by Terry Johnson

Background Reading:
Romans 8:26-39; Genesis 50:15-21

In 1858, a gifted young Presbyterian missionary named John G. Paton sailed with his wife and infant son to the New Hebrides in the South Pacific to begin missionary work among the islanders. Within a few months of arrival, both his infant son and his wife had died, leaving him to labor alone.

In August 1876, a gifted young theologian names Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield and his bride were honeymooning in Germany. While sightseeing in the Black Forest region, they were suddenly caught in a severe storm, and something that was never quite explained happened to his bride, rendering her an invalid for the rest of their lives together.

In the 1950s the Independent Presbyterian Church of Savannah congregation called a young preacher to take the reigns of a very divided church. He came with his wife and their five children, the youngest only three years old. Within a year and a half, Anton Van Puffelen developed a brain tumor, and in just over two years after he started his work in Savannah the Rev. Van Puffelen was dead.

How do you explain these things? Perhaps just as baffling, how do you explain the responses of these individuals? John G. Patton stayed on the field and reaped a great harvest, later saying:

I built the grave round and round with coral blocks, and covered the top with beautiful white coral, broken small gravel; and that spot became my sacred and much frequented shrine, during all the following months and years when I labored on for the salvation of these savage Islanders amidst difficulties, dangers and deaths. Whensoever Tanna turns to the Lord, and is won for Christ, man in after-days will find the memory of that spot still green – where with ceaseless prayers and tears I claimed that the land for God in which I hand ‘buried my dead’ with faith and hope.

Warfield cared for his wife the remaining forty years of their adult life together, humbly, submissively, without complaint, without self-pity, without justifying a need for his own fulfillment, fulfilling his marital vows, doing his duty toward his wife.

‘Mrs. Van,’ as she was known in Savannah, gentle and meek on the surface, tough as nails underneath, began to teach in the Independent Presbyterian Day School and reared her five children at tremendous self-sacrifice, again without complaint.

What was the key in each of these situations? The key is that each believed in the sovereignty of God. Each understood God’s justice, His mercy, His absolute rule, and each received their circumstances as from his hand for their good and submitted to it.

Still, how do you explain adversity? How do you deal with the suffering that is in the world? Granted that it takes time for our emotions to catch up with our minds, that there are no ‘easy’ answers, and that when we answer the ‘why’ question we must do so not simplistically or matter of factly; yet we do have an explanation for suffering that works and makes room for comfort in the world of pain.

The Problem of Pleasure

From our point of view, much of the discussion of the ‘problem of pain’ and suffering gets started on the wrong foot. As we saw in our consideration of predestination, there is a tendency to begin with the assumption of human innocence. Adversity then is viewed as an unfair or unjust intrusion into the life of one who is undeserving. This is implicit in almost all of the popular discussions of the subject. Thus we regularly question, ‘Why would God have allowed this to happen to such a fine (and undeserving) family?’

The Biblical place to begin any consideration of suffering is not with innocence but guilt. At the beginning of the Bible is an account of what is called the ‘Fall of Man’. It is there to remind us that we live in a ‘fallen’ world, a world in disarray and under God’s curse. The response to God to the sin of Adam and the sins of his progeny is judgment. God promised death ‘in the day that you shall eat of it’. ‘Death’ in a final sense, however, was postponed. In the meantime, life consists of multiple mini-judgments which are visited upon us because of the sin of Adam and our own sins, as previews of the final judgment. These mini-judgments, because they fall short of eternal death in hell, and, in effect, gracious stays of execution.

What we are saying is that each moment that each of us exists on this side of hell is a problem. How is it that a just and true God can tolerate evil and let it go on existing? How can he delay his warning that ‘the soul that sins, it shall die’ (Ezek. 18:4)? The problem is not a problem of pain but of pleasure. Strict justice lands each of us in hell. Anything less than that – sickness, injury, poverty, hunger, or heartbreak – is mercy.

