May 23, 1999
We may not understand God’s specific purposes for the suffering we face. As Alistair Begg points out, however, ignoring suffering does not work, nor does suffering in and of itself bring us closer to God. Instead, the right way to deal with suffering is to bow under the sovereignty of God’s purposes and see our circumstances through the lens of the cross. Only then can we trust God’s plan amidst difficulty, even without seeing the whole picture.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I’m going to endeavor to address a subject with you that has been lying on my heart and to which I can only pay a kind of fifty-thousand-feet treatment this evening. But it is something to which in time, as God orders our steps, we will return. And I invite you to turn for a moment to the book of Lamentations, and that will give you an indication of what is on my mind. That will take some of you some time just to find Lamentations.
By and large, if people would come around Parkside Church, they would get the impression that here is a group of people who are living fairly well on the level of social life and material provision and probably know little to nothing of anything that has to do with the problem of suffering or the peculiar demands of pain. Such an observation would, of course, be entirely superficial and completely wrong. Because as we have lived together over these past years, despite all of the many benefits that we have enjoyed—and there have been many benefits—we have also known and continue to know the peculiar challenges that life brings. And we might say that we have known this to a peculiar degree in relationship to certain areas of both illness and the loss of loved ones. And through it all, we have never really addressed this whole question of suffering in the life of a believer.
And I want to take just a cursory glance at it this evening, because as I say, it has been something that I’ve been mulling over in my mind for some time, and we will need to get to and give it some faithful scrutiny as time allows. But I want simply to draw our attention to it this evening. And it will be immediately clear that we could stop at various points and camp, but we won’t. I want to give you just a broad sketch of things. And I want to read further verses that identify the predicament of God’s people in Lamentations 2:20:
“Look, O Lord, and consider:
Whom have you ever treated like this?
Should women eat their offspring,
the children they have cared for?
Should priest and prophet be killed
in the sanctuary of the Lord?
“Young and old lie together
in the dust of the streets;
my young men and maidens
have fallen by the sword.
You have slain them in the day of your anger;
you have slaughtered them without pity.
“As you summon to a feast day,
so you summoned against me terrors on every side.
In the day of the Lord’s anger
no one escaped or survived;
those I cared for and reared,
my enemy has destroyed.”
Now, that is simply to dip into this book of Lamentations. The key verse may well be 1:12:
“Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?
Look around and see.
Is any suffering like my suffering
that was inflicted on me,
that the Lord brought on me
in the day of his fierce anger?”
For those of you who are not familiar with the Old Testament and have not been around Christian circles for any length of time and have never heard anyone preach on that, I ask you: look at it carefully, and see if you think it is descriptive of someone that is as yet to come in the Old Testament revelation. And, of course, your answer will be “Yes, it sounds like Jesus speaking from the cross.” And, of course, that is exactly what it is. It is pointing forward. Indeed, the book of Lamentations is largely pointing forward to God’s identification with his people in the suffering and sin of life, and his identification supremely in the person of his Son, the Lord Jesus.
It’s not my purpose to expound Lamentations this evening, but when you read Lamentations, you understand why someone has said of it that it is the “‘Easter Eve’ of the human soul,” for in it the soul, “weighed down by God’s judgment[s],” is nevertheless confident of his unconquerable mercy”—so that you have what is juxtaposed in the poetry of the hymnwriter:
With mercy and with judgement
My web of time he wove.
And the book of Lamentations sounds essentially two key notes, and the one is doom, and the other, interestingly, is hope. But it is not all hope minus doom, and it is not, mercifully, all doom minus hope. It is both doom and hope. And to that extent, it gives a very honest portrayal of the pilgrimage of life.
The context in which we consider the matter of suffering is one in which we have been exposed over a significant period of time now, in American Christianity primarily, to a form of triumphalism, which is just unbiblical. We are continually being reminded by people that we can have it all now, that if we are able to “name it and claim it,” then we can banish all of the demons of darkness and suffering and disappointment and so on. And if you take a steady inrush of that to your mind, you will find that it will turn you crazy eventually, or turn you into a liar—one of the two. But you will not be able to take that theology and the experience of life and marry it in any way that gives you anything that is sensible.
As a result of that, some of us try simply to deal with suffering by pretending that it doesn’t exist—which is, of course, the position of the Christian Scientist. The little doggerel I always quote at this point, so I hate to disappoint you:
There once was a Christian Scientist called Deal
Who said that pain isn’t real.
But if you sit on a pin, and the point enters in,
You’ll dislike what you fancy you feel.
