Does Grace Grow Best in Winter?
Winter Luncheon Series
The Quandary and Questions of Suffering”
January 10, 2008
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Welcome to our Thursday luncheon series in the midst of January on the subject of “Does Grace Grow Best in Winter?” That's a question that we've actually borrowed from a marvelous book title, a book that's not been generally available. Many of you are familiar with the wonderful Canadian author, Margaret Clarkson, who for so many years was associated with the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and with the Urbana Missions Conference, and who has written so many beautiful hymns that have been used…modern hymns that she wrote in the ‘60's and ‘70's that were known well to people that went to Urbana Missions Conference. But Margaret Clarkson suffered with a great deal of pain, and so she reflected a lot on pain and on suffering in the course of her thinking and in her writing, and she wrote a book called Grace Grows Best in Winter. And that book has not been generally available for about fifteen years, but we hope some before our Thursday luncheon series is over so you will be able to have access to this excellent book; I commend it to you.
There is another book by a lady named Faith Cook. It's almost the same title. It's simply called Grace in Winter. Margaret Clarkson's book is called Grace Grows Best in Winter, and Faith Cook's book is Grace in Winter. And what Faith Cook has done is give you some hors d’oeuvres, some beautiful selections from a much larger volume, a volume that's so big that most people never ever read through it. It's a volume of letters written by a Scottish pastor in the seventeenth century called The Letters of Samuel Rutherford, and she goes through those letters and she excerpts some of the choicest morsels of Rutherford's letters to congregation members who were going through enormous trials. She records some of Rutherford's letters to women in his congregation who had either suffered miscarriages or who had lost young children to an untimely death, and they are beautiful. Someone had said in the nineteenth century that Rutherford's letters, the prose in his letters, was so poetic that it wouldn't take much to turn his letters into poetry. And Faith Cook, having read all of his letters, agreed with that, and what she does is she tells you the story, gives you the excerpt, and then she turns that letter into a poem. And if you’re looking for something to meditate on over and over that would comfort you in a time of trial and tribulation, that little book by Faith Cook, Grace in Winter — it's a small book, it's less than a hundred pages…a beautiful hardback… a very helpful book.
I do want to mention two other books that we do have over on the table today. Many of you know the name of Elisabeth Elliot, the widow of Jim Elliot, who lost his life along with three other missionaries going into the Amazon Basin to witness to dangerous tribes there. She's told that story in another book. There was recently a movie about that story, The End of the Spear, which some of you may have seen. Well, Elisabeth Elliot is again a woman who has known something about suffering in her life, and she has written a book called A Path Through Suffering: Discovering the Relationship Between God's Mercy and Our Pain, and this, too, would be a very helpful book to study if you are looking for something edifying to read on the issue of suffering. We have copies of it right over there on the table.
And then many of you know John Currid, who was Professor of Old Testament here at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson. He was the teaching pastor at the Providence Presbyterian Church in Clinton with John Reeves, and Dr. Currid is now Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina. Just before he left Jackson to go to Charlotte, he completed and had published a book on the subject of suffering and the sovereignty of God, and the book is simply called Why Do I Suffer? And again, it's a short book. It won't take you long to read. It's 160 pages or so, and published by Christian Focus Publications, and we have copies over on the table — Why Do I Suffer? by John Currid.
One thing we want to do throughout these lunches is give you resources that may scratch your particular itch. All of us who are wrestling with the question of suffering have a slightly different angle on it because we're experiencing different things. Suffering comes in all shapes and sizes, and so, for instance, there are some books that address the issue of depression. That often entails a chronic kind of suffering that has to be dealt with over a long course of time. Others of us are dealing with a suffering which is entailed in the grief of a lost loved one, and the intensity of that, though it abates over time, is very powerful for a short period of time, and it's a slightly different kind of issue that you’re grappling with, as opposed to dealing with something that's going to last in the same way in the same state for forty years as opposed to something which is going to be more intense over a period of time, and then gradually abate. But suffering comes in all shapes and sizes. We’ll try and provide literature that we think is sound and helpful and will address many of these different things.
Our subject, “Does Grace Grow Best in Winter?” is designed to address the issue of suffering from the standpoint of the sovereignty of God, believing that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose.
