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Do you believe that God can author pain or suffering in your life for your good? Could affliction, from a larger, longer perspective, be a carefully, lovingly chosen method for blessing?
Some say absolutely not. If our heavenly Father brings pain, he would be an abusive parent. And so they are offended by statements like this:
For some facing excruciating pain or loss, they’re some of the sweetest words they’ve ever heard. For others, the same vision of God makes them sick to their stomach.
At least part of the problem is how this vision of God’s goodness in bringing suffering is often presented. Sadly, some of us have been guilty of entering a painful situation, rattling off Romans 8:28, and expecting everyone to feel better. Romans 8:28 is a beautiful promise, but it can also feel like a blunt sledgehammer to people who are hurting and don’t yet understand quite what God is doing in their pain, even if they believe Romans 8:28 with all their hearts.
On the other hand, some will simply say that all Romans 8:28 means is that God will turn this evil thing, a thing that he could not help from happening, into some sort of good for us. They present a God suddenly sovereign enough to reverse the situation, a situation he wasn’t sovereign enough to stop in the first place.
With the first person, we are left wondering, “But what is the good in this situation, God? What is the good in this deep pain?” With the second, we have the nagging feeling that even though sin, Satan, and a fallen world have something to do with our pain, the all-sovereign God who loves us couldn’t stop it.
Two Layers of All Pain
A way forward lies in seeing the two-tiered reality of our pain. In all pain, there are always two sources or agents at work, but only one is ultimately ruling. One source is the reality of brokenness and sin. Because of the worldwide rebellion against God, Satan rules the current evil age. The other and ultimate source of every pain is God, who “declares the end from the beginning” (Isaiah 46:10) and “does whatever pleases him” (Psalm 135:6).
In Job 2:5, Satan asks God for permission to afflict Job to prove that Job will turn his back on God. Satan does not get the final call. God grants him permission, and establishes rules (2:6). Satan afflicts him, sparing his life (2:7–8). Job’s wife comes and says, “Curse God and die,” because of the suffering (2:9). Job responds, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (2:10).
God could have stopped it. Someone might protest and rebuke Job, “Job, don’t say that! God doesn’t bring pain. It was Satan!” However, the immediate context in Job says, “In all this, Job did not sin with his lips” (2:10). Job got it right. Later, his friends came to comfort and show sympathy for “the evil the Lord had brought upon him” (Job 42:11).
Job’s experience sounds a lot like Amos 3:6, “Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it?”
The Pain of Calvary
Or, what about the most undeserved pain ever inflicted, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ? Clearly, Satan was at work, entering into Judas (Luke 22:3) to betray Jesus into the hands of his murderers. However, when we read about the suffering of Christ in the Bible, we find a different person writing the gruesome story.
Again, Satan seems to be instigating the evil, and yet God is sovereignly willing the death of his Son. Pilate and the religious leaders delivered him up to the cross, so maybe they’re the ones to blame. But ultimately the Bible won’t go there either: “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23). Satan is at work, yet God is still sovereign over the cross (and over Satan). God wills pain for good purposes and results. Like a Father disciplining his children for their long-term maturity and happiness, God brings pain into our lives for our good (Hebrews 12:5–11).
As we read and see that Christ endured the suffering “for the joy set before him” (Hebrews 12:2), we begin to see that maybe God knows what we need to be truly, eternally safe and happy far better than we do ourselves. Even when Satan and this broken world around us try and afflict us to kill us, if we belong to Christ, God is authoring it for our greatest, most lasting good (Romans 8:28; Genesis 50:20).
Two More Examples
In 2 Corinthians 12:7, a “messenger of Satan” afflicts Paul. Certainly, Satan is the source here, right? Yes, except that the purpose given for the messenger is, “to keep me from becoming conceited.” Do we think Satan didn’t want Paul to be conceited? No, this must be God’s purpose in Paul’s pain. And Paul asks God to take it away. But he says, “My grace is sufficient for you.” Enduring pain, Paul learns to rely on the grace of God. Though afflicted, he gets more of God.
Likewise, Peter says these Christians he was writing to rejoice while they are “grieved by various trials” (1 Peter 1:6). The purpose of their suffering is that as their faith, when tested with trials, comes out on the other side, it becomes more precious than the most refined gold (1 Peter 1:7). Again, deep, durable, and precious faith must be a purpose of God, not of Satan. Satan hates faith. And this tested-through-fire faith results in “inexpressible and glorified joy” (1 Peter 1:8).
The Best God Gives
So, what is the good from God in pain? Where is the joy in suffering? It’s in more of God. It’s more dependence (2 Corinthians 1:9), less sin (2 Corinthians 12:7), deeper faith, and increasing, everlasting, unshakeable joy that can only be found through refining. To be sure, this process only works if you have a vision of life and reality that prizes God’s glory as the only place anyone can be fully and eternally happy.
As believers, we should be slow to speak and quick to listen when we enter into others’ pain, giving time and perspective to let God speak into the situation. At the same time, let’s not run from the reality that God indeed brings pain. It’s a hard, but necessary truth for our faith and joy in Christ that will ultimately enable us to persevere and heal with hope and confidence. He knows what we need better than we do. As a master physician with a painful prescription, his ultimate goal is not our harm, but our greatest good.