127 Hours, Part 2: Sovereignty and Suffering
Why should a living man complain,
a man, about the punishment of his sins? Lamentations 3:39
As hours turn into days, it begins to dawn on Aron Ralston that no one is going to come to save him and he will most likely expire in this canyon. Why did no one come look for him, after he had been missing for three days? Because, he sarcastically boasts, “(I am) something of a big (choice word) hard hero. I can do everything on my own.“ And because of his heroic estimate of himself, how many people did he tell where he was going? None. Surprisingly, Ralston does what so few of us are willing to do: he takes responsibility for the dire circumstances he is in. He lives a life of self-sufficiency, and when his self-sufficiency reaps its natural consequence of helplessness, he points the finger at himself, rather than God, family, government, or whatever scapegoat seems most culpable.
In Part 1 of this series, we fleshed out how important it is to let students wrestle with questions. We also looked briefly at a couple of the questions likely to be asked. To enter deeper into our student’s questions of the Sovereignty of God, we must change the paradigm of the way they see their notion of freedom and their liability in sin. Our perceived ‘freedom’ is actually slavery, slavery to our desires. When it comes to our choices, we always choose our self-deification over the divinity of God. And our efforts at self-deification have led to the state of the world in which we live. Romans 1 has a profound definition of God’s wrath: God’s handing of us over to our desires. God’s wrath means He lets us have what we want, the natural outcome of our desires. Hosea puts it beautifully; we “sow the wind and reap the whirlwind.” Therefore, the cause of the suffering in this world rests on man’s choice to rebel. In current events, such as Bin Laden’s recent death, one can nod their head and say, “I understand that his choices led to his consequences.” But the issue of liability becomes more muddled when it comes to natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, or car accidents. How are these people responsible for this disaster? Again, our objections come from a place of perceived innocence. As Christ taught about the tower of Siloam (Luke 13), a tower that fell on eighteen in Jerusalem, we all deserve to perish, if not for the mercy of God. Due to the prevalence of God’s mercy, similar to the prevalence of oxygen, we easily begin to treat it as a right. But mercy is not a right we should expect, rather a choice left up to God’s foreordained plan. And sometimes, for reasons we cannot understand, God chooses to not have mercy (Romans 9:15) (this is something I have personally wrestled with so feel free to email me if there is something you want to discuss or you object). So, the hole we find ourselves in, whether by direct or indirect consequences, is one that we have chosen, as Aron Ralston chose. We are helpless to escape, with no faculties within ourselves to save us.
For the Lord will not cast off forever,
but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not willingly afflict
for he does not willingly afflict
or grieve the children of men. Lamentations 3:31-33
But our story, as Ralston’s story, does not end in a crevasse or a tomb, victims of our own self-sufficiency. Although there is suffering that comes from our sin, we have a sovereign and merciful God who is constantly at work redeeming this world, even redeeming us through suffering. Behind the scenes of this destructive world, we have a God that, although He has not caused the destruction, is ordaining events such that they work together for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28), those He has called to Himself. Although we cannot always see His movements of mercy at work in every circumstance, the Christ of Golgotha is our picture of how God can use suffering to bring about his plan. Because of Golgotha, we know that suffering is not in vain, without hope. Although God does not ultimately ‘willingly afflict the children of men,’ He uses even the result of our rebellion as a way to draw us back to Him and to teach us how to follow Him. Similar to a windmill, he takes our whirlwind and uses it to bring life and redemption to us. Similar to a guardrail on the Big Sur (a road along the cliffs of the Pacific), he allows us to crash so that we will not run headlong into an ultimate destruction. He is, in His perfect sovereign plan, working even the destruction of the world into His plan, not disposing of our swords but beating them into plowshares. In the Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky hints at the ultimate working out of God’s sovereign plan,
“…in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all of the crimes of humanity, of all the blood that they have shed; that it will not only make it possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.”