Romans 8:18–25 says:
For I consider that 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 corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
This is the word of God. You may be seated.
A World Filled with Sorrow
As I prayed and reflected on what I should bring to you from God’s word, the situation in the world pressed itself upon me, and I thought it would be fitting that I try to bring the supremacy of Christ into relationship to the calamities and conflicts that are all around us. I have in mind Japan, with thousands of people swept away in a morning, along with radiation every day that is threatening to engulf the land. I have in mind Libya, Syria, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia. There is terrorism in Jerusalem and anarchy in Gaza. There were 250,000 marching in Trafalgar Square. There was an earthquake on Thursday in Myanmar where 70 people were killed. A couple weeks ago, a bus was sawn in two by a light post, mangling and killing half the people on it. There is cancer in your lives. There are stillbirths and miscarriages, not to mention the ordinary departure of 50,000 plus people into eternity every day in our world.
One of the truths that we embrace at our church, and I know you do as well, is that, with trembling joy, we affirm that God is supreme over all things and that Jesus Christ is the Lord of the universe — this universe. When we say it, when we say at our church, “We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things,” we don’t say, “except calamities.” We don’t say, “God is supreme in all things, except war,” or, “God is supreme in all things, except Al-Qaeda,” or, “God is supreme in all things, except tsunamis.” We don’t say that.
We say all things, and we mean all things, and that’s why we say it with trembling. We didn’t, and you didn’t, formulate your doctrine of God’s supremacy in a rosy world. You didn’t bury your head in the sand when you came to the conviction that God is sovereign, and that he rules this world and every part of it. We formulated our vision of God biblically, in a real world of pain, suffering, and evil. None of us who has lived a few decades — and for me, that’s six and a half now — has embraced this mission or this vision of God without trembling. None of us embraces this vision, this doctrine, this mission for long without tears.
Sorrowful, Yet Always Recoicing
We have said it at our church, and I’m sure you’ve said it here dozens of times, that we are sorrowful, yet always rejoicing. We are always rejoicing and always sorrowful. The apostle Paul says, “Weep with those who weep, and rejoice with those who rejoice” (Romans 12:15). If you know just a few people, somebody’s always weeping and somebody’s always rejoicing, which means that Christians are called to live a miraculous, impossible emotional life. How can you do this? You must, which is why Paul, I think in 2 Corinthians 6:10, says, “Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” There’s always a reason to rejoice, amd there’s always a reason to weep.
We are not a glib people. When we speak of joy, we mean tear-stained joy. The soul would have no rainbow if the eye had no tears. We know that. It is perhaps surprising to us that God stands forth sometimes with stunning clarity in the midst of evil. It may seem paradoxical because so many people ask religious people on the news programs, “So now, where was God when . . . ?” It is remarkable how this happens. Let’s just take an example and I’ll illustrate what I mean.
Even the Darkness Is Not Dark to You
Most people, when they think of horrific, historic evil think of the Holocaust. Stalin’s purge was worse, way worse. Sixty-million people were wiped out before he was finished, not six million. None of us should live in the dream world that that sort of thing doesn’t happen. It happens.
Here is a person, a typical 21st century person, just gliding along in life, blissfully living in their artificial, relativistic world, not feeling any strong convictions about anything; instead, they are scoffing that there is anything true or anything absolute, making light of those who hold strong convictions, as though it’s arrogant, thinking there is no such thing as truth — “what is truth?” — that kind of person. And suddenly, they find themselves in something like a concentration camp or a Gulag, and they watch unspeakable evil happen around them, to others or perhaps to themselves. Suddenly, totally unexpectedly, there rises in their hearts ultimate moral outrage, saying, “No. No, no. This is wrong!” And they realize they have just done something they said cannot be done.
They’ve rendered a totally incontrovertible moral judgment, which up until now in their lives, they had been blissfully saying, “This cannot be done, and must not be done. There is no truth. There is no absolute wrong. There is no absolute right,” and they find just welling up from within them, unstoppably, “This is wrong!” And the next step, if God is gracious, is, “What does that mean? Where did that come from? How can that have any significance at all if I am the product of time, energy, matter, and chance? That’s just movement of chemicals in my brain.”
And then the second conviction rises and say, “No, it’s not!” And you know that. You know at the bottom of your heart that those judgments of love, moral evil, moral right, and beauty — these big, deep things that make humans human — are not products of chemicals. You know that beyond the shadow of a doubt, and you marvel at atheists and evolutionists who try to decrease us to mere stuff.
