As a pastor I have the opportunity to see many people work through the pain, frustration, sorrow, and fear that comes with affliction. Some suffer from their own folly, some endure the hardship of disease, and others are hurt by the evil actions of wicked men. And in it all we are looking for some kind of answer, direction, or purpose.
As I have been preaching through Habakkuk at redeemer we have been confronted with the same truth the prophet was hit with: our God is truly and completely sovereign, even over the sinful actions of wicked men. God tells the prophet that he is raising up, empowering, a wicked nation to do what they do best: conquer.
For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize dwellings not their own.
Habakkuk struggles with God's word on this because He know the Lord to be a good and righteous God who loves his people. How can he empower an ungodly nation to come against his own people? God explains that the Chaldeans will be the instrument he uses to bring judgment to his own people who have continued in grievous sin and idolatry without repentance. Yet even the destruction and deportation of Judah is a means to their spiritual recovery and returning to the Lord. And although God sovereignly rules over the evil actions of the Chaldeans, they are still responsible for what they do, and he will judge them for their wicked deeds against Israel.
This is a tough story. It's hard theology. But as long as we keep it all inside the Bible we can deal with it. But what happens when we are the ones who suffer, especially at the hands of others? If we say God is sovereign over the evil actions of men, then we must also say that he is sovereign over the evil actions of men who hurt us. This doctrine becomes immediately personal.
Sovereignty, Sin, and Salvation
Before we jump into our affliction and God's plan for our lives, let's step back a minute and consider our redemption. To state it plainly, were God not truly sovereign over the sinful actions of wicked men our redemption could not have been accomplished. Consider to the words of Peter.
"Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it." The Apostle Peter, Acts 2:22
Even here we see that the death of Jesus Christ was sovereignly planned by God the Father to bring about our salvation, and yet lawless men are still held responsible for their actions. Here are the two truths we need to embrace together; God is absolutely sovereign and man is genuinely responsible. They may seem to be doctrines hard to reconcile together, but as Charles Spurgeon explained it this way. "I never reconcile two friends, never. These two doctrines are friends with one another; for they are both in God's Word, and I shall not attempt to reconcile them." The bottom line is Jesus suffered grievously at the hands of lawless men, and this was a part of God's plan from the beginning. And through it we are saved.
Sovereignty, Sin, and Glory
So what about our afflictions, particularly when we are wronged? How are we to think of and respond to them? What's the purpose, and what direction are we given? There is one answer that is supremely satisfying to those who know God. All things in our life, including the pain, are there for the glory of God.
This is another thing Christians like to say. "All things exist for the glory of God." We like to say it because it's true and we believe it, mostly. But when we are slandered, robbed, or hurt it can be harder to see this truth worked out. For help, let's consider Joseph.
Joseph one of twelve sons of Jacob, and was favored by his father. His brothers plotted against him, to kill him, only to change their minds and sell him into slavery. The brothers told their father Joseph had been killed by wild animals. Joseph was later convicted for a crime he did not commit. While in prison Joseph had the opportunity to minister to the Pharaoh of Egypt, and consequently was exalted to Pharaoh's right hand as Vizier (governor of the people).
During a famine Joseph's brothers were sent to Egypt by their father to seek help buy goods. They stood before Joseph without recognizing him. When Joseph revealed himself to his brothers they feared for their lives, expecting Joseph to exact revenge. Instead Joseph explained, "And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life." (Genesis 45:5 ESV) And, "Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today." (Genesis 50:19 ESV).
Here Joseph embraces the two friends of God's sovereignty and man's responsibility. What his brothers meant for evil, God meant for good. And it wasn't that Joseph found a life of power that made it all worth it. For him it was that he was used to save and protect Israel, through whom the Messiah would come, through whom salvation is found for all. In the end, the purpose of our affliction, even the experience of injustice, is the glory of God. That his beauty would be on display for all to see.
The question we then want to ask is, how is God glorified in this situation? We think, "It's all bad. I can't see any good coming out of it." Perhaps a better question to ask is, how may I glorify God in this situation. How you walk through your circumstances can reflect God's glory or man's folly. You can reflect God's glory by trusting the God who rules over all things and depending on him in the midst of your difficulties. And your ongoing faith and repentance is not just personal. It should be public. God is glorified when you confess him before others as your world is rocked. God is glorified by you as you obey his word, even though you do not know why He is allowing dark days to befall you. And God is glorified in the midst of your sadness when you simultaneously experience and express joy. For in darkness and even in death, nothing can separate you from the love of God in Jesus Christ.
Praise God that he is sovereign over sin, for his purposes are good, and lead to our salvation and his glory.
Joe Thorn is Lead Pastor of redeemer fellowship in St. Charles, IL and blogs at joethorn.net. His book, note to self: the discipline of preaching to yourself, was released through Crossway/ReLit. You can follow him on Twitter @joethorn.