May 11, 2012

Learning to Suffer Well: Trusting God’s Absolute Sovereignty

by Mike Riccardi

Earlier this week, Justin Taylor linked to an extraordinarily moving and encouraging account of a pastor coming to grips with the fact that his second child, like his first, would be born with spina bifida. Amazingly, this man has found great comfort in rejecting the common notion that God will merely use this bad situation for good, rather than the biblical truth that He has ordained it for His glory and His people’s good.

Stories like these continue to confirm the reality that we must prepare ourselves to undergo suffering and trials righteously. We need to learn how to suffer well. And, as I’ve said over the past couple weeks, the way we do that is by being equipped with a theology of suffering while not yet in the midst of a particular trial.

And to that end we’ve been looking to Jeremiah’s experience with devastating suffering at the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC, and hoping to glean some lessons on how to respond to suffering righteously. First, we learned that a righteous response to others’ suffering includes suffering along with our brothers and sisters who suffer. Secondly, we learned that we must acknowledge the role of sin in our suffering. Today, we find a third lesson from Jeremiah’s righteous response to suffering: we must acknowledge, and trust in, God’s absolute sovereignty even in the unpleasant and painful circumstances.

No Solace in Secondary Causes

One of the things that is striking throughout the book of Lamentations is that Jeremiah finds no solace in attributing the destruction of Yahweh’s covenant people to secondary causes. Rather, he attributes the agonizing desolation of Israel to Yahweh Himself. He declares that “Yahweh has caused her grief” (Lam 1:5) and has “inflicted” this pain “in His fierce anger” (Lam 1:12); it is He who has knit together this yoke, who has given her into the hands of her enemies, who has rejected her, and has trodden her as in a winepress (Lam 1:14-15). You’ll notice that he does not speak of God merely “allowing” such devastation. Instead, he speaks of God actively accomplishing that which He had purposed to do:

  • Lamentations 2:17 – Yahweh has done what He purposed; He has accomplished His word Which He commanded from days of old. He has thrown down without sparing, And He has caused the enemy to rejoice over you; He has exalted the might of your adversaries.
  • Lamentations 4:11 – Yahweh has accomplished His wrath, He has poured out His fierce anger; And He has kindled a fire in Zion Which has consumed its foundations (cf. Lam 2:1–7).
  • Lamentations 3:37–38, 43–44 – Who is there who speaks and it comes to pass, Unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High That both good and ill go forth? … You have covered Yourself with anger And pursued us; You have slain and have not spared. You have covered Yourself with a cloud So that no prayer can pass through.

And again, as we did with the discussion on acknowledging sin, we have to be careful not to draw a direct parallel in this situation, and perhaps in many other situations. In Jeremiah’s case, God is explicitly inflicting punishment. This may or may not be so when we suffer. But even if He’s not explicitly punishing or disciplining, it is still wrong to locate the origin of these unpleasant events somewhere outside of God.

Job’s case makes that clear. He did not attribute His suffering to immediate causes, but always recognized that God was sovereign in his afflictions (Job 1:21; 2:10; 12:9–10). And God commended him for that (Job 2:3; 42:7). Lest you think Job was somehow confused about who caused his sufferings since he was never privy to the opening interaction between God and Satan, the inspired text of the narrator of the book of Job agrees at the end of the book: “…and they consoled [Job] and comforted him for all the adversities that Yahweh had brought on him.” Get that. Not, “…all the adversities that Satan had brought,” and not even “…all the adversities that Yahweh allowed.” These were adversities that Yahweh himself had brought upon Job.

Don’t Destroy Your Comfort

The lesson for us, then, is that when we suffer, we should not seek to save God from His sovereignty. If we do that, we cut the legs out from under the solid, robust theology of God’s absolute sovereignty that we depend on and cherish so much in those very times of suffering. To try to soften God’s involvement with suffering by reducing it to a mere permission rather than a definite ordinance is to weaken the spine-strengthening power that is supplied by Romans 8:28. To insist by our word choice that God merely allows evil and suffering rather than intentionally and wisely brings it about in order to glorify Himself, and thus most greatly bless His people, destroys the very theology of sovereign grace that is (1) such a comfort to our souls in such troubling times and is (2) precisely that for which God means to receive glory and honor.

God means to be glorified in being recognized as the ultimate Mover and Determiner of all things. Let us not seek to rob Him of that. For it is our “heavenly peace, divinest comfort” to know that “whate’er befall me, Jesus doeth all things well.”

