"When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider: God has made the one as well as the other.” Ecclesiastes 7:14
Sharing at a recent desiring God conference, Krista Horning, a lady who was born with a rare genetic condition called Apert Syndrome, spoke about how she lives with disability. In this video she speaks about the lies that her disability tells her and contrasts it with the truth that God speaks through the Bible. It is interesting that one of the first truths she mentions is that God is in charge of her disability. She states that her disability is not an accident of nature, but part of who God has made her to be in his sovereign and perfect will.
Now such a statement can raise huge questions in our hearts and minds. How can God do that? Can God really be a God of love and allow, no, even will, these things to happen? Any frank conversation on the reality of God's sovereignty in a world of suffering is bound to leave us feeling just a little uncomfortable with some of the conclusions that we must come to as we begin to wonder whether we really know what God is like. This has certainly been the case as I've written these posts and I think I am safe to assume it is probably the case for you as you've read them.
Yet, I am also convinced that the hope, peace and joy that we can know as we delight in the truth of God's complete control of all things far outweighs the questions and difficulties that it raises in our minds. Here I just want to summarise the positives by pointing out how the truth of God's sovereign rule over all things, including suffering of all kinds, transforms our understanding of suffering in the world.
If God is in control it means that accidents don't happen. This world is not a random place running out of control where evil invades in a regular and unbridled fashion. That would be a hopeless position with no certainty as we faced the future. Instead, each moment would hold only the fear of 'what ifs'. What if Satan got too strong? What if evil became too widespread? What if suffering became too intense?
Suffering spiralling out of control is not the future that Bible presents to us. Instead, we see that the God who made the world is still in control and firmly on the throne despite all the attempts to dethrone him and the widespread rejection of him. The future belongs to God; a God who is pure, perfect, holy and merciful. There is reason to hope because God is in control.
One of the most common verses to turn to in times of difficulty is this one in Romans, "And we know that in all things God works of the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose" (Romans 8:28). Now, this verse is not a promise that life will only be filled with ease, health and material well-being, but that God has a purpose in every event in this world to bless his people with good things. The context roots this blessing in God’s great purpose is to make us like Jesus (Romans 8:29).
Hope spills over from this verse as we live in a fallen and sin-sick world. We are confronted by suffering on a daily basis, but how different it looks when we realise that the sovereign, holy and merciful God is working out good things through the presence of suffering in the world. We might not understand it, but we can know it and have hope. However, it is important to note that if God is not in control this verse is only an empty promise of hope that raises our spirits while at the same time condemning us to eternal misery.
If God is not in control of all things then we have to allow for the presence of at least some evil and suffering that sits outside of the will and purposes of God. That means that there could be or already are present in this world events and circumstances that have been placed there without God's say so and, therefore, are outside of his control. Who can say that these evils won't bring ultimate harm to God's people rather than bless them with pointing them to Jesus and transforming them into his likeness?
However, the Bible does not bring this verse to us in the empty vacuum of an impotent God, but with the solid certainty of a God who is in charge, a God who reigns and God who far surpasses any other power and authority. God is so much bigger than all else we can think of. As a later verse puts it: 'If God is for us, who can be against us?' (Romans 8:31)
The Bible ends by giving us a glimpse into a glorious future for God's people. It speaks of a new heaven and a new earth, a perfectly restored relationship with God and the end of suffering: 'There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away' (Revelation 21:4). Isn't it good to know that suffering will not be the eternal companion of God's people, but just for the brief moment of this life?
Yet, even this promise can only be held out because God is sovereign over all things. Imagine the opposite; evil has free reign and rears its ugly head in whatever way it would like to. If God is not in charge, who can say that evil won't pluck something out of the bag that God can't handle, can't wrap up and can't destroy at the end of time? Who can say that evil won't make a later appearance to ruin the new creation as its presence has ruined the current one? Only a God who is sovereignly in charge of all things, even evil and suffering, can bring any kind of guarantee that a time is coming where suffering will be no more.
Yes, I am often confused as I look at the world. I find myself wondering what is going on and my limited understanding and wisdom struggles to come to terms with the plan of God as it is played out on the tapestry of history. Yet, I am so thankful that in it all I know God is in control. There is reason to hope because we are not observing random emptiness, but the good purposes of God who is bringing the world to a place where, in Jesus, suffering will be a thing of the past.
So if God's in charge, why does he allow evil to exist in his world and suffering to occur? More on that in later posts.
I can think back to many moments in my own short lifetime where I have seen things that have shocked and appalled me. On one occasion I was watching the news. The story being told was about thousands of children who were starving due to the greed of government officials. As the pictures were shown of malnourished and helpless children the feelings of pity, compassion and anger were mixed deep inside me in a cocktail of emotions. These things are wrong and wherever we see such injustice and the consequences of evil we are right to be revolted by what we see.
Yet, none of these tragic circumstances, no matter how bad they get, should stir us and revolt us as much as the historical reality of the cross of Jesus. For, as the Bible clearly shows us, this was the greatest act of injustice and the most defiant act of evil ever to be experienced in this world past, present or future.
To see this we just need to come to the foot of the cross of Jesus and ask four questions. First, who is this man? The Centurion who had charge of the guard that day echoes the truth that the Bible declares time and time again, ‘Surely this man was the Son of God!’ (Mark 15:39). The crucifixion of the Son of God was not merely an act of human injustice, it was the ultimate fist-shaking act of human defiance against a sovereign God It was the epitome and climax of our rebellion against God. There can be nothing worse than that!
The second question is: what had this man done wrong? The writer of the book of Hebrews explains, ‘For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin’ (Hebrews 4:15). Did Jesus do anything deserving of death? Absolutely not! It wasn’t just that he hadn’t broken any Roman or Jewish laws, but he hadn’t broken any of God’s laws either. From a legal standpoint there is no case that can be made for the death of Jesus, he simply did not deserve to die and shouldn’t have been crucified.
The next question we need to ask is: why wasn’t he let go? If you take a look at the records of those who received the death sentence in the UK before its partial abolition in 1965 and full abolition in 1998 you might be more than a little disturbed. This is not so much because of the number sentenced to death or the crimes they committed, but because of the number who were sentenced, killed and later found to be innocent. Here are two examples:
As tragic as these cases are, it is possible to understand how the mistakes were made. A jury, made of twelve fallible people, listens to the evidence and sought, in good faith, to come to the right answer. These were mistakes, severe ones, but nonetheless honest ones. However, this cannot be said of those who tried Jesus.
