The Sovereignty of God in our Suffering

When we think about suffering, we are prone to think about how bad it feels, to become inward focused, to ask “Why me?”. When we actually experience suffering, we flesh out the values that we really hold to be true: whether we really believe that God is of first importance, or if we naively believe that the world should revolve around us. We rarely ever stop to think about anything outside of ourselves. We often don’t stop to realize there’s a bigger picture, and a purpose behind the pain.

Take the life of Joseph, for example. His father, Israel, loved him most, out of all his brothers. Out of envy and anger, his brothers threw him in a pit and told their father that Joseph was dead. They then sold him to traveling Ishmaelites on the way to Egypt. So Joseph has been betrayed and sold by his brothers, transported to a foreign land, and forced to work as a servant. Joseph found favor in God’s eyes though, and quickly advanced in authority in Potiphar’s house. Then Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce Joseph, and when Joseph tells her that he won’t sin against God like that, she lies about him and has him thrown in prison. Betrayed, sold into slavery, slandered, and imprisoned. He then interprets the dreams of the chief baker and chief cupbearer, asking that they would only remember him when they got out of prison in three days as the dreams foretold. The baker was executed, and the cupbearer forgets Joseph. Betrayed, sold into slavery, slandered, imprisoned, and forgotten. But God didn’t forget about Joseph for the TWO YEARS he was in jail after the cupbearer was released. God caused Pharaoh to have a dream about the impending seven years of plenty and seven years of famine, and then the cupbearer finally remembers Joseph, still in jail.

We know how the rest of the story goes. The Pharaoh appoint Joseph as his right hand man because he had the wisdom of God on his side, as displayed in interpreting the dream, second to none but Pharaoh himself. Then Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt and they re-unite, and Joseph tells them that even though they meant this for evil, that God meant it for good.

Now, it’s easy for us to say “Come on! It was JOSEPH! He’s in the Bible! Of course, he’s gonna stay faithful in the hard times!” First, the Bible also tells us about people who flake out when it gets tough or they don’t like what God’s doing. Second, I’m sure Joseph didn’t know he was going to be in Scripture, as there wasn’t a Scripture until over 400 years after he died. He was a real person, with real feelings, with real faith, also wanting real answers, as any of us would.

It’s also easy for us to say that God did this just to preserve the Israelites during the famine. While that’s true, we also have to ask “Who’s in charge of the weather?” God could have easily said “Ok, no famine. My people are safe.” and been done with it. He positioned Joseph in Egypt because He caused the famine. He did all of this to fulfill a promise/prophecy He made to Abraham in Genesis 15.

Genesis 15:12-16 ESV

[12] As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him. [13] Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. [14] But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. [15] As for yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. [16] And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”

So we have God telling Abraham, a good 300ish years ahead of time, that He’s going to lead the Israelites into a foreign land (Egypt) where they would be servants and be afflicted for 400 years. WHY!?

Part of the answer to this question is to provide Abraham assurance that he would indeed have descendants, as Abraham was very old and had no children. This was also in answer to his question of how he would know he would possess the “promised land” (Gen. 15:7-11).

Perhaps a greater part to answering this “Why?” question above is that God was positioning the Israelites in a place of servanthood and affliction so that He could save them. God positioned Joseph in hard times, through trials and suffering, so that He could position His people in Egypt to be slaves and be afflicted for 400 years, so that God could send Moses as His prophet to tell the Pharaoh of the time to let the Israelites go. He positioned Joseph in times of suffering so that He could rescue His people from slavery, and prove that He is the only God, for His glory and the good of His people.

Immediately after this amazing story of redemption in the Old Testament, God tells His people to build the tabernacle and that He would dwell there amongst His people. Then He gives them the law, a means by which they can atone for their sins and be able to be near God’s presence in the tabernacle.

Similarly, in the New Testament redemption story, there is a man who endures hard times and suffering so that God could save His people. This time, that Man was God Himself, in the person of Jesus the Christ. Jesus took on the pain and the suffering Himself, fulfilling the law that God gave which enables us to be in His presence without completely melting when we come in contact with His holiness. This time, though, after the redemption, God doesn’t give us more law; He gives us grace.

When we suffer, we can take heart in at least three things:
1) God is sovereignly working our circumstances out for His glory and our good.
2) When God allows someone to suffer, it is for the purpose of bringing His people closer to Himself.
3) The two purposes just mentioned prove Him to be loving, good, just, and holy in allowing His people to suffer.

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