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SUFFERING IN THE PLAN OF GOD
The average person who follows the news at all is aware of the constant barrage of negative stories, tragic reports of death, disaster, violence, and a whole variety of simply puzzling items that to varying degrees defy explanation. People are almost compulsive in seeking reasons for such incidents. It is natural to want to know the direct earthly causes and motivations that lead to sad, troubling, or tragic occurrences. However, most people shy away from looking beyond the temporal to find spiritual answers to life's more difficult events.
Biblically literate Christians, however, will realize that God's sovereignty has a role in all events—from the most pleasant and easiest to accept to the most traumatic and hardest to understand. But even the most mature believer can at times struggle to accept or even perceive God's purposes for adversity. Those who don't recognize the Lord's sovereign role will tend to question why troubles are happening to them at all.
The writers of the older hymns usually had a proper perspective on adversity. Consider, for example, the marvelous words of Samuel Rodigast from the first stanza of the seventeenth-century hymn "Whate'er My God Ordains Is Right."
Whate'er my God ordains is right: holy His will abideth; I will be still whate'er He doth, and follow where He guideth: He is my God; though dark my road, He holds me that I shall not fall: Wherefore to Him I leave it all.
We can rest assured that even if we do not see or understand the reason for a particular instance of adversity and are caught off guard, God is not caught off guard. Jesus, as God's Son, knew that trials and persecutions were to be expected within the experiences of all genuine believers through the centuries.
Jesus Predicts Hostility from the World
In the midst of His Upper Room Discourse, Jesus warned the disciples that "if the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you" (John 15:18–19). This statement simply reinforced what He said earlier in His ministry during the Sermon on the Mount:
Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matt. 5:10–12)
It is clear from these and other warnings (see Mark 13:9–13) that Jesus saw animosity toward believers from the unbelieving world, along with whatever pain and suffering might accompany it, as normal and expected.
Why Does the World Hate Us?
Two violent events, occurring just forty-eight hours apart, stunned the nation during the last weekend of February 1993. First, six people were killed and a thousand injured in New York City when a powerful bomb exploded beneath the twin skyscrapers of the World Trade Center. (By early May, seven men with ties to Middle Eastern Islamic terrorist groups had been arrested in connection with the bombing.) Then, two days after the bombing, four federal agents were killed during an unsuccessful raid on the Branch Davidian cult compound near Waco, Texas. That led to a fifty-one-day standoff between the government and the religious cult, which ended tragically when the compound burned down, killing at least seventy-five.
Fanaticism and hateful intolerance played a part in both those stories—and they are merely two from among many such examples in recent years. Even a casual observer of modern society will find incidents of ethnic bigotry and racial hate crimes in any larger American city. There is also much animosity and contention between groups with competing social and political viewpoints. But none of those conflicts is as significant as the one between Christians and the world.
Because We Oppose the World
First, the world hates Christians primarily because Christians are not of the world. We are not culturally part of the "in group." We move against the mainstream secular flow of ideas and practices and stand opposed to wrongs and injustices. We are even eager to urge individuals to repent of their sins and turn to Christ. This final characteristic generates the most intense opposition and hatred from the world.
The term world as used in John 15 and elsewhere is translated from the Greek kosmos. In this context it refers to the evil system of sin in the world as authored by Satan and acted out by humanity. In starker terms, we could say it is the depraved society of wicked human beings that has set itself against Christ, His kingdom, and His people. Is it any wonder that, with Satan at the head of such a system (see John 12:31; 14:30), believers should face hateful opposition when they confront that society?
Disguised as an "angel of light" (2 Cor. 11:14), Satan presents his world system as a false religion. This religion so often presents itself to Christians under the subtle guise of false godliness, which appears to be tolerant of God and Christ when in reality it opposes the truth and openly persecutes believers if necessary. Such deception often makes Christians think there is no threat or leads to surprise when outward persecution comes.