The false evidence brought against Jesus was so fragile that even those who hated him had to throw it out (Matthew 26:59-60). In addition Pilate and Herod examined Jesus thoroughly without finding any reason for crucifying him. His innocence was abundantly clear and beyond denial. The reason Jesus was hanging on the cross had nothing to do with a declaration of guilt, but the feelings, fears and hatred of those who tried him. The cross of Jesus was nothing short of a wicked act of people abusing authority and influence and acting in rebellion against a holy God.
The final question we could ask to expose the evil of the cross is: how was he treated? Remember, Jesus was a man who went around healing the sick and caring for those who were hurting in all kinds of different ways. He had been straight with people, but had always done it from a heart of love. It is even more surprising then to see a complete lack of compassion in the way he was treated from the point of his arrest to his death on the cross. The temple guard beat and taunted him, the Sanhedrin spat at him and struck him, Pilate had him flogged and crucified, the Jewish leaders mocked and taunted him and even those who hung there next to him joined in pouring scorn upon him. His kindness was returned with brutality, his care returned with pain and his love returned with abject hatred. Has there ever been an event as wicked and evil as this in its extremes and injustice?
Having understood this it is startling to turn to the book of Acts and read the sermon that Peter preached just a matter of weeks after the cross. All the events of that day are fresh in his mind and you can hear it in correct accusation he brings, ‘You, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross’ (Acts 2:23). Yet, that is not where he begins. Take note of these words, ‘This man [Jesus] was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge’ (Acts 2:23, emphases added). These are staggering words, because Peter is telling us that even the actions and events of this extreme act of evil were always firmly under the control of God. The cross was not an act of victory against God; instead, it only happened because it was in the supreme will of God.
These words in Acts 2 are not the only place in the Bible where this truth is revealed to us. In fact, it is a reality that saturates the pages of Scripture from the pictures, promises and pointers of the Old Testament through to the closing words of the book of Revelation. As we read the pages of God’s Word we can affirm time and time again that the cross was not a surprise, an accident or a mistake.
Surprises can be pleasant or unpleasant. One Sunday I came home from church to find a strange car in the driveway. When I opened the door to the lounge I found some old friends that I hadn't seen for years. The next day was my birthday and my wife had organised their visit as a surprise. I hadn’t expected it or seen it coming. Just for the record, that was a pleasant surprise, but not every surprise is like that. Often hard and difficult things happen that we weren’t expecting. Is that what happened at the cross? Did Jesus get broadsided by a tragedy that he simply didn’t see?
It would be very hard to support this when we weigh up the words of the Bible. The Old Testament is full of pictures and promises of the cross. The most notable is found in Isaiah 53. Here we are told, ‘He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed’ (Isaiah 53:5). Approximately 750 years before Jesus was born God was telling us what would happen to his Son; he would die and die painfully.
It’s clear too that Jesus knew this and went to Jerusalem with a clear understanding of what would happen. Mark summarises his teaching to his disciples, ‘He then began to teach them that the Son of Man [Jesus] must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again’ (Mark 8:31). Jesus didn’t hang on the cross wondering what had all gone wrong. Rather, he hung there because he knew what would happen and still he went to Jerusalem, still he allowed himself to be rejected, still he kept quiet before Pilate and still he didn’t call the angels to save him.
Accidents happen. Things go wrong when we meant them to go right and often the consequences are extremely painful. Take a hammer, a bunch of nails and a piece of wood. It doesn’t take much hammering the nails into the wood before your arm gets tired, your aim goes off and the hammer will come crushing down on your tender and unprotected thumb. Ouch!!!! Don’t worry the throbbing stops after a few hours and thumb nail will grow back again. So was this what happened at the cross? Jesus meant to do something else, leisurely and easily, but instead the hammer slipped and he ended up with the brutality of the cross.
Certainly not! That’s the statement of Scripture. The cross was as intentional as you can get. Back to Isaiah 53; ‘it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer’ (Isaiah 53:10). God the Father meant for Jesus, his Son, to die on the cross. It wasn’t an accident.
Similarly, we are told in Luke’s Gospel of a change in Jesus ministry, ‘As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem’ (Luke 9:51). Jesus was going back to heaven, but before he did there was a job to do in Jerusalem. From other statements in the gospels we know that Jesus recognised this work as his death and resurrection. He intentionally went to Jerusalem on that Sunday with the sole purpose of dying on the cross later in the week.
The cross was not an accident; it was an intentional act of a sovereign God.
Well, if the cross wasn’t a surprise and it wasn’t an accident was it all a mistake? Look at Jesus hanging there all bloodied and torn and tell me that some part of you doesn’t want to ask, ‘what’s gone wrong?’ Certainly that was the way his disciples felt. Jesus had come full of miracles and powerful words. He had the potential to turn Judea upside down and now here he is hanging on a cross. It must be a big mistake and now evil has won the day.
No, that’s not how the Bible puts it; and it is not how we should see the cross because the cross was not the victory of evil over God, but the supreme and final victory of God over evil. Notice how Isaiah puts it, ‘he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed’ (Isaiah 53:5). The death of Jesus achieved something that could not be achieved in any other way, the saving of sinful people from God’s judgment for sin.
The cross was not a mistake because it was the central activity of God’s rescue plan for rebellious sinners like you and me. This rescue plan is first shown to us in Genesis 3:15 and we are shown its awesome completion when Jesus returns and brings his people into the New Heavens and the New Earth (Revelation 21-22). The work was done and the rescue completed 2000 years ago as Jesus hung on a piece of wood just outside Jerusalem, then buried in a tomb and on the third day rose again. As Jesus put it, ‘just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up [reference to the cross], that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life’ (John 3:14-15).
The sovereignty of God over all things is not an abstract truth without any bearing on us. Previous posts, I hope, have shown that it has bearing on the realities of life in a fallen world and here we see that it is interwoven into the heart of the good news of Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection. The cross is filled with hope because God is a sovereign God and he intended for it to happen. The glory of the gospel is not that Jesus died because God could not save him. Rather, it is that God knew what he was doing, ordered every step and sent his Son to die on the cross to destroy sin and death so that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. Now, that’s glorious!
Several years ago my wife and I went to a missionary talk that focused on the difficulties faced by Christians around the world as they are persecuted for their faith in Jesus. As we listened we were burdened to pray for those in far more difficult situations than ourselves and were compelled to sign up for a prayer bulletin. Since then, it has become our practice to use this bulletin each morning when we pray as a family. I cannot tell you how many times I've read the words with a broken heart, barely managing to keep my voice together.
Today many in Christ's church are experiencing horrendous ordeals. Some congregations are interrupted by the sound of machine guns being fired on them. Others need to keep a watchful eye out for the next bomb that might be planted in their meeting place. Parents have their daughters stolen away to be married to men they don't know and forced to renounce Jesus. Rape, pillaging, injustice, hatred, violence and much more are the risks that many believers face around the world on a daily basis. Even the authorities often back, or at least do nothing to prevent, the perpetrators of this persecution. On a human level it seems hopeless.
