Suffering and Sovereignty
Where is God when we suffer greatly?
The biblical Christian knows at least two basic truths: suffering is a universal condition which none of us are exempt from, and God is sovereign over this world and what happens in it. Other core truths can also affirmed, such as the fact that we are all responsible and accountable for the choices that we make.
Sometimes these things appear to conflict. But often they seem rather clear cut. For example, if you smoke three packs of cigarettes a day and end up getting lung cancer, the immediate cause and fault of this was your own bad choices. A non-theist will also recognise that reality.
But besides various moral evils involving human choices, there are also natural evils. If an earthquake strikes a place resulting in much death and destruction, it is not really due to human culpability (although some might argue that the way we treat planet earth accounts for much of this). So we look for bigger causes, and in times gone by insurance companies would speak of these things as being an “act of God”.
Of course whole libraries are filled with the volumes that discuss all this. Here I want to narrow things down quite a bit, and also make things a bit more practical. For as long as I have been a Christian, I have been interested in the issue of suffering and evil, and how Christianity accounts for it.
The term ‘theodicy’ has to do with justifying the ways of God in the face of great evils and so much suffering. So there is a theological and philosophical level in which all this can be teased out. But when suffering hits home, then it really becomes real, and you want theory to match reality.
With my wife’s battle with terminal cancer my thoughts about all this have simply increased greatly. I still ask the big questions, but I of course also pray like mad, as would anyone else who goes through such things. And I continue to meditate on these matters and read heaps, be it books or articles. I also watch various videos and so on.
And I have shared our story fairly often and fairly far and wide. But I find this interesting: I know of other couples who are going through quite similar things, but I do not hear much from them on this – at least on public forums. As I wrote last night:
We are all different. Some folks in our situation seem to say nothing on the social media about what they are going through. But I have said quite a bit. Neither is right or wrong. All I can say is, I am weak and I need help, and I am happy to admit it. The more prayers I can get for our situation, the better. So that is why I talk a lot about it. But others might have good reasons not to.
When it seems like your whole world is in upheaval, all you can do at times is cry out to God. As I have said before, sometimes I can only pray: “Help, help, help.” And I for one so very much greatly value the prayers of others. I sure do need them.
BTW, one friend who saw what I just said above replied with this comment:
Bless you, Bill, and thanks for sharing. What I have found difficult is the Christian ‘friends’ who have a go at me when/if I share anything of a personal nature or needing prayer. They tell me I should only be calling out to God and not putting it out there, accusing me of a lack of faith. To me it’s the exact opposite. Why tell others what’s going on in my life and ask for prayer if I don’t have faith at all? It doesn’t make sense. My compromise is that I have selected a small group from amongst my FB friends and limit such posts and prayer requests to that group. Such support is valuable for those of us who live alone with minimal Christian support on the ground nearby.
As to what other sufferers are going through, I always appreciate what I come upon. Just today for example on the social media Owen Strachan shared a powerful quote from American pastor Heath Lambert who needs to undergo a fifth bout of brain surgery
When I think that my wife and I got it bad, it is always good to be reminded about others and what they are experiencing. While some folks seem to be doing pretty good – all things considered – there are of course others who are doing it really tough, and being aware of that helps to keep my own situation in perspective. Not to minimise anyone’s suffering of course, but some folks do seem to go through a whole lot more than others.
So, back to the quote that Owen had shared. It was this:
Suffering is the surgery a loving God does on our souls. My neurosurgeon is going to create significant pain with scalpels and drills to solve a problem that cannot be addressed any other way. In the same way, God sends painful circumstances into our life as the exclusive remedy for spiritual challenges we might not even know we face.
God is doing wonderful things in this trial. As the God of great love, he doesn’t know how to do anything other than good things. Though it can be hard to see the good things he’s doing, his ability to do them is not in doubt. God never intervenes in our life to harm us—only to help us.
I believe he is helping me now. I can’t see what that help is from here, but he will show me when it is time.
Amen and amen. You can read the full, brief piece here: https://fbcjax.com/first-thoughts/a-disappointing-health-update/
So this brings me back to my title. Where is God in all our suffering? Is he personally aware and involved? What comfort can we take from the biblical truths of God’s sovereignty in a time of crisis? Like Pastor Heath I do believe God is still on the throne, and he is still working out his purposes.