It was a religious system that hated Jesus so much that it eventually killed Him. The false religionists of Palestine detested Him because He violated their system and rebuked their hypocrisy with His righteousness. Similarly, Abel in Genesis 4 was killed by false religion personified in his brother Cain. First John 3:12 provides us with commentary on what Cain did: "Not as Cain, who was of the evil one and slew his brother. And for what reason did he slay him? Because his deeds were evil, and his brother's were righteous."
Because of the nature of Satan's false system over the centuries, with its evil, relentless opposition to God's kingdom, it is important that Christians realize they are not part of the world. God has called us to stand for Jesus Christ in the midst of a sinful society. The system is at once the enemy and the mission field. Paul urged the Philippians to live righteously so "that you may prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world" (Phil. 2:15). This admonition correlates well with what Jesus already said in the Sermon on the Mount:
You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men.
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. (Matt. 5:13–14)
Such exhortations call for Christians to be the conscience of a sinful and perverse generation. If we are obedient and take the scriptural injunctions seriously, we should not be surprised by hostility and persecution. Jesus Himself faced harsh opposition from the people of His day even when He rebuked them more indirectly regarding their spiritual attitude (Luke 4:25–30).
Because It Hates Christ
If the religious leaders hated Jesus so much, can believers today expect things to be easier for them? Jesus answered that in John 15:20: "Remember the word that I said to you, 'A slave is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also." If as Christians we are in Christ and Christ is in us (Gal. 2:20; Col. 2:10–12), the world will hate us even as it hated Christ.
This second aspect of why the world hates us should actually bring us happiness. If we receive suffering and persecution from the world because we represent Jesus, we experience the fellowship of His sufferings. The disciples in Acts 5:41, after being flogged by the religious authorities for continuing to teach in Jesus' name, displayed this attitude of joy: "So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name."
Paul spoke of that fellowship of sufferings in Philippians 3:10, and he knew quite well what that meant (see also 2 Cor. 4:7–18). Scripture attests to the fact that Paul lived out what he taught and wrote. (We will deal in more depth later with Paul's marvelous example of facing suffering.)
Because It Does Not Know God
A third reason the world hates Christians is that it does not know God. In John 15, Jesus said, "But all these things they will do to you for My name's sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me" (v. 21). Such ignorance of God has contributed greatly to horrible spiritual and moral degradation, unawareness of truth, and hostility to what is right. In many ways modern society reflects the first-century conditions in which Paul ministered. When he preached in Athens, he saw how misplaced the people's religion was:
Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, "Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, 'TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.' Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you." (Acts 17:22–23)
Paul uncovered an apathy and ignorance toward the true God and superstition regarding false gods. Without Paul's commentary, we could easily infer that many unbelievers are sincerely moral and religious people, not really affected that much by sin. But such a perception can lead us to downplay opposition from the world or not to be aggressive enough in our evangelism. We often do not take Romans 1:18—2:2 seriously in its picture of the world's natural sinfulness and willful rejection of God's revelation. The world system still does not know God, no matter how tolerant or accepting it might seem when it works through false religion. It still hates believers and still opposes us, and therefore, whatever persecution and pain we receive should not catch us off guard.
Many believers act as if they have beaten the problem of hatred from the world, thinking they are friends of the world. But they forget John's warning, "If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him" (1 John 2:15), or James' strong statement, "Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God" (James 4:4). Satan tempts us subtly to be comfortable in the world, to feel at home within the system, and to make the world around us feel at ease. We seek not to offend anyone, but that is not what Jesus had in mind, nor was that Paul's approach:
For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1 Cor. 1:21–25)
Why Is Suffering Part of the Plan?
So far in this chapter we have seen that suffering, primarily as the result of persecution, is something that true believers may expect to experience. Jesus predicted there would be troubles in this life (John 16:33), and the apostles supported Him in this teaching (2 Tim. 3:12; 1 Peter 4:12). Even if these statements are obediently and faithfully accepted as true—after all, they are in Scripture—the questions of why, how, and on what basis still arise in the minds of Christians.