Why do these things happen? The Bible reminds us that this world is the arena of a battle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness (Ephesians 6:10-18). The explosion of this reality affects us in all kinds of ways. Why are there attacks on Christians in the workplace? Because of this battle. Why does a child who has committed her heart to Jesus face bullying for her faith? Because of this battle. Why does the church in certain countries have to hide away for fear of the authorities? Because of this battle.
When persecution comes we shouldn't be surprised. In fact, Jesus tells us that as Christians we should expect a level of persecution in this world. How else can we interpret words such as these, 'All men will hate you because of me [Jesus], but he who stands firm to the end will be saved' (Mark 13:13 NIV)? We are in a battle and find ourselves on a different side to the rest of the world, therefore we should expect to be under attack.
Yet, how should we understand this battle? Where is God in all this hardship? The Bible is clear as it teaches us about God's place in the battle between light and darkness. He is not fighting in this battle merely as one who has the potential to win should things go right for him. Instead, we are to understand that he is supreme in the battle. He is in control and could end it at a single stroke. He is in charge of every aspect and that includes the persecution of his people.
We can see this truth etched all over the Bible and all over history. In the book of Exodus we find God's people, Israel, going through a period of persecution. A new king comes to power who has no knowledge of how Joseph and God have served Egypt in the past. The Egyptians are in fear of a growing people and the result is, 'they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor' (Exodus 1:11). The battle between light and darkness is flaring up and God's people appear to be on the sharp end of it.
Yet, the Bible shows us that God is in control even in these events. Years before God had given Abraham a prophecy: 'know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years' (Genesis 15:13). Here God explained to Abraham precisely what will happen to the people of Israel, even down to the length of their persecution. How can he say that? One answer would be to say God knows the future. That is certainly true, but that is only half the answer. Biblical prophecy is not so much a statement from the foresight of God, but a statement of the intention of God. It is an intention that always comes true because he keeps his word and, as we consistently see in the Bible, he is in sovereign control of history.
Another way that we see God's control of the situation is in his treatment of Pharaoh and Egypt. He commissions a man named Moses to tell Pharaoh to let the people go. Pharaoh says "no" and this precipitates a series of ten plagues sent by God as judgment on Pharaoh. At the end of each plague Pharaoh has an opportunity to obey God, but he consistently refuses. However, the Bible tells us that this refusal is not only his own doing. At the start of the plagues we are told that Pharaoh hardened his heart, yet later we are told, 'the LORD hardened Pharaoh's heart' (Exodus 9:12). What does this tell us? God is not the author of evil, but he is in control of it. Pharaoh was as much under the jurisdiction of God as anyone else.
Lastly, we see God's control over this time of persecution in his eventual victory. After ten plagues Pharaoh relented and agreed that the people of Israel could leave and go back to the land of Canaan. It wasn't long, though, before he changed his mind and decided to chase them down. He tracked them down by the Red Sea. The Israelites were faced with the sea in front of them and the marauding Egyptian army behind them. Yet, they were on God's side. He separated the sea so that they could walk across and then he brought back the waters to engulf the entire army of Pharaoh. What do we see here? That in the end Pharaoh and whole of Egypt had no answer to the power and might of God. He, and he alone, is the sovereign King.
Acts 4 also shows us God's control over persecution. Here the early church have encountered the first major barrier in their evangelisation of the world – the antagonism of the Jewish authorities. Peter and John have been hauled up in front of the Sanhedrin (the same council so instrumental in bringing Jesus before Pilate) and ordered to cease from preaching about Jesus. When they return from their ordeal the church turned to God in prayer, and what a prayer it was!
What is remarkable is that they don't pray for the persecution to end. Instead, they remind themselves that God is completely sovereign and ask him to give them the strength to be faithful in the middle of the persecution. They quote Psalm 2, a song that speaks of a sovereign God whose will is carried out whether the rulers of the world like it or not; they remind themselves that Jesus' death was the outworking of God's will (more on this in the next post); and they throw themselves on the Lord in their situation. There is no doubt in their minds – the persecution they know is not an accident and it is not outside of the realm of God's control.
Another pointer to the sovereignty of God over the persecution of his people is found in the results of the oppressive treatment that Christians and the church undergo. As the second century preacher Tertullian observed, "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." Many have been inspired and much has occurred for the glory of Christ through the persecution and death of his people. Satan throws his worst at God's people and all he does is help to build the church. How ironic is that?
In Acts 7 Stephen is stoned. The result: the church spreads and many hear the gospel. In 1521 Martin Luther was hidden away in a castle to prevent him from being killed. The result: the translation of the New Testament into German and the writing of many books that helped the people to see the core truths of the gospel. 1954 foreign missionaries are expelled from China. The result: the church grows at an extraordinary rate with millions coming to faith. There is a pattern here. Over and over, from the jaws of the enemy's apparent victory comes the triumph of Jesus, the King of Kings.
Persecution is a reality that the church will face to greater or lesser degrees across the world. It is a painful and distressing thing, particularly for those who undergo it, but also for those who watch on. It raises many questions that God's word answers with the continual reminder that God is in control.
The book of Revelation was given to encourage churches, many of whom were undergoing persecution. Near the beginning of this vision given to John by Jesus he is shown a great big picture of the throne of God (Revelation 4). It is a sovereign, indestructible and untouchable throne. What a comfort to be reminded that God has all things in hand and the enemies of Jesus will never win the battle.
Last month Oprah Winfrey welcomed Joel Osteen, the Texas pastor, onto her show ‘Oprah’s Lifeclass’. I was surprised to hear that a ‘christian’ pastor was on an Oprah show so I watched some clips and later Osteen’s sermon, The power of I am that had made such an impression on Oprah. I wanted to share my reflections on this experience.
First, let me say that from a presentation point of view this was incredible. Osteen is slick, funny and comes across as an extremely nice guy. I can see why thousands might flock to hear him each week and many more will tune into his TV shows. He made you feel good and feel special. However, when you weigh up the content of his message it is a different story.
The best way I think I could summarise this message would be to call it the ‘gospel of positive thinking.’ Osteen’s main teaching point was to instruct us to declare positive things about ourselves. His premise, “Whatever follows ‘I am’ is going to come looking for you.” If you say good things about yourself your life will be transformed and you will have a better future. However, if you say bad things about yourself then you will end up being locked in a cycle of hardship and difficulty.
