Does Our Suffering Come From God?
If you've been coming to this church for any length of time, you know that our normal way of doing things is to simply preach through books of the Bible: we start at verse 1 of chapter 1 and work our way through until the end. (Last week we finished a 4-month series on 1 Timothy; before that it was Jonah, before that it was Philippians, and so on.) We believe this is the most faithful way to preach the Word of God, because (quite frankly) you don't have to take our word for it. You have the words right there in front of you, in black-and-white, in context, so you can not only easily follow what we're saying, but you can see for yourself why we're saying it.
That being said, every year as we wind down before summer, we have thought it a good idea to do a small, thematic series on a specific subject—whatever the church has dealt with the most that particular year. And that is simply because sometimes you come across a subject that no one text speaks on fully. Our first year we looked at biblical manhood and womanhood (staying mostly in Genesis 1-3 and Ephesians 5); last year we saw the intersection between faith and the secular world. Today, we are beginning a new, four-week series, in which we’re going to give biblical responses to the most common questions we’ve received from you over the past year. The first question we’ll be answering is this: “Does our suffering come from God?”
This question is a summary of all the various questions we received on this subject, and nearly all of those questions were centered on our suffering as the body of Christ—for example: Is suffering a trial God sends to us to shape us? Does the fact that I’m suffering mean God thinks I need to grow? and so on. And at the root of all these questions is a common confusion that many Christians feel: "Jesus says I am his, that he will protect me…and yet I suffer. How could that be? If I really do belong to God, why am I still suffering?"
I’d invite you to turn to Psalm 44. (While you’re turning there I should mention my friend John Hindley, an Acts 29 pastor in England, who wrote a wonderful little book on this psalm called Suffering and Singing. I’ve borrowed some things from John, who is able to talk about the most difficult subjects with incredible tenderness and understanding. I can’t recommend his book highly enough.)
1) You have saved us from our foes (v. 1-8).
Psalm 44 is a psalm about suffering, but strangely the authors don’t begin their psalm by talking about suffering. They begin their psalm by praising God for who he is and what he has done for his people.
To the choirmaster. A Maskil of the Sons of Korah. 1 O God, we have heard with our ears, our fathers have told us, what deeds you performed in their days, in the days of old: 2 you with your own hand drove out the nations, but them you planted; you afflicted the peoples, but them you set free; 3 for not by their own sword did they win the land, nor did their own arm save them, but your right hand and your arm, and the light of your face, for you delighted in them.
So they had seen their God act, and they knew their God well. They had seen his love for them in action, when he did for them what they couldn’t do. And they had seen his love for them in relationship: he delighted in them and showed them the light of his face.
Moreover, they continue to feel a deep-rooted confidence in God as their King and Savior—he was not just faithful in the past, but they are confident he will continue to be faithful in the future:
4 You are my King, O God; ordain salvation for Jacob! 5 Through you we push down our foes; through your name we tread down those who rise up against us. 6 For not in my bow do I trust, nor can my sword save me. 7 But you have saved us from our foes and have put to shame those who hate us. 8 In God we have boasted continually, and we will give thanks to your name forever. Selah.
That word "Selah" is meant to mark a pause, to make us slow down and consider this before moving on. This psalm begins in acknowledgement of how much God loves and blesses his people. And this is very important. Try to put yourself in their shoes for a moment and think back to a time where you saw God at work in your life. You prayed, and he answered your prayers; you read the Bible and you genuinely felt his presence, as if he really was there, speaking those words to you. (Which of course he is, whenever you read the Bible.) You were growing in your faith, and it felt as if he was really there with you, all the time, walking with you and talking with you.
Moreover, we have even more reason to celebrate than the Korahites did, because we have seen the full story of how God acts on behalf of his people: how he sent Jesus Christ to take our place in the life we should have lived, and to take our place in the death that we deserve. And because we have seen his faithfulness to save in the past, we have full confidence that he will remain faithful in the future, that he will gather his church to himself in the New Heavens and the New Earth. We are in the same situation, and even better. Think of what that does for your confidence in God, for your future. Because you have seen his faithfulness in the past, you know he will always be faithful to you.
The psalmists begin this psalm like this intentionally, knowing full well where they are going. And they do this for two reasons. The first is that they want to be realistic about what the immense pain and confusion they are going through now—they don’t want to sidestep their confusion, but show it in all its pain by saying that this doesn’t seem like him! The second reason is that they want to model what it looks like to suffer well. Suffering well doesn’t mean not expressing your confusion, as we’ll see, but rather running to our faithful God in that confusion, and being willing to say to him, “I don’t understand!”
So after stating the amazing faithfulness of their God, and their confidence in his continued faithfulness, they come in with this devastating “But”…
2) But you have made us like sheep for slaughter (v. 9-16).
9 But you have rejected us and disgraced us and have not gone out with our armies. 10 You have made us turn back from the foe, and those who hate us have gotten spoil. 11 You have made us like sheep for slaughter and have scattered us among the nations.
