God’s Purposes in a World of Pain

Suwon Central Baptist Church | Suwon, Korea

One of the truths of the Bible that I embrace with trembling joy is the truth of God’s supremacy in all things. My life mission statement, and the mission statement of the church I served for 33 years is this: We exist to spread a passion of the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ.

When we say that, we do not mean that God is supreme in all things “except in calamities,” “except in war,” “except when ISIS blows up a building or a train,” “except when cancer takes the life of a young mother or when a child is born with profound disabilities.”

There are no “except” clauses in our mission statement. We did not formulate this mission in a rosy world — and then later get surprised and embarrassed by reality. We formulated our mission in the real world of pain and suffering and evil and death. We have seen some very peaceful deaths of believers in Jesus. But we have also seen some very terrible deaths.

Yes we still affirm: We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ — all the time. A passion for God’s supremacy — Christ’s supremacy — in all things, all the time.

Sweetness and Suffering

None of us who has lived a few decades — for me that means seven decades — has embraced this mission without trembling. And none of us has pursued this mission for long without tears. We know that the joy we pursue, and the joy we embrace in Jesus, is always interwoven with sorrow. There is no joy unmixed with sorrow in this world for people who care about others. The Bible describes Christ’s servants like this: “[We are] sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10).

“Christian emotions are not simple. There is no joy unmixed with sorrow in this world for people who care about others.”

“Sorrowful yet always rejoicing.” Life is not simple. There is pleasure and there is pain. There is sweetness and there is suffering. There is joy and there is misery. There is life and health, and there is disease and death.

And therefore Christian emotions are not simple. We will “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). And there is always someone we know who is weeping, and someone we know who is rejoicing. And therefore we will learn the secret of “sorrowful yet always rejoicing” — and joyful yet always sorrowing.

Global Suffering

We live in a world of unending calamities.

Natural disasters are relentless in their devastation. Last year flooding in China made millions homeless. A typhoon in North Korea killed hundreds. Earthquakes in Italy killed 200, in Ecuador 300. A hurricane in the Haiti killed over 500.

Then there are the wars around the world and the threat of terrorism. 18,000 civilians have died in ISIS related conflicts in Iraq in the last two years. 400,000 have died in the six-year long Syrian war, 50,000 of which are children.

Then there are the miseries of 20 million adults and children bought and sold each year as slaves for sex and for forced labor.

And lest we respond naively to these calamities, as though they were something unusual, let’s remind ourselves of the obvious and the almost overwhelming fact that over 50,000,000 people die every year in this world. Over 6,000 ever hour. Over 100 every minute. And most of them do not die in ripe old age by sleeping peacefully away into happy eternity. Most die young. Most die after long struggles with pain. And millions die because of the evil of man against man. And you will be among the dead sooner than you think

If there is to be any Christian joy in this world, along with love, it will be sorrowful joy, brokenhearted joy. Do we not all know that the sweetest joys are marked with tears, not laugher?

God’s Reasons For Our Suffering

So we ask: “Why, Lord? Why is the world you made like this? If you are God why is this world so full of terror and trouble?”

Wrong Reasons

I will give two possible answers that are not the reason such a world exists, and then four answers that are the reasons such world exists. I deal with each very briefly and point you to the Scriptures where you can search God’s word for yourself.

1. The reason this terrorized and troubled world exists is not because God is not in total control.

The Bible is overwhelmingly clear that God governs everything in the universe from the smallest bird to the largest storm.

  • “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” (Matthew 10:29)
  • “Even winds and sea obey him?” (Matthew 8:27)
  • “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” (Proverbs 16:33)
  • “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.” (Proverbs 21:1)
  • “Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it?” (Lamentations 3:37)
  • “Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it?” (Amos 3:6)
  • “He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” (Mark 1:27)
  • “I am God, and there is none like me . . . saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.’” (Isaiah 46:9–10)

There is no person or being in the universe that can thwart the sovereign will of God. Satan is God’s most powerful enemy and does much evil in the world, but he must first get God’s permission, and none of his actions is outside God’s governance. He never breaks free from God’s leash (Luke 22:31; Job 2:6–7; 42:11) and what God permits he permits purposefully and wisely.

2. The reason this terrorized and troubled world exists is not because God is evil or unjust.
  • “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” (1 John 1:5)
  • “Good and upright is the Lord.” (Psalm 25:8)
  • “The angels cry before God day and night, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isaiah 6:3)
  • “And when evil things happen to us, the Bible teaches us to speak like this: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” (Genesis 50:20)
  • “God is not evil, even when he plans that evil will come pass. There are good and holy and just purposes in all he does. For those who love him “he works all things together for good.” (Romans 8:28)

Right Reasons

We turn now from wrong arguments for the existence of evil in the world to the reasons the Bible gives for why there is a world like ours.

1. The reason this terrorized and troubled world exists is because God planned the history of redemption, and then permitted sin to enter the world through our first parents Adam and Eve.

In 2 Timothy 1:9 the apostle Paul said, “[God] saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.”

In other words, before there was any world, or any sin in the world that needed grace, God planned saving grace through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That means that God knew Adam would sin. He was already planning how he would save us.

Therefore, Adam’s sin was no surprise to God. Permitting that sin was part of God’s plan so that God could reveal his mercy and grace and justice and wrath and patience and wisdom in ways that could have never been revealed, if there were no sin, and no Savior, and no history of salvation.

