Saturday, October 28, 2006

Book Review: Suffering and the Sovereignty of God

Suffering and the Sovereignty of God [General Editors John Piper and Justin Taylor]

My wife, Lindsey, and I went to this conference last year, and it changed our perspective on everything. I can remember John Piper saying something to the extent of, “Many of you are about to enter a stage of suffering, for which you probably are not prepared for.” This was definitely true. We did not enter a stage of suffering, but we definitely were not prepared for suffering, and now we have a better understanding of our Lord so that we can cling to Him in that time when it comes! As we all know one hundred percent of us die and suffering almost always accompanies that death. Are you ready? This book will help!

I. Introduction
I was extremely excited to get my hands on Suffering and the Sovereignty of God. There are many reasons why.

First of all…my wife and I went to the conference, we bought the dvd’s of the conference, and now the book? Well, the book is almost as important as the rest of the media to communicate this message. I can hand someone this book and have them read just one chapter as it relates to their specific situation. As Justin Taylor says in the introduction, “You don’t need to read this book cover to cover. We encourage you to start with a section that addresses your most pressing questions (pp. 14).”

Second, the chapters are laid out with more substance than the one hour talks could hold. They are more expansive, and easier to cite in papers…or encouraging notes.

Third, there is an addition of a chapter by Dustin Shramek entitled Waiting for the Morning during the Long Night of Weeping. My only complaint about this is that Dustin wasn’t at the conference. What a grace it is to read his contribution to this work. There is also an addition of an article team-written by John Piper and David Powlison entitled Don’t Waste Your Cancer of which they wrote after they were both diagnosed with prostate cancer.

Fourth, as Taylor says in the introduction, “this is not an academic book…this is a book of applied theology (pp.11).” Well, it is...and isn’t academic [smile].

Fifth, this book answers the questions posed in the introduction:
“In what ways is God sovereign over Satan’s work? How can we be free and responsible if God ordains our choices? What is the ultimate reason that suffering exists? How does suffering help to advance the mission of the church? How should we understand the origin of ethnic-based clashes and suffering? How does God’s grace enter our sufferings? Why is it good for us to meditate upon the depth and pain of severe suffering? What is the role of hope when things look utterly hopeless? (pp. 11)

Justin also gives a thorough summary of each chapter in the succinct few pages of the introduction. A few one liners that stuck out to me were:
“Talbot argues that while God never does evil, he does indeed ordain evil (pp. 12).”

“She [Joni Eareckson Tada] ends with a hope-filled, stirring vision of that Day when we will experience Trinitarian fellowship in all its glory (pp. 13) [That’s a good foreshadowing of D. A. Carson’s talk this year!]”

One of my favorite parts about reading Taylor’s intros to books is that he is a man
of prayer. From the books I have read that he has worked on he has stated his, and his contributors’, prayer for the work. This is a humble segway into the content of the book!

[I’m only reviewing three chapters. Chapter 1, John Piper’s Suffering and the Sovereignty of God: Ten Aspects of God’s Sovereignty Over Suffering and Satan’s Hand in it. Chapter 8, Dustin Shramek’s Waiting for the Morning during the Long Night of Weeping. And the Appendice, John Piper and David Powlison’s Don’t Waste Your Cancer. I’m doing Piper’s as a good overview, and I’m doing Shramek’s chapter and Don’t Waste Your Cancer because they weren’t a part of the conference.]

II. Chapter 1: John Piper Suffering and the Sovereignty of God: Ten Aspects of God’s Sovereignty Over Suffering and Satan’s Hand in it
This chapter felt very much like reading A. W. Pink’s The Sovereignty of God, to me. Solid biblical reference to applicable knowledge of God’s attributes even though He is still mysterious in many aspects. There is a definite theme that he develops mainly who is in control, God!
“…celebrate the sovereignty of God over Satan (pp. 18).”
God is sovereign over Satan’s angels (pp. 21).”
“The lion [satan] does not have the last say. God does (pp. 21).”
God is sovereign over Satan’s hand in persecution (pp. 22).”
God is sovereign over Satan’s life-taking power (pp. 22).”
“Satan is real and terrible. All his designs are hateful. But he is not sovereign. God is (pp. 24).”
“Satan is real and full of hate, but he is not sovereign in sickness (pp. 25).”
“Satan can have a hand here [in natural disasters of Jonah], but he is not sovereign. God is (pp. 26).”
“Satan was not in charge of the crucifixion of Christ. God was (pp. 27).”
“Satan is not sovereign in the temptations of Judas or Peter or you or those you love. God is (pp. 27).”
“But he [Satan] is not sovereign. God is (pp. 28).”
“Satan is not sovereign over his captives. God is (pp. 29).”
“But evil and suffering are not ultimate. God is. Satan, the great lover of evil and suffering, is not sovereign. God is (pp. 29).”

