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 -