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Because the number one relationship in our life is God, what we think about Him is the essential thing we must consider when our trials happen. There is nothing higher than our transcendent, infinite, all-powerful God. He is the supreme ruler of our lives and the most effective help when trouble comes (Psalm 46:1). Thus, if our thoughts about Him are insufficient, the help we receive from Him will not be all it should be, making assessing our thoughts about Him one of the most important things we can do, especially when life does not make sense.
The good news is that we can decipher our thoughts about God; all we need is one key ingredient. That’s personal suffering. When the heat bears down on us, we react to it. If you’re like me, there is an instinctive impulse to flee. Though it makes sense to look for the exit, it is a mistake in most cases because Sovereign God is in our trouble, ready to instruct us. So, when disappointment beckons, the best response should be to discern God’s mind. What saith He about your troubles? I call it my “blessed trouble” because I have learned that disappointment is the passageway to a more profound experience with God and a better life with others.
The Lord first taught me this lesson years ago after someone murdered my oldest brother. It was 1987. After receiving the news of his death, I asked God what He was doing, why it happened, and how He wanted me to respond to this tragedy. My brother’s death did not make sense, even though he lived the life of a criminal. It was a tragedy that went beyond my understanding, but I knew God had a mysterious plan, and I wanted to know what it was. I needed Him because He knew more and could do more to help walk me through that horrible situation. God did help me to see into the mystery of his murder, and it made all the difference in how I processed those events.
When your heart breaks, you will either be God-centered or problem-centered, like two doors opening before you, leading down unique pathways of suffering. The God-centered person experiences trust, faith, courage, grace, hope, peace, strength, and clarity when his trouble comes. The problem-centered person walks through another portal that looks like fear, worry, anger, despair, vulnerability, and confusion. It is not that the God-centered person avoids the temptation to worry or to strive to control the situation. Not at all. He will have moments of fear or make vain attempts to control the problem, but he is mainly managed by faith in God rather than by tragic circumstances that tempt him to take his focus off God, hoping to steer himself out of the path of suffering.
Perhaps you are currently in a difficult season. How would you characterize your faith in God? What is the heat revealing about your functional faith? Are you primarily God-centered or problem-centered? If my questions were on a spectrum, where would the needle land? I’m asking you because we need to examine our faith in times of trouble. It’s what I did as I turned to the Book of Job and studied his stunning response to the devastation Satan wrought in his family. If you’re unfamiliar with his response, it would be worth your time to read Job 1:20-22. Job’s instinct was to worship God. Think about what I just said. When I read his words while going through my worst suffering, conviction ran over my soul.
Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.
It was only after his counselors came to counsel him that Job lost focus. And though it’s critical to talk about how he swerved from a God-centered perspective, I highly recommend that you reflect on his first instincts when trouble came. If you’re like me, then you’re not like Job, and you want to learn from our suffering friend. He worshiped God. Let that sink in for a few moments, perhaps waiting until the hope of God’s grace reminds you that you will get there, too. Then afterward, you can continue down Job’s path, where you’ll see how the Lord used his counselors’ awful counsel to dig deeper into Job’s practical theology, a good thing because Job’s thoughts about God needed to improve. God will use imperfect friends to bring about good purposes.
To some degree, Job believed in the retributive principle, which says, “If you do good, the Lord will reward you, and if you do bad, the Lord will bring bad things into your life.” I spoke about this in chapter one, where you see the first instance of this principle in Job 1:5. You also see it interspersed throughout his dialogue with his three friends (Job 3:25). Job tried hard to avoid adverse outcomes, even incorporating legalism as a futile method to keep bad things from happening to him. Though Job loved the Lord, he had an unhealthy view of God. Job lived with a low-level fear that something terrible would happen to his family, and rather than recalibrating his theology, he went the self-reliant route by offering sacrifices continually.
It was his suffering that brought his underdeveloped theology to the surface. Though his friends were a pain in his backside, they were also a means of grace used by the Lord to lay bare his misapplied theological substructure. Maybe you have heard someone say, “I tried Christianity, and it did not work for me.” Typically, this kind of statement reveals the retributive principle of doing good, receiving good, or doing bad, receiving bad. Life had not gone the way the person hoped, so they tried religion. It is the idea of the plane going down, and everybody becomes religious—until the plane is out of harm’s way. Then they go back to living how they want to because they no longer need God.
God is not an insurance agent we can gaslight. Thinking the creature can manipulate the Creator is a sin that distorts our thoughts about God and our lives. It is not God’s intent to give us every desire of our hearts. Our primary purpose and His will for us is to glorify Him in all we do, and there are times when He must readjust our worldview to purify our theology to keep our motives in line with God’s good aims. We cannot think we can reduce Him to self-serving formulas. You hear it in our language: “What goes around, comes around.” We can be “Karma Christians.” Don’t you feel a similar tug that was in Job’s soul: “If I do well, the Lord will shine His face on me; if I choose to sin, the Lord will get me.”
There is a law of sowing and reaping (Galatians 6:7), but it operates within the boundaries of sovereignty. For example, I should expect a shock if I put a small metal object in a power outlet, or if I get caught cheating on a test, the instructor should punish me. Furthermore, if I overeat regularly and refuse to do the bare minimum of exercises, I shouldn’t be surprised when the doctor’s report comes back with bad results. Sowing and reaping are laws that work sometimes but not always. How many times have you done something dumb, and nothing terrible happened to you? When I think about the immaturity in my life, I am amazed at God’s grace (Ephesians 2:8-9). I have not, in every way, received everything I deserved. What went around for me did not always come back to me, and I praise God for this. My theology of suffering, sin, and retribution must come under better theological scrutiny. There are three ways to view the hardship that comes into our lives. As I lay them out, which one most accurately describes you?
