The Sovereignty of God, the Responsibility of Man, and the Suffering of Life

God is totally sovereign, responsible for everything that happens in the universe. Man has the freedom to do what he wants, and is responsible for his actions. These truths are incompatible. What are we to do? 

We have all had days that we will never forget; the day that you graduated, married your lifelong sweetheart, and heard the first cry of your child. We have all had days that we would rather forget; the day that your biopsy report shows cancer, the midnight call that announces that your loved one is dead, or the email that says your job has been terminated. Much as we might wish to have only the first, the second will come. Our usual response is to ask why.

Elizabeth Kubler Ross speaks of the five stages of grief, usually in the context of death, including denial (“this isn’t happening to me”), anger (“it’s your fault that this is happening to me”), bargaining (“if you can stop this happening to me, I will do …”), depression (“my life is ruined because this is happening to me”), and acceptance (“this is happening to me, and I will go on”). As I have seen throughout my medical career and my years in ministry, grieving people go through all of these phases, transition back and forth between them, and usually reach acceptance. Some never accept, but slide into an early grave never coming to grips with the reality that so ruined their life. Even those who accept the new reality continue to have pain, especially on anniversaries and when experiencing special reminders, to the end of their days.

But examining how humans cope with disaster doesn’t answer the question, “why?” The Bible teaches that all things ultimately fall into the perfect plan of the infinite God who made and loves each man. Job, crushed by the loss of everything he had, including his precious children, and sitting in the agony of pain and illness, asked his distraught and angry wife “shall we accept good from God and not accept adversity (Job 2:10)?” The Preacher in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 wrote:

1 There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:

2 a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,

3 a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,

4 a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,

5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,

6 a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,

7 a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,

8 a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.

The Preacher later wrote “In the day of prosperity be happy, but in the day of adversity consider, that God has made the one as well as the other (Ecclesiastes 7:14).” The New Testament also teaches that God allows people to endure hardship and temptation, but never meaningless hardship (Romans 5:3-4), and never without providing the strength to overcome temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13). Some of the Lord’s greatest servants have suffered terrible difficulties (2 Corinthians 11:23-28, 12:8-10), and God Himself, in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, suffered most of all (Isaiah 52:13-53:12).

God is almighty, infinite, and completely sovereign over all of His beloved creation. The Psalmist wrote “Your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be (Psalm 139:16).” Everything that we see as good in the world comes from Him. While He allows evil in the world, because of the evil of Satan and of man, He works through the most terrible of circumstances to accomplish His greatest purpose (Romans 8:28). It is impossible to comprehend.

As a young man I sometimes bristled at the thought of the sovereignty of God, thinking that it made my efforts superfluous. “Why do anything,” I complained, “if nothing that God does can be added to or taken away from (Ecclesiastes 3:14).” As the years have passed I have come to see the responsibility of man as real; the Scriptures are clear that the work of man, done for the purposes of God, will last forever (1 Corinthians 3:11-15).” At the same time, I have taken great comfort, especially during the days of darkest despair, in the fact that my God, my Father, works everything, no matter how terrible, together for my good (Romans 8:28). Combat in Iraq, the death of my father, the sickness of my son, and the painful failures I have had have been bearable because of the sovereignty of God, and His love for me (Psalm 139:1-18).

How shall we live, knowing that the God of the Universe is the Lord of All, and that at the same time, however inexplicable, we are responsible to do good in the world? First, we must understand that no suffering is meaningless, though we rarely are told the meaning of a particular event. Job never received an answer to his question “why?”, only a demonstration of the love and power of God (Job 38-42). The only answer that Paul received for his “thorn in the flesh”, which caused him great suffering, was that Paul needed to be kept humble, and that God’s power was perfected in his weakness (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). The fact that we do not understand the meaning does not mean, however, that our trials have no meaning.

Second, Christians must remember that no amount of suffering can destroy one who is indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Though things may seem unbearable, believers are never crushed (2 Corinthians 4:7-10). No temptation overtakes the person of God which is more than he can bear (1 Corinthians 10:13). Finally, the suffering of this present life, no matter how horrible it is, can be compared to the glory which will be manifest in God’s people (Romans 8:18).

Third, those who follow Christ must do what we can to eliminate iniquity and suffering in the world. The world that God created had no suffering or evil; it was only the sin of man that brought such ruin to what He made. Therefore, starting with our own lives and extending to the whole world, believers must strive to be like Jesus; feeding the hungry, healing the sick, opposing oppression and injustice, and most important, proclaiming the words and work of God.

Fourth, most of life is not suffering. God ensures that the sun rises for the evil and the good, and the rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:45). He makes the crops grow and feed each of us, and gives us the beauties of the earth, the laughter of children, and the innumerable simple joys of life. The backdrop of life is good, even though most of us pass through our days without noticing it. “Weeping may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning (Psalm 30:5b).”

Fifth, when we suffer we must remember that God is suffering with us. When Elijah was at the lowest point in his life, God was with him (1 Kings 19:9-18). Jesus promised to be with us forever (Matthew 28:18-20). The only servant of God who was faithful to Him and yet was abandoned by God was Jesus (Matthew 27:45-46). Also, while we endure only our own suffering, God endures all of the suffering in the world since the dawn of time. It beggars human imagination but it is true; God has endured more pain, hardship and suffering than anyone else.

What is the conclusion? It is that God is God, and there is no one like Him (1 Samuel 2:1-2). He is absolutely sovereign, and yet man is also responsible for what he does. We cannot fully understand, but we who know Him are called to trust and obey. We will suffer, for that is the lot of man. Christians may suffer more than others because of the opposition of the evil to the work of God. Nonetheless, He will be with us.

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