Welcome to Part 3, the concluding section of Biblical Suffering. If you haven’t read the previous sections, you can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here. In Part 1 we discussed what our response to suffering should be. In Part 2 we took a macro look at how God responds to a suffering world. And in Part 3 I want to go deeper into the implications of a suffering world. What does this tell us about God? What does it mean for us as followers of Jesus?
The problem of evil has been one of the most longstanding arguments or complaints against a Judeo-Christian God. If God is all-powerful, and all-good, how can he not act? Why doesn’t he do something about suffering? In the last post, we looked at precisely what God did. He joined in our suffering, and bore the penalty for our sin.
But there’s something deeper in the narrative of the Scriptures that we learn about our God. And it’s important to read them with a keen eye. Prosperity preachers will be very attentive to every verse that promises a blessing, or every proverb that has an outcome of success. But this is why we first must take a detour and talk about correctly reading the Scriptures.
Reading the Bible Correctly
The Scriptures are a library of books written and collected by dozens of people over millennia, all moved by the Spirit of God. But this library has books of different genres in many categories. Looking at the Bible’s sections we see books of the law, history, wisdom, prophesy, gospels, and epistles. There are a variety of literary styles used in these books: songs, proverbs, poetry, metaphors, hyperboles, genealogies, narratives, parables, allegories, memoirs, and the like. This is where people get into all kinds of trouble because they’re not being discerning about what they’re reading, and in today’s modern, techno-informational age that should not be an excuse.
We should never read verses out of context. Each verse is part of the paragraphs or text around it. Each section of text is part of a book. Each book has an author, a genre, and a writing style. We need to pay attention to these. Sometimes it can be tricky, and in those cases we pray, ask, and trust the Holy Spirit to give us discernment, and take the words as they are. People get upset over the word “literal”— that if you somehow don’t take a verse literally, you’re discounting its validity. Friends, if we took every passage literally, we would be doing a disservice to the message of much of the Bible. And practically speaking, we would have a lot of people with missing limbs in heaven (Matthew 18:8). We read a metaphor as a metaphor. We read hyperbole as hyperbole. We read a proverb as a proverb, and we search for the truth underlying each of these. All of Scripture is equally true, but it’s not always equally clear and foundational. We must always check our understanding of any verse with the rest of the Bible. It’s not enough to find what one part of the Bible says about suffering; we need to see what all of the Bible says about suffering.
Debate Within the Wisdom Books
The Wisdom literature is a must-read for immersing ourselves into the theology of suffering. What we find is that the Psalms and Proverbs mainly run on the principle that good follows good, and that bad follows bad. You’ll find statements similar to something like this: If you do well, goodness will follow your days. If you raise a son rightly, he won’t leave that path when he grows up. If you live righteously, you’ll have a long life. If we ignore the genre and stop reading there, we’re left with a prosperity theology: that God only seeks to bring you through good times and that you’ll only experience good if you follow “the rules.” But we need to recognize the genre. Proverbs aren’t promises. They’re truisms, or statements that generally match what happens in life. If we take each one of them as guaranteed divine promise, it won’t match what we see in reality, and it shouldn’t. And here’s where Biblical context comes into play.
If we keep reading the other Wisdom books, Job and Ecclesiastes, we see them offer a rebuttal. “Wait a minute,” say these books, “Sometimes bad follows good, and the causes are mysterious.” The author of Ecclesiastes is perplexed as he observes the absurdity of the world and see that the wicked actually do prosper, and the righteous can be forgotten. The story of Job is deserving of it’s own series of posts, but it dissects the life of a man who was righteous in his ways and suffers horrific and tragic circumstances. And God allows it; he ordains it. And here we touch a very complex theme that spans the Scriptures, God’s sovereignty over suffering—that suffering is not merely a result of God’s absence, but his very real presence. Here we walk a very narrow line that many might get uncomfortable by. So I want to remind you: God is entirely, completely, and fully good. God does not do evil. He is not the author of evil. But the Biblical God is certainly sovereign over it.