This is national-disaster-level suffering. This is husbands and sons falling on the battlefield, wives and children crying before getting hauled off by enemy captors. And what is so painful is that the psalmists are not vague about the origin of their pain; they don’t use the passive sentence, “We have been rejected,” as if hesitant to call it like it is. No—they quite clearly say, “You have rejected us. You have rejected us. You have not gone out with our armies. You have made us like sheep for slaughter.” This is a harsh accusation.
But it is not inaccurate. Do you remember Job’s encounter with his wife? After God gave Satan leave to torture Job, to kill his children and take away all his possessions, his wife came to him and said (Job 2.9), “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die.” 10 But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” These are heavy words, and at this point we think Job has lost his mind. And yet the author adds this sentence, which immediately follows: In all this Job did not sin with his lips. In other words, Job’s right—he wasn’t aware of the arrangement God had made with Satan; all he knows is that God is sovereign over his life, so he could say that this pain, this suffering, which seems so extreme and even evil to him, did indeed come from God.
So coming back to the psalm, given the faithfulness of God in the past, and their trust in him for the future, their suffering is immense. It is not just that they are suffering; it is that the one who said he would protect them seems to have abandoned them.
12 You have sold your people for a trifle, demanding no high price for them.13 You have made us the taunt of our neighbors, the derision and scorn of those around us. 14 You have made us a byword among the nations, a laughingstock among the peoples. 15 All day long my disgrace is before me, and shame has covered my face 16 at the sound of the taunter and reviler, at the sight of the enemy and the avenger.
Here’s the point: there are two reasons why this situation is so painful to them. The first is that they are not ambiguous about where this suffering has come from. They proclaim with authority, “You, God, have done this. You were faithful to us in the past, and you said you’d be faithful in the future, and we still believe that… But still, we know you have done this. And we don’t understand.” The other reason mentioned in this psalm as to why their suffering is so painful and so incomprehensible comes from the fact that their suffering isn’t (at least in this case) a result of their sin.
3) And we do not deserve it. (v. 17-21)
17 All this has come upon us, though we have not forgotten you, and we have not been false to your covenant. 18 Our heart has not turned back, nor have our steps departed from your way; 19 yet you have broken us in the place of jackals and covered us with the shadow of death.
Occasionally, our sin causes us suffering, or it causes someone else suffering. The husband who has a severe hangover because he abused alcohol the night before, and whose wife wakes up exhausted and angry because he crashed into bed at 3 a.m., he knows why he’s having a bad day. And thankfully, for this circumstance there is a wonderful solution, readily available: turn to God in faith and repent of that sin! We know that Jesus’s sacrifice has paid the penalty for that sin, so we can turn to him in faith and believe that he has forgiven us. And while that may not take away the suffering, we are comforted knowing that that suffering is not a punishment for what we have done: Christ was already punished in our place, and his sacrifice covers all of our sins.
So it is true that some suffering is a result of our sin, and sometimes it’s easier when that’s the case—at least we know we’re getting what we deserve. But we have to be very careful, because sometimes our suffering is not the result of our sin. For the psalmists, there is no link that they can see between their suffering and any sin they may have committed to bring it on. This was not like with the psalmists’ descendant Korah (in Numbers 16), who incited an uprising against Moses and whose family was killed as a result; they have no idea what they could have done to bring this about. In fact, they are so confident in their relative innocence here that they call on God to examine them:
20 If we had forgotten the name of our God or spread out our hands to a foreign god, 21 would not God discover this? For he knows the secrets of the heart.
Let me give you a very personal example of this. God has been very good to our church in the last year, in terms of babies—since November, two babies have been born in the church, and two more are on the way. We have been so happy to see this, sincerely. But there's a twinge of sadness here for my family, honestly, because recently Loanne found out that after three years of trying to have a second child, we were expecting too...only to find out the baby had died in the womb a few weeks later. I don't think I need to express the pain of this experience (especially given that because we believe the Bible, we believe that it wasn't just a mass of cells, but that it truly was and is our child, our baby).
Sometimes we encounter suffering—relational issues, or sickness, or miscarriage, or loss of job—that we did nothing to bring about. On the contrary—it may seem like we're doing most things right...and it still happens. Trust me when I say that Loanne and I aren't the only ones in the church who are going through exactly this kind of pain right now. So these words resonate deeply with us at that particular time: All this has come upon us, though we have not forgotten you.
Now, at this point this psalm just seems to be beating us up. We want resolution; we want to hear why this is happening, and how God’s going to get them out of it. But the resolution will not be where we expect it. We expect them to say why they’re suffering: and we know the different things the Bible says—that God allows, or even causes, his people to suffer in order to make them more holy; to build godly character in them; to serve as an example of faith for others, etc. All these things are true and good, and we should remember them. But they are not what we should think of first. Notice, the psalmists never once mention any of these. Their resolution comes simply by knowing that if they belong to God, they are suffering for his sake. John Hindley said it like this: “We do not suffer primarily because we have sinned; we suffer because we are his.”
4) Yet it is for your sake (v. 22-26).