God’s aim in this fallen world is that he be known more fully than he could have been known any other way, because knowing God most fully is what it means for us to be most fully loved. If you turn to Christ, you will discover in God more wonders of grace and justice in this fallen world than could be imagined in any other world.

2. The reason this terrorized and troubled world exists is because God subjected the natural world to futility.
“Physical pain is God’s trumpet blast to tell us that something is dreadfully wrong in the world.”

That is, God put the physical world under a curse so that the physical horrors we see around us in diseases and calamities would become a vivid picture of how horrible sin is. In other words, physical evil is a signpost pointing to the horrors of moral evil.

Listen to Romans 8:18–21:

The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

In other words, God subjected the creation to futility and bondage to decay and misery and death. He disordered the natural world because of the disorder of the moral and spiritual world — that is because of sin. In our present condition blinded by sin and dishonoring God every day, we cannot see or feel how repugnant sin is. Hardly anyone in the world feels the horror that our sin is against God is.

But Oh, how we feel our physical pain! Physical pain is God’s trumpet blast to tell us that something is dreadfully wrong in the world. Diseases and deformities are God’s pictures in the physical realm of what sin is like in the spiritual realm. That is true even though some of the most godly people bear those deformities. Calamities are God’s previews of what sin deserves and will one day receive in judgment a thousand times worse. They are warnings.

Oh, that we could all see and feel how repugnant, how offensive, how abominable it is to treat our Maker with contempt, to ignore him, and distrust him, and demean him, and give him less attention in our hearts than we do tires on our cars.

We must see this, and feel this, or we will not turn to Christ for salvation from the ugliness of sin. We may want to escape the penalty of sin. But will we see and hate the ugliness of sin, if we do not see the ugliness of its image in physical pain?

Therefore, God mercifully, shouts to us in our sicknesses and pain and calamities: Wake up! Sin is like this! Sin leads to things like this (see also Revelation 9:20; Revelation 16:9, 11). The natural world full of horrors that wake us up from dream world of thinking sin is no big deal. It is a horrifically big deal. And all the physical pain in the world points to that.

3. The reason this terrorized and troubled world exists is so that followers of Christ can experience and display this truth: Jesus Christ is more precious and more satisfying than all the pleasures and comforts and treasures of this world.

The apostle Paul says, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8). The superior worth of Christ is magnified because in all Paul’s losses, he experiences Christ as all-satisfying.

The prophet Habakkuk said it with amazing and painful beauty:

Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. (Habakkuk 3:17–18)

Famines, pestilence, persecution — these happen so that the world might see in the followers of Jesus, and discover for themselves, that God made us for himself and that he is our “exceeding joy” (Psalm 43:4), and “at his right hand are pleasures for every more” (Psalm 16:11). The losses of life are meant to wean us off the poisonous pleasures of the world and lure us to Christ as our everlasting joy. The sorrows of the world make it possible for us to rejoice in sorrow and show that Jesus is more valuable than all the world.

4. Finally, the reason this terrorized and troubled world exists is to make a place for Jesus Christ, the Son of God, to suffer and die for sinners.

The reason there is terror is so that Christ could be terrorized. The reason there is trouble so that Christ could be troubled. The reason there is pain is so that Christ could feel pain. This is the world God prepared for the suffering and death of his Son. This is the world where God made the greatest display of his love in the suffering of his Son.

Romans 5:8: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” All his suffering was the plan of God to reveal redeeming love. The sovereignty of God, the evil of the world and the love of God meet at the cross of Christ.

Listen to this amazing statement from Acts 4:27–28 about God’s plan for the suffering of his Son — for you!

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.

All the scheming, all the flogging, all the spitting, all the beating with rods, all the mockery, all the abandonment by his friends, all the thorns in his head, all the nails in his hands and feet, the sword in his side, weight of the sins of the world — all of it according to God’s plan. For you. In other words, none of the evil took God by surprise. It was appointed for his Son. It was to show the depth of his love for us his people.

“The reason there is terror is so that Christ could be terrorized.”

Evil Exists to Display God’s Greatness

In summary then, the pain and evil of this world do not exist because God is powerless or evil. He is, in fact sovereign and righteous. The reason such a painful and evil world as ours exists is this:

  1. This world of pain and suffering exists because God planned from eternity to permit this so that we could know the fullness of God’s justice and power and wrath and patience, and grace and love which we would not have known without such a world.

  2. This world of pain and suffering exists because the horrors of physical evil and suffering are a parable of moral and spiritual evil — a parable of sin. And we need the parable because we don’t know and feel how ugly and outrageous our sin is.

  3. This world of pain and suffering exists because the suffering and losses of this world show how precious Christ is when God’s people are willing to suffering anything to have Christ.

  4. This world of pain and suffering exists because without such a world Christ could not have died to show us the greatness of the love of God for sinners.

God’s deepest answer to terrorism and calamity and death in this world is that God intended to have a theater for the suffering and death of his Son. He entered into our fallen world of sin and misery and death. He bore in himself the cause of it all — sin. And he bought by his death the cure for it all — forgiveness and everlasting joy in the age to come.

And so on his behalf, I invite you — I urge you — to trust him in all his sovereign goodness, as your Savior and your Lord and the supreme Treasure of your life.

This is not an absurd or meaningless world. It exists to make plain the horrors of the sinful heart and the wonders of the sovereign Christ. If you embrace him as the greatest Treasure, God will set you free from bitterness and make you an emissary of his love.