God’s Holiness in Suffering
A Deliberate Allowance
Epicurus was an ancient Greek philosopher in the fourth century BC. He said this “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call Him God?”
Greg Welty paraphrases his statement into four arguments:
1. A perfectly powerful being can prevent any evil.
2. A perfectly good being will prevent evil as far as he can.
3. God is perfectly powerful and good
4. If a perfectly powerful and good God exists, then there is no evil.
Epicurus argues: Since there is evil, a perfectly powerful and good God can’t exist. Or if you turn this into a question: If God is omnipotent and omniscient, then how can He still be good in the midst of suffering? Before we deal with this argument directly let’s look at the issue a little deeper..
The Bible teaches that God is omniscient and therefore knows all things:
Psalm 139 – he knows words before they are even on our tongue and is intimately acquainted with our ways.
Matthew 10 – he knows the number of hairs on our head.
Hebrews 4 – all things are laid bare before him.
Psalm 44 – He knows the secrets of the heart.
Isaiah 46:9-10 – He declares the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things which have not been done.
1 John 3 – God knows everything.
And the Bible also teaches that God is omnipotent, meaning He is all powerful and can do anything.
Luke 1 - Nothing is impossible with God.
Daniel 4 – nothing can ward off his hand.
Isaiah 43 – he acts and no one can reverse it.
Matthew 19 – with God all things are possible.
Genesis 18 – nothing is too difficult for the LORD.
Job 42 – He can do all things.
This means that God can cause or prevent anything from taking place. And yet evil and suffering exist. This is indeed one of the biggest questions among Christians and non-Christians alike today. How do you answer the problem of evil and suffering?
As believers, we are expected to answer this question. 1 Peter 3:15 says that we are commanded to be prepared to give a reason for the hope that is in us (in the midst of suffering). Paul says that we must “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” Colossians 4:5-6. As a believer, the Bible demands that you know how to give a biblical answer when the world questions God’s power, His wisdom, His goodness, and His sovereignty. You are His ambassador – Christ is making His appeal through you (2 Corinthians 5).
There are those who acknowledge God is sovereign over all evil and suffering but would oppose that God appoints suffering. Instead, they would say He allows it. Last week we discussed that specifically in the case of missions, we see that God appoints suffering for His servants. He uses it to open doors and display His worth to a watching world. He doesn’t simply allow it, He appoints it. Look at Joseph, Moses, Jacob, Job, Jesus, Paul, Peter etc. But the question is does God appoint all suffering? Does He simply allow some suffering?
Many have looked at some of the greatest sufferings of history and eased their concerns and possible doubts of God’s goodness by conceding that God simply allows suffering in this world. It seems like this would eliminate the issue of questioning God’s goodness. Meaning, since God knows all things and has the power to stop anything, and since there is evil and suffering, to prevent any doubt of God’s goodness we say that God simply allows suffering. He doesn’t appoint it. But the question of God’s goodness is there whether you believe He simply allows suffering or appoints it. God allowing suffering is ultimately no different than Him appointing it. You’re left with the same issue.
If God allows suffering, we must acknowledge He knew it was going to happen, and could have stopped it, but allowed it to happen all the same. When God foresees some kind of suffering, and has the power to stop it but doesn’t, He is making the decision to not stop it – and thereby is using it for His own good purposes, according to His infinite wisdom. In one sense then, you can say, God has appointed it.
Ephesians 1 says that God does all things according to the counsel of His own will. Therefore, what He decides to do, and what He decides not to do is what He has purposed. Isaiah 46:9-10 “He declares the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things which have not been done.” When He decides to prevent suffering, it is according to the counsel of His will, to the praise of His glorious grace. And when He decides not to prevent suffering, He does so according to the counsel of His will, to the praise of His glorious grace. In this sense, you could say that when God allows things to happen, it is a deliberate allowance. It is an intentional, measured, purposeful allowance. It is in itself a decision that God is going to use whatever the suffering may be to accomplish His intended purposes. This is true in moral evil and suffering, and it is true in natural disasters. For God not only directs man’s steps, but He controls His creation – the wind, the waves, the thunder, the rain, the hail, the oceans etc. Indeed all of His creation is under His sovereign control.
