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    Feb 01, 2020

    Class 1: The Problem of Suffering & the Bible’s Answer

    Series: Suffering

    Category: Core Seminars, Death & Dying, Suffering, Apologetics, The Problem of Evil, Sin, Sovereignty of God, The Holiness of God, The End Times / Return of Christ, The Gospel, Imputed and Original Sin, Indwelling Sin, Nature of Sin, The Fall


    Suffering for the Glory of God – Class #1

    The wisdom of God and a call to trust

    1. Introduction

    As a Christian, this life is your last chance to suffer.  In a few short years you will be in a place that is beyond suffering.  Beyond sin.  Beyond brokenness.  At that time you will understand all that God has done and in your heart of hearts you will know it to be good.  As a Christian, for the vast majority of your existence, you will live by sight and not by faith.  But that’s not how it is now, is it?  In 1 Corinthians 13:12, Paul says that one day, “…we shall see face to face” and “…know fully”, but “now we see in a mirror dimly,” and know only “…in part.”  So, there will come a time when…we will live by sight.  But now…we live by faith.  Then…we will understand.  But now…we often don’t.  We grieve and lament--how can God be both good and sovereign and yet have allowed these things to happen to me, to my family and friends, to that people…?

    The Christian life is caught up in this tension—between our experience and its apparent conflict with God’s character as claimed in the Bible.  And living in this tension is a challenge, isn’t it?  If you live long enough, you will face trials and adversity—you will suffer.  You will feel the effects of aging, you will get sick, you will watch a loved one die.  You will endure the constant fight against sin, disappointment and loss that ravages your soul, along with fear, worry, and stress.  Add to it all the effects of war, racism, unemployment, poverty, abuse, corruption, persecution…, and the idea of suffering seems enough to overcome any faith.

    Or is it?  Suffering is a challenge—and it is a challenge to faith.  But it is also an opportunity for faith and to grow faith.  In fact, this life is your last opportunity to please God through faith.  The Bible very self-consciously never provides an explanation for all suffering.  In fact, if you were to wade into Scripture and study what God says about the cost of following him—the cost of discipleship, you would see that we should expect suffering. 

    So, when the bible grapples with suffering it calls us to faith.  But not a blind faith that trusts simply to trust—but a faith grounded in the historical evidence of God’s working in this world and in his promises.  And it is that faith that is the goal of this class.

    Remember, and I can’t stress this enough, this life is your last opportunity to live by faith, and your last opportunity to use the trials God brings your way to show how great he is.  We pray that God would use this class to that end—to create and grow faith in Him[1] as we listen in to His promises—that we as His church may suffer well to His glory.  1 Peter 4:12 urges us to “…not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you.”  We are less surprised by something if we’ve prepared for it.  This class is here so we can be prepared.


    1. Class overview - where we are headed

    So how are we going to do that?  Look at the class schedule on the back of your handout.  Weeks 1-4 establish a Biblical framework for suffering.  In the weeks that follow, we’ll apply that framework.  And ultimately, as you can see in the title of class 9, our goal is an ambitious one—suffering as witness.  This is not just a class on surviving, but a class to prepare us to use suffering to joyfully bring honor and glory to our king in a way that is dramatically compelling to those around us.  As Peter puts it in 1 Peter 2:12, writing to the suffering church, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”  A Christian, suffering within the control of a sovereign God, desiring to conduct himself in such a way as to bring glory to the excellence of that same God...that is the miracle produced by faith.  And it is our topic these next 12 weeks.  Our lifetime is short.  This “last chance” you have to bring glory to God in your suffering—to lay up treasure in heaven that will last for eternity, will pass in the blink of an eye.  I know that can sound strange.  Maybe you are young with your whole life in front of you…or maybe you are in a period of trial now and feel like time has slowed down (as it tends to feel like during adversity)…but Scripture confirms that this life is short, and we are to be prepared.


    •  The Origin of Suffering

    Now, with this as our goal, we’ll begin today by looking at the Bible as a whole to understand its basic response to suffering.  How do we grapple with suffering—especially undeserved suffering—in a universe sovereignly governed by a merciful God? 

    And so, we’ll start with the Biblical origin of suffering, and then hit the places in Scripture where this problem is handled most clearly.  That’s our outline for the rest of this morning: the origin, and the answer.