This theme that God is sovereign is like Wagner’s use of the leitmotif in music. In life the leitmotif of God’s sovereignty is in all, through all, and to all. Piper defines what he means by sovereignty by saying:
“…what I mean in this chapter when I say that God is sovereign is not merely that God has the power and right to govern all things, but that he does govern all things, for [H]is own wise and holy purposes (pp. 19).”

John Piper first establishes some truths about God in who He is. “God as [is] the supreme value in and above the universe…God himself is the great supreme value…And his name, as Creator and Redeemer and Ruler of all, is Jesus Christ (pp. 18).”

Then he discusses a few observations of the current state of the church, “much of the church is choosing, at this very moment, to become more light and shallow and entertainment-oriented, and therefore successful in its relevance to massive suffering and evil (pp. 18).” Pragmatic approaches to “doing” church have engulfed the mindset of many local churches in our day. Entertainment has the perception of “working” in the success of ministry. It does at times, but often it is short lived because there is no deeper connection going on. Further Piper states who should read this, “People who are about to enter a time of suffering in their life for which they are totally unprepared (pp. 18).” Are you prepared to suffer? If yes or no I would say read this book!

Piper then leads us in worship of God by demonstrating God’s sovereignty in 10 different aspects. He starts each by saying, “Let Us Celebrate that God is Sovereign Over.” Below shows what God is Sovereign over...
1. ...Satan’s Delegated World Rule (pp. 19-20).
2. ...Satan’s Angels (Demons, Evil Spirits) (pp. 20-21).
3. ...Satan’s Hand in Persecution (pp. 21-22).
4. ...Satan’s Life-Taking Power (pp. 22).
5. ...Satan’s Hand in Natural Disasters (pp. 23-24).
6. ...Satan’s Sickness-Causing Power (pp. 24-25).
7. ...Satan’s Use of Animals and Plants (pp. 25-26).
8. ...Satan’s Temptations to Sin (pp. 26-27).
9. ...Satan’s Mind-Blinding Power (27-28).
10. ...Satan’s Spiritual Bondage (pp. 28-29).

This shows us that Satan is powerful, but not nearly as powerful as our God. It shows that pain, sickness, moral sin, natural disaster, demon possession, death, etc. are real, but God is sitting on His throne and He will execute His judgment at the right time. This chapter was great!

III. Chapter 8 Dustin Shramek Waiting for the Morning during the Long Night of Weeping
I picked out an outline of sorts to the introduction of the chapter (pp. 175-177).
There is pain in suffering (pp. 175).
If you want to understand the value of the eternal weight of glory learn about pain (pp. 176).
Reality of Pain: Testimony about losing his son to death (pp. 176-177)
It’s hard to be encouraged by “pat theological answers”…you have to enter the pain with the person (pp. 177).

Shramek wraps up the introduction by pointing out the two points he will be laboring to demonstrate in the following pages, “First, for those who are not in the midst of suffering, I hope to help you see the depth of the pain of those who are suffering. By entering into their pain you will be more equipped to weep with those who weep. [Second,] [f]or those who are in the midst of terrible suffering, I hope you will see that God has not abandoned you in the pit. He knows it is dark and seemingly bottomless, but he has left you a lifeline-himself (pp. 177) [My emphasis].”

