Suffering By The Hand Of The Sovereign God: An Argument For God Ordained Hardship

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Suffering whether trivial or severe is as inherent to the human experience as breathing is. The reason from a Christian worldview is clear; we live in a fallen and sinful world because of man’s disobedience and rebellion (Gen. 3). Suffering therefore is a natural byproduct of the futility to which God has subjected the creation. This testimony no matter how true, and indeed it is true, does not suffice to answer the question of why the righteous suffer if indeed their sins have been forgiven in Christ and they are no longer under the curse of Adam. Suffering in the macro sense seems distasteful to be sure, but is warranted and even justifiable when seen in the light or better yet darkness of human corruption. Still, the more pressing question is that of suffering in the micro sense; suffering which is nuanced and often engulfed in bewilderment which reaches the lives of God’s own people. God’s people being those whom he himself has called, elected and redeemed for His own glory (Rom. 8.29,30). Does God providentially ordain suffering in the lives of these, his children?

It is my conviction both from extensive research in God’s word as supreme and objective, as well as scholarly extra-biblical resources as supplemental. Lastly from my own personal experiences as subjective but which I cannot deny, that the answer to this question is a resounding, yes! In God’s Sovereignty, his providence towards His people includes hardship and suffering. I will set out in this article to establish this thesis statement in a manner that is affirmative and conclusive. The premise for this argument is based on the understanding that God has absolute control and authority over all that he has created. Someone might say that this is an exaggerated view of God’s sovereignty because it violates human freedom. However, that is a flawed argument based on pure a posteriori reasoning. It is a hyper anthropologic view which deduces from human experience that God is limited and mankind free. It fails to acknowledge the infallible testimony of Scripture which teaches that God is in fact the truly free agent able to act as He pleases, and man is a creature placed within boundaries which God ordained and decreed before the ages began.

The subject of God ordaining hardship and suffering in the lives of his creatures is a highly controversial one for several reasons; not the least of which is the assumption that a good God would not, indeed could not cause harm, as we consider harm, in the lives of those he loves. The fallacy in this train of thought is to assume that we know what is ultimately good for us over against what God deems to be truly and ultimately good for us. However if we look at Scripture objectively and allow it to inform our biased ideas of what we believe God to be like, we will see clearly according to Psalm 115.3 and Philippians 1.29 and many more passages like these that God is in the heavens and He does all that He pleases, even granting or gifting us to suffer for the sake of Christ. At this point it is necessary to affirm that every act of God toward His people is done in love and goodness. This is vital to keep in mind because there is real pain and heartache and perhaps even real evil in the midst of our hardship, so much so that if we are not mindful of God’s sovereignty in the midst of it, we almost certainly assume God is uninvolved and perhaps even indifferent to our hardship.

At this point we are faced with a troublesome dichotomy, we are forced to take one of two positions as it relates to God’s sovereignty and suffering in the life of the Christian. Either God is well meaning and intends for things to go better in the lives of His children, but is impotent to act in bringing His will to bare on personal suffering. Or God is as The Holy Bible teaches, Holy, Just and Loving and fully Sovereign over all that does come to pass, so that our suffering is directed and ordained by God for our good and His glory. Biblically we must deny the former position, since God is not revealed as impotent or as merely well intended; but rather as the latter position describes, He is revealed as absolutely and objectively powerful, working all things according to the counsel of His will (Eph. 1.11). In his article on John Calvin’s position on Sovereignty, Providence and Predestination, Joel Beeke says the Following:

Calvin says texts such as Isaiah 45:7 make it plain that God is sovereign over all evil: “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.” Let’s reverse this question for a moment: What comfort would you have if God were not sovereign over your trials? Would Job have been comforted by believing that the suffering he underwent was beyond God’s control? Denying God’s sovereignty over our sufferings makes God impotent and robs us of the comfort that our heavenly Father knows how to discipline us far better than our earthly fathers, for His own glory and our profit, as Hebrews 12:5 –11 affirms.

This point is well founded given the suffering we all endure in this life; what real comfort would be available in suffering having a God who did not want suffering to occur, but was unable to stop it? Sure someone might argue that God does not will that hardship should happen and then resort to blaming Satan, but even in that approach there is only a pseudo comfort which attempts to get God off the hook, all the while failing to realize that very statement assumes Satan has thwarted God’s will. This argument though far too common amongst professing Christians is profoundly foreign to the testimony of Scripture. Sure we must wrestle with the apparent tension of God’s goodness and love toward His people, and His ordaining and working suffering in their lives for their good. The two seem contradictory and at a first glance seems cruel and unjust, but what we must not fail to recognize is that we exist for God’s glory not He for ours. That is to say, that if we are reasoning with sober judgment and are being objective about our sin, we would understand that the only thing we deserve from the hand of God is eternal damnation.