Those basic questions, which all honest and searching believers are going to have to one degree or another based on their level of maturity, can be answered under one all-encompassing reality. That reality is the sovereignty of God, which, when rightly understood and properly embraced, serves as the foundational lens through which Christians may see all truths in Scripture more clearly. Knowing about God's sovereignty in all things does not mean we will have comprehensive understanding, but it gives us a proper hope in the midst of the more difficult and less clear aspects of His working in our lives (Gen. 18:25; Isa. 55:9).
A complete study of the sovereignty of God is beyond the scope of this book, but a brief discussion will help put the origin and cause of suffering into context. A. W. Pink gave this concise comment: "To say that God is sovereign is to declare that God is God." He then expanded on how God's sovereignty is executed:
The sovereignty of the God of Scripture is absolute, irresistible, infinite. When we say that God is sovereign, we affirm His right to govern the universe, which He has made for His own glory, just as He pleases. We affirm that His right is the right of the Potter over the clay, viz.: that He may mould that clay into whatsoever form He chooses, fashioning out of the same lump one vessel unto honour and another unto dishonour. We affirm that He is under no rule or law outside His own will and nature, that God is a law unto Himself, and that He is under no obligation to give an account of His matters to any.
Sovereignty characterizes the whole Being of God. He is so sovereign in all His attributes. He is sovereign in the exercise of His power. His power is exercised as He wills, when He wills, where He wills. This fact is evidenced on every page of Scripture. For a long season that power appears to be dormant, and then it goes forth with irresistible might. Pharaoh dared to hinder Israel from going forth to worship Jehovah in the wilderness. What happened? God exercised His power, His people were delivered and their cruel taskmasters slain. But a little later, the Amalekites dared to attack these same Israelites in the wilderness, and what happened? Did God put forth His power on this occasion and display His hand as He did at the Red Sea? Were these enemies of His people promptly overthrown and destroyed? No, on the contrary, the Lord swore that He would "have war with Amalek from generation to generation" (Ex. 17:16). Again, when Israel entered the land of Canaan, God's power was signally displayed. The city of Jericho barred their progress. What happened? Israel did not draw a bow nor strike a blow: the Lord stretched forth His hand and the walls fell down flat. But the miracle was never repeated! No other city fell after this manner. Every other city had to be captured by the sword! (emphasis mine)
From that analysis we can infer that God's sovereignty is all-powerful but not always predictable from the human standpoint. God is free to do or not do as He chooses in any given situation, and He is not in any way obligated to repeat the same action in connection with any subsequent similar instance. It is in this way that God sovereignly chooses, as part of His plan, to bring suffering into the lives of various Christians, under differing circumstances, with varying results. In Isaiah 45:7, God said He is "the One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the LORD who does all these." Because of His sovereign power, "God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose" (Rom. 8:28). Again we can see that God's sphere of operation is comprehensive. Therefore, sufferings, trials, persecutions, and all kinds of adversity that may face believers are certainly under His sovereign control and can originate as part of His sovereign plan.
Lessons Learned from Suffering
Knowing that any suffering experienced by believers is part of God's overall sovereign plan provides its own comfort. However, as with any aspect of truth in the Christian life, intellectual knowledge is not an exact parallel to experiential knowledge. Until we know how we react in the midst of living out a certain truth, intellectual allegiance counts for nothing (James 1:25–27; 2:14–17). Testing the validity of what believers profess is one of the fundamental reasons God allows suffering (Job 23:10).
One sure way to test the genuineness of a diamond is by means of what jewelers call the water test. An imitation stone never shines as brilliantly as a real one, but the contrast is not always easy to detect just by ordinary viewing. Jewelers know that placing a genuine diamond and an imitation side by side in water will reveal the differences. The real one continues to sparkle brilliantly underwater, whereas the fake one loses practically all its sparkle.
Excerpted from THE POWER OF SUFFERING by JOHN MACARTHUR JR.. Copyright © 2011 John MacArthur Jr.. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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Posted December 10, 2013
Posted October 8, 2011