“Why do you complain against Him that He does not give an account of all His doings?” – Job 33:13 (NASB)
One of the primary reasons you and I struggle to consistently have a biblical perspective of suffering, is we are ignorant of the fact that suffering is a gift to us from God. That’s right – a gift – which is exactly what the word “granted” (Phil. 1:29) implies.
Suffering, and its consequent physical, emotional, financial, and psychological effects tend to blind us to the reality that situations of adversity have been deliberately and purposefully bestowed to us by a loving and gracious heavenly Father who is sovereign over such things. This kind of teleological myopia is exhibited chiefly in our tendency to try to define for God how His divine beneficence should manifest itself in our life. It is this self-focused thinking that gives rise to such speculative and doubt-inducing questions as, “If God truly loved me/you/them/us, then, why did He allow this/that to happen to me/you/them/us?”
And therein lies the danger.
It is when we try to fit an autonomous, self-governing, and self-determining God into a behavioral box of our own making that we find it difficult to conceive of how He could possibly view having cancer, a miscarriage (or several), HIV/AIDS, being the victim of sexual abuse, or dealing with the adulterous betrayal of a spouse as being spiritually redemptive in any way, shape, or form. And yet, God has promised that such experiences indeed are to our benefit, as He uses them to shape and mold us into the image of His Son (Rom. 8:28-29; Heb. 5:8). As Christian author and biblical counselor Paul David Tripp writes in Suffering: Gospel Hope When Life Doesn’t Make Sense,
“As God’s children, we pin our security to the hope that God will actually do for us what his promises tell us he’ll do. We hold onto this hope, even though we’re unable to see his hand or figure out how he’ll break through our hardship to deliver anything good. It’s important to understand, as we are holding tightly to God’s promises, that our hope depends entirely on his sovereign rule…The One in control has incalculable power and unobstructed authority, and he is the definition of love, which is very good news to his suffering children.”
In Ps. 119:68a, the psalmist writes of God, “You are good and do good.”
The God of the Bible is a good God. He is good not because of what He does, but because of who He is. God is good by nature. He does good because He is good. None of us can say that about ourselves (Gen. 8:21b; Eccl. 7:20; Rom. 3:10). And because God is good in and of Himself, it is He alone who defines not only what is good, but determines what is good for us.
Nevertheless, as followers of Christ we must never be so presumptuous of God’s goodness that we bring upon ourselves any undue suffering that is the result of our willful and volitional disobedience to God. To do so is not suffering, but is merely reaping the consequences of our sin (Prov. 5:22; Rom. 6:23a; Gal. 6:7). It is in light of this truth that we would do well to carefully consider the words of the apostle Peter, who exhorts us to, “Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name (1 Pet. 4:15).”
“Whenever God brings us through a severe trial, it will reveal to us either the strength or weakness of our faith and the faithfulness of God.”– John MacArthur, The Power of Suffering: Strengthening Your Faith In The Refiner’s Fire
In our suffering, we must keep in mind that God is not like us (Ps. 50:21). He is not good only situationally or coincidentally, as you and I are, but is good perfectly and eternally because, being good by nature, His nature is unchangeable (Mal. 3:6a; Heb. 13:8).
Whatever suffering God allows you and I to go through, is suffering that He takes us through. Meaning, He never leaves us to our own devices to deduce or figure out how to endure or tolerate it, but instead walks hand-in-hand with us in the midst of it (Ps. 23:4). God grants to His people the gift of suffering for His glory and our sanctification (1 Pet. 4:1-2). Perhaps it was those things that Alfred de Vigny had in mind when he described human suffering as “majestic”?
“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation.” – 1 Pet. 4:12-13 (NASB)
God is sovereign over your suffering. What He providentially ordains that you go through in this life does not happen to you in a vacuum. There is a purpose for it.
Though your trials may distress you, they are not designed to punish you (2 Cor. 4:8-10). God has designed your suffering to stretch you, to sanctify you, to test you – to prove to you that your faith in this loving, merciful, and all-wise God is genuine – just as He does with every person who has genuinely placed their faith in Him (Gen. 22:12; Deut. 8:2; Rom. 10:9-10; Heb. 12:6; Jas. 1:3-4; 1 Pet. 5:9).
Soli Deo Gloria!
This post first appeared here on Darrell B. Harrison's website and was reprinted with permission.