And we intend to ask the question “How does God intend suffering to work for the growth in grace of His children, of those who love and trust Him?”
God doesn't waste the suffering of His children, so how does He use suffering? In what ways do we grow in suffering? How do we respond to suffering? These are the kinds of things that we're going to tackle together. And of course today we have the privilege of addressing the question of the quandary of suffering–why is there suffering in this world in the first place?
Before we begin, let's pause for prayer and ask for God's help and blessing.
Heavenly Father, we love You and we praise You for who You are. We thank You that You not only know everything, but that You are in charge of all things. This is a great comfort to us, but it also causes us quandaries sometimes when we, like Job, know that You’re in charge, and yet our world is filled with pain and disappointment and suffering. Our human spirit deep within us cries out, ‘Why?’ We thank You, Lord, that You love us so much that over and over in the Psalms You not only allow but You command and inspire the psalmists to lift up a “why?” for us. And now as we reverently tackle that question today, we pray that we would be guided by Your word, helped by Your Spirit, that You would get glory in this, and that we would get help for the living of these days. In Jesus' name. Amen.
A world of suffering.
We live in a world of suffering. Suffering is a constant in this fallen world. If you and I were able to know for a split second, for a single instant, the experience of all the suffering that exists in this world at one time, it would kill us. Only God can know all the suffering that exists at any given time in this world and not go insane.
Think of it, friends. Today three thousand little children will die of malaria, most of them in Africa. Somewhere there will be a husband or a wife, or a mother or a father, who will be bereft of their own child because of malaria. Think of the suffering that will attend in those situations. This year thirty million people will die in Africa alone because of AIDS. Fifty million people die every year, most of them young…most of them in agony. One hundred people have died since I began speaking to you a few seconds ago. Think of the pain attended by those families in the wake of those deaths.
And then if we think more locally and in this room, people are suffering because of family issues. Perhaps there's been a lifelong estrangement from a parent that has haunted you all your life; the longing, the desire just once for a father or for a mother to say “I love you; I'm proud of you; you’re my child; you bring me great joy and delight’…and it's never ever come. Perhaps there's a parent, deeply, deeply loving and caring for his or her child or grandchild, and yet that child or grandchild is making self-destructive choices that are having a disastrous effect on their future, and you’re having to stand there and watch. You’re doing the best you can; you’re helping and counseling as best as you can, but there is nothing that you can do. And you are old enough and wise enough to see the consequences of that choice.
Maybe it's in your own marriage — a godly Christian husband or wife. The last thing in the world that he or she would have dreamt of would have been the breakup of the marriage, and yet it's come. Sometimes it's come for reasons which are justified and others when they’re not, but either way the heartbreak is almost unbearable.
And we could go on and on and on. And again, if we could just know for an instant the pain of the suffering that exists in this room, we would go insane. The only one who can know this suffering and survive it is God, and He does, and He cares. And that's why we're going to be here for the next four weeks looking at what He says to us about our suffering, in our suffering.
Now let me tell you where we're going to try and go in the course of our time together.
I want to tackle four basic questions. We’ll only scratch the surface; that's why we're going to be constantly pushing you to good literature where you can follow up, and we're going to entertain your questions, to be as helpful as we possibly can. But I want to tackle four questions: “Why me? What for? How so?” and, “Him, too?” Those are the four questions we want to tackle together in the next four weeks: “Why me? What for? How so?”; “Him, too?” Let me tell you what I mean by those.
“Why me?” I want to ask some questions today about the quandary of suffering. Why does suffering happen in this world? What are the roots? What are the causes of suffering in this world? It's very important for us to be clear in our minds about that, else all sorts of problems will result in our response to suffering. Let me just give you one example. There are many people who claim to be Christians, many great teachers and preachers who claim to be Christians who will tell you, and they’ll tell their people, and they’ll write books, and they’ll speak on television, and they’ll say this: “God does not want you to suffer. Therefore, if you are suffering, you are out of the will of God, and you are out of the will of God because you lack faith.”
Now, they say that, I think, because they want to be kind. But I can't imagine a crueler thing to say, or a wrong-er thing to say, because that is just not what the Bible teaches. From beginning to end, the Bible entertains the fact that the godliest, most loving, most consecrated people will experience deep suffering in this world, not because they have not believed in God enough, but for other reasons. And therefore it's important for us to understand what those reasons are, what those causes are of suffering, lest we respond to that suffering in the wrong way. That's what we want to try and do today.
