The Gospel and Suffering
Nick Esch: Sunday, September 10, 2017
Tomorrow marks the 16th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks. Do you remember where you were when it happened? Do you remember what you felt when it happened? Just thinking back on all of that, no doubt, stirs up many emotions. And this anniversary comes alongside all the tragedy and destruction that we’ve seen over the past few weeks from the weather, natural disasters, and wildfires. Not to mention the everyday suffering that confronts us all in this broken world. All of us, in one-way or another have encountered suffering; but, I imagine that here lately, all of us have especially been feeling the weight of suffering in this world. That said, I want us to give some time this morning to thinking about suffering, especially suffering in light of the gospel, in light of who God is and His great promises that come to us in and through the gospel.
Wrong Views of Suffering
In the face of suffering we often struggle to believe in God rightly. Under the weight of suffering, be it from natural disasters, illness, calamity, persecution, or whatever, we are tempted to believe false things about God; and that usually starts with believing that God is not in control. Suffering comes in and pushes us beyond what we can bear; it might push us to pray, but, as the suffering goes on, if God doesn’t change our situation, if He doesn’t answer our prayers exactly how we ask, exactly when we ask, we then begin to doubt His sovereignty. “Maybe He isn’t changing anything because He can’t change anything. Maybe God isn’t in control at all.”
From here, we typically begin to doubt God’s goodness. I mean if God can change our circumstance, if He can alleviate our suffering, yet He chooses not to, then He must not be good. If He was good then surely He would never cause us pain… Right? So either He’s not really in control, or He’s not really good, because if He was He’d rid this world of suffering… This is how our mind works under the weight of much suffering.
But we’re not alone in this; we see this type of thinking in the Psalms from time to time. Think back to what the Psalmist said in Psalm 43, the Psalm we looked at last week; he said, “why have you rejected me? Why do I go about mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?” He feels the weight of all of this, and He feels like God doesn’t care. And that’s where we go too. We’re prone to think that God can’t or that He won’t. Or, if we manage to make it through these doubts, we then begin to wonder whether or not God is angry with us. Which again is where the Psalmist went last week; he said, “why have you rejected me?” He said this because in our suffering we often feel rejected by God, and we feel like we are being punished—like we are condemned or cursed or rejected…
This is what happened in Job; this is exactly where Job’s friends went when they saw all the suffering he was in. They did good at first: “they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” (Job 2:13). But then they began to accuse him. One of his friends told him, “those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same. By the breath of God they perish, and by the blast of his anger they are consumed” (Job 4:8-9). In other words, he’s saying, “Job, you must have done something to make God mad.” The disciples did this type of thing too. When they saw a man born blind they asked Jesus, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind” (John 9:2)? And all too often, this is exactly where we go as well. Suffering comes in, and we begin to feel like God can’t do anything because He’s not really in control, or maybe He just won’t do anything because He isn’t really good, or maybe He’s just so angry with us that He’s punishing us… Well, though these are all common views, they are all wrong views of suffering.
Right Views of Suffering
When we find ourselves caught in the wave of affliction and under the weight of suffering we must not let our feelings guide us, but instead we must turn to the Word of God. And from beginning to end God’s Word tells us that God is sovereign and good… For instance, in Psalm 119:68 we’re told that the Lord is good and does good. And we see that in who God is and what He does. In the beginning, when He created, He sovereignly spoke creation into being; and everything He created was good because He Himself—the Creator—is good. “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16-17). He didn’t just create and then step away; He creates and He sustains all things—in Him all things hold together. “God reigns over the nations; God sits on his holy throne”, Psalm 47:8 says. And this is the consistent testimony throughout Scripture: God is good and sovereign.
Even Job, who suffered greatly, who was hit by wave after wave of affliction, still believed that God was in control. When his wife told him to curse God and die, he replied, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” Do you see what he’s saying there? He’s not accusing God of evil, but he is saying that regardless of how suffering came his way, none of it came to him outside of God’s sovereignty. That’s why after he acknowledges God’s sovereignty in and through his suffering, God’s Word says, “In all this Job did not sin with his lips” (Job 2:10). Later, after almost 40 chapters of suffering, Job tells God, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2). Imagine knowing that God is completely sovereign, that His will can never be thwarted, and yet going through all that Job went through, and having to come to grips with all of that. This is where Job is when he says this; but again, he doesn’t say it as an accusation against God, but as a declaration of God’s good sovereignty. That’s why after he says this he tells the Lord, “I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). He knew that God was in control and that God is good, and he was very aware that he was not God, that he was not in control, and that ultimately he is not good. As Jesus said, “No one is good except God alone” (Luke 18:19). So he repents of ever thinking of questioning God’s good sovereignty.