There were many things that concerned me, not least his mishandling of the Bible. For example, at one point in his sermon he referred to the 12 spies who returned to Moses from Canaan as a biblical proof of his claim for positive thinking (Numbers 13). However, it is quite clear that the problem with the 10 who gave a bad report was not, as Osteen claims, that they thought inadequately of themselves, it was that they thought inadequately of God. Caleb and Joshua didn’t have the right ‘I am’ they had the right ‘He is’.
Apart from the problem of Bible interpretation, the two main impressions that I was left with were these. First, Osteen’s message is hopeless. There can be no doubt that positive thinking does make a difference in our lives. How we think affects how we feel and, consequently, how we act. Yet, the Bible is clear that there are lots of negative things that are true about our lives and need to be faced up to. Most notably, we are sinners and deserve God’s judgement. To say otherwise is both to lie and to cover up what needs to be exposed so that we might bring it to God to be dealt with. Positive thinking doesn’t change reality so if that’s all there is we are without hope.
Second, Osteen’s message is Christless. After listening to this message I was shocked. The name of Jesus wasn’t even mentioned once as Osteen spoke. When he gave the invitation at the end for people to commit their life to Jesus my thought was; who’s Jesus? This was the killer for me. A lot of what was being said would be helpful and true if only two words were added to those ‘I am’ statements. ‘I am strong.’ No that’s a lie, but, ‘In Christ I am strong’ – now that’s true. ‘I am approved by God.’ Well, that’s a bit woolly because I’m not sure what you mean, but, ‘In Christ I am approved by God’ – now that is 100% correct. ‘I am somebody with a great future.’ Is that true? This is: ‘Because of Christ I am somebody with a fantastic future.’ The Bible is so clear, it is Jesus that makes the difference in our lives and it was Jesus that Osteen never pointed us to, never showed us and never even mentioned.
The Bible says that people ‘will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear’ (2 Timothy 4:3). Sadly, that’s what I heard in this message. Here was a talk that made you feel good and told you that you were amazing, but didn’t point you to Jesus. Instead, it numbed you to Jesus. That’s not what we need, it’s not helpful and it’s not nice.
As a pastor I often find myself visiting the various hospitals around Swansea. This is not something that I find easy. Don't get me wrong, I count it a privilege to share with people in their moments of need. I find it a joy to love and serve people by pointing them to Jesus. I find myself blessed by these visits - probably far more than they are blessed by having me visit them. However, I cannot escape the fact that hospitals are full of sick and injured people and, as such, are places of often terrible suffering.
I sense the same tension as I visit people in their homes who haven't been able to make it to our Sunday gatherings due to long term sickness. It is great to see them, a delight to serve them and an encouragement to meet with them. Yet, there is also a sense of deep sadness and a desire to weep as I watch on from the outside and see the suffering they are going through.
Where do sickness and physical impairments come from and why are they here? Do you ever ask that question? When we look at the beginning and the end of the Bible we see that illness and pain were not part of God's original blueprint for humanity nor part of his eternal plan for the new heavens and the new earth (Revelation 21:4). So why are they a reality today? Is it because God is helpless to change things?
As we read the Bible it should be clear that this answer is incorrect. There are reasons for suffering and many of them apply to sickness and physical problems, but one of them is certainly not the weakness of God. In the Bible God demonstrates that he is in control of this realm as well as every other realm where we can experience suffering.
This can be seen in three accounts in the Bible. The first is an account we have already looked at: the suffering of Job. In the book of Job we encounter a faithful follower of God who suffers in a devastating way. At the beginning of the book Job loses family, property and physical well-being and is left in a grieving and painful condition. His wife challenges the consistency of his faith in God and this prompts one of Job's most well-known statements, "You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?" (Job 2:10).
It is important to note that Job's words are more than a reminder of the continuation of Job's faith. They are also a clear declaration that the circumstances of his suffering, loss and illness, are firmly under the sovereign control of God himself.
But, is that strictly true? In Job 1 we eavesdrop on a conversation between God and Satan. As a result we know (although Job doesn't) that Satan has challenged God about the faithfulness of Job and that God has given Satan permission to stretch out his hand against Job and inflict him with sickness. Could Job's statement be misguided and based on his own ignorance of the situation? No, as shown in an earlier post, Job 1 teaches us that Satan is the agent of Job's suffering, but God is the one in control.
One of the lessons of Job is that Satan can go no further than God allows and permits him to. The devil cannot touch Job's home, family or body outside of the limits that God has set. Job is not sick because God has been duped by the trickery of Satan. Rather, not one ounce of Job's suffering can occur outside of the will and permission of God.
God's sovereignty over physical impairment is also shown in an encounter between Jesus and a man who was born blind (John 9). The disciples begin the conversation with a probing question. They ask Jesus, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?" (John 9:2). Their question reflects a common view of the day that the presence of suffering was a sign of God's displeasure and judgment for sin. Jesus replied as follows, '"Neither this man nor his parents sinned,... but this has happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life"' (John 9:3).
Jesus' response dispels a simplistic view of the reasons for suffering and affirms God's sovereign purpose in the man's blindness. Clearly Jesus teaches here that there is not a “one size fits all” response to human suffering. It may be that suffering is a direct or indirect result of personal sin, however there are also many other reasons that the Bible gives for suffering in our lives. This is something we have to bear in mind whenever we seek to answer the 'why' question.
Whatever the specific purpose for the suffering of this man, it is as important to see that Jesus does not deny, rather he affirms, that God does have a purpose in it and, therefore, is sovereign over it. The man is not blind because God made a mistake. Instead, we are to see his blindness as part of the outworking of the plans and purposes of a sovereign God.
In Luke 7 we meet a centurion whose servant is sick and about to die. He sends a delegation of Jewish leaders to Jesus asking him to come and heal his servant. Jesus agrees and sets out for the centurion's house. Before he gets there the centurion sends another delegation, this time some friends, with this important message, "Lord, don't trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof... say the word, and my servant will be healed" (Luke 7:6-7 NIV). His reasoning is insightful: "for I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, 'Go,' and he goes; and that one, 'Come,' and he comes" (Luke 7:8).
The centurion is a man who understands authority from both perspectives. He has people over him and knows that when they speak he must obey. He also has men under him who must listen to his command. He understands that Jesus is in a position of authority, but authority with a difference. The authority that Jesus wields is not simply over a few men within the army, but over the whole of creation, including the sickness that is ravaging the body of his servant. He understands that when Jesus speaks the sickness must listen and obey, no questions asked.
At the end of the encounter we see that the centurion wasn't mistaken in his understanding about Jesus. Jesus' words aren't recorded in Luke, but the outcome is. The friends return and find the servant restored to health, not 'being restored' but totally and immediately healed. Jesus commanded and the sickness obeyed. These aren't two powers battling for prominence. Jesus is clearly in charge and sickness must follow his orders.