Consider Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ question about the helpless Galileans who had been butchered by Pilate (Luke 13:2). They wanted to know if ‘these Galileans we greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate’. The question is an old one. Do those who suffer suffer because they are more sinful than other people? Can we say that suffering is directly proportionate to sin? The popular answer is to say, ‘No,’ and this answer is correct. We can accurately cite job as an example of a man who was not suffering for his personal sin. Jesus, indeed, says, ‘I tell you, no…’ Jesus agrees with the popular answer in saying that these folks were not necessarily more deserving of suffering than others. They did not die because they were greater sinners than the rest. We expect Him to go on as we might and talk about how the undeserving suffer. Many times, we would say, the innocent are made to suffer in the world. Often, we say, it is the good who are injured and hurt. But, surprise, this is not what He says at all. Instead of saying that some are innocent sufferers, he says that everyone deserves to suffer in this way. He warns that ‘unless you repent, you will all likewise perish’. In other words, it is not that they were worse than others, but this is what every sinner deserves and will get unless he repents. Jesus focuses not on the tragedy that has befallen the few, but on the grace by which the majority are spared.

Similarly, Jesus went on to speak of the eighteen on whom the ‘ tower of Siloam fell and killed’. He asks, ‘were (they) worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem?’ Can we deduce from the amount of suffering people endure, who is righteous and who is sinful? No, He says. But again, does this mean that they might be undeserving? No. They got what everyone deserves but some are spared.

“I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish (Luke 13:5)

Thus, the problem of suffering as Jesus interprets it is not a problem of pain at all. Pain can be explained easily. We live in a fallen world that is under judgment. All of life’s picnics have ants. On our honeymoon, Emily and I set aside a day for the beach. About the time we arrived, it started to rain. Not being the theologian of the family, she asked, ‘Why would God do this to us?’ My sensitive response was, ‘Why hasn’t it rained everyday? Why would he allow us to come here at all?’ She was not amused. Of course there is suffering. The remarkable thing is not that there is pain but there is pleasure. Once one understands the doctrine of the Fall and of the depravity of man the philosophical problem is not that of explaining why God allows suffering but why He shows mercy and grace. As Jeremiah adds, ‘Why should any living moral, or any man, offer complaint in view of sins’ (Lam. 3:29). Any paid and suffering less than the flames of eternal fire in hell is a merciful reprieve from God. I can understand why we suffer. I can’t understand why we don’t suffer more.

Sovereignty and Pain

In previous chapters we have seen that the sovereignty of God extends over every molecule of existence. He has decreed and planned ‘whatsoever comes to pass’. Don’t then, think for a moment that your pain is excluded. When I was in seminary, a very promising young Christian, a Cal tech student gifted with a brilliant mind, was heading for the mission field with Wycliffe Bible Translators. He fell on a hiking trip and was tragically killed. A world famous evangelical theologian said at his funeral, “This was not the will of God.” At a funeral in Savannah a few years ago, a similar statement was made of the unexpected death of a relatively young mother: ‘God did not want this to happen.’ This is also the position taken in the very popular Why Bad Things Happen to Good People. The author lost his teenage daughter to leukemia. He wrestled with explaining how God could have allowed it to happen. Notice his frame of reference. There are ‘good’ (read ‘innocent’) people who don’t deserve to have bad things happen to them. The answer that he settled on was that god is good, but there is nothing He can do about suffering. He can’t interfere. His hands are tied. He is not at fault. He is not to be blamed. We can be sure that He still loves us because He is not the one who did this awful thing to us.

What can we say to this? In our view, this explanation offers no consolation whatsoever and, indeed, is horrifying. Why? Consider the following:

First, if there is a God, what happens must be His will. If anything happens that is not His will, He is not God, and we are in trouble. If there are stray molecules wandering around doing things that He has not ordained, then God has a competitor out there equal to Himself, and He is not God as the bible describes Him. For god to be God He must be sovereign. For Him to be sovereign at all he must be sovereign of all.

Let me see if I can clarify what I mean. All who believe in god believe God foresees all things. Once you give up believing in foreknowledge, you’ve really stopped believing in God. What he foreknows is certain to happen. So when God foreknows a thing and decides to allow it to happen, He does so because it suits His purposes. It fits His plan. The alternative is to say that he foresees things and allows them even though they don’t suit His purposes, which is clearly illogical and silly. It doesn’t mean he ‘likes’ what he foresees, just that He allows it to happen because He finds some positive purpose and reason for it. The good God permits to happen what He permits to happen because it suits His purposes; and His purposes are good.

