A theology for suffering

Often times, we can go months or even years without any thought given to death. I’ve lived a pretty blessed life. Over the course of my 30 years, I’ve only lost a few people close to me. However, the events of the last two months have brought the fact that we aren’t promised tomorrow into stark focus. My brother-in-law’s death happened quickly and at such a young age, it didn’t really give us time to process everything until afterwards. Two weeks ago I helped with a horrible car wreck which, again, demonstrated that our time here is so limited. Then, this weekend, my dad’s boss was killed in a tragic car accident. He was just 26.

That’s a lot to take in for someone so unaccustomed to dealing with our mortality.

We spent the weekend in shock at yet another loss. I didn’t personally know him, but just having someone close to you lose someone suddenly has the same shocking effect. He was so young and no one had any time to prepare. I watched my kids play this weekend with a heightened since of emotion. I longed to protect them from this world. I longed to impart to them the wisdom that might some day save them from tragedy. But, I also acknowledge that I can only do my best. My mom asked if I could ever imagine losing a son. Even the smallest thought in that direction brings tears to my eyes. I can’t imagine it.

The one thing that has really made all this bearable is my belief in the sovereignty of God. My belief that he is in 100 percent control of everything that happens gives me hope. It gives me hope because even in the midst of horrific loss, I know he is still in control. This world is not a series of random occurrences that we just have to suffer through with no hope. I personally know plenty of people that don’t trust God in these times. One thing I don’t know, though, is how they do it. If I thought the fate of my children was in the hands of random chance, I don’t know how I could approach each day without locking them in a protected room.

I know three things. I know God is in control. I know he loves me. I know he does everything around me for my good.

These days, my good looks like some terrible personal tragedies that force me to rely on God. That increasing reliance brings with it a sweetness that I can’t describe. I thank God every day that he does not abandon us. I thank God that the “bad” things that happen aren’t because he is angry with me. He loves me and sees exactly how all this fits together in the grand scheme of things.

I’ve heard Matt Chandler preach about a theology of suffering a lot. I’ve never really and truly understood it until I went through suffering on a scale larger than I could handle on my own. The reminder, “God is good and does good,” has been what got me through a few hard months. It has become a sweet phrase to hear in my soul.



  1. Jonathan Vlietstra says

    Sorry to hear of these tragic events, but there are a couple points I must disagree with…
    If God is 100% in control of the world, then God chooses who dies before their time due to accidents, God choses which children get kidnapped and murdered, and God decided to kill that 26 year old. If we cant understand why he does the things he does, how is that any different from random chance? Neither one cannot be predicted in any fashion, and from our point of view would be identical.
    Saying everything is done by God, and is done as part of his plan for you seems to be a lot of self-interest, im sure your dad’s boss would not feel what happened should be part of the ‘grand scheme of things’. I am sorry for your loss, and for all those who have suffered, I just think that sometimes people look at things the wrong way because of blind faith.
    You wrote ‘This world is not a series of random occurrences that we just have to suffer through with no hope.’. The world is a series of random occurences, yet there is no reason to say there is no hope. When people say that if there is no god there is no hope, they are giving up responsibility – the responsibility we have to make this world a better place for everyone, instead of claiming no reponsibility and using God’s Plan as an excuse.

    • says

      Thanks for the reply Jonathan.

      To your first point, I do believe God is in 100% control of everything. Who lives, who dies, and exactly when and how it happens. It doesn’t mean I’m always a fan of what happens, but I accept it. I don’t always understand the things he does, but that’s not what I’m after. The key isn’t that God’s control is easier to understand or predict than random chance would be. It’s that he is in control and he loves me. The loves me part is what makes it comforting. If one of my sons dies, it would devastate me. But I know it wouldn’t be a punitive action from God. I’m not an object of wrath, but of mercy.

      I also don’t think believing God is in control of everything in any way gives us license to be lazy and not take responsibility for making this a better world. In fact, the love I receive from God drives me to love him and others. I strive to make this world better. I strive to help those around me. That is why God created me because that is my role to play in the grand scheme of things. From my view, that grand scheme is often a messy, ugly business filled with heartache and sorrow for so many. But I have faith that from God’s view, it is a beautiful symphony of creation orchestrated for his glory. It may seem odd to worship a God who is all about his own glory, but if his glory is not worth his own pursuit, why would I ever want to worship him?

  2. Jonathan Vlietstra says

    There is something that never made sense to me regarding religious beliefs, do we have free will? Is it our actions that determine if we go to heaven or hell, or are we slated from before birth for one ending or the other? I hear talk of free will and that God lets us choose who we want to be (and wants us to be good) but also of his plan that cannot be altered – we cant have free will and be part of a plan thats already been decided.
    Another thing that makes me a skeptic is that all it takes to create a religion is a charismatic leader, and something that people do not understand but want to, an a religion can be born. From early sun worshipers, to cargo cults (look those up if you havent heard of them – a perfect example of religions being created in recent times. And people believe). Or brainwashing – many modern day examples of cults programming belief into people, and technically that is what essentially all organized religions do to children these days. Someone could make up essentially anything, teach it to children as they grow up and tell them its the truth, and they would believe that made up ‘religion’ and be devout believers. This is obvious in todays world as we have so many different religions, each claiming to be the only truth, yet so different that they cant all be – and children grow up as their parents religion most of the time. Essentially where you are born determines your beliefs – there seems to be something profoundly wrong about that – Universal Truth is determined by geography?
    There are so many things that we cant know, and a 2000 year old book written over a century by several different people is generally not considered to be exceptionally accurate. And does it make a difference? I like the slogan ‘There probably is no God, so stop worrying and enjoy life’. We can never know, so why spend all this time and effort, all this war between religions (happens a LOT), lets just all be good to each other and not worry.

