Suffering is a big topic, one that everyone is passionate about. Why? Because, on some level or other, we all experience suffering. Be it a loved one who dies prematurely, a mother that is bedridden, needing our constant attention, a young child with a debilitating disease, an entire nation destroyed by earthquakes and tsunamis or having your pastor burned alive for loving Jesus.
People like me, who don’t shut up about God’s goodness and His good and glorious purposes towards us, often come under scrutiny for not talking about suffering enough, it can often seem like we have scored out certain parts of our Bibles. I don’t blame many people for thinking this, however it couldn’t be further from the truth.
You see I have experienced my fair share of suffering, I was extremely ill and stuck in my house for the best part of 6 years. My mother has died multiple times and still suffers daily from the after effects of a brain hemorrhage, I am daily persecuted for my beliefs and have been ostracized from certain friendship circles and churches I once called my closest families. I do not say this to gain pity, but rather to point out that I’m just like everyone else out there, I too experience suffering (maybe more than some, definitely a lot less than many!).
So why don’t I talk about these things, why do I seem so intently one-track-minded?
I’m currently working on a small book focusing on this topic of suffering, but since that will not be available for several months I wanted to put a few thoughts out there for people to read in the mean time. These thoughts are not comprehensive, and may leave many with more questions still, but they should serve to give you an idea of where I’m coming from and hopefully will challenge people in their views of suffering. The topics I’m going to touch on briefly are, the biblical context of suffering, God’s will concerning suffering, God’s ability to work good in all situations and most importantly…
The Sovereignty of God
Did I just go there? I did. I think there are few topics as important to address as the sovereignty of God.
The word sovereign has for so long been interpreted to mean that God is in control. That He is up in Heaven somewhere as a grand master puppeteer working out every aspect of our lives: if we brush our teeth it’s God’s will, if we get hit by a car it’s God’s will, if we get cancer it’s God’s will, and so on.
The problem with this is that it’s really quite drastically unscriptural. The idea of a sovereign God as described above isn’t in the Bible. First of all, for everyone that uses the NIV as your translation (and I want to state it’s a great translation) there is something you should know. Every time you read “Sovereign God” (288 times to be precise) it actually should read “Lord God”. The Hebrew does not mean sovereign and that was a translator’s decision. Secondly, where the word sovereign is used it does not mean in control, it means in charge. Did you catch that? Here exactly is our problem. In charge and in control sound very alike but are actually widely different.
Take for example a CEO of a company, while he is in charge and responsible for a large amount of employees he ultimate isn’t in control of their actions, in fact this is typically what makes or breaks a good employer, whether they can recognize this and empower their employees or if they will try to control them by micromanaging every move they make. Just like the employer, God is in charge, this is what His sovereignty means, He is over everything, answers to nobody and has responsibility for everything. From the very beginning God chose his “employees”, those He would delegate responsibility to and put in control of the Earth. It talks about this in Psalm 115:16 where it says the Heavens are God’s but the Earth He gave to men. We then see man hand those keys of authority to Satan in the garden of Eden. This is why Satan could offer Jesus in the wilderness the whole Earth, because the whole Earth was no longer under Jesus’ control but rather it belonged to Satan. (Matt 4:8-9)
The idea of a God having absolute control is a Greco-Roman way of thinking, you see they would see a god who doesn’t have absolute control as a powerless god. The Bible paints a different picture for us of a God who is so secure in His position and power that He comfortably gave us control knowing we’d screw up. He could do this because He is so good at working things out for good and seeing His overall purposes come to pass. This to me describes a God who is infinitely more powerful, not less-so.
Why do you think that Jesus told us to pray that God’s will would be done on Earth as it is in Heaven? Because His will is done in Heaven but not always on Earth. Why do you think Jesus raised dead people, or healed them? Because it wasn’t God’s will for them to die or to be sick. You see in 2 Peter 3:9 it states that God’s will is that none would perish. If we hold to the view of God being in absolute control we are left with two options, we must either become universalists (and call Jesus a liar for saying that many will perish) or we must tear that passage out of our Bible. Rather if we read that passage in context we can see that it is simply stating that not everyone will be saved, but God is good and His desire is that they would be.