    So, to begin with, where does suffering come from?  Go back to the beginning of the Bible.  God creates everything good.  You’ll remember that continuing refrain “and it was good[2] that runs through the first two chapters of Genesis.  No sin, no suffering; everything just the way it was supposed to be.  Then Adam and Eve disobey God and they immediately experience the pain of being separated from Him.  They had known the unhindered fellowship with God but now they hid from Him (Gen. 2:8) and found themselves at odds with each other (Gen. 3:7, 12).  In Genesis 3:16-19 we see the curse on creation because of sin,

    “To the woman he said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children.  Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”  And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.  By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

    Judgment brought physical, emotional and relational pain; judgment even cursed the earth itself.  Rebellion against God ushered pain and hardship into human history and by Genesis 5, Adam’s dead, and we are faced with a second refrain: we see Noah’s descendants living progressively shorter lives and we read, “and he died…and he died…and he died” as we see death continue to conquer. 

    But, of course, the Bible doesn’t end there.  And by the time we come to the end of the Bible we once again see that vision of paradise.  In Revelation 21:1-4 we read:

    “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man.  He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.  He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’”

    That is the end of suffering.  And it’s the end of sin—for in the new heavens and new earth, “Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (Rev. 21:27).  As Don Carson points, out,

    “Between the beginning and the end of the Bible, there is evil and there is suffering.  But the point to be observed is that from the perspective of the Bible’s large-scale storyline, the two are profoundly related: evil is the primal cause of suffering, rebellion is the root of pain, sin is the source of death.[3]” 

    So why is there suffering?  Well, the origin of suffering is sin.  In that sense, all suffering is because of sin.  But does this mean that every time we suffer it’s because we’ve sinned and God is punishing us for it?  To answer that, we now turn to the book of Job.



    1. What Job Teaches About Suffering

    Like a number of the Psalms or other Wisdom literature[4], Job is a book that talks realistically about suffering.  When we turn to chapter 1, we’re introduced to a man who was ‘blameless and upright’ (1:1,8).  He had a large family (1:2), great wealth (1:3a), and an honorable reputation (1:3b).  From an outward perspective, life was going well.  In the remainder of chapters 1 and 2, the curtain is pulled back in heaven and we, the readers, get to listen in on a conversation between God and Satan.  In Job 1:9-12 we read:

    “Then Satan answered the LORD and said, ‘Does Job fear God for no reason?  Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side?  You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land.  But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.’  And the LORD said to Satan, ‘Behold, all that he has is in your hand.  Only against him do not stretch out your hand.’  So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD.”

    In a few verses, Job loses his wealth, his family, his reputation, and near the end of chapter 2, his health.  From these first two chapters, we can make four observations about suffering:


    1. Suffering is Real. Unlike, say, some Eastern religions that deny the reality of suffering and pain, the Bible suggests that suffering is real.  It hurts.  It is a problem.  Some of us in our church have, I think, more of a Buddhist than a Christian view of suffering.  We are so committed to the theology of God’s goodness and love that for all practical purposes the problem of suffering doesn’t seem to bother us.  But if it is no problem, it requires no  And without faith it is impossible to please God.  Which is why Job’s experience is so important.  Suffering is real.  And it is a problem.


    1. God is Sovereign over Suffering – When we look at this introduction in Job, are Job’s trials from God or from Satan? The answer to both is “yes”, but which question is more fundamental; which one really lays the groundwork of our worldview.  Even though Satan is the one causing Job to suffer, he had to gain permission from God to do so.  We serve a God who “works all things according to the counsel of his will.” ( 1:11b).  Job did not have the ‘behind the scenes’ perspective that we’re given as readers – but he knows his God well enough to tell his wife, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10a).  Job knew that the trouble he was facing was “from God.”


                William Henry Green, in his book, The Argument of the Book of Job Unfolded, says of Satan:

                            With all his hatred of God and spite against His people, he cannot emancipate himself [free himself] from that sovereign control, which binds him to God's service. In all his blasphemous designs he is, in spite of himself, doing the work of God.

                We’ll talk more about God’s sovereignty later in the class but suffice it to say that one encouragement we receive in the midst of suffering, one ‘anchor of the soul,’ as the author of Hebrews puts it, is that God is not surprised by suffering and does not make mistakes.  He is in control.  He is good.

    1. There is Such a Thing as ‘Innocent Suffering’ – Though sin is the ultimate cause of all suffering, not all suffering is due to a specific sin. This is a key lesson of the book.  Job’s friends come to him to convince him to repent of whatever sin has caused this calamity.  For surely a sovereign and good God would not allow this unless Job had sinned in a huge way.  But we know that the real story is in fact the opposite.  Why is Job suffering?  It’s because he’s especially righteous!  That was Satan’s point in the first place, wasn’t it?  Though suffering does sometimes reflect specific sin[5], we should take care to not presume we know the mind of God.  Think of the disciples asking Jesus about a blind man: “‘…who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’  Jesus answered, ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him...[6]’” Oh, if only Job’s friends understood that.
    2. Which brings us to a fourth lesson from the book of Job on suffering: our job is not to understand but to trust—to lean on God. The lessons we’ve seen so far come from a fairly omniscient perspective. But think about all this from Job’s point of view.  He’d have been completely in the dark as to why this was happening.  Why was God doing this?  What was going on?  At one point, Job had wanted an interview with God: “Oh, that I had one to hear me! (Here is my signature!  Let the Almighty answer me!)  Oh, that I had the indictment written by my adversary!” (Job 31:35).  He had come to God demanding that God explain himself.  Well . . . what happens when he gets his meeting? 