Instead what the believer in Jesus receives is mercy and grace, God extends forgiveness and His disposition to those in Christ is one of favor and unconditional love. What’s more is that in that favorable and loving disposition toward His children is included the gift of suffering. There is exponential benefit for daily living in understanding the implications of God’s goodness toward His children including hardship and suffering. What true goodness can God display to believers in their suffering? Well, it is the gospel itself, for in our suffering we see a glimpse of what Christ the Spotless Lamb of God experienced by suffering and dying vicariously for His own elect. The goodness of God toward us in our suffering is that we gain Christ, we are privileged to identify with Him and to show the world that our greatest joy and treasure is not our own comfort, but rather it is a person, the man Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul writing from a Philippian jail cell exemplifies and testifies to this reality when he says: But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ (Phil. 3.7,8).

This all may seem abstract enough, but the reality is that God’s providence toward his people seen in examples of severe suffering, are brought about by means which seem as though God is neglectful; but when observed more closely is shown to be God’s power at work to use gross evil to bring about tremendous good for His people and ultimate glory to His name. We see examples of this all throughout Scripture where man is acting from purely evil motives and all the while God is also working by means of those same evil actions and intentions of others to work His own good and redemptive purposes for the sake of His Name and good of His people. Prime examples are stories such as Joseph’s in Genesis 37 and on. Here Jacob his father shows unambiguous favoritism to Joseph inciting the jealousy of his brothers. Before long the brothers have all they can take of this Joseph character, and in their wickedness sell him into slavery to Egypt and then lie to their father by insisting that a ravenous animal devoured Joseph. Joseph undergoes a series of horrible events in Egypt which ultimately land him in prison, and after several years in prison he is brought out to Pharaoh to interpret a dream for him. Upon a favorable and accurate interpretation of this dream, Joseph is exalted to second in command over all of Egypt. After a severe famine in the land of Canaan and beyond, Joseph’s brothers flee to Egypt for food so that they might not perish. Many years later they unknowingly are reunited with Joseph their brother, and upon discovering that this is indeed Joseph and he now possess tremendous power and authority, they tremble in fear because of their evil deed against him many years earlier. In all of this it may be easy enough to assume that God was disconnected from Joseph’s experience, and that it was mere coincidence that Joseph arrived at such depths of power in Egypt, however Joseph understood more clearly that what his brothers did and what subsequently happened to him as a result of their evil was according to the plans and purposes of God. Joseph says: As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today (Gen 50.20).

So we see that in God’s sovereignty He orchestrates while never being the author of the evil intentions of men, and He does so by using the very actions of these evil people to bring about the highest degree of good for His people. Time would fail me to expound upon the countless examples in Scripture where just like in Joseph’s story evil men are acting and simultaneously God is acting through their action to bring about good. We see this chiefly in the cross of Christ, where the only perfect and undeserving of punishment person to ever live is subjected to humiliating suffer and public execution at the hands of evil men, all the while fulfilling the preordained purpose of God to bring about and secure the redemption of God’s elect. This is chronicled for us in Acts in this way:  for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel,  to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place (Acts 4.27,28). This is single handedly the most egregious and unwarranted event in human history, nothing even comes close to how horrible the events of Calvary were, and we are told unequivocally that God was the one ultimately acting to bring about the purposes of His will.

