Today's Broadcast

Providence and Suffering

A Message by R.C. Sproul

The Psalmist asked, "Why do the wicked prosper, while the righteous suffer?" The prophet Habakkuk asked virtually the same question in his day as he witnessed his homeland overrun with the invading armies of the Chaldeans. Initially, from Habakkuk's perspective, he did not see God's hand in the suffering of his people. Where was the Judge of all the earth during this time of injustice, he wondered. Here Dr. Sproul explains how God's providence and suffering go hand and hand.

From the series: Providence: God in Control

Get the Providence: God in Control Series on CD and the Does God Control Everything? Booklet for a Gift of Any Amount

Further Study On This Topic

  1. article

    Finding God in the Dark

  2. blog-post

    In Christ Our Suffering Is Not in Vain

  3. devotional

    Understanding Suffering

Finding God in the Dark

Derek Thomas

Four times in Genesis 39 we read that God was with Joseph (39:2-3, 21, 23). The statements form a set of pillars at either end of the story of Joseph's initial experience of Egypt. On the one end, they come at the beginning of the story after Joseph has been sold by the Ishmaelites to Potiphar, the pharaoh's "captain of the guard" (39:1). The point of the description is to show to us that God's presence "prospered" Joseph (39:2). He was a "successful man" (39:2) because "the Lord was with him" (39:3). William Tyndale translated it, "the Lord was with Joseph and he was a lucky fellow!" The point is that the presence of God in the life of Joseph prospered him. He was put in charge of Potiphar's entire house entrusting everything that he had to Joseph. God was there, in the good times. True, he was a slave, but life was good.

It is relatively easy to reason that when things are going well that this represents blessings of God. Most of us fall into it by default: things are going well and we thank God for "every good and perfect gift that comes from above." We count our blessings and name them one by one. In the abundance of provision and security of a life where things are going well for us, it is reasonable to conclude that God is in the midst of all of this.

But Moses, in writing the account of Joseph, has a more profound theology than this. As the story develops, things suddenly, and without warning, turn bad. Joseph finds himself the victim of a false accusation of sexual assault—rape, if you will. It is a nightmare scenario where we are told unequivocally that he is utterly innocent. But accuse someone of rape, and some are bound to believe it no matter how loud the protest. Joseph has no recourse to law. "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned" wrote William Congreve in The Mourning Bride (1697), and Potiphar's wife, a jilted woman to be sure, cries foul, and, understandably, the husband has only one course of action at his disposal: Joseph is imprisoned. The fact he was put in the "King's prison" (39:20), certainly not the worst Egyptian penitentiary, probably indicates that Potiphar may well have doubted his wife's integrity.

What now? When things suddenly turn dark, what are we to think of God's promises to His children? It is one thing to reason that God is with us when things are going well. It is another to conclude the very same thing when things are going badly. And yet, this is precisely what Moses does. Joseph "was there in prison," but "the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison. ...the Lord was with him. And whatever he did, the Lord made it succeed." (Gen. 39:20-21, 23). The very same language as before! God was with Joseph in the bad times as well as the good times.

It is worth pondering what this means. We might have expected Joseph to reason that because things had turned worse, God must surely be against him. It is natural for us to assume that bad things are indicative of chastisement. "What have I done to deserve this?" we ask. The false accusations made against Joseph would then be an example of instant retribution. God was punishing him for something he had done. This was exactly the reasoning of Job's friends. They only had one song (Calvin said in a sermon on Job), and they sang it to death! And, because we do believe in divine retribution, this sometimes is the case. Paul seems to be saying as much when he comments on the reason why some of the Corinthians are sick and dying (1 Cor. 11:29-30). But such a conclusion is not a necessary one, and in this instance it would be an entirely false one. Outward suffering is not necessarily an indicator that God is against us.