Next week we want to ask the question, “What for?” moving from the causes for suffering to the purposes of suffering. What is it that God uses suffering to do in His children? What are the divine and good purposes in suffering for believers? It's very important for us to understand what God aims to produce in our experience of trial and tribulation. Again, our knowledge of that will color the way we respond to suffering in our own personal experience.
Thirdly, I want to ask the question, “How so?” In other words, how then, knowing the divine and good purposes of suffering, how then do we learn to gain from suffering, to grow in our experience of suffering? It's not enough to know just what God's purposes are; we need to know how we are to respond to His purposes so as to grow in grace, and that's what we’ll attempt to ask and answer the third time we're together.
And then, finally, we will culminate in the ultimate experience of suffering in this world: that is, the suffering of the Lord Jesus Christ, “Him, too?” It should not be lost on us that the person who knows most about suffering in the history of humanity is the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ. That is something that you could meditate upon from now until the end of your life, and you wouldn't have exhausted the riches of the implications that flow from that. The person who knows most about suffering is the One who didn't deserve any of it; the One who was perfect, who came for our salvation, He is the most experienced sufferer in the history of humanity. And so we will ask “What are we to learn from the ultimate suffering of the Son of God, Jesus Christ?” because as we’ll see even today, the Apostle Paul will point us to Jesus’ sufferings as an example and as an encouragement to us as we face suffering in the Christian life. So that's where we're going to try and go together over the next four weeks.
Our objective in this study.
Now, let me say what I'd like us to begin to learn in this study. Let me frontload my application by telling you where I'm going to try and go. Fundamentally, I want us to learn two things over the course of this study. It's really that simple. I want us to learn that suffering is; and, I want us to learn to suffer. That's really what we want to do together. I want us to learn that suffering is, and I want us to learn to suffer. Let me tell you what I mean by that.
First, I want us to learn that suffering is. That is, suffering happens. Or more specifically, that suffering is to be expected; that suffering is the norm in this fallen world — again, because there are many claiming to be Christian teachers who will tell you that suffering should not be happening in this world. And I want to come back with a big, bold, biblical contradiction of that and say suffering is in this fallen world; suffering happens in this fallen world; suffering is the norm in this fallen world. Not, of course, in the world which God originally created; not the world in which God created a garden and put a man and a woman without sin or shame in that garden to enjoy. That world had no suffering in it, but our world does because something happened between that world and our world, and we’ll talk about that today.
But in our world, suffering is. This is so important, not only because there are some who tell us that we shouldn't expect suffering, or that suffering ought not to be a part of the Christian experience, but because we have by and large, even in the midst of the struggles and trials of our lives, experienced lives that have had less of certain kinds of suffering in them than the lives of many or most of the other people who have ever lived in this world. I mean, most of us in this room have never really lived through a famine. Most of the rest of the people who have ever lived in history up until 1900 not only would once upon a time have lived through a famine, but many times in their lives would have lived through famine. Most of us have never lived through a drought. Our friends in Georgia and parts of Alabama, and parts of Tennessee, and parts of South Carolina right now are experiencing the worst drought in recent memory, and yet it does not compare in any way to the effect of common drought that would have occurred prior to the 1900's.
So precisely because we have lived in a time and in a framework in which the sufferings of this world have been to some extent mitigated for us, we are lulled into sleep sometimes and surprised by suffering, so that when suffering comes into our experience our initial reaction is, “Oh, this shouldn't be happening!” Whereas, if what I am saying is true (that suffering is, that suffering happens, that suffering is the norm for this fallen world), none of us should ever be surprised by suffering. Instead, when suffering walks into our room, we ought to be saying, “I've been waiting for you. I've been preparing for you. I knew you were coming, because this fallen world is filled with the likes of you. And what I've been doing before you came was to prepare as best I could, by God's grace and by God's word, so that I might glorify God as I experience you, and so that I might be comforted as I wrestle with you.” And so it's so important over the course of this series that we ingrain into our minds that suffering is an essential part of Christian existence. You will suffer.
