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!)