There are some who would say that God is sovereign, all powerful, and all knowing, but He allows evil and suffering because satan is the god of this world. However, satan is only able to act according to God’s sovereign permission. Think of Jesus casting out demons, Jesus rebuking satan in the wilderness, satan and job, think of every single conversion.
There are others who would say that God is sovereign, all powerful, and all knowing but that He allows suffering in order to protect our free will. But the free-will argument does not suffice either. The Bible doesn’t teach that God allows suffering and evil in order to protect our free will. It doesn’t teach that He withholds His power in order not to destroy the free will of his moral creatures - as if God ruling over our free will in and of itself would be some great evil. All throughout Scripture we see God overcoming man’s will to accomplish what He has purposed: Abraham was an idol worshiper… pharaoh’s hardened heart… Esau wasn’t even born and hadn’t done anything good or bad.. once again, think about Paul and every other conversion.
What about when God comes to judge the world and make all things right? Will not that day be interfering with the free will of the wicked? Or think about the new earth, when we will have no ability to sin. Is that not an obstruction of our free will? The problem is that man grows up being taught that he has greater freedom than he does. Proverbs 16:9 says “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.”
And what about the evil and suffering that takes place outside of free will? what about hurricanes and tornados, tsunamis and blizzards? God is in control of these things, not human agents. There is no free-will (other than God’s) that lay behind these tragedies.
Satan, ultimate free will, and the laws of nature do not answer the problem of evil and suffering in this world – because even here God has the ability and knowledge to prevent evil and suffering – and yet He doesn’t.
It is a poor theology and life to believe that satan could make me suffer when God has not allowed it. It is a terrible tragedy to believe that God protects our free will over His own sovereignty. It is a terrible tragedy to think that God has nothing to do with the laws of nature. If God did not sovereignly appoint these sufferings, then we can no longer trust God. The suffering serves no purpose other than satan seeking to destroy me, the consequences of my own free will, or the random way the wind happens to be blowing. And if God is not deliberately allowing my suffering then there is no meaning in it for me or anyone and I might as well throw my faith in the trash.
But what does the Bible say?
Isaiah 45:7 “I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the Lord, who does all these things.”
Exodus 4:11 “Then the Lord said to him, “Who has made man's mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?”
Lamentations 2:17 “The Lord has done what he purposed; he has carried out his word, which he commanded long ago; he has thrown down without pity; he has made the enemy rejoice over you and exalted the might of your foes.”
Lamentations 3:37-38 “Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? 38 Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?”
Psalm 115:3 “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.”
What is more comforting in your suffering? That God knew about it, but couldn’t stop it? That God knew about it, but let it simply happen because evil and suffering are in the world and satan is the god of this world? That God knew about it but wanted to protect your free will? Or to know that God sovereignly appointed it with a great purpose: His glory and your greater good? Which is more comforting? Is it seriously a comforting thing for the Christian to look at the Texas shooting and agree with the nation’s leading Christian evangelist and say ‘God had nothing to do with that – satan did it’? Where is the comfort there? In an attempt to protect God’s goodness, you have stripped Him of knowledge, power, and sovereignty. This is not the God of the Bible.
This brings us back to Epicurus…
1. A perfectly powerful being can prevent any evil.
2. A perfectly good being will prevent evil as far as he can.
3. God is perfectly powerful and good.
4. Therefore, if a perfectly powerful and good God exists, then there is no evil.
The problem lies in the second statement. Is it true that a perfectly good being WILL always prevent evil? The answer is no. The Bible teaches that God has good reasons to permit suffering. He appoints it because of the greater good it is producing. So, with this we turn to the goodness of God.