And the approach to suffering which says, you know, “If you ignore it, it will go away,” isn’t true. It isn’t true! The idea of giving a balloon to a child who has jammed her fingers in the door severely is the kind of distraction tactic which really pays scant attention to the problem of the injury and makes little of the child’s real pain by the distraction of the balloon that is offered. We may endeavor to talk it out of existence. We may be tempted to search for an instant cure. But the fact of the matter is, human experience confirms the biblical record that suffering is a reality that to a certain degree all of us are caused to face.
Now, if we’re going to tackle the issue of suffering, there are certain pitfalls that we need to avoid. One is to engage in philosophical ramblings that are devoid of any theological foundations whatsoever—basically a lot of high-sounding nonsense which stimulates the mind but is seldom able to settle the heart. That is not to say we don’t want to think deeply about these things, nor is it to say that there is never a place for us to test and stretch one another’s thinking. But the idea of just philosophically letting stuff jangle in our heads is really no way to tackle the subject at all. We do well constantly to remind ourselves of what we discover in the book of Deuteronomy, in 29:29, a verse that not everybody will have discovered: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.” In other words, God has secrets. And there are issues in life that he has determined not to make plain. There are unanswered questions. And therefore, to take ourselves into the realm of philosophical nightmare will be no help whatsoever.
We also need to avoid the pitfall of adopting a simplistic approach to the problem of pain, which hurts rather than heals—the kind of things that Job’s friends did when they came out very quickly with all their explanations for Job’s predicament. One of them said this, one of them said another thing, one of them accused him of sin and so on, and they were all flatly a royal pain in the neck. And it wasn’t that they were trying to be unkind, but in their endeavor to provide answers to questions that they didn’t fully understand, they really were just blowing in the wind.
So, we need to avoid philosophical ramblings that don’t have any theological foundation to them. We need to avoid taking a simplistic approach to problems that are very deep. And also, we need to ensure that we do not forget the eloquence of empathetic silence. Probably the most helpful thing that Job’s friends did is recorded in 2:13, where it says that “they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights.” And frankly, they did him more good sitting in total silence with him than they did when they started to talk. Because his great need was for companionship and comfort that was expressed in their solidarity.
Now, if these pitfalls are there to be avoided, what is the perspective that we need to adopt in relationship to the issue of suffering? Let me say just a number of things briefly. First of all, suffering does exist, and it does hurt. Suffering does exist, and it is eminently painful. None of us can have lived life for any length of time without understanding that. There are pastoral incidents and personal circumstances through which each of us are gone that have marked us indelibly for our lives. We will never be the same again as a result of having been exposed to that circumstance. And, of course, that is exactly what Jesus understood was his situation when he says to the disciples, jockeying for position in the kingdom to come, “I have a baptism to undergo, and do you really think that you can undergo it with me?”
And he was referring to the fact of what Peter was then to articulate when, by the time he writes to the scattered Christians of his day, he says in 1 Peter 1:6, he says, “You need to realize that in living the Christian life, we’re going to suffer trials, and they will be all kinds of trials.” That’s the second thing to notice: that while suffering does exist and it does hurt, suffering comes in a variety of ways. First Peter 1:6 says “all kinds of trials”—poikílois peirasmois, multifaceted trials.
Somebody has just come up with this jigsaw. I think I saw it in Britain this week. And the man has offered a million pounds, $1.6 million, to anybody who can do this jigsaw. I don’t know if you saw it covered in the press. And for those of you who love jigsaws, go to it! It would be a great start to the gymnasium fund if you manage to solve it. But the problem is there’s absolutely no plan to it at all. It’s geometric. It’s all green. There is no variation whatsoever! And all you have are just the jagged edges of hundreds and hundreds of pieces.
And that is the very notion that is conveyed in the way in which suffering and pain and evil and discomfort flows into our lives. It comes in manifold ways, and often in ways that impinge upon us in the realm of our psyche. And that’s why it’s very, very important that we beware of saying to one another, when we experience vicariously somebody else’s suffering, that we beware of saying, “Oh, I understand exactly how you’re feeling.” Do you know what a sore trial it is when somebody tells you they understand exactly how you’re feeling? What they’re trying to be is very encouraging. What they’re being is less than helpful. Because nobody understands exactly how another person is feeling. Your wife doesn’t, if you’re a husband. Your brother doesn’t, if you’re a sister. Only Christ does! And the multifaceted way in which suffering washes over the child of God has all kinds of ways of impacting you.
