Suffering has a way of pressing us to go deeper with God.
It’s sadly not the case for all, but many have testified that their embrace of God’s sovereignty and goodness was catalyzed during a season of profound suffering.
Sometimes it’s fresh truths about God intersecting with our lives in the hardest of times. But often suffering becomes a testing ground for what truths we’ve already built into our lives in the easiest of days. Such was my experience.
Wrestling with Hard Truths
It took me several years of “normal life” to believe that such truths — like God’s sovereignty, predestination, and election — should be called “truths” at all. I wasn’t sure they were biblical. I wondered, if God desires all to be saved (2 Peter 3:9), then how can he be in control of who is saved and who isn’t? And if God can change his mind (Exodus 32:14; Jeremiah 26:19), then how can he truly be in control of all things?
These are tough questions to wrestle with. But over time, with help from the writings of men like James Montgomery Boice, R.C. Sproul, and John Piper, I came to gladly embrace, as faithful to the Scriptures, the doctrines of grace and the absolute and exhaustive sovereignty of God. These men and others were willing to ask the hard questions I was asking, and they gave compelling answers from the Bible.
As I began embracing such truths, God became bigger and greater in my eyes. We Christians worship a God
who purposes everything throughout all creation, or “who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11);
who decides what happens anytime something as small as dice are rolled: “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lᴏʀᴅ” (Proverbs 16:33);
who not only knows, but makes known, the future: “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my pleasure’” (Isaiah 46:9–10);
who “is in the heavens [and] does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3), so that “whatever the Lᴏʀᴅ pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps” (Psalm 135:6).
And as I began discovering more about the power and the glory of God, and realized that it was inevitable that I would someday, sooner than later, suffer some kind of affliction in this fallen world (1 Thessalonians 3:3–4; Acts 14:22), I knew I needed to prepare for suffering — so that God’s bigness would not merely be some doctrine that I believed with my mind, but one that would sustain me through life’s pain.
Getting Ready for Hardship
With such preparation in mind, I set myself in 2006 to read the book Suffering and the Sovereignty of God. In it, I read life-changing truths like these:
“Scripture is clear that nothing arises, exists, or endures independently of God’s will” (page 41);
“God not merely carries all of the universe’s objects and events to their appointed ends, but he actually brings about all things in accordance with his will. In other words, it isn’t just that God manages to turn the evil aspects of our world to good for those who love him; it is rather that he himself brings about these evil aspects for his glory (see Exodus 9:13–16; John 9:3) and his people’s good (see Hebrews 12:3–11; James 1:2–4)” (42);
“From events as small as the fall of the tiniest sparrow (see Matthew 10:29) to the death, at the hands of lawless men, of his own dear Son (see Acts 2:23 and 4:28), God speaks and then brings his word to pass; he purposes and then does what he has planned (see Isaiah 46:11). Nothing that exists or occurs falls outside God’s ordaining will” (43);
“And so it is not inappropriate to take God to be the creator, the sender, the permitter, and sometimes even the instigator of evil” (44);
“Scripture repudiates the claim that God does evil while at the same time everywhere implying that God ordains any evil there is. To say that God ‘ordains’ something is to say that he has planned and purposed and willed it from before the creation of the world — that is, from before time began” (47).
The authors quoted Bible text after Bible text. I couldn’t escape God’s complete sovereignty — and I didn’t want to!
When Tragedy Strikes
The following year, in December of 2007, tragedy struck when my Dad died suddenly at the young age of 44. To this day, the single most terrible memory I have is of my Mom calling me at two in the morning, crying, “They’re losing him, Bryan! They’re losing him!” Not long after, my uncle called to let me know that he died.
What then do you make of God’s sovereignty? Was it tempting to become bitter and angry at God? Perhaps, but only slightly. No, the main comfort for me since Dad’s death has been that God works all things — including that death — according to the counsel of his will, that he does all that he pleases, that he knows all things, including that death, before it happened.
Both Sovereign and Good
But the book also taught me about God’s goodness, not just his sovereignty. Picture heaven with me, in the words of Joni Eareckson Tada:
I think at first the shock of the joy that will come from reveling in the waterfall of love and pleasure that is the Trinity may burn with a brilliant newness of being glorified, but in the next instant we will be at peace. We will be drenched with delight. We will feel at home as though it were always this way, as though we were born for such a place — because we were! (202–203)
And so, I commend to you, if these are your easy times before some coming trial, prepare now for the pain. This book — available free of charge in PDF — is one way to start. Learn now that your suffering is not even worth comparing to the glory that will one day be yours (Romans 8:18), and that the suffering indeed produces or works or prepares the weight of glory that you will experience in God’s presence (2 Corinthians 4:17).
Begin preparing now, in the “normal days,” knowing that some portion of suffering is coming, and God has made available the resources to get you ready.
Books from John Piper on the sovereignty and goodness of God: