“Why Does God Allow Suffering?”
The story of Joseph is one of the best-known in Scripture. It is the story of youthful arrogance, parental favoritism, sibling rivalry, unbelievable betrayal, cruel injustice, and unfair suffering. It’s one man’s journey from rags to riches. And it’s all about the joy of forgiveness and the bliss of reconciliation.
Primarily, though, it is the next chapter in God’s One Big Story. It is the outworking of God’s commitment to destroy the works of the devil through the seed of the woman. It is the next episode in the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham to create and preserve a great nation from the offspring of one man, so that all peoples of the world will be blessed.
And it is the story of the sovereignty of God. He is in control of the events of mankind, even when it appears otherwise, and even when we do everything possible to circumvent His purposes and His plan.
God made a covenant to give Canaan to Abraham’s descendants. But there is a famine in the land of promise and the sons of Jacob must go to Egypt to get food. There they encounter the prime minister, who they don’t realize is their long lost brother Joseph. Years earlier, in a fit of jealous rage, they sold him into slavery and pulled off a brilliant cover-up, convincing their father that he was torn to pieces by a wild animal.
God uses all this to save His people from starvation. Joseph provides food to his family and in the process, reveals himself to his brothers. The whole family, including the aging Jacob, moves to Egypt. God’s chosen people escape the grip of death by finding life in a foreign land.
Hollywood could not have written a more dramatic script. This account of Joseph and his brothers is filled with suspense, intrigue, hatred and love. And above it all and through it all, the hand of God is at work — mysteriously, inexplicably, and gloriously.
What does Genesis 37-50 teach me about God?
God is in control of everything, even when it appears otherwise.
The sovereignty of God is center stage in this account. If you don’t realize it while the story unfolds, it is made clear at the end, via one of the most breath-taking passages in the Bible.
After the great unveiling of himself to his baffled brothers, Joseph proclaims:
“Do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will not be plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God” (Genesis 45:5-8).
Amazing! Incredible! Unbelievable!
Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery, and Joseph is now able to say, “God sent me to Egypt. God did that.” In His mind-bending sovereignty, God is somehow able to take the sinful acts of man and turn them into a demonstration of His saving love.
God uses the wickedness of man to demonstrate the glory of His name. What a God! What a Savior!
Ultimately, there is only one hero in the Bible – God.
God blessed Joseph with much wisdom. And this is why Joseph can say to his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20).
Genesis 37-50 is a wonderful illustration of Romans 8:28 – “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.”
For the child of God, “all things” can include what appear to be the worst events and situations possible: from natural disasters, catastrophic accidents and debilitating illness to broken relationships, lost jobs and human cruelty of the worst kind.
No matter what happens in our lives, if we love God, it will all work out for our good and His glory in the end.
What is the worst thing that has ever happened to you? The list of tragedies in the human experience is both long and unavoidable. “Man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7). Perhaps you’ve had cancer, or lost a child, or been unemployed for years through no fault of your own. Or you’ve known someone dear who has faced such a trial.
The inevitable question we ask in the midst of these circumstances is, of course, “Why?” Why me. Or why now. Or just why.
J.I. Packer provides excellent teaching on the purpose of suffering and injustice in his book Knowing God. He offers the best explanation I’ve ever encountered on the topic, so I urge you to meditate on the paragraphs that follow.
We long to know the purpose of hardship, especially our own. What is God doing and why is He allowing this to happen?
Surely Joseph asked these questions when he was sold into slavery by his brothers, or when he was thrown into prison on false charges of sexual harassment brought against him by the wife of his boss.
J.I. Packer offers a two-fold answer to the question, “What is the purpose of suffering in the life of Joseph?”
Purpose #1 – the salvation of God’s people.
I’ve already mentioned this purpose above. It is found in Genesis 45:5-8 and 50:20, which have also been quoted. Packer refers to this as “the fulfilling of [Joseph’s] appointed ministry and service in the life of the people of God” (p. 86). God used the slavery and imprisonment of Joseph for the benefit of the descendants of Abraham – to keep them alive during a famine, even though that meant leaving the promised land of Canaan for an extended period time.
Purpose #2 – the sanctification of God’s servant.
This is the purpose to which Packer devotes even more space in his book Knowing God.
“For what purpose did God in His wisdom plan that (the suffering of Joseph)? So far as Joseph personally was concerned, the answer is given in Psalm 105:19 – ‘the word of the Lord tried him.’ Joseph was being tested, refined, and matured; he was being taught during his spell as a slave, and in prison, to stay himself upon God, to keep cheerful and charitable in frustrating circumstances, and to wait patiently for the Lord. God uses sustained hardship to teach these lessons frequently” (Knowing God, p. 86).
We come now to a second teaching about God in Genesis 37-50:
God uses suffering to sanctify His people, to increase their Christ-likeness, and to bless them with the joy of His presence.
Packer explains how this is the same reason God allows suffering in the life of the believer today.