When Christians say God is sovereign, they mean that he rules over all things. That ultimately, everything either does or will bend to his will. Everything is within his reach. He has the final say in all matters. Nothing, be it good or bad, happens without his final say (See Daniel 4:35, Isaiah 46:10, Lamentations 3:37–38, Amos 3:6, Proverbs 19:21, Proverbs 16:9). God is not just the strongest among us; he’s entirely different from us, in a league of his own. The implication, of course, is that God will even use evil to accomplish great good.
I’m not writing this because I want to chatter about theology or start a debate. I don’t care about what big words we use to talk about this. I’m writing about this because suffering and evil will happen to you. It happens to everyone. And when suffering comes, what will you do with it? And what will you make of God?
It is in those moments of fire, that our hearts are revealed and forged. If our God is just a genie that grants our wishes, we will be bitterly disappointed with him when trouble happens and he is silent. If our God is our servant, we will be bitterly disappointed with him when our desires are not met. If God is there to make our lives prosper, we will be bitterly disappointed when our life looks more like that of the poor and wandering Jesus rather than the rich and comfortable Bill Gates. So many people throw their hands in the air and walk away from God in their suffering, because the God they claimed to worship never existed in the first place.
We need to wrestle with what it means for God to be Sovereign. Our theology needs to be able to fit a God who’s that big. I mentioned the accident my family got into in Part 1 of this series. It was a horrific season, and a horrific night. I’m not going to pretend to boast about how much faith or hope I had, because in the days after the accident I was wrecked emotionally and spiritually. And yet, that same night, when the ambulance was taking me away, and I had no idea where my parents were going, and if they would even survive the night, for whatever reason I kept telling myself: “Lord, my theology is big enough for this. My theology allows for this kind of thing to happen.” And I prayed, not sure whether I was telling God or myself that I know he is good regardless of what happens and that somehow this incident will give him glory. And I wrestled and struggled with God’s sovereignty in the following weeks. I knew it would have been easier than a snap of the finger for God to totally avert this situation for us. So I wrestled with the magnitude of a God that does not abide by anything resembling Karma or some other works religion. Who is this God that the Scriptures speak of?
The God of the Bible
From cover to cover, the Scriptures shout to us about the depth of our God. From the very first page, the author describes the creation of the world, and we get so caught up in what happened on which day, and how long it might have taken, and we miss the point: Who did it? And what does it tell us about him? What we learn is that God takes this void, formless, and dark world and he creates light and life. That is his nature; it’s what he does.
Later in Genesis, we read a story about a man named Joseph who is sold by his brothers, lied about multiple times, thrown in prison, and forgotten. And when Joseph and his brothers reunite in the end, he speaks a glorious truth: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20). This is what God does.
In the story of Job, Satan does much evil to a righteous man. He loses his family, wealth, and health. And God uses this evil in such a way that Job ends up growing in new and deeper ways. He begins to know and trust God on a completely different level. This is what God does.
The apostle Peter denied Jesus before his death in a sad and pitiful show of cowardice. After many bold and brash promises, Peter succumbed to his fear of man. And yet, God turned this horrible event into Peter’s greatest testimony. And today, we still have the story of Peter’s denial because Peter conquered his fear of man and shared it with the world. This is what God does.
Satan constantly tempts God’s people with sin, hoping to lure them away. He constantly hopes to make them fall. And God takes this evil and uses it as an opportunity to refine his people. “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter: 6-7). Satan does evil, and God uses it to refine our faith, turning temptations into opportunities. That is his nature; it’s what he does.
If we keep reading the Scriptures, in countless stories what we constantly see is that God’s sovereignty over evil shows us just how good he is:
God brings light out of darkness.
God brings order out of chaos.
God brings life out of death.
God brings joy out of sorrow.
God brings freedom out of bondage.
God brings beauty out of shame.
God brings pleasure out of pain.