Daniel Timmer writing about the book of Job and the Gospel says this: When we trace the themes of sin, human suffering, and God’s justice and victory over the forces of evil forward into the New Testament, we begin to see how a biblical-theological approach to this chapter opens the way for a Christian understanding and use of it. The book of Job makes clear that evil, including human suffering as the direct or indirect result of sin, falls under God’s sovereignty, but that this does not make Him solely or morally responsible for it. This tension drives the plot of the book: if God is just, and if Job is not being punished for a particular sin, why is Job suffering, and how can good come out of it? Although Job’s suffering was not sent in direct response to his sin, it is all the same inexplicable apart from human (and satanic) opposition to God. We might presume, then, that once God does away with sin, suffering too will come to an end, and indeed this is His promise: “I will wipe every tear from their eyes” (Rev. 7:17; 21:4). But what of believers who are in the depths of suffering here and now, perhaps through no particular fault of their own? What does Job, seen in the context of the whole Bible, say to them? While God’s commitment to affirm His righteousness is prominent in the book of Job, there it brings about only an incomplete resolution of Job’s suffering. Looking beyond the book of Job, the culminating demonstration of divine justice in the cross fully resolves the problem of sin, and radically recasts the suffering that sin causes (directly or indirectly), for those who are in Christ. While Paul and other New Testament authors make clear that our union with Christ entails suffering with Him (Phil. 3:10), they present this as a privilege (Rom. 8:17; Acts 5:41). This is not simple self-deception: “this doesn’t really hurt, it’s all in my mind.” Paul does not ignore his sufferings; on occasion, he even lists them (2 Cor. 11:23–29). He knew them to be quite real, but he teaches that it is through such sufferings that we follow the example of, and indeed come to know better, our suffering Savior. (18,19)

This is a significant point in understanding the providence of God toward His people including suffering. There is no minimizing or romanticizing the reality of pain and suffering, but there is a real comfort in knowing that God is not punishing his people for their sin, and He is not impotent, but rather we are privileged to share in the sufferings of Christ looking forward to the future hope of glory forever with Christ. I think Timmer hits it right on the head, and we would do well to consider the implications of this truth for our daily life. God’s goodness is not hidden from us in suffering, but rather because we know the love of God in Christ and see him as the suffering servant, we can say with full assurance that our suffering is founded upon the love and goodness of God and has reached our lives by God’s providence. I certainly think a failure to communicate effectively the love of God in how His goodness reaches us through suffering would be detrimental. If God’s sovereignty in our minds was not undergirded by the belief and understanding that all that God does for the sake of His glory and His people is rooted in His love for His glory and for His people, then we would likely fail to truly see how God could really be good at all, even if we did pay exceptional lip service to the thought. If God’s love were disconnected from His sovereignty than certainly we would have cause to feel discomfort, for then we would be proven as it were to be nothing more than disposable pawns on a chessboard. However that is not the picture that Scripture paints, rather what we see is wicked sinners deserving of Hell, are redeemed and brought near to God and then sustained whether in ease or in hardship. This is supremely witnessed in the sufferings of Christ who is our example and sympathizer with us in our trials. D.A. Carson in writing about the love of God and Sovereignty of God says it this way: In passages such as 1 John 4:7-11 believers are urged to love one another, since love is of God. The high point in the demonstration of God’s love is His sending His Son as the “atoning sacrifice” for our sins. “Dear friends,” John concludes, “since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (v. 11). Whatever the distinctive elements in the love of God, the same word is used for God’s love and the Christian’s love, and God’s love is both the model and the incentive of our love. Doubtless God’s love is immeasurably richer than ours, in ways still to be explored, but His love and our love belong to the same genus, or the parallelisms could not be drawn.

So since in God’s sovereignty His providence towards His people includes hardship and suffering, let us be reminded that this is cause for great joy. We rejoice because we have a God who far from being cold, indifferent or impotent, is actually deeply loving, intimately involved and omnipotent to act for our good and His glory in all thing that reach us. Search the Scriptures and see for yourself that what God does he does with full control and authority and He acts with loving-kindness and compassion. For the Christian, far from suffering being punishment for sin, it is an invitation to join Christ in overcoming the world. We are privileged to suffer as Christians, because in our suffering we remember that this is light and momentary compared to the glory that will be revealed to us in eternity, namely being with and enjoying Christ forever!

Works Cited:

  1. BEEKE, JOEL R. “Calvin on Sovereignty, Providence, and Predestination.” Puritan Reformed Journal, vol. 2, no. 2, July 2010, pp. 77-105.*
  2. Carson, Donald A. “God’s Love and God’s Sovereignty.” Bibliotheca Sacra, vol. 156, no. 623, July 1999, pp. 259-271.
  3. Guthrie, Shirley C. (Shirley Caperton). “Human Suffering, Human Liberation, and the Sovereignty of God.” Theology Today, vol. 53, no. 1, Apr. 1996, pp. 22-34.
  4. Morden, Peter J. “C.H. Spurgeon and Suffering.” Evangelical Review of Theology, vol. 35, no. 4, Oct. 2011, pp. 306-325.
  5. Stephens, W. P. “Election in Zwingli and Bullinger: A Comparison of Zwingli’s Sermonis De Providentia Dei Anamnema (1530) and Bullinger’s Oratio De Moderatione Servanda in Negotio Providentiae, Praedestinationis, Gratiae Et Liberi Arbitrii (1536).” Reformation & Renaissance Review: Journal of the Society for Reformation Studies, vol. 7, no. 1, Apr. 2005, pp. 42-56.
  6. TIMMER, DANIEL C. “Job, Suffering, and the Gospel.” Puritan Reformed Journal, vol. 9, no. 2, July 2017, pp. 5-20.*