Love can only exist in freedom
In Paul’s famous discourse on love in 1 Corinthians 13 he states “Love does not insist on its own way”
You see for love to be possible God must allow us to have free will within His sovereignty. Love without choice is no love at all. If one is not free to choose to hate someone then they can never truly love them. I love that my wife loves me, but if I had somehow brainwashed her into loving me before we got married I’m certain I would not be as happy today as I am knowing she makes the choice of her own accord everyday to love me.
When I look at the creation account I don’t see God interested in having robots in the garden but friends who choose to love Him. He even created two trees within that garden and gave them a choice, “don’t eat from that tree or you’ll die”. Their freedom to choose was more important to Him than the choice they made.
This is why I can confidently say that God’s sovereignty is not His being in control of every aspect of our lives and the lives of everyone else, but rather Him being over our lives and the lives of everyone else.
But what about 1 Peter 4:19; is suffering God’s will?
A lot of people bring up this verse when we talk about suffering. At first glance this passage is pretty condemning of what I am trying to say, but I want to dive into it a bit deeper and look at what it is really saying in context.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the passage it reads, “Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.” Pretty condemning proof that God’s will is for us to suffer right? Hmm… not really. We really need to read the passage in context, if you do a study on “God’s will” you will find that it’s a big theme in 1 Peter, it is mentioned as anchors four times in chapter 2-4. To understand the will of God then, lets look at how it is used…
He starts in chapter 2 by setting the stage, it is here he explains what the will of God is.
“For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people” – 1 Peter 2:15
Next he makes sure you are still tracking, you may suffer for doing good, but it’s OK because doing good (not suffering) is God’s will.
“For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.” – 1 Peter 3:17
The next time he mentions suffering it really needs the verses around it to follow well so I’ll let you read them in your own time, basically Peter is saying here that we no longer operate in the old man, by the lusts of the flesh, but rather in the new man, in the will of God (doing good)
“so as to live for the rest of time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God” – 1 Peter 4:2
It is here we come to the verse that seems to suggest that suffering is God’s will, which with this framework is going to mean something very different now you read it in context.
“Therefore let those who suffer according to the will of God commit their souls to Him in doing good, as to a faithful Creator.” – 1 Peter 4:19
So as you follow the train of thought of Peter’s letter you can see it’s not saying that God’s will is for you to suffer, but rather you may suffer for doing God’s will.
This passage here teaches us a valuable lesson though, we need to read our Bible in context. I want to talk about what happens when we pull passages out of their context next.
Suffering in context
When we come to the word of God we have to look at things in context, we tend as people to read the Bible with some lenses on. These lenses are our experience, how we come to the Bible is heavily influenced by our experience in life and the way we have become preconditioned by that experience. This is very dangerous at times and very helpful at other times.
You see this can be a great tool, for example, when we are aware and fully convinced of some Biblical truths, like God’s goodness or the absolute finality of Christ’s work on the cross it helps us read the Bible with a biblical lens (this is especially helpful when reading harder to understand old testament passages). On the flip-side however when we have an experience of life being hard, everyone we know being sick and we don’t have much faith in God actually truly being good on a practical level in our lives we might draw some really scary conclusions from certain passages. It’s knowing this tendency of myself that I endeavor to always ensure I am reading the Bible in context.
Why do I say that here? I’ll give you some examples… Did you know that Jesus never once said we would suffer, but rather said we would face persecution (John 15:20)? Paul in 2 Tim 2:3 states that all believers will face persecution, again, persecution, not suffering (if your translation chooses suffering a quick glimpse at the context of it shows it is persecution). In Phil 1:29 it states that we should “not only believe in Him [Christ] but suffer for His sake” – again in the context of persecution, the next verse clarifies that.