The third thing we need to say is that suffering is inevitably limited in its time frame. It is inevitably limited in its time frame. Again, 1 Peter chapter 1, he says, “You’re going to suffer all kinds of trials. You will go through them for a little while.” “Even if for a little while,” he says, “you have to endure suffering of all kinds…”
I remember on one occasion having surgery, and the doctor said to me—it was local surgery—he said, “If you can endure the next forty seconds, everything will be fine after that.” Some people’s complete earthly pilgrimage is suffering. Isn’t it? Oh, not that there aren’t bright rays of sunshine that fall upon their days. But there are people within the framework of our church family here who have been entrusted with a pilgrimage in life that either has brought to them an illness that will not go away or has given to them someone in their care who suffers from an illness that will not go away. That’s why the Bible says so much about heaven: to remind us that our lives are relatively short. Indeed, they’re infinitesimally brief in relationship to the issue of eternity. “This,” says Paul, “is the reason why we never collapse. Though outwardly we are wasting away, inwardly we’re being renewed.” And it is the prospect of what’s coming that allows him to keep going.
Fourthly, in the pain of suffering, there is the presence of God—not exclusively, but especially. And when you read the Bible, you find that the groaning of God’s people is entered into by God himself. For example, in Exodus chapter 2, it says that “God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant.” It says in Isaiah 63 that “in all of their distress he too was distressed.” Have you ever thought about the amazing statement in the voice that comes from heaven in Acts chapter 9 in the conversion of Saul of Tarsus? “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” This is the ascended Christ speaking! So the fact that Christ is risen on high, is victorious over sin and death, means not that he is somehow removed from the sufferings of his people. So in all of the threatenings and all of the slaughter and all of the beatings and all of the imprisonments, Christ was supremely involved in the experience of his pain through which his people were going. “We should not,” says John Stott in his wonderful book on The Cross of Christ, “we should not envisage God on a deck chair, but on a cross.”
And the fifth thing we want to say is this: that suffering in and of itself does not lead a person into a deeper relationship with God. Suffering in and of itself does not lead a person into a deeper relationship with God. If you think about this, you know it to be true in your own life and in the lives of friends and family. People who have experienced great heartache: there is often about such individuals either a brittleness that is born of a resentful and rebellious spirit, or there is actually a gentleness that is born out of a heart of humility. And those of you who have recently gone through great pain and great suffering and great loss know that to be the challenge sixty seconds a minute. For everything in you wants to cry out and rebel and distrust and mistrust—and yet down that road is only further pain and further disappointment and a horrible attitude. And it is in childlike trust that we’re able to make progress.
Now, the answer to it, in a phrase, lies in our preparedness to bow under God’s sovereign purposes. To bow under God’s sovereign purposes. At the moment, in contemporary theological circles, at the level of high academic rationale, there is a whole resurgence that is about to come down into the body of Christ, both in America and in Great Britain, that is going to argue again, feverishly, against what I’m suggesting to you is the biblical response. And in a number of very pivotal works which are hard to read, there are scholars on the fringes of evangelicalism seeking somehow or another to preserve God by arguing for an ancient form of dualism which says that certain experiences through which God’s people go are not traceable to the sovereign hand of God but are actually significantly and supremely the work of the Evil One, and that there is a great dualistic battle in the heavens; some of the battles are won by the devil, and some are won by God. And there’s a classic book that has just hit the newsstands called God at War which argues this very strongly. It’s one thing for it to be rattling around in the realm of academic theology. It is another thing for it to hit the pews and the hearts of God’s people.
Is it possible to say anything with biblical certainty concerning the purposes of God in the experience of suffering? Yes, I think it is, and I’m gonna tell you what these things are, and I’m not gonna camp on a single one of them. And I think I have probably ten of them. I’m gonna give you ten statements. For those of you who want a little series on suffering, here it is. And for your own further study, I’m going to mention them, and we’re through.
What can we say with biblical certainty concerning the purposes of God in the experience of suffering? How would God use suffering in the lives of his children?
Number one: to develop perseverance. To develop perseverance. That’s what James says in James 1:3: “Count it all joy when you face trials of various kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.” When I tried unsuccessfully to baptize one of those gentlemen this morning, I had the thought running through my mind at some point in it—not a very spiritual thought, but I remembered the phrase, it came across my screen, “You too could have a body like mine,” which I changed to “You too could have a body like mine, if you’re not careful.”
But the fact of the matter is that when you see somebody whose body physically is structured in a certain way, it all has to do with pain. It all has to do with resistance. It all has to do with perseverance. It all has to do with increasing the weight, or increasing the repetitions, or increasing everything that makes these guys make these dreadful, guttural noises that I have only heard but never made. In the same way… (Which is apparent to all.) But in the same way… (“You don’t need to state the obvious.” All right.) In the same way, none of us will become all that God intends for us to be if we choose always to run into the sunshine. Sunshine always, only desert.
