The sovereignty of God and the suffering of men is not an academic exercise. Theodicy—a good God’s control over man’s evil (and nature’s destructive force that hurts men)—confronts us every day. If we say He can stop it, why doesn’t He? If we say He can not stop it, where can we go for help?
I’ve always found it helpful to remember that the most evil thing that has ever happened in the world was planned by God before He created the world. No torture has ever been more unjust than what the soldiers did to Jesus, and by those wounds we are healed. No State sanctioned capital punishment has ever been more malicious or murderous in intent, and by Christ’s death we know God’s loving intent. God used the most heinous sin of man to purchase the salvation of man.
The apostles recognized God’s hand in the crucifixion. Peter preached on Pentecost:
this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. (Acts 2:23)
The believers prayed in light of predestination:
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)
God not only can use the evil of men, He meant to. He invites us to remember the glory of the cross–where He designed the ultimate display of glory–as we eat the bread and drink the wine together.
We will probably not wrestle God in flesh (like Israel did in Genesis 32). We will, all of us, be touched by God in a way that changes how we walk, that stops us from relying on ourselves. We will prevail only by struggling on the mat of suffering that compels us to be comforted by God.
Paul blessed “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort” as he penned what we know as his second letter to the Corinthians. He blessed God “who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction.” He reasoned: “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.” This is not the removal of pain, it is comfort for patient endurance.
Do we want to be comforted or comfortable? Being comfortable doesn’t require anything special or supernatural. God will wrestle us, make us limp in various ways, until we, like Paul, are “so utterly burdened beyond our strength what we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death.” How could it get worse? What else could be added? “But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:3-5, 8-9).
The Lord’s Table reminds us of His death, but we also rejoice that He is risen as He said. God—the merciful, comforting God—is sovereign and powerful over life and death. He would have us rely on Him. He has no needs. We eat and drink in total dependence on Him, the only God who raises the dead.
Be comforted, Christian, that He heals the broken. He puts to flight death’s dark shadows. He bids envy, strive, and quarrels cease. You are beyond your capacity, not beyond His.
Some people spend their days in pain with bodies that keep the yearning front and center, that keep loss always in the mind’s eye. Widows. Orphans. The sick. The damaged (by birth or by man). Know this: God has special promises for you, and He loves bringing triumphant resolutions to those who have tasted the deepest sorrows.
—N. D. Wilson, Death by Living, 109-110
More than David, more than Job, no man ever felt more forsaken by God than Jesus. Near the end of His time on the cross (Matthew 27:46), Jesus took a line from Psalm 22 as His own.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Psalm 22:1a)
The next few lines of Psalm 22 also fit with His affliction.
Why are you so far from saving me,
from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest.
We sing about when “The Father turned His face away” from the Son. Yet Jesus certainly did nothing wrong. He had no sin of His own. And He felt forsaken. We know that He wasn’t doing drama or mouthing the words.
Our righteous God cannot look at the unrighteous. But the good news is that the Father forsook His Son for a time so that He could never forsake His redeemed, adopted children.
We can be encouraged to know that the godly have such times. We can be encouraged to know that ours will never be an experience as bad as that of Jesus. And we can be thankful that Christ endured being forsaken in order to secure our eternal fellowship with God. Do you feel isolated from God? Then come, eat and drink in remembrance of Him and in fellowship with Him by faith.
The disciples demonstrated their ignorance when they assumed an invariable connection between the man born blind and a specific sin in John 9. Not all human pain can be interpreted as punishment for a particular sin. We, like the first disciples, need to think before we speak so knowingly about the causes of someone else’s effects.
Does that mean that no suffering can be traced to a specific sin? Obviously not. If a sixteen year old asked me to sign the cast over his broken arm that he got in the car wreck following the police chase after he robbed Starbucks, and he says that he just doesn’t know God’s purposes in his pain, the one making wrong assumptions is the one holding out the Sharpie.
But is that the type of situation when we can draw a connection between sin and suffering? Hebrews 12 tells us that God disciplines those that He loves. He disciplines His children, and when? When they sin. He perfects His kids with many means, including suffering, just as He did with His Son (Hebrews 2:10), and His Son never sinned. There are times for us when the pain means Stop it. Some of His children may need deeper wounds to get the message.
How will you know if a particular pain is discipline for your sin or if the pain is initiated by God to display His glory? We do not have a foolproof test, but there is one thing that is very helpful: a clear conscience.
Granted, a clear conscience could be wrong because it is misinformed or deceived. A clear conscience goes a long way, not all the way. It’s helpful, not inerrant. Nevertheless, if you are carrying sin around in your heart, refusing to confess it, kill it, and make it right with your victim, then you will have a hard time rationalizing away your troubles to something other than the Father’s training.
Continue with double earnestness to serve your Lord when no visible result is before you. Any simpleton can follow the narrow path in the light; faith’s rare wisdom enables a man to march on in the dark with infallible accuracy.
—Charles Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, 155
It is of need that we are sometimes in heaviness. Good men are promised tribulation in this world, and ministers may expect a larger share than others, that they may learn sympathy with the Lord’s suffering people, and so may be fitting shepherds of an ailing flock.
—Charles Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, 155
It is the part of the Church to suffer rather than to strike, but it is an anvil that has worn out a good many hammers.
—John Brown, John Bunyan—His Life, Times and Work, 196, in reference to Buynan’s submission to the state.
Ministers never write or preach so well as when under the cross: the Spirit of Christ and of Glory then rests upon them.
—George Whitefield, in reference to John Bunyan’s writing of The Pilgrim’s Progress while in prison. (quoted in Horner, The Pilgrim’s Progress: An Evangelical Apologetic, iii)
I finished reading Lectures to My Students yesterday. The journey took almost two years and included some breathtaking sights. The Void previously published highlights related to the preacher and praying, preaching with clarity, and holding on to the truth. While creating my index inside the back cover I retread precious, providential, faith-focusing ground concerning how God makes His ministers through difficulties.
Afflictions make sensitive shepherds.
It is of need that we are sometimes in heaviness. Good men are promised tribulation in this world, and ministers may expect a larger share than others, that they may learn sympathy with the Lord’s suffering people, and so may be fitting shepherds of an ailing flock. (155)
These infirmities may be no detriment to a man’s career of special usefulness; they may even have been imposed upon him by divine wisdom as necessary qualifications for his peculiar course of service. (155)
Troubles make clean vessels.
The scouring of the vessel has fitted it for the Master’s use. (160)
Adversities make humble instruments.
Those who are honoured of the Lord in public have usually to endure a secret chastening, or to carry a peculiar cross, lest by any means they exalt themselves, and fall into the snare of the devil. (164)
Serve God with all your might while the candle is burning, and then when it goes out for a season, you will have the less to regret. Be content to be nothing, for that is what you are. When your own emptiness is painfully forced upon your consciousness, chide yourself that you ever dreamed of being full, except in the Lord. (164)
Instruments shall be used, but their intrinsic weakness shall be clearly manifested; there shall be no division of the glory, no diminishing of the honor due to the Great Worker. (163)
Trials make trusting servants.
Put no trust in frames or feelings. Care more for a grain of faith than a ton of excitement. (164)
Continue with double earnestness to serve your Lord when no visible result is before you. Any simpleton can follow the narrow path in the light; faith’s rare wisdom enables a man to march on in the dark with infallible accuracy. (165)