In Reformed circles, we talk about suffering a lot. Like, a lot, a lot. More than Crossfitters talk about Crossfit, a lot. More than atheists talk about atheism, a lot.
If you spend time on any of the popular blogs, you’ll see that about 20% of all the posts focus on some aspect of suffering, whether that’s miscarriages, lengthy singleness, children dying, etc.
In some ways, this is a good thing. It’s no secret that there’s a lot of suffering in life. To quote Wesley (dressed as the Dread Pirate Roberts) in The Princess Bride, “Life is pain.”
And it’s essential to know that God ordains all things for our good and his glory, that he’s using our pain for his good purposes, and that nothing falls outside of his stupefyingly sovereign plan.
But I worry that all our talk about suffering can distort our view of God, like one of those facefilter apps that makes you look like an old person or an elf or a deranged monkey. Constantly focusing on suffering has the potential to excessively put our attention on one good aspect of God at the expense of other wonderful sides to God.
It’s like when the sound guy at church becomes a little too enamored with the bass, and suddenly every song turns into a thumping, stomach jiggling wall of sound. Everything else is swallowed by those gale force bass lines.
So what exactly am I talking about?
Does God Like My Suffering?
The reality is, what we constantly focus on becomes our reality. When suffering becomes our theme and song, it can start to make us believe that God actually likes our suffering.
That he takes some sort of pleasure in pushing us through pain, like a sadistic football coach who puts his team through two-a-days until the puke. That because God uses suffering for our good, he must take great joy in sending us through the Valley of Pain.
If we obsess over suffering, God becomes a strict schoolmaster rather than a tender Father.
Does God ordain our suffering to make us more like Christ? Yes. Is anything outside his glorious, sovereign control? No. Is God working all things for our good? Yes.
But does God take pleasure in our suffering? Absolutely not.
A Weeping Savior
I’ve always thought it a bit strange when Jesus wept at Lazarus’ tomb. Right? I mean, he knew he was going to raise him from the dead. If I had been there, I probably would have said something stupid like, “Why the waterworks, Jesus? We all know where this is headed.”
But that misses the point of the passage.
Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.
He weeps when he sees the utter rawness of Mary and Martha’s grief. Jesus sees the devastating effects of sin in the world, and it causes him to deeply moved, troubled even. He sees how sin has wreaked destruction in the lives of those he loves and it rips him apart.
Jesus is well aware of his own power over death. He even delayed his journey knowing that it would lead to the death of Lazarus.
And yet he receives no joy from the gut-wrenching suffering of Mary and Martha. It does not make him happy to see them crushed by grief. He himself feels the crushing weight of their sadness.
This is how God sees our suffering. Yes, he ordains and allows it, but he does not enjoy it. Suffering is the result of sin in the world, and God hates suffering so much that one day he will destroy it.
The Puritan Thomas Brooks puts it this way:
God takes no delight to afflict his children; it goes against the grain of his heart. It grieves him to be grievous to them; it pains him to punish then, and it is like death to him to strike them. He has no inclination or disposition to the work of afflicting them…
I’m a dad, and as such, there are times when I must “ordain” something painful for my kids, like shots. Are these painful experiences good? Sure, in the ultimate sense. Did I myself plan these for them? Yes. Do I take pleasure in these events? No way. I hate seeing those I love suffer. It wrecks me.
It is good to believe God ordains our suffering. It is demonic to believe he enjoys it.
A Shift In Focus
Obviously, it’s crucial that we talk and write and preach about suffering. We need to equipped for those times when the doorbell rings at midnight.
But we need to keep a balanced view of our beautiful God. Yes, we suffer and grieve now, but joy really does come in the morning.
Let’s talk about the morning too.