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First Thoughts

Is God in Control of Suffering?

When suffering comes into our lives, whatever form it takes, we can often respond by wondering, “where is God?” We often question that if God is good, why does he allow this difficulty to come into our lives? Or we respond the other way; we question if our good God is really in control. If God was in control, there’s no way that he would permit painful suffering in our lives.

In our last post, we saw two truths about suffering from the opening chapters of the book of Job. Those chapters teach that even though suffering is Satan’s attempt to destroy our faith in God, we also learn that this same suffering is also God’s purpose to strengthen our faith in God. Satan uses suffering for his evil purposes, but God uses suffering for His good purposes in our lives.

In order for us to trust God through suffering, we must know that God is in control. Here again, the book of Job is so very helpful in giving us this third truth: suffering, Satan, and sin are not outside of God’s sovereignty. Let’s look at each piece of that statement.

1. Suffering Is Not Outside of God’s Sovereignty

The suffering that Job experiences is ultimately attributed to coming from God. In Job 1:10, Satan says that Job is blessed because of God. God gave him his possessions, his family, and his wealth. So when Job says in 1:21 that God gave him everything he has, we know that’s true. And then he says that the Lord has taken it away. Well, as the reader, we know more than Job knows. Job doesn’t know about this whole challenge between Satan and God.

But just before we yell out, “No Job, God didn’t take it away, you are wrong, Satan took it away!” Look at the very next verse (1:22). When Job says that God took away his family and his sheep and camels and servants, Job was not wrong.

The same point is made at the end of the second test in Job 2:10. We want to again yell out, “No Job, you didn’t receive any evil from God. All of that suffering came from Satan!” But the very next line is written so that we don’t draw the wrong conclusion. “In all this Job did not sin with his lips.” Suffering is not outside of God’s sovereignty. God is in control.

2. Satan Is Not Outside of God’s Sovereignty

One of the reasons we can’t just blame Satan for all of this suffering is because Satan can’t do anything without God’s permission. God was the one who initiated with Satan in pointing to Job (1:8 & 2:3). And even when God gave Job over to Satan, God set the boundaries of Satan’s activities (1:12 & 2:6). Satan can’t do anything apart from what God allows Him to do.

Sometimes we can get this misunderstanding that God and Satan are both these equal (or at least almost equal) cosmic powers fighting throughout history, like some Olympic wrestling championship, and finally, in the end, God gets the upper hand and defeats Satan.

No, that’s not right at all. As one preacher said, Satan may be a lion, but he is a lion on a leash. And God reins him in or gives him slack according to God’s own sovereign purposes.” Satan has to seek permission to bring any suffering. He is not operating outside of God’s sovereignty. That’s what gives us hope in the spiritual battle that we are fighting when we suffer. God is in control.

3. Sin Is Not Outside of God’s Sovereignty

Not just suffering or Satan, but even sin is not outside of God’s sovereignty. This might be hard for us to comprehend but look again at the clear statements in Job. Job says he received evil from God, and he didn’t sin with his lips when he said it (2:10). The point is reiterated in the next verse (2:11) when we read about “all of this evil that had come upon” Job.

Some translations seek to tone down the reference to evil by translating this word as “disaster,” but it’s the same word for evil used throughout the narrative (1:1, 8; 2:3). The same word is again used at the end of the book. Job 42:11 describes “all the evil that the Lord had brought upon” Job as the words of the inspired author, which frames the whole book of Job.

We have to reexamine some of the ways we speak about God’s relationship to evil. Sometimes we talk about God turning evil into good as if sometimes all God has is lemons, so he tries to make lemonade out of it. There is a lot more to say about this topic and other verses to look at but just consider this question. What is the most evil action that has ever taken place? We must answer the murder of the sinless Son of God. His crucifixion was the most wicked, evil act that has ever occurred because Jesus (out of everyone who has ever lived) least deserved it. Jesus was the only truly blameless person who has ever walked the earth.

And yet, this crucifixion, this brutal death, this murder of the sinless Son of God, was all planned by God. Jesus Christ was the lamb of God slain before the foundations of the world. Isaiah 53 says that Jesus was smitten by God (v. 4). It was the will of the Lord to crush Jesus (v. 10). If God’s sovereignty did not include being sovereign over sin itself, then there would be no cross. There would be no gospel. There would be no salvation. And there would be no hope.

We shouldn’t be unsettled that God is sovereign over suffering, Satan, and even sin. This truth should be the very source of our comfort and hope. We can endure any suffering because it ultimately comes from a loving Father who has good purposes for us. No matter the evil that comes upon us, we can firmly believe that God is in control. Knowing that God’s sovereignty extends over suffering, Satan, and even sin helps us to trust God. Because God is in control, we can trust God through our suffering. God is good, and He’s sovereign, and He is directing our steps for our good and His glory.

Richard Lucas (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the Pastor of Teaching and He is the co-editor of Covenantal and Dispensational Theologies: Four Views on the Continuity of Scripture.

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