Suffering and Sovereignty: How to Help Your Students Embrace the Tension

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Another school shooting. A classmate dies in a senseless car accident. A friend’s mother dies of cancer. Why? Why does God allow these things to happen?

It’s tempting to respond to those who suffer by pointing the finger at ourselves for allowing the suffering rather embracing God’s sovereign grace in the midst of the pain. Some attempt to let God off the hook by saying things like, “God doesn’t allow suffering. We allow suffering by not being the church.”

At first glance, this resonates and seems pastorally gracious. It comforts, because it allows me to continue worshipping God without blaming him for evil. It inspires, because it motivates me to alleviate the suffering of those around me.

But it’s also empty.

It doesn’t address cancer or earthquakes or random accidents that cannot be prevented by the church “being the church.” And in an attempt to let God off the hook, it sets Him in the grandstands as an onlooker rather than as the Sovereign One who daily sustains His creation. How we talk about suffering and God’s sovereignty is bigger the Arminian/Calvinist debate. Claiming that God doesn’t allow suffering simply fails to reflect the way the Bible speaks about suffering – God hardens Pharaoh’s heart even while Pharaoh hardens it too (Ex. 4:21, 8:32), God sends the rain and the drought (Hag. 1:11), God does whatever He wants in this world (Ps. 135:6). This doesn’t make God a sovereign terrorist, it means that his sovereign grace is at work even through the suffering of this world.

Helping students think biblically about suffering is like untying the Gordian Knott. Who can untie it? The multiple facets of suffering surely add to the complexity of the task. And yet, the Lord graciously sends us to sit with students who have received a cancer diagnosis, to comfort those who mourn, and to minister to broken hearts.

Embrace the Tension

On the one hand, it is entirely right and biblical to say, “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.” Everyone knows the suffering they endure simply isn’t right. We were made to experience the perfect peace of Eden, yet our thumbs are pricked by thorns and we are betrayed by our own bodies. The world has been turned inside-out by sin.

And on the other hand, there is great peace and comfort in knowing, “God works together all things for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28). God’s sovereignty and His goodness have not flickered, but continue to shine in their perfect brilliance. He sees your pain and your suffering. With great compassion and sensitivity, we point students’ hearts to behold the Lord in the midst of their pain.

Sometimes suffering is the direct result of sin (like a school shooting) and sometimes it “just happens,” pointing to the deeper brokenness of the world (like cancer). Other times it’s a confusing mixture (car accidents or a surgery gone wrong). It’s important to grow in pastoral wisdom to discern the thoughts and feelings your students are likely wrestling with and to give them permission to voice their thoughts and feelings. Let your presence speak more than your mouth does. Embrace the tension in your prayers while you mourn with those who mourn. And when you do speak, avoid theological lectures.

Look to the Cross

The greatest comfort we offer students is to point them to the cross and empty tomb. When we look at the cross, we see God’s sovereign grace shining through the greatest act of evil and suffering in human history. The Second Person of the Trinity was betrayed and abandoned by his friends, framed by those who were entrusted with the honor of leading God’s people in worship, and then crucified among the vilest offenders of the day while the crowd cheered.

If we ever doubt the goodness and the sovereignty of God over suffering… look to the cross. At the foot of the cross, we see God’s holiness (Jesus was the sinless, perfect Son of God), His love (Jesus gave himself as our substitute), His power (Jesus would conquer death by enduring it), and His wrath (He did not overlook the judgment sin deserves, but poured it out upon Jesus). It was all God-ordained, and yet Judas and others remained guilty and responsible for their actions.

Four Truths about Grace and Suffering

The message of God’s grace in suffering rings especially clear in Romans 8. First, we remember that God is with us and he understands our suffering (Romans 8:3). Assure your students that in the midst of the pain and suffering, God sees them. Jesus understands betrayal, slander, pain, and death. And yet, he remains the giver of life and hope.

Second, we endure suffering in a way that shows the world we are living for another Kingdom’s treasure (Romans 8:18). If this world is our treasure, then of course we respond to loss as if our entire world has crumbled. Suffering can force us to look into the mirror and recognize our idols for what they are. But if God is our treasure, if we trust His goodness and love, then in the midst of our tears and agony we can say the prayer of Job 1:21, “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” This is true of parents, youth leaders, and teenagers equally – the way we endure suffering displays to the world that our treasure is not worldly, but is secure in glory.

Third, we cling to hope that God is working out his plan of salvation even despite our suffering (Romans 8:28). As your students’ faith is challenged by suffering, remind them that God is working all things in their lives for good. Be sure to clarify the “good” that’s mentioned in this famous verse isn’t their comfort, but their holiness and intimacy with God.

Finally, suffering is always cross-shaped because God accomplished our salvation through Jesus’ suffering and death. When our students suffer, we need to remind them that God has issued the word of judgement against sin and death through the cross and the empty tomb—and when they trust him in faith they share in that victory (Romans 8:37). God has a track record of bringing life from death. Students can hold onto hope because, despite the pain and suffering they endure, God is actively unfolding his plan of salvation in their lives and in our world – and the cross reminds us that our salvation is secure.

When students suffer, remember they need a big God. Shepherd them with gentle and tender care. At the same time, remember that apologizing for God’s sovereignty only minimizes their confidence that God can pour out His grace even in their pain and tragedy. We serve a Holy God whose ways are not our ways, and that is a good thing – because only God would devise a plan like the gospel to rescue sinners from a sinful and broken world.

As you discuss suffering and endurance with students, here are some questions that may provide some helpful conversation-starters:

  • What’s the hardest part about trusting God when you suffer?
  • When we suffer, it’s easy for us to begin questioning God’s sovereignty or is goodness (or both!). Why do you think think that is?
  • God’s sovereignty doesn’t mean he will eliminate all suffering in this life, but that he is able to deliver us through it in order to display his power to those who don’t believe. In what ways is this contrary to what most people expect God to do?
  • Jesus’ suffering and dying on the cross was the most evil act of human history. Do you agree or disagree? If you agree, what does that say about God’s ability to both identify with your suffering and to bring victory out of such evil circumstances?
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