So the only question is will you suffer in a way to honor Christ, or will you not? The question is not will you suffer or will you not, but will you suffer in such a way to honor Christ, or will you not? Will you suffer in such a way that you are able to be comforted by God's word and grace and truth, or will you lack the comfort that you ought to have?
Suffering is; suffering happens; suffering is to be expected; suffering is the norm in this fallen world. It's an essential part of Christian experience. That's thing No. 1 that I really want us to be convinced of; and not just convinced of, but to understand the implications of in our Christian life.
The second thing that I want us to do is to learn to suffer. What I mean by that is to learn how to suffer, to learn how a Christian suffers, to learn what the Bible tells us that a Christian ought to do in the midst of suffering.
The Viscount of Camperdown, who was a great sea admiral with Admiral Nelson and the British navy during the Napoleonic wars…you remember Admiral Nelson was the one who won the great Battle of Trafalgar against the French, and Trafalgar Square in London is named after him. Well, the Viscount of Camperdown was one of his admirals in the British navy, and he too won great battles during that period of time. His family crest had a ship with full sails on it–not surprising for a seafaring man–but his family motto has always fascinated me. His family motto consisted of two little Latin words: Disce pati — “Learn to suffer.” That was his family motto — “Learn to suffer.” That's exactly what Peter and Paul and Job and Moses and Jesus would say to you and me as believers in this fallen world — that we need to learn to suffer.
Why we need to learn about suffering.
Now, what do I mean by that? Well, let me put some feet on that by saying five things in particular that I want us to learn with regard to learning to suffer in the course of our study.
First of all, I want over the next four weeks for us to learn to suffer in such a way that Jesus is magnified in our sufferings…I want us to learn to suffer in such a way that Jesus is magnified in our sufferings. If we do not approach our suffering with a desire for Jesus to be magnified, then we will encounter some sufferings in this world which will overwhelm us completely, because those sufferings are that big…but nothing is bigger than the glory of Jesus. When you are facing a suffering of intensity and duration, you need something bigger than that suffering to fight it back, and there is nothing bigger than the glory of Jesus. And so your desire to see Jesus magnified is one of your great weapons in the great warfare against suffering, and I want you to learn how to suffer in such a way that Christ will be great in your eyes and in the eyes of all who see you suffer.
Secondly, I want us to learn to suffer in such a way that Jesus becomes more precious to us than before we suffered…I want you to learn to suffer in such a way that Jesus becomes more precious to you than before you suffered. If you go through your suffering and Jesus is not more precious to you on the other side of that suffering than He was before you started, your suffering has not yet come to full fruition. Because there is nothing in this world that we are to experience or endure that isn't designed by our loving heavenly Father to cause us to prize Christ more.
Third, I want us…I want you…to learn to suffer in absolute confidence that God is for you. Now I'm going to have to immediately qualify that.
If you’re a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, if you are trusting in Jesus Christ for salvation as He is offered in the gospel, I want you to endure the suffering that you endure in absolute — not 93.7, not 99.9, but in 100 percent — confidence that God is for you. And I'm saying that on the authority of God's word. I’ll get to the passage in just a moment, but I expect that some of you know where to start in the Bible on that theological truth. I want you to learn to suffer, confident that God is for you; to know and believe that nothing can happen to you apart from God's will.
Jesus made this a special point to His disciples in His Sermon on the Mount. Paul made this as a special point to suffering Christians in Romans 8. Peter makes this a special point to the Christians that were getting ready to experience the greatest (at that point) empire-wide persecution in the history of the church. I want you to believe that at the worst of times, He is still 100 percent for you; He is not against you; if you are in Christ, He is not 99.9 percent for you, He is 100 percent for you; and that you have everything that you need in Him, in Christ.
That is easier to say than it is to believe, and it is easier to believe than it is to feel when you’re in the midst of suffering. But I want us to begin a journey towards your embracing that existentially for you, so that it's not a theorem in your mind, so that it's not a majestic ideal, but that it's a practical reality when you face suffering.
