Saturday, November 7, 2020

Suffering Under Sovereignty

The story is told of a fisherman and his son lost in a storm off the Norwegian coast. Although they fought to keep their vessel afloat, it seemed sure the tempestuous sea would overwhelm them. Meanwhile on shore, the fisherman’s house caught on fire and the ensuing conflagration consumed the structure and all it contained. Miraculously, the men made it back to safety only to meet at the pier a weeping wife and mother. “Our home has been lost in a fire—we could save nothing.” She was stunned by the father’s laughter. He said, “We were lost and had given up on our lives when we saw what looked like a dim light. We made for that light and were saved.” To this the fisherman added, “The light was our flaming house.” Often the fire that burns all we have serves in reality to save our lives.

This week, I've been considering the hard side of God’s sovereign rule. We read from the pen of Spurgeon that in 1856, people chaffed not so much at the idea of God ruling but at the idea of God ruling us. More than a century and a half later, many Christian leaders tell their people that God does not intend for believers to suffer disease, affliction, or hardship. Such teachers have capitulated to what their listeners want to hear; but in this they err. My recent articles on 1 Peter and this week’s consideration of suffering show that God does not have a compassionate detachment from our suffering. Rather, God is intimately involved—indeed He ordains our suffering. Such passages as Exodus 4:11, Ecclesiastes 7:13–14, Isaiah 45:5–7, and Jeremiah 18:1–10 show that suffering is no cosmic accident. The alternative to an unswervingly solid belief in God’s unyielding sovereignty over suffering is utter despair at the total meaninglessness of affliction, pain, and suffering. But as Dan Hendley has said, "when we suffer, the arcane theoretical notions of God’s sovereignty become for the believer an anchor of hope for the soul."

Why We Suffer

The first question we usually ask when suffering crashes into our lives is, “Why?” That is the place to start because there are different reasons for why we suffer. The most obvious (and most repelling) reason is that we suffer due to our sin. As rebellious children of a holy Father, we all deserve corrective discipline. In fact, it is only by His mercy that we are spared from destruction moment by moment. Because of our propensity to sin, we should always ask if God is correcting us. Is there known sin in your life? This is the place to start.

However, God sometimes brings suffering to glorify Himself. When we suffer, we should first ask if our suffering is corrective. When we observe another person suffering, we should first ask if their affliction is for God’s glory. The blind man in John 9 is an example of one who suffered many years so that God’s power would be shown forth. Mercifully, this man saw the reason for his suffering. For many, the glory which God desires to manifest through their ordeal may never be seen on this side of the kingdom of God. The life of Job is such an example. Ultimately, God was glorified through Job’s travail. But Job never learned the reason. The glory God intends to show through your suffering may be reserved for the cloud of witnesses, not for your earthly eyes.

Finally, suffering is intended to produce growth in Christian character. Romans 5:1–5 and 8:18, 24–25 show that perseverance, patience, and ultimately hope are the products of suffering and tribulation. This is why more than four hundred years ago, Martin Luther said, “Until a person experiences suffering, he cannot know what it means to hope.”

Our Response to Suffering

In the face of severe tribulation, many are tempted to give up on God. In my own life, and in speaking to many others under affliction, I always return to Peter’s question in John 6:65–69: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that You are the Holy One of God.” Ultimately, our response should be reverent worship.

D. A. Carson in his book How Long, O Lord? says, “God is less interested in answering our questions than in other things: securing our allegiance, establishing our faith, nurturing a desire for holiness.… God tells us a great deal about Himself; but the mysteries that remain are not going to be answered at a merely theoretical and intellectual level.… Ultimately, the Christian will take refuge from questions about God not in proud, omniscient explanations but in adoring worship.” Jerry Bridges in Trusting God adds, “As we bow in worship before His almighty power, we can also bow in confidence that He exercises that power for us, not against us. So we should bow in an attitude of humility, accepting His dealings in our lives, but we can also bow in love, knowing that … however severe and painful they may be, [those dealings] come from a wise and loving heavenly Father.”

Peter gives us the model for worship in the closing words of his first letter: “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. To Him be the power for ever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 5:10). There is hope in the unfailing promises of our loving heavenly Father.