If you have a Bible, I invite you to turn with me to 2 Corinthians 6:1–10. I’m going to read 10 verses, and my aim in reading them is not because I’m going to do an exposition of them now, but because there’s a phrase in here that emotionally captures what I want you to take away from my four sessions. So let’s read 2 Corinthians 6:1–10:
Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For he says,
“In a favorable time I listened to you,
and in a day of salvation I have helped you.”
Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. We put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.
The phrase I want you to focus on and hold in your mind is the first phrase in 2 Corinthians 6:10 — sorrowful, yet always rejoicing. I’m going to talk about suffering for the four sessions that I have with you. I’m going to outline where we’re going and then give an introduction to our aim tonight. And you’ll hear the phrase sorrowful yet always rejoicing frequently. Tonight the focus is on why there’s a world like this, full of terror and misery. Tomorrow night we will focus on why Christ suffered and what was achieved by it. Monday we will focus on why Paul suffered so much, and what’s the nature of missionary, or ministry, suffering). And finally, on Tuesday we will focus on your suffering and the sustaining grace for it. So that’s where we’re going.
A Passion for God’s Supremacy
We have a mission statement at our church, and when you’re at a church for 26 years, the mission statement of the church and the mission statement of your life tend to become the same. I was charged to create a mission statement for our church about 10 years ago, and our lives have so grown together that I would call this my life mission statement, and it’s the mission statement of our church: We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ.
We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things. And when we say “all things” we don’t mean except terrorism. We don’t mean we exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things except cancer, or except death, or except little children born with profound disabilities. There are no exception clauses in this mission statement. We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples — there are no exceptions there either — through Jesus Christ.
So when my elders let me go to places like this, that’s my mission. I am here to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in suffering. That’s my theme and you’ll hear how important grace is in that.
God’s Supremacy in Tremendous Suffering
When the first plane hit the World Trade Center towers on 9/11, it had 92 people in it, and it was Flight 11. They were, of course, immediately killed. Flight 175 hit the second tower a few minutes later. Sixty-five people in that plane died immediately. The towers, within an hour, collapsed, killing 2,595 people. Flight 77, within an hour, had 64 people on it and hit the Pentagon and all those people died, plus 125 in the Pentagon. Flight 93 did a U-turn over Pennsylvania and was headed for, nobody knows, the White House maybe? The Congress building? Todd Beamer and other remarkable people wrestled the cockpit out of their hands and brought it down in a field in Pennsylvania and they all died, but nobody else did. That’s 2,986 people who died. And that was totally put in the shadow by the tsunami a couple of years ago now that killed hundreds of thousands of people.
And then in our own country that was upstaged for months by Hurricane Katrina, which totally emptied New Orleans. Nobody ever thought that such a thing could happen, that an entire city the size of New Orleans could be devastated, emptied, and perhaps slowly rebuilt.
Those kinds of things get our attention, don’t they? But there’s nothing really very unusual about them, statistically. Fifty million people die in the world every year. Six thousand people die every hour. Over 100 die every minute, and very few of them die in ripe old age. Most of them die young and very few of them die in their sleep, easily. Most of them die after long, protracted suffering. While we are together here in this meeting tonight, probably 8,000 or 9,000 people will perish. As I’m speaking, if you have any sympathetic imagination at all, you can hear hundreds of people screaming in pain right now. This moment as I speak and we sit in such comfort, people are screaming in pain, either because it hurts so bad or because someone they love so much has just been hurt so bad.
There’s nothing unusual about 9/11, 7/7, Katrina, the Tsunami, or Lebanon and Israel. This is happening every minute of every hour of every day of every month in every year of your life. And what burdens me the older I get, is that we simply must not bury our heads in the sand with some kind of prosperity Gospel as though to be a Christian is to participate in some kind of escape from that. There’s no escape from that. Either we have a faith that can stand robust and strong and firm in that or we don’t have any faith.