Now understand, Job’s suffering was not a result of his sin; he didn’t suffer because God was angry with him. In fact, Job, “was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). And that’s actually why God chose him to suffer this way. Now I don’t mean to imply that all of the suffering we encounter in this world is in the same camp as what happens in Job, where we are suffering for righteousness’ sake (we’ll think about that more later). But, the truth of the matter is that we live in a broken world.
In the beginning, when God created Adam and Eve, He told them not to eat of one specific tree, for if they did they would die. And by die, He meant much more than just physical death; this would be physical and spiritual. And when sin and death enter into the world, they have a massive effect on everything—indeed, sin fractures everything. That’s why, after our ancestors ate the forbidden fruit, God told Adam that the earth was now cursed. God’s Word says in Isaiah, “Therefore a curse devours the earth, and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt” (Isaiah 24:6).
The whole of creation is now broken because of sin and death. That’s why in Romans we’re told that, “the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:20-21). Sin and death now wreak havoc throughout the whole of creation. The ripple effects of our ancestors’ sins are still disturbing this world. When man fell from grace, God subjected the creation to futility, as a consequence of Adam’s sin. In other words, when man fell, we took the creation with us. So not only are we broken, but now the whole world is.
That’s why this world is full of things like wildfires and hurricanes, and likewise why it’s full of hate and things like terrorist attacks. Ultimately, it’s because of sin. The fall of man broke God’s good creation, and now we have the world that we find ourselves in that’s stained by sin. Pain, disease, calamities, tragedies, suffering, and death are all a result of the fall; so understand that because of sin we live in a broken world full of all of these things. So if we find ourselves caught up in any of these things, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we are like Job, nor does it necessarily mean that we are suffering because of any specific sin of our own, even though suffering is certainly a result of sin in general… This world is broken; suffering is now just a part of life. But that doesn’t mean that God is not in control, it doesn’t mean that God is not good, and it doesn’t mean that God is punishing you. But, do realize, that because we are sinners, in our sin we deserve nothing less than pain, disease, calamities, tragedies, suffering, and death; indeed, in our sin we deserve the wrath of God.
But that’s not what people usually think; people tend to think that because this world is broken—because suffering and evil exist, that God must not exist. I mean if He does, why doesn’t He just eliminate suffering and evil? If God is sovereign and good, why does He let bad things happen to good people? Well, remember, this all started with the fall of man. The creation fell when we fell. So if He’s to eliminate suffering and evil, at what point should He stop? The hard truth is that God is the only one who is truly good. So, to truly eliminate all suffering and evil, He would have to eliminate us as well—again, no one is good but God… God allowing the brokenness in this world to stand for the time being is not a sign of neglect or anger, but of grace. He is graciously being long-suffering with this world. It is because He is good and gracious that He is allowing this broken world to go on.
God had and has good sovereign purposes for allowing the fall and allowing all of the suffering that happens in this world. I mean, just think of the most gracious and glorious thing that God has ever done. We are broken sinners living in a broken world, yet, God has not left us to this. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly…. God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6, 8). The gospel comes to us through suffering; Jesus saves us through suffering—He died for us.
Our sin—our rebellion against God has separated us from God, and set us on a path towards wrath and fury. But Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit (1 Peter 3:18)… The most gracious and glorious thing that has happened or will ever happen, happened through the death of our Lord and Savior on a cross for sinners, by sinners. In that one great act we see a purpose for sin, for suffering, and even for death… Charles Spurgeon once pointed out, “We never would have known Christ’s love in all it’s height and depths if He had not died; nor could we guess the Father’s deep affection if He had not given His Son to die.” God’s grace is made known through suffering. So our suffering should remind us of God’s long-suffering, and Christ’s suffering on our behalf. If we find ourselves, in the midst of suffering, saying woe is me, we should take a moment and meditate on the gospel, and let that turn our sorrow into rejoicing, remembering that, yes, suffering exists, but so does the Suffering Servant…
God allowing the creation to be subjected to futility is a part of His good sovereignty, we see that by looking at the cross; but we can also see God’s good sovereignty in suffering because through the pain in this world, God gets our attention. Think about it; most of the world does not recognize sin as a bad thing, but everyone hates cancer. And cancer is in the world because sin is in this world. Pain, disease, suffering of all kinds, and death itself, all entered into this world as a result of the fall of man, as a result of sin. The creation is broken, it has been subjected to futility, not merely as a punishment for mans’ sin, but so that man would see the wretchedness of his sin. This broken world is screaming at us, telling us how bad sin is. It’s constantly reminding us that the wages of sin is death.