The Goodness of God
How do you define good? Think about what it means to call into question the goodness of God. Many people reject God’s sovereignty over evil and suffering today in order to protect His goodness, but we have clearly shown that God is both sovereign, all-powerful, and all-knowing. At this point, many people would cry out that the God of the Bible is not good. Ironically, atheists today will affirm that the Bible teaches that God is sovereign and all-powerful – which is why they reject Him because they no longer see Him as good. However, many professing Christians in order to protect His goodness will reject His omnipotence and sovereignty.
Atheists deny His goodness, and professing Christians deny His sovereignty.
So, what does it mean to question God’s goodness?
“Just to raise the question as to whether God measures up to our standard of goodness is to assume that we set the standard for goodness, not God. If our standard for good is not God Himself, then the standard must be in us, in which case there is in fact no standard at all, and “goodness” is a meaningless term.”
Is a parent being good when they inflict pain on their child by slapping their hand away before they touch a hot stove? Is a dentist being good when he inflicts pain drilling into a tooth in order to fix it? Is a mechanic being good when he places an air bag in the steering wheel that will bust out, burn skin, and potentially break bones when they it is deployed in an accident, in order that the driver may not die? All of these are good things, and yet the good in and of itself inflicts pain. Now these are shallow examples compared to the depths of God’s goodness and purposes in suffering. But is it not true in the case of Joseph? Or Jesus?
The Bible teaches us that God is good.
Matthew 5:48 – God is perfect.
1 John 4:8 – God is love.
Psalm 145:8-9 “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. 9 The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made.. verse 13 [The Lord is faithful in all his words and kind in all his works.]”
Notice what the Psalmist says, not only is He good to all, but He is faithful in all his words and kind in all his works. That includes suffering. Remember we read before that part of his work is the suffering he brings. The calamity he brings. And the psalmist says He is kind in all His works. Isaiah 46:10 says 'My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure'”
So not only does the Bible teach that God is good, but it teaches that God is good to appoint suffering. Why? Because God is good, and suffering exists under His providential plan. So, the suffering God appoints to His children must be for the greater good – namely His glory, and our eternal joy.
A lesson from Psalm 119
67-68 “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word. You are good and do good; teach me your statutes.”
71 “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.”
75 “I know, O Lord, that your rules are righteous, and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me.”
You are good for afflicting me. It is good for me that you afflicted me. I know that you have afflicted me in your faithfulness. How amazing that the biblical authors saw appointed suffering as a sign of God’s goodness, and yet today we either reject that He appointed it, or reject that He is good. But the biblical theme of suffering is that God is good in what He appoints. He is good in how He afflicts. He is good in how He sovereignly uses suffering.
Psalm 119:92 says, “If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction.” This is often the problem with us in suffering.. we perish, or our faith perishes in affliction because we do not delight in God’s law. We do not know it. We are offended by a Sovereign God. We pick and choose the verses we will cling to and affirm. We think that we can reject part of God’s character and go on our way. But if we do not know God’s Word, and love His Word, we cannot give a reason for the hope within us. We cannot answer the question of evil and suffering. We will not be prepared for suffering.
If we are not prepared for suffering, if we don’t have a sound biblical theology of God, His gospel, His glory, His sovereignty, His wisdom, and His goodness, then suffering will crush us. It will starve our faith. We won’t be holding up the shield of faith, and so the lies of the devil, and the comforts of our flesh cry out against God and we will be pierced by the fiery darts of the devil.
The devil is a liar, and he will lie about your suffering, he will lie about God, and he will lie about the Bible. And if you don’t abide, delight, and obey, you will be susceptible to his deceitful schemes and fiery darts. The fact that God says He is good is sufficient – He defines His goodness, not us.
So, let’s go back to the argument. A perfectly powerful being can prevent any evil. But a perfectly good being won’t always prevent evil and suffering. God is always perfectly powerful and good, and therefore He sovereignly appoints suffering.
But this leads us to an even bigger issue.. If God is all-powerful, and all-knowing, and good, and yet he appoints suffering, does that make Him evil? Is God still holy? With that, let us turn to the holiness of God.