Illness and physical impairment is something that is greatly feared today. We spend billions on research as we attempt to come up with the latest cures and medical techniques, yet, ultimately, we are losing the battle. No cure is certain, no recovery is definite and in the end something will 'get us'. This is something that we cannot conquer, but then it is not something we need to; for, as the Bible teaches, God is in charge and has all things within his grasp. Not one germ can affect my body, not one cancer cell can develop within me and not one blood vessel can be damaged outside of the will and permission of a good and perfect God.
At a recent conference I heard a reference to a survey that asked people to think of one word that would sum up the 20th Century. Evidently, one of the top words that was given was 'genocide'. At first this surprised me, but a trip to Google and an attempt to come to grips with even the most conservative estimates of the data changed things. The 20th Century has seen some of the most horrendous acts of genocide ever recorded.
Mao Ze Dong was the leader of the Chinese Republic from 1945 to 1976. It is estimated that over 50 million people were killed under the brutality of his regime. Hitler was the infamous leader of Germany at the time of the 2nd World War. During his rule around 12 million were murdered in concentration camps and in other ways and many others lost their lives as a result of his determination to rule the world. At the same time as Hitler held the reigns in Germany, Stalin was the ruler in nearby Russia. It is estimated that 6 million were killed in the Gulags, the purges and the Ukraine famine. Pol Pot was a revolutionary and later the leader of Cambodia. His death toll, 1.7 million.
(The above figures have been taken from Piere Scaruffi's list at http://www.scaruffi.com/politics/dictat.html . There is quite a bit of variation concerning the precise figures.)
These figures portray acts of horrendous injustice. These acts come from the despicable treatment of people by those in leadership over them. They brought about needless loss of life to satisfy the greed, pride and power-hungry thirst of those in power. They also raise a very serious question regarding the sovereignty of God: where was God while all this was taking place?
When we ask that question of the Bible, the answer we receive is this: God was in the same place as he always has been and always will be, on the throne guiding and directing the course of history. The evil acts of these evil regimes did not come into existence because God is having an "off" day. Rather, not one of these rulers or their actions occurred outside of the will and permission of a good, sovereign and almighty God.
The biblical proof for this comes in at least three strands that can be summarised in the following three statements. First, God appoints all authorities by his sovereign hand. Second, God is bigger than any empire or power on earth. Third, God allows evil regimes so that his purposes are accomplished.
In Romans 13:1-7, the Apostle Paul is teaching about the right attitude that a christian should have to authority. He begins by urging a spirit of submission and respect and his reason for this is: 'for there is no authority except that which God has established' (Romans 13:1). Then, as if anticipating our natural rebellion to authority, he says again, 'the authorities that exist have been established by God' (Romans 13:1). Authority is encountered in various forms; a manager at work or a parent in the home all the way through to the prime minister of a country. Yet, each one, as this verse teaches, is established by the sovereign hand of God.
It is also worth noting that this statement doesn't come with the caveat 'good authority' and there is no way of injecting that into the text or the context of the passage. The readers were living in Rome and Nero was the emperor - the same Nero who notoriously persecuted followers of Jesus and is thought to have started the great fire of Rome killing many and destroying homes in order to clear some land to build a bigger palace. Hardly a candidate for leader of the year, yet the Bible teaches he is reigning in Rome because God has established him there.
The same truth is stated in a conversation between Jesus and Pilate not long before Jesus is crucified on the cross. Pilate is frustrated because Jesus doesn't speak up for himself and blurts out a challenge: '"Don't you realise that I have power either to free you or to crucify you?" Jesus answered, "You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above"' (John 19:10-11). Pilate is in a position of authority in Judea and humanly speaking it has come about due to service and recognition from the powers that be. However, Jesus points out that behind all of this is the sovereign and establishing hand of God. Pilate is there, as with Nero in Rome later in the same century, because God had placed him there.
There is perhaps an ease in accepting this teaching in the case of rulers who lived almost 2000 years ago. We don't know them and haven't had to live through the effects of their misused authority. However, if we started applying this to the men named above, those such as Hitler, Stalin and Mao Ze Dong we might find it a little more difficult. Did God really establish them into positions of authority? The Bible confronts us with the answer that, yes, he did. Remember, when Paul wrote he did not do so from a 2000 year viewpoint. He wrote while Nero enacted his injustices upon the city and empire in which his readers lived. Is it any wonder he felt he had to repeat, 'the authorities that exist have been established by God' (Romans 13:1)?
Not only does the Bible teach that God establishes all authorities, but it also teaches that no human empire can ever make a serious claim to challenge his rule and reign. Isaiah 40:21-24 makes this point in a powerful way. In this passage we see the reign and authority of God pictured as a throne sitting above the circle of the earth and the heavens stretched out as a tent to live in. Here Isaiah draws on two images from royal life.
The first is the architecture of a throne room. This room would be on at least 2 levels. There would be the main floor where the courtiers stood and then, raised above the rest, there would be the level of the platform where the thrones stood. Height symbolised authority and significance. Isaiah's point is clear, God doesn't sit on a raised platform in a throne room on earth, his authority is so overarching he sits raised above the world itself.
The second picture seems to reflect the nation at war. The army is marching out to war and night falls so they set up camp. As you walk through the tents you approach the middle of the camp. Here you find the most elaborate and the largest tent of them all. It is the royal tent where the king stays. Like height in the throne room, here size and adornment symbolise authority and significance. Isaiah pushes us to begin to grasp the grandness of God's reign, his tent is the vastness and magnificence of the heavens.
The next thing that Isaiah does is draw a comparison with the reign of earthly rulers and the reign of the one true and living God. Or, rather, he shows that there is no comparison. He is the God who can end the reign of earthly princes at a word, he will outlast them all and he blows and they are gone. God issues the challenge, "to whom will you compare me?" (Isaiah 40:25). There can be no answer, at no point can even the greatest prince match or begin to approach the power, authority and reign of God himself.
This truth is played out on the canvas of history as we read about God's dealings with the world in the Old Testament. At Babel, in Genesis 11, people joined together to exert their will and dominance over God. Did it succeed? Not in the slightest, God sent confusion and from that point on different languages were spoken. In the time of Moses, Pharoah sought to overturn God's plan, but he could do nothing to prevent the plagues or his eventual destruction. Nebuchadnezzer, perhaps the most powerful king in the ancient world, was humbled by God and made to eat grass like the cattle (Daniel 4) until he acknowledged the sovereign rule of God.
