Knowing the Sovereignty of God through Suffering, Part 1

Written by Mark Farnham

On January 25, 2022

“More bad news.” Throughout my nine-month ordeal with the brain tumor and lymphoma there were few positive developments. Even what we thought were positive developments turned out to be false hopes. My wife and I felt like we were slowly descending into an abyss. I felt like I was slipping down a steep slope to death, which lay at the bottom with its mouth open for me like a yawning chasm. I wanted to stop and get off the ride, but this wasn’t a ride, and I couldn’t stop anything. I had no control.

Control. That was the illusion I missed the most. I say “illusion,” because we should all be painfully aware that we have control over absolutely nothing in our lives. Zip, zilch, nada. Yet the illusion is so strong that it is almost irresistible. The consequences of maintaining that illusion are serious. 

We think that we can avoid difficulty by living wisely, eating healthy foods, and exercising; yet, even healthy people drop dead suddenly. We think that if we follow God’s directions for rearing children and we try to be the best parents possible that our children will never wander from God. We think that if we work diligently to be the best in our vocation we can protect ourselves from economic hardship; yet, something like the Coronavirus can turn the economy on its head in a matter of weeks, leaving us jobless.

The truth is we have no real control of our lives. Thankfully, that does not mean that no one is in control. Christians have always confessed that God is sovereign, that is as the Westminster Confession of faith says: 

God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

Simply, sovereignty means that God is in control of everything. Nothing happens outside his express decree. This has profound implications for suffering. Not a minute of my suffering is wasted, and I will not suffer a minute more than God decrees.

I will never forget the first time I experienced instantaneous relief from an occasion of suffering. It was a few years after my kidney transplant, and I had contracted a stomach virus. This was of great concern to my doctors since after the transplant I would have a suppressed immune system for the rest of my life. This made viruses especially dangerous because if they were left unchecked they could affect the health of my transplanted kidney.

I was lying in the emergency room with uncontrollable nausea, vomiting every fifteen minutes. This had been going on for hours. I begged the doctor to help me. He injected an anti-nausea drug into my IV and promised I would feel better in a matter of minutes. I was skeptical. About three minutes later my nausea stopped instantaneously. I was stunned by the immediate change. While we certainly want to credit the secondary means God uses, such as medicine, ultimately, we acknowledge that God is the one who controls our suffering.

This truth—the sovereignty of God—has been the single most important attribute of God to my wife and I as we have navigated serious health crises for more than a decade. This doctrine turns the typical argument against God on its head. The standard atheistic argument against God says that if there were an all-loving and all-powerful God there would be no evil or suffering in the world, and since evil and suffering do exist, there cannot exist an all-loving and all-powerful God. 

The problem with this argument, however, is that it assumes that God could not have a perfectly good reason for allowing the evil and suffering that exist. This argument assumes that if we cannot imagine a reason for the evil and suffering that exist, then there cannot be a good reason. It assumes that humans can have knowledge of all things, past, present, and future in order to render such a judgment on God.

Taking this position leaves us without hope, where evil and suffering are chance occurrences in a blind and deaf universe, with no meaning or purpose. Yet, all people, when they experience suffering and loss, instinctually cry out, “Why?” in either anger or grief. We know intuitively that the world is not as it should be. Yet, apart from the explanation provided in Scripture, we don’t know why.

This is why the sovereignty of God has been the single most important attribute of God to us. To know that God is in control of my suffering reassures me that it is not out of control or meaningless. I can find peace in the midst of pain and grief because I know God in his perfect wisdom is bringing about my eternal good through my trials. Nothing is wasted. Every ounce of pain is carefully administered by the hand of a loving God, just as every milligram of medicine is carefully dosed by my attentive doctors for my good. As John Newton wrote, “Everything is necessary that God sends our way; nothing can be necessary that he withholds.”

In Part 2 of this essay we explore how the sovereignty of God comforts us in suffering.

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