A few months ago I started teaching a topical series at our church on Sunday evenings entitled, “Suffering Saints: How Seemingly Bad Things Point Us to the Goodness of God.” I have decided to post an abridged version of those messages here, partly to jump-start my goal of blogging again and partly to encourage those outside of our church family who may be going through difficult times of suffering.
Throughout this series we will consider the role of suffering in the lives of real people like you and me; people who truly lived and walked this earth, who suffered but were shown great grace from God. We will look at the Bible’s record of Job, Joseph, Hannah, an unclean woman, Stephen the first deacon, the Apostle Paul, and of course, Jesus himself.
Here’s a short anecdote to start:
There were two young ladies who got together for coffee after not seeing each other for some time. As they began deepening in conversation, they naturally began sharing more and more about the current happenings in each of their lives.
For the first gal, everything was peachy. Her walk with the Lord felt closer than ever before. After years of marriage, she and her husband still felt like honeymooners. The kids were healthy, obedient, and growing smarter by the day. Her husband was getting promoted at work—for the second time this year. Their church life was vibrant. They had lots of close friends who they would fellowship with regularly. And day-in and day-out, she was able to keep the house picked up, the children disciplined, the minivan fueled, and dinner on the table before husband got home from work. Like I said, to this first woman, life couldn’t get much better.
But throughout their evening together, as the second young woman shared about her life, a stark contrast became evident. As she opened up about her day-to-day life, she transparently shared about wrestling with discontentedness and about her struggles with worry. She mentioned how she was mourning the recent loss of a loved one. Things at work were stressful and home life seemed turbulent. For her, at this time in her life, it seemed all she could do to even get out of bed each morning. “Peachy” was the last word she’d use to describe her life.
So what does a scene like this tell us?
Well, for one, it shows that different people experience different realities in this life. For some, life may seem like a walk in the park; like the “trees of green, red roses too”-kind of wonderful world in which Louis Armstrong lived. For others, life seems more like a perpetual journey through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
The truth is at some point, in some way, we all suffer. Some of us more than others. Many of us in different ways than those around us. Different pain, different hurt, different sorrows. And for different lengths of time. But we all suffer. Since the Fall of Adam, suffering is inherent to the human experience. And for Christians, suffering is a guarantee. And because of this, as we take a glimpse into the life of Joseph, I want us to realize three deeply doctrinal, but highly practical truths about human suffering:
First, God is sovereign over our suffering. (Genesis 37-49)
We’ll begin in Genesis 37 as we briefly track the truth of God’s sovereignty over our suffering throughout Joseph’s experiences. In chapter 37 we see Joseph’s brothers hate for him as they conspire against him.
Verse 4 – “But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peacefully to him.”
This is where the intrigue begins. It continues…
Verse 8 –“His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Or are you indeed to rule over us?” So they hated him even more for his dreams and for his words.”
Verse 11 – “And his brothers were jealous of him…”
Verses 17,18 – “So Joseph went after his brothers and found them at Dothan. They saw him from afar, and before he came near to them they conspired against him to kill him.”
Then we fast forward to the end of chapter 37 and we discover that thanks in part to Reuben, the eldest of Jacob’s sons, Joseph’s brothers decide not to kill him, but to sell him into slavery instead. Finally, as the scene in chapter 37 closes, we see that Joseph is sold to a passing caravan, and ultimately taken to Egypt where he is sold to Potiphar, Pharaoh’s Captain of the Guard.
We pick up again with Joseph in chapter 39, where we read of his wrongful imprisonment, but we learn early on in the chapter that God is not absent here. Verse 2: “The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man, and he was in the house of his Egyptian master (emphasis mine).”
But in verses 14-18, we see how the wife of Joseph’s master falsely accused him of some kind of sexual assault, which, naturally, angers Joseph’s master. Then we come to verses 20-23:
“And Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined, and he was there in prison. But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison. And the keeper of the prison put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners who were in the prison. Whatever was done there, he was the one who did it. The keeper of the prison paid no attention to anything that was in Joseph’s charge, because the Lord was with him. And whatever he did, the Lord made it succeed. (emphasis mine)”
Moses, the author of Genesis, is making it abundantly clear to us: God is present and sovereign over each of Joseph’s ordeals. Even when he seems to hit the lowest point yet and is forgotten in prison by one of his former cellmates. We read that in Genesis 40:23 – “Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him.”
But then in chapter 41, things begin to look up for Joseph. Two years later he is finally remember by Pharaoh’s cupbearer when Pharaoh has a dream that needs interpreted. After accurately interpreting the dream, by God working through him of course, Joseph is released from prison and begins his rise to a position of power in the Egyptian empire.
Now listen to the words of Joseph as he retrospectively describes God’s sovereign hand working in his life events in Genesis 45:4-9:
So Joseph said to his brothers, “Come near to me, please.” And they came near. And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt (emphasis mine).”
God not only ordains our suffering to occur, as we saw with Job, but He is sovereign over it. He controls and governs it. We see this poignantly in the Christians’ prayer in Acts 4. They address God as “Sovereign Lord” in verse 24, and then acknowledge in verses 27 & 28 “…for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” And just earlier in Peter’s sermon on Pentecost in Acts 2:23, “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” Do you see the sovereignty of God at work here and testified about by both Joseph as well as these New Testament believers?
The entire life of Joseph seems to point us to Jesus, and I wish we had more time to explore the typology here. But we can see it through Joseph’s suffering and as well as his ultimate exaltation. We see how Joseph left his father Jacob’s presence and entered into years of humiliation and suffering. Barry Horner writes, “Jesus Christ also left his Father’s bosom for humiliation that led to exaltation and dominion.” And just as Joseph’s brothers spurned and despised him, so was Jesus hated by those he came to save. Joseph was mistreated without justification, as was our Lord. And as we have seen, God was sovereign in and through Joseph’s sufferings, just as He was sovereign in the sufferings of His own Son. Praise God for His sovereignty, for through His sovereignty and by His grace, we have salvation through Jesus’ death and resurrection.