I’m not interested in a faith that can’t stand in New Orleans, that can’t stand in Sri Lanka after the tsunami, that can’t stand in Indonesia, and that can’t stand right now on the ground in Lebanon not leaving. I’m not interested in that kind of faith. America is to be indicted for one of our worst exports, namely, the health, wealth, and prosperity gospel. And it flourishes around the world in a dream world of unreality. It doesn’t exist in any nursing home anywhere in the world, or any hospital anywhere in the world. These people keep those things hidden. I want a faith that can stand, that could give an account of this world. And when I find Paul listing his sufferings and then using that phrase “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing,” I feel like I’ve come home.
A Contradiction of Terms?
Sorrowful yet always rejoicing. That’s amazing. I mean that’s a contradiction, isn’t it? He is sorrowful, yet it’s not in between times rejoicing, as if to say, “Now I’m sorrowful, and now I’m rejoicing, and then I’m sorrowful, and then I’m rejoicing.” That’s not what it says. It says, “Sorrowful, yet in it all, I’m always rejoicing.” That’s very complex. That’s very strange. That is a miracle of grace.
If you haven’t known it, you haven’t lived long enough or maybe you’re not a believer. You will live long enough, if you’re a believer, to taste what that means. Sorrowful yet always rejoicing. If you are a person who loves other people, you will sorrow and rejoice at the same time because the Bible says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). There’s always somebody weeping and there’s always somebody rejoicing that you care about. How do you do that? If you’re not interested in finding out, don’t become a pastor, and don’t become a Christian.
If you only want joy and no sorrow, or you think only sorrow is possible without joy, you’re not a good candidate for being a Christian. Christians are people who are so aware of pain and so empathetic with pain that they feel other people’s pain. And they’re so aware of a triumphant Christ who conquered death, disease, sin, hell, and Satan, and will one day bring us into the full experience of it, that they cannot but rejoice.
To be a Christian is to be aware of this world, this horrible world, this horrible suffering in the world. And to be aware of this glorious Christ, this triumphant, sovereign Christ, so that we are sorrowful yet always rejoicing.
An Existence Fraught with Pain
All that is the introduction. Here’s my first task tonight. Does the Bible give an account of why such a world as this exists? Why Katrina? Why the tsunami? Why war? Why cancer? Why disabilities of all sorts? Our church is full of disabilities. There are little babies born without any eyes. Eight years ago, a little baby named Paul Knight was born with no eyes in his head. He’s eight years old now. He’s in the children’s ministry and there’s a space for him. Great grace abounds over his family, and they’re surrounded with loving people.
Little Michael Locker has an issue with his brain and he has nothing but continual seizures. He will probably never go beyond 18 months in his mental reality if he lives beyond where he is right now at two years old. His mom and his dad are mighty in faith. They are there in worship with their hands lifted with tears on their faces and a little, jerking boy at their side every Sunday. That’s why I’m in the ministry. I want people like that. I want to help bring into being oaks of righteousness that cannot be blown over when they have a little baby who totally changes their life. It’s not what they expected. And they don’t throw in the towel on God. They bow before his sovereign wisdom with many unanswered questions and find his grace sufficient.
So my question tonight is, why does such a world as that exist? That’s the tip of the iceberg, you all know. You’ve tasted it in your own body, your own mind, your own broken marriage, and with your own wayward kids.
Why a World of Suffering?
There are answers in the Bible. Oh, I believe in theology with all my might. Experiential Christianity with no roots in doctrine is ridiculous. It doesn’t meet the real needs of the world. People cannot survive on good feelings. They must have a deep vision of God in the way he is revealed in the Bible. Let me do it this way. Let me give you two biblical statements about the wrong answers as to why this world exists. And then I’ll give four right answers (I hope) from the Bible as to why it exists. The last one is tomorrow night’s talk, so we’ll only mention it briefly. Here are the two wrong answers.
The First Error: God Is Not in Control
This terrorized and troubled world exists because God is not in control. That’s the wrong answer. And there are a lot of people in churches who are preaching that as the right answer. I tell you, nothing made me angrier at 9/11, as we were sitting around a table as a staff on Tuesday morning, watching the towers come down, and then hearing the preachers get called on the telephone by the newscasters to give an account of where God was that morning, and hear them say absolutely ridiculous things about God’s powerlessness in this area. Nothing makes me angry like that.
