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.)
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’.