Last Sunday something I said suggested a theological error that I wish to correct this morning. The error pertains to how we should view God’s role in the suffering believers experience in this life. What I recall saying was this: “God does not willingly inflict suffering on His people.” Without further comment or qualification, this assertion seems to claim (or it implies) that the suffering of Christians occurs outside the purview of God’s sovereign will. But such a notion does not comport with scripture. As someone pointed out to me after class, there can be no question that God employs suffering in our lives according to His will. So I’ll revisit my statement later in this piece.
For now, let’s briefly affirm what the scriptures do teach regarding the suffering of believers and the will of God. First we affirm the sovereignty of God in suffering. This doctrine is best illustrated by the case of Job, whom God subjected, through the agency of Satan, to the most grievous and horrific losses and afflictions, in order to glorify His name and bring His servant Job to a point of even greater maturity. Now this brings up another common example of suffering in our lives that God assuredly superintends, which is chastening or divine discipline. We know from Hebrews 12:4-13, that the tough, painful experiences which test our faith are not something foreign to a believer’s experience but rather, a necessary condition for fully partaking in the holiness of God (Heb 12:10). Moreover, three New Testament writers – Paul, James and Peter – view sufferings, hardships, and trials as fundamental to attaining maturity, in the likeness of Jesus to the glory of God. Thus suffering is a given, to be counted as joy, in the life of every believer.
Finally, to say that God does not will for us to suffer contradicts the main thrust of the letter we have been studying. Peter has taken pains to show that suffering is not only inevitable, but necessary and, most important, controlled by God for our good and His glory. He further asserts in both 2:21 and 3:9 that we have been called to imitate Christ by enduring the pain of unjust suffering and by returning a blessing for any evil word or work done against us. This calling to imitate Christ in the manner of His suffering comes from a sovereign God, who oversees the care of our souls (2:25).
Now, back to the hasty statement I made last week that “God does not willingly inflict suffering” on His chosen people: these words were derived from Lam 3:33. So I want to read chapter 3:22-33 from the NASB.
22 The Lord’s loving kindnesses indeed never cease,
For His compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
Great is Your faithfulness.
24 “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“Therefore I have hope in Him.”
25 The Lord is good to those who wait for Him,
To the person who seeks Him.
26 It is good that he waits silently
For the salvation of the Lord.
27 It is good for a man that he should bear
The yoke in his youth.
28 Let him sit alone and be silent
Since He has laid it on him.
29 Let him put his mouth in the dust,
Perhaps there is hope.
30 Let him give his cheek to the smiter,
Let him be filled with reproach.
31 For the Lord will not reject forever,
32 For if He causes grief,
Then He will have compassion
According to His abundant lovingkindness.
33 For He does not afflict willingly
Or grieve the sons of men.
Now it should be clear that the terrible conditions pertaining under the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem were ordained by God by reason of King Manasseh’s wickedness, the people’s abandonment of the Lord in favor of pagan idols and their failure to uphold God’s standards of justice and mercy, in obedience to His Law out of fear and reverence for Him. Several lines from this excerpt say the same. Verse 28: “Let him sit alone and be silent since He (that is, the Lord) has laid it on him.” Then vs. 31 and 32a: 31 For the Lord will not reject forever, 32 For if He causes grief, then He will have compassion. . .” – Clearly, we see here that God is the one who brought calamity and reproach on the one who was suffering.
But what does the prophet (likely Jeremiah) mean when he says the Lord “does not afflict willingly or grieve the sons of men?” In what sense is God unwilling to administer affliction? By examining some other scriptures such as Hosea 11:8-9, Isaiah 28:21 (ESV, NIV), Ezekiel 18:23 and 33:11, and Luke 19:41-44, we may gain a better understanding of the phrase, Hedoes notafflict willingly in Lam 3:33. Hosea 11:8-9, for example, reads (from the NASB):
8 How can I give you up, O Ephraim?
How can I surrender you, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart is turned over within Me,
All My compassions are kindled.
9 I will not execute My fierce anger;
I will not destroy Ephraim again.
For I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst,
And I will not come in wrath.
