This post is a part of the Sovereignty of God Blog Series going on throughout the months of July and August. You can read about the series and see a schedule of the posts here. You can subscribe to all the posts here.
Jeff is a fellow seminary student with me at Multnomah Biblical Seminary in Portland, Oregon. Jeff blogs at detheos.com (and uses Twitter as well) and is also the Associate Pastor at Willamette Christian Church in West Linn, Oregon. Jeff was the teacher’s assistant (TA) for my Theology I and II classes during my first year of seminary.
A Story of Sovereignty
Discussing sovereignty is like two out of shape ex-ball players arguing about baseball. And not the real game, but rotisserie baseball – a fantasy league. Being self-proclaimed experts on the subject, we can’t actually get in the game. Look at us: we’re old, fat and slow. Our arms are tired, and if you’re like me your rotator cuff scrapes when you throw. Our problem? We’re not free and able. When it comes to God, He is. God is absolutely free and able.
Many talk about God as if He’s merely trying to overcome sin and Satan. (I won’t label these theological positions.) The Creator means well, but either He set it up so His power is limited, or He doesn’t really know what to do. After all, does He really know the future? Is He experiencing the present like we are, on His tip-toes peeking over the horizon, straining to see what’s next?
If evil exists, then where’s God? (That’s the real issue at play when we talk about sovereignty, right? We don’t see the purpose in all this pain.) If God is here … is He good? Powerful? Does He know what’s going on? Does God permit sin, cause evil, or even author it? Where is He in this story of ours?
I won’t be able to answer all of these questions (or any of them, depending on how you look at it). Statisticians talk about needing a representative sample in order to arrive at overall conclusions. When we look at our lives and the stories of tragedy, injustice and sin do we have enough experience to make verdicts on God? (Coming back to that in a moment.)
Dealing with Suffering in real-time
As a pastor I deal daily with people who experience great pain. Not in the physical sense primarily. My own pain is from a fractured vertebrae, an ever-present reminder of my frailty, first experienced 15 years ago this month. And a foot I ran over with my Jeep Wrangler (long story). Others have far worse ailments, including shattered hopes, unrealized dreams, broken families. Those are the greater pains. Tragedies engulf us. Innocent people killed in the crossfire of senseless violence. The dreaded biopsy result of a young mother with children. The little boy enduring radiation while his friends are playing t-ball. The weight of their suffering collides with my heart like a tree bending beneath a hurricane. We are dealing with broken people, a jacked-up world, and really deep hurts. The list is seemingly endless. What resources can we draw from to make sense of all this pain?
Again, the problems are many — not for God, needing to explain Himself — but for us in passing judgment on the Creator. Where were we when He set all this in motion? We lack a representative sampling of data to draw conclusions. At least not enough from our experience living in affluent suburbia (or anywhere else). What do we have? God’s Word. Both written and Incarnate. The Designer has left the Story of His glory for us to know, experience and be satisfied with Him. What’s more, He entered this Story. The Designer willing to become part of His design, to experience the full brunt of the brokenness of our existence. Who suffered more evil that Jesus? Who deserved more good than He?
The crux: God has entered our suffering
So much talk about sovereignty (or theodicy) seems to miss the chief argument. If His attributes were to be aligned (goodness, power, knowledge), we see all three to be all-good, all-powerful, and all-knowing. I’m not imposing presuppositions here — for those are the very perfections God asserts Himself (Mark 10:18; Psalm 115:3, Matthew 19:26; Psalm 147:5, Ephesians 1:11, et al). We don’t make a solid case based on our finite (read: tiny) experience; it must come from God’s words, the Scriptures.
If those are the three legs of this 3-legged-stool (that never wobbles), then the intersection at the top — where the world sits — is the greater truth. (Don’t miss this.) God has entered His Story. All stories have depths of conflict and triumphal resolution. In comes the Hero, the conflict and resolution all centered around Him. The worst of the evil? He received it. The harshest rejection? He felt it all. He was willing to empty Himself of glory, to take the lowest place possible — a slave, condemned to die — and walk through this furnace of suffering as we should. In total submission to the Triune God, the second Person of the Trinity became the one worthy of being called the name above every name (Philippians 2:1-11).
