Suffering and Trials: A Biblical Perspective… Parts 1 and 2
Grateful honor is accorded to Jerry Bridge’s ‘Trusting God Even When Life Hurts’, and also to Oswald Chambers Publications Association Ltd’s ‘My Utmost for His Highest’.
According to the American College Dictionary:
suffer… 1. to undergo or feel pain and distress; undergo a penalty, esp. of death; sustain injury, disadvantage, or loss.
trial… 7. subjection to suffering or grevious experiences; affliction.
In the course of our daily lives, all of us have either experienced suffering and/or trials first-hand, or have come into contact with someone who has. Believers struggle with a central issue when it comes to suffering and/or trials: is God in control of the circumstances of our lives, or do bad things just happen to us because we live in a fallen world? A particularly thorny issue is how can someone who has not personally encountered great suffering and/or trials in her/his life provide support and encouragement to someone who has? The answer is realizing that the truth of God’s Word and the encouragement that it is intended to give to someone who is suffering is not dependent upon anyone’s experience.
God’s Word is truthful because of God Himself, centered upon His sovereignty, wisdom, and love.
Two broad and critically important concepts are demonstrated throughout Scripture:
1) God is glorified in His sovereignty, wisdom, and love.
2) God’s people are encouraged because it is shown that God is in control of our lives… He does indeed love us, and He works out all of the circumstances of our lives for His glory and for our ultimate good.
Scripture References and Discussion…
“Can you trust God?” There are two ways of looking at this question for meaning…
-Can you trust God?
-Is He dependable in times of adversity?
-Can you trust God?
-Do you have such a relationship with God and such a confidence in Him that you believe He is with you in your adversity even though you do not see any evidence of His presence and His power?
It many times seems more difficult to trust God than to obey God. There is a dichotomy here: the moral will of God that has been given to humanity through the Holy Scriptures is both rational and reasonable, yet… the circumstances in which we must trust God are often irrational and inexplicable. Obeying God is worked out within well-defined boundaries of God’s revealed will. Trusting God is worked out in arenas that have no boundaries. We don’t know the extent, duration or frequency of the painful and adverse circumstances in which we must frequently trust God. We are always coping with the unknown.
It is as important to trust God as it is to obey God. When we disobey God, we defy His authority, and turn away from His holiness. When we do not trust God, we doubt His sovereignty, and question His goodness. In both cases, we cast aspersions upon His majesty and upon His character. God views our distrust of Him as seriously as He views our disobedience to Him:
But they continued to sin against him, rebelling in the desert against the Most High. They willfully put God to the test by demanding the food they craved. They spoke against God, saying, “Can God spread a table in the desert? When he struck the rock, water gushed out, and streams flowed abundantly. But can he also give us food? Can he supply meat for his people?” When the Lord heard them, he was very angry; his fire broke out against Jacob, and his wrath rose against Israel, for they did not believe in God or trust in his deliverance. (Psalm 78:17-22)
To trust God, we must always view our adverse circumstances through the lens of faith, not of sense. This faith comes through hearing the message of the gospel:
Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17)
The faith to trust God in adversity comes through the Word of God alone. It is only in the Holy Scriptures that we find an adequate view of God’s relationship to, and involvement in, our painful and adverse circumstances. It is only from the Holy Scriptures, applied to our hearts by the Holy Spirit, that we receive the grace to trust God in adversity.
The Scriptures teach us three essential truths about God… that we must believe in if we are to trust Him in adversity:
-God is completely sovereign.
-God is infinite in wisdom.
-God is perfect in love.
God in His love always wills what is best for us, in His wisdom He always knows what is best, and in His sovereignty He has the power to bring it about.
According to the American College Dictionary:
sovereign… 6. having supreme rank, power, or authority. 7. supreme, as power, authority, etc. 8. greatest in degree; utmost or extreme. 9. being above all others in character, importance, excellence, etc.