Hosea bears witness to the compassion of God and His holy anguish over the prospect of releasing the full brunt of His wrath upon His people, so as to utterly destroy them, as He did Sodom and Gomorrah. God would later defer that wrath and place it on His Son, so that as many as received Him and believed on His name might become children of the Living God (John 1:12, Rom 9:26; Hosea 1:10). Again we read in Ezekiel 18:23 and 33:11 (NASB):
Say to them, ‘As I live!’ declares the Lord God, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, butrather that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways! Why then will you die, O house of Israel?’
Though the wages of sin (without repentance) is death (Rom 6:23), even so the Lord God takes no delight in sending even the wicked to their death. Again, in Isaiah 63:7-10, we notice how God wanted His people to worship Him, to appreciate His care and kindness, to return His love. Instead, they rebelled and grieved His Holy Spirit. Therefore He turned Himself to become their enemy . . . “ Yet, when they were in Egypt, Isaiah (63:9, NASB) testifies:
In all their affliction He was afflicted,
And the angel of His presence saved them;
In His love and in His mercy He redeemed them,
And He lifted them and carried them all the days of old.
God, foreseeing that Israel would later doubt, murmur, complain, and resist His authority (Psm 106:7-43) – to which they had assented (Ex 19:8) – still felt the suffering of His people as they endured affliction in Egypt (Heb 11:25). So in Exodus 3:7 (NASB) we read: The Lord said, “I have surely seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt, and have given heed to their cry because of their taskmasters, for I am aware of their sufferings.”
Finally consider Luke 19:41-44 and the lament of the Jesus over the holy City:
41 When He approached Jerusalem, He saw the city and wept over it, 42 saying, If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes. 43 For the days will come upon you when your enemies will throw up a barricade against you, and surround you and hem you in on every side, 44 and they will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.
Jesus foresaw the destruction of Jerusalem and the horrors that its denizens would experience. Feeling the pathos and sting of the City’s rejection of the Holy One of Israel, who embodied their salvation, Luke records that Jesus wept (Jn 11:35). The adamant refusal the nation to recognize Him brought the Son of God to tears. There are historical instances of human tragedy that seem difficult to assign to God as their sovereign instigator. But the concern of 1 Peter regarding our sufferings is that we continue to do good and trust in a faithful Creator, who will vindicate us as He did His Son, if not now, then on the Day of Visitation (4:19, 3:16-22, 2:12).
Perhaps now we can better interpret Lam 3:33, when Jeremiah declares of God: “For He does not afflict willingly or grieve the sons of men.” It is not that our afflictions reside outside the realm of God’s sovereign will. Rather this verse reminds us that we do not have a callous or unfeeling God, who administers discipline or punishment without pity or concern for the effects those sufferings may have on His beloved children. And whatever the reason for the affliction – personal sin (Mark 2:3-5), maybe a birth defect (Mk 3:1-2), perhaps the contraction of an infectious disease (Luke 5:12-13), or to display the glory of God through His Son (John 9:1-3) – our Lord was prepared to heal any who needed the compassionate touch of his power (Lk 8:43-48). Moreover, there are many scriptures akin to Psalm 34:6 & 18, which says: This poor man called and the Lord heard him; He saved him out of all his troubles . . . The Lord is close to the broken hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.
Are troubles and trials part of God’s plan for you and me? Undoubtedly, since many are the afflictions of the righteous (Psm 34:19), and all those who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution (2 Tim 3:12). Suffering for Jesus sake also prepares us to share God’s holiness (Heb 12:10 – the hardness of divine discipline) and in His glory (Rom 8:17, 1 Pet 1:6-7, 4:13, 5:1). The suffering of Christians is inevitable in a world that discounts the faith and rejects the ethical imperatives the gospel. And suffering helps us mature in faith, hope and love (Rom 5:2-5; Jas 1:2-4; Ac 14:22), as we prepare to enter the kingdom of God (2 Peter 1:11) and finish our course with joy (Acts 20:24; Jude 24).
Is God untouched by our sufferings here? May it never be! Rather He chose to take them on Himself through the incarnation, ministry, and propitiatory death of His Son (Isaiah 53:3-6). I close by quoting from Hebrews (5:7-9, ESV):
7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. 8 Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. 9 And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.
Our own obedience is tested by suffering, as we retrace the steps of our Savior (1 Peter 2:21), with faith’s certainty that God will hear our cries and record our tears (Psm 56:8).