What Joseph did not know, but what the end of the story in Genesis 50 makes clear, is that God had a purpose in mind in placing him in prison. He would be the right man in the right place when the pharaoh would be losing sleep due to a recurring dream. God would have the interpreter of the dream there at hand in the king's own prison, having exercised his gift among the pharaoh's former butler and baker (who are also in prison). God is weaving a plan, which in its macrocosm will lead to the raising of Joseph to leadership and the rescue of this covenant family from the famine that befalls his homeland. Joseph's imprisonment is part of the unfolding of the greater plan of redemption on the pages of history.

God moves in a mysterious way;
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
     —William Cowper, 1774

Only faith in the "steadfast love" of God towards His own (Gen. 39:21) will reason this way. But it is the way of faith to reason in just this way. No matter how dark the path gets, there is a reason for it. I may not know it; but that is not important. What is important is this: He knows!

In Christ Our Suffering Is Not in Vain

R.C. Sproul

Jesus suffered for us. Yet we are called to participate in His suffering. Though He was uniquely the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy, there is still an application of this vocation for us. We are given both the duty and the privilege to participate in the suffering of Christ.

A mysterious reference to this idea is found in the writings of the apostle Paul: "I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church" (Col. 1:24). Here Paul declared that he rejoiced in his suffering. Surely he did not mean that he enjoyed pain and affliction. Rather, the cause of his joy was found in the meaning of his suffering. He said that he filled up "what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ."

On the surface, Paul's explanation is astonishing. What could possibly have been lacking in the afflictions of Christ? Did Christ only half-finish His redemptive work, leaving it to Paul to complete it? Was Jesus overstating the case when He cried from the cross, "It is finished"? What exactly was lacking in the suffering of Christ?

In terms of the value of Jesus' suffering, it is blasphemous to suggest anything was lacking. The merit of His atoning sacrifice is infinite. Nothing could possibly be added to His perfect obedience to make it even more perfect. Nothing can be more perfect than perfect. What is absolutely perfect cannot be augmented.

The merit of Jesus' suffering is sufficient to atone for every sin that has ever been or ever will be committed. His once-for-all atoning death needs no repetition (Heb. 10:10). Old Testament sacrifices were repeated precisely because they were imperfect shadows of the reality that was to come (Heb. 10:1).

It was not by accident that the Roman Catholic Church appealed to Paul's words in Colossians 1:24 to support its concept of the treasury of merits, by which the merits of the saints are supposedly added to the merit of Christ to cover the deficiencies of sinners. This doctrine was at the eye of the Protestant Reformation tornado. It was this eclipse of the sufficiency and perfection of Christ's suffering that was at the heart of Martin Luther's protest.

Jesus suffered for us. Yet we are called to participate in His suffering

Though we vigorously deny Rome's interpretation of this passage, we are still left with our question. If Paul's suffering did not add merit to what was lacking in Christ's sufferings, what did it add?

The answer to this difficult question lies in the broader teaching of the New Testament in regard to the believer's call to participate in the humiliation of Christ. Our baptism signifies that we are buried with Christ. Paul repeatedly pointed out that unless we are willing to participate in the humiliation of Jesus, we will not participate in His exaltation (see 2 Timothy 2:11–12).

Paul rejoiced that his suffering was a benefit to the church. The church is called to imitate Christ. It is called to walk the Via Dolorosa. Paul's favorite metaphor for the church was the image of the human body. The church is called the body of Christ. In one sense, it is proper to call the church the "continuing incarnation." The church is really the mystical body of Christ on earth.

Christ so linked His church to Himself that when He first called Paul on the Damascus Road He said, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?" (Acts 9:4, emphasis added). Saul was not literally persecuting Jesus. Jesus had already ascended to heaven. He was already out of reach of Saul's hostility. Saul was busy persecuting Christians. But Jesus felt such solidarity with His church that He regarded an attack upon His body, the church, as a personal attack on Himself.

The church is not Christ. Christ is perfect; the church is imperfect. Christ is the Redeemer; the church is the company of the redeemed. However, the church belongs to Christ. The church is redeemed by Christ. The church is the bride of Christ. The church is indwelt by Christ.