The sovereignty of God is asserted, either explicitly or implicitly, on almost every page of the Scriptures…
as declared by the Scriptures…
Who can speak and have it happen if the Lord has not decreed it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come? (Lamentations 3:37-38)
as acknowledged by man…
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised.” (Job 1:21)
His wife said to him, “Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die!” He replied, “You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (Job 2:9-10)
To be sure… there are going to be many people who will be offended by the passage from Lamentations. It is a difficult proposition, at best, to accept that both calamities and good things come from God… especially if one is one the receiving end of calamities. People routinely ask the question “If God is a God of love, how could He allow such a calamity?” However, Jesus Christ Himself acknowledged and affirmed God’s sovereignty in calamity, and God’s sovereign control over His life:
“Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don’t you realize 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)
Whatever our particular calamity or adversity may be, we may be sure that our Father has an ultimately loving purpose in it:
Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men. (Lamentations 3:32-33)
The following is a particularly pertinent passage of Scripture:
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! (Romans 11:33)
In this passage from Romans, Paul openly acknowledged what we must also acknowledge if we are to trust God: God’s plan, and His way of working out His plan, are frequently beyond our ability as human beings to fathom and understand. We must learn to trust when we do not understand… and this is totally antithetical to human behavior. The question becomes… is this “blind trust”? No, but… why not? Because we trust One we know intimately and personally through the revelation of Holy Scripture and communication through prayer:
Those who know your name will trust in you, for you, LORD, have never forsaken those who seek you. (Psalm 9:10)
God is sovereign and good…
People often speak of “God’s Providence”… what is this? God’s seeming intervention in human affairs? There are two problems with this understanding:
-It is almost always used in conjunction with “good” events… one almost never hears “God’s Providence” used in conjunction with “bad” events.
-Either an unconscious or deliberate implication that God intervenes at specific points in human lives but is largely only an interested spectator most of the time; a way to reduce God’s control over our lives to a stop-and-go, in-and-out proposition. The extended implication is that for the rest of the time we are either the “masters of our own fates” or conversely the victims of unhappy circumstances or uncaring people that happen to cross our paths.
So what… really… is “God’s Providence”?
Theologian J. I. Parker:
“The unceasing activity of the Creator whereby, in overflowing bounty and goodwill, He upholds His creatures in ordered existence, guides and governs all events, circumstances, and free acts of angels and men, and directs everything to its appointed goal, for His own glory.” (“Providence”, New Bible Dictionary, pp. 1050-1051)
God’s Providence is His constant care for and His absolute rule over all His creation for His own glory and the good of His people. (Trusting God Even When Life Hurts, p. 25)
These definitions bring out two prime objectives of God’s Providence:
-God’s own glory.
-The good of His people.
These two objectives are never antithetical… they are always in harmony. God will never pursue His own glory at the expense of the good of His people, nor will God ever seek His people’s good at the expense of His glory. He has designed His eternal purpose so that His glory and His people’s good are inextricably bound together.
This concept should be both a comfort and an encouragement… to learn to trust God in adversity, we must believe that just as certainly as God will allow nothing to subvert His glory, so also will He allow nothing to spoil the good He is working out for us and in us.
The Bible teaches that God sustains us… And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ (Acts 17:25-28) He supplies our daily food… Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. (2 Corinthians 9:10) Our times are in His hands… My times are in your hands; deliver me from my enemies and from those who pursue me. (Psalm 31:15) We must conclude that every breath we breathe is a gift from God, every bite of food we eat is given to us from His hand, and every day we live is determined by Him. He has not left us to our own devices, the whims of nature, or the malevolent acts of people.
No one can act outside of God’s sovereign will, or act against it…
Augustine said, “Nothing, therefore, happens unless the Omnipotent wills it to happen: he either permits it to happen, or he brings it about himself.” (quoted by John Blanchard, Gathered Gold, (Welwyn, Hertfordshire, England: Evangelical Press, 1984), p. 332)
Theologian Philip Hughes said, “Under God, however, all things are without exception fully controlled-despite all appearances to the contrary.” (Philip E. Hughes, Hope for a Despairing World, (Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, 1977), pp. 40-41)
As God’s rule is invincible, so it is equally incomprehensible. His ways are higher than our ways… “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:9) His majesty and perfection are unfathomable… Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! (Romans 11:33)
The sovereignty of God is often called into question because we do not understand what God is doing. Because He does not act as we think He should… we conclude-falsely-that He cannot act as we think He would.
God or Chance?
“God’s Providence” is God governing and sustaining His creation, bringing all events to their appointed end, for His glory and for the good of His people… this is a doctrine finding little acceptance today. There is the search to provide an explanation, albeit humanly oriented, for adversity:
I don’t believe that an earthquake that kills thousands of innocent victims without reason is an act of God. It is an act of nature. Nature is morally blind, without values. It churns along, following its own laws, not caring who or what gets in the way. (Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, (New York: Avon Books, 1983), p.59)
Some Christians think as modern deists… that God is good and sovereign, but that He does not choose to exercise His sovereignty in our daily affairs. However, this is aptly refuted by Jesus Christ: Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:29-31)
Jesus’ point is: if God so exercises His sovereignty in regard to sparrows, how much more will He exercise it in regard to His own children?