    Chapter 38, God breaks His silence and says to Job, “Who is this that darkens my counsel by words without knowledge?  Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me” (Job 38:2-3).  What follows then is a barrage of questions, each reminding Job that he is not God. 

    • Job 38:4 - “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.”
    • Job 38:12 - “Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place,”
    • Job 38:22-23 “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow or have you seen the storehouses of the hail, which I have reserved for the time of trouble, for the day of battle and war?”
    • Job 38:31-32 “Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades or loose the cords of Orion? Can you lead forth the Mazzaroth in their season, or can you guide the Bear with its children?”
    • Job 40:2 “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it.”


    • Job 40:8b “Will you condemn me that you may be in the right?”

    Why does God seem so harsh?  It’s not because Job sinned.  God makes that quite clear (42:7).  But Job’s insistence that God explain himself is, as God terms it, “condemning me to justify yourself.”  Not only does God not explain himself to Job, he is emphatic that in no way does Job deserve an explanation, or will he ever get an explanation. 

    God is God and Job is not.  God is to be worshipped, not questioned in such a way that would accuse him of injustice.  Can we ask “why?” or “how long?”  Certainly!  We see those themes shot through the Psalms.  But always within a framework of trust.  As Creator, God had an infinitely better perspective than Job’s and is infinitely wiser[7].  And we shouldn’t forget how Job chapter 38 ends and 39 begins; God is not just the creator.  We also see he is the one who knows not only with cerebral head knowledge, but with loving, personal care and oversight.

    • Job 39 “Do you know when the mountain goats give birth? Do you observe the calving of the does?  Can you number the months that they fulfill, and do you know the time when they give birth, when they crouch, bring forth their offspring, and are delivered of their young?”

    And so, Job’s right response to God is not a cry of understanding, but of repentance.  “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:5-6). 

    This is a critical insight that Job offers us on the topic of suffering.  There are some things we simply won’t understand because we are not God.  (Parents see a shadow of this with their own kids.)  Far from being a ‘cop-out’ answer to a difficult question, it is recognition that we don’t worship a God who we can put in our little box – He is a God whom “heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain” (2 Chron. 6:18b).  No.  What we learn from Job is that our call is not to rely on our understanding of a situation, but to trust God, this is faith[8].  Job sets up a pattern that holds through the rest of the Bible: God does not often explain our suffering.  Instead, he calls us to trust him despite that lack of understanding.

    But how can we trust Him?  Are we called to a blind trust?  “Sure, the book of Job makes logical sense.  God’s God.  I’m not.  But is that all there is?  I’m called to faith, not to understanding—but Lord, I feel I need more than that.  Help me to trust!”

    Well, for Job that’s all there was.  The evidence that Job had of God’s trustworthiness came from what he could see of God’s character as revealed in creation.  It’s true.  Go, look out the window, marvel at what God has made, and then on that evidence trust him with your trials and suffering.  But it is hard.  Job had amazing faith.  In God’s kindness, though, he’s given us much more evidence for our faith.  And we see that as we look through the rest of the Bible.


    1. The Rest of the Bible

    As the books of the Bible progress from beginning to end, we see God’s purposes in suffering—and evidence for our faith—come into sharper focus.  So let’s walk through that evidence.

    In Exodus, God chose to enter onto the international stage.  And when he enters, Israel has been enslaved in Egypt for 400 years.  The words of Joseph, who led them there, seem almost mockery by that point in time: “what you intended for evil, God intended for good.”  How can 400 years of slavery possibly be intended for good?  But as God tells Pharaoh directly (9:16), all this is happening “that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”  And so single-handedly, God lays waste to the nation of Egypt and leads his people out.  He leads them into a dead-end: caught between the Red Sea on one side and the pursuing army of Egypt on the other—and then parts the sea, saves his people, and destroys the mightiest army on earth.  God leaves the pagan nations in such awe that the Philistines are still talking about these events in 1 Samuel—hundreds of years later[9].  And so in the Exodus God’s people see what Job never did: that God can use their suffering to proclaim his might to the nations.