Retributive: If I do good, things will be okay, but if I do bad, bad things will happen to me (Job 1:5). This worldview partially made up how Job thought about God, and it influenced his religious practices. Will you think through the retributive principle to see if there are any traces in your life? This exercise is vital as we go through the Book of Job. You’re not on a sin hunt, but if a theological misunderstanding affects your view of God, you must deal with it.
Presumptuous: You can sin and get away with it because the Lord is gracious, you do not live under the law, and you don’t always get what you deserve (Psalm 19:13). It’s a short step to take God’s grace for granted, even veering to the other extreme that believes God does not care about your words or behaviors. This miscalculation could be worse than the law-keeping legalist because if you continue justifying your sin, your conscience will harden to the point of being unaware of what you do. You’re flying blind at that point with no moral radar to warn you about the path of destruction.
Trusting: God has called you to suffer, and sometimes the Lord will use personal suffering to bring about good things in your life (Romans 8:28; 1 Peter 2:21-25). A sound theology of suffering is a central tenet of living well in God’s world. We are not in the center of the universe, and God is not our divine Santa. Power and justice are not in our hands, giving us the prerogative to wield them according to what we want at any given moment. Our works do matter, but not in a way that will manipulate Sovereign God. Our mantra is to trust and obey while not reducing God to a formula based on our works.
Meeting all our desires and giving us everything we want is not at the top of God’s to-do list. We do not serve a manipulatable Lord, and I trust that causes you to praise Him. To get every desire met by the Lord is as unwise as it is unbiblical. Imagine a parent providing everything a child ever wanted. No loving parent would parent that way; I’m describing Satan, not Christ (Luke 22:42). The Lord is mysterious (Deuteronomy 29:29). He is not like us (Isaiah 55:8-9). Therefore we must understand Him according to who He is, especially during our darkest trials. May I share three critical things to know when life does not make sense? I hope these ideas will become solid planks in your theology of suffering.
No Pat Answers
God’s answers will always be somewhat different from what others will tell you. Do you remember Job’s counselors? Their perspective and God’s were not the same. Because God thinks differently from us, we want to steer away from cliche-type or formulaic answers. Cliches are tempting when the crisis comes but rarely helpful. I’m not suggesting you don’t say, “God’s grace is sufficient,” or “We know all things work together for good.” Still, we must move beyond the Scripture’s exact language and do the hard work of customizing our care for the unique soul sitting in front of us because God is doing unique work in them. The Bible provides the foundation for doing soul care. We don’t twist the words of God, but we must know how to apply them uniquely.
Element of Mystery
Then there are times when there are no answers. When God does not act like we think He should, it just means He is working in a way we do not yet understand. Our faith should be in the Lord, not in knowing all the answers. God-centered faith strengthens us, especially when life does not make sense. Futile attempts to tease the answers for how we want things to go will weaken our trust in God, tempting us to yield to self-reliant contrivances as we construct pathways that align with our dreams. A desire to know why our suffering is happening and how it will end is at the heart of self-sufficiency, which is why God must be at the top of our minds. His goodness must control our thoughts, especially when we don’t understand what is happening. How comfortable are you with mystery? Remember Deuteronomy 29:29? Moses reminds us that some things belong to God and others belong to us. Our finitude will always keep us on the short end of the knowledge stick.
God Is Greater
Humans like to give pat answers to solve the mysteries in their lives. These attempts to divine the Divine have a hollow ring compared to His transcendent purposes. It’s hard to wrap our minds around why people die of debilitating diseases through no fault of their own or why good things happen to bad people, and awful things happen to those who are trying to live for God. We live in a world that is out of our control, a truth that we must come to terms with if we want to maintain our sanity. We cannot make things go according to our plans in a fallen world. Job couldn’t. He sacrificed on behalf of his sons continually, and Satan blew his world to smithereens while acting under the Lord’s authority. But here is the transcendent truth: God is greater than these things. If you believe He is greater, then you have a way of making sense of life in our turned upside-down world. Perhaps these three conclusions will help to settle your soul as trouble in an unfair world: God does permit bad things to happen to people, whether they are good or evil; God is in control of all things, and nothing can happen to you that is outside His control, and God is always working for our good, His glory.
Life will never make perfect sense. Those who try to iron all the wrinkles out of their lives end up frustrated or compromised. The wise person recognizes that only the return of Christ will make things as they ought to be, and in the meantime, we are to submit our lives to God, fully trusting Him because He is working good in our fallen world. Either our circumstances will rule our lives as we continuously fight to seize control of what we cannot control, or we will fight to find rest in the Lord while living in this world. And I do mean fight. Carefully reflect on Hebrews 4:11.
Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.
In context, God was leading them across the Jordan River to a place of rest, but there were wars to fight if they would enjoy the rest God provided for them. There is a rest for the people of God, but it comes through suffering, sorrow, or hard-fought battles. Our battle plan begins by deciding which master we want ruling over us (Matthew 6:21, 24). As you think about these things, will you respond to the following questions?
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).