Fourth, I want you to know that your suffering is not the way that you’re accepted by God. We want to learn to suffer knowing that we are accepted by God by grace through faith, and apart from anything that we do either before or after we're saved, and apart from anything that we do either before or after we suffer. Because there are some people who, for a variety of reasons, seem to think that if they just endure the suffering enough, maybe God will love them. And you will not endure suffering as you are meant to endure suffering if you think that that suffering is making your heavenly Father love you. No. He has loved us with an everlasting love, and the way we are accepted by Him is not by our deeds, and it's not by our suffering. It's because of Christ because of what He has done; it's because of His grace to us in Christ; it's received by faith and faith alone, and nothing that we do before or after we are saved, or before or after we suffer, causes us to be accepted by God. It's so important for us to understand that in our suffering, because in suffering, especially of an intensity and duration, the mind becomes numb and it begins to think all sorts of crazy things. And if there is any crack of a shadow of doubt in the back of your mind about why you stand accepted with God, Satan will certainly use that doubt to undermine your comfort and confidence in the midst of suffering.
And, fifth…oh, I'm scared to even say this…I want us to learn to embrace a life of suffering.
You know how Paul describes himself to the Corinthians in II Corinthians 6:10? “Sorrowful, yet rejoicing.” And, my friends, if we were a band of brothers and sisters over whom the banner was unfurled and flowing which said “Suffering, yet rejoicing” there is no telling the gospel witness, the gospel effect that that would have on the world around us. Talk about shaking the world out of its slumber! A band of brothers and sisters in Christ dying, yet living; suffering, yet rejoicing; sorrowful, yet full of inexpressible joy…what a comfort it would be to us, what a glory it would be to God, what a witness it would be to the world.
And so I'm asking you to be prepared to embrace a life of suffering.
These are two things that I'd like us to learn: Suffering is; and, to learn to suffer. I'm just telling you for the sake of full disclosure where we're going in the course of this application.
The Bible teaching on suffering.
Now, the good news for you who are suffering today is the Bible says so much about suffering!
I've had the privilege — and I really mean privilege when I say that word — I've had the privilege of talking to many people in this room who have suffered and are suffering things that I have never suffered myself. And that means that if all I had to say as a person to persons who were enduring suffering that I had not experienced myself…if all I had to say to them, if all I had to offer was my own wisdom either learned from books or from smart people, or from my meager experience…well, you know, it would be kind of like sitting down with the mother of those four children that were dumped over a bridge in Alabama just a few days ago and saying, “You know, I had a pet hamster once, and he died.” I can't think of a better way to describe to you how little value anything that I would have to say to you would be, if you compared what I've experienced with what some of you have experienced.
But thank the Lord you don't have to rely on my wisdom or common sense or experience. You've got the word of God waiting for you, and the God who is not only the God of wisdom and grace, but who is the God of your pain and suffering has said so much in His word to you about your suffering that I have the inestimable privilege of opening up His word and saying, “Friend! Look at the feast of help that God has prepared for you in His word. It does not come from me! It does not come from my experience; it does not come from my wisdom: it comes from God! Eat! Drink! Be filled! Be helped!”
Let me just give you an hors d’oeuvre of how much God says in His word about suffering. There are the words of Nehemiah…if you have Bibles you can turn there, Nehemiah 9:27:
“And in the time of their suffering, they cried out to You and You heard them from heaven, and according to Your great mercies You gave them saviors who saved them from the hand of their enemies.”
Nehemiah, pausing to remind us of the suffering of the people of God, and how they cried out to God in prayer, and how God heard and answered their prayers in the midst of their suffering. This is a book about suffering.
Or, there's Job 2:13, where that author, the author of that great book, tells us that
“Job's friends sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.”
Or, there are Paul's words in Romans 5:3-5:
“More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”
Paul unveils this mind-boggling truth that believers are able to rejoice in their sufferings!
And in Ephesians 3:13, he says to those dear Christians who loved him in Ephesus,
“So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering.”
Now, if you know that verse, you know that I left off two words:
“I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering…for you.”
And, my friends, I want to tell you, I think that from that passage I could not only prove to you that the suffering of the servants of Christ, those whom He has appointed as the ministers of the word, is intended for the benefit of God's people, but I think I could prove to you from that verse and others like it that all of your sufferings collectively are meant for the benefit of one another, so that your suffering, friend in Christ, is meant for the strengthening of my faith as well as for yours. And that means we really don't want to miss a thing that God intends for us all together to gain in our suffering.
