How can we cope with the constant stream of calamities reported almost daily in the media? How can we absorb all the heartaches and disappointments a fallen world confronts us with?
For every new event we may consider ‘good’ or even ‘very good’, there follow ten ‘bad’ ones hard on its heels. Surely we live in a world where ‘all is vanity’ (Ecclesiastes 1:2)!
Hatred, murder, abuse, division, war; tragedies, natural and human, unplanned and deliberate, avoidable and unavoidable: it is hard enough for onlookers to cope with it all, let alone victims — the real people who experience the suffering.
But in asking questions like this our attitude should be one of humility, for ‘God is greater than man’ and ‘does not give an account of any of his words’ (Job 33:12-13). There are purposes in all suffering that God alone can unravel, and he has made clear that most of the unravelling will not be in this life (Ecclesiastes 3; 2 Corinthians 12:7-9).
It should be remembered too, as the Puritan said, that ‘God had one Son without sin, but none without suffering’. Suffering was a necessary discipline even for our Lord Jesus Christ, and ‘he learned obedience by the things which he suffered’ (Hebrews 5:8).
His 33 years on earth were not carefree, but sorrow-laden (Isaiah 53:3). He did not die in a hospice, but in pain and disgrace having uttered the agonised question, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Matthew 27:46).
It is true Jesus knew the answer to his question. He knew that he was suffering as sin-bearer for his people (Isaiah 53). It is also true that, moments later, he would shout triumphantly, ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30), and three days later would rise from the dead. Yet, nonetheless, he really and deeply suffered.
Christ’s sufferings were the essential forerunners of his triumph over sin, death and hell (Philippians 2:6-11). They achieved the salvation of his elect people to the uttermost. Down the millennia, countless multitudes would thereby trust in Christ’s work of atonement, to the salvation of their souls from sin and guilt.
In this world of suffering, we hang on to the paradox that an inscrutable God who is mysteriously involved in the darkest events is also our loving and holy God of personal providence towards all who love his Son (Romans 8:28).
There is mysterious but real linkage between prayer to God from earth and the events of history. According to Revelation 8, it is the prayers of the saints mingled with the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ that cause the unleashing of hail, fire, blood, tempest and wormwood upon the inhabitants of the world.
Although God takes no delight in inflicting suffering upon mankind (Lamentations 3:33), mysteriously, he uses calamity as well as blessing to bring about his bright designs and work his sovereign will (Isaiah 45:10-11).
Was it not Satan’s master-stroke to put Jesus on the cross? Yes, indeed! But it was according to ‘the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God’ (Acts 2:23) that this cosmic calamity should happen.
All events of history — and supremely Christ’s death — are unerringly used by God for the growth of his kingdom. Jesus Christ is ‘head over all things to the church’ (Ephesians 1:22). Whether profoundly good or profoundly bad, all events — national, corporate and personal — are the scaffolding upon which he builds his church.
In that confidence, however bad the times, we can make William Cowper’s (1731-1800) words of serene hope our very own:
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.