    Naomi: From international drama, then, let’s move to the little book of Ruth.  God has shown himself to use great national crises for good—but what about the life of a poor widow?  The book is set up as a test of Naomi’s accusation against God: “The Almighty has made my life very bitter.”  But, by the end of the book God has lavished mercy on Naomi, his accuser—and we see how his blessing in producing King David has gone far beyond what even Naomi could ever have dreamed.

    Habakkuk: Next on our tour comes the prophet Habakkuk—who presents the most concise treatment of the problem of suffering in all of the Bible.  Habakkuk complains to God that he allows the wicked to triumph over the righteous.  God’s answer?  Don’t worry: I’m going to judge the nation through the Babylonians.  Which is even worse, isn’t it?  And just like with Job, God’s answer to Habakkuk’s complaining of innocent suffering is not an explanation but a call to trust.  Habakkuk 2:20--“But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.”  And yet unlike in Job or Exodus or Ruth, by the time we get to Habakkuk, God gives us his grand purpose statement for all of history.  Chapter 2, verse 14: “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.”

    God is working all things out for his glory.  There is a strong purpose undergirding all that he does.  Just like the Exodus, or a shepherd killing a giant, or the defeat of a hundred and eighty-five thousand of Assyria while the people slept, God is sculpting history precisely so that only a divinity of infinite strength could rescue.  And then he does.  And that is exactly the point.  The glory is God’s.  And so with such evidence pointing to God’s ability to make good on his ultimate purpose statement, Habakkuk is called to trust.  As we read in 2:4, “…the righteous shall live by his faith.”  Our posture is not one of questioning, but one of trust.

    And that’s what Habakkuk does.  Some of the most beautiful verses in all the Bible are at the end of chapter 3:

    “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.” (3:17-18). 

    How on earth can he say that?  Because he trusts God’s better purposes.

    But, of course, God isn’t finished.  Job: don’t question God but trust him.  Exodus: God can turn great tragedy into great good.  Naomi: even at an individual level.  Habakkuk: because everything he does is for one great, ultimate good—the proclamation of his glory to the nations.  And that brings us to the New Testament.  Where we see that everything he does is not merely for his glory—but also for our good.

    The Cross: There, on the cross of Jesus Christ, God uses the most unjust suffering in the history of the universe—for the grandest of purposes.  Exhibit A in the foundation of our faith is the suffering God inflicted on his own son—the suffering that we deserved—so that we could be counted as righteous.  Evil—harnessed for God’s glory.  And, as we read in Romans 8:28, for our good.  “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

    And in this life, that’s what we have: the problem of suffering, a call to faith, and evidence to bolster that faith.  But that’s not where history ends.  Let’s make one final stop in our tour of the Bible: the book of Revelation.

    Revelation: Because at the end of time—and the beginning of eternity—there is no more tension.  There is no more faith.  As the angels sing in Revelation 15:3b-4:

    “Great and amazing are your deeds,
       O Lord God the Almighty!
    Just and true are your ways,
       O King of the nations!
    Who will not fear, O Lord,
       and glorify your name?
    For you alone are holy.
    All nations will come
       and worship you,
    for your righteous acts have been revealed.”

    Did you notice that past tense in the last phrase?  “All nations will come and worship you for your righteous acts have been revealed.”  Today, we don’t always understand why God does what he does.  It’s painful.  It tries the soul.  But on that day, when all nations come, all His righteous actions will have been revealed!

    For the next 12 weeks we are going to consider suffering.  After this introduction I hope you see how this study is equally, even more fundamentally, a study on trusting God—on faith.  Richard Sibbes, in The Bruised Reed, said, “Nothing is so certain, as that which is certain after doubts.  Shaking [trials and suffering] settles and roots.”  And so we “root” ourselves in Christ and live by faith.  But this is not blind faith—we cannot follow Christ uninformed or in an unintelligent manner.  We must root our faith in true knowledge and belief.  And we must understand that our faith is not established in a week or two; true faith is the work of a lifetime.  But one day, we all will see.  And we all will worship—because the apparent contradiction of today will be no more.  We will see the truth of God’s ways—and all will be revealed.  This is our last chance to suffer well.


    [1] Rom. 10:17: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”

    [2] Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31; 2:9, 12, 18

    [3] How Long O Lord, pg. 40

    [4] e.g. Ecclesiastes

    [5] e.g. 2 Chr. 26:17-20; 1 Cor. 11:30; Jn. 5:14

    [6]John 9:1-3

    [7] Seeing this wisdom is what moved the Apostle Paul to declare, “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!  ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?’” (Rom. 11:33-34)  And keep in mind that these words of Paul follow on the most painful section of his letter to the Romans.  “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.  For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel.”  Paul writes, praising God out of a painful lack of understanding.

    [8] Prov. 3:5:  “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.”

    [9] 1 Samuel 4:8:  “Woe to us!  Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods?  These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness.”