This isn’t merely true in a general sense, but also for each of us personally. God gets our attention through suffering. Paul spoke of this when he told the Corinthians, “For we do not want you to be unaware, 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” (2 Corinthians 1:8-9). Paul was afflicted, he was greatly burdened, to the point that he thought he was surely going to die; in fact he despaired of life itself… But through all of that God opened his eyes to his ongoing need of Him; and his faith was stirred, and God was glorified as he depended on Him, the God who raises the dead.
C. S. Lewis once wrote, “Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Often God opens our eyes to our great need of Him, and He draws us nearer to Him, and opens our eyes all the more to our dependency on Him through suffering. We often mourn over our suffering; we despise pain and yearn for comfort and ease. All to often we find ourselves envying those around us who seem to have everything their hearts desire. But in Romans 1 we’re told that it is actually God’s judgment on man, when He gives them over to their heart’s desire. In this life, it’s not so much suffering that is a sign of God’s anger with us, but worldly prosperity. Suffering is an instrument in the Redeemer’s hands to draw us near to Himself, and to lavish us with His grace. Often, times of greatest pain are times of greatest fellowship with the Lord, because suffering tends to show us what truly matters in this life. Prosperity, ease, and comfort are like a mirage in the desert. They seem satisfying, but ultimately there really isn’t anything there. Suffering, on the other hand, opens our eyes to what is truly satisfying, to Who is truly satisfying, to the God who is there…
Gospel Promises In and Through Suffering
This world is broken, but God is still good and sovereign; not only is He accomplishing His purposes in and through suffering, but He gives us some amazing promises in and through suffering. Just think back to the story of Joseph in Genesis. After he had experienced great suffering, mainly because of his brothers, he tells them, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20)… Through the hands of evil men, and the suffering they inflicted, God accomplished good, not only for Joseph, but for many people. He meant it for good; He didn’t just make the best of a bad situation, that bad situation was working for God’s good purposes. And this is what God does for His people. As we’ve seen, God has a great plan of redemption that He is accomplishing through the suffering of Christ; and when He saves us He brings us into His story of redemption. And now, as Christians, our entire life—the good, the bad, and the ugly—is all a part of God’s grand plan of redemption. We may not always get to see how God means the ups and downs of our lives for good like Joseph, but we can still trust God’s character even when we can’t trace His hand.
If we can’t immediately see God’s good purposes we tend to lose hope. We get so caught up in the pain that it all feels meaningless; but it isn’t. God delights to work in and through our weakness. You remember what He told Paul. To keep Paul from growing conceited he was given a thorn in the flesh. Three times he pleaded with the Lord, asking Him to take it away. But God said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” And how did Paul respond? He said, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).
This has always been how God works. John Piper points out, “Irony and disproportion are all God’s way. We think we know how to do something big, and God makes it little. We think that all we have is weak and small, and God makes it big. Barren Sarah gives birth to the child of promise. Gideon’s three hundred men defeat a hundred thousand Midianites. A slingshot in the hand of a shepherd boy brings the giant down. A virgin bears the Son of God. A boys five loaves feed thousands. A breach of justice, groveling political expediency, and criminal torture on a gruesome cross become the foundation of the salvation of the world… This is God’s way—to take all boasting off of man and put it on God” (John Piper, The Hidden Smile of God, 19-20). God delights to work His grand purposes in and through our suffering; through our weakness He shows Himself to be strong…
Our suffering is never meaningless; God is always doing something in and through it, He uses it for good in His grand plan of redemption. I remember a family who were members of Cornerstone when God first led my family here. From the first day they met us they were nothing but loving and gracious to my family. I remember, even before I became a Christian, being amazed by how strong their faith was, and by how much they loved the Lord. You see, their faith and their love for the Lord seemed so remarkable because they had just lost two children; one at one time, and another a short time later. Yet, even in the midst of great pain they still believed that the Lord was good and in control. In fact, they would tell me later that it was their faith and love for the Lord that got them through those times of great suffering. Seeing their faith and their love for the Lord showed me that there really is something to Christianity, that the gospel really is powerful, that Jesus really is better than anything this world could give us or take away from us… Their faithfulness in the midst of suffering pointed me to the beauty of Jesus’ suffering on our behalf. But God didn’t only use them in my life and the life of my family; before long God gave this family a ministry, serving others who’ve lost a child. This wasn’t a ministry they ever planned on being a part of, but God took their tragedy and used it for good. Their hardest season of life, a season where they felt completely helpless and broken ended up working for great good; their story became a part of God’s story of redemption…
But God not only works through our suffering for the good of others, but also for our own good. Romans 8:28, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” For those who love God and are called according to His purpose—for Christians, God works all things, all things, even the most horribly painful things, together for good. He works disease and disaster, and everything and anything else together for good. Consider Paul’s words in Romans 5, he said, “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3-4). Or think of what Peter was getting at when he said, “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:6-7).