The Holiness of God
If evil and suffering are deliberately allowed, and ultimately appointed, then how do you justify God’s power, wisdom, knowledge, and goodness? How is he RIGHT? How is this JUST? The answer? God’s holiness. God alone defines what is good, what is right, and what is just, because God is holy.
The word means that God is separate. He is self-sustaining, self-sufficient, and complete. He is perfect in and of Himself. God’s holiness is His immeasurable, and incomparable worth and value. It is His nature. His intrinsic worth, which is revealed in His attributes. So, His wisdom is holy. His power is holy. His love is holy. His mercy is holy. His wrath is holy. His grace is holy. His goodness is holy. All of His attributes reveal an immeasurable, incomparable worth and value.
And the Bible says He does all things for the sake of His glory. But what does that mean? Well, God’s glory is the display of this holiness. He created the earth for His glory. He created man for His glory. His crushed His Son for His glory. He redeems sinners for His glory. He pours out His wrath on sinners for His glory. He gives and He takes away for His glory. He appoints suffering for His glory. Therefore, in all that God does, He does so to display His glory – which means that He does all things to display His holiness: His worth, His attributes, His value, His supremacy. And this includes suffering.
In all that He deliberately allows, or appoints, He is doing so according to His faithfulness to Himself – to display the riches of His glory. God always does what is right. He cannot sin, and He cannot be tempted to sin (James 1). God acts based on what upholds His value and honor, what esteems His worth, and what displays the depths of His attributes. So when God appoints suffering, He is not evil. He can’t be – He is holy. He is working beyond what we could ever possibly imagine. He is separate. He is infinitely worthy.
“The greatest need in our suffering is not to figure out the mystery of God’s goodness, omnipotence, and omniscience, the greatest need in our suffering is to know the supreme greatness and holiness of the sovereign God of grace” – John Piper
Our people are starving for God. Whether you realize it or not. When people are perishing in their affliction, they don’t need answers, they need God. They need to see a holy God who is all powerful, all knowing, good, and holy. One who is in total control of their suffering and keeps His promises that He works all things for the good of those called according to His purposes. Our churches don’t need a 5-step life application sermon. We don’t need to hear a cute pastor creatively give us the five “d’s” of suffering. We need to see a good, sovereign, omnipotent, omniscient, loving, glorious God!
One pastor has said that “it is not the job of the Christian preacher to give people moral or psychological pep talks about how to get along in the world. When that is needed, someone else can do it. But most of our people have no one, no one in the world, to tell them, week in and week out, about the supreme beauty and majesty of God. And so many of them are tragically starved for God.”
It is not helpful for anyone suffering to tell them that God had nothing to do with it. It is not comforting to tell them that satan is the god of this world. It is not comforting to tell them that this was a random hurricane. It is not comforting to tell them that God loves their free will and allowed this to happen to protect that. All of those answers lead to incredible despair, no hope, no purpose, no goodness, and certainly no powerful sovereign God.
The Bible teaches that God is all knowing. He knows it all before it even comes to be. And He is all powerful. He can do anything that He pleases. And He though He will often interfere with the evil plans of man and the devil, He will also at times sovereignly decide not to. But in all that He does decide, He is good, and He is purposing and choosing according to His own counsel, for the purpose of displaying His glory – the revealing of His holiness – His intrinsic worth and value.
So how then do we live? What does that mean for us in the midst of unbelievable evil and suffering?
Worship in the mystery
When John Piper was wrestling with the depths of Romans 9, God impressed to him “I will be not be analyzed… I will be adored”. Our study of God, our study into the depths of His mystery, our wrestling with deep doctrines, and tough biblical truths has a purpose. This purpose, given in Scripture, like we see in the doxology of Ephesians 1:3-14, is praise. Humble praise. Awe. A holy fear. Our theology is meant to flatten us – to thrust us forward into awe-filled, humble, God-glorifying, Christ-exalting, Spirit-filled worship!