    • says

      This topic is hard enough to discuss with two people who believe the Bible is the word of God and almost impossible between one who does and one who doesn’t, but I’ll give it my best shot.

      You say free will and a plan God decided on long ago don’t really work together. I say, you are completely right. They don’t. And most churches just chalk it up to something we’ll never really understand.

      What it boils down to is I don’t think we really have the free will we tell ourselves we do. I guess it depends on how you define free will. If God has already decided the outcome of every decision, do we really have free will? I believe the Bible teaches that everything that happens is part of God’s will. The good, bad and ugly. He either directly causes things to happen, or allows then to happen as part of his plan. I like to think of it as orchestrating our actions more than controlling them. If we are intellectually honest, I don’t think we can believe in free will and a preordained plan of God at the same time.

      As to salvation, I believe it is entirely in God’s hands. I am saved because he saved me. It’s not because I walked to the front of the church. It’s not because I prayed a prayer. It’s not because I am in any way special. It’s because, from before creation, God decided he would save me. He scoops me up out of my sin and rebellion for his glory. It has nothing to do with my actions or lack thereof. It’s the same with everyone else too. If my getting into Heaven was based on my actions, I would be in all kinds of trouble. Because it is God who does the saving work, I simply trust him to get me through to the end, and my love for him drives me to try to become a better person and improve the world around me. I can’t work my way into heaven.

      I have friends from all different religious backgrounds, and some who have none at all. I love the diversity. Am I ever going to believe what they believe? Probably not, no. Are they going to believe what I believe? I don’t know. Religions can be easily created, and people can be easily convinced. I have to trust God to work in everyone’s lives, as part of his plan. All I can do is work hard, be good to the world and see what happens. I’m going to love people, whether they share my faith or not. Again, I believe people come to saving faith as a gift from God, so all I can do is try my best and hope God uses something in my life, actions and even mistakes to get their attention.

      The historical accuracy and relevance of the Bible has always been called into question. I’ve read and watched a lot about the actual historical facts that back it up, but to be honest I haven’t paid close enough attention to argue it well. Probably because I already have faith in the Bible, I’ve just never given it a lot of attention. I know a lot of people who don’t believe the Bible and I don’t think many of them would change the way they live or think if they knew the Bible was historically accurate. I guess I should spend some more time learning those things.

      I think skepticism is good and healthy. I often skeptical about religious topics. That always drives me to research whatever it is. Some of that skepticism has led to changes in my overall beliefs, such as the free will of man versus the preordained plan of God, but none of it has ever led to anything that I felt contradicted me base set of beliefs. Skepticism leads to conversations like this, and who knows where that can go?

  3. Jonathan Vlietstra says

    From what you wrote, your belief is that people will be saved, mostly regardless of the lives they lead (as in religious views dont matter) as long as they try in general to be good. Basically more in the spirit of the teachings (golden rule, etc), not in the explict word (only those who pray and accept Jesus will be saved, etc). Is that correct?
    Generally, its those who believe in the explicit ‘Word’ that I have an issue with, mostly because it makes no sense or paints God as a horribly evil diety (many stories from the bible make God seem quite evil and cruel to me).

    • says

      I don’t think that’s quite it. I believe people are saved by God based on his own glory and not our actions. Paul was saved by God and prior to that, he did nothing but evil. He persecuted and slaughtered Christians. God didn’t save Paul because Paul had done anything good or was in anyway leaning toward God. He saved him for his own glory.

      It goes to show you don’t have to be a good old church goer to be saved in the first place. In fact, you can come from a place of total hatred of Christianity to a place of salvation in just a few seconds if that is how God wants to do it. I don’t believe there is any special power in “the sinner’s prayer.” If we genuinely ask God to be Lord of our lives, that is not the triggering action that saves us. It is a response to the fact that God has already saved us, revealed his work to our hearts and then we have no choice but to follow.

      However, after salvation, theological views do follow the structure laid out by God in the Bible. I don’t believe God saves and then says, “It’s ok if you still want to worship Buddha, you’re a good person so I gotcha.” If God saves, there is a noticeable and transformative life change that involves not just being good, but spreading the gospel of Jesus.

      There are things in the Bible that make God seem vengeful and cruel. But, as the great teacher Obi-Wan Kenobi says, it all depends on a certain point of view. If you view God as the ultimate in holiness, then even one sin on our part puts us into a category of rebellion deserving the ultimate punishment. In that light, there is nothing that can happen to us here on Earth or after that could be considered cruelty on God’s part. If, however, you view God and not ultimately holy, then our actions are not deserving off all that we suffer. Again, I think it comes down to faith in what the Bible teaches. It teaches of a holy and glorious God, our rebellion against him, and his grace to save us for his glory.

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