Most of the chapters in this book originated as talks given at the 2005 Desiring God National Conference on “Suffering and the Sovereignty of God.” The contributors have graciously agreed to convert their oral presentations into written chapters in order to serve a wider audience.
All of the authors of this volume have addressed, in one way or another, the issue of how God’s sovereignty relates to human suffering. But they have done so by addressing different questions such as: In what ways is God sovereign over Satan’s work? How can we be free and responsible if God ordains our choices? What is the ultimate reason that suffering exists? How does suffering help to advance the mission of the church? How should we understand the origin of ethnic-based clashes and suffering? How does God’s grace enter our sufferings? Why is it good for us to meditate upon the depth and pain of severe suffering? What is the role of hope when things look utterly hopeless?
Though some very deep and difficult truths are imbedded within these pages, this is not an academic book. The authors do not write as mere theoreticians, waxing eloquent about abstract themes. No, this is a book of applied theology. Its theology has been forged in the furnace of affliction. Two of the contributors are paralyzed and deal with chronic pain. Two experienced the death of a parent when they were young. Two had children who died in the past few years. Two are currently battling prostate cancer. The point of mentioning this is not to portray them as victims or to elicit your sympathy, but rather to reiterate that they are fellow soldiers in the battle, fellow pilgrims on the journey. Think of them as friends who are taking the time to write to you about what God has taught them concerning his mysterious sovereignty in the midst of pain and suffering.
Part 1 focuses most specifically on the sovereignty of God in and over suffering. In chapter 1 John Piper celebrates the biblical truth that God is sovereign over Satan’s work—including Satan’s delegated world rule, angels, hand in persecution, life-taking power, hand in natural disasters, sickness-causing power, use of animals and plants, temptations to sin, mind-blinding power, and spiritual bondage. In chapter 2 Mark Talbot takes up the issue of how God’s will relates to our wills when we hurt each other and ourselves. If God is sovereign, why doesn’t God stop such things? Talbot argues that while God never does evil, he does indeed ordain evil. He then deals with the question of how we can be free and held responsible for our choices.
Given that God is sovereign over all suffering, Part 2 asks why he allows pain. In chapter 3 John Piper argues that the ultimate biblical explanation for the existence of suffering is so that “Christ might display the greatness of the glory of the grace of God by suffering in himself to overcome our suffering.” In chapter 4 Piper suggests six ways that the mission of the church is advanced through suffering: our faith and holiness are deepened, our cup increases, others are made bold, Christ’s afflictions are filled up, the missionary command to “go” is enforced, and the supremacy of Christ is manifested.
Steve Saint is often identified with suffering, but he points out in chapter 5 that suffering is relative. While we in the West expend vast resources to avoid suffering, we fail to realize that suffering people want to be ministered to by those who have themselves suffered. Saint recounts two deeply painful chapters of his life: the death of his father and the death of his daughter. He believes that God planned both deaths, and that through this suffering God has worked—and is working— untold blessings and is advancing the fulfillment of the Great Commission.
In chapter 6 Carl Ellis helps us to think through ethnic-based suffering under the sovereignty of God. He argues that the body of Christ needs to be a prophetic voice in our culture, developing a more radical understanding of ethnic-based suffering and modeling the true meaning of ethnicity unto the glory of God. In working toward this end, he covers the origin of suffering; the mystery of suffering; the basis of suffering; God’s awareness of suffering; our response to suffering; and the people of God and suffering.
The final major section of this book, Part 3, looks at the grace of God in our suffering. In chapter 7 David Powlison discusses not the general topic of God and suffering, but rather how God’s grace meets you in your sufferings. He suggests thinking of his chapter as a workshop, encouraging you to jot notes and write in the margin, working out the principles. Powlison then walks us through each stanza of the great hymn “How Firm a Foundation,” teaching us to listen to God’s grace speaking to us through its words.
“Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Ps. 30:5). That’s the verse behind chapter 8, written by Dustin Shramek. We can wait for joy that comes in the morning because of faith in our good and sovereign God. But we must not forget that the night is often long and dark, and the weeping is often uncontrollable. Through an examination of Psalm 88—the one psalm that ends without a note of hope—Shramek argues that the Bible presupposes the post-fall normality of deep pain. Minimizing the pain of suffering is a failure to love others and a failure to honor God. Only after we sense the severity of suffering can we truly understand why Paul contrasts “slight momentary affliction” with the “weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17).
Chapter 9, by Joni Eareckson Tada, centers around the themes of meeting suffering and joy on God’s terms—not ours. She recalls a famous line from The Shawshank Redemption where Andy Dufresne says: “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies.” But she acknowledges that hope is often hard to come by, recounting the suffering of her friends and her own pain as a quadriplegic. Though Joni longs for the new heavens and the new earth when she will be able to stand on her resurrected legs next to King Jesus, she also plans to thank him for “the bruising of the blessing of that wheelchair,” for without it she would have missed untold blessings in her life—even amidst the pain. She ends with a hope-filled, stirring vision of that Day when we will experience Trinitarian fellowship in all its glory.
At the end of this book we have included two appendices. The first, entitled “Don’t Waste Your Cancer,” began as a meditation by John Piper on the eve of his prostate surgery. A few weeks later, David Powlison learned that he too had prostate cancer, and he added his own reflections the morning after his diagnosis. Finally, we have included an interview that I conducted with John Piper at the “Suffering and the Sovereignty of God” conference, where I was able to ask him some questions about his own theological journey as well as some of the more difficult issues surrounding the pain of suffering.
Our prayer is not that this book would make the bestseller list or receive acclaim and praise. Rather, our prayer is that God would direct the right readers—in accordance with his sovereign purposes—to its pages, and that he would change all of us so that we might experience more grace and hope. Perhaps your suffering has been so severe and relentless that you are on the verge of losing all hope. Or at the other end of the spectrum, perhaps you have a slightly guilty feeling because, though you see suffering all around, you have experienced very little suffering directly.
Perhaps you are working through some of the deep theological questions surrounding this issue. Or perhaps you simply need to read that others have suffered too—and survived with their faith intact. While the contributors to this book are all united in their theology of God’s sovereignty over suffering, they each approach the topic from a different angle. To use an analogy, there is one diamond, but it can be viewed from multiple perspectives. You don’t need to read this book cover to cover. We encourage you to start with a section that addresses your most pressing questions.
Whatever your situation, we pray that God would use this book to show you a little more of himself and help you to understand more about his sovereignty over and in our suffering.