The Tension of Suffering

“For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. ” (2 Corinthians 1:8–10, ESV)

I so love Paul’s transparency in this passage. Clearly, he had a tough time!

  • Afflicted
  • Burdened beyond strength
  • Despaired of life
  • Felt he had received the sentence of death

I’ve observed a tendency in myself and in others to define beliefs in reaction to error. Lately, one example of reaction to error touches on the issues of God’s goodness and sovereignty.

For many years and throughout large segments of the body of Christ the notion has existed that (1) because God is sovereign then all that occurs is an expression of his will. From this assumption it follows that (2) terrible things that happen are also expressions of his will. From this assumption it follows that (3) God is not good. Now I must admit that the first two statements are taught overtly. The third (the part about God not being good) is not overtly stated, but is nevertheless the conclusion reached by those who embrace the first two. If you don’t believe me, just spend some time with a few people who have been through very difficult things who believe these difficulties were expressions of God’s will and you will over and over again find those who hold God responsible for the evil they have experienced and suffer from a great deal of unbelief concerning the goodness of God.

There are exceptions of course. Thoughtful and deliberate theologians such as John Piper hold the first two statements while denying the third. He makes a very strong case for the following: (1) All that occurs is an expression of God’s will. (2) Terrible things that happen are also an expression of his will. (3a) God is good.

Piper is able to hold to these three statements by looking at “goodness” from a different perspective. By making this move, he is able to see how God wills that which doesn’t seem good to us because he has a greater agenda which will bring the ultimate good – namely, the magnification of his own glory.

It is my opinion that if (1) & (2) above are both true, then Piper is necessarily correct about (3a). I simply disagree with him about (1) & (2).

I do not think scripture supports the assumption that God sovereignly controls all things. Plenty of choices are made in scripture that are opposed to God’s will. It follows from this that God didn’t make these choices, for his will is not opposed to his own will. If this is the case it follows that (1a) God is good. (2a) Creatures at times make choices in opposition to God’s good will. (3b) When terrible things happen they are not from God.

Now I like this much better and can make a strong biblical case for this view. I do, however, have a difficulty with this view. It fails to recognize the distinction between God being the author of suffering and God having a purpose for us within suffering.

The passage I began with illustrates this so well. Paul has been through a very difficult season. No where does he state that God is the cause of the difficulties but he clearly states that God has a purpose for Paul within the difficulties, namely, to move Paul from a place of self-reliance to a place of full reliance upon God alone. The clear statement regarding God’s activity in regards to the difficulty is that God works to deliver us from the difficulty.

So, there is a tension between two truths we must hold simultaneously. First, suffering does not come from God who is the one who delivers us. Second, God always has a purpose for us within suffering; he never wastes our pain. For those, like me, who see as error the view that all things, even evil things, are an expression of God’s sovereign will, we must not react to that error with an error of our own. It brings no honor to God for us to refuse to embrace God’s purpose in suffering in the name of not holding God responsible for our suffering.


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