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Where is God in Suffering?

Category Articles
Date September 2, 2008

I have heard Thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees Thee; Therefore I retract, I repent in dust and ashes. (Job 42:5, 6)

On July 23, 2007 Dr. William Pettit of Cheshire, Connecticut experienced a man’s worst nightmare. On that evening two convicted felons, released two days earlier on parole, invaded the Pettits’ home, torturing Dr. Pettit, his wife, and two teenage daughters, raping his wife, and daughters, murdering them, and then setting the house on fire. Dr. Pettit miraculously survived the ordeal and has shown remarkable grace in the face of untold suffering. My suspicions about Dr. Pettit were recently confirmed. He is a Christian and no doubt God is the one who has sustained him. But here’s my question – where was God in all of this? Who, or what is behind the evil and suffering in our world? This is far from a mere academic question, for each of us experience injustice and suffering in some way; and we certainly see it all around us. Where is God in suffering?

Job, who lost his children, wealth, and health was asking the why question when he finally came to peace, after God asked him a series of devastating, rhetorical questions which revealed to him God’s sovereignty, wisdom, and goodness. Job, after seeing the glory and majesty of God humbled himself under his mighty hand. Job’s friends, however, were no help at all. When first coming to Job they did a good deed. They remained silent before Job for seven days, simply being with him in his suffering. From there, however, it was all downhill. Eliphaz strongly suggested Job’s problems were due to his own sin, that God was paying him back for evil he had done earlier (Job 4:7). Bildad suggested the suffering was due to Job’s children living in ungodliness(Job 8:2). And Zophar believed it was due to Job’s unwillingness to repent (Job 11:13). Only Elihu approached the issue properly, stressing the utter sovereignty, power, wisdom, and goodness of God (Job 37:1). But God himself shows Job his mighty power (Job 38-41), reducing him to humility and awe.

From where does suffering come? We can say God permits the devil to work over God’s people. We see this clearly stated in Job’s life (Job 1:12; 2:6). We even see this in the life of the Lord Jesus where the Holy Spirit sends Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (Matt. 4:1). We see this again in Peter when Jesus says to him, ‘Simon, Simon, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you’ (Luke 22:31). And Paul had his thorn in the flesh, what he calls a messenger from Satan ( 2 Cor. 12:7). We can also say God permits wicked people to bring harm to his people. The prophet Habakkuk is perplexed at the impending invasion by the Babylonian empire under Nebuchadnezzar, wondering how God can allow such a wicked and impetuous people to harm his covenant people. God clearly says that he has raised them up for that very purpose (Hab. 1:6). Thus we can say that God permitted these two felons to bring murder and suffering to the Pettit family. And we can also say God permits the consequences of Adam’s fall into sin to bring hardship on us. Death, disease, disasters, and war are the result of the fall into sin. God could stop these but so often he does not.

If we stop here, however, we are not going far enough and we really are not able to get to the heart of the matter. God not only permits suffering. He also ordains it. He brings it. To say he merely permits it is like saying a policeman at Mather and Main Street in Hartford permits a drug deal to go down because he only has a pistol and the bad guys have AK-47’s. God is not outgunned by the devil, people, or fate.

In Isaiah 45:6, 7 God says that he alone is God, the one forming light and creating darkness, causing well being and creating calamity. In Amos 3:6 the prophet says, ‘When a trumpet is blown in the city, will not the people tremble? If a calamity occurs in a city has not the Lord done it?’ God not only permits or allows evil but he also ordains it. I am not saying man is not responsible for his actions. Those who brought such suffering on the Pettit family deserve to die for what they did. They wilfully chose to do it. God did not make them do it. We have here a mystery, an antinomy or apparent contradiction. God’s ways are higher than our ways. His thoughts are higher than our thoughts. Though God raised up the Chaldeans to bring judgment on Judah; he also held them responsible for their actions, promising judgment on them for their horrid treatment of his people (see Jeremiah 50, 51). And Peter told his audience at Pentecost that Jesus was delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, having been nailed to the cross by the hands of godless men (Acts 2:23). Both are true. God ordains suffering and man is totally responsible for what he does.

Why is this important? If God merely permits evil, if people or the devil work free of God’s providence, if fate or chance are real then we are in terrible trouble. This would mean we are completely at the mercy of the devil and evil men, and that is no comfort at all. If things happen by chance then there is no reason for the suffering whatsoever. Many believe this way, and are terribly depressed and despondent.

But if God ordains whatsoever comes to pass, if God ordains all things, even the day of evil, then there is a purpose. Our depression and despondency from suffering come because we begin in the wrong place. We begin with our circumstances, with our grasp of the situation, and this will always prove deadly. We must resist that temptation and begin with God. And what do we need to remember about God? He is all good, the only one who can and will bring good from everything for those who love him (Rom. 8:28). He is completely sovereign, all powerful in every circumstance. He is in heaven and does as he pleases (Psa. 115:3). He brings calamity. As R. C. Sproul has so ably said, ‘There is no such thing as a maverick molecule in the universe.’ Paul makes this clear in Romans 8:29, 30. And he is all wise (Rom. 11:33). He knows exactly what he is doing, accomplishing his purpose for his glory and our good.

But still, why does God permit, bring, ordain suffering? He does so for three reasons. First, he gets glory by using such to draw his people to himself in eternal salvation (Eph. 1:4-6). Second, he uses suffering to sanctify his people, building holiness in us through it (1 Peter 1:5, 6). And finally, he uses suffering in our glorification. It causes us to live for Christ, to long for heaven, to desire the presence of Christ more than anything in this world (Rev. 21:1-4). Nothing else makes sense. Nothing else satisfies. Is this a hard doctrine to grasp? Yes, but in the end it is the only thing which brings comfort.

Rev. Allen M Baker is Pastor of Christ Community Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, Connecticut.

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