It is true that God’s love for us does not protect us from pain and sorrow… it is also true that any and all occasions of pain and sorrow are under God’s absolute control.
What should distinguish the suffering of believers from that of non-believers is the confidence that our suffering is under the control of an all-powerful and an all-loving God, that our suffering has meaning and purpose in God’s eternal plan, and that He brings or allows into our lives only that which is for His glory and our ultimate good.
Scripture References and Discussion…
What does God’s sovereignty touch? Most certainly (and arguably most importantly)… the matter of our ultimate destiny, as Paul comments: That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet I am not ashamed, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day. (2 Timothy 1:12) However, God’s sovereignty touches everything on earth as it does in heaven… He permits, for reasons known only to Himself, people to act contrary to and in defiance of His revealed will (what is written in Holy Scripture) but He never permits them to act contrary to and in defiance of His sovereign will… the Scriptures profess this:
In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps. (Proverbs 16:9)
Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails. (Proverbs 19:21)
There is no wisdom, no insight, no plan that can succeed against the LORD. (Proverbs 21:30)
Consider what God has done: Who can straighten what he has made crooked? When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider; God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, a man cannot discover anything about his future. (Ecclesiastes 7:13-14)
Who can speak and have it happen if the Lord has not decreed it? (Lamentations 3:37)
Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:15)
“To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. (Revelation 3:7)
We can speak… we can plan… we can connive… we can cajole… we can rationalize… we can do what is carefully and methodically hidden from the sight of the entire world… nothing we can do can succeed unless it is consistent with God’s purpose.
This aspect of God’s sovereignty should be a tremendous catalyst to trusting God. No matter what the world may do, or attempt to do… none of it, no matter how seemingly powerful, can succeed unless it is a part of what God has planned.
Author Margaret Clarkson summarizes beautifully: “The sovereignty of God is the one impregnable rock to which the suffering human heart must cling. The circumstances surrounding our lives are no accident: they may be the work of evil, but that evil is held firmly within the mighty hand of our sovereign God…. All evil is subject to Him, and evil cannot touch His children unless He permits it. God is the Lord of human history and of the personal history of every member of His redeemed family.” (Margaret Clarkson, Grace Grows Best in Winter, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns Publishing Company, 1984), pp. 40-41)
It becomes increasingly apparent from the Holy Scriptures and from other writings such as Margaret Clarkson’s that no detail of life is too insignificant for God’s attention, and no circumstance is so large that God cannot control it.
One of the most prevalent problems that people have with God’s sovereignty is that it very frequently does not appear that God is in control of the circumstances of our lives. Again, there is a dichotomy of what God appears to be doing. On the one hand, no person who believes in Holy Scripture as written has any problem believing that God can work, and has worked, miracles… tacit evidence of His sovereign but direct intervention in human affairs; when they occur, their validity, in terms of having been worked through God’s sovereignty, is accepted almost without question. On the other hand, believing in the sovereignty of God when we do not see His direct intervention in human affairs is even more important in terms of trust, because that is the way in which we normally see God work.
Anyone who doubts that God is working quietly in our lives, perhaps hundreds of times sparing us from adversity by His unseen sovereign hand, is refuted by Scripture:
I lift up my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip – he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The LORD watches over you – the LORD is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The LORD will keep you from all harm – he will watch over your life; the LORD will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore. (Psalm 121:1-8)
The book of Esther is one of the most compelling examples of God’s sovereignty working “behind the scenes” to care for His people, with the pivotal point of the story coming in Chapter 6. A short synopsis of the book is that, prior to Chapter 6, the lives of all the Jews in the kingdom of the Persian king Xerxes were in danger due to the diabolical scheme of one wicked man, Haman, who had recently been elevated to a position higher than any other noble in the kingdom. However, starting in Chapter 6, events transpired that led to the downfall and death of Haman, the physical salvation of the Jews, and the elevation of Mordecai to the second highest position in the kingdom.
