Pastor Bill Johnson of Bethel Church in Redding, California, tells of a story of a woman who was suffering from a physical affliction. He asked her whether he could prayer for her to be healed. She answered, “No, God has given me this affliction to teach me character.” To which Bill Johnson aptly replied, “If I did that to my children, I would be arrested for child abuse.”
Like the woman in this story, we may believe God desires that we suffer, even physically. The truth is, however, this is a concept foreign to Scripture. In the Old Testament, sickness and disease are always associated to the consequence of sin, and in the New Testament, they are always an opportunity for God’s miraculous healing power to be demonstrated. It is very difficult from a casual reading of the Gospels to draw the conclusion that Jesus wants us to be afflicted.
But how does this relate to our larger discussion over the past few weeks concerning God’s sovereignty? If God is supremely orchestrating every aspect of our lives, working it all toward the good, how do we explain any challenge to our health. Or, really, how do we explain any trial in which we find ourselves?
The simplest answer is to acknowledge that in this life, all believers are promised trials of some form or another. Now this leads us to the delicate task of answering the following questions: How is God related to these trials, and what is our understanding of their purpose? As believers, it is vitally important how we answer these correctly if we are to have God’s perspective in the midst of any trial.
First, we could say there are two popular ideas about trials. The first is that trials really should not be happening at all. They are attacks by the devil, or random acts in a broken world. Above all else, they are not ordained by God, for God would never want us to suffer. And since they are not, they should be resisted (by faith) at all costs.
The second idea is that trials are from the hand of God, and since they are, they should be embraced as God’s best for us. This is the belief of the woman in our story: “I am sick, therefore God has given me sickness. I will gladly accept and welcome it.”
These two ideas seem to be the options a believer has these days concerning trials. We can either treat any trial as a foreign thing that we should resist with faith, or accept it with fatalistic defeat as from the hand of God. And each option has its cost, it seems. If we regard any trial as not allowed by God, then we are denying his sovereignty; if on the other hand we regard it as from God, apparently we must therefore conclude He wants us to suffer, even with disease.
But Scripture provides a third option, and that is: God ordains the trials in our lives so that through them, our faith is fully demonstrated.
A story from the pages of the Gospels may best demonstrate this. While Jesus was out on the boat with His disciples, a terrible storm came up that threatened to sink the boat. The disciples were in fear of their lives. But Jesus was asleep. When he awoke, there are two things He did not do. First, He did not fear for His life along with the disciples, as though something strange — that is, outside of God’s sovereignty and will — were happening to Him. Second, He did not on the other hand toss up his arms and say, “Alas, it must be God’s will that I drown; I will accept this as His very best for me.” On the contrary, He saw the circumstance in the context of God’s divine will as an opportunity to demonstrate faith. He therefore commanded the waves and wind to be calm, just as the Father directed Him to.*
When trials of any form face us, therefore, it is not necessary that we choose between the lesser of two evils, either denying His sovereignty or deny our faith. In any trial in which we find ourselves, we can both fully recognize God is in control of every detail and also look for the opportunity for faith in His everlasting mercy and miraculous power to be demonstrated. This is our proper and biblical response to trials. And if you notice, our understanding of God’s sovereignty in this way serves to strengthen our faith, not compromise it.
But if we, like the woman in our story, fail to see our proper role in a trial, especially to believe for God’s best in them, things can get complicated. In our next post, we will discuss what role we play in God’s will and the things that befall us.
But I welcome your thoughts until then. And be blessed.
* Jesus says elsewhere, “I only do what I see the Father doing.” This not only has direct bearing on our dicussion concerning God’s sovereignty but also on popular ideas about faith, in which we tend to see ourselves as free agents operating on our own, instead of in intimate connection, with God.