And what a perfect reminder for us to acknowledge the sovereignty of God over our lives, even—and especially—when we suffer. That’s the first truth: God is sovereign over our suffering.
Secondly, God makes all things right. (Genesis 50:18-21)
At the beginning of Joseph’s story, back in Genesis 37:9, Joseph dreamed and prophesied saying, “Behold, I have dreamed another dream. Behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him and said to him, “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?” And while that may have seemed odd and at least a little overly-ambitious of Joseph back then, when we fast-forward to the end of Genesis, we see how the story plays out.
Look again at Genesis 50:18—“His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.”
Do you see here the final fulfillment of Joseph’s prophetic dream back in Genesis 37? God is making all things right for Joseph. Matthew Henry says, “Now that the sun and moon had set, the eleven stars paid homage to Joseph, for the further accomplishment of his dream.” Indeed, Joseph’s 11 brothers who once conspired to kill him and then sold him into slavery now came and bowed humbly at the feet of their brother, seeking his favor and forgiveness. God makes all things right. Of course He will always do this according to His divine will, even if it’s not in our own lifetimes. Consider the end of the matter as told to us in Revelation 22:12-13. Jesus says, “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”
Because of Who He is, because of His nature which is perfectly good and just, we need to embrace the fact that God ultimately makes all wrong things right. Thank God for His goodness and justice!
Now, as I’ve been learning about the classical doctrine of divine simplicity recently, I’ve realized that God cannot cease to be good, lest He cease to be God. (Stick with me here…) In his book, God Without Parts, Dr. James Dolezal reminds us of this important point. He writes, “How can the unbeliever be sure that God will administer justice to all? Because the justice of God is identical with his very being and so can no more fail than God could cease to be God. If all that is in God is God then none of his attributes can change, diminish, or disappear.” So the same goes for all other virtues which the Bible attributes to God. 1 John 4:8 tells us that God is love. We see the Apostle John identifying God with His attributes, so that God is His attributes. God makes all things right because He is perfectly and wholly just in His own divine essence and He does not experience even the slightest change in Who He is or what He has decreed.
Why do I bring up this deep theology in a discussion on human suffering? Because this theology, the doctrine of Who God is, should bring each of us who call ourselves children of God tremendous comfort. God is justice, and therefore can only do what is just. God makes all things right because He Himself is perfect. And for those who have not yet found refuge in this Rock of Ages, the doctrine of God’s justice should be extremely frightening; it should cause many sleepless nights because God, in His justice, cannot leave the guilty unpunished, and an eternity in hell awaits all who do not repent and flee to Christ for salvation. God is His justice. That’s a horror for the unbeliever, and a comfort for the believer.
Just as Abraham said in a conversation with the Lord in Genesis 18:25, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”, we too should ask that rhetorical question whenever we begin to wonder about our gloomy plight. Indeed, God is sovereign over our suffering and He makes all things right.
Finally, we see this third truth through the life of Joseph:
God works all things for our good. (Genesis 50:19-21)
Purpose. Purpose is an important word to the one who suffers. In simple terms, it answers the question of “Why?” Purpose. To know that our suffering isn’t meaningless, but possesses great purpose, divine purpose, in fact, should be comforting to you, my friend.
We need to realize what Joseph realized and confessed: God is not only sovereign over our suffering, but He is working through it for our good. Look at verse 20 – “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.” This is the theme of Joseph’s entire life. Purpose. Divine purpose through suffering.
Of course the key New Testament verse that highlights this truth for us is found in Romans 8:28 – “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose (emphasis mine).”
My friends, if you are one of God’s children, God’s purposes for you—however mysterious they may seem at times—are always for your good. And let’s admit it—sometimes we don’t know why we suffer, and that can seem like a suffering in and of itself. But as the Puritan Thomas Watson wrote, “As in a watch, the wheels seem to move contrary to one another, but all carry on the motions of the watch: so things seem to move cross to the godly, yet by the wonderful providence of God work for their good” (All Things For Good, p25).
Even when life hurts, we should almost be able to hear our Father saying, “It’s because I love you.” And we should be encouraged knowing as both Joseph and Paul knew, for those God loves He works all things for their good. I love how Calvin put it: “Whatever poison Satan produces, God turns it into medicine for his elect.”
Or think of what Paul says it in Romans 8:18, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” We need to have that eternal perspective. Joni Eareckson Tada, someone well acquainted with suffering, wrote, “Every sorrow we taste will one day prove to be the best possible thing that could have happened to us. We will thank God endlessly in heaven for the trials that he sent us here.”
As we conclude, remember this, dear Christian: There is great purpose in your suffering.
We seldom see it in the middle of our affliction, but we have God’s own word on it. And I don’t know about you, but for me, when I stop to think that the infinite God and sovereign Creator of all the universe would care to know my name, that He would show me mercy through His Son instead of deserved wrath, and that He would graciously weave the painful particulars of my tattered life into a beautiful tapestry for His glory and my good because He loves me—O, it’s both terribly humbling and deeply comforting and it causes me to worship with a grateful heart.
So even when great distress befalls us, we need to recognize that all that God does is right and good. Why? Because that is Who He is. And like Joseph, we should recognize the sovereignty of God in our afflictions and give Him all praise and glory for His good and loving purposes toward us His elect.
Father, we praise You now for the ways in which You sovereignly use our suffering for our good. Magnify Christ in us, we beg, and through our suffering may we come to know Him better. For these things we do give you the praise and the glory, both now and forever, through Jesus. Amen.