Monday, November 22, 2010

Acknowledge God's Absolute Sovereignty in Suffering

The first two lessons we've learned from Jeremiah are that (1) we ought to suffer along with our brothers and sisters who suffer and (2) we must acknowledge the role of sin in our suffering. The third lesson we can learn form Jeremiah's righteous response to suffering is that we must acknowledge God's absolute sovereignty even in the unpleasant and painful circumstances.

One of the things that is striking throughout the book of Lamentations is that Jeremiah finds no solace in attributing the destruction of Yahweh's covenant people to second causes. Rather, he attributes the agonizing desolation of Israel to Yahweh Himself. He declares that "Yahweh has caused her grief" (Lam 1:5) and has "inflicted" this pain "in His fierce anger" (Lam 1:12); it is He who has knit together this yoke, who has given her into the hands of her enemies, who has rejected her, and has trodden her as in a winepress (Lam 1:14-15). You'll notice that he does not speak of God merely "allowing" such devastation. Instead, he speaks of God actively accomplishing that which He had purposed to do:

  • Lamentations 2:17 – Yahweh has done what He purposed; He has accomplished His word Which He commanded from days of old. He has thrown down without sparing, And He has caused the enemy to rejoice over you; He has exalted the might of your adversaries.
  • Lamentations 4:11 – Yahweh has accomplished His wrath, He has poured out His fierce anger; And He has kindled a fire in Zion Which has consumed its foundations (cf. Lam 2:1-7).
  • Lamentations 3:37-38, 43-44 – Who is there who speaks and it comes to pass, Unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High That both good and ill go forth? … You have covered Yourself with anger And pursued us; You have slain and have not spared. You have covered Yourself with a cloud So that no prayer can pass through.
And again, as we did with the discussion on acknowledging sin, we have to be careful not to draw a direct parallel in this situation, and perhaps in many other situations. In Jeremiah's case, God is explicitly inflicting punishment. This may or may not be so when we suffer. But even if He's not explicitly punishing or disciplining, it is still wrong to locate the origin of these unpleasant events somewhere outside of God.

Job's case makes that clear. He did not attribute His suffering to second causes, but always recognized that God was sovereign in his afflictions (Job 1:21; 2:10; 12:9-10). And God commended him for that (Job 2:3; 42:7). And lest you think Job was somehow confused about who caused his sufferings since he was never privy to the opening interaction between God and Satan, the inspired text of the narrator of the book of Job agrees at the end of the book: "...and they consoled [Job] and comforted him for all the adversities that Yahweh had brought on him." Get that. Not, "...all the adversities that Satan had brought," and not even "...all the adversities that Yahweh allowed." These were adversities that Yahweh himself had brought upon Job.

The lesson for us, then, is that when we suffer, we should not seek to save God from His sovereignty. If we do that, we cut the legs out from under the solid, robust theology of God's absolute sovereignty that we depend on and cherish so much in those very times of suffering. To try to soften God's involvement with sin by reducing it to a mere permission rather than a definite ordinance is to weaken the spine-strengthening power that is supplied by Romans 8:28. To insist by our word choice that God merely allows evil and suffering rather than intentionally and wisely brings it about in order to glorify Himself and thus most greatly bless the creature destroys the very theology of sovereign grace that is (1) such a comfort to our souls in such troubling times and is (2) precisely that for which God means to receive glory and honor.

God means to be glorified in being recognized as the ultimate Mover and Determiner of all things. Let us not seek to rob Him of that.

I am Yahweh, and there is no other,
The One forming light and creating darkness,
Causing well-being and creating calamity;
I am Yahweh who does all these.

- Isaiah 45:7 -

Who is there who speaks and it comes to pass,
unless the Lord has commanded it?
Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
that both good and ill go forth?

- Lamentations 3:37-38 -

Jeremiah's Five Lessons

  1. He identifies with, and suffers alongside, his people.
  2. He acknowledges that sin is at the root of suffering (even though not all suffering is a direct result of personal sin).
  3. He acknowledges God’s absolute sovereignty in his suffering.
  4. He recognizes that although God is sovereign, He is not the enemy.
  5. He sets his hope entirely on, and rests in, God’s character.


Bobby Grow said...

I wonder why you don't note that God's sovereignty in suffering is shaped by our God who is cruciform in shape? That way, you could avoid speaking of God in terms that sound more Stoic than 'Christ-shaped'.

Mike Riccardi said...


The reason why I didn't cast God's sovereignty in suffering in light of the cross in this particular post is because that doesn't seem to be Jeremiah's intent in the book of Lamentations.

I guess that means, according to you, of course, Jeremiah had a "stoic" God too, since He doesn't mention the coming Suffering Servant. In that case, I'm happy to stand with him, no matter what snotty epithets you might level against the both of us in order to make room for your theology proper.

Just as a word of caution, though, I'd be more careful, if I were you, about precisely what accusations I level against the writers of Scripture.

Mike Riccardi said...

Ya know, perhaps I made my last comment too hastily.

I think you're right to ask where the cross is in suffering, and I think you'd see where it fits in my own understanding if you read the first post in this series and the one coming tomorrow (the 30th) on recognizing the enemy. Originally, this entire series was one Bible study lesson and so was balanced by each of the different points, and certainly looked to the cross.

That being said, however, I don't think it's necessarily so that the only way God's righteousness can be vindicated from His involvement in suffering is to point to Christ's own suffering. Certainly Jeremiah doesn't do that. Neither does Isaiah when Yahweh is announcing His destruction of Israel by Assyria, also proclaiming His active involvement in that great evil (Isa 10:1-10). The Scripture presents God as bringing just judgment upon His people by the hands of wicked men, and in those instances it doesn't seek to absolve Him by pointing out that God (in Christ) suffers too.

All that to say, you're right that Christ's suffering ought to occupy a place in our theology of suffering, but to not mention it at every turn doesn't make God any more "stoic" than the prophets present Him. And I don't appreciate jabs such as those.

Bobby Grow said...


Well, in the end, it's all about the cross; on that we agree.