Interview with

Founder & Teacher,

Audio Transcript

Good Monday morning. We’ve been talking about God’s sovereignty recently. Does his sovereignty in salvation make him unfair? That was APJ 2028. And then should his all-sovereignty make us less prayerful, since we can just resign all things to him? That was APJ 2029. And today we talk about God’s sovereignty over our suffering. That’s because, Pastor John, today in the Navigators Bible Reading Plan we read Psalm 71 together. And listeners who have already completed their reading this morning will have already come across the verse that Bridget wants to stop and reflect on more deeply. Here’s her email.

“Pastor John, hello to you from New Zealand. For many years I have thought — like I think many Christians do — that God would stop pain from getting into the lives of his children if he could. But he cannot really stop it all. Or he simply allows some of it to pass. Either because he is helpless or passive, we suffer. So, we ask for his deliverance, and he will eventually help us out.

“But when I read a verse like Psalm 71:20, I am struck that it seems to say that the same God who caused that suffering is the same God the psalmist has confidence to pray to for deliverance from that suffering. Here’s the full verse: ‘You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again; from the depths of the earth you will bring me up again.’

“Can you explain this verse, and how important it is for us to see God’s sovereignty over our suffering as the ground for our confidence that he is powerful enough to deliver us, too? This seems profoundly important, and so counterintuitive to how I and many other Christians naturally speak of suffering. But I see it there in the Bible. Thank you!”

Yes, it is profoundly important. As I have read my Bible over the years, and as I have dealt with suffering people, the conclusion that I come to has been the same in both cases — namely, that the sovereignty of God over suffering is better news than either his supposed inability to remove it or his supposed cruelty in not removing it. In other words, what I have found is that not only does the Bible teach that God governs all things, including our sufferings, but also that those who trust his goodness and his wisdom in that sovereignty find the greatest strength and even joy through the hardest seasons of life.

So, let me say a word from Scripture about the sovereignty of God over our sufferings, and then try to make that connection with why that is encouraging, why that’s good news, to those who trust his goodness and wisdom through their sorrows.

All-Pervasive Sovereignty

God declares in Isaiah 46:9–10, “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me . . . saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.’” So, none of his purposes is thwarted. He’s God. Paul put it like this: “[God] works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11). “Not a sparrow,” Jesus said, “not a single tiny bird anywhere in the world falls to the ground apart from our Father’s will” (see Matthew 10:29). The dice are thrown on the table — Proverbs says, “The lot is cast into the lap”; just translate it — and “its every decision is from the Lord” (Proverbs 16:33). Every time my wife and I reach our hand into the bag of letters playing Scrabble, God appoints which letters we pull out. That’s how detailed his sovereignty is, according to the Bible.

“The very power and wisdom and love that governs our sorrows now is the same power that will deliver us.”

Lamentations 3:37–38 asks, “Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?” That is, prosperity and calamity — they’re all from God. James says, “Don’t boast as if you know tomorrow” (see James 4:13–14). “Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that’” (James 4:15). Staying alive, doing this or that, will be ultimately decided by the Lord, not us and not Satan.

Hebrews 12:6, 11 says, “The Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives. . . . For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.” Or Psalm 60:3: “You have made your people see hard things; you have given us wine to drink that made us stagger.” Or Psalm 66:10–11: “You, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. . . . You laid a crushing burden on our backs.” And it was God who gave Paul his thorn in the flesh to protect him from being proud (2 Corinthians 12:7).

There’s a reason why my book on Providence has seven hundred pages. That’s how long it takes to even come close to laying out the vastness of the biblical foundation of the all-pervasive, all-governing, all-wise, never-meaningless, never-whimsical, never-random, never-unjust, always-purposeful, always-good sovereignty of God.

‘You Will Bring Me Up’

And here’s the wonderful truth that Bridget is drawing out of Psalm 71 (rightly): namely, that the very sovereignty that brings our sufferings is the same sovereignty that enables us to be confident that God can save us — in them, from them, according to his wise and loving purposes. The psalm says, “You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again; from the depths of the earth you will bring me up again” (Psalm 71:20).

In other words, since it was not ultimately me or natural forces or satanic opposition or the evils of human adversaries that made me see many sore troubles and calamities, but rather it was you, O God, my Father — my all-wise, all-loving, all-powerful Father — therefore, I have every reason to be confident that the same power and love and wisdom will bring me up out of those troubles according to your promise.

So, I think we should think this way: If God does not have the power or the wisdom or the right or the love to restrain deadly natural forces or hostile human forces or destructive satanic forces — if he doesn’t have the wherewithal to restrain them from hurting you — on what basis are you going to count on him to give you endurance in sufferings, or to give you relief from the suffering in this life, or to give you final happiness in the age to come? If you are hoping for a pain-free eternity with God (which I am), then at some point you are hoping that God will play the sovereignty card and say to natural forces and human forces and satanic forces, “No more! No more!”

What the Bible teaches is that sovereignty is not a card that he plays at the end. It’s not a card at all. It is a right and authority and power that belongs to his very God-ness and is always there, always active.

This is why thousands of people have found that the sovereignty of God over their suffering is a precious reality, because it means none of our suffering is meaningless, none of it is owing to the weakness of God or the folly of God or the cruelty of God, but all of it is owing to wise and loving and holy purposes of God for those who trust in his goodness in the midst of it. And the very power and wisdom and love that governs our sorrows now is the same power that will deliver us in God’s all-wise timing.

Let me close with Lamentations 3:31–32 (I love the way Jeremiah puts it): “The Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love.” So, it’s the same sovereignty in causing grief and in showing compassion.