No one likes suffering. It is especially difficult to explain the incongruence of a good sovereign God and a world where the innocent suffer. For millennia, philosophers have sought to unravel the mystery. John Stuart Mill, in his series of essays on Nature, The Utility of Religious Theism concludes, “Not even on the most distorted and contracted theory of good whichever was framed by religious or philosophical fanaticism can the government of nature be made to resemble the work of being at once good and omnipotent.” For Mills, as long as evil and suffering exist in the world, God cannot be both good and all-powerful. Many shudder at Mill’s accusation because it poses a legitimate philosophical conundrum.
To believe in God’s absolute sovereignty, we must accept that nothing in all of existence is outside of His direct control. But, to be orthodox, we must also believe that God is completely good. A dilemma, to be sure, and one to which offer a perspective that does no damage to God’s sovereignty or His essential goodness.
In an attempt to avoid any theodicy, let me remind you of some verses we looked at in the first post on the sovereignty of God:
- “The Lord said to him, ‘Who has made man’s mouth? Or who makes him mute or deaf, or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?’” (Ex. 4:11).
- “See now that I, I am He, and there is no god besides Me; it is I who put to death and give life. I have wounded and it is I who heal, and there is no one who can deliver from My hand” (Dt. 32:39).
- “The One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the Lord who does all these” (Isa. 45:7).
- “Who is there who speaks and it comes to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both good and ill go forth?” (Lam. 3:37-38).
- “If a trumpet is blown in a city will not the people tremble? If a calamity occurs in a city has not the Lord done it?” (Amos 3:6).
From these verses, it is abundantly clear that God is ultimately responsible for blessings and sufferings. God could stop all suffering if He chose to. But, rather than looking at the issue negatively, let’s consider what purpose may reside in our struggles.
- The suffering of depravity. Since the garden incident, mankind is progressively descending to harsher manifestations of depravity. Not only is nature subject to futility (Rom. 8:22), the hearts of men are desperately wicked (Jer. 17:9). The result is pain, suffering, and heartache because of natural disasters and at the hands of depraved humanity. This is especially true for those who desire to live holy lives (2 Tim. 3:12). If you are the light of the world (Mt. 5:14-15), you are also a lightening rod for persecution (Jn. 15:18-25; 1 Pet. 4:12-14). It’s not personal; rather, it’s spiritual. Paul gives an excellent perspective, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Col. 1:24). This fact does not imply that suffering may be senseless. Far from it. God always has a purpose for our suffering, and when we suffer for His sake, He is glorified.
- The suffering of discipline. Sometimes, suffering is the chastening of the Lord (Heb. 12:6-11). God has destined believers to be conformed to the image of His Son (Rom. 8:29). When we stray, He disciplines us. I like David’s perspective. “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Your word…It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes…I know, O Lord, that Your judgments are righteous, and that in faithfulness You have afflicted me” (Ps. 119:67, 71, 75). David understood the consequence of sin, and he was grateful for the result of the Lord’s discipline. If we lose sight of our need for sanctification, we will view suffering as the enemy. Rather, let us support the sanctifying impact of discipline by responding with a contrite heart.
- The suffering of development. There are some aspects of spiritual maturity that can only be gained through suffering. As we are shaped and purified in the furnace of affliction (Isa. 48:10), the character of our Lord is reflected in our unmixed purity (Jas. 1:2-4). Through trials, the genuineness of our faith is confirmed (1 Pet. 1:6-7), and we experience God’s perfecting, confirming, strengthening, and establishing grace (1 Pet. 5:10).
Suffering happens. We can’t stop it. His sovereign control over things we do not like does not diminish his goodness or His greatness. Don’t fight Him in the storm; cling to Him. Don’t second-guess Him for allowing trials to afflict you; learn from Him. Don’t retreat from Him because you suffer; grow to be more like Him. But, above all, give Him the glory due His name.