Earthly powers and rulers can seem a formidable proposition to us. What can we do to prevent the mass injustices that are performed on a daily basis in our world today? However, the Bible shows us that they are not formidable foes to God. He is so much greater and so much more powerful than they are. Acknowledging that truth does raise certain questions. For instance, why did God not prevent the emergence of the concentration camp during the 2nd World War? He could, of that there is no doubt, but he allowed them to come into being and be used for such terrible purposes.
These are real and painful questions and we will try and answer some of the "whys" of suffering in a later part of this discussion. This is important for the Bible teaches that God is not only sovereign, he is also good. However, for now try and think of the alternative and see the comfort of what God has told us in his word. Imagine, if these regimes were stronger than God, what then? Imagine what the 20th century would have been like if they really could plot their own path into ever increasing evil? Isn't there a comfort that over all rulers, bad and good, is the loving, merciful and righteous rule of a sovereign God?
The prophet Habakkuk begins his book with a complaint to God about the situation in Judah (Habakkuk 1:1-4). He describes a scene of injustice and godlessness in the land. He is surrounded by a people who do not love God and things are in a real mess. God's answer horrifies the stricken prophet. Instead of coming and reviving the hearts of his people God is going to deal with the problem by bringing in the Babylonians. In fact God's words are stronger and more active than that, 'I am raising up the Babylonians' (Habakkuk 1:6). That statement doesn't cause too much difficulty until it is combined with what God tells us about the Babylonians. They are, 'that ruthless and impetuous people' (Habakkuk 1:6) and, 'they are a law to themselves and promote their own honour' (Habakkuk 1:7).
The prophet's response seems perfectly reasonable in the circumstances, 'O LORD, you have appointed them to execute judgment' (Habakkuk 1:12 - emphasis mine). He follows this up with the obvious question, 'Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous?' (Habakkuk 1:13). Habakkuk spends the rest of his book wrestling with this tension as God shows him that Judah deserves what he is bringing upon them and calls Habakkuk to trust him.
The first chapter of Habakkuk teaches the sovereignty of God over the nations, even evil ones, but does so with an important qualification. While God is certainly in charge, he is not the source of the evil that these nations perform. As God speaks about the evils of the Babylonians it is very clear that this is what they are, rather than what God will make them. Verse 7, 'They are a feared and dreaded people'. Verse 8, 'They fly like a vulture swooping to devour'. Verse 10, 'They deride kings and scoff at rulers'. Or most pointedly verse 11, 'they sweep past like the wind and go on - guilty men, whose own strength is their god.' Here is an evil nation that God is using and raising up for his purposes, but at no point is God to be considered the author of their evil. Similarly, at no point are we given the sense that the nation, its authorities or its armies will not be held to account for their actions.
Isaiah leads us to the same understanding as he pronounces God's judgement on Assyria a few decades earlier. Here God indicates how he raised up the Assyrians and used them for his good and perfect purposes against Israel and Judah. However, God also says, 'this is not what he intends, this is not what he has in mind; his purpose is to destroy, to put an end to many nations' (Isaiah 10:7).
We can summarise this teaching with two questions. First, as the Assyrians marched on Israel who was in charge? The Bible's shows us that God was. The Assyrians wouldn't have existed as a nation nor the King of Assyria as their king if God had not established them. The army would not have been able to march a millimetre in the direction of Damascus if God had not allowed it. Now the second question; where did the evil acts of the Assyrians come from? The answer given in Isaiah and backed up with God's description of the Babylonians in Habakkuk is that the evil came from the wicked hearts of the Assyrian leaders and soldiers.
No Christian ever seems to have a problem in accepting God's sovereignty when it comes to good authority. A new manager at work who is understanding and sympathetic is seen as an answer to prayer. A politician who fights for what is right and acts with common sense is seen as God's provision. However, the Bible forces us to see God's sovereignty even where leadership rises that doesn't fit the 'good' pattern. No leader or authority, good or bad, can be raised up or in fact do anything outside of God's will and permission.
Where was God during the 20th century as millions died? We must not belittle the pain of these events or reduce the shock that such horrendous evil should implant in our hearts. Neither should we overlook the confusion that such events rightly raise in our finite minds as we try to grapple with the purposes of an infinite God. However, we can and should find great comfort and hope in the truth that the Bible so clearly states, that during all these things God, who is perfect and holy, was in the place where he has always been, on the throne of all history. None of these events happened because God had lost his grip on the world and Satan had gained the upper hand. Just think how scary that would be as we face the years to come.
I was at the University of North Texas when a tornado came through the area. You could feel the change in atmosphere and the uncertainty as we rehearsed in our minds the emergency drill for just such an occasion. Thankfully, for us, the heart of the storm ended up passing several miles away. However, the same could not be said of those living in Fort Worth. The next day I saw the effects from the Interstate Highway. Downtown Fort Worth looked like it had been struck by a bomb with windows boarded up and carnage clearly visible.
That day was the first time I was really struck with the power of the forces of nature and the devastation that can easily ensue. It was only a small storm compared with many others, yet it left a clear impression upon me. We live in a volatile world where natural disasters are a regular occurrence. The question, though, has to be: are they a random occurrence? To us they may feel that way, but the Bible gives us a very different picture. It tells us that the elements of nature are firmly under the Triune God's sovereign control.
God's charge over nature is first shown to us implicitly, although not in any disguised sense, in the first chapter of the Bible. Here God is revealed as the creator of the heavens and the earth. He is the one who separates the water and brings the universe into being. The picture is of a king taking hold and making the world that he wants from a position of sovereign authority.
God's influence in creation does not end in the early chapters of Genesis. There have been those that have advocated that God is like a watchmaker who makes a watch, winds it up and then lets it go. This line of thought leads us to believe that God has wound up the universe and it now winds its way along on its own. That is not the God of the Bible. Consider these words about Jesus: 'The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word' (Hebrews 1:3).This means that on a second by second basis, God through His Son is upholding and sustaining the creation. Or, to put it more starkly, if Jesus was to stop sustaining, the creation would cease to exist.
Immediately, as we open our Bibles, we are confronted with a God who is above all things and over all things. The earth is his, the heavens are his and he shapes and moulds it as he chooses.
Later in the Bible this expression of God's sovereignty is made far more explicit. In the book of Job, Job is a man trying to make sense of the suffering and not being helped all that much by his three so-called comforters. Near the end a younger man called Elihu joins the conversation and does a little better, especially when he points Job towards God. Hear his words, 'Do you know how God controls the clouds and makes his lightning flash? Do you know how the clouds hang poised' (Job 37:15-16).
Elihu is on to something as the next voice we hear is that of God himself picking up the same theme, 'Have you entered the storehouses of the snow or seen the storehouses of the hail, which I reserve for times of trouble, for days of war and battle?' (Job 38:22-23). In both these passages we are confronted with a God who is not at the mercy of the elements, nor one who is working with the elements, but one who is in charge of the whole created order.