You know. Everybody knows, but sometimes it takes horrific evil, and that’s what I meant when I said sometimes in the moment of the worst evil, God breaks in. Because the third step after you say, “No” morally, and, “Yes, what I just said has significance,” is that there’s only one explanation: God. And paradoxically, the God that you had been calling into question for this evil is the only foundation of calling it evil, and you might find him right there.
God’s Purpose in Pain
The question for me that I would like to address biblically in the time we have left is, What’s the explanation for this world of futility, calamity, conflict, misery, a conveyor belt of corpses? I’m going to give you two answers that are not the case, and then four that are.
Is God in Control?
Number one: One reason that’s not true for why these calamities, conflicts, and miseries exist is that God is not in control. That’s wrong. Here’s what the Bible says:
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).
I cannot fathom a Christian minister being asked how God related to the tsunami, and having him simply say, “God didn’t mean for this to happen.” Anybody who’s read the Bible knows that answer cannot be true. It cannot be true.
The lot is cast into the lap,
but its every decision is from the Lord (Proverbs 16:33).
Every dice roll in Reno is governed by God. That is not an exaggeration. The sparrows fall and the dice roll by his decree.
Who has spoken and it came to pass,
unless the Lord has commanded it? (Lamentations 3:37).
The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord;
he turns it wherever he will (Proverbs 21:1).
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 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 . . . ” (Isaiah 46:9–10).
So it’s a wrong answer to say, “This world exists the way it does because God is out of control.” He’s not. He’s in control.
Is God Good?
Here is the second wrong answer: God is evil. He’s not evil. He’s holy, holy, holy, as the pastor of this church has devoted his life to make biblically clear.
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).
God is upright, and the Lord is holy. The angels cry:
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts . . . (Isaiah 6:3).
This is the word that we should put over every evil in the world:
As for you (Satan, demons, Hitler, Gaddafi, leaving or divorcing wife), you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good . . . (Genesis 50:20).
That’s not easy to say. Through many tears we speak those words again and again in our lives — “So and so meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” That’s Genesis 50:20 from the story of Joseph. Those are two wrong answers: The world is out of control because God can’t manage it, and God is evil.
God Predestined Redemption.
Here are four right answers from the Bible as to why this world exists the way it does. Number one: The world of calamities exists because God planned a history of redemption and permitted sin to enter the world through our first parents, Adam and Eve. Second Timothy 1:9 says:
[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 . . .
Now, fathom the implications of saying that grace —unmerited, even de-merited, favor through Jesus Christ — came to us before the creation. That means God planned a history of redemption climaxing in Jesus, which means he ordained that there be sin. You can’t have redemption without something to redeem from, and the history of redemption was planned through grace, through the crucified Jesus, before the foundation of the world. The reason this world is the way it is is that God ordained that he permit Adam and Eve to sin, and when they sinned, they brought the whole thing down. God means to be known in his fullest — in his judgment, wrath, mercy, patience, kindness, love, grace, and the whole range of his perfections — and thus, he ordains without sinning that sin be.
God subjected the world to futility.
Number two: The reason calamities and conflicts exist in the world, and the miseries and death that we see around us, is that God subjected the world to futility. That’s the text that I read earlier from Romans 8. He subjected the world to futility. This natural world that we live in is under a curse. The physical horrors that we see, and they are incredibly horrible at times — diseases and vivid pictures of deformities — are parables, or displays, of the horror of sin. They are a signpost pointing to the horror of moral evil. Let me read the key verses again here. Romans 8:18–20 says:
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 . . .
In other words, nobody on the earth wanted this to happen, but it was because of him. God subjected it to futility “in hope that the whole creation would be set free from its bondage to decay” (Romans 8:20–21). So, the futility of the world, including tsunamis, cancer, and everything that doesn’t belong here, exists because God subjected the world to futility. Why? It was because of sin.
But why the correlation between physical horrors and moral sin? It’s because nobody in this room is outraged at sin like we should be — nobody. But oh, do we get outraged when we get sick. Oh, do we get outraged when we see 1,000 people swept away, or 10,000. Oh, we get in God’s face and say, “How can such a thing be?,” while all the while we make light of our moral outrage.