Sure, this side of eternity we see through a glass darkly, and we must just cling to God in faith. And as I and others have often said, it is not so much a case of my great faith in God, but my (often weak and failing) faith in a great God. We can only trust him, believing that he is with us in these dark times. And we can do that with confidence, since he promises he will ‘never leave us nor forsake us’ (Hebrews 13:5).
Another thing that transpired on the social media last night is also worth sharing here. I had posted something on some of the big political and cultural battles we are involved in. One good friend said this in response: “It is such a massive battle. Many are tiring. I have mostly decided I must pray as that’s all I can do (I have mito disease).”
I replied: “Bless you – praying for you – and ‘I can only pray’ may be the best thing any of us can say and do!” And I meant that. I often wonder what will happen one day when perhaps I lose my eyesight and my reading and writing ministry slows down to a crawl.
But I then think if I simply spend my remaining days in a prayer and intercession ministry, that might be a whole lot more effective than all the other things I have done! So we can only trust in a great God and know that he ‘does all things well’ (Mark 7:37).
There would be so many terrific quotes I could finish a piece like this with, but I have to keep falling back on an all-time favourite. Pastor Charles Spurgeon was one of the greatest English preachers we know of, yet he went through a lifetime of hardship and suffering. I have discussed this often before, as in this piece: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2018/08/03/spurgeon-and-suffering/
But one thing he said is always worth running with:
“God is too good to be unkind and He is too wise to be mistaken. And when we cannot trace His hand, we must trust His heart. When you are so weak that you cannot do much more than cry, you coin diamonds with both your eyes. The sweetest prayers God ever hears are the groans and sighs of those who have no hope in anything but his love.”
9 Replies to “Suffering and Sovereignty”
1 Pet 1:7 so that the trial of your faith (being much more precious than that of gold that perishes, but being proven through fire) might be found to praise and honor and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ,
8 whom having not seen, you love; in whom not yet seeing, but believing in Him you exult with unspeakable joy, and having been glorified,
9 obtaining the end of your faith, the salvation of [your] souls.
I remember in my anger at my wife’s cancer praying “What is the point of praying ‘lead us not into trials and temptations’ when You are going to allow evil anyway?” The fact is, however, there is purpose in all God does and allows. As Paul says in 1 Cor 10:13 :-
“No temptation has taken you but [what is] common to man; but God [is] faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted above what you are able, but with the temptation also will make a way to escape, so that you may be able to bear [it].”
You have to love people who think faith in God is like a vending machine, largely through misguided teaching of course. If that were the case there would be no need for the above scriptures. I have experienced miracles, sometimes out of the blue and I have experienced lack of heart-breakingly sort miracles but I know God is faithful.
I suspect because God is not ready to reveal Himself yet and because Satan and this world are to be judged, some of us are allowed to go through what many in the world go through and this will be part of how God will show Himself to be just. I believe there is purpose in it and as it says, a reward for the faithful.
I have since learned that faith in God also means faithfulness to God – an aspect many people have not understood. My heart goes out to you and your family and you are in my prayers. May God reveal your faithfulness through the trial and of course, well beyond. One way or another we get our miracle – it just may not be in this world.
Thanks Bill for this beautiful and timely article. That last quote left diamonds in my eyes!
I have just prayed for you and your wife again. Even though I have not had your experience (my wife’s cancer was operable and she was declared “cancer-free” after six years of follow-up checks), I lift up the burden that you shared to the Lord who alone knows you and your wife and your pain and suffering.
We are studying the book of Lamentations this week in our men’s Bible Study Fellowship group, and the cry of Jeremiah to the Lord God reminds us that it is right and holy to lament. Lam. 3:21-22, “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, His mercies never come to an end;”…….
Great is Thy faithfulness!
May the Lord bless you and your wife with His everlasting love amidst this time in your lives.
Many thanks Jim.
Hi Bill. Thank you for this article, and the regular sharing of your life and heart. I am sure in your vast library, you probably have a copy of the book “If God Is Good” by Randy Alcorn, (the sub-title being, Faith In The Midst of Suffering and Evil). I found this book to be a great encouragement in trusting the absolute goodness and sovereignty of our holy, righteous God.