The Psalms is also a book that constantly confronts us with God's sovereignty over the forces of nature. Near the end of the book of Psalms, in Psalm 148, we read these words, 'Praise the LORD from the earth, you great sea creatures and all ocean depths, lightning and hail, snow and clouds, stormy winds that do his bidding' (Psalm 148:7-8). Here the elements are described as God's servants, similar to the angels in Psalm 103:20, who come and go at his command and carry out his sovereign plan.
This sovereign control is being worked out in 1 Kings 19 as God reveals himself to a ministry weary Elijah. We read of a wind coming on the mountain that shatters the rocks and an earthquake that shakes the mountain (1 Kings 19:11). Next comes a great fire followed by the gentle whisper of the LORD. Now, it is true, the main point of this passage is not God's sovereignty over the elements of nature, but isn't it remarkable how God can summon the wind, earthquake and fire at his command as he teaches Elijah about his character and nature? There can be no denying that the passage teaches us that the elements are under his command.
Perhaps the clearest statement of God's authority over nature comes in one of the miracles of Jesus. One evening Jesus was crossing the Sea of Galilee in a boat with his disciples (Mark 4:35-41). Jesus takes the opportunity to have some well deserved rest in the stern leaving his disciples to handle the practicalities. That night a violent storm came up on the lake shaking the boat and its occupants to the core. They rushed to Jesus, woke him and with terrified hearts cried out, 'don't you care if we drown' (Mark 4:38).
A few years ago Anita and I decided to go on a dolphin cruise off the coast of west Wales. As advised, we rang up the office in the morning to see if the trip was still on. The reply was a hopeful 'yes' with a bit of concern about the windy conditions. Finally the decision was taken to proceed and we headed out to the boat. The first part of the cruise was fine, until we hit the open sea. Suddenly the calm gentle water seemed to turn into an undulating monstrosity of towering waves and ravine-like troughs. To me it didn't appear to be safe and I was more than a little concerned that we may not be returning from our trip. However, when I looked at the skipper of the boat he was relaxed and calm. What was the difference? He had been there before, I hadn't. He knew there was no need to panic.
It is important to remember as we read this passage that the disciples were not novices on the Sea of Galilee. Many of them were experienced fishermen who had made their daily living on the water for several years. They had grown up there and knew the water and the boats they were in like the backs of their hands. If they were frightened this was a treacherous and dangerous storm.
What happens next is absolutely staggering. Jesus gets up, speaks to the wind and the waves and immediately the lake is as calm as a mill pond and the air as peaceful as a quiet summer evening. Just a word, that's all it took. No wonder the disciples ask, 'Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!' (Mark 4:41). This is not just a man with great authority, this is somebody with ultimate authority; he is the Son of God.
To us the forces of nature are frightening things. We might be able to harness the power of the waves to generate electricity, but we can do nothing to stop a tsunami ransacking villages, towns and cities as it forces its way across miles and miles of land. We might be able to give a fairly accurate forecast for the weather over the next 24 hours, but we cannot determine it, change it or mould it in any way. We feel so small and helpless when we face up to these immense things.
However, the Bible teaches us that God does not live at the mercy of the weather. The elements do not dominate God, rather he commands them; not one wave can form, no matter how small, except by his will and permission.
I remember the first gift I ever gave to my wife Anita. Soon after we had met, I had overheard her telling somebody how much she loved Tolkien's book, The Lord of The Rings and how sad she was that she had lost her copy. It wasn't long before I found myself at the local bookshop and buying her a copy.
There are many story lines that run through Tolkien's novel, but at the heart of it is the battle of good and evil. In the end, good triumphs. Yet, as you flip the pages and follow the characters on their adventures, you are never quite sure if this will be the final outcome. The side of evil certainly seems to hold the edge in the power stakes, and eventually it is an act of blind courage, some may say recklessness, on the part of the good guys, and the self-destruction of greed that wins the day.
To many, Tolkien's portrayal of good and evil may well be an apt illustration of the relationship between God and the Devil. Two opposing forces fighting it out over time, fairly matched and not really certain about who will win in the end. However, this is a far cry from the picture the Bible paints. There we are told that Satan is not God's equal. Instead, he was created by God and lives under his charge and authority.
The first place we encounter Satan is in Genesis 3. Here he enters the Garden of Eden as the deceiver who successfully tempts Eve, and indirectly Adam, to disobey God. After this act of disobedience God enters the scene. He questions the three in turn, like a judge in the ancient world, seeking to unearth the culprit of a crime. In this role of judge, God pronounces judgement on the three parties and Adam and Eve are removed from the garden.
As we observe these events we get our first glimpse into the relationship between Satan and God. It is interesting to note the way God interacts with Satan. His words are not those of the sledging sportsman trying to gain the upper hand, but the calculated judgement of a sovereign king.
We see this authority displayed even more clearly when we think of the fulfilment of God's judgement (Genesis 3:14-15) as Jesus defeated Satan's power on the cross (Colossians 2:15). Satan was powerless to stop God or to prevent his word from coming true. God is the king, Satan is under his authority.
Another passage that gives insight into God's authority over Satan is found in the introduction to the book of Job. Job is a book that really gets to grips with the question of suffering. The book breaks into three parts. In the first we are told about Job, a wealthy man who loses almost everything - possessions and family - through various tragedies. The second part contains an ongoing conversation between Job and his friends as they seek to make sense of their situation. The book ends with God having the final word and revealing himself as the sovereign God who holds all of creation in his hand.
At the beginning of the book of Job we are taken behind the scenes to see a meeting between Satan and God that Job is not privy to. There we find God delighting in his servant Job and Satan challenging Job's faithfulness. The result is that God agrees to let Satan 'have a go' at Job. His words show us clearly who holds the authority. God replies, 'Very well, then, everything he has is in your hands, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.' (Job 1:12 NIV84). First, God gives his permission, for without it Satan cannot do anything. Second, he sets the boundaries, which Satan cannot exceed.
Until recently we had a family dog called Molly. It was my task to walk her each morning. The two of us would leave the house and walk down the road joined together by a piece of chain. Most of the time this chain was loosely hanging between us, but every now and again Molly would seek to wander to the left or right, to pull ahead or behind. When this happened I would yank on the lead and pull her back to her place by my side. It was clear in these times who was in charge. This is what is happening here between God and Satan. God has hold of the chain and he has set the limits. If the Devil were to try and move outside them he would find himself feeling a sharp tug returning him to his rightful place.