“We should not, therefore, be too taken aback when unexpected and upsetting and discouraging things happen to us now. What do they mean? Why, simply that God in His wisdom means to make something of us which we have not attained yet, and is dealing with us accordingly.”
“Perhaps He means to strengthen us in patience, good humour, compassion, humility, or meekness, by giving us some extra practice in exercising these graces under specially difficult conditions. Perhaps He has new lessons in self-denial and self-distrust to teach us. Perhaps He wishes to break us of complacency, or unreality, or undetected forms of pride and conceit. Perhaps His purpose is simply to draw us closer to Himself in conscious communion with Him; for it is often the case, as all the saints know, that fellowship with the Father and the Son is most vivid and sweet, and Christian joy is greatest, when the cross is heaviest . . . Or perhaps God is preparing us for forms of service of which at present we have no inkling” (p. 86).
Is this not wise counsel from a wise man? Is this not the teaching of Scripture?
God allows suffering in order to sanctify us – to increase our maturity, to stimulate spiritual growth, to enable us to become more like Jesus. This is what it means to be a Christian – we are on the path of change from the inside out, and this change happens most dramatically and most efficiently on the road of suffering.
Furthermore, God wants us to experience the joy of His presence. Packer refers to this as “conscious communion with Him.” God desires a relationship of increasing intimacy, and isn’t it true that this fellowship becomes sweeter during our trials?
This has certainly been true for me. Physical pain and relational disappointments have been the stimulus for much growth in my life, and I am a stronger Christian today because of the struggles I’ve encountered.
How about you? Does this teaching resonate with you? As you look back on your life, do you see how God has used suffering to increase your Christ-likeness? During hardship, have you experienced His presence like never before?
And if you are in the midst of a trial right now, I pray that this teaching provides light. I urge you to meditate on the list of character traits provided above by J.I. Packer: patience, compassion, humility, meekness, self-denial, self-distrust. Is God using your current situation to cultivate one or more of these “graces” in your life?
Or is God using a trial to purge a particular sin from your life. Is He trying to “break” you of complacency, unreality, pride or conceit?
Or could it be that God simply wants you to draw closer to Him. Have you been drifting away from Him lately and don’t even realize it? Have you been stuck on a plateau and are resistant to deeper intimacy with God, content to remain where you are, yet aware that your relationship with God could be so much richer? This could be the purpose of your suffering.
God is drawing you to Himself, because “knowing God is a relationship calculated to thrill a man’s soul” (J.I. Packer).
During a trial it is human nature to wonder “Why, God, why?” Here we have at least one answer to this question: God is sanctifying us. He is teaching us how to be more like Christ. He wants to build our character and remove our sin.
Packer ends his teaching by referring to Paul’s experience in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10. The Apostle concluded that his “thorn in the flesh” was God’s instrument “to keep me from becoming conceited.” He prayed three times that this thorn would be removed. But God’s response was simply, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” All this prompted Paul to write, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
God brought hardship into Paul’s life to increase his humility. Can we not say the same about every trial we encounter? God sends trouble our way “to make and keep us humble, and to give us new opportunity of showing forth the power of Christ in our mortal lives. And do we ever need to know any more about them that that?” (J.I. Packer).
I think not.
May it be so in our lives, as it was in Paul’s.
I conclude by quoting Charles Spurgeon. Like Packer, he sees God’s sovereign hand at work in the troubles of Joseph, beginning with the evil done by his brothers when they sold him into slavery:
“His brethren sold him, but God sent him. Where the hand of the wicked is visible, God’s hand may be invisibly at work, overruling their malice.”
Is it not true that God’s people often face trials because of the sinful deeds of others? The history of the church is the story of unjust persecution. For centuries this has been the case, and it continues to this day throughout the world.
If you have not been the victim of suffering at the hands of the ungodly, consider yourself blessed. We must pray every day for the persecuted church, for in many countries our brothers and sisters face trials more severe than Joseph’s.
And if your life has been one of relative ease, at least when compared to others, it is likely that your day of suffering is coming. Sooner or later, God may allow a tragedy to occur that will seemingly come out of nowhere. God will do this because He wants you to become more like Jesus and to experience His presence as your most treasured possession.
Again I quote Spurgeon:
“There is a trying word and a delivering word, and we must bear the one till the other comes to us. How meekly Joseph endured his afflictions, and with what fortitude he looked forward to the clearing of his slandered character we may readily imagine. It will be better still if under similar trials we are able to imitate him, and come forth from the furnace as thoroughly purified as he was, and as well prepared to bear the yet harder ordeal of honor and power” (Treasury of David, Vol. 2).
Or as the apostle Paul told the new believers who had come to faith during his first missionary journey, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).
NOTE: This post is part of a series prompted by my desire to read through the Bible over the next two years (Old Testament in 2016 and New Testament in 2017). For more information on this Bible Reading Plan, Click Here. To check out our Facebook group devoted to this endeavor, Click Here.