Tuesday, May 27, 2014

God’s Sovereignty vs. Suffering

There is very little more disorienting and disturbing than a sudden change of circumstances for the worse. Even those who have studied and enjoyed the word of God for years can be knocked off their pins by tragedy.

I remember reading C.S. Lewis’ book A Grief Observed as a very young believer and thinking that for a mature Christian, he sure didn’t seem to handle loss very well.

Yeah, right.

A few years went by. A few things went wrong. I discovered what real pain feels like.

I have never yet experienced affliction on the scale of which it has been endured by many believers I know, nor am I in a great hurry to do so. But I will tell you that I’ve stopped looking sideways at Lewis’ honest expression of his struggle and that of others who love the Lord and have taken serious hits in this life.

Scripture talks about a number of reasons that God permits and manages (or even directly inflicts) suffering. The following thoughts about two of these reasons are obviously not intended to exhaust the subject.

The subject of suffering is a can of worms concerning which I would neither presume to be dismissive nor dispositive.

Suffering for the Benefit of Others

First, the words of the apostle:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-6)
When Paul uses the word “affliction” here, he is speaking primarily about the intense persecution and physical danger he encountered in the service of Christ, as opposed to illness, poverty, unemployment, age-related physical discomfort, depression, sudden tragic loss, desertion or other sorts of miseries. Not that the two categories of affliction are entirely distinct: the first sort frequently resulted in the second sort for Paul. He was stoned, beaten, whipped, nearly drowned and eventually killed in the course of his service.

But his point is this: What happened to him resulted first in Paul personally receiving the comfort of God and secondly, it equipped him to comfort others by sharing what he had received from God.

And that is true of every kind of suffering that afflicts us because of the fall of creation (“in ALL our affliction”; “in ANY affliction”), even the most private and personal sort.

There is a very deliberate aspect to this comfort, Paul implies. The comfort we receive is “so that we may be able” to comfort others. “If we are afflicted,” he insists, “it is for your comfort and salvation”. Since this is the case, being equipped to comfort others should be seen not as a convenient, accidental byproduct of our affliction, but in many circumstances as the primary purpose of it.

This is where religious teachers who lead believers to anticipate riches or uninterrupted good health as the normal outcome of faith in Christ set their followers up for a major disappointment. No matter how big an audience they draw or how financially successful they may be, their teaching is wildly off base.

Their views accurately reflect neither the teaching of Scripture nor the facts on the ground.

Really, what use would Christians be in this world if we were handed a divine pass on every kind of human suffering by virtue of our relationship with Christ? In such an imaginary scenario, rather than a relationship with the Lord himself, a worldview that actually reflects reality, a change of heart and life, an eternal inheritance or any of the other things that come with confessing Christ and believing in him, salvation’s appeal becomes primarily the relief of the hurts and injuries of a fallen world.

And I’m not sure the Lord is terribly interested in relationships with people who will never see him as anything more than an insurance policy or a safety net. There are, no doubt, genuine believers whose relationship with the Lord began from that sort of motivation. But real, growing faith develops beyond that initial point of contact and comes quickly to feed on other aspects of Christ’s person and work.

So the Christian is exposed to all the ills of the world, just as is the unbeliever. The difference is that God skillfully and sovereignly works the malignancies of a sinful world together for the ultimate good of his servants and gives them what they need to endure, while those who are without the Lord struggle in vain to find significance to their misery, to learn anything from it, or to say anything more profound about it than that it happened and they sure hope it doesn’t happen again.

Suffering for Sinning

But there is a second and, I believe, rarer sort of affliction that comes into the Christian experience. When we speak of being “comforted in affliction” as in the 2 Corinthians passage above, we are not speaking about situations in which the affliction is a direct product of our own sin.

God’s sovereignty is very evident indeed in the instances in which he deems it necessary to directly afflict a professing Christian.

The Lord’s own message to the church in Thyatira touches on the sin of a woman he refers to as “Jezebel”, a false teacher who brought sexual immorality into a local group of Christians. Of her and her disciples he says, “I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent”. 

I sincerely doubt that there is much “comfort” to be found in the sort of affliction designed to produce repentance, at least until the necessary changes of mind and practice come about.

There is also likely to be very little confusion in the mind of the afflicted as to the cause of the affliction. It is not reasonable, nor is it consistent with the character or purposes of God, that “Jezebel” would thrash indefinitely in her sickbed with no clue as to why she was suffering.

In the Old Testament, when someone was suffering or about to suffer for their own sins in this life, a prophet was sent to convey the reason for the affliction. Nathan confronted David over his sin with Bathsheba and after first telling him a parable to make him think about how his sin appeared in the eyes of God, just in case David’s conscience was too damaged for him to grasp Nathan’s meaning, he made the accusation explicit: “You are the man!”

And in the church age, even “Jezebel”, for all her sinful acts, gets a personal message from the Lord. Because the purpose of this second sort of affliction in the Christian life is not gratuitous torture, or even the administration of final justice. That will come, no doubt. But the goal of the Lord in dealing out this sort of affliction among believers is always to produce repentance.

Confusion Between the Two

Christians that are unduly self-occupied — or, indeed, any believer who is untaught or inexperienced with suffering — may at least temporarily mistake one sort of affliction for the other. But if we have to ask why we’re suffering, we are probably dealing with the first sort of affliction.

And if prayer and the counsel of mature Christians do not grant relief of affliction, it is almost certainly of the first type. God is not the author of confusion but of peace.

Paul tells us that “as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too”.

And the Psalmist adds this powerful testimony: “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.”

Easier to quote than to live out, but true all the same.

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