Randy’s blogs at Eternal Perspective Ministries (www.epm.org) are the practical wisdom and outworking of those beliefs, especially the very moving writings, from her diary, of his wife Nanci, who died with cancer last year. For any couple or family living with the daily reality of terminal illness in their family, these well written, heartfelt articles will give comfort, encouragement and great hope in the glorious, suffering free future that awaits those who belong to Jesus! BUT …… also will add to the armour of strength and hope needed to endure the daily living with pain and suffering. May God bless you, your wife and family with that “peace that passes all understanding”, which only comes through those who put their faith and trust (no matter how small or feeble!) in Him, the great I AM.
Thanks Ann. Yes that is a good book. Bless you.
Yes I like the person above can not interact publicly for medical reasons, though different from theirs, I for years used my internet connection to write on blogs, including here, comments to help people and to interact with people. But on so many other places it just turned into a futile exercise to talk to people who claimed the name of Christ but seemed just an arm’s length away from him.
Eventually new problems arose and now I can’t get here as much but I too can pray. I sometimes feel bad that praying for people and donating money are basically now my contribution to the kingdom. Prayer always seems like the least thing, the smallest possible thing, you can do. “The least I can do is pray for you” OR “At least let me pray for you”. It seems so small. “So this is what I’m reduced to” type of thing. I guess if you’ve done great things for God, like you and others, it is more easily accepted but when you haven’t done much you feel deflated especially when you don’t pray well, my prayers are methodic, rote if you will, because of be ASD and OCD and often short I can’t remember everyone I’ve prayed for so I include the line “and everyone I’ve ever prayed for” to cover people whose names I’ve forgotten.
I never understood how people can pray for hours because I can’t find THAT many words. I’ve always tried to be a concise to the point person on things, I know some comments seem long but imagine their length if I WASN’T being concise, and the same is true in my prayers concise to the point. No fluff no beating around the bush no buttering up. “Just get to the bloody point” as the Brit’s say. I’m NOT saying long prayer are bad. Everyone prays differently. I just know God knows I wouldn’t pray to him unless he WAS God so I don’t need to spend time telling him about himself and how I know who he is. I don’t in my words need to “stroke his ego” by saying all manner of wonderful things about him I can simply get to the heart of the matter the whole point of the “call” I can petition him, thank him and then ask it all in Jesus name and be done.
I don’t even think I could put into words his greatness. Now in midlife I see his providence in my youth though I didn’t see it as such at the time. How does one begin to put to words the greatness of Him who can see time and cause an affliction, ASD, in someone that prevents them from sins and helps brings them to Him?? How does beginning praising God for taking them from being a young boy who grandfather, on his mother’s side, did UNSPEAKABLE things to him to a young man who loved kids and enjoyed working with them and having fun with them and wanted to be a teacher of elementary aged children to show love and kindness and protect and help those that needed it. (Becoming a teacher didn’t work out I found out males aren’t welcome by the female teachers and other things get in the way of completing my degree). I can’t find words but my heart can express what I cannot say. And my heart can express that ALL THE TIME not just in times of prayer. The heart is interesting, deceitful above all things and desperately wicked yet at the same time able to express the things the mind cannot come up with words for. Prayers for you and your wife.
My wife of 41 years has had Alzheimer’s for 7.5 years. She’s 64, in the final stage, and in skilled nursing care.
Why haven’t I shared extensively over these years?
People are wonderful resources. But I think most have a finite capacity to help carry this burden. I want to use this resource carefully and wisely.
People are fickle. Many times I’ve heard, ‘call me if you need anything.’ I’ve taken several people at their word and found the follow through lacking. Bitterness and cynicism has tried to overtake me; conviction also. I’ve been found wanting. I’ll never say that phrase to anyone. Better is to keep in touch and have a discerning ear to my friend’s needs.
People really don’t know what to say. I get tired of the how are you/how is Linda question. I understand it is well intentioned. And then again I don’t know that they really want to hear how I burst into tears when I got a piece of cheese out of the refrigerator. It reminded me how I used to make grilled cheese every Sunday after church for her. Grief is a very odd thing.
People are different. Some are like you, Bill. Some are like the friend you quoted. Traveling the path of suffering and grief is an intensely personal experience. And God is faithful every step of the way.
Bless you Jeff.