Suffering and Sovereignty

Genesis 45:1-28

25 August 2002

Greyfriars Church


Perhaps you've heard about the plight of local man Ian Stillman. He's been in prison in India for very nearly two years now. There seems to be little doubt that he has been subject to an incredible injustice.

Formerly an aid worker among deaf people in India, Ian Stillman is himself totally deaf. Since he has only one leg it looks very likely that he couldn't physically have committed the crime with which he's been charged: possession of 20kg of cannabis. In any case, he was effectively excluded from his own trial since the Indian authorities deny that he is deaf and therefore refused to supply a sign-language interpreter for him. To date 237 British MPs have signed an early-day motion regarding him and 71,000 people have signed a petition in his support. Stephen Jakobi from Fair Trials Abroad said it is "The worst miscarriage of justice I have dealt with" .

Oh and one more thing. Ian Stillman is a Christian. How does that square with your theology?

Aren't we taught that if we become Christians everything will be fluffy and all our troubles will simply go away? Perhaps you know that song "Jesus, we celebrate you victory" with its line "And in his presence our problems disappear." Is it true?

The truth is of course that Christians suffer in many ways. Obviously, a lot of our troubles we bring on ourselves, but what about when we suffer injustice, illness, bereavement or redundancy through no fault of our own? Where is God in this? How can he let these things happen to His people?

This is what I want to look at today: where is God when Christians suffer? Although our starting point today is this passage in Genesis, I actually want to look briefly at three texts, all of which speak of the sovereignty of God over human suffering. By the end of the sermon I want to have convinced you that in our pain we must acknowledge God's plan, and only then will we find His purpose.


So, let's start with Joseph in Genesis chapter 45. It will help enormously if you could have the text open in front of you as we look at it. It's on page 50 of the church Bibles.

You know the story. Joseph's brothers had hated him as a boy and had consequently sold him into slavery in Egypt. Whilst in Egypt Joseph had suffered further serious injustices and had spent several years in prison as a result of them. But due to his faithfulness and God's grace in enabling him to predict the coming famine Joseph has now been appointed the most powerful man in Egypt, dispensing grain to desperate people far and wide.

It is as desperate people that his brothers now come to him. Although he recognises them, they do not recognise him, until at last we reach this chapter when Joseph finally reveals himself to them, and in verse three we are told that they are terrified; so terrified they cannot speak. What will Joseph do with them? What kind of revenge will he exact for the terrible wrong that they did him? Judgement day had come early.

But Joseph's response is not at all what they expected. Instead he three times makes an extraordinary statement, and it is this that I want to focus upon. In verse 5 he says, 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 youref. Again in verse 7 he says, God sent me ahead of youref, and in verse 8 he is explicit, it was not you who sent me here, but Godref.

Just think about what that means for a moment. Years earlier his brothers (who had hated him) had left him in hole in the ground and then sold him for 8 ounces of silver to a passing slave trader.

Is Joseph really saying that it was God who did this? Was it actually somehow God who had committed this incredible injustice against him?

I want to explore this under three sub-headings: Joseph's pain; God's plan; and the final purpose.

First, Joseph's pain was real. He's not in some kind of denial about what his brothers had done to him. There's no way he's saying, it's OK guys, what you did wasn't so bad after all.

No, Joseph is in anguish. We can see it in the way that he has been struggling with forgiving his brothers over the previous three chapters, and it explains his extremely peculiar behaviour towards them: he has been wrestling with reconciliation.

And we can see his anguish in this chapter as well. In verses 1 and 2 we read, that Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants,ref and he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him, and Pharaoh's household heard about it.ref We see his pain too in his first question, is my father still living?ref: the pain of separation for all these years from the father he loved and who loved him, not even knowing if he was alive or dead.

The injustices done to Joseph were deep and real, and his pain was equally deep and real.

But, second, in dealing with his pain, Joseph had come to the point of acknowledging God's plan. Twice in this chapter he says those wonderful words "But God": verse 7, But God sent me ahead of youref and verse 8, it was not you who sent me here, but Godref. Again, seventeen years later in Genesis chapter 50 he says these words to his brothers, You intended to harm me, but God intended it for goodref.

At face value these statements are frankly bizarre, aren't they? His brothers had sent him to Egypt, as he even acknowledges in verse 4, I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt!ref But dig deeper and they are seriously mature theology. The words he uses, "But God" are some of my favourite words in the Bible, because they ooze the sovereignty of God. When I read the words "But God", I know that He is in control, no matter how bleak things look. Throughout the Bible it's a great mystery how God takes the evil deeds of sinful men and uses them as part of His plan to bring about good, but it happens again and again, as we shall see in a moment.

As we seek to understand the sovereignty of God over suffering it's important to note that this wasn't a situation where something terrible happened to Joseph, and God somehow rescued him and turned it round for the good. On the contrary, the injustice and pain were part of God's plan from the beginning, as Joseph says three times, it was God who sent me here. God had planned this from the start, injustice and all. Evil people did evil things, but somehow it was never out of God's control.

