How can God be good and sovereign over all things and also allow intense personal suffering into our lives? This is such an important and central question for us at Desiring God. And it’s a question that arrived in the inbox from a young man.
“Hello, Pastor John! My girlfriend is becoming a respiratory therapist, and since beginning her training, she has interacted with many patients who are brain-dead or have no control over their bodies. She has serious questions about where God is in all of this personal suffering. How can God, if he is sovereign, be good by allowing certain people to suffer in this way? What purposes do they serve in this state? I have spoken to her about these things, trying to answer her questions (and I will continue to do so). I want her to see the Lord’s character. But I also wanted to ask you for guidance in answering these questions. What Scripture should I walk her through? What’s the best approach to this?”
Micro and Macro Reasons
I have found it helpful to distinguish between what I call micro reasons for why people suffer and macro reasons for why there’s suffering in the world. When it comes to micro reasons, we usually don’t have answers. Why this particular suffering? Why on this particular person? Why at this particular time? Why this particular intensity? Why with these peculiar complications? Why in all these particular relationships? Why this particular duration? When we’re talking about those micro reasons, we usually don’t know exactly why.
“Our suffering may be intended by God to draw out of others something they wouldn’t otherwise have experienced.”
The Bible doesn’t address the particular situation of each person. That’s where a lot of people stop and say, “Oh, we don’t know why. Suffering is a total mystery,” instead of saying, “No. No. I need to keep reading my Bible.”
When it comes to macro reasons for why there is suffering in the world, the Bible is rich with helpfulness. It’s explicitly intended to be helpful for us at the macro level.
And I don’t have time to go into them all here. If people want see what I mean and what those reasons are, go to Desiring God and just type in the search engine, “Five Purposes for Suffering.” You’ll get a short summary of what I mean by the macro reasons.
Suffering for Others
So what I thought I would do here is just give one perspective that our friend and his girlfriend may not have thought about much. It may perhaps be a fresh insight into dealing with either brain-dead people or people who are totally unable to help themselves.
We usually look for the purposes of suffering in the effect it has on the sufferer. For example, Paul says, “Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Corinthians 12:8–9).
Paul concludes, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Paul the sufferer turns his pain into a Christ-exalting experience by showing Christ’s all-sufficiency in his weakness.
That’s the way I usually think about trying to come to terms with why I or somebody else might be suffering. But what we don’t usually look for is God’s purpose for our weaknesses in the lives of others. In other words, could our weaknesses or our suffering be intended by God to draw out of others something they wouldn’t otherwise have experienced concerning Christ?
We don’t often take into consideration that here’s a whole spectrum of weaknesses, ranging from minor personality annoyances, which might call for patience from a husband or a wife or friends, all the way to being brain-dead or being utterly dependent on the goodwill of others.
Weakness Draws Out Grace
Let’s think about this for a moment. This is very, very helpful for me to do this. I saw things in pondering this question that I had never seen before.
“Their suffering is not about their sanctification. It’s about your sanctification.”
In 1 Thessalonians 5:14, Paul says, “We urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (1 Thessalonians 5:14). Now think of it: God, in his sovereignty, could cause idle saints to be industrious. He could cause fainthearted saints to be lionhearted. He could cause weak saints to be strong.
But instead, he tells the leaders of the church that these people are an occasion for their patience, at least in the short run. He doesn’t act as if they’re going away. Some people are just going to be that. Their weaknesses draw out, in others, evidences of God’s grace.
They’re Here for You
Now, consider the fact that being utterly unable to feed oneself, or care for oneself, or even communicate is at the far end of the spectrum of disabilities that the church is called upon to serve. Many churches are awakening not only to the responsibility of serving those with disabilities, but to the privilege of serving them.
A key text that may be helpful with regard to those who are all the way at the end of the spectrum of disability — namely, the brain-dead — is in 1 Corinthians 12:21–26:
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. (1 Corinthians 12:21–26)
Now, this is amazing when you think about it. Paul doesn’t say that the weakness and the dishonorable-ness of these people is to teach them anything — like the way his own thorn in the flesh was meant to teach him something (to keep him from being conceited).
He says, “These weak, seemingly dishonorable people, whom the world would probably despise or just throw away, are here for you. They’re here for you. You are strong. They are here for you to show honor to, for you to serve, for you to care for and show grace toward.” This is service that can never be paid back in this world. Their suffering is not about their sanctification. It’s about your sanctification.
Jesus said, “When you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:13–14).
What will you get paid by a brain-dead person? Nothing. But you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.
Not Many Were Powerful
Here’s a remarkable thought about those who seem unable to make any contribution at all. I had never thought about this before. I offer it for your consideration. This is 1 Corinthians 1:26: “Consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world” — and then we get this phrase — “even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are” (1 Corinthians 1:26–28).
I’m offering this for you to seriously ponder. Do you think even “things that are not” — which God chose to shame the things that are, to make the strong realize they have a need — do you think people so low, so despised that they may as well not even be present, might have a relevance to the brain-dead?
One last text about the weak for us to reflect on — Acts 20:35: “In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak . . .” In other words, our work needs to supply what they can’t supply. That’s the point. He goes on: “. . . and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”
In other words, the existence of the weak, for whom we are to work in ways that they can’t, is described by Paul as an occasion for us to be more blessed because “it’s more blessed to give” — it is more blessed to work for the weak than to merely work for ourselves.
God’s ways are not our ways. He has purposes with our weaknesses, even those massive disabilities that leave us unable to do anything for ourselves. This is not about sanctifying the helpless in this world. It’s about sanctifying the strong. That’s the whole point of those texts. Indeed, Paul goes so far as to say it’s about their joy, not just their patience, because it is more blessed to give than to receive, even as we lay down our lives for the weakest of the weak.