Suffering, Sovereignty, and the Beauty of God’s Glory and Grace

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My freshman year in college, my ‘theological worldview’ was dashed on the rocks. I had been raised in a good, conservative church, but had never heard anything that approached the Reformed position on God’s sovereignty. But in my very first Bible class, there it was – a lecture on doctrine of election. To my knowledge, I had never heard a sermon on the subject before, let alone having thought about it on my own for any length of time. This was, of course, the window to many other questions about God, salvation, and humanity’s freedom and responsibility.

In the midst of wrestling through the extent of God’s sovereignty, I was forced to contemplate something else – the problem of evil. My first real, thoughtful confrontation of the problem of evil came in the form of my college roommate. Initially, God slipped this living lesson under my radar. We met for the first time as freshmen in college. We had not known each before and had been placed together, seemingly at random, by the college administration. At the time I had no idea that God had providentially provided for me both a best friend and a powerful lesson in the problem of evil.

Shortly after Jason (my roommate) and I met for the first time, his mother revealed to me something special about Jason; something I had not yet noticed. She shared with me that he was grateful that I had picked the top bunk because he had problems with his hips. As time went on, I learned that Jason had a degenerative disease that caused the ball-and-socket joint in both his hips to become rough. This in turn caused the cartilage in those joints to be worn away so that when he walked, his bones pressed against each other. He had been diagnosed with this when he was only eight years old. Since his diagnosis, he had had a brace put on this legs when he was eight, had surgery when he was ten, and then spent three months in a body-cast the following summer. As a result of the surgery, Jason’s hips had been fused and his mobility had been greatly reduced. He constantly had to tolerate walking with a limp, having difficulty keeping his balance, and not being able to ride a bike or engage in any other activity that forced him to spread his legs out farther apart than the width of his waist. Since his operation, Jason had never been able to even cross his legs – something I took for granted numerous times a day.

It may sound odd, but at first this did not bother me. This natural evil was not a ‘problem’ for me.’ But when the time was right, God opened my eyes and Jason’s condition hit me like a ton of theological bricks. All of this came in the larger context of the development of my larger doctrinal categories. I was slowly coming to believe that a more Reformed understanding of the Scriptures was the correct one. And it was the winter quarter of my sophomore year that God really began to drive this home to me.

The college I attended had chapel everyday, Monday through Friday. My roommate and I usually sat together in chapel and one Monday the school had invited a group from Michigan to speak. This group came from a home for the mentally handicapped. Before the actual speaker shared his message about what God was doing at this home, some of the home’s residents gave their testimonies and performed a song with hand-bells. The song they performed was virtually flawless and the testimonies were more than we were prepared for. As we sat together admiring their hand-bell performance, they began giving their testimonies. They were powerful in their simplicity. Basically, every person gave the same testimony: they would approach the microphone, and in a voice that was distorted from their handicap proclaimed ‘I’m saved.’ At first, this was almost humorous, but after the third person the message came home to us. Despite the mental difficulties that these men and women suffered from, God had worked a miracle of grace in their hearts and saved them from their sins. By the end of the chapel service, both my roommate and I were weeping in joyous amazement.

How does this relate to the problem of evil? It did not relate in my mind until Jason and I began to talk about it. We began talking about how we had been moved by the service and how salvation was truly amazing. But then, the conversation turned to the question of why God allowed them and others like them to be born with mental handicaps. At first, I sat back feeling very pious and proclaimed that God did not purposely cause these people to suffer this disability. It was simply an outworking of the sin-affected nature. This had arisen from the corrupt natural order of the world. I said that anything less would make God the author of sin and suffering. Such things did not happen because God specifically wanted them to happen. Rather, he allowed them to happen as part of the natural order of his creation. I believed that anything more would make God evil.

At this point, Jason got a little upset and pressed me on my ‘pious’ position with his own personal struggle – ‘Are you saying that my hips are like this for no reason? That God did not have a purpose behind this?’ I honestly did not know what to say. My first thought was to say ‘yes.’ Why would God cause Jason to suffer like that? How could God want someone to go through that? I did not say this to Jason, though. Instead, I just muttered something like ‘I don’t know’ and retreated from the front-line of the discussion.

Jason’s questions haunted my thoughts for weeks after our conversation. The same questioned rolled thoughts my mind: Could God have ordained that Jason suffer with his hip disease? Why would he do that? After prayerful meditation on the subject and a searching of the Scriptures, I arrived at a solution that not only seemed to fit the Biblical text, and my budding Reformed theology, but also gave me a quiet confidence in the goodness of my God. This solution became crystallized in my thinking because of one passage in John 9. There, the apostle relates an incident of Jesus healing a man who was blind from birth (9:1). His disciples asked a similar question that Jason had posed to me. ‘Why was he born this way?’ Jesus’ answer to his disciples was became my answer to Jason. Jesus said, “…it was so the works of God might be displayed in him” (9:3). This was answer that I was looking for. At first, it may not have seemed like the most comfortable answer, but I believed it was the most biblical answer.

After months of reflection, I gave Jason an answer to the question he had posed to me. I told him that I believed God did indeed want him to have that degenerative hip disease. I also told him I believed that God had given it to him for a reason. And though he may never know the reason, God did. God would use Jason and the problems he went through so that He might display His works through him. And at the end of the day, God would accomplish good and be glorified through it.

Since that time, Jason’s continued, solid faith in God, despite his suffering, has spoken volumes to me over our many years of friendship. He has strengthened my own faith and has been a constant source of encouragement for me in my own times of trials and suffering. Jason’s total faith in the goodness of God even in the midst of suffering was evident at his senior recital for his degree in Music. After having sung various pieces to demonstrate his skill, he ended with a hymn – It is Well with My Soul. I found myself again weeping as I did before. But this time, I was weeping for a different reason. Jason had let God do the work he wanted in his life. And despite the pain it sometimes brought, Jason was confident that it was best for his life and the lives of those who knew him. The grace and glory of God in the midst of suffering was truly a beautiful thing.

[Others have come to the same conclusions I have come to about these issues. Perhaps the most powerful testimony is that of Steve Saint , which can be found here.]

2 thoughts on “Suffering, Sovereignty, and the Beauty of God’s Glory and Grace

  1. Holiday At The Sea says:

    What a great “reformed” (not slavific ;)) testamony.When embraced reformed theology I was blessed to be on a mission trip with the pastor who introduced me to it. He was gracious to answer the million questions that came out of my mouth for those 2 weeks. What made me listen (though it didnt want to believe calvinism at the time) was ALL the Scriptural support that he gave for the reformed view.I had always said that if the Bible says it, I believe it. He showed me that the Bible said it so I had no choice but to believe it. Now my heart dances for joy knowing that He is in control and is working ALL things for my good…even martyrdom! I love the pic for the dead theologians that you have!mike

  2. Pastor John says:

    mike, thanks for stopping by and sharing. it took me about three years to come around. like you, i wanted to faithful to the bible’s teaching. the turning point as i reading a non-reformed study bible’s comments on ephesians 1. i determined to study the notes so i could answer others. but the more i read it the more i realized it just wasn’t what Paul was saying. i’m glad i chose paul over the other guy. johnp.s. glad you like the pic 😉

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