Song For Reflection

Afflicted But Not Crushed

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“Our sorrows are all, like ourselves, mortal. There are no immortal sorrows for immortal souls. They come, but blessed be God, they also go. Like birds of the air, they fly over our heads. But they cannot make their abode in our souls. We suffer today, but we shall rejoice tomorrow.” – Charles Spurgeon

Righteous and Bruised

Suffering is real for the believer, just as for the reprobate. It comes just as often and hits just as hard in the span of a Christian’s life as in the life of any sinner. This reality is part in parcel to why our theological and doctrinal convictions matter. What we believe the scriptures to teach directly impacts how we live and think. I have a deep-rooted conviction that every Christian should have a sound and expansive theology of suffering.  The scriptures don’t shy away from addressing suffering as a Christian, and neither should we. The child of God is not exempt from suffering, in fact a true Child of God should expect suffering and embrace it as a gift from God! Paul says it this way in Philippians 1:29:

“For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake”.

When’s the last time you offered thanks and praise to God for granting you to suffer for Christ’s sake? I don’t mean to seem condescending with that question. I just know it’s not how we’re groomed to think here in the west. As Christians in America we’re by and large, conditioned to view pain and suffering in one of several ways; as retribution for hidden sins, as satanic opposition (probably the most widely held view), or as a foreign anomaly to the christian life. There may be certain aspects of truth within each of these views of suffering, but to view all suffering through any one of those lenses exclusively is to do yourself a great disservice. However, what I don’t want you to hear me saying is that suffering is pleasant or is to be sought, no need to seek suffering it will doubtless find you. Neither am I saying that your suffering is in and of itself the gift or good. No. The gift and goodness of suffering is in the outcome that God will bring about through the suffering He is working in your life. If you currently view suffering through any of the lenses I just mentioned above, I’d like you to please hear me out as I continue.

I believe that being lovers of TRUTH requires us to bear the responsibility of weighing every subjective assumption and conclusion we hold against the Objective Truth of Scripture, and where proven wrong be willing to repent and change our thinking.

In other words, we should care more about lining our thinking up with God’s unchanging Word, then we do about maintaining our subjective biases. For the believer, suffering becomes a gift given by God and not a curse. It is right to view it this way because the Scriptures call us to view it this way. All our suffering, severe as it may be, is light and momentary compared to the glory we are to receive in eternity. More than that, our suffering is analogous to the sufferings of Christ who is the spotless Lamb of God. There are at least two glaring implications for the believer’s life in those two statements:

  1. Our suffering has intrinsic purpose and meaning in the light of eternity.
  2. Christ being sinless, suffered for us to leave us an example for how we ought to suffer.

As believers, we have this sure and steadfast hope to cling to; our God is Sovereign and works all things according to the counsel of his will (Eph. 1:11). This is of great comfort to the suffering soul, because we can know with certainty that God is at work in our suffering to bring about His Divine will. There is an invaluable purpose in our suffering and that purpose, chiefly, is to further conform us to the image of Christ. Being righteous and bruised is the pattern of life we should expect, not because we’re sadistic or morbid, but because we’re following Christ’s pattern of life. Jesus himself told us in John 15:18-20, that we will be hated because he himself was hated first, and we will be persecuted because He himself was persecuted. He left us an example to follow, so this becomes part of our calling, to endure hardship and suffering because we are not greater than our Master. Peter says it this way in 1 Peter 2:20,21:

20 For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.

So I submit to you that your suffering, Christian, is not in vain and is not placed on you in spite by God. Rather I encourage you to look gratefully at your hardship and thank God that you have been counted worthy to suffer with Christ. Your bruises are meaningful and should remind you that you have a pierced and wounded Savior who bids you join him in overcoming the world. Think often and deeply of Christ’s promise to you:

33 I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

A Blessing And Not A Curse

My hope in this article is to encourage some, and by God’s grace help correct others. I’d seek to encourage those currently facing deep affliction and hardship be it what it may! Are you facing hardships in marriage or family? Perhaps in health ailments or disease? Maybe verbal or physical abuse? Are you being defamed or ostracized by others? Are you nearing almost daily the verge of falling beyond being able to rise back up? Then take courage, and realize that you are blessed in your sufferings! Consider that your present sufferings, are not even worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed to us (Rom 8:18).

