Suffering and sovereignty

Here’s an edited version of an email I sent today to one of the Purpose Driven Life (TM) daily devotional authors, a teaching pastor at Saddleback Church. (I signed up for these emails several years ago and haven’t bothered to unsubscribe. They’re not usually my style but sometimes I find them helpful, or at least interesting.)

Dear Jon,

I just wanted to write to you from across the Pond about your PDL daily devotional today: ‘We May Suffer Even When Obedient’. This is both by way of a thank-you and some (hopefully) constructive disagreement.

This morning I was sitting at my computer praying about some difficult situations in my life, asking God: ‘Why, knowing how things would turn out, did you let these things happen? Did you have a purpose in it? If so, what?’

And when I looked up at my computer, there was your devotional email in my inbox, with its message about God’s purpose in our suffering. It certainly felt like more than a coincidence, and it was helpful to be reminded that God is involved with us in our suffering, that there is purpose and meaning in it, and that it ultimately leads to good. So I really want to thank you for that – I believe God spoke through your words there.

However, God’s big enough to use what we say without necessarily endorsing all of it! I’m troubled by your assertion that ‘our suffering is not an accident but a necessity used by God’. I realise that you’re writing within the Reformed/Calvinist tradition which sees everything that happens as God’s will. As someone outside that tradition, that view seems not glorifying to God but limiting upon him. It demands that his sovereignty and will be understood as inexorable and inevitable forces. But this is not what we see in Christ.

In Christ, we see a God who longs for relationship with us, but who (despite his sovereignty) does not always get what he longs for. ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem… how often have I longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.’ God’s sovereignty includes his right to order the universe so that we, his children, get the dignity of choice and the freedom which is required for genuine love. That inevitably means that some things that happen are not what God wants. Human sin, human rejection of God, broken human relationships – these things are surely not desired or willed by God. They happen because we live in a universe which has been set up so that it’s possible for us to have (or not have) a relationship with God; a universe in which it’s possible for us to make meaningful moral choices for good, ill or otherwise.

I believe the same applies to suffering. I simply cannot accept that all suffering that befalls us – whether or not we are obeying God – is deliberately willed by God for some purpose. Try telling that to the parents who’ve just lost a child through miscarriage or some tragic accident. Try saying it to those bereaved by disaster, disease, terrorism, or a plane crash. Not everything that happens is planned and willed by God.

However, I totally agree that everything that happens can be used by God for good, and that he works redemptively through our sufferings. When we’re in the middle of troubles we can trust God and know that ultimately ‘all will be well’.

Bless you,


About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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8 Responses to Suffering and sovereignty

  1. dsholland says:

    This resounded with my belief that God is not a monster, that He does not “will” the kind of tragedy that really tears us apart.

    As I thought about it though it occurred to me He “could” have prevented the event whatever it may be. “Why did you” is functionally the same as “why didn’t you” in our anguish. The answer that He created the world allowing sin to demonstrate His redemption is the same, His purpose is to demonstrate that redemption and so the event serves His purpose, what He wills. Just saying that to a grieving mother may not be what she needs at the moment and is more likely comfort to the speaker rather than the hearer (poor form).

    That said, I think it is an important distinction that our suffering is not what God wants even as He allows it. The faith that He does work redemptively eventually teaches us to say as Job does, “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee”

    So glad you are back.


    • Harvey Edser says:

      Thanks David! I’ve been enjoying your blog as well and hoping to respond to some of your posts when I get time.

      It’s certainly difficult to come to terms with the fact that our all-loving, all-powerful God allows seemingly random disaster and tragedy to happen – it’s something I’d like to explore more deeply. But (as you say) God allowing it is certainly not the same as him planning and desiring it, and he suffers and grieves with us in our tragedy rather than standing aloof.

      I think that in a world messed up by evil and sin, God has to allow a lot of suffering just as parents have to watch their children making self-destructive choices. The only alternatives would be either to destroy all evil – which would mean destroying all good as well, as both are bound up together in us – or else to take away all freedom and simply control everything by inexorable power. Instead, God chooses the slow, painful, messy way of working redemptively in and through our mess and sufferings to bring about ultimate healing and salvation.

      Something like that anyway. 🙂


  2. Jenny Rayner says:

    Thanks for this, Harvey. I couldn’t have put it better myself! It will be interesting to see if you get a response to your email.


  3. johnm55 says:

    Welcome back Harvey. Good post, and a nice rejection of Calvinist determinism.
    I’m not at all sure that god has actually very much to do with suffering. I think most of the suffering in the world can be traced to the failures (in every sense of that word) of human beings, the rest is best explained by the agnostic/atheist reasoning that s**t happens.


    • harveyedser says:

      Interesting point of view – suffering is either the result of people screwing things up, or else just random s**t that happens. I could go along with that quite a way – the human part covers wars, crime, bad government, and all the relational mess that most of us carry around. The random part perhaps covers natural disasters, famines, diseases etc, which are all usually made worse by humans anyway.

      I suppose it still leaves the question of why things are this way, and whether they have ever been or could ever be different. The atheist would answer that it’s just how the world is, but personally I don’t find that satisfying or particularly convincing.

      From my own experiences, I also can’t rule out the reality of supernatural evil, though that certainly doesn’t mean blaming the devil for everything bad that happens. But, at the risk of sounding like a loon, I do think there are forces at work in the world both for good and for evil which we in the enlightened West are very little aware of.


  4. Steve Greek says:

    Thank you for your thoughts. You have mentioned Leslie Weatherhead in your readings. His little book, The Will of God, deals with suffering and sovereignty and helped me to tease through some of my dissonance on the topic. His treatment of the term “will of God” has been one of the most formative essays in my understanding of God’s role in tragedy. I think his living in England through WW II must have impacted his theology in ways that today’s tragedies are forcing me to rethink mine. Anyway, it is a bargain to buy this rich resource for a few dollars at Amazon.


    • harveyedser says:

      Thanks Steve. I’ll definitely try to get hold of that book – it sounds excellent. I’d be very interested to hear more about how you’re rethinking your theology as well.


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