A while back, I wrote a post titled: God’s Will For Your Life Is That You Would Suffer. The heart of the piece dealt with three aspects of the Will of God and built a theology showing that indeed, God does will that we would suffer. These aforementioned aspects included God’s Decretive Will (His decreed or sovereign will), His Preceptive Will (His revealed will in the Scriptures), and God’s Permissive Will (His allowance of evil, and so forth). In the piece itself, I demonstrated that it is the case, but not necessarily how and why. Stemming from this post, a dear friend asked a good question: When God sovereignly ordains something against His moral will via His permissive will, why would I say, in effect, He desires this to happen? Why would He desire our suffering?
In essence, the logic didn’t quite make sense to see that God would actively cause something to come to pass that violates His revealed will. This is a similar question to the Arminian’s, save the large difference in taking it a step further to ask how such a thing is morally good. For our purposes, this touches heavily on His permissive will – so I want to take some time to explain this more clearly and also provide answers as to why God would desire something, like suffering at the hands of persecutors, yet simultaneously ordain the persecutor to rise against His people. I use suffering as an example because it was the topic of the previous post, as well as the context the question came forth from.
I believe one of the ways we tend to get lost in this is by framing things purely in terms of His “allowing” these things to happen. By virtue of the fact that He has a sovereign will that He exercises freely, He actively brings all things that come to pass. The idea behind this is that God, in exercising His right over all things to do with them as He pleases, does so in utter perfection. In that, God is not passive, but active. It is not enough to say God merely permits the evils of this world to happen (consider Job 1:8). We must be consistent in acknowledging that all things come from His hand – He ordains whatsoever comes to pass and in so doing, He desires it to happen (Pro. 16:33; Eph. 1:11).
Naturally, when you raise such a proposition, the problem of evil comes up (i.e. how can God actively ordain all things, such as for sin to come into the world, and yet be without fault?). Most plainly stated: when God handles anything, it is by virtue of His being, not evil or wicked. He is the fountainhead of all goodness, indeed, the very source of our understanding of good. What then flows from His character, being, and deeds, is utterly and wholly good. The inherit problem in this is not that I have said He is good, but that many cannot reconcile how all His deeds can be good, if it is said that such deeds are perceived as evil in the human mind. I believe the misconception of our Arminian friends in this is that God is inadvertently defined in terms of perceived goodness, rather than actual goodness being defined in terms of God.
God is good, therefore, goodness bears qualitative likeness to God’s own being and flows from his essence. The clearest place one sees this is in His creative genius in Genesis 1-2, and it is no small wonder why the very first words of the Bible set up this portrait for the Christian. Straight away, the Scriptures propose the existence of God, demonstrate His complete mastery over all things by virtue of the fact that He speaks them into existence, and then displays all of His works to be good. In each instance of Creation, God brings something into existence, shapes it for His purposes, and then calls it good. When He has completed His work, He steps back, delights in it, and declares it all to be very good.
The ultimate proposition of the Scriptures then is that whatever God does, it is good. This should be an uncontroversial statement for those who claim Christ. What we need to do then is turn the corner, and simply see that God does many things that don’t align with our initial perception. This does not then flip the former notion of God’s goodness on its head, but rather, reveals a deficiency in our own minds in comprehending His goodness in and through such things. Yet what I would propose here is that the deficiency is not only in the inadvertent defining of God in terms of perceived goodness. It is likewise a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of sin.
We tend to define sin in terms of a tangible thing. However, sin is not a substance, but rather a state of being that falls short of the standard of God. Therefore, nothing God does can be intrinsically sinful or short of that standard. Not one act from the hand of the Creator and Sustainer can be said to fall short of His own standard – He’s the very source of the standard! This is precisely why we see God bearing attributes, which in humanity, quickly lead one into all sorts of gross misconduct. The fundamental difference, again, is that God exercises these things in perfect fashion, in accordance with His will or desire.
For example, He can be jealous, angry, and vengeful without exercising those attributes as humanity would because He is not wounded or suffering loss, but instead, extending perfect and righteous judgment. He can take life without being guilty of bloodshed because He is the author of all life, and He has the right to take life. Likewise, the Lord can raise a people, such as the Babylonians, to bring the Israelites under His holy judgment, yet simultaneously judge the Babylonians for rising against people in violence (Hab. 1:5-11; 2:6-20). This is also precisely why we can see Joseph recognize the evil of his brothers, yet the goodness of God in bringing those events to pass (Gen. 45:4-8, 50:20). Behind every evil deed, there is the God who works and intends all things for His good, not in reaction to evil, but long before that evil thought was entertained in the minds of the wicked.
