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!
- BEEKE, JOEL R. “Calvin on Sovereignty, Providence, and Predestination.” Puritan Reformed Journal, vol. 2, no. 2, July 2010, pp. 77-105.*
- Carson, Donald A. “God’s Love and God’s Sovereignty.” Bibliotheca Sacra, vol. 156, no. 623, July 1999, pp. 259-271.
- 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.
- Morden, Peter J. “C.H. Spurgeon and Suffering.” Evangelical Review of Theology, vol. 35, no. 4, Oct. 2011, pp. 306-325.
- 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.
- TIMMER, DANIEL C. “Job, Suffering, and the Gospel.” Puritan Reformed Journal, vol. 9, no. 2, July 2017, pp. 5-20.*