Here’s what the Bible says. I’ll just read you Bible sentences without any exposition, and see if they don’t carry the day for you:
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).
I said I wasn’t going to do any exposition but can I break that promise just a little bit? In Jesus’s day, a sparrow was as insignificant as a molecule would be today. So when he’s reaching for this illustration, he says, “Are not two little, tiny birds sold for a penny, and not one of them anywhere in the world dies of old age and falls off a limb of a tree without God deciding that it’s time.” Today he would say, “There are no maverick molecules.” Do you know that word maverick? It means there are no molecules out of control. That’s Matthew 10:29.
Matthew 8:27 says:
Even the winds and the sea obey him.
When they called me on the telephone after the tsunami, I spent 45 minutes with a woman who runs national public radio and said “The winds and the sea obey Jesus. Do you understand ma’am? Jesus reigns over the sea.”
Proverbs 16:33 says:
The lot is cast into the lap,
but its every decision is from the Lord.
Here’s a paraphrase of that: when the dice are rolled in Las Vegas, God decides every number.
Calamity Is at His Command
Proverbs 21:1 says:
The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord;
he turns it wherever he will.
Whether it’s Hezbollah or Israel, God reigns.
Lamentations 3:37–38 says:
Who has spoken and it came to pass,
unless the Lord has commanded it?
Amos 3:6 says:
Does disaster come to a city,
unless the Lord has done it?
Mark 1:27 says:
He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.
A Liar and Murderer
If somebody says, “Whoa, where’s the devil in all this?” the answer is that he’s doing murderous work everywhere in the world but only because the leash is loose, and anytime God pleases, he can pull it. Satan has to get permission to do things like he did to Job.
In one of my favorite texts, Satan had to get permission to do that to Peter. Do you remember Luke 22:31–32? Jesus says to Peter:
“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”
I love that statement. He doesn’t say, “if you return,” but, “when you return.” He says, “I prayed. You will return. The leash will be loosened briefly. You will deny me three times. Satan will get that much of a victory, but your faith will not fail utterly. I have prayed for you.” It’s a beautiful picture of sustaining, persevering grace.
Isaiah 46:9 is the last one I’ll read:
I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me . . .
saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,
and I will accomplish all my purpose . . . ’
Therefore, I say it’s a wrong answer to say the reason the world is in the shape it’s in with all of its pain and all of its misery is that God is not in control. That’s the wrong answer. And I’d love to pause here and explain to you why these young families in our church who have experienced such tragedy consider that the best news in all the world. But I will let it come out as we go along. I hope you consider it good news and not a threat to your faith.
The Second Error: God Is Evil
Here’s the second wrong answer. The world is in the shape it’s in because God is evil.
I probably don’t need to defend how that statement is wrong in this group, but let me do it anyway. First John 1:5 says:
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.
Good and upright is the Lord (Psalm 25:8).
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
he whole earth is full of his glory (Isaiah 6:3).
He is thrice holy, with no imperfections, pure to the core of his being. And then we’re going to be hearing, I believe — and I’m so excited to hear it — Genesis 50:20 unpacked in RT Kendall’s messages. That’s one of the most important verses in the Bible on this issue. It says, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” God meant it for good. I better not say too much more or I will tread his territory.
All Things for Good
Romans 8:28 is not a throwaway verse for me. I said something that makes me angry about radio callers. Another thing that makes me angry is when I hear people belittle Romans 8:28 as though it is used wrongly when it is used in situations like this. Now, I know that you can walk into a hospital room, or you can walk into a place where somebody has just died, and start pontificating about theology with totally stupid timing. That is not the time to be preaching. This is the time to be hugging and the time to be crying. And those who are good theologians know when to shut up.