God brings victory out of defeat.
God brings glory out of tragedy.
This is the point of the story. The Bible is about what God does with evil and suffering. And lastly, the most evil, unspeakably horrific, and vile act ever committed in history was the murder of the Son of God. God comes to Earth, and we kill him. That’s the depth of our depravity. There is nothing nearly as evil. And yet, think about this. If you’re a Christian, can you honestly say that Jesus’ death on the cross is not the most glorious deed ever done? There is nothing so great, or loving, or selfless. Nothing compares to the glory of Jesus’ death on the cross. Our God bends evil to his will. Dear friends, that’s who our God is. That’s how great he is. The question is: Can you trust him in your suffering? Can you trust him to bring you through suffering?
Trust in the Midst of Suffering
One of the most glorious verses in the entire Scriptures is written by Paul, who says,
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
Pay attention to the words know and all things. Paul is entirely and completely confident that God will work everything for his ultimate good. All things includes every good day he has and every horror he experiences. He doesn’t say this because he’s a man who had an easy and carefree life. He says this in spite of the tremendous suffering in his life. And in the midst of his suffering he trusted God to do what God does.
Paul mentions an interesting story in his 2nd letter to the Corinthians. He says that he was given a “thorn in the flesh” for the purpose of not being conceited. We don’t know what this thorn was, but Paul said this thorn was a messenger of Satan that was harassing him. It sounds very extreme to me. Naturally, Paul says he implored God a multitude of times to remove this suffering from him, and God said… no. “But he [God] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”(2 Corinthians 12:9). How do you respond when God does not seek to remove you from your suffering, but guide you through it. Here’s how Paul responded:
“ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
(2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
Paul embraced his suffering to the fullest, glorifying God with every ounce of it. Dear friend, you and I will suffer in this life. And we will either waste our suffering, or allow God to use it. Do you trust God to make your suffering meaningful and purposeful? Suffering will hit, and some days it will hit extremely hard. Paul trusted the God of the Bible, and Paul died. And now, Paul is rejoicing with his risen savior.
Our culture is offended by the cross. Our culture is offended by the notion of blood, sacrifice, and compulsion. I’ve seen so many negative responses and arguments against Jesus’ death on the cross. They’ll say, “Why would God need to sacrifice his son? How is that love? True love is letting people do what they want. A God of love wouldn’t let people go through pain. A God of love wouldn’t tell people what to do. A God of love wouldn’t make people uncomfortable.”
Friends, the god those people speak of is themselves. What a shallow, shallow understanding of love! And unfortunately, these shallow notions exist within Christianity as well. People worship a god made in their image, who exists to do as they please, and is no god at all. Knowing God means trusting him, and sometimes it means trusting him to your limits. How do you respond to a God who is sovereign over suffering? True faith and love isn’t “I’ll believe and trust as long as you bring me good.” True faith and love sounds more like this:
- God, for your sake we’re being killed and slaughtered; and despite that, I’m sure that nothing in the universe can separate me from your love in Jesus (Paul in Romans 8:36-39).
- Even though he slays me, I will trust in him (Job in Job 13:15).
THAT is true love. THAT is deep love. That is an unshakable faith brought by the Spirit that transcends and withstands every circumstance of life. Those are examples of true faith and contentment that are not dependent on any outside factor. Only one thing matters, and that is knowing God—knowing that whatever arrows he lets through, he has his divine purpose for every one.
Let us pray that we can come to a place where by the power of the Holy Spirit we say: I trust God, because he suffered as no one else did. I trust him because he knows what my suffering feels like. I trust him, because he promises to work everything for my good. I trust him, because he know what’s best for me. I trust him, because he will make every pain worth it. I trust him, because my life was never in my hands to begin with. I trust him, because knowing him is more valuable than anything in the universe. I trust him as Paul trusted him. I will gladly lose all to gain him.
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him. (Philippians 3:8-9)
Thank you for reading.
*Images courtesy of Full of Eyes ministry.