I would by God’s grace correct others who may be facing similar difficulties and would consider that they are cursed, or at minimum being punished for some undisclosed sin. Consider that Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us (Gal. 3:13). The curse of our sins was taken upon the body of Christ on His cross. You can now rest assured beloved, that there remains no more wrath or curse for we who are hidden in Christ.

Yet we still suffer and the pain is still real, but where once our suffering testified against us that we were fully in Adam. Now our sufferings testify to the reality that we are united with Christ. Where once we were alienated from God without hope in this world. Now we have an abiding and unfading hope, that our present suffering is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2 Cor. 4:17). Our Unity with Christ is only further confirmed through our suffering not refuted by it. Paul would persuade us in this way:

16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. 18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. Romans 8:16–18

Left to ourselves, we would never choose that which God would choose for us. We do well to know with full assurance that any affliction or hardship that reaches us as children of God, comes directly through the hand of God and by the will of God. When hardship reaches us God is faithful and true to see us through it, and to bring us out on the other side more radiant and further conformed to the image of His Son.

I’m especially comforted by this truth in this season of my life. My wife and I recently discovered through a diagnosis that our 2nd daughter, Faith (still in the womb), will need major open heart surgery in May 2018 and possibly a heart transplant due to serious heart abnormalities in her development. What a sobering blow it was to hear this devastating news. What a deep discomfort to see the pain on my wife’s face. Oh how easy it would be on any given day to fall victim to despair, if not only for the truth that God himself has bestowed this gift upon us. Oh what comfort sound theology has offered us, what joy to know him from whom all blessings flow. What solace to drink deeply from the well of God’s sovereignty, and know full well that this trial is from He who works all things according to the counsel of His will. What depression and instability would be our lot if we believed that our sin could bring upon us something that our God hasn’t himself ordained for us. What an insult to the grandeur and omnipotence of God if we thought Satan could afflict us with something that God himself did not allow. What degree of pity would we invite should we believe that some uncontrolled calamity could harm us without our God himself directing and working all things together for our greatest good and His greatest Glory!

In all of this let us be reminded that suffering is profoundly meaningful for the believer, and it is intended to remind us from where our help comes. Let your hardships bring to mind that this world is not our home. In all affliction whether trivial or severe remember the words of the Apostle:

Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead2 Corinthians 1:9

Look to God, He is an ever-present help in a time of need! Let your sufferings resound in praise and let your pain help you identify with Christ. So though we are deeply afflicted in every way, by God’s Grace we will never be crushed! Think deeply and often of these words by our beloved brother Paul when you find yourself afflicted:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 2 Corinthians 4:7–10

Steps For Application

Dear brother or sister, I don’t know what trial you may currently be suffering. Know this however, if you be in Christ, your trials are a tool in the hand of God to better equip you to enjoy and glorify Christ! Don’t lose hope but look to God; I’d only seek to spur you on toward some practical application of this deep Truth. Consider the following:

  1. Make daily journal entries of your hardships. (We can often express our sorrows more fully in writing then in speech, allowing us an avenue of relief from the mental/emotional anguish)
  2. Find hymns either classic or modern and sing them often. (Hymns are deep Biblical truths in song form, they do wonders in driving your thoughts and affections toward Christ. I recommend starting with Sovereign Grace Music as a gateway to other deep hymns if you’re new to hymns)
  3. Seek out an older Saint who’s well versed in Biblical Truth and ask them to walk with you in your trial. (Hardships are not meant to be endured alone, older Saints have often been through what you’re experiencing and can speak with conviction into your hardships)
  4. Pray fervently. (Prayer can seem ineffective when suffering, but the opposite is true. Go to God in prayer and He will grant you supernatural Peace)
  5. Read Dead Saints and Meditate on the Psalms. (We have over 2,000 years of Church history to glean from, you’ll do well to avail yourself to the writings of dead Saints (not in the Roman Catholic sense) who can speak into your trials. Also, the Psalms are filled with countless rich prayers and songs of deliverance.)

I know these are by no means the answers to your suffering, but I’ll assure you they will help to equip you to suffer well and graciously to the Glory of God! Grace and peace to you brothers and sisters!

Song for Reflection