We end the week talking providence. We started the week talking providence, in explaining the pains of life to children. Today, a question comes from a grieving young woman, a new believer, and a listener to the podcast who is now struggling to process a very deep trial. We don’t have her name, but here’s her email: “Hello, Pastor John, and thank you for APJ! I write because last year someone very close to me was assaulted and murdered. At the time of the tragedy, I had not devoted my life to Christ. The pastor at the funeral service said, ‘I don’t think it was God’s plan for this to happen.’ I remember feeling so lost and angry. I gave my life to Christ a few months later. But I still don’t understand why my loved one would be murdered if God is omnipotent. Does God allow sin to roam unchecked? Does the Bible say anything about God allowing such awful sin to happen, and why? I am a new Christian with a lot to learn.”
Oh, how I wish I knew your name so that I could speak to you very personally and directly, but let’s do the best we can.
I am very sorry that you lost this close friend of yours — especially in such a brutal way. But it’s good for me to know this because I can tell that your question is not theoretical. Lots of people ask this question in a very antagonistic and theoretical way. But yours is very personal, very urgent, and that’s the kind of question I like. I think it’s the kind of question that God is very willing to hear.
Perfectly Sovereign, Wonderfully Good
It’s difficult for me to know what the pastor at your friend’s funeral meant when he said, “I don’t think it was God’s plan for this to happen.” Maybe all he meant was that God never does anything wrong and never sins against anyone. But it’s one thing to say that God never does wrong, and it’s a very different thing to say that God does not govern or oversee or direct or control the wrong that happens in this world. If that’s what the pastor meant — that God doesn’t do that — I think he’s mistaken, because the Bible teaches from cover to cover that God does, in fact, govern all the details of the world, including the bad things that happen to us and to our friends.
That, in fact, I would argue, is what it means for God to be God. I say that because Isaiah 46:9–10 says,
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 purpose.”
So God’s counsel, God’s wisdom, God’s purpose always comes to pass. That’s what it means to be God. Not the devil, not nature, not fate, not chance, not sinful man — nobody and nothing can thwart the plan of God.
- Job 42:2 says, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.”
- The apostle Paul says in Ephesians 1:11 that God “works all things according to the counsel of his will.” All things includes the largest things, like the rise and fall of nations, and the tiniest things, like the fall of a bird out of a tree or the roll of the dice.
- Daniel 2:21 says, “He removes kings and he sets up kings.”
- Jesus said in Matthew 10:29, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.”
- Proverbs 16:33 says, “The lot is cast in the lap [which is an old-fashioned way of saying that the dice are thrown on the table], but its every decision is from the Lord.”
In other words, from the tiniest, most insignificant happening, to the largest global happenings, God governs all things.
Alongside that absolute sovereignty of God over all things, we need to embrace the teaching of Scripture that God is always just, always good. For example, there is a beautiful statement in Deuteronomy 32:4: “The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.” That’s beautiful. Psalm 34:8 says, “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!” He is good. He is wise. He is faithful. He is just. He’s upright. There is no iniquity in him, no darkness in him at all.
Purposes in Suffering
We naturally ask (and this is why I said your question was so good and right at the beginning), “Why does God permit so much suffering and evil, if in fact he’s in control?” Now the Bible gives numerous answers to that question. If you go to Desiring God’s website and just type in the search line What are the purposes for suffering?, you will find several articles right at the top of the list that point to those answers. But let me mention two of them, two answers just briefly.
One of God’s purposes for suffering is to show all of us the horror of sin. Suffering entered the world when mankind fell into sin (Genesis 3). Suffering is a trumpet blast to all humanity that, just like pain is an outrage to the human body, so sin is an outrage against God’s character and glory. The horrors of physical suffering are an echo of the horrors of humanity’s belittling of God by our disobedience and unbelief.
But maybe what’s most important for you, as a newer Christian, is to focus your attention on the death of Jesus. I assume that, not long ago, because of what you said, God opened your eyes to see the death of Jesus on the cross for your sins as a compelling and true and beautiful reality, and you believed. You are saved today from guilt and from wrath and hell and meaninglessness because Jesus suffered on the cross in your place.
Now put the death of Jesus together with God’s sovereignty. That’s what Acts 4:27–28 does. The early church prayed in those verses like this:
Truly in this city [Jerusalem] there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.
So Herod, Pilate, Gentile soldiers, Jewish mobs — all of them combined to kill Jesus. The murder of Jesus was like the murder of your friend, only worse because Jesus is the very Son of God. The Bible says that the sins of his murderers — Herod, Pilate, soldiers, mobs — their sins in murdering Jesus were predestined and planned by God. He did this, God did this, without himself sinning. He can govern, rule, oversee, control, guide, the evils of the world without being evil.
Point of Greatest Love
If God had not planned the death of his Son, neither your sins nor mine would be forgiven. God orchestrated the worst sins that ever happened in the murder of his Son so that you and I, and millions of those who believe on Christ, would be saved from destruction and given eternal joy. Romans 5:8 says, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” which means that we simply could not know the depths of God’s love without the death of Christ. There would be no death of Christ without sin and suffering and the sovereignty of God.
So, when you feel that you can’t understand why God does what he does, let your heart rest here: the worst suffering and the deepest sovereignty meet at the point of greatest love — the cross of Christ. So rest there.