In light of the rather unusual working out of events in the book of Esther, are we justified in concluding that God always orchestrates the events of human lives to fulfill His purpose? According to Romans 8:28, the answer is an unqualified yes:
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
Since God works to this end in all of the circumstances of our lives, ultimate sense is made out of 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18:
Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
This makes sense because there is no way in which we would be able to give thanks to God for all of the circumstances of our lives if He were not at work in them for our ultimate good.
So it is seen that no one can act, and no circumstance can occur, outside of God’s sovereign will. There is, however, a second aspect to the sovereignty of God: no plan that God has conceived and intends to put into place can be thwarted. God does as He pleases, only as He pleases, and His purposes cannot be hindered or frustrated. Once again, this is a difficult concept to accept; some passages of Scripture suffice to illustrate this aspect of God’s sovereignty:
“I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. (Job 42:2)
Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him. (Psalm 115:3)
For the LORD Almighty has purposed, and who can thwart him? His hand is stretched out, and who can turn it back? (Isaiah 14:27)
Yes, and from ancient days I am he. No one can deliver out of my hand. When I act, who can reverse it?” (Isaiah 43:13)
I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please. (Isaiah 46:10)
All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. 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)
In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, (Ephesians 1:11)
-Predestination is perhaps more clearly understood as God in His omniscience fore-knowing those who would (by their free will) choose to embrace Him; in response to their choice, God in turn set His mark (the Holy Spirit) upon them, making them co-heirs with Jesus Christ of the Kingdom.
Thus, it is illustrated from Holy Scripture that no plan of God can be thwarted… when God acts, no one can reverse it; no one can hold back God’s hand, or bring God to account for His actions. Such absolute sovereignty would be terrifying and capricious if left in human hands; God, however, is the perfect balance of sovereignty, love and wisdom.
The question remains, however… how does God doing as He pleases relate to our trusting Him? The answer is that God has: 1) a purpose and a plan for each person, and 2) the power to bring each purpose and plan to completion.
For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. (Jeremiah 29:11)
From the limited vantage point we have as humans, our lives are marked by an endless series of contingencies. We react almost constantly to unexpected turns of events as we change plans that have been previously made. What we need to understand is that there are no contingencies with God… what we perceive as unexpected and forced changes of our plans are, to God, deliberate, methodical pieces of His plan. God is never surprised, never caught off guard, never frustrated by unexpected developments. “If only” is something that liberally sprinkles our lives… “If only I had done this” or “If only this had not happened”, etc. However… God has no “if only” regrets because He never makes a mistake; He is trustworthy.
As for God, his way is perfect; the word of the Lord is flawless. He is a shield for all who take refuge in him. For who is God besides the Lord? And who is the Rock except our God? (Psalm 18:30-31)
The first priority of the believer in times of adversity is to honor and glorify God by trusting Him. While we receive grace for our trials (But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. (2 Corinthians 12:9))… and peace for our worries (Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7))… we honor God by choosing to trust Him when we don’t understand what He is doing or why He has allowed some adverse circumstance to occur.
My Utmost for His Highest – The Explanation for Our Difficulties
“… that they may all be as one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us …” (John 17:21)
If you are going through a time of isolation, seemingly all alone, read John 17. It will explain exactly why you are where you are – because Jesus has prayed that you “may be one” with the Father as He is. Are you helping God to answer that prayer, or do you have some other goal for your life? Since you became a disciple, you cannot be as independent as you used to be.
God reveals in John 17 that His purpose is not just to answer our prayers, but that through prayer we might come to discern His mind. Yet there is one prayer which God must answer, and that is the prayer of Jesus – “… that they may be one just as We are one …” (John 17:22) Are we as close to Jesus Christ as that?
God is not concerned about our plans; He doesn’t ask, “Do you want to go through this loss of a loved one, this difficulty, or this defeat?” No, He allows these things for His own purpose. The things we are going through are either making us sweeter, better, and nobler men and women, or they are making us more critical and fault-finding, and more insistent on our own way. The things that happen either make us evil, or they make us more saintly, depending entirely upon our relationship with God and its level of intimacy. If we will pray, regarding our own lives, “Your will be done” (Matthew 26:42), then we will be encouraged and comforted by John 17, knowing that our Father is working according to His own wisdom, accomplishing what is best.
When we understand God’s purpose, we will not become small-minded and cynical. Jesus prayed nothing less for us than absolute oneness with Himself, just as He was one with the Father. Some of us are far from this oneness; yet God will not leave us alone until we are one with Him – because Jesus prayed, “… that they all may be one …”