I was barely into my second year of pastoral ministry when I received a phone call. A young man had tried to take his life, and he was looking to speak to a priest or a pastor.
I went to visit him. Over the course of the next hour, I heard painful stories of neglect and abuse and torment. I heard frightening stories of apparitions and spiritual oppression and confusion and desperation. Most of all, I heard a scared boy who wanted to believe that things could be all right. He wanted someone to tell him about a God who could put all the shards and fragments of his many dark stories back together.
God is in control. These words fall regularly from the lips of Christians, and they affirm a foundational truth about the nature of God, the events of the world, and the direction of our lives. Most Christians move through their days confident that God is – in some sense – guiding their personal fortunes or misfortunes, directing their relationships, and preserving and sustaining their lives.
When our lives are following mostly predictable and pleasant paths, the language of divine sovereignty is relatively easy to embrace. There is a logical line that is easily drawn between a good God with good intentions for his world and the experiential reality of this goodness. But what about when that link is severed and things take a turn for the worse? What about when a boy gets to the point where suicide seems like the only option? How do we speak of God being in control then?
Do we rehearse well-worn phrases about how God must have a reason for this instance of suffering? Do we, like Job’s “comforters” (Job 16:2), blame the victim in an attempt to exonerate God (or our ideas about God)? Or, do we just give up trying to figure it out, and hope (or assume) that by some strange and inexplicable theological alchemy, the suffering of our lives and of our world are the necessary ingredients for the outcome God desires?
How are we to speak meaningfully, coherently, and sensitively about God’s sovereignty in the midst of a suffering world and real hurting people? There are, of course, no formulas for successfully navigating these questions, but there are at least three places to start.
1. Be honest
We must begin by honestly acknowledging that faithful followers of Jesus are not and have never been immune from the pain of a fallen world.
When evil and suffering are squarely in view, it’s common to hear some version of the question, “How could God allow something like this to happen?” But it shouldn’t require personal suffering to spur an honest assessment of how evil and suffering fit under God’s sovereignty. “Something like this” is always happening to someone somewhere.
Every week, our church bulletin offers a litany of suffering – there are those battling cancer, dealing with long-term disabilities, living with chronic pain, struggling with addictions, facing financial challenges, and so on. Often the “praise” items are dwarfed by the “requests.” Suffering is about as universal a feature of human experience as you could expect to find.
Whatever Christians have historically affirmed about the sovereignty of God, it has always taken place in the context of hardship.
2. Reconsider our story
Though honestly acknowledging our experience is important, it is merely a starting place. If we stop here, we may be tempted to despair. We must move beyond our own experience to the larger story of which we are a part as followers of Jesus. This lifts us out of our own experience, and allows us to re-evaluate our expectations, understanding, and hopes.
In the most general sense, the shape of the biblical narrative – creation, fall, redemption – is the result of disobedience, of God’s will not being done on earth as it is in heaven! From a biblical perspective, it is clear that God does not specifically will each and every thing that happens under the sun.
When we look at the narrative of Scripture, it becomes clear that the question is not, “Is God in control of our world or my life?” but, “How does God exercise control? What kind of control is it that God has over our lives and our planet?”
From a strictly human perspective, “control” suggests a kind of micro-management approach, whereby as many variables as possible are carefully manipulated in order to ensure the correct outcome.
Yet God seems to prefer not to work this way. The outcome is fixed, to be sure. We know that ultimately suffering will have no place in God’s new world. But in the meantime, God has seen fit to work in and through and despite suffering and evil. God has entrusted some of the variables to human beings, and chosen to work through our decisions and their consequences, whether good or bad.
When Jesus and his disciples come across a man who had been blind since birth, the disciples ask, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). Their question echoes our own: “What’s the reason for this? We know you’re in control of this world; we know there must be an explanation for why this man has suffered, so fill us in on the divine logic!”
As usual, Jesus responds enigmatically: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned…. This happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:3).
3. Embrace the partnership
An honest appraisal of our own experience and the narrative of Scripture can help us to move toward a more coherent, if only partial, understanding of how the sovereignty of God and suffering work together. The question then becomes, “How do we live faithfully with suffering under the providence of God?”
A helpful place to begin is with a reassessment of Romans 8:28, frequently cited in conversations about suffering and the sovereignty of God. The verse is often interpreted as saying that every event that occurs in our lives – including suffering – is a crucial ingredient in a master pattern God is weaving.
But, as Tim Geddert helpfully points out, rather than all things working out for good as pieces of a divinely orchestrated puzzle, a more linguistically and theologically sound interpretation of this verse would be to say that in all things, God is working together with those who love him to bring about what is good.¹
In all things – even painful things, disappointing things, confusing things – God can and does work for what is good. And we are to work with him. The message of Romans 8:28 and all of Scripture is that there is no such thing as irredeemable suffering.
Followers of Jesus are not obliged to believe that God has an intricate cosmic plan that involves precisely the amount and variety of suffering that we experience or observe in our world. We are, however, free to believe the suffering that does occur in our lives and in our world under the mysterious providence of God is not the last word. We are free to suffer along with those in pain, to not pretend that things are better than they are or try to decode God’s motives behind this or that instance of suffering. Finally, we are free to look expectantly for the good that might be brought out of the situation and to always point to the hope of redemption.
So what became of that scared young man I began with? There are good signs. He’s in a healthier place today than when I first encountered him.
In fact, he was recently brought in to talk to a young woman who had attempted suicide. A school counsellor thought someone who had also struggled with suicidal feelings might be able to offer some perspective.
“Do you believe in God?” was one of the first things he said to her. “Because you need God to get through it. I wouldn’t have made it through without God.”
This is perhaps a good posture for us to adopt in our thinking about and living with the question of suffering. We don’t understand as much as we might like about how suffering fits under God’s sovereignty – but we know we “need God to get through it.” We know that the control God does exercise involves us; we are not puppets, but have a meaningful contribution to make in the world, partnering with God in working to bring about what is good.
And so we continue to place our confidence in the God for whom there is no irredeemable suffering, always looking ahead to the day when “He will wipe every tear from their eyes,” and where “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
–Ryan Dueck is associate pastor at Neighbourhood Community Church, Nanaimo, B.C. He blogs at rynomi.wordpress.com
1. Tim Geddert, Double Take (Winnipeg, MB: Kindred Productions, 2007), 173–78.