Who loses sleep at night about how horribly rebellious we are, how impatient we are, how unkind we are, how neglectful of God we are? Who feels the same kind of gut reaction against our own sinfulness that we feel against cancer when it comes into our kid’s life? The reason physical, outrageous, horrible evils are in the world is that they are parables of the moral evil that we take so lightly. Our sin against the holy God is 10,000 times more outrageous than the sweeping away of all people on the planet in a tsunami.
The reason we are called to look at these things and weep over them is to testify to those things being the result of our sin, and therefore, they are the evidence that sin is horrific and God is holy. That’s the second reason there is such a world. It is to testify to the real moral outrage of our sin, not the outrage of our sickness.
God Shows the Supremacy of His Son.
Number three: The third reason the kind of world that we live in exists is in order that the followers of Christ may experience and display that no pleasure and no treasure here compares to knowing Christ. In other words, we are given a world of loss. As soon as you enter the world as a child, you start losing things. You get hungry, and you lose comfort and cry, “Ah, ah. Got to have milk.” It’s just one sequence of frustration after the other, which may or may not get satisfied. Why? The older you get, the more the losses start multiplying.
I sat with my wife several years ago, and we just sat and looked at each other, and we looked around, and it felt like one thing was being lost after the other. It was just one thing after the other. People are being lost, eyes are being lost, health is being lost, sexual things are being lost, hair is being lost, eyesight is being lost. It’s just loss, loss, loss, and they get harder and harder, and then we lose life. The reason that is the way it is, this third reason, is that God means for us Christians to be so satisfied in Jesus that when these losses come, we magnify his worth by not being sad. Paul said, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus, my Lord” (Philippians 3:8).
I just want to make much of him when I die, because dying is gain. The last loss is all gain. That’s what he wants us to show. We have a world like this because it’s a glorious opportunity to show that the world is not our treasure. Christ is our treasure.
God Ordained the Suffering of Christ.
Number four: The last reason why the world exists like it does with all of its calamities, conflicts, miseries, and death is to make a place for the Son of God to suffer and die for our sins. This may sound strange to you, because we have the notion in our mind that God looked at the world of fall, sin, and death, and responded to it with Christ as a redeemer. That’s not the order in which it happened in his head. God ordained that there be grace flowing through a crucified Christ before he created this world, and therefore, this world is the stage prepared for Christ, the apex of the revelation of the glory of grace.
The reason there is terror in the world is that Christ might be terrorized. The reason there is trouble in the world is that Christ could be troubled. The reason there is pain in the world is so that the Son of God incarnate could experience pain. Christ is the ultimate reason for the universe being the way it is. The ultimate revelation of the glory of God is the revelation of grace flowing to unworthy sinners like us through a suffering Savior. There could be no suffering Savior, no glorious manifestation of grace, had there been no sin, no fall, no misery, and no tsunamis.
It’s all for Christ and the revelation of his unparalleled grace towards sinners. Romans 5:8 says:
God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
God’s love comes clearest at the point where Christ is dying for sinners. Had there been no sin, had there been no way of dying, the love of God would simply not shine like this. You might have created the universe differently and planned the whole thing differently, and you may find this plan to be reprehensible; if that’s the case, you need to be born again. You don’t have eyes yet.
Whatever Your Hand and Plan Predestined
Listen to this amazing word from Acts 4:27:
Truly in this city (Jerusalem) there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed (this is talking to the Father), both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel . . .
So all those people were gathered together — Herod, Pilate, Gentiles, soldiers, crowds crying, “Crucify him” — and the passage continues:
to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place (Acts 4:28).
All of it was predestined. All the scheming, all the flogging, all the spitting, all the beating with rods, all the mockery, all the abandonment of the disciples, all the thorns poking into the head, all the nails going through the hands and feet, the spear going into his side, and the weight of all the sins resting upon him; all of it was according to plan, in order that you might know what love is. God shows his love for us that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
The deepest answer to terrorism, calamity, conflict, misery, cancer, and death is the suffering and death of the Son of God. The deepest answer is the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. He entered into our fallen world of sin, misery, and death. He bore in himself the cause of it all — sin — and he bought by his death the cure of it all — forgiveness and everlasting joy in the age to come. It’s not an absurd world. It’s not a meaningless world. It exists to make plain the horrors of sin and the wonders of Christ. If you embrace him as your Savior, your Lord, your treasure, and your friend, you will know the truth, and the truth will free you from a lifetime of bitterness.