Dluxe's World

Monday, October 23

Wrap-up: Suffering and the Sovereignty of God

On the way home from church yesterday, Eva and I were talking about our pastor's Sunday sermon. Our pastor preached from James 1:2-18, focusing on rightly dealing with suffering or testing.

We have friends who recently lost their baby... Though we've really only had sporadic contact with them in the last couple of years, the wife called a couple evenings ago to talk with Eva. In the nearly two hour phone call, it became obvious just how deep and raw the pain of loss still is to them. My wife noted how the sermon we had just heard might've been viewed as cold or dismissive of their struggle ("Just consider it joy, my friends"). Of course, it wasn't that way... But I think we all know there are times in our anguish where any words, even those intended to comfort, seem to hit bare nerves.

So, when we're in the midst of suffering, what do we really need? Do we need exhortation to see Christ as exalted, even in the midst of our circumstances? Or do we perhaps need to tiptoe gently until the immediate grief passes? Are these really distinct, separate messages in the first place?

Through an offer on the web, I had received a copy of Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, a new book edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor. The book catalogues, in expanded form, the proceedings of Desiring God's 2005 National Conference. With our friend's loss and the struggles of other friends in mind, I was eager to open the pages and learn. Piper lays out his purpose for the book early:
The popular God of fun-church is simply too small and too affable to hold a hurricane in his hand. The biblical categories of God’s sovereignty lie like land mines in the pages of the Bible waiting for someone to seriously open the book. They don’t kill, but they do explode trivial notions of the Almighty.

So my prayer for this book is that God would stand forth and reassert his Creator-rights in our lives, and show us his crucified and risen Son who has all authority in heaven and on earth, and waken in us the strongest faith in the supremacy of Christ, and the deepest comforts in suffering, and the sweetest fellowship with Jesus that we have ever known. (Piper, p. 18)

Mark Talbot steps onto the platform next and offers a powerful exposition of God's supremecy over the evil that we see so rampant in our world. Two things struck me as I read Talbot's chapter:
  • I am so blessed... I'm guilty of sitting around with everyone else and shaking my head at the evil that I 'see' in the world around us. But, I can't help but realize how external most of that evil really is to me. I've never been persecuted. I've never really suffered, nor have those close to me. Much like reflecting on missions work in the world, I see how blessed and abundant my life is, how undeserving of those blessings I am, and how poorly I often steward those things.
  • Evil is real. And God permits evil to operate for His glory. Talbot cites several examples from the Holocaust - certainly one of the darkest displays of human wickedness in history. Nearing his conclusion, Talbot writes:
    During his first hour or so in Birkenau, Elie Wiesel saw the notorious Joseph Mengele, looking “like the typical SS officer: a cruel, though not unintelligent, face, complete with monocle.” Mengele was asking the new arrivals a few questions and then, with a conductor’s baton, casually directing them either to his left, so that they went immediately to the gas chambers, or to his right to the forced-labor camp. In seeing Mengele, Wiesel was seeing a very evil man whom, nevertheless, God was actively sustaining and governing, nanosecond by nanosecond, through his evil existence. And we can be sure that, from before time began, God had ordained that at that place those moments would be filled with just those persons, doing and suffering exactly as they did. We can be sure, because of what God says in places like Hebrews 1:3 and Ephesians 1:11, that even those persons in those moments did not fall out of God’s “hands” but that he actually brought the whole situation about, guiding and governing and carrying it by his all-powerful and ever-effectual word to where it would accomplish exactly what he wanted it to do.(pp71-72)
While this is hard to fathom, could there be any greater comfort? We may not understand God's purposes and plans for this world and the suffering that we all see. But, is there anything that can give us peace in the storm besides knowing that God is not only found before or after the rain but in the midst of the thunder and lightning?

The challenge with 'reviewing' solid books is that you really only want to pass along quotes. The authors present their case far better than you ever could manage to summarize. Consider the story of Steve Saint... Many will recognize Steve as the son of the famous missionary, Nate Saint. Steve's father and 4 other missionaries were killed trying to evangelize the Waodani tribe in Equador. Steve's story, recounted in the recent movie End of the Spear (which I'd recommend), is certainly one that we would link with suffering.

I hadn't realized that Steve and his wife (Ginny) had also lost their daughter. Knowing the hurt of our friends over their loss, Saint's words seemed incredibly rich:
I believe God planned my daughter’s death. In the years prior to her death, people started asking me to go around and speak, and I realized that there was a deficiency in my heart and life: I could not see the world the way God does. Oh, be careful what you pray for. I prayed and begged God and told Ginny, "I can’t keep doing this. I go out and I’m speaking from my head to people and it doesn’t work. I can’t keep going. I can’t speak unless I feel the passion of this." And so I started praying, "God, please, please let me have your heart for the hurting world out there. I see it, and I empathize a little bit but I don’t have a passion for it." (p. 118)
...
Why is it that we want every chapter to be good when God promises only that in the last chapter he will make all the other chapters make sense, and he doesn’t promise we’ll see that last chapter here? When [our daughter] was dying, the doctor said, "There’s no hope for recovery from an injury like this." I realized that this was either the time to lose my faith or an opportunity to show the God who gave his only Son to die for my sin that I love and trust him... And you know what God has done through this? He changed my heart. He broke it. He shredded it. And in the process he helped me see what he sees. (p. 120)

If this post is to end in something that at least resembles a reasonable word-count, I should wrap up. And I haven't even gotten to what I think is the most stirring chapter of the book - Piper's presentation of the root of suffering in our lives seen in the suffering of Christ. Or Joni Erickson Tada's exhortation to hope in the midst of trials...

I started this rambling post by asking how we are to comfort those who are hurting around us. Do we offer comforting words or assurance that God is sovereign over the trials we face? The answer is that we do both at the same time. There is no real comfort for suffering believers outside of God's grace and control in the very midst of our seemingly dire circumstances! All other sources of comfort or the will to persevere are really nothing but sand under our feet.

When such exhortations are poorly received, our tone is often to blame... We lightly offer catch-phrases to hurting people, as if quips are what they need is just to 'snap out of it'. When we stand outside of a situation and clinically tell them to "rejoice in suffering" we have to know the reaction we're likely to get... As Steve Saint rightly points out in his chapter, we try to reach out to a suffering world without suffering ourselves. More than just offering people words of wisdom, we need to connect with the hurt they are feeling and lovingly speak truth into their lives. Christ himself suffered on earth, in life and in death, to be a fitting and merciful high priest for us.

At the same time, we must be aware of how quickly we make idols. We must make sure that God, and God alone, has the supreme place in our hearts. When Job lost his family, he mourned. But he mourned while recognizing that God had taken only what rightly belonged to Him as the ruler of the universe. Our freedom, our mobility, our comfort, our families, or our friends are all things which have been given to us from God's hand - and He reserves the right to take them from us. We must not cling to things more tightly than we cling to the Creator of All.

Our tears should flow with those who are suffering... And in the midst of those tears, we all should humbly turn our eyes to the God who works all things for our good and His glory. His Sovereign Authority is the source of all comfort. Where else can we go?

If you are hurting, need encouragement, or want to deepen your understanding of a sovereign God who controls even a world as seemingly out-of-control as ours, you should give the pages of Suffering and the Sovereignty of God your time and attention. You'll be challenged, encouraged, and comforted to worship God fully, even in affliction.

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