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Reflections on Suffering and the Sovereignty of God (Intro & Chapter 1)

An online discussion among some of my friends a couple of months ago brought to mind the importance of grappling with God’s sovereignty and the issue of suffering. Given that the most powerful book I’ve ever read that Biblically addresses this issue is Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, (which is also available as a conference DVD set) edited by John Piper & Justin Taylor, I’m going to take time out over the next few weeks to reflect on this book chapter-by-chapter.

For starters, it would probably benefit everyone to read my older post GOD IS IN CONTROL, as it relates directly to this topic, but for those who can’t find the time, here is the most relevant excerpt:

…the human authors of Scripture had so high a view of God’s sovereignty as to even recognize evil as being ultimately from the hand of God. For instance, in spite of that fact that Satan was the one immediately bringing violence upon Job, Job himself stated, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away.” Job spoke truthfully, as well, for immediately afterward the author adds, “In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.” Also look at Isaiah 45:7; “I form light and create darkness, I make comfort and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things.” Or Lamentations 3:38; “Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and evil come?” Though at first this may sound unnerving, there is also comfort to be found here, for since God is ultimately sovereign over all and even the devil is “the God’s devil”, there is no meaningless or purposeless evil, for God ultimately has allowed it and will use it for the good of His children.

That is what I find most comforting in Piper’s (dare I say God’s?) view of God’s sovereignty and suffering: there is absolutely NO meaningless suffering or evil, even if we – in this lifetime – never fully understand the purpose of it now.

On to SUFFERING & THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD (Full Book), chapter one, most of which is summarized in this post on Piper’s website. I was struck by one quote in particular here.

Piper wrote, in response to a quote by David Wells on the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, that by them, “our vision of God in relation to evil and suffering was shown to be frivolous”. He later expounded:

“Against the overwhelming weight and seriousness of the Bible, much of the church is choosing, at this very moment, to become more light and shallow and entertainment-oriented, and therefore successful in its irrelevance to massive suffering and evil. The popular God of fun-church is simply too small and too affable to hold a hurricane in His hand. The biblical categories of God’s sovereignty lie like land mines in the pages of the Bible waiting for someone to seriously open the book. They don’t kill, but they do explode trivial notions of the Almighty.”

Reading this, however, my first thought is that it is not enough to simply address the issue of evil and suffering Biblically – in fact, that is not the issue whatsoever. It is not necessary to teach someone how to deal with evil and suffering if they have a big enough (Biblical) picture of God to recognize His hand in it. I heard once of a church that addressed the issue of suffering from the pulpit, telling their congregation that “God didn’t know” and that “He couldn’t stop it anymore than you could.” That’s just one example of where addressing the issue, but from a less than Scriptural viewpoint, can do more harm than good. Yes, at the moment it may feel better, but in the long-run, how is such a weak, impotent God worth worshiping?

So, how do we keep from painting ‘trivial notion(s) of the Almighty’? I say, by emphasizing two truths: God’s goodness (shown in His love, grace, mercy, etc.) AND his sovereignty (shown in his power, judgment, and authority). Biblical truth is a collection of ‘tensions’ – it is when settle for only one part of the big picture that we begin sliding towards heresy and cultism. God’s sovereignty without His goodness leaves us with a brutal dictator – unloving and unlovable, not unlike some Muslim’s view of Allah, who we must slave to please, always aware that pleasing Him is impossible. However, God’s goodness without his sovereignty leaves us with a cuddly bunny-rabbit deity – ‘Buddy Christ’, if you will – who is a pushover, and too ‘nice’ to make any long-term impact on our lives, let alone the world around us. Both ‘gods’ are deities of our imagination, however, not the God of revelation.

More to come as I move on to Mark Talbot‘s chapter, “ALL THE GOOD THAT IS OURS IN CHRIST”…

(Let me encourage you all to personally read this book and not only my commentary, because what might strike me as important in it may not be what catches you, and there is far too much in here for me to cover it all!)