Third, the final purpose. It is only because Joseph during his time in Egypt was able to acknowledge that his pain was part of God's plan that the final purpose was fulfilled. Not only was he ultimately reconciled with his family, but God was able to do through him a much greater work. In Joseph's words, it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of youref.


Joseph's story of God using suffering and pain as part of his plan for accomplishing His purpose is far from unique in the Bible. In fact, if we are Christians, it should sound strangely familiar to us.

To see what I mean I want to turn to another "But God" passage written about 1,600 years later, in Acts chapter 2. That's on page 1093 of the church Bibles, please turn there with me. Acts 2 verse 22.

Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.ref

Again we see a man's pain as part of God's plan to accomplish his purpose.

We know about Jesus' pain, don't we? Not just the physical pain spoken of here—the literally excruciating pain of being put to death by being nailed to a cross—, but the devastating, annihilating pain of having God's wrath over the sins of the world poured out on him in his innocence.

In this verse we see that all Jesus' pain and suffering was part of God's plan from the beginning. This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledgeref. Although the deed was done by evil men who had no excuse, God had long-before planned it and intended it. This is the mystery of God's sovereignty. The cross was no accident that somehow God turned around for the good. No, the agony of the cross was part of God's plan from the very beginning.

This is not an easy truth to understand. It's the truth that Jesus wrestled with in the Garden of Gethsemane as he prayed in anguish through the night, Isn't there another way?ref But in the end Jesus came to the point where he knew that the pain was part of God's plan, and then God's purpose could be accomplished.

The purpose of the plan, of course, was, like Joseph, to save lives. But more than that, it was to overcome death once and for all. As it says, it was impossible for death to keep its hold on himref.

So again, we see how those words, "but God" reveal God's sovereignty. As Joseph said to his brothers, You intended to harm me, but God intended it for goodref so in Acts we read four times, you crucified him, but God raised him from the deadref. Once again we see that the pain is not defeat; evil people did evil things, but somehow it was never out of God's control. We again see that the pain was part of God's plan for accomplishing His purpose.


So what about our pain? Joseph and Jesus show us that God sometimes uses people's suffering to accomplish his purposes, but what can these instances tell us about other times when Christians suffer unjustly? And there a many such times, aren't there?

I've already talked about Ian Stillman in the introduction. What about the Christian family of a little girl raped by ten year old boys? The Christian policeman facing hatred at work because he refused to lie about his overtime, thereby exposing the fraud of his colleagues? The Christian parents of a baby that died of a genetic disorder just a few months after being born? The Christian teenager paralysed for life from the neck down after a freak swimming accident?

Is there any way we can acknowledge the sovereignty of God in these kinds of suffering? It's easy to pontificate when it's someone else's suffering, isn't it, as Job's comforter's did, but what about when we suffer injustice and pain we can do nothing about?

This is territory where one must tread lightly. A few days ago I tiptoed into our baby daughter's bedroom for a final peek at her before going to bed. Unfortunately she woke up and yelled for the next two and a half hours solid. My wife has nearly forgiven me, but I've been distinctly more hesitant to pop in since then.

I feel a similar hesitance as a preacher to enter the territory of your suffering. I don't know your pain, and pastorally speaking it seems that the pulpit, or at least the lectern at the front, is not the best place to deal with it from.

The Bible however is never shy on this matter, and I would be shirking my responsibility up here if I did not at least point you to something of what the Bible has to say about the subject and pray that as you know God better your pain might become more bearable. At least I hope that you won't yell at me for two and a half hours.

The Bible is emphatic that these experiences of people's pain being part of God's sovereign plan are far from unique. In fact, the teaching of the New Testament is that for the Christian this is the way God normally works.

To see this, turn with me to my final "but God" passage in Romans chapter 8. It's on page 1135 of the church Bibles. Actually, I misled you a little: it doesn't actually say "But God", but it ought to, and it is there implicitly. The verse is Romans 8:28, and it's probably familiar to you.

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.ref

Once again I want to look at this truly astonishing statement under the sub-headings, our pain, God's plan, the final purpose.

First, our pain. The context of this verse is our suffering. In verse 17 Paul has talked about us sharing in the sufferings of Christ, and we've just seen what those were: injustice, betrayal, pain and death. He continues to talk about the sufferings of the world in the intervening verses.

When Paul says in all things he is precisely talking about the things we suffer. We have to take him seriously: he speaks from personal experience. Few of us have shared in Christ's sufferings as much as the Apostle Paul did.

Paul knows that pain is the normal Christian experience, and the Apostle Peter agrees when he writes, Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to youref.

But this pain is part of God's plan. This verse in Romans convinces us that God is in control: We have been called according to his purpose. This and the next two verses overflow with God's sovereignty: we have been called; he foreknew us; he predestined us. Nothing is out of God's control, least of all the things we suffer.

