In a previous article, I discussed the need for American Christians to recapture the truth from scripture that we are first and foremost citizens of heaven, not earth, and how that truth can free us to serve those inside and outside the Church during trying times. In this article, I want to look at how a biblical understanding of God's love and sovereignty should encourage and sustain us during trials. If we understand God's sovereign control even over our hardships, it should help us see God's purposes for that hardship and help us realize that we are not beyond his grasp during trying times.
This is not to say that God directly causes all the suffering we experience, but none of those experiences are outside of his control. Both the Old and New Testaments teach this important truth. For example, Job's sufferings were caused directly by Satan but only occurred with God's permission (Job 1-2). In the midst of his sufferings, Job asked: "Shall we accept only good from God's hands but not bad?" (Job 2: 7, 10). Joseph was wrongfully sold into slavery and imprisoned for years. But in the end, he learned all was part of God's plan and what others meant for evil, God meant for good (Gen. 50:20). Amos's statement is even more direct: "If a calamity occurs in a city, has not the Lord done it?" (Amos 3:6).
The prophet Habakkuk shared this perspective when he looked into the near future and saw that his own country, Israel, was going to be devastated by a seemingly worse nation, Babylon. But Habakkuk still said he would "rejoice in the God of my salvation" and praise him, even though Israel's entire economy was going to be destroyed (Habakkuk 3:17-19). We would do well to remember this critical fact if God allows our country to suffer at the hands of seemingly "worse" people.
In the New Testament, Jesus said that not a single sparrow falls apart from our Father's will (Matt. 10:29). If that is so, how could a company, or a country? Paul was harassed by a messenger from Satan, but Paul knew that God had a purpose for that, namely to keep Paul humble (2 Cor. 12:7). At the outset of Paul's apostolic ministry, God told Ananias that God would show Paul "how much he must suffer for my name" (Acts 9:16). Even Christ himself learned from what he suffered (Heb. 5:8). We cannot think that we are exempt from this same school of learning.
It is important to remember that each of these men was deeply loved by God, but God had a divine purpose for putting each of those men, including his own Son, through trials. Roman Catholics have done a better job than many Protestants at understanding how God can use suffering as a blessing in the lives of his people. The entire American Church would do well to recapture that idea now, especially with the prospect of more troubled times ahead.
C.S. Lewis realized that even as his country was being bombed during World War II, the war had some positive spiritual affects on the Church:
War makes death real to us, and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past. They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right. All . . . schemes of happiness that centered in this world, were always doomed to a final frustration. In ordinary times only a wise man can realize it. Now the stupidest of us knows . . . . If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth . . . we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon.
Closer to home, we see a powerful example of this principle from a Christian military officer who was badly burned on 9-11 during the attack on the Pentagon. When he wanted to give up during the painful wound cleanings he had to endure after that attack, his wife reminded him that nothing had happened to him that did not pass through God's hands first. This is exactly the perspective we need now and in the days ahead, especially since something much worse than 9-11 could still befall our country.
These truths are hard to comprehend when we are in the middle of suffering. Raw emotions and the pain of loss can overwhelm our reason and cloud our view of things. That is why it is so important to instill these truths in our hearts before hardship hits. Otherwise we will be more tempted to view suffering through the pain of our emotions, rather than through the lens of scripture.
In his book The Hidden Smile of God, John Piper shows how three saints from the past were better prepared for suffering because of their understanding of God's sovereignty. Piper states: "For nothing glorifies God more than maintaining our stability and joy when we lose everything but God. That day is coming for each of us, and we do well to get ready, and to help the people we love get ready."
Christian leaders in particular, and all believers in America, need to heed this warning now and embrace this truth as we head into what could be far more difficult times.
1 "Learning in War-Time" from The Weight of Glory.
Steve Hall is the Executive Director of Joseph's Way (www.josephsway.org), a ministry designed to prepare Christians for social, economic, and physical challenges that are ahead. He is an elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Seminary, and is a licensed attorney. He and his wife live in Richmond, Virginia.
This article originally appeared on Christianity.com on February 17, 2009.