22 Yet for your sake we are killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered. The psalmists do not ponder how or why their suffering is for God’s sake, how or why it could serve him; they simply acknowledge that it does. Somehow, what they are going through fits into the bigger picture of what he is doing—both in them and in the world. And this idea will make no sense to you until you understand two things: firstly, that our own personal comfort and well-being is not God’s top priority. He loves us, absolutely (as we’ll see); but he’s got something bigger in mind than our immediate happiness.
We see this all throughout biblical history. Joseph suffered being sold as a slave, falsely accused and thrown in prison…so that God might save both his people and the Egyptians from the famine.
The people of Israel suffered under slavery in Egypt for centuries…in order for God to show his power and commitment to them by defeating the Pharaoh.
The apostles suffered persecution and martyrdom…in order for the gospel to go forward with power, as a proof that his lovingkindness really is better than life.
And of course Jesus Christ suffered rejection and torture and crucifixion…in order that God might gather together all of his children, give them new life in him, and cause them to know and enjoy the gifts of his glory for all eternity.
Whenever God’s people suffer, God knows what he is doing. He may not tell them why, and they may never know, but he knows.
Secondly, we must understand that though it may seem counterintuitive to us, this is one way God shows that we belong to him. As Paul said (Romans 8.16-17):
16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
The love of God was shown to us more clearly through the cross than through comfort. He sent his Son as a sheep to be slaughtered; we too are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered, because we too are his sons and daughters.
So the fact that God’s people suffer for seemingly no reason does not mean that he does not love them—quite the contrary. Paul quotes Psalm 44 in Romans 8 to show precisely this. He says (v. 35):
35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
But here’s a wonderful thing. Knowing that it is for God’s sake, that it doesn’t mean he doesn’t love us… That doesn’t necessarily take away the pain of it, and it doesn’t drive the psalmists to say their suffering is actually a good thing. Despite the fact that they are suffering for God’s sake, they feel no qualms about making an appeal to his help to take them out of it:
23 Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever! 24 Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? 25 For our soul is bowed down to the dust; our belly clings to the ground.
So this is the picture: a people utterly devastated, suffering immensely, and knowing that their faithful God, in whom they trust and whom they celebrate, was behind it. So what do they do? They tell him their suffering, in all its brutality and rawness; they ask him to help, like a child begging his father for relief; and lastly, they appeal to his love, looping back to the beginning of the psalm, appealing to the God they know is faithful and loving. Though they are suffering for his sake, they remember that when he answers their prayer and saves them out of that suffering, it will also be for his sake.
26 Rise up; come to our help! Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!
It is very possible that many of you are suffering today. I know for a fact that some of you are, in much the same way as the psalmists. Knowing all these things doesn’t take the pain away. But seeing the Korahites’ example does give us a wonderful picture of what it looks like to suffer well—to feel intense pain, and to be confused, but to not lose faith. So there are five things I believe this text is calling us to do when we suffer.
1) Know that God knows what he is doing. Never once do the psalmists doubt God’s wisdom or goodness. They don’t say God is wrong to be doing this, because they know better. They know he is good, and they know that he is wise, and they know that he always has a good reason for doing what he does. They don’t understand it, but they know he does. And like a child sitting in the backseat of the car, who has no idea how or why his father pushes those buttons or turns the wheel the way he does, they simply trust that he knows, and that is enough.
2) Let your suffering drive you to God. Our instinct when we suffer is often to run away, to retreat into entertainment or drink or solitude, things that will help us forget what we’re going through. But we should be running in the other direction. The psalmists are suffering at God’s hands, yet they know their only refuge is in his hands; being far from him would be even worse than whatever they’re suffering now. So if you’re suffering, let that suffering drive you to God rather than from away from him.
3) Remind yourself of what is true. Though they do not directly address the fact that God works in us through our suffering, they model it: when we suffer, rather than wallowing in self-pity, they get to work, running through the exercise of praising God for who he is, being honest with him about their pain, proclaiming that they trust in his wisdom and love, and praying that he would rescue them. In other words, they remind themselves of what is really true—they preach to themselves rather than listening to their own pain.
4) Never doubt his love for you. Suffering is no sign that his love is lesser for you. If he dealt suffering to his own beloved Son, who “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross,” we can be sure that if we belong to him, our own suffering is no sign that he loves us any less. You can pray with the psalmists, Rise up; come to my help! Redeem me for the sake of your steadfast love!
5) Know that Jesus Christ is the only hope in suffering. If you’re an unbeliever, we’re very happy your here today, but you need to know something. (And what I’m going to say will sound brutal, but please believe me that I say it out of love for you.) If you do not have faith in Christ, there is very little I could say to you to give you comfort. At this point, I cannot say with any certainty, at least as far as you’re concerned, that your suffering is not futile. For those who reject the gospel, the Bible has nothing but bad news. What it does say, again and again, is that the only hope in our suffering is Jesus Christ. That’s all I can give you. Not that there isn’t hope—there absolutely is—but there’s only one place you’ll find it. Jesus Christ is our only hope in suffering. BUT…he is a sure and steady hope. So I invite you to come to him—not in order that you may not suffer, but that you may know the God who gives meaning to our suffering, and promise for eternal release from that suffering, in his presence. Place your faith in him; believe in him; accept his gift of salvation; and this assurance will be yours as well.