Does God Have a Hand In Our Suffering?
In Lord’s Day 10 of the Heidelberg Catechism we confess that all things do not come to us by chance, but by God’s Fatherly hand. Even sickness and sorrow come from him. In our present time many people fiercely contest this confession. They characterize this confession as a theological accident. Many do not want to speak of a God who also brings suffering into the lives of his children. The image of God which Lord’s Day 10 presents does not square with the gospel. The gospel does not regard God as behind and above all the suffering, but proclaims a God who is on the side of those who are suffering, a God who sympathizes with those who experience grief and trouble. The question of where suffering originated cannot be answered. There are blind spots in our knowledge. But one thing is clear: God suffers along with us. Nowhere do we see this more clearly than at the cross of Jesus. God suffers in the Son, as he takes our suffering upon himself. Our comfort is that God is empathetic; he is our ally in the suffering.
The church should not be calling on people to accept suffering from God’s hand, but rather should call for protest. Because we know that God does something with suffering, we must also do something with it: we have to fight it as much as possible and drive it out. There is no room for surrender. When it is stated in Lord’s Day 10 that we should be patient in adversity, this is something that is diametrically opposed to the fighting spirit to which Christians are called.1
In numerous current pastoral handbooks we encounter this view of God and suffering. There is therefore every reason to ask the question: Does God have a hand in our suffering? Is the confession of Lord’s Day 10 according to Scripture?
What Does Scripture Say?
It is not true when modern theologians say that the origin of suffering is an open question. Scripture clearly shows connections between suffering and man’s sin.
Rightly, the ancient Consolation for the Sick2 begins by speaking about man’s fall in sin. On account of this fall sickness and death have made their entrance into our world (see Rom. 5:12). Because of our sin a curse has come upon our world (cf. Gen. 3:17) and creation has been subjected to “futility” (see Rom. 8:20). All the suffering that may happen to people can be traced back to our fall and disobedience in Paradise.
Sickness, loss and adversity always remind us of the disruption that we ourselves have brought about. However, the Lord Jesus is our Saviour. He bore our curse (see Gal. 3:13). He also took our weaknesses and diseases upon himself (see Matt. 8:17). We may know that in our suffering we no longer have to deal with the curse, the judgment of a wrathful God. Suffering, as a curse, has been borne for us! Calvin points out that God’s children are no longer groaning under “judicial punishment”. In the suffering that befalls them, they may recognize “judicial chastisement,” in which the hand of a loving Father corrects and nurtures them.3
When modern theologians claim that God does not have a hand in our suffering, this assertion is at odds with what Scripture teaches. In Amos 3:6 we read, “Does disaster come to a city, unless the LORD has done it?” In Isaiah 45:6-7 we hear the LORD say, “I am the LORD, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity.”
In the Psalms we hear repeatedly how Israel’s poets relate their sufferings to the Lord God. David became deathly ill. But he sees God’s hand in it and confesses: “You hide your face, and I was dismayed” (Ps. 30:7). The poet of Psalm 42 speaks of God’s “breakers and waves,” which beat upon him. In Psalm 22:15 David acknowledges, “you lay me in the dust of death”. And Heman confesses, “You have put me in the depths of the pit” (Ps. 88:6).
What Lord’s Day 10 confesses is by no means a theological corporate accident! Scripture is perfectly clear: God’s hand is in our suffering; sickness, sorrow and adversity come from his Fatherly hand.
God does not suffer along with us. This notion is the ancient error of theopaschitism.4 Scripture does not know of a suffering God. Instead, we may know that the LORD is the Merciful One who knows the hardships of his children (see Ex. 3:7), who is himself afflicted in their afflictions (see Isa. 63:9) and who knows the way of the righteous in love (Ps. 1:6). The Lord Jesus is full of compassion and is the compassionate High Priest who sympathizes with our weaknesses (Heb. 4:15).
Why Does God Bring Suffering Upon Us?
It is not true that Scripture calls us to protest against suffering. Of course, we may and should counteract diseases with treatments and alleviate them as much as possible.
On every sickbed there should be a healthy measure of opposition to the disease itself. But that is quite different from rebellion against God’s direction and leading in the sickness. In my opinion, the question of “why” is certainly fair to ask. In the Psalms this question is also repeatedly heard:
Psalm 10:1: “Why, O LORD, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?”; Psalm 22:2: “My God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me?”; Psalm 42:9: “Why have you forgotten me?”