You know, I've had so many people at this church remark to me about the testimony services that we've had in the last year. Derek Thomas organized a testimony service last New Year's Eve 2006, and then Jeremy Smith organized a testimony service for Thanksgiving 2007 in which members of this congregation gave testimony as to how God had helped them in difficult times. And I can't tell you how many people have come up to me and just expressed their thanksgiving for those testimonies that were given by the people of God. Why? Well, let me tell you why. Because Ephesians 3:13 is true! It's an enormous blessing to have the blessing of hearing and sharing in the experience of suffering and seeing the hand of God's grace at work in a fellow believer's suffering. God doesn't waste that suffering, so we shouldn't.
And there's II Timothy. Boy! That book has all sorts of stuff in it about suffering, doesn't it? There's II Timothy 1:8-9 —
“Therefore, do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me, His prisoner.”
Paul is saying, ‘Look, when somebody says ‘Your Savior died on a cross! Your apostolic hero is in prison. That, therefore, disproves your religion,’ Paul says, ‘Don't be discouraged; don't be ashamed when you tell them that you worship a crucified Savior, and that your minister that you support to share the gospel is chained up to a Roman guard.’
“But…” [he goes on to say] “…share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God.”
Oh! “Share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God.”
He’ll say it again in II Timothy 2:3 —
“Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.”
He’ll say it again in II Timothy 4:5 —
“As for you, always be sober minded. Endure suffering.”
Or there's the author of Hebrews, maybe a convert and a disciple of the Apostle Paul…[he sure does speak in Pauline theological categories, but he's a lot flowery-er than Paul], and in Hebrews 2:10, he writes,
“For it was fitting that He [Jesus] for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.”
…Jesus made perfect through suffering — that's a mind-boggling thought, that the heavenly Father has appointed the captain of our salvation to be made perfect through suffering.
Or James 5:10 —
“As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets, who spoke in the name of the Lord.”
Or James 5:13 —
“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray.”
Or I Peter 2:19-21 —
“For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if when you sin and are beaten for it you endure? But when you do good and suffer for it, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example so that you might follow in His steps.”
Or I Peter 5:9-10 —
“Resist him [resist the devil], firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.”
Now that's just a little hors d’oeuvre, that's just a little sample of how much this book, this Bible, this very word of God written, given to us by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, how much it has to say about suffering. Isn't that comforting to you? Because we live in a world of constant suffering.
You know, I think one of the proofs that this is God's word is that it says so much to us about suffering. Because the Lord cares about His children, and He wants them to know the truth, and He wants them to be comforted.
Well, finally then, we get to our subject for today: Why me? What are the causes of suffering? Fortunately I can sum it up in three words: Sin, Satan, and God. Is that provocative enough for you? Sin, Satan, and God.
If we were to construct four grand categories to explain why suffering is experienced in this world, I think I could make a case for these to be those four grand categories:
the sins of others;
and the sovereign God.
Our sin, the sins of others, Satan's activity, and the sovereign God. And very often more than one of these things is lumped in together with another, explaining what's going on with suffering in this world.
Two examples come immediately to mind.
David. Let me ask you to turn with me in your Bibles to what you may think is an obscure passage in the Old Testament. Turn with me to I Chronicles 21. This is the instance in which David, the great and godly king of Israel, ordered a census to be taken of the people. Now you might not think that's much of a big deal, because we have one done every ten years in the United States. But if you will remember, God had explicitly told the kings of Israel not to take a census. Why? Because God wanted to make a point that Israel's security was not based on the number of fighting aged males that they had to protect them, that Israel's security was based on God protecting them. And, therefore, He did not want the king taking a census for the purpose of determining the potential size of his military force, because He wanted the king and He wanted all the people to trust in Him. But David breaks God's law and he takes a census. And it has dramatic, drastic consequences for the people of God. Thousands will die. Thousands and thousands and tens of thousands will suffer because of David's choice here. And we read in I Chronicles 21:1 —
“Then Satan stood up against Israel and moved David to number Israel.”
Now isn't it interesting…the author of Chronicles, the chronicler, tells you that Satan was behind this temptation. So in the suffering that was experienced in Israel because of the result of David's sin, we see both David's sin and Satanic activity as a part of the suffering that they would experience.