I am Yahweh, and there is no other,
The One forming light and creating darkness,
Causing well-being and creating calamity;
I am Yahweh who does all these.
- Isaiah 45:7 -

 Who is there who speaks and it comes to pass,
unless the Lord has commanded it?
Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
that both good and ill go forth?
- Lamentations 3:37–38 -

Mike Riccardi

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Mike is the Pastor of Local Outreach Ministries at Grace Community Church in Los Angeles. He also teaches Evangelism at The Master's Seminary.
  • Willy

    Mike, did you mean “to try to soften God’s involvement in suffering” instead of “sin?”

    Thank you for a great post. To understand that “God ordained it” changes our whole perspective.

    • http://mriccardi.blogspot.com Mike Riccardi

      Hey Willy,

      Yes, actually, in this context I did mean to use “suffering.” Thanks for catching that.

      But it’s interesting. As I thought about it, and took into consideration the previous post in this little mini-series (http://thecripplegate.com/learning-to-suffer-well-acknowledging-sins-role-in-suffering/ ), I realized that there’s not a great amount of difference between the two — at least from a “theodicy” standpoint — since suffering is a result, whether directly or indirectly, of sin.

      Thanks for your encouragement.

  • Jeannine

    Much needed message as the church softens theology to say God would never have us to suffer or that it’s always satans fault.

  • kalamazoomom

    I have some friends whose daughter was born with spina bifida. They new before she was born and there was no question but that they would have their daughter even though the Dr’s said she’d never walk either. She was born with an exposed spine yet they trusted God through all things. Today their little girl is doing very well and she can even take steps without her ‘walking sticks’. Their love, devotion and perseverance has been a testimony to everyone who comes into contact with them. They count it as all JOY that the Lord entrusted them with with this precious child of His. God has used this family to show His grace and how His people are to act in His Sovereignty through ALL THINGS.
    Excellent article Mike!

    • http://mriccardi.blogspot.com Mike Riccardi

      Amen, KalamazooMom.

      It’s so wonderful to see brothers and sisters in Christ so satisfied in God, so gladdened by His glory, that by it they is strengthened to suffer even the most difficult trials with joy and confidence. This makes God look really good.

  • Steelwheels27

    Why would Yahweh be angry?

    • Howard Brown

      Others will provide a better response, but Psalm 7: 11 gives us some insight – He is a righteous Judge. As an expression of His inate holiness, there is a settled reaction to sin and evil. And it is not just the sin – the wrath is directed toward people; it is the sinner, not just the concept of evil as an abstract concept. That is whythere is the bad news of the gospel. We deserve wrath because that is basic to God being holy.
      The good news is that Christ has absorbed the wrath, taken it to Himself as the substitute for those that would believe, receive and obey Him as Saviour and Lord. So while the Lord is loving, does countless gestures of undeserved lovingkindness toward the world, He still must, to be God, be angry with sin and the sinner.

  • elainebitt

    Thank you for this series Mike!

    I am not sure how many Christians struggle with this topic of suffering (suffering itself or suffering + sovereignty of God). I suspect a lot of us do. I know I do. I don’t want to suffer. And I don’t think it would be “normal” if I wanted or if I didn’t care (you know what I mean).

    I keep coming back to this topic over and over again. I need to be reminded and have my mind renewed daily about His wonderful grace and love. It makes me look deeper and longer into God’s character and who He is, and who am I in Christ Jesus.

    Though the fig tree should not blossom,
    nor fruit be on the vines,
    the produce of the olive fail
    and the fields yield no food,
    the flock be cut off from the fold
    and there be no herd in the stalls,
    yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
    I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
    GOD, the Lord, is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the deer’s;
    he makes me tread on my high places.

    (Habakkuk 3:17-19 ESV)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001376822637 Dawn Stone

    Thanks Mike! This article was helpful to me and I really appreciate it.

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  • Heather

    Thus the reason why we don’t need to live in fear.

    “Do not be afraid, only believe” Mr 5:36

    “do not worry about tomorrow” Mt 6:34

    Look no further than to Him who knows what is ahead.

    Thank you so much, Mike, for teaching these important lessons to us. I was so edified by them and so filled with praise of our loving Father, who deserves all the glory we are capable of giving. Oh, Lord…not unto us…not unto us.

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