Suffering and the Sovereignty of God
Reverend Bryn MacPhail / August 25, 2002
If we are honest in our reflection regarding the persecution of the early Church, we will admit that we have trouble identifying with these Christians. Professing Christ in 21st Century Canada, may be unpopular, but it most certainly is not dangerous. I have preached almost every Sunday for the last 5 years, and not once have I wondered whether I would be stoned to death following the service.
Yet, as we relate our own situation to what is going on in the 1st Century Church, what we do find in common is our SUFFERING. What we see in Acts chapter 8, and what is confirmed by our own experience, is that God allows Christians to suffer.
I doubt there is a person here today whose life has been untouched by pain and personal tragedy. And the sobering reality is that, for many of us, our most difficult trials still await us.
One of my duties as your minister is to help you endure the day of trial in such a way, that by the end of your trial, your confidence in God, and your love for God, is greater than before.
On the one hand, I have seen professing Christians come close to abandoning their faith because of the devastation of pain and suffering. On the other hand, some of the most wise and mature Christians I have ever encountered, credit suffering as the means by which God made them more like Jesus Christ. As your minister, it is my prayer that the latter be true of you.
Perhaps, there are some of you here today who are at crossroads in your relationship with Jesus Christ. There was a time when you embraced Christ; a time when you embraced the doctrines of the Bible; a time when serving Christ in the church was the most important thing to you. But something changed that. For some of you, suffering changed that. A death of a loved one; a destroyed relationship; the trials of life have changed the way you view God, the Bible, and the church.
Beyond the sheer pain of our suffering, we are also troubled by the fact that our suffering comes without an explanation and often baffles our sense of justice. It is very difficult for us, as human beings, to make sense of the torture caused by a disease like cancer, and the cruelty of a disease like Alzheimer’s.
I am thankful that the Bible says a great deal about suffering. And I find it interesting that in all that the Bible says about suffering, the one question that it seldom seeks to answer is the question, “Why?”. For most of us, this is the question we most want answered—“Lord, WHY did you allow this to happen to me?” What we find instead, in the Bible, is the answer to another question, “What is God doing in the midst of our suffering?”
God allows bad things to happen to His children. Let’s not try and candy coat what we know to be true. We know this to be true because bad things have happened to us, and to those we love. The Scriptures teach us that God, who has the power to prevent these bad things, instead chooses to use these "bad things" in such a way that a most blessed outcome results. And this is precisely what we find in the persecution of the early Church.
Up until now, in the book of Acts, all the ministry has taken place in Jerusalem. No one had moved out to Judea and Samaria. But Jesus had said in Acts 1:8 that the coming of the Holy Spirit was meant to empower missions in Jerusalem and beyond. "you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth." And now, Luke seeks to demonstrate how this commission was fulfilled as a result of persecution.
Persecution reached a new level in chapter 7 with the stoning of Stephen, and, in chapter 8, we are introduced to Saul (soon to be known as Paul) who we learn was “in hearty agreement with putting (Stephen) to death”(8:1).
It appears that the execution of Stephen touched off a massive wave of persecution, for we read that, “on that day a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles”(8:1).
Luke also makes special mention of Saul’s role in this persecution, writing, “Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house; and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison”(8:3).
Bad things are happening to Christians in the early Church. Some are being killed. Many are being taken from their homes and thrown in prison. And God, being all-powerful, had the power to prevent all of this. But He doesn’t.
God, in His sovereign wisdom, did not prevent suffering of those Christians, but instead, chose to manage it for the greater good of the Church and for the advancement of His glory.
You might recognize this principle from that familiar verse, Romans 8:28, “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”
And here, in Acts 8, we see this principle at work; we see God using suffering for the advancement of His glory in verse 4, “Therefore”—that is, because of the persecution, “those who had been scattered went about preaching the Word.”
Bible commentators point out that there are different words for “scattered” in Greek. One means dispersed so that the item is gone from that point on. This is not the word used in Acts 8. The word used here means, scattered in order to be planted. The disciples were scattered as a result of persecution. But, by causing the Christians to scatter, the Christian community became planted in many places where they would proceed to “preach the Word” and see the church grow.
As John Stott points out, “(the devil’s) attack had the opposite effect to what he intended. Instead of smothering the gospel, persecution succeeded only in spreading it.”(Stott, Acts, 146).
Do you see the concurrent forces at work in the midst of suffering? On the one hand, the devil means to harm us and dismantle our faith through suffering. On the other hand, God means to govern and limit our suffering in such a way that what ultimately results is something good and holy. This is our consolation in suffering--that God, in His sovereignty, promises to triumph over our suffering.
We have already said that suffering is bad. We all agree here. It's painful, it's unpleasant, it's disheartening. Yet, what is good is what God produces in us through suffering. And, as many Christians have recognized, what God does in us through suffering is usually more profound than what He does through prosperity.
Have you ever heard anyone say, "The most satisfying days of my life have come in times of extended ease and comfort"? Nobody says that. It isn't true. What is true is what Samuel Rutherford said when he was put in the cellars of affliction: "The Great King keeps his wine there". What's true is what Charles Spurgeon said: "They who dive in the sea of affliction bring up rare pearls."
Charles Spurgeon, a man who suffered quite extensively in his life, wrote: "I am afraid that all the grace that I have got of my comfortable and easy times, might almost lie on a penny. But the good that I have received from my sorrows, and pains, and griefs, is altogether immeasurable."
Some people might find it unsettling to think that God actually allows us to suffer, yet for me it is the converse that I find frightening. What is scary is to think that God has no power or control over our suffering. As Charles Spurgeon has said, "It would be a very sharp and trying experience to me to think that I have an affliction which God never sent me, that the bitter cup was never filled by his hand, that my trials were never measured out by him, nor sent to me by His arrangement of their weight and quantity . . . we need not be afraid . . . He who made no mistakes in balancing the clouds and meting out the heavens, commits no errors in measuring out the ingredients which compose the medicine of souls."
Hymn writer, William Cowper, also says it well when he writes:
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.
The Bible is clear on this point: in the midst of our suffering, something good is taking place. Our Heavenly Father, who is all-powerful, all-wise, and all-loving, has a plan when He allows His children to suffer. Admittedly, the plan is sometimes difficult to see and, in some cases, we do not see the reasoning behind God's plan on this side of heaven.
You may find yourself in a terrible situation at the moment. I want you to be encouraged by the fact that God is with you and that He is not a helpless bystander, but He is the Lord of the universe. And knowing this to be true, we are comforted by the promise that, in the life of the Christian, God is working all things for our good and His glory.
I pray that, in the midst of suffering, God might grant us all the ability to sing with Horatio Spafford, "When sorrows like sea billows roll; whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul". Amen.