But somebody turn to II Samuel 24 for me! II Samuel 24… read verse 1:
“Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and He incited David against them, saying, ‘Go, number Israel and Judah.’
Huh? Wait a minute! Satan's the one who tempted David to take that census…but
II Samuel says God was angry with Israel and incited David to take the census. What's going on there? God is sovereign. Satan is active. Man is sinful. David does exactly what he wants to do. Satan does exactly what he wants to do. God sovereignly appoints all things according to His own will. All of these things are a part of the suffering that will be experienced in Israel.
Now it's not fair to just sort of throw that out there and not unpack it, is it? That's why we've got to come back to this!
Job. Let me give you one other example of this. The classic example is of course in Job 1. Turn with me to Job 1. If you’ll remember, in Job 1:6 we read
“Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them.”
Now your head is already baffled by that, and you’re scratching it…what's up with Satan appearing before the Lord along with the sons of God? Then it gets worse.
(Verse 7) — “And the Lord said to Satan, ‘From where do you come?’ And Satan said, ‘From roaming about on the earth and walking around on it.’”
And then it gets even worse…
(Verse 8) — “And the Lord said to Satan, ‘Have you considered my servant Job?’”
[Well, thanks a lot, Lord!]
So in this passage it's not Satan who comes to God and says, ‘Hey, I'd like to take out Job at the knees.’ It's God who says, ‘I see you've been roaming the earth. Let Me mention somebody to you, somebody that I love, somebody who loves Me. His name's Job. Have you thought about him much, Satan?’ And Satan says, ‘Well, come to think of it, I haven't, but now that You mention it, I believe if he were ever afflicted and all the blessings that You've given him were taken away, he’d curse You to Your face, because You’re not worth living for.’ And God says to Satan, ‘No, he won't.’ And the rest is literally history.
In that great book we're told that Job's sins had absolutely nothing to do with this trial. Oh, yes, he’d struggle with sin and unbelief during the trial, but Job's sin had absolutely nothing to do with the causing of this trial. But Satan was active in it, and God was sovereign over it.
And so when we think about the causes of suffering in this world, we first have to think about sin. There would be no suffering in this world apart from sin. Genesis 3 tells us when God speaks in verses 15-17 to Eve and then to Adam, that pain and toil will come into this world because of Adam's sin. There would be no suffering in this world were it not for sin. That's one of the great lessons of suffering, isn't it? Always to draw a line back from suffering to sin, not necessarily saying my suffering is happening because of something that I've done that I'm being punished for, but to learn to hate our sin like we hate the suffering, because there would be no suffering in this world had Adam not sinned.
But then of course suffering in this world so often results from our sin.I think the suffering that I experience, relatively insignificant as it is, is so often because of my own sin. And we know that. There are sometimes things that we do that cause us grief, and then sometimes we're the victims of others’ sins. And sometimes Satan is behind the activity, as in I Chronicles 21:1 and in Job 1:6ff. But over it all, God is always sovereign.
It's very important for us to understand that when it comes to our suffering God doesn't take a step back and say, ‘You’re on your own. This is outside the sphere of My ability, of My competence, of My sovereignty.’ Because if that's true — and so many people think that — if that's true, then in the very place where you need God most, He's not there. Oh, no! Better to be left with those questions in the night — ‘What in the world are You doing, Lord?’ — than to think, ‘You know, I can't ask the Lord what He's doing, because He's not in this. I'm on my own.’ Oh, I'd rather be asking that question in the night, ‘What in the world are You doing, Lord?’ than to think God can't do anything about this because He is not in it.
And you know, it's interesting to me that nowhere in the book of Job does Job ever ask that latter question — ‘Lord, couldn't You help me here…but I know You can't.’ He never ever says that. His question is always ‘Lord, I know You’re in control. Why are You doing this?’ And Job asks that question because God's in charge of everything, and that means that when we're experiencing suffering we have someone that we can turn to, that we can really talk to and learn from, who really knows what we're going through. And as much comfort as we may get from friends in this world — and we need all the comfort we can get — there's no one who knows our suffering like God. And so we're going to learn what He has to say to us in the weeks to come.
Heavenly Father, thank You for this time together today. And we ask that as we cry out in anguish of our own brokenness, “Why?” that we would do so in faith and in hope. In Jesus' name. Amen.
Thanks for coming.