But when the crying is over, the questions come. And answers better be there. And Romans 8:28 doesn’t get any better:
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
No exceptions. This is all things. Those are the two wrong answers: God is not in control, and God is evil. He’s not evil. He does good in everything he does for those who love him. And for those who don’t love him, there is not too much evil he can do. It’s called hell and it awaits those who reject him.
First Answer: God Planned Redemption Before the Fall
Now here are the four answers that I believe are in the Bible. There are probably more, but these at least answer the question, why does this terrorized miserable world exist the way it does? The first answer is that God planned a history of redemption and then permitted the fall of Adam and Eve into sin from which that redemption would take place. That’s very controversial.
Let me read you a verse on this and we’ll say more about it tomorrow night. The key verse for me is 2 Timothy 1:9, which 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 . . .
Christ died for me so that I might receive grace from God, a grace which I received in Christ before the creation of the world. So it was all planned. He knew it was coming. He knew what Adam and Eve would do. And when an omniscient being makes plans, what he knows is taken into account in making his plans. Nothing takes him off guard. He’s not surprised by anything. I abominate open theism. If you don’t know what that is, don’t even try to find out. But if you believe in it, come and talk to me because openness theology is heretical, even though a pastor in my denomination is one of the main book writers in it, but close that parenthesis.
The Cost of Knowing God
The point of that verse is that John Piper, and all of you who trust Jesus and have your sins forgiven, received grace in Christ before God ever created Adam and Eve and there was a fall. So the reason there is a fall is so that could happen.
Now that is strange, and maybe you ask why would he do it. If you read the Bible and look at the number of things we know about God because of his redemptive work — his mercy, grace, justice, wrath, patience, and extraordinary wisdom — none of those things could be known and shine with brightness without this kind of world in which redemption happens and manifests. All those things shine brightly against the dark backdrop of sin, misery, and suffering.
And if it is more loving of God for him to let us know him fully, then it is loving of God for there to be a world like this. You really have to believe that knowing the fullness of the glory of God is the best thing that could happen to you in order to accept a sentence like that. You have to be radically God-centered in order to believe that it’s worth it. It’s worth it to know all there is to know about God’s grace and mercy. There couldn’t be any of that without the suffering of Christ for sinners. That’s my first answer. This kind of world exists because God planned a history of redemption in which he would display most fully his character in grace and mercy, and then he ordained that there be a fall for that to come about.
Second Answer: God Subjected Creation to Futility
Here’s the second answer that I think is in the Bible. The reason this terrorized and troubled world exists is because God subjected this natural world to futility (Romans 8:18–21). That is, God put creation under the curse of futility when Adam and Eve fell. Let me read you the verses and then explain I think why he did this. Romans 8:18–21 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’s God because the devil has no hope for this world) 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.
So here’s what happened. When Adam and Eve fell and moral evil emerged in the world — moral evil meaning sin and rebellion against God and preferring fruit to the glory of God, preferring my way to God’s way, which is the essence of sin — it had such a morally outrageous and repugnant and ugly face on it that God chose that the whole creation would reflect the ugliness of it in being made futile and coming under a curse of suffering.
Here’s the way I understand it. I think it would be safe to say that there’s nobody in the world who feels the outrage of what it means to sin against God. Nobody feels that outrage the way we should. Nobody feels the moral ugliness of anybody who rebels against God, or ignores God, or pays more attention to the carpet on their living room floor than they do to their Maker. Nobody feels the moral outrage of that kind of sin. Nobody anywhere in the world feels it. But you know what we feel? We feel really mad if we get sick.
Do you want to touch somebody? Hurt them physically. They don’t get upset about their sins against God, but they get upset about being hurt. People get really mad if they get really sick. They get really mad if they get in a car wreck. Do you want to touch somebody’s emotions? Cross them. Take away their food, take away their eyes, or take away their children in death. Then they’ll feel evil.
But when they sin against God, they don’t lose any sleep at all. So what can God do when he realizes that in this world where moral evil has penetrated it, nobody in any way recognizes the outrage of what it is to rebel against God? And his answer is, “I will subject the whole creation to futility as a kind of physical parable of the ugliness and the outrage and the outcome of sin.” That means that every time you see something physically horrific, it should translate in your mind to how horrific sin is. It’s a picture.
