On Sovereignty and Suffering

I recently spoke to someone the other day, and I just felt as though I had to share this conversation. It was amazingly inspirational. For obvious reasons, or at least, what will be obvious reasons, I won’t give any of the names of those involved, but I wanted to share this conversation and this man’s story, because there is so much that can be gleaned from it. It is a perfect image of the sovereignty of God and how He can work through the very things that we despise. See, far too often, we tend to allow our current circumstances to interfere with His far greater (larger) plan for our lives. So often, we neglect the admonishment from Scripture that “all things work together for good for them that love God.” (Romans 8:28). So often, we forget the words that Peter penned as a valuable lesson to all those who believe; “add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, to brotherly kindness love…for he who lacks these things is so short-sighted he becomes blind.” (2 Peter 1:5-9). So often, when our circumstances become unfavorable, that becomes us. We focus on what is directly in front of us, what is immediate in our lives, that we neglect what is awaiting on the horizon. When trials come, our prayers immediately become to be freed from the perils of the trial, rather than (as Solomon prayed) for the wisdom to learn from those trials.

This conversation that I am writing about. I spoke to a man whose mother had recently fallen asleep in the Lord. My own mother having just reposed last July, I could fully understand what he was going through. He told me that his mother had been struggling, fighting against cancer which was overtaking her, and eventually, she surrendered the fight and fell asleep. This man, he told me that none of his brothers were around, so it was basically just him and his family with her throughout this entire struggle. And I thought about the response that so many of us would have in this exact situation. So many of us would be given over to despair and despondency, anger. So many of us in this exact situation would be given to contend with God that “it’s not fair,” cursing and blaming God for the pain that we are enduring and the pain that she also had endured during this struggle.

Well, less than a year later, his 16 month old son was also diagnosed with cancer. As I spoke to this man, tears welling in his eyes, he spoke to me of the thankfulness that he felt in his heart for his mother’s struggles, as those struggles helped to prepare him for the battle that he and his family were about to endure for his son’s sake. He was telling me how he could see God’s hand in all of it. Rather than becoming jaded, as so oft so many of us would, he rather was thankful for his mother’s struggles, because it prepared him for the physical, emotional, and spiritual onslaught that he was going to face throughout his son’s fight; knowing that he would have to lead his family through this battle. He knew and recognized the symptoms because he had just been through all of it with his mother, and having added knowledge to virtue, he was fully forged and prepared for the trials that they were about to face.

It made me consider how often we face similar trials in our lives and how we respond. How often do we encounter a trial and respond in faith, knowing that the Lord has done what He has done for a reason, even one we may neither understand nor like. I think of the life of Job who, we read, having just lost his children, his possessions, his livelihood, “arose, tore his robe, and shaved the hair off of his head; and he fell to the ground and worshiped.” (Job 1:20). See, I think how often we read passages like that in Scripture and somehow feel “disconnected” from them, distant, as though we are reading some pop culture fan-fiction. As though these stories were some great ideal to which we could never attain. And yet, here is this gentleman, right before my eyes, telling me about his current situation, and his response is exactly what I would expect to read about in the lives of the saints from the Scripture.

It was truly the best image of God’s sovereignty I’ve ever seen outside of the Holy Scripture. I look at it from the same viewpoints; did it hurt him to lose his mother? Of course it did, losing a parent is one of the single hardest things that any man will ever experience. But, how we respond to that loss makes all of the difference. When we’re in the midst of the trial, do we pray for that person’s healing? Do we vainly pray that the Lord’s will be done (vainly because His will will be done, and us praying it is redundant)? Or do we pray for the strength to endure and the wisdom to learn and grow from the experience? To, as this man did, add virtue to faith and knowledge to virtue.

It was the image of God’s plan for our lives in that, while it wasn’t the “wonderful plan” that so many love to use to lasso people into the faith, it was a plan that served a far greater purpose than he could have imagined when it began. In experiencing his mother’s illness, he allowed the experience to help him to grow in knowledge, to grow stronger in his faith. In doing this, he was better prepared to be able to handle the second trial, the illness of his son. Because he had avoided the pitfalls of despondency and bitter resentment through his mother’s illness, he was better prepared to handle the second trial of his son’s illness, better able to lead and support his family through this trial.

And what happens when that happens? He is able to provide support and comfort for others who are going through similar circumstances. He can use this experience of both his mother and his son fighting through cancer to be a comforter to others in similar situations. And ever just a surface reading of the Scriptures tell us who the Comforter is. Jesus tells us that “the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in My name…” (John 14:26); and again, “I will pray to the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter, that He may abide with you forever…” (John 14:16). A surface reading reveals that the Comforter is the Holy Spirit.

We see here that, through maintaining his faith through these trials, this gentleman is able to perfectly display the synergy of the Lord working through us. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes, “we are ‘laborers together’ (synergos) with God.” (1 Corinthians 3:9). And that is the finale of these trials, to be as one with the Lord. This man personifies this. Through his mother’s diagnosis, he persevered, learned, and was strengthened in his faith. When his son was diagnosed, he applied the knowledge that he had attained through his mother’s illness and was better prepared to deal with the trials, and to continue to grow in his faith. And now, through the strength of his perseverance, he is able to use those experiences to allow the Holy Spirit to work through him, to be the “comforter,” the Holy Spirit working through him. to become through the grace of the Lord what the Lord is through His very essence. To become a true “partaker of the divine nature,” having added to “godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love.”

My beloved brothers and sisters, how do we respond when these trials come? How do we react when we learn that there is nothing that we can do? Do we remain steadfast, trusting in the Lord, when “tragedy” strikes? Or do we immediately surrender hope, cursing the name of our Lord, questioning how a “loving God can allow these tragedies to happen,” neglecting the lessons from the Scripture, the words of our Lord, who tells us that “My counsels are not your counsels, neither are your ways My ways, but as heaven is distant from the earth, so is My way distant from your ways, and your thoughts from My mind. For as rain comes down, or snow from heaven, and does not return until it saturates the earth, and it brings forth and produces, and gives seed to the sower and bread for food, so shall My word be, whatever proceeds from My mouth. It shall not return until it accomplishes whatever I willed, and I shall prosper your ways and My commandments.” (Isaiah 55:8-11). So often, when these trials occur, we forget the lesson of Job, of whom it is written, “In all these things that happened, Job did not sin against the Lord or charge God with folly.” (Job 1:22).

We must remember in all things to remain “patient,” and I love the way the older translations translate this word patience, “long-suffering.” (makrothumei). It literally means “long of soul and mind” as opposed to shortness of mind, irascibility, impatience, intolerance. It’s this idea that, no matter what the circumstances, we remain calm and rational, loving, tolerant, and accepting. When I think about the trials that life throws at us, I often wonder how we respond? Do we respond in irrationality, thinking that we know better than the Lord what we need for our lives? Or, do we respond with this long-suffering, trusting that the Lord has given us these trials to accomplish a greater purpose, and accept that purpose. Do we pray merely to be freed, to be “rescued,” from these trials, or to be granted the wisdom to learn from them; that we may perform the work of the Lord through the lessons which He has blessed us with?

May the grace of the Lord be with you, my beloved family. Christ is risen!

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