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Filed under: Books, Doctrine, John Piper, Reformed, Suffering & the Sovereignty of God, Theology

9 Responses

  1. Shannon,
    Looking forward to this … however, I have a question (as one who clearly struggles with the whole notion) …

    I cannot argue w/ the scriptures you’ve presented. However, I can at least question the quote, “there is absolutely NO meaningless suffering or evil”.

    This is my issue … “free will”.

    To suggest that all evil ultimately was God-ordained, and has a “purpose” … (and maybe nobody is doing that, and I’m misunderstanding) almost strays completely from “free will”, in my opinion. (keep in mind, I’m the dude who just posted on your other blog that I’m about as inept at apologetics as I am at dancing … ask my wife) …

    I mean, seems to me like God gave us free will … we could choose life or death (evil). He gave US the choice. The two exist – His desire and plan is for us to make choices of life and good … yet, the choice of death/evil is right in front of us.

    If we choose evil … it was on our own accord … our own free will. The only thing “Sovereign” about that, to me, was the fact that the “Sovereign” God chose to let us make our own decisions … not that He orchestrated us to choose evil. Can the Sovereign God (which I believe in) allow us to have free will and make our own choices (with their accompanying ramifications), yet still be considered “Sovereign”?

    I don’t post this as an authority; rather, as a way to stimulate discussion. So, help me work this out.

    You know, I just looked up “Sovereign” in the dictionary. It refers to authority and position … not so much about being in charge … because we all know that just because you are in “authority” or “charge”, that doesn’t mean everything that happens is your will or plan. I can’t help but think God’s Sovereignty is more about his office, his authority, his rule … and less about his “will”.

    Fred

  2. heatlight says:

    Thanks for the comment, Fred!
    I will be the first to admit that I don’t have all the answers on this – I am convinced of one thing: there is a LOT of mystery in this and God has not chosen to answer all of our questions in the here & now. Look at Job, whom God not only allowed, but even seemed to direct Satan into (“Look at my servant, Job…”) bringing trouble upon trouble to: God’s response to Job’s “WHY?!” was “Who are you?” – not in the rude sense, but in the sense that He let Job have a BIG revelation of God INSTEAD of an answer to his “WHY?”

    For years, I too struggled with the issue of “Free Will”, but now I struggle with it from the other-side: the Bible clearly says, “But our God is in heaven; He does whatever He pleases” (Psalm 115:3). “Free Will” is a troubling man-made term, but IF “Free Will” exists in any sense, the only being that can have it is God, otherwise wouldn’t it be possible for us to make a decision which trumped (and as a result “bound” – tied His hands) God’s will, making Psalm 115 no longer true?

    Also, what is the ‘will’ – isn’t it simply our ‘desires’: what we want to see ‘come to be’? Do we really get to freely choose what those desires are? How much of what we desire comes from 1.) Family pressures, 2.) Cultural influence, 3.) our upbringing, 4.) psychological issues, 5.) social issues, 6 past experiences, 7.) ?Genetics? (alcoholism is – in-part – genetic), etc. Can a will so shaped by so many factors be called ‘free’, when we seem most-times DRAWN to make the decisions we do?

    I don’t want to go too deep on that from the get-go…but you DO ask good questions, Fred!

    This blog series should be fun!

  3. […] Reflections on Suffering and the Sovereignty of God (Chapter 2 – part 1) For the first part of this blog, please see “Reflections on the Suffering and Sovereignty of God (Intro & Chapter 1)”. […]

  4. […] and the Sovereignty of God (Chapter 2 – part 2) For the first two parts in this blog read here & […]

  5. […] INTRO & CHAPTER 1 (10 aspects of God’s Sovereignty over Suffering & Satan’s hand… […]

  6. […] & the Sovereignty of God (chapter 3) The first 3 blogs in this series are available here, here, & […]

  7. […] discussions to the fore-front.  To keep up-to-date on the discussion to far, please also read INTRO & CHAPTER 1, CHAPTER 2 PART 1, CHAPTER 2 PART 2, CHAPTER 3, & A […]

  8. […] I will not spend the time to go into the healing debate, and whether or not it is God’s will for us to suffer in any sense(see this blog). […]

  9. […] Reflections on Suffering and the Sovereignty of God (Intro & Chapter 1) […]

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