Nothing about the depths of what we talked about today should cause you to move on quickly with your day. It should cause you to look at your cancer, your divorce, your infertility, your suffering child, your abusive father, your violent friend, and tremble. It should cause you to look into the depths of your pain and your suffering and to realize that God knew about it before it happened. God could have stopped it and He didn’t. And the reason He didn’t isn’t because He isn’t good, but rather because He saw that the suffering was actually for your good. Somehow, someway, the suffering you are experiencing or experienced was and is working for the glory of God to display His holiness – and it is working for your eternal good. It is working to refine you, humble you, comfort you, prepare you for an eternal weight of glory, to open up a door of ministry to someone, to reveal to you the depths of sin, to cause you to hate sin, to give you a sense of urgency, to give you a taste of the eternal suffering awaiting the lost. There may be hundreds of reasons God has chosen this suffering for you, but rest assured – He chose it!
One of the dangers we run into when we wrestle with questions about God in the midst of evil and suffering, is that we tend to forget that every breath we take is an act of mercy from God. That if God were to truly be fair, according to our standards, we would have been thrown into hell long ago. Every horrible act of evil and suffering in this world, is in some form still an act of mercy – for the evil could have been worse. Hitler could have killed one more Jew, one more plane could have hit a building on 9/11, one more member of your family could have died in the car accident, your loved one could have lived one less day… the list goes on. Every evil act on this earth still reflects God’s mercy to a rebellious sinful world. We deserve to suffer! And far worse than what we are experiencing.
Peter reminds us in 1 Peter 4:1-2 “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God.” We are called to share in suffering as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. And the author of Hebrews says that in this suffering, the Father “disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.” Notice what is happening here – the suffering is for our good – and its purpose is that we may share in His holiness – that our suffering would reveal His worth, His glory! That we would be separate from the world in our thoughts, affections, and actions. In the depths of your suffering you are sharing in his holiness. You are to be displaying His infinite worth, His value, His beauty.
Isn’t it sad that in Scripture, the authors would write about God’s sovereignty to encourage the saints, to thrust them to humble adoration and worship, and to remind them of the hope we have… and yet today discussions on the sovereignty of God, or sermons like this one, cause us to become full of anger, division, pride, and rejection of biblical texts.
What does the Bible say?
Romans 9:20 “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?”
Job 40:8-12 “Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be in the right? Have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like his? “Adorn yourself with majesty and dignity; clothe yourself with glory and splendor. Pour out the overflowings of your anger, and look on everyone who is proud and abase him. Look on everyone who is proud and bring him low and tread down the wicked where they stand.”
Job 42:2-6 ““I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you make it known to me.’ I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; 6 therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
Job 38:2-11 ““Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy? “Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb, when I made clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed limits for it and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed’?”
Some of you may reject this – not because of true biblical evidence, but because it doesn’t feel good to you. Maybe it isn’t what you have been taught, or how you grew up, or how you have interpreted some things. Some of you may be so distraught about this that you just simply want to walk away – but let me ask you a question: where are you going to go?
Much of the Bible is hard. It is full of hard truths. Peter says this of Paul’s writings. It can be offensive to man. It is full of mystery. Many will walk away and reject it… but where will they go? Where will you go? God alone has the words of eternal life (John 6). I pray that you come to know that Jesus is the HOLY ONE of God. And that He suffered the ultimate punishment of our sins for us, and that all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved from ultimate suffering.
Suffering is part of the curse that results from sin, but it is also part of the solution. God’s purposes are often mysterious – but they are nevertheless purposes. They are not random acts of violence that God is powerless or unwilling to prevent. You don’t know everything that is taking place.
Romans 11:32-36 “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all. Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”
Isaiah 55:8-9 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Church rest in this: God is all powerful. He is all knowing. He is sovereign. He has purposed suffering. He is holy. And He is good! Rest in that. Be humbled by that. Submit to the mystery. And do not lean on your own understanding, but rather trust in the LORD.
Your suffering is not meaningless… it is preparing for you an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.