Secondly, to bring us to maturity. To bring us to maturity: “Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete.” Remember when we studied in Hebrews, we discovered that the sufferings of Christ were the ground in which his obedience became full-grown. We staggered over that phrase: that he “learned obedience” through suffering. And we marveled at the whole notion: if suffering was the means whereby the sinless Christ became mature, so much more do we need it, then, in our sinfulness.
Thirdly, God uses it to assure us of our sonship. To assure us of our sonship. Hebrews chapter 12. Romans chapter 8: “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” We prove ourselves to be really his sons by the experiences of discipline which he brings into our lives. “If you are not disciplined,” he says in Hebrew 12, “then you[’re] illegitimate children and not true sons. … We … all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live!”
Fourthly, to prove the genuine nature of our faith. To prove the genuine nature of our faith. It’s not difficult to be a Christian when the band is playing and everyone’s marching and everything’s fine. That’s no peculiar challenge at all. But when trials come, when difficulties are to be faced, when sadness sweeps over us like a tidal wave, when we have unanswered questions, when we awake in the night and weep uncontrollably, when our body is like water—it disintegrates—when our heart has become like wax, when our bones seem to be melting away, sometimes all that we may be able to say is “Father.” But that is proving the genuine nature of our faith. ’Cause our Father said, “I hear you. I hear you. No, I understand. No, you don’t have to make a big long speech. No, you don’t have to prove that you’ve got an answer to every question. No, you don’t have to do anything. I’m just glad I heard you call on me.”
Isn’t that what Isaac was to discover in Genesis 22, when with his father, Abraham, he faces the perplexity of that circumstance? And Abraham himself was to discover: “Take your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and take him to a place that I will tell you. And there on that hill, take his life from him.” And so Abraham arose early in the morning, and with his servants, he began his journey. On the strength of what? A deep-seated conviction that Father knows best.
Fifthly, God uses the experience to develop in us humility. To develop in us humility. You say, “Well, that seems to be quite an extent to go to, does it not? Does it matter that much?” Yes, it does! Isn’t it quite amazing that when Paul talks about his thorn in the flesh in 2 Corinthians 12, he puts it in these exact terms? Do you remember what he says? “To prevent me from becoming conceited, the Lord gave me this.” Why? Because our conceit may lead to our total downfall. For pride comes before a fall. And our lack of humility, and our overinflated ego, and our desire to depend upon ourselves is so crucial when we think about the fact that it is only those who continue to the end who are saved. And if you or I are to become incredibly arrogant, dreadfully proud, full of ourselves and of our own notions and our own abilities, God in his great mercy, in order to complete the work that he has begun within our lives, may bring into our experience issues of deep pain—in order to develop in us humility, because humility is the soil in which all the seeds of his grace grow to their maturity.
Sixthly, God will use it to keep us on track. To keep us on track. Isn’t it dead easy to wander when everything is going wrong? Have you noticed how your prayer life changes when you have a visit to the doctor? Have you noticed how the intensity of our desire to call out to God can be altered in an instant just by one little shadow across the horizon? Isn’t that what the psalmist says in Psalm 119? “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but you afflicted me to keep me on track.” That’s why Solomon, when he writes to his son in Proverbs 3, he keeps saying to him again and again, “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline”: because he is keeping you on track.
Seventhly, God uses suffering to deepen our insight into the heart of God. To deepen our insight into the heart of God. Go home and read for your homework Hosea chapter 1, 2, and 3, and the experience of Hosea with his wife, and all of the challenges that are involved in that, and all that he went through, and yet how God used all of that pain, all of that dreadfulness, to develop in Hosea that which would never have been there otherwise.
Eighthly, to enable us to help others in their trials. To enable us to help others in their trials. Do you ever think about the servant girl in 2 Kings 5? I know you do. “Who is she?” you say. Well, I better just check myself. But it’s the story of Naaman, isn’t it? Yeah. So, here’s this girl, and she gets caught up in ethnic cleansing. She gets shunted off as a refugee to somewhere she doesn’t want to go, to live with a bunch of people she doesn’t even like, and to end up serving them in their house. Therefore, in this young girl’s life, there is all the potential for bitterness, for disgruntlement, and for an attitude which would say, “You know what? I don’t want to be here, I don’t like you, and frankly, I’m not gonna help you.” But it wasn’t there. Why not?
Well, it must have been at least in part this: that when she looked upon the pain of her master’s wife and the pain of her master himself, and when she realized all the turmoil that he was going through with the onset of this leprosy, her own experience of suffering had made her empathetic to the concerns of her master. And so she is the one who, in the providence of God, volunteers the information, you know: “If you would tell my master to go to the house of the man of God, the man of God could help him there.” Why would she have such confidence that God’s man would be able to help? Because in all of the experience of her own journey, God had come through and helped her.