This all-good-and-powerful-and-knowing God, who is above all holy (altogether separate, distinct, and well, whole) saw that it was not enough to be outside the suffering and evil overtaking His fallen creation. At an intersection of transcendence and immanence we see a God who cares. Enough to take our place, bear our shame, and reassert His claim as the Sovereign King of the universe. Compelled by love and for His one glory, He must draw near. He must enter this mess, and He must make it beautiful. How? (I state it again, if only for my own reminder.) By entering our suffering. By turning evil on its head. The greatest evil ever devised was used (permitted, designed, caused) to accomplish the greatest good this world has ever known. God overcame evil on the cross. Plus, the Creator forced evil to serve the overcoming of itself. He made evil commit suicide in doing its worst evil.
The apex of God’s revelation of Himself is the suffering God-Man on a cross, forsaken, beaten, spit upon, and in our place taking the full wrath of God. Oh what depths of judgment vented on Him! Those present sufferings in the physical realm from human hands were but a drop in the bucket of the cup of the Father’s wrath. Joy and love mingled down in His blood, He took death (the inevitable goal of evil and sin) and threw it away like a rag doll. Death could not defeat Him. He conquered the grave. He is the Man — the God — no one can kill. Jesus is the Hero. The Good, Knowing, Sovereign One — totally free and able — did all this on purpose (Acts 2:23). The Author wrote Himself in the script, right next to us.
Entering the Story
I first encountered this Story as a willing participant about a dozen years ago. Having suffered that broken vertebrae – it became the greatest act of mercy I’ve experienced to date. Before I could say God is sovereign (by theology), I knew He in total control by personal experience. God literally broke me, ruining my life for His good. Oh, how awesome it is to live with the sharp pains of grace shooting up this spine. (They are not meant to be compared horizontally with yours or anyone else’s. They were designed to make me yearn for Christ. Not having control is a good thing for us.) They remind me how little I do suffer, for Christ has rescued my soul, repaired my spiritual spine, and made me His. I’m so vain I thought this Story was about me. I can know shout with the writers of Scripture as they proclaim this Story is about the free and able One. The Author has many pages in this beautifully woven Grand Story. If we could only turn the page from our short paragraph we could see His purposes (Isaiah 55).
Fewer people could die. Death could be banished. Hunger erased, all thirsts satisfied. Evil, that which displeases God and prefers all things contrary to Him, should be gone. But how? When? What is it that we are assessing? The God-Man taught us to pray to “Our Father,” proclaiming that His will should be done, done here as it always is done up there. For His is the Kingdom, and the power and the glory (Matthew 6:5-13). He has a plan, the Story’s in motion, and He’s directing it. When we look at the plot, do we not like the conflict before we get to the resolution? How then would we hope for the re-creation of all things? (Colossians 1:15-21) The Creator has a design in all this. Before asking Him to get us out of this, can we ask Him, “what should we get out of this?” Can we hear His voice as He shouts to us in our suffering? “He delivers the afflicted by their affliction and opens their ear by adversity” (Job 36:15).
Every author writes stories full of conflict, before the resolution. Why would it not be the same with The Author? If we take out the pain, the suffering, the frustration, will the end result make us happier and more whole? No, it will leave us with with all white-space on these pages. Nothing would be on the pages of this Story, and we would have boring, nothing-ever-go-‘wrong’ lives. In the end I doubt we will tell God it wasn’t worth it. But without the remembrance of the Story that gripped us so deeply we had to worship.
Alas, the Sovereign King has come. All things exist for Him and by Him (Eph. 1). He calls for our allegiance. He offers our protection — in the ultimate sense (Romans 8:28-39). He longs for our affection. The Father, Son and the Spirit have done everything necessary to make Their joy ours. It will be worth the wait. The pain will be seen as what it is: temporary, short-lived. For those who trust in Christ alone — the innocent (Him) in place of the guilty (us) — our pleasure is eternal life staring at God forevermore. We’ll learn of all the kindness He showed us through the Son, never exhausting of a new facet to behold (Ephesians 2:7). The free and able One will right every wrong and unleash His love on our undeserving hearts. Truth is, we deserve far worse. In a few short seconds this life passes and we inherit the world. The weight (and wait) of suffering will be far outweighed by the glory to be revealed (Romans 8:17ff).
I wish I could explain how valuable this pain is, for it makes God my Treasure. I pray He is yours. Enter His script, and let’s together worship the only One worthy. He alone is sovereign. He wrote the Story.