What is decisive here is how the question of “why” is being asked. It may not be voiced in unbelieving rebellion, but from the faith that wrestles with God’s direction. The Scriptures —especially the Psalms! — do not hide the fact that God’s children can have a very difficult time with his ways. In that difficulty, the question of “why” may be heard.
Scripture also teaches us to find the answer to this question. It says that the LORD can bring suffering into our lives to cause us to discover sin in our life (see Ps. 90:8; Matt. 9:1-8; 1 Cor. 11:30). I also point to what we read about Moses (Ex. 4:24) and David (Ps. 32). When suffering strikes us, self-examination may not be absent. Surely there is no harmful path in us? Is the LORD coming against us?
We should not lose sight of the fact that in the Scriptures which mention illness as a punishment for sin, it is always about clearly demonstrable evil, about what Psalm 19 calls “presumptuous sins” (v. 13).
God’s Word also shows us that suffering is a means in his hand to test his children and to bring them further in the faith (see Isa. 38:17; Rom. 5:3, 4; James 1:1- 4). The Saviour spoke of the heavenly vinedresser who prunes the branches so that they will bear more fruit (John 15:2). It is precisely through trials that we gain “perseverance”. In the Greek language there this word is also closely related to “endurance”, i.e., the capacity to hold on.
The suffering of God’s children can also serve to spread the gospel (see Acts 5:41; 2 Tim. 4:6). Paul’s imprisonment served to promote the proclamation of the gospel (Phil. 1:12). Those who are comforted by God in their suffering are to pass that comfort on to others (2 Cor. 1:4). It is precisely through hard and challenging ways that we can be a blessing to others!
Finally, Scripture says that God also brings suffering upon us for the glorification of his name (see John 9:2). Job’s suffering was included in a battle between the LORD and Satan, in which God’s involvement with his children was at stake.
Suffering or grief does not just hit us, but the Lord directs it at us in his wisdom and love. When God leads us down a difficult path, the question can arise: does the LORD really love us? How does it show that he loves us as a Father? When that question occupies us, we should read Hebrews 12:4-11. It is precisely his fatherly chastisement (discipline) that can convince us that he does regard us as his children. Those who have to suffer greatly may know: the LORD loves me very much because he is intensely involved with me.
Surrender in Faith
From Scripture we also learn that the acceptance in faith of what the LORD is bringing upon us is not something that comes naturally. God’s children can have a very hard time.
The poet of Psalm 73 serves as an example of this suffering. Sometimes the soul can be bowed down deeply (Ps. 42). There may also be situations where one cannot get beyond complaining, crying out from the depths (Heman in Ps. 88). There remains much suffering that is misunderstood. The wisdom to understand all suffering is not given to us (cf. Job 28). To get to acceptance in faith, there needs to be much prayer. Even the Lord Jesus could only go through his Passion by constant prayers and supplications (see Heb. 5:7). Prayer does not always change our situation. Sometimes the suffering remains. But prayer does change us (see Ps. 13:5-6; 42:11b). We receive strength to carry on, and we receive new courage.
We find a wonderful example of this in Psalm 42. The poet has taken refuge in God and envisioned God’s faithfulness. This has changed him profoundly. At first his soul was bowed down deeply, but then he ended with the jubilation: “Hope in God, for I shall again praise him, my Redeemer and my God!”
God does have a hand in our suffering. We may know: it is the hand of him who, for his Son Christ’s sake, is our God and our Father. Much in his actions remains incomprehensible to us. But we do not need to fathom everything in order to come to surrender in faith. After all, we know that he works things for the good of those who love him (Rom. 8:28). Paul says it a little more concisely: God works together in all things for good! The LORD is fully present as our Father, who is involved with us in love. No, we do not always get to see that everything works out for the best. But through faith we may know it. And this knowledge may give us peace and rest.
I will conclude with a profound word from Luther: “Behind the suffering, which seeks to separate us from him like a wall, he stands hidden and from there he looks at me. He cannot take his eyes off me. He stands hidden, ready to rush to my aid in grace at any moment. He shows himself through the window of dark faith.“5 Because we know that God does something with our suffering, we too must do something with it: we must fight it as much as possible and drive it out. There is no room for surrender. When we are told in Lord’s Day 10 that we should be patient in adversity this is something that runs counter to the combativeness to which Christians are called.
In numerous pastoral handbooks today we encounter this view of God and suffering. There is therefore every reason to ask: Does God have a hand in our suffering? Does the confession of Lord’s Day 10 accord with Scripture?