The doctrine of God’s providence is the theme of Pastor John’s new book by that title, Providence (you can now order the title from our friends at Westminster Books for just $19.99). The truth that God governs over everything he makes is gloriously true. And when we see it and embrace it as true and glorious, this doctrine can make a very deep and definite impact on how we live, especially when suffering hits. So we are celebrating the implications on Wednesdays on the podcast. There are a total of ten implications Pastor John wants to address. Last time, in episode 1586, we looked at how embracing the providence of God “enables us to be patient and faithful in the long, dragged-out, often unexpected trials of life, amidst the most inexplicable circumstances, detours, and delays that, from our limited viewpoint, make no sense.” Providence makes us patient in trials. That was implication number five. Here now with implication number six is Pastor John.
If someone asks me, “Do you think God planned for those planes to fly into the World Trade Center towers in New York on 9/11 in 2001?” I answer in two ways. I say, “If God cannot blow a plane with his breath a hundred feet off course to the right, then he’s not God.” And I say, “If we surrender the all-governing providence of God in order to save him from any causality in those tragic events, then by saving him, I lose him as a sovereign, wise God who can give meaning and strength and hope to those who have lost the most in this tragedy.” In other words, it is the very sovereignty by which he governed those jets that enables him to govern all things for the good of tens of thousands of survivors who look to him for strength and purpose and hope in their massive losses.
So, my sixth precious, real-life effect of seeing and savoring the all-governing providence of God is that this providence assures us that the so-called “problem” of God’s sovereignty in suffering is more than relieved by the sustaining purpose and power of his sovereignty through suffering.
Sovereign Through Suffering
Now, we all know that Satan’s power is real. He causes many evil things to happen. And human sin is real. And humans, sinful humans, cause many things to happen. And natural disasters are real, and nature has its own hand in causing calamity. But what we see in the Bible over and over — and I wrote this book to try to make hundreds of these places plain — is that neither Satan, nor man, nor nature ever does anything that was not in the plan of God. “My counsel shall stand,” says the Lord, “and I will accomplish all my purpose” (Isaiah 46:10).
“The confidence of a joyful future breaks the power of fear and greed and anger and self-pity.”
In the entire sequence of events in this world, God decides finally which causes will be effective and which will not, which actions of other wills besides his own he will permit. And in the all-wise providence of God, permissions are always purposeful. God’s permissions are not random. God’s permissions are not foolish. God’s permissions are not evil. He doesn’t will evil; that is, he doesn’t sin. He ordains that sin be, but in ordaining that sin be or come to pass, he does not himself sin.
Therefore, all suffering is in the sway of God’s providence. He could always stop it. When he doesn’t, his permissions are planned and purposeful and, in his overall design, wise. He is a righteous God.
- “All his ways are justice” (Deuteronomy 32:4).
- “He loves righteous deeds” (Psalm 11:7).
- “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne” (Psalm 97:2).
- “He will judge the world with righteousness” (Psalm 98:9).
- “His righteousness endures forever” (Psalm 111:3).
We are not God; we are not omniscient; we are not all-wise. And therefore, we cannot always see the goodness and wisdom and justice of God in his providence. But he has proven himself to us in Christ over and over, especially at the cross, and we trust him.
And for those who trust Christ and God in Christ, God’s sovereignty in suffering is not an unyielding problem; it is an unfailing hope. That’s what I’m trying to get across. I’ll say it again: for those who trust God in Christ, his sovereignty in suffering is not an unyielding problem; it is an unfailing hope. It means that, in the suffering of Christians, neither Satan, nor man, nor nature, nor chance is wielding decisive control. God is sovereign over our suffering, which means it is not meaningless. It is not wrath. It is not ultimately destructive. It is not wanton or heedless. It is purposeful. It is measured. It is wise. It is loving. It is working for us “an eternal weight of glory” (2 Corinthians 4:17).
If I may bear witness, from fifty years of ministering the word of God like this to many, many suffering people, here is what I would say. For every one person whom I have heard or seen forsaking the truth of God’s all-pervasive providence because of suffering, I have seen ten others bear witness that the biblical truth of God’s absolute sovereignty in and over their suffering and loss saved their faith — and some have said, saved their sanity. Indeed, it saved not only their faith in God and their sanity of mind, but also their love for people.
“The providence of God turns every sorrow to joy, every loss to gain, every groan to glory.”
Now, how is that? How does the providence of God in our suffering save our love for people? Love cannot flourish where fear or greed or self-pity or anger consume the heart. The heart must be set free from self-focus for the sake of focusing on others (Philippians 2:4). Something must break the power that fear and greed and anger and self-pity have on the soul. And what breaks this power is the unshakable certainty of hope — hope that is warranted by the unstoppable, blood-bought mercy of God in his all-governing providence.
If our suffering turns us in on ourselves, we will not love others in the midst of our affliction. But that’s precisely where Christian love is supposed to shine. Second Corinthians 8:2: “In a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy . . . overflowed in a wealth of generosity” — that is, in love. Joy overflowing with generosity in affliction: that is the beauty of Christian love.
Every Sorrow to Joy
And how can there be such triumphant, loving joy in affliction? The answer is hope — certain hope. “For the joy that was set before him” — as a hope, a certain hope — Jesus “endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2). That’s the most loving act that was ever done in the history of the world, and it was empowered by hope. The confidence of a joyful future breaks the power of fear and greed and anger and self-pity, and frees the heart for love. This is how the Christian soul in suffering is saved from bitterness and revenge and self-indulgence and self-pity.
For those who trust Christ, the providence of God turns every sorrow to joy, every loss to gain, every groan to glory. In other words, for thousands of suffering Christians, the all-pervasive providence of God is not a barrier for faith, but the ground of faith-preserving, sanity-sustaining, love-empowering hope.
So, my sixth real-life effect of seeing and savoring the providence of God is that this providence assures us that the so-called “problem” of God’s sovereignty in suffering is more than relieved by the sustaining purpose and power of his sovereignty through suffering.