This is fundamentally at the heart of the “how” in my friend’s question posed in the beginning. The reason I bring these things to the forefront of this piece is to now demonstrate “why” He would do such a thing, and actually desire such things happen to us. To keep with the initial theme, we will ground this in terms of suffering and/or persecution. In this, we do not think that God is helpless, passive, or inattentive, but rather, we recognize He decrees such hardships and they are qualitatively good. Secondly, He desires that they happen to us for our benefit. Yet why would he desire this, of all things?
If one were to look to the first chapter of the epistle of James, they would find he encourages the church to consider their various trials all joy. This mindset of joy is not on the basis that these hardships are joyous in and of themselves, but for the work which is produced from them. In v. 3, James assumes a knowledge of the church; they know the result of these trials, yet he reminds them nonetheless. These trials, these things “testing our faith” develop perseverance, and perseverance presents us as whole in Christ. In essence, he is speaking toward the immediate results of having an assurance of our salvation, yet also, an eye toward that final salvation, to which suffering causes us to endure and receive the crown of life (see James 1:12). Trials produce in us this final assurance and genuine faith that causes us to persevere until the end.
In similar fashion, 1 Peter 1:6-9 speaks of the “proof” of our faith being revealed in the “testing” of it through trials:
“In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ; and though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls.”
This passage likewise ties suffering into our final salvation and glorification, yet with an interesting metaphor. The genuineness of our faith is worth more than gold, yet the testing by fire is like gold in that the fire removes the impurities and dross so that the more pure “metal” of our faith remains. Yet notice the key result: it is found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. This is just another way of saying that Christ has been worshipped in being revealed, or unveiled and seen for who He is, and made more fully known to us.
Equally as important is the notion that this testing of our faith produces an endurance and genuine faith that carries us to future salvation and glorification, in spite of not seeing Christ now face to face. So Peter speaks to this unveiling that happens where we see Christ, but then reminds us that we have not yet seen Him face to face. In spite of that fact, trials somehow mysteriously produce these things within us because Christ is being unveiled at the same moment. Suffering reveals Christ to us, produces a genuineness of faith, and causes us to endure to gain our final inheritance and finally see Him face to face.
The proposition from Scripture is that we will suffer if we are servants of Christ and desire the things befitting conversion (2 Tim. 3:12; John 15:20). Undoubtedly, the genuine Christian will have tribulation (John 16:33). We know that those in Thessalonica were destined to suffer, even being warned previously of its coming (1 Thess. 3:2-4). Likewise, those in Philippi endured persecution (Phil. 1:27-30). Notice Paul does not shy away from indicating where the source of their suffering comes from. However, also notice that he indicated the purpose was to demonstrate the destruction of their oppressors, and the surety of their own salvation (Phil. 1:28). It is the same purpose found in Acts 14:22, where Paul and Barnabas are found saying, “Through many tribulations we must enter the Kingdom of God” (emphasis mine).
In reality, these are the reasons we suffer, and why I would say God in fact desires we suffer. Furthermore, God ordains, or appoints genuine believers to suffering, with the explicit purpose of bringing us to final glorification. It tests our faith, removes the impurities thereof, and produces perseverance in us, so that we might behold Him face to face and enter the Kingdom of God. Naturally then, it must be restated that those who do not endure cannot obtain the crown of life. Suffering then not only waves a banner for us to see Christ more clearly and behold Him in faith, it separates the sheep from the goats (Matt. 13:20-21).
It is in this perfect form of weakness that God brings His church through to the end. It is not through might, power, and comfort one enters the Kingdom of Heaven, but weakness. Just as one’s initial salvation is from the Lord, their final salvation and glorification is of the Lord. In this, we must recognize one of the means He has instituted to bring us all the way home is through suffering various trials. It is not in the trial itself we rejoice, as if God advocates a twisted form of schadenfreude, but the result of the trial: namely, we get to see our Creator face to face.