Having grown up in the densely populated state of New Jersey, I learned to drive in one of the more hostile traffic environments in America. Between the New Jersey Turnpike, the Garden State Parkway, and the occasional foray across the George Washington Bridge or the Lincoln Tunnel into some part of New York City—especially Manhattan—I’ve been in my share of close calls and quick decisions. When you add the fact that I now live in Los Angeles and use some of the busiest freeways in the country on a daily basis, it’s rather a miracle that I’m still alive. In fact, there are often times when I consciously thank the Lord while driving that I was spared from this or that potential accident. I certainly know that my passengers have improved their prayer lives while driving with me from time to time.
Because of this absolutely ridiculous vehicular heritage, I often make it a point to observe the different patterns other drivers follow and decisions they make while I’m driving. Sometimes I even think to myself, imagining what I would have done if a driver lost control or decided to change lanes abruptly, or whatever. “If he made a mistake and needed to jump in front of me, could I get out of his way?” Stuff like that.
Now, some people without the NY/NJ/LA driving heritage might think I’m going a little overboard here. And they might be right. But I realize that in certain situations I might have only a fraction of a second to react. I need to be so prepared with a sound way of avoiding an accident that my reactions are just second nature. Because in the moment, I won’t have time to think clearly and dispassionately evaluate my options. The craziness of the moment simply won’t allow it. At least not where I’m driving.
And I really believe the same is true of Christian suffering. I suppose I might sound a bit like a broken record with the ways I’ve been introducing these posts on suffering, but I really don’t believe I can stress enough how important it is to have a rock solid theology of suffering before one actually suffers. Because in the midst of some exceedingly painful trial, the craziness of the moment often doesn’t allow for cool contemplation and sound theological reasoning. The solid foundation that keeps you grounded can’t be being constructed in the middle of the storm. It needs to be set firmly in place beforehand, so that it can serve as a sure and steadfast anchor in the midst of whatever turmoil we might experience.
God is Sovereign and Righteous in Ordaining Suffering
To that end, we come to the fourth lesson we can learn from Jeremiah about how to righteously respond to suffering. We saw how we must weep with those who weep, how we must acknowledge the role of sin in our suffering, and how we must acknowledge and trust in God’s absolute sovereignty in the suffering that we experience. In that last post, we noted how active a role God assigns to Himself in the most wicked actions of men. And yet, though Jeremiah attributes the destruction of Israel to God’s sovereign judgment, he neither blames Yahweh nor holds Him morally responsible for the evil inflicted on His people.
Quite simply, a Bible-believing Christian has no choice but to admit that God sovereignly and actively brings about the evil events described in Lamentations. But if our understanding of God’s absolute sovereignty leads us to conclude that He is morally culpable, blameworthy, or in any way unrighteous, we’re wrong. The Scripture writers never seek to save God from His sovereignty in evil and sinful events, yet they also never attribute evil to Him directly. Apparently, there is a way for God to ordain that bad things come about without being the immediate, efficient cause for those things; i.e., without being at fault for them.
Rather, Jeremiah spoke about the arrogance of Israel’s enemies (Lam 2:15–16; 3:60–62), and called on Yahweh to judge them for the great wickedness that they had done to God’s people (Lam 1:21–22; 3:63–66; 4:21–22). Though Jeremiah explicitly states that Yahweh employed the Babylonians to accomplish His purpose, he also makes it clear that God’s absolute sovereignty in and over evil does not mitigate human responsibility for that evil.
How is this analogous to our situation when we suffer? Well, the point is: We must recognize who the enemy is in suffering. It is not God. The previous post taught us that He brings these events about to conform us more into the image of His Son, and thus to make us fit to see and know and enjoy more of Him, which is our highest happiness. So He is not the enemy. Rather, the enemy in suffering is (1) our own sin, (2) the Enemy, Satan, and (3) the last enemy: death (1 Cor 15:26). And so when we go through suffering, we can and should pray along with Jeremiah for the destruction of all of these enemies.
Fight, Knowing Your Enemy is Defeated
Hebrews 2:14-15 tells us that the Son of God became man in order to render Satan powerless. And how did He do that? He freed us who were enslaved to the fear of death so that the Enemy, who had the power of death, had no power over us any longer.
And how did He free us from the fear of death? Answer: by conquering death itself. Because Christ has suffered, died, and yet rose again, demonstrating His triumph over sin and death, we too also will be raised with Him. That’s what the entire glorious chapter of 1 Corinthians 15 is about! And it concludes like this:
But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O Death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
That victory taunt, “O Death, where is your victory?…” is a quote from Hosea 13:14. What’s so interesting about that is in its original context, it wasn’t a cry of victory for God’s people. Instead, it was God pronouncing a curse upon His people. He was calling upon the thorns and the sting of death to rouse them against adulterous, idolatrous Ephraim, that unwise son whose iniquity was bound up upon him (Hos 13:12–14). Indeed, Yahweh arouses the sting of death against His people, declaring, “Compassion will be hidden from My sight.”
But the stinging reality of the phrase’s original context only makes Paul’s use of it that much sweeter. Because at the end of 1 Corinthians 15, because of what Christ has accomplished, going before us as our Deliverer, the people of God can take what was once a taunt of victory against them and shout it out as a taunt of victory against their enemy!
Our Battle Cry: Christ’s Victory
And in the midst of suffering, such a taunt can be our cry. “O Death, where is your victory? Where is your sting? Arouse them! Bring your worst! You will nevertheless remain defeated. Your power over me is entirely broken, and your sting is scarcely felt because of the sweet balm of the truth that anoints and salves my soul! Would you remind me of my indwelling sin? I would remind you of His indwelling Spirit, sent to me by my Savior, who bled and died to cancel out the debt I owed because of the hostile law. He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross (Col 2:13)! Get behind me, Satan!”
And therefore, my beloved brethren, we may be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that our struggle against the flesh and the fight for joy in the midst of suffering is not in vain in the Lord (1 Cor 15:58).
In the midst of suffering, as we recognize our enemy, we can look back to celebrate the demise both of our sin and of Satan that took place at the cross. And we can look forward to celebrate their final and consummate destruction, when we will have put on the imperishable (1 Cor 15:54) and when death and Hades will have been thrown into the lake of fire (Rev 20:14).
It’s right for Jeremiah to call for Yahweh’s judgment upon the Babylonians for their responsibility in causing the intense suffering of an entire nation. In the same way, it is right for us to call for God’s judgment upon and eradication of our own sin, upon the Enemy himself, and upon the last enemy: death.