Not All Suffering Is the Direct Outcome of Sin
Now, one of the reasons that makes this so dangerous to say and so controversial is that you might hear me saying that if something horrific happens to you that it’s a picture of your sin, and the reason you just got treated that way by God is that you are a horrific sinner. So when little Paul Knight was born without eyes, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? That’s the kind of question I don’t want you to ask because Jesus wouldn’t let that question stand and neither will I. Some of the people in whom God is displaying the worst nature of the fall of creation are the godliest people on planet earth.
Let me say that again. Some of the people who in their own bodies carry the most vivid picture of how fallen the world is are the godliest people on the planet, many of them in my church carry in their own bodies the worst disabilities and suffering, and the most painful diseases.
I remember Patty Larson. She was 36 and had 4 kids and a husband, and they came in one afternoon and they said she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. We struggled together about the nature of the treatments, and it was a battle for two years. And then on one horrible, horrible Sunday afternoon, on a bed in her living room, she died again, and again, and again. Her children were upstairs listening, and finally, she died and didn’t snap back.
Patty was as good as they come. She did a video when she lost all of her hair that was about seven minutes long to testify to the church, and we showed it at church, saying, “What a faithful God have I? What a faithful God have I?”
When I set this up as a big global paradigm that the reason the world has been turned upside down with horrific natural calamities in order to display how horrific and ugly and outrageous and repugnant sin is, I don’t mean there’s a one-to-one correspondence in individuals.
Seeing Our Sin
The mother of Michael Locker, the little boy who has the seizures, when I preached a sermon like this and made this point last fall, I heard her in a prayer meeting. She comes to a little prayer meeting I’m in regularly. I heard her in a prayer meeting pray like this. I won’t have the exact words, but I was so deeply thankful because I know that when I’m saying things like this there are people in such pain and I don’t know how they’re going to take these things. And she sat in the circle and she said, “Father, I thank you that our family has been privileged to give evidence in little Michael of how terrible my sin is and our sin as a church is and the sin of the world is. And I pray that people will see in my son their need for a Savior.”
And on and on she went. I just was breathless with her faith. She said, “Make my son an instrument of salvation, as his horrific condition causes people to see that they’re in a horrific condition, the kind that will send them to hell. This won’t send this boy to hell. This boy is going to be redeemed, but sin will send people to hell. Therefore, it must be a thousand times more ugly in your sight than this is. Let them see that in this.” That’s the second reason I think it exists.
Third Answer: We Show the Surpassing Value of Christ
This one feels very personal to me because it’s the quest I’m on in my life. The third reason a terrorized world, a miserable world, a world full of calamities and disease exists is so that Christians, in losing benefits and pleasures can show the surpassing value of Jesus Christ to them.
In other words, a world exists where you can suffer so that in suffering you will be able to reflect to the world that Jesus means a thousand times more to you than what you just lost. That’s why you lose things like your health. Paul said it this way:
Indeed, 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 3:6).
The reason God knocks the props from under your life is to show that Christ is enough to fall on. I said in my introductory comments that I’ve been married 38 years this fall. One of the texts that Noël and I chose to be read at our wedding, and I’m so thankful I have a wife who believes this with me, was Habakkuk 3:17–18. This is now from me as a 22 year old, and she was 20. We were looking forward, not knowing what would come in our lives, and we still don’t know what will come in our lives. And we had this text read:
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.
The reason I preach here and in my church is in the hope and the prayer that you will be like that. It says, “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 . . . (Habakkuk 3:17). In other words, this is devastation and starvation. And then it says, “Yet will I rejoice in the Lord. I will take joy in the God of my salvation.” Nothing makes Jesus shine more brightly in Northern Ireland than Christians who suffer and say, “Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing because my God reigns.” Now there’s one more answer, but my time is up and it is tomorrow night’s message. So I’m going to close in prayer and hope that you’ll be with me for the fourth answer, which is the most important one.