Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Suffering And The Glory Of God

Is God in control of human suffering? If he is all-powerful, why does he not stop it? If he is good, why does he allow it? These questions are some of the biggest in all of theology and philosophy. And, while the Bible leaves an element of mystery, it does give us just the answers we need in order to stand firm with joy when suffering comes.

In the book of Exodus, the 70 members of the family of Israel - the people of God - had migrated to Egypt. God began to bless them by multiplying their numbers greatly (Ex 1:7) in fulfillment of promises he had made to their forefathers. It was a time of blessing for the people of God. But then, verse 8 comes along and ruins the whole thing. "There arose a new king" (1:8) who was greatly alarmed at the population explosion happening to Israel. He made their lives bitter by enslaving them, subjecting them to oppressive labor, and even killing their male babies. This was a king who hated God's people and brought suffering to their lives. Where was God? Why didn't he stop this? Was he on vacation when the new king rose up? Did he even care?

The rest of the Bible helps us answer those questions:
  • It is God himself who raises up kings and puts others down (Daniel 2:20-21a). In other words, this evil king was raised up by God!
  • This event, like all others, was decreed by God (Ephesians 1:11; Isaiah 46:8-11). If anything happens, God has allowed it, permitted it, refrained from stopping it...and even decreed that it would happen.
  • This particular event (Israel coming to Egypt, being enslaved and afflicted) was specifically prophesied by God generations before (Genesis 15:13-14).
  • God had the power to turn the king's heart (Proverbs 21:1) and could have caused the king to be nice to Israel, thus, removing their suffering.
  • Later in Exodus God revealed exactly why he had raised up this evil king to make his own people suffer: "But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth" (Exodus 9:16, ESV).
So we see that God decrees what happens, and is sovereign over governments, politics, history and all things. We see that God specifically raised up this evil king and allowed him to bring great suffering on his own people that he loved. And we are told that God's purpose in this was to show his power and bring glory to his name. In fact, God's purpose to show forth his glory is declared throughout Exodus (6:7; 7:5, 7:17; 8:22; 10:2; 14:4, 14:18; 16:12; 29:46)!

The Bible goes on to give us valuable lessons about suffering and the glory of God.

1. Suffering is sometimes part of God's will. Philippians 1:29 says that it has been granted that we suffer, and 1 Peter 4:19 teaches us what to do when we "suffer according to God's will."

2. God will be glorified and we will be satisfied...even in suffering. We've already seen that God is working for his glory in our suffering (see also Philippians 1:20b). But we are also taught that God's people will be satisfied in God through suffering! "But he said to me, '...my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me" (2 Cor 12:9).

Think about it this way; to know God and be satisfied by him in all his attributes, God must allow suffering to take place. To know him as our healer, he must allow us to get sick. To know God as our deliverer, he must allow us to be bound up. To know and enjoy God as our provider, he must allow us to experience lack. To know God as our soul's deepest friend, he must allow us to first be lonely. And to know God as our Savior, he must allow sin. For us to know that God is enough in the midst of great suffering, he must allow that suffering to take place.

3. We must trust God and suffer well. This is what Jesus did (Hebrews 12:2). "Therefore let those who suffer according to God's will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good" (1 Peter 4:19).

4. God's people will not always suffer! True enough, God raised up an evil king in Egypt, allowing him to bring great suffering upon God's people. But the rest of the book of Exodus is the story of God pouring out his power on that evil king and rescuing his people with a mighty hand and outstretched arm! They may be suffering now, but the exodus is coming!

This is true for us as well. While we live in this fallen world, suffering will come. But for those who have repented of sin and trusted in Jesus Christ, "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)!

5. We are saved because Jesus suffered! The same God who allows suffering in our lives suffered himself by sending his precious Son to the cross - to save us from eternal suffering (the consequences of our sins) and give us eternal joy in the presence of God! Jesus suffered at the cross for our salvation. He knows and understands suffering. No other 'god' does. No other god has scars. "But to our wounds only God can speak, and not a god has wounds but thou alone" (Jesus of the Scars, by Edward Shillito).

6. God allowed your suffering and he is still good. This is mysterious, and difficult. Only those who have faith can say this. And this faith comes from God. When we come to the end of ourselves and are humbled before God, we see his glory and goodness, and we desire that above all things, God be glorified. If this means suffering, so be it. The life that does not prize the glory of God above all things does not have biblical faith.

7. Don't waste your suffering! In light of the biblical truth we have discussed, don't waste your suffering by giving up on God, complaining, distancing yourself from his people, etc. Don't waste your sickness; your infertility; your disease. Don't waste your marriage crisis; your financial crisis; your trouble with your children. Don't waste your unemployment; your heart-breaking loss; your persecution for being a Christian. By God's grace suffer well - trust him, praise him, serve him, walk with him, lean on him and glorify him. And you will be satisfied in him.

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