There is comfort here, isn't there? The temptation when we suffer is to ask, "where is God?" , "Has He abandoned me?" . The sovereignty of God expressed in these verses tells us that we are never outside His plan. The Christian—the one who loves God—is never abandoned by Him to random chance, be it disease, injustice or the evils of this world.

This is hard theology. This is theology for adults. The theologically immature person experiences pain and concludes that God either must be unloving, or He must be powerless. But the Bible never allows us even to begin to consider either of those options.

No, the only way to find purpose in our suffering is, like Joseph, and like Jesus, to come to the point where we can say "my pain is part of God's plan to accomplish his purpose" . And His purpose is good!

God's purpose, as Paul puts it, is that we be conformed to the likeness of his Sonref. So, God might be forming us into people who can comfort others in their suffering. He might be calling us to a deeper relationship with Himself in prayer. He might be opening doors by our suffering into new worlds for us and His gospel. He is certainly teaching us to sort out what is important from what is unimportant in this world: to hold on less tightly to the things of this world, and to long more for the next. In all these ways God is making us more like Jesus, who himself suffered on our behalf. What is He doing in you to conform you to the likeness of His Son?

Although the words "but God" are some of my favourite words in the Bible, they are not confined to its pages. We can all know God better if we can frame our own experience in a "but God" understanding. Here are two particular examples that can give us hope.

Let's not only say, "I am suffering" , let's say, "I am suffering, but God suffers as well" . We do not serve a God who is distant and aloof from our pain, but we serve a God who entered our world as a man to feel pain himself. God shares our pain; God feels your pain. If you ever doubt it, look at the cross; cling to the cross. We can be closer to God in our pain than we ever can be in our well-being.

And let's not only say, "I am suffering" , let's say, "I am suffering, but God will one day bring my suffering to an end" . As Paul says in verse 18 of Romans chapter 8, I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.ref There will one day be an end. God has promised us a future world where He will wipe every tear from our eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain,ref If we share now in Christ's sufferings we will one day also share in his glory. Don't you long for that?

I don't know if this is Ian Stillman's belief in his imprisonment, but I do know of another Christian for whom it is true. Ayub Masih has spent six years in prison in Pakistan. He was initially imprisoned on false but relatively minor charges after he became a Christian. Two years later, though, he was charged with blasphemy and sentenced to death under Islamic law for daring to lead a Bible study among the other prisoners in his cell. Other Muslim inmates have themselves tried to kill him for his alleged crime. His parents and eleven brothers and sisters have been hounded out of their village.

However, Ayub's favourite Bible verses appear over and over in his letters: "love your enemies" , "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in everything." and the now familiar verse "God works all things together for good to those who love him."

Ayub knows that his pain is part of God's plan to accomplish his good purpose. If only we had faith like that.


I just want to conclude with a word for those who are struggling with the idea that their pain is part of God's plan for them. Well, it is hard; as I said earlier, it is grown-up theology. I just want to suggest one thing which might help you to come to terms with it which is to consider the alternatives.

Assuming that your suffering is unjust, that is that you haven't actually brought it on yourself, then there are basically two alternatives. We can either deny that God is good—that is that He has inflicted suffering on you arbitrarily or vindictively—or we can deny that God is powerful—that is that He is unable to prevent you from suffering.

If we persist in believing either of these then of course we will end up abandoning God, and why not if our god is so bad or so weak. But where does that leave us? It leaves us in a universe of chance; a world where suffering is arbitrary; a world where we can have no hope; the world of the non-Christian. In that case I have no comfort to offer you; the Bible offers hope only to the Christian.

I was very struck a couple of years ago when a friend of ours died of cancer at the age of 34—the mother of a small child—not only how terrible the situation was, but how much more terrible it would have been if she and her family had not been Christians, and had not had the hope of God and the support of the church in their suffering.

Which is it really better to believe: that God has a plan for the good, or that there is no hope and our suffering is pointless?

The truth is, of course, that God is neither bad nor weak. On the contrary, we see his love and his goodness on the cross of Christ. How can we possibly believe that the God who gave his own Son for us does not love us completely? And we see his strength both in Christ's resurrection and in the fact that he will one day put an end to all suffering and all pain.

The only right response to our suffering is to turn to God; to believe that in our pain he has a plan to accomplish his purpose. The non-Christian world has a glimpse of this truth that hope is only found in God, hasn't it? It's no accident that, as one reporter put it, the church at Soham has become focal point of town's grief. God calls to us in our suffering; let's come to him.

If you are struggling to make sense of your suffering, and if you find this teaching hard then there are a number of things I'd like you to do. Talk to mature Christians about it, people who themselves have tasted suffering. Search for answers in the Bible. You might find the Psalms especially helpful. But above all pray to God about it. If you want some help and fellowship in your prayers, please come and pray with the prayer-ministry team after the service.