Updated: May 29, 2018
God’s Sovereignty Holds Sway in Suffering
Experiencing or observing trials and suffering can easily cause us to question God. We can think that He possesses some deficiency in goodness, power, or providence. This is especially true for God’s adopted children, who have received so much from Him in Christ and sometimes can’t quite reconcile that reality with their difficult experiences. Beyond questioning God’s goodness, omnipotence, and/or sovereignty in the face of suffering, some go as far as saying that it is impossible for an all-powerful and perfectly good God to exist at the same time as trials and suffering—that this is a contradiction. But not only is a contradiction not present, the Bible firmly upholds these characteristics of God as perfect and pervasive. God is all powerful (Gen. 1:1) and sovereign over everything that happens in the universe He created (Eph 1:11, Is 46:9-10, Ps 135:6, Job 42:2, Dan 4:35). He is perfectly good and loving (Ps 119:68; 136:1) and cannot deny who He is at the core of his being (2 Tim 2:13). Therefore, He cannot act toward us in any way other than perfectly good and loving. This is simply outside the realm of possibilities given who God is. This means that God is always giving to us out of His love that which we need for our ultimate good. Nevertheless, bad things still happen, and God’s children undergo suffering. How are we to account for this?
Because of the Fall sin has invaded every sphere of this world and has brought difficulty, suffering, and evil. And since the Fall the devil has had power and influence over this world. He is called “the ruler of this world” (Jn 12:31), and “the god of this age” (2 Cor 4:4). He is the adversary of all people who, “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet 5:8). He is only after our defeat and destruction, and yet our inclination is to “follow the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Eph 2:2). Some accounts of hardships, trials, and suffering for the Christian can be directly attributed to our adversary the devil.
But even the devil does not operate apart from God’s sovereign will (Job 1:12, 2:6). He is a leashed enemy who must gain permission from God to do anything. God and the devil are not waging war against one another possessing equal power and authority. The devil only has as much power as God allows and he only does his evil deeds when God grants him permission. This is because God is completely sovereign over the universe that He created and where it is headed. This includes the devil.
But we know that Christ defeated death and the devil through his own death on the cross (Heb 2:14), “God disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in [Christ]” (Col 2:15), and that the devil’s ultimate resting place when Christ returns will be in the lake of fire and brimstone where he will be tormented forever (Rev 20:10). These truths help the suffering Christian to cling to Christ in the midst of trials and know that ultimate justice will be administered at His return. When our faces are contorted and downcast because of pain and suffering the Bible assures us that we can lift our eyes to our loving, gracious, and good heavenly Father who is in control of everything and trust Him.
Circumstantial Happiness vs. Abiding Joy
This idea that God lovingly disciplines His children for their good and can somehow bring good out of terrible circumstances is, however, unpalatable to the average American Christian. I think that many Christians believe that God somehow owes us a happy, carefree life filled with pleasant circumstances and no trials. But the biblical reality is that God does not owe us anything. In fact, we deserved condemnation and death for our sin and rebellion, but God gave us justification and life in Jesus instead. He has already responded to our greatest need with his greatest gift: His Son. And now that we are found in His Son, He desires that we know, worship, and glorify Him as He transforms us to look more like Jesus. Because of this God gives us what we truly need for these things to become a reality. Often the things that would make us temporarily and circumstantially happy are tied to the desires of our sinful nature. Giving us everything we ask for would make God a poor parent who enables our bad behavior by constantly giving us that which caters to our sinful desires but which we think will make us happy. Instead, God proves his love and goodness by disciplining us and giving us what we truly need, which is often different than what we think we need.
The gospel tells us that God’s love and grace has been expressed toward undeserving sinners and this brings abiding joy that endures no matter what the circumstances. Being a Christian does not ensure temporary happiness based on worldly standards but gives us an eternal joy in Christ. God wants us to have treasures in heaven, not earth (Mk 10:21), as well as fullness of joy and pleasures forever more in His presence (Ps 16:11). This is why Paul, although he is in prison, can say “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice (Phil 4:4)” and “…I have learned in whatever situation I am in to be content…I can do all things through him who strengthens me (Phi. 4:11, 13).” This is because Paul understands that “to live is Christ” (Phil 1:21). Indeed, God’s children are called to follow in the footsteps of the author of their salvation, Jesus, whose life was particularly marked by pain, suffering, and rejection (Is 53:3). 1 Peter 1 speaks of various trials that Christians endure which prove the genuineness of their faith and refine it. All of this serves the purpose of resulting “in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Pet 1:7).” One cannot escape the undeniable reality in Scripture that following Jesus is often accompanied by trials of varying kinds. But thanks be to God that we have a Savior who gives us eternal joy that eclipses the sorrows brought on by life in a fallen world.
From the Vantage of the End
Considering the reality of suffering and of the Lord’s gracious discipline of us, we can properly understand and endure trials in the present by focusing on the future. While Jesus is rightly on His throne now the powers of evil and darkness still operate in the world. But they will be judged and overthrown when Christ returns and God’s Kingdom appears in its full power and glory. We know that history is heading in this direction and that the adopted children of God will be with Him forever. Indeed, the New Heavens and the New Earth are our true home. As we seek to lay up treasures in heaven and not on earth then our desires will be rightly ordered, and we will be prepared for our heavenly abode. Our trials and suffering will not last forever because tears, pain, and death are vanquished in the New Heavens and New Earth (Rev 21:4). In light of what will be ours for all eternity our sufferings in the present are indeed “light momentary afflictions” (2 Cor 4:17-18). Having this kind of perspective is what D.A. Carson refers to as “from the vantage of the end.” A proper eternal perspective reveals that if one has Christ on this earth, they have everything they could ever need. Their sinful flesh may desire other things, but God in His love and grace gives us what we truly need to know Him, worship Him, be conformed to the image of Jesus, and be prepared for our eternal home.
-By Kevin Tapscott
 D.A. Carson, How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 117-134.