In light of this solidarity, the church participates in Christ's suffering. But this participation adds nothing to Christ's merit. The sufferings of Christians may benefit other people, but they always fall short of atonement. I cannot atone for anyone's sins, not even for my own. Yet my suffering may be of great benefit to other people. It may also serve as a witness to the One whose sufferings were an atonement.

The word for "witness" in the New Testament, martus, is the source of the English word martyr. Those who suffered and died for the cause of Christ were called martyrs because by their suffering they bore witness to Christ.

What is lacking in the afflictions of Jesus is the ongoing suffering that God calls His people to endure. God calls people of every generation to suffer. Again, this suffering is not to fulfill any deficiency in the merit of Christ, but to fulfill our destinies as witnesses to the perfect Suffering Servant of God.

Because of Christ, our suffering is not useless

What does this mean in practical terms? My father suffered a series of cerebral hemorrhages that caused him great suffering and eventually ended his life. I'm sure that while he was suffering he must have asked God, "Why?" On the surface, his suffering seemed useless. It seemed as though his pain was for no good reason.

I must be very careful. I do not think that my father's suffering was in any way an atonement for my sins. Neither do I think I can read God's mind with respect to the ultimate reason for my father's suffering. But I know this: my father's suffering made a profound impact on my life. It was through my father's death that I was brought to Christ. I am not saying that the ultimate reason my father was called to suffer and die was so that I could become a Christian. I don't know the sovereign purpose of God in it. But I do know that God used that suffering in a redemptive way for me. My dad's suffering drove me into the arms of the Suffering Savior.

We are followers of Christ. We follow Him to the Garden of Gethsemane. We follow Him into the hall of judgment. We follow Him along the Via Dolorosa. We follow Him unto death. But the gospel declares that we also follow Him through the gates of heaven. Because we suffer with Him, we also shall be raised with Him. If we are humiliated with Him, we also shall be exalted with Him.

Because of Christ, our suffering is not useless. It is part of the total plan of God, who has chosen to redeem the world through the pathway of suffering.

This excerpt is taken from Surprised by Suffering by R.C. Sproul.

Understanding Suffering

Christian or not, suffering remains an inevitable result of living in this world. Human beings often find themselves asking “why?” any time they encounter a terminal illness, a child with birth defects, unjust imprisonment, or any other such tragedy.

Non-Christians have offered several answers to this question, and it is helpful to examine some of them since these replies can influence us. Some non-believers adopt a docetic view of suffering, which denies the reality of pain altogether. Suffering is merely an illusion in this view. The docetic view is held by the Christian Science cult, and it has many affinities with the teachings of Eastern religions.

Our culture has embraced the hedonistic view of suffering more than any other. This worldview seeks to reduce pain and acquire pleasure, at any cost. To dull their physical and emotional pain, men and women turn to sexual infidelity, illegal drugs, gluttony, and other sinful behaviors believing that “if it feels nice, don’t think twice.”

The stoic view of suffering says that we have no control over what happens to us externally. All we can do is choose how we will respond internally; the goal here is to let nothing bother us. We should do our best “to keep a stiff upper lip” and to “let nothing get us down.”

Evangelicals have probably been most affected by the stoic view. Regrettably, we are often prone to minimizing the reality of our grief and will act as if the proper way to face suffering is to pretend nothing of any consequence has happened. But this is not the approach of Jesus; after all, John recorded that He wept (John 11:35). It is not sinful to mourn the loss of a loved one or to admit our pain.

Christians ask God “why?” when we suffer, and sometimes we find that it results from the Lord’s discipline (Heb. 12:3–17). However, Job’s life shows us suffering is not always due to our sin. And as with Job, God may not tell us the “why” of our pain in every case.

God is not obligated to give us the reason for our suffering. Still, whether He is disciplining us or not, we know He is always with us in our pain (Ps. 23:4) to use our suffering for good, redemptive ends and to bring glory to Himself (Rom. 8:28).

Since the beginning,

our aim has been to help Christians know what they believe, why they believe it, how to share it, and how to live it…

More about Renewing Your Mind