Sometimes people try to evade the implications of this by appealing to foreknowledge, saying that God merely ‘foresees’ all things, He doesn’t actually will them. But as we can see, this distinction won’t hold up. What an omnipotent god foreknows and permits, He wills and ordains.

Second, events either have God-given meaning or they have no meaning at all. In an attempt to get God ‘off the hook’, people end up emptying their tragedies of meaning, so rendering them truly tragic. It needs to be recognized that you can’t have it both ways. Either God is in it, or He isn’t. If He isn’t, then it is just the devil, bad ‘luck’, fate, or chance.

When I was a youth minister in Miami we experienced two tragic deaths of fathers with young teenagers. One was my wife Emily’s father who suffered a heart attack when she was just sixteen. The other was also a sixteen-year-old girl, but the circumstances were different Whereas Emily’s father died suddenly, this man, the Rev. J. R. Richardson’s son, Dr. John Richardson, died very gradually over a period of nearly two years. The final days were unlike anything I had seen before of have seen since. He died at home surrounded by his family. His last moments were spent with his youngest daughter snuggled up next to him on one side, another daughter at his feet, his wife on the other side, his sons seated beside the bed. It was the saddest and sweetest death I have ever seen. A few weeks later, that youngest daughter came to me and asked, ‘Why would God allow this?’ My answer was to gently say, ‘Oh, but He did, and he has good reasons,’ and then to go on and say, ‘and we cling to this because the only alternative is to say that God didn’t allow this and there are no reasons and it is just a tragedy devoid of any purpose.’ Now what must you do? Trust Him! Say God isn’t responsible, and you remove the opportunity to trust Him.

‘God is great and God is good.’ That was he first prayer that I learned. It also expresses the problem of suffering. Why does a great God allow evil when He could stop it? Why does a good God allow evil when He hates it? Deny either side of the equation and you solve the problem of evil. One might say god is good but not great; He would like to prevent evil, but he is weak. Alternatively one might say God is great but not good; he doesn’t want to prevent evil because he delights in it. Obviously these solutions are no solutions, making either a monster or weakling.

Since Augustine (remember we are ‘Augustinians’), Christians have been saying that god permits evil for the greater good. The paradigm is found in the crucifixion. When man did the greatest evil, God brought from it the greatest good. But the crucifixion was carried out by the ‘predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God’ (Acts 2:23). God was in it; He had ordained it. Likewise, He is in our suffering. Because He is in it, it has a purpose, it has meaning.

Christ and Pain

Finally we come to the answers found in Romans 8. The wonder of our adoption and eventual glorification lead the apostle Paul to speak of the path to glory which is the path of suffering. We are ‘fellow-heirs with Christ,’ he says, ‘if indeed we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him’ (Romans 8:17). Again, he joins suffering and glory saying, ‘For I consider the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed in us’ (Rom 8:18). He speaks of our ‘groaning’ and contrasts it with ‘our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body’ (Rom. 8:23). He urges the need of ‘hope’ and ‘perseverance’ (Rom. 8:24, 25). He promises the help of the Spirit when we pray ‘with groanings too deep for words’ (v. 26). Then comes the crown jewel of Bible promises: ‘And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose’ (Rom. 8:28). The Apostle Paul exults in a God who is in all things causing all things to work for the good of those who love Him. And just in case you might pause and doubt if you love God sufficiently, he adds, ‘to those who are called according to His purpose.’ Machen said of these verses:

…how little comfort these would be in those words if the verse stopped there – if we had been told merely that all things work together for good to them that love God, and then we had been left to kindle that love of God in our cold, dead hearts. But, that God, the verse does not end there. The verse does not just say: All things work together for good to them that love God.’ No it says: ‘All things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose.’ There, my friends, is the true ground of all our comfort – not in our love, not in our faith, not in anything that is in us, but in that mysterious and eternal counsel of God from which comes all faith, all love, all that we have and are and can be in this world and in the world to come.

The ones who love God are the ones who are called. The called are the ones who are foreknown (which means foreloved) and predestined. The ‘golden chain’ is laid out in verse 30: ‘and whom He predestined, these he also called; and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these he also glorified’ (Rom 8:30). Those whom God has set His love upon – who have been called to Christ effectually by the gospel, who are justified and glorified (the past tense indicates that the Apostle Paul seen even this as an accomplished fact) – these are promised that everything has a good purpose for them. God Himself guarantees it.