I’m not saying that all passages translated suffering actually mean persecution, I’m just saying that we’ve made it a much bigger focus than it is in the Bible and I think this is because of some of our worldly lenses. My challenge to you is how much do you do this as you read the Bible? I know I do at times!
But what about when it is talking about suffering?
Now what about when the Bible does talk about suffering? Well again let’s read in context, I want to know what was their purpose of talking about suffering? Never does the scripture talk about suffering as an end, instead they talk about how to view suffering.
Take Romans 5 for example, Paul says that we glory and have joy in trials and troubles. What’s his point? He’s not trying to point out that God wants us to suffer! He’s trying to point out that when we do suffer (for whatever the reason) we are to expect a glory and joy in the midst of it! Even Jesus Himself “endured the cross for the joy set before Him” (Heb 12:2).
My point here is that the Bible is full of keys of how to respond in suffering to get through and out of that suffering. It is not constantly mentioning suffering to appease you in your suffering so you can wallow in it!
Works all things for good
This topic of God turning our suffering into joy falls squarely under the umbrella of Romans 8:28, “He turns all things to good for those who love Him.” This is such a beautiful truth that we have all seen again and again. Yet it’s strange that this truth is sometimes so powerfully effective that we use it to pervert the image of our God and His nature.
Take a family that sees their child get cancer for example, they spend years in and out of hospital (more in than out!) and many nights unsure whether or not their child will live to see his teenage years never mind grow old to have a family of his own and see his dreams fulfilled. They watch their child go through the agony the cancer eating away at his body married with the harrowing experience of going through the chemotherapy which makes him sick 24/7. And yet God moves, He loves the family so well, they grow closer than they have ever been through the experience, their church bonds together throughout the ordeal and supports the family and grows closer together too, people in the children’s ward are inspired by the strength that God provides the family and some even meet Jesus through it. What’s more the child eventually comes out the other end cancer free and grows up to live out his dreams.
The above is just an example but I can think of countless people who fit that bill almost exactly! Praise God that they are alive and well today and God brought them through it all. (Not that He caused it to come about!)
God is SO good at turning the devil’s next great idea into something so good he’ll regret he ever tried it. The problem I have witnessed is that some people having seen things turn out so well, will attribute the whole ordeal to God’s master plan. He wanted them to get cancer so that He could show off and heal them. Aside from this being cosmic child abuse it’s also really, really bad theology.
A house divided can not stand and God does not contradict Himself. Jesus was the perfect representative of the nature of the Father and you never saw Him making someone ill so He could heal them, or create storms to calm. God does not bring about suffering, as we have already covered, and while we are expected to be amazed at how great He is at turning those sufferings around for good, we certainly shouldn’t be so foolish as to attribute the suffering to God! There must be few things as heart breaking to God as when His children attribute the devil’s work to their Father.
Let me tell you something, God is more than capable of making us go “wow” in a world that is perfect, He doesn’t need darkness so His light might shine brighter – that is a theology based on man’s experience and nothing else. Let me ask you this? If we truly believe that, do we realize how dull God is going to look in Heaven where everything is perfect, nothing goes wrong and there is no darkness?
So why don’t I focus on suffering?
So all of that to explain why I don’t spend time talking about suffering.
I don’t talk about the devil and his works, I talk about my Father and His great lovingkindness. I focus on what God is doing, not what He has yet to do. I don’t talk about sickness when I can talk about healing, I don’t talk about people being damned for eternity if I can talk about them being saved into eternal life, and I don’t focus on my lack of money when I can talk about how much He’s blessed me (and will continue to bless me) financially.
Hopefully that was helpful, it was far from exhaustive but it is a start.
What questions/thoughts do you have?
There are countless scriptures and areas which I did not cover, as I stated in the beginning, that was not the purpose of this article, I am considering writing a book on this very topic.
With that in mind:
What topics should I talk about that I didn’t?
What are your thoughts on suffering?