Through suffering God transforms our character and stirs us to great hope; He refines our faith and turns our mourning into rejoicing, as He gets our eyes on the glory and honor that is to come. This is what Jesus was speaking of when He said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:10-12). Great is the reward in heaven for those who embrace suffering for righteousness’ sake; for those who suffer as faithful Christians, even if our suffering doesn’t necessarily happen through persecution, or because we are Christians. If we suffer as Christians, then it all falls under this category, be it sickness or slander… It falls under this category because there is a sovereign God who is good working in and through it all for our good. That’s why we can take joy in the midst of suffering, because we know that our suffering is doing something; it’s helping to secure something for us, to increase something for us, and to transform us into something, namely Christlikeness…
The “good” in Romans 8:28 is complete gospel transformation. The context of Romans 8 shows us that the good He works for us, is conforming us to the image of Christ; He works all things together for good, even the most painful of sufferings, to transform us more and more into the image of Christ. And that is our greatest good; being with Jesus and being made like Jesus…
What others mean for evil God means for God; indeed He works all things together for good, even our good… These are amazing promises. That’s why we can embrace the call of Peter, who said, “Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good” (1 Peter 4:19). We can give ourselves over to faithfulness, to doing good, to loving God and loving people, regardless of how we’re treated, and regardless of what we suffer along the path of obedience, because we serve a faithful Creator who’s working all things according to His will, and He works those things together for our good. What an amazing promise this is! But there is one more that I want to close on; one more gospel promise that is truly amazing. It’s the promise of the resurrection. In 1 Corinthians 15 we’re told that Christ has been raised from the dead, and likewise all who are in Christ shall all be made alive. In fact, this is the apex of gospel-transformation; we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. We will be like Christ and alive with Christ; literally alive, in new glorified bodies in the new heaven new earth.
This is the idea behind those beautiful words in Revelation 21, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’ And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new’” (Revelation 21:1-5).
This is the consummation of the gospel. This is what will happen in the resurrection; He will make all things new. This is why Paul said, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). He’s talking about that glory; the glory of God incarnate, with His people, free from sin, and pain, and death. He is going to make all things new. That’s why the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to all that is going to be revealed to us.
Have you ever had a horrible dream; a dream that seemed so real that it was almost too much to bear? A dream where someone you care about deeply, perhaps a spouse, a child, or a parent died? Have you ever had a dream like that, where someone near and dear to your heart dies, and then you wake up? What do you feel when you wake up? Well, when you first wake up you may be upset and confused; but then, when you hear that person’s voice and you realize it was all a dream you feel joy, you feel overwhelming relief. I mean something that you can literally feel throughout your body. The burdened that you were carrying just seems to lift off, and you are filled with delight… Why? Because all of those sad things that you were just going through, came untrue. All of the grief, all of the loss, all of the pain came untrue, in an instant. Beloved, that’s how it will be when Jesus makes all things new; that’s how it will be in the resurrection. All of our mourning will turn to joy, all of our grief, all of our pain will be undone, and death will die. The nail-scarred hands of Jesus will wipe our tear stained eyes, and we will weep no more…
None of our suffering is meaningless because it is all working towards that. This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. It’s doing something! There is purpose in our suffering! There is a good God who is in control working in and through our suffering to bring about His good purposes; and His good purposes will one day undo all that is wrong in this world, and we will get to live forever in perfect joy with Jesus…
So beloved, do not bemoan your suffering. Now I’m not calling you to believe that suffering is necessarily good; but I am calling you to believe that God is good. I’m calling you to believe that God is better than anything we may suffer the loss of. I want us to believe that no matter what, we can trust our God; because when we get there, come what may, we will not lose joy because our joy is in our God—our God who is sovereign and good, who will never leave us.
We may not always know and understand why God allows certain suffering to come into our lives or the lives of others. We don’t see from His vantage point, so we don’t know why He allows this suffering and prevents another; but what we do know is that He loves us, and that we can trust Him. And we know that nothing He allows us to go through is meaningless; it’s all doing something, something for God’s glory and the good of His people. This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. If we can remember that, then no matter what suffering befalls us, we will not lose hope, we will not lose joy, we will gladly suffer the loss of all things that we might gain Christ. And being with and being made like Him is so much better than anything we would gain or lose in this life. And when we live this way, then we make Jesus look amazing to the world; then we show that the gospel is power and that Jesus is better… So let’s ask God to give us the grace to do just that…