When I was three, my parents absent-mindedly left my sister and me in the family station wagon when we got home from church hone Sunday afternoon. We played. I released the emergency brake. The car began to roll down the driveway. We panicked. My sister jumped out. She was five – she could do that. I fell out and under the front wheel, and our 56’ Plymouth station wagon rolled up my back and next over my head.

When I was fifteen, I was practicing with the varsity football team that included three future college all-Americans, including Vince Feragammo. One afternoon I ran a ‘quick-out’ pattern, caught the ball, turned up field, tried to evade my defender, and in the midst of evading him, suddenly felt a sharp paid in my thigh. All over the field a loud noise like a tree-branch cracking could be heard and I fell, my leg twisted under me, my femur freakishly broken.

Why? I don’t know. I don’t have to know. All I have to know is that God was in it, and he was working it for good.

Some of you have suffered far worse than this. Some of you have lost children and grandchildren to accidents and diseases. Others have been devastated through the deaths of husbands and wives. Friends, relatives, other loved ones have suffered from tragic circumstances. You have cried out, ‘Oh no, not this – anything but this! Lord why? Why would you do this?’ Perhaps you have grown bitter. You have resented God ever since. You’re disillusioned and confused. Know this for certain – in Christ, though the devil, the world. And our enemies have meant your destruction; God was working all things for good.

Consider the life of Joseph. What adversity he suffered! Think of the heartbreak of total rejection by his own brothers who were ready to kill him on the spot. Think of the grief of being sold into slavery, of forcibly leaving his family and not seeing them again for decades. Even in Egypt he had to deal with a false accusation of rape by Potiphar’s wife which landed him in jail. There was in his life plenty of opportunity for bitterness. Think of all that God had allowed to happen. Robbed of his childhood, robbed of his homeland and family, robbed of his good name, why should be not curse God? But what does he say? He sees the sovereign hand of God in it all. First he tells his brothers, ‘Now, therefore, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh and lord of all his household and ruler over all the land of Egypt’ (Gen 45:8). And a second time he says, ‘And as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive’ (gen 50:20). Read it again. ‘God meant it for good,’ he says.

Many times, even most times, we won’t know what good God is bringing from adversity. That is not the critical thing. The critical thing is knowing that God is good and he meant it! When you lost your loved one, He meant it. When you were afflicted with disease, God meant it. When you were hit with financial reversals, God meant it. He promises to bring good from it. Now you must trust Him.

Do the high Calvinistic doctrines really make a difference? Does belief in the sovereignty of God make any practical impact upon life? I hope that you are beginning to see that these doctrines are vital. Only when we understand that God has ordained our suffering can we begin to make sense of it. Only then can we be certain that He has a purpose in it. When tragedy comes, when adversity strikes, we will not be shaken. Yes, we will cry. Yes, we will grieve. But we will move on confidently knowing that God is on His throne, that we are in His hand, that our circumstances are His doing, and He is working them for our good.

Terry L Johnson

Study Questions

  • How do you explain adversity and suffering in the world today?
  • What are some of the common responses from the world in dealing with the suffering and adversity that they see?
  • What should their starting point for such answers be? Is man really an innocent creature?
  • What does it mean to live in a ‘fallen world?’ What are the implications?
  • I suffering directly proportionate to one’s sin? In other words, bad things happen because you have been especially bad?
  • The suggested response is, ‘Why isn’t there more suffering because of our sin? Why does God show mercy and grace at all?’ How do you respond to this view?
  • If the world’s response (and some well meaning Christians too) is that it is not God’s will that ‘good’ or ‘innocent’ people suffer, how then do we find comfort in times of adversity?
  • What are the suggested two ways that help us understand this problem?
  • What is the key to understanding the Romans 8:28 passage?
  • Does knowing that God has a purpose and a plan, even in adversity, give you more comfort or does it make you bitter? How will you deal with adversity?


Adversity is chapter 4 from the book When Grace Comes Home by Terry L Johnson. Posted with Permission.

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