Near the end of the Bible we have another passage that shows, like those above and many others, that God and Satan are not 'equals' fighting it out. Instead, God is in total control of the situation. In Revelation 20:7-10 we read about the end of the Devil. This is described to us as a great battle between the Devil and his people and Christ and his people. In the account Satan raises a fearful army that is said to be as numerous as the sand on the seashore. Even though his army is so large the battle is not long. Fire comes from heaven and without fuss the army is devoured and Satan is thrown into hell.
Imagine a scene. It is a first round match in the Wimbledon tennis championships. On one side of the court is Roger Federer, seven times winner. On the other side is a child of 12 months who can barely stand, let alone hold a tennis racquet and strike the ball. Who do you think will win? It's a no brainer really. The child is so out-classed, so out-muscled and will be so out-played that he will probably not even win a single point. That's the picture here of God and Satan. The Devil brings his best to the battlefield and God just destroys him in a single swipe.
So who's in charge as Satan works? It is clear that the Devil is evil and desires to harm the purposes of God, the people of God and anything that God has made. He is very much responsible for his actions. However, he is not free, in the fullest sense of that word, to do anything he pleases. Rather, he is very firmly under the rule and authority of a sovereign God. He can do nothing more or less than God has determined.
We live in a world that has the fingerprints of Satan stamped across it. Nations are damaged by the greed of wicked rulers. Satan's influence is showing. Injustice and corruption are rife across the globe. Satan is gaining a foothold. Forget, if we may, the global things for we don't really even need to go out of our homes to see this. A child lies to his parents or a father makes a promise he has no intention of keeping. Satan's blueprint is being displayed (John 8:44).
In such a world it is a great encouragement to know that Satan's work is restrained and governed by the hand of a sovereign and good God. He will not win and he cannot do anything that God does not will and permit. The truth of the Bible brings hope and comfort: God rules over Satan's work.
“He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: “What have you done?” Daniel 4:35 (NIV 1984)
Our tendency is to jump into the conversation on suffering with a barrel full of 'why' questions. There is good reason for this. Generally speaking, the main times we turn our thoughts in this direction is in the middle of tragedy and disaster. At these moments we are not so concerned with underlying beliefs, but frantically clawing around for a reason why.
However, the Bible doesn't hit the subject of suffering head-on in this way. In his word God does give us a framework from which to understand suffering in the world and in the church. It is not a framework that hangs in mid-air above an empty abyss; rather, it is like a great tower set upon a solid and secure foundation. This bedrock is the reality of God's sovereignty over all things.
It is right that we begin here as we seek to see what the Bible has to say about suffering. But before we begin, let me throw in an important statement that is particularly relevant when we are considering God's sovereignty in relation to suffering. The truth that God is in sovereign charge of all things does not equate to the lie that God is the author of evil.
The realm of suffering is vast and the causes are hugely varied. Some suffering is the result of natural causes and other suffering is the result of the wicked acts of people. Some experiences are clearly the direct consequence of the interference of Satan, while others comes about within the normal expectations of the life we live.
The Bible teaches that God is in charge of all things and that nothing happens except by his express will, but that at the same time he is not the root or the cause of evil (James 1:13). Because of this, it is important to note that sometimes his will is worked out permissively, and at other times more actively. Hopefully this will become clear as we look at this more closely.
What we are exploring here is not so much the mechanics of how God works out his will, and how the different acts of different people fit within that; rather, we are seeking to show that no suffering occurs except by the will and permission of God. Essentially, no matter what we will go through, God is on the throne and in control of the situation.
Last Spring I preached a series of sermons on the subject of God and Suffering. Sadly, the recording equipment that we were using decided to stop functioning and the result was something more akin to an MI6 code message than a coherent and edifying message from God's word. I had the option of re-preaching these messages to the empty pews in our main auditorium or re-working them as a series of blog posts. You can guess which I found the more appealing!
So, why this theme? Or, perhaps your questions is more, "why do you feel the need to write these posts having already preached the material to your church?"
Over the last year or so we have known 'good times' as a church. However, mixed in with this joy have been episodes of pronounced suffering. Families have been rocked by illness and suffering of various kinds has been prevalent in the church to which we belong.
As a pastor I have had the humbling role of coming alongside people in their hour of need, to cry with them and to try to help them to see some sense in what is happening by pointing them to the overwhelming and matchless promises of 'Our Father in heaven'. This has not always been easy and I have often found myself lost for words and wondering just what I can say as I have stood with those who are suffering so much more than I have done.
It is out of this situation that I sought afresh to search out what God says in the Bible on the subject of suffering. As I did this I found that God does not hide behind the cloud of anonymity. Rather, he is upfront, clear and often makes us uncomfortable with his blatant honesty. Yet, however much we might struggle with the hard stuff the overwhelming message of the Bible's teaching on suffering is one of hope and encouragement focused in God's wonderful promise that all things work together for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28).
So that is the reason I'm writing on this theme, but the question still remains why write it? There are four reasons why I think this is important enough to spend the time writing it down. First, because God has written it in the Bible. The Bible says a lot about suffering, there are in fact whole books that hinge around the subject, and this truth has clearly not been given for us to ignore. Second, the way we respond to suffering in many ways is determined by the understanding that we have of these truths. For example, if you have a firm conviction of God's goodness and sovereignty in all things you will approach suffering from a very different position than the person who does not have these anchor points in their core beliefs.
Third, so that our praying might be informed with a deep sense of God's truth. That we will suffer and have friends/family that suffer is beyond doubt. That we will want to pray for them is again beyond question. Yet, how do you pray, in a God-honouring way, for someone who has just been diagnosed with cancer? What do you pray as you stand next to somebody who has just had their child taken in a car accident?
Then lastly, so we can be of help to others. As you experience suffering among people you know and love you will want to help them. You will want to be used of God to bring light where there is darkness and to minister peace where there is turmoil. How can you do that? The only way I know is to point people beyond themselves and beyond the situation to the Father of all compassion who understands the end from the beginning. It is here that Job's eyes were turned as he sought the Lord's answer to his suffering and it is here that Paul turns us as we find ourselves pressed down with the weight of anxiety (Philippians 4:6-7). To do that you need what the Bible teaches about suffering.
In putting these posts together the plan is to group them in four parts with a few posts in each part. Part two and three will deal with the why question. This is where most people like to enter the conversation, however I've found it's not where the Bible begins. In the first part I will seek to establish a fundamental undergirding truth that sits behind every discussion of suffering in the scriptures - God's absolute and total sovereignty. The last part looks forward and beyond the return of Jesus to the future hope of the new heavens and the new earth, a time without "death or mourning or crying or pain".
My prayer is that these posts might be helpful in understanding God's truth, encouraging in that it might be easier to see that God is good even when suffering is present, but most of all they might be used to equip God's people so that in the middle of the hard times Christ might be exalted in the way we live, respond and cling to him.