That’s why it is so important, loved ones, that ministry takes place in a cross-fertilization way amongst the body of Christ. And thank God for the extent to which it does! But we need to encourage it and develop it more and more. Often your greatest counselor, your best helper, your most empathetic ear will not be in the call for a pastor—not because the pastor isn’t there to help but because he’s not the best one to help. Remember to look around where you’re sitting on the Lord’s Day. Take a moment to look into each other’s eyes. Take a moment to put our hand on the shoulder and say, “How are you really? Is there anything that we can pray about? Is there anything that we can enter into your life with you for?” You’d be amazed how much time you will be enabled to give over to these concerns. And the journeys through which God has brought you, he is using to enable you to help others in your trials.
Penultimately, he uses suffering to reveal what we really love. To reveal what we really love. Death and illness clarify things in a way that nothing else does. There is no question of that. The onset of significant illness, the prospect of impending death, or the experience of the death of a loved one, suddenly or over a prolonged period of time, reveals in the experience of the sufferer and in those who are the caregivers what we really love. In Deuteronomy 13:3, Moses says, “The Lord … is testing you to [see] whether you love him with all your heart.”
And finally, God will use the experience of suffering in the lives of his children in order ultimately to display his glory. Isn’t that the whole story of Joseph? Who would have thought that you could get yourself in such a mess over something as trivial as a coat? Who would have thought that such hatred, such animosity, such jealous, putrefying rage could spill out from those things, and all the other experience through which Joseph went on his pilgrimage? And then he turns at the end of it all, and he says, “You intended this for evil, but God intended it for good.”
I do not know what lies ahead,
The way I cannot see;
[But] one stands near to be my guide,
[And] he’ll show the way to me.
I know who holds the future,
And [he] guide[s] me with his hand;
With God things [just don’t] happen,
Everything by him is planned.
So as I face tomorrow,
With its problems large and small,
[I will] trust the God of miracles,
[And] give to him my all.
Suffering. Some thoughts at sixty thousand feet.
Let us pause in a moment of prayer:
Father, how many heartaches are hidden behind our smiles? How many deep and grievous wounds are concealed by our laughter? We don’t want to become maudlin, Lord. We don’t want to go around trying to show how disciplined and mature and empathetic and growing we are by the length of our faces. But we certainly do not want to appear flippant, smug, self-satisfied, triumphalistic in the face of some of the deepest questions and darkest moments of our human pilgrimage.
Forgive us for presenting to the world a God who is on a deck chair by trying to make it seem that everything is fine always, so that anybody who knows that they are not fine feels somehow that they’ve done something dreadfully wrong, because if it was right, then they would be fine. Help us never to try and understand the sufferings of our lives except viewed through the prism of the cross of your dearly beloved Son, so that we may be overwhelmed by his amazing love.
Come, then, to our hearts tonight, we pray, and touch us at our point of most significant pain: wounds that we may never have surfaced, that we may never have given over to you—sadnesses, regrets. Enable us, Lord, to cast our burdens afresh upon you tonight, and help us to learn what it means to care and to be cared for. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
 John A. Huffman Jr., Joshua, The Preacher’s Commentary 6, ed. Lloyd J. Ogilvie (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1986).
 Anne R. Cousin, “The Sands of Time Are Sinking” (1857).
 Job 2:13 (NIV 1984).
 Luke 12:50 (paraphrased).
 1 Peter 1:6 (paraphrased).
 1 Peter 1:6 (paraphrased).
 2 Corinthians 4:16 (paraphrased).
 Exodus 2:24 (NIV 1984).
 Isaiah 63:9 (NIV 1984).
 Acts 9:4 (NIV 1984).
 John Stott, The Cross of Christ, 20th anniv. edition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006), 321.
 James 1:2–3 (paraphrased).
 James 1:4 (NIV 1984).
 Hebrews 5:8 (NIV 1984).
 Romans 8:37 (NIV 1984).
 Hebrews 12:8–9 (NIV 1984).
 Genesis 22:2 (paraphrased).
 2 Corinthians 12:7 (paraphrased).
 See Proverbs 16:18.
 See Matthew 24:13.
 Psalm 119:67 (paraphrased).
 Proverbs 3:11 (NIV 1984).
 2 Kings 5:3 (paraphrased).
 Genesis 50:20 (paraphrased).
 Alfred B. Smith, “I Do Not Know What Lies Ahead” (1958).
Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.