How Big is Your God in Suffering?
Reformed Theological Seminary Orlando Chapel, Wed., Sept. 11, 2013 Dr. Michael S. Beates
How Big is Your God in Suffering? Over 30 years ago, in his well-known book Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?, Rabbi Harold Kushner decided God was not that big. He had been grappling with that age-old dilemma that goes something like this:
Since suffering exists, God must either be good, but not all-powerful, or He is all-powerful but not good.
The reasoning is that if He was all-powerfully good, He would intervene; or since evil exits, He might seem to be all-powerful but just not all that good because he could intervene but just doesn’t care to do so. Kushner came down on the first option. He believed that God is good, but just not powerful enough to help us in our suffering. He sees us and our suffering, He is up in heaven rooting for us, wringing His hands, wishing He could intervene, but He cannot.
This is a theology of despair. And I still see the book on the shelves of Christian book stores! But the Scriptures give us a different picture, showing that the classic construction of this dilemma is a false dilemma. In fact, there is a third way. God is indeed omnipotent. The Scriptural witness to this is beyond question. He created the world by the power of His Word, He sustains all things, upholds and directs all things. Revelation 19 suffices to represent hundreds of such declarations:
“Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty One reigns.”
But the Scriptures also affirm that God is good – perfectly and completely so. “Give thanks to the Lord for He is good, His steadfast love endures forever.” So the question is: if He is all-powerful and all good, then why do we suffer, or . . . as we are asking today, “How Big is Our God in suffering?”
As I have thought about how to answer this question in 20 minutes or less, I’ve tried to boil it down to three primary principles.
First, God is big enough to take suffering caused by human actions and turn it to our ultimate benefit and to His glory. I know you are turning in your heads to Genesis 50:15-20.
“When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, ‘It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.’ So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, ‘Your father gave this command before he died: “Say to Joseph, ‘Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.'” And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.’ Joseph wept when they spoke to him. His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, ‘Behold, we are your servants.’ But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them” (my emphasis).
God took the human actions of Joseph’s brothers, actions with explicitly wicked intent and He so sovereignly superintended over those events as to bring goodness and life from their repeated decades-long deception and evil.
The human action doesn’t have to be wicked for God to turn the results for our good and His glory. My friend Joni Tada would tell you that her human decision to dive into shallow water in the Chesapeake so many years ago was innocent enough, but just kinda stupid and thoughtless. But God took her human decision . . . and the admittedly catastrophic results, and turned it to her good and His glory.
Second, God is big enough to take suffering caused by natural forces and turn it to our ultimate benefit and to His glory. Think of the story of Ruth. Natural circumstances cause a famine in Judah and the suffering forced Elimelech and family to Moab. Life continued, death followed and on its heels deprivation, insecurity, deep sadness and loss – all due to natural circumstances. Yet thin about it. You know the equation: No famine, no move, no move to Moab, no Moabite daughters-in-law, no death in Moab, no deprivation and return to Bethlehem, no return, no Boaz, no marriage, no Obed, or Jesse or David, or Mary and Joseph . . . and no Jesus of Nazareth, Messiah and Savior. God is big enough to take natural forces that bring suffering and turn such things to our good and His glory. He is so big that He can take the most seemingly meaningless suffering of unknown people in out of the way places and turn it to the redemption of many.
Recently on Facebook John Piper wrote: “What could be more round about than the way God blessed Naomi? And in Christ the maze of your misery has a design and happy end.” Ruth and Naomi saw only the smallest glimpse of how big God was in their suffering and redemption. His plan was so much bigger!
Finally, God is big enough to take suffering caused by spiritual warfare and turn it to our ultimate benefit and to His glory. We are given a glimpse of this in Job. Though his suffering was the immediate result of natural causes in storm and diseases, and human causes in marauding Sabeans, the ultimate cause was spiritual warfare. But God is big enough that throughout this account, He keeps Satan on a short leash – nothing that happened to Job happened without God’s permission. Satan had limits beyond which he could not go. God is so big, He took the worst that Satan can throw down and turn it for His glory and for centuries now for the good of those who believe. Job saw man made wickedness and natural events bring suffering. He could not see that it was spiritual conflict. So also with us.
God hardly ever does things the way we would expect. Though He upholds the cosmos by His powerful Word, He also became small – a new born child without speech – in fact, as Paul tells us in Philippians 3, He made Himself nothing, the infinite became finite, omnipotent became vulnerable; the omnipresent One confined Himself in the body of a man, in order to conquer our infinite rebellion and sin.
And His eye sight is big enough that He sees the least of these. Not a sparrow falls to the ground, not a hair falls from your head that He does not know it. Remember the words of William Cowper’s hymn “God Moves in Mysterious Ways”? One of the stanzas says:
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense
But trust him for His grace.
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
I don’t know what suffering you have faced. In God’s mercy none of us knows what suffering awaits us.But the Scriptures tell us God is big in our suffering, . . . so we can glory in our weakness. Joseph saw many years of dark providence of human wickedness redeemed in the end for the good of many. Ruth and Naomi saw the frowning providence in natural causes resulting in the hardship of loss, death, and hopeless deprivation. And Job also experienced unspeakable loss in spiritual warfare that God never did explain to him in this life. But behind this darkness, behind the hard providence lay blessings that would break upon all of them as individuals, as families and communities, and ultimately blessings for all of human kind across the world and across the centuries, even to you and me in that Pauline sense of being infinitely beyond what they could see, hear, or imagine.
There’s that African antiphonal saying: “God is good” . . . “All the Time!” . . . “All the time” . . . “God id good.” With respect to this RTS series “How big is your God?” we can modify that to: “God is Big!” . . . “All the time” . . . “All the time” . . . “God is big!”