Does God ordain suffering? Your answer to this question will largely determine how you respond when it comes. And it will come; no one walks through life untouched by some degree of hardship, whether it’s a bump in the road or a rocky path running next to a deep ravine that feels like it has you traversing the depths for way too long.
Cancer. Miscarriage. Chronic pain. Financial stress. The cutting, lingering grief of loss. The all-too common reality of suffering breaking into our lives––something we knew happened to others, but not something we ever thought would happen to us. What do we do with this?
In my own stories of suffering, the most comforting thought––above God sees or God cares––is God ordained this. No, He didn’t just allow it; He purposed it. He planned it. Like Job says, “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away” (Job 1:21). And we can say the same about our sufferings because Scripture is clear that God is sovereign over all things.
This reality should comfort us. But how in the world is it a comfort? Shouldn’t it disturb us that God ordains suffering?
God Is Not Like a Grief Counselor
In an attempt to comfort hurting friends, I’ve heard well-meaning people say, “God didn’t cause your pain. He hates it, and He grieves with you. He cares,” as though two realities––God’s sovereignty and His lovingkindness––can’t coexist. As though God is far removed from our suffering except in its aftermath, when He finally shows up and helps us pick up the pieces.
As though God is like a grief counselor with no direct involvement until help is needed.
But we must stare in the face this commonly-held belief that God doesn’t ordain our pain: if He’s not actually in control of it, along with all the other suffering in the world, then He isn’t the God of the Bible. He’s a god made in our image, a god (we think) we can handle, a god who might seem kind and good––but not a god worthy of our worship. Why not?
If God is not in control, even if His intentions are good, then we can’t actually trust him to ordain what is right and best. If God is in control, but He isn’t good, then we also can’t trust Him, particularly His intentions, when suffering comes. But if God is in control and He is good, then (here’s the clincher) even when His plan involves pain, we can trust Him. Fully trust him. We can take comfort within the suffering He sends.
The Comfort of the Cross
But this is hard to swallow, isn’t it? Our sense of a situation––bad, painful, unjust, undeserved, wrong, heartbreaking––defies such logic and writhes in discomfort around it. We don’t like the idea that God ordains affliction. How could He? So we argue around it and create a theology of suffering that may seem more comfortable for us, but that’s simply not true––and not ultimately a comfort.
Yet, Scripture is clear that God sovereignly ordains suffering and that His sovereignty and goodness coexist. We know this by looking at the cross:
This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. (Acts 2:23–24, italics added)
God the Father sent His Son into the world to die on a cross. God the Father planned that wretched day when hateful men would condemn His Son to death by crucifixion. God the Father ordained that His Son would bear the punishment for our sin by drinking the cup of His wrath.
And God planned the cross from before time; it wasn’t a Plan B, as though He was trying to pick up the pieces of a plan-gone-wrong, but the plan. This plan came from God’s good heart, from a holy and loving Father who intended to secure the salvation of sinners for His fame and our joy; and this plan was willingly accepted by the Son who, for the joy set before Him, endured the cross.
God sent Jesus to His death, and God raised Jesus from the dead to defeat death and sin and suffering forever. This is the comfort of the cross.
But there would be no comfort if God hadn’t sovereignly ordained it.
How God’s Sovereignty Comforts Us
In light of the cross, then, how can we apply God’s sovereignty to our sufferings? What are some truths we can tell ourselves when our pain tempts us to make God into our own image, into a less-than-sovereign grief counselor?
God ordains suffering to strengthen faith.
If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:31–32)
God sent His Son into the suffering of His just wrath so that we would be spared from it. In Christ, we dwell in God’s favor and are declared righteous in His sight. When we’re struggling to see how God’s sovereign hand over our suffering is a comfort, we should remember that He is on our side, and Jesus is the proof of this. Our Father is more wholly for us than we are for ourselves, and He is infinitely wiser than we are. He gave us Jesus––when He gives us pain, will we not trust Him then? Our definition of God’s provision changes when we realize that His ways are higher than ours, and that our faith in Christ will be strengthened as He exercises it through suffering.
God ordains suffering to change us.
For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. (2 Corinthians 4:11)
In the paradigm of the cross, death leads to life. When we’re united to Christ by faith, we die to our old selves and are made new creations. Someday, either when our bodies fail us or Jesus returns, we’ll put on eternal life. And in the in-between, God “[gives us] over to death” so that more of Jesus will be shown in us. Suffering strips us of self-assurance and drives us to depend on Him. And as we depend on Jesus, we will love Him more, and we will increasingly look like the One we love.
God ordains suffering to display Himself.
And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:2–3)
God ordained that this man would be born blind, and in opening his physical eyes, Jesus gives him spiritual sight. The man believes. While our sufferings may never be healed or understood in this life, we can trust that God is using them for eternal purposes. Who is watching your suffering, and what do they see? What “works of God” have you seen in other people’s hardships? God intends to teach us about His Son’s sufficiency, power, and grace, and He often works through suffering to do it.
Yes, God ordains suffering. And yes, God is good, always good. In Him, sovereignty and goodness meet, and we rest assured that when suffering comes, it comes from His wise and gracious hand.
God is for us. The proof is Jesus. We take comfort in His cross.