Regarding the problem of pain Shramek says, “Suffering is a universal experience so we can’t avoid it forever (pp. 178).” This is a great point, yet we try to hold back the pain and suffering forever! He further makes his point by saying, “…in America most of us work hard at holding back the loud cries during funerals. Indeed, we even try to hold back the tears (pp. 178).” Our natural reaction to pain is weeping and if we hold it back and do not let this God ordained expression of pain come out we will not heal well. By doing this we inadequately medicate one of the only healing balms God has given us. It is like putting a band-aid over a laceration. It’s probably not going to help. I can remember the first funeral that this happened to me. I was weeping like a baby, and everyone around me was calm and reserved. I felt like a complete idiot, but I couldn’t control myself. I felt guilty that I didn’t do more with the person; I felt the pain of loss of a close mentor and friend. Tears, snot, and wailing…I was a basket-case. Anyhow, I felt much better afterward [there is way more involved in healing but this is one important aspect]. Shramek also believes that avoidance of grief results from our not knowing how to deal with pain (pp. 178). Segwaying into the next point of The Depth of Pain [basically study of Psalm 88] he says, “God’s promise of deliverance does not mean that he will immediately deliver us. For many deliverance only comes with death (pp. 179).” It’s common in our culture to have an overly triumphalistic view of life [we don’t want to tip the scale in the direction of a fatalistic view of life either though]. Shramek is honest and displays a balanced realistic/truthful view of life. Deliverance will come, we know that by God’s promises, but we often don’t realize that deliverance might be in death. Pages 180-183 are pretty much an exposition of Psalm 88, the darkest chapter in the Bible.

Doctrinally he points to inerrancy at the beginning of the section on Why Such Pain Is in the Bible (pp. 184). He also points to penal substitutionary definite atonement by saying, “a death which he bore the wrath of God for all the people of God. The intensity of this wrath is remarkable, for it would take us all of eternity to pay the penalty for our sins and God’s wrath would never be quenched, yet Christ bore God’s complete wrath for billions and he did it in a matter of hours (pp. 185-186).”

I’m going to skip to my favorite part, what I think is the climax of the chapter, The Pain of Jesus. I quoted above about the atonement and the pain involved. And that point is my absolute favorite. Knowing my God personally as my substitute continues to bring me to a deeper level of repentance for my sin, and the fellowship with God gets better in the midst of that openness. Thanks be to God in His work on the cross! Shramek also says, “There has been no greater pain in all of history,” and,
“In the midst of our pain we may feel alone and believer that no one has hurt as badly as we hurt. But it isn’t true. Jesus Christ has felt such pain; indeed, he has felt pain that would have destroyed us. He is able to sympathize. ‘Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need’ (Heb. 4:16). (pp. 186)”

Jesus is knows the pain.

Shramek has three more points for the chapter Hope for the Pain, Where is God in Our Pain, and Clinging to God in the Midst of Pain. He paints a great word picture of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility [and perceived human involvement]. He describes human pain like falling off a cliff. We are no longer in control as we fall. We see “one and only one tree” that is growing out of the rock face, so we grab it and cling to it, “This tree is our holy God.” We don’t realize that when we fall our arm actually became entangled in the branches “so that in reality the tree is holding us.” “We hold on to keep from falling, but what we don’t realize is that we can’t fall because the tree has us. We are safe. God in his holiness, is keeping us and showing mercy to us. We may not be aware of it, but it is true (pp. 189).”

He ends with a good insight as well, “Yes, the night is long and the weeping intense, but the morning is coming. And as we wait for the coming dawn, the return of the Son of God, we can know that we are not alone (pp. 189-190).” Reassuring us of this he cites Scriptures, “And the city [will have] no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God [will give] it light, and its lamp [will be] the Lamb…And night will be no more” (Rev. 21:23; 22:5). I can’t wait for that day!

IV. Appendice #1: John Piper and David Powlison Don’t Waste Your Cancer
As a background this conference was done 5 months before both Piper and Powlison would be diagnosed with prostate cancer. They are clear at the outset that this article is, “one way to minister pastorally to those in need, but it’s not the only way to do so, and it is not the only thing that needs to be said (pp. 207).” This is really helpful for those of us who are much more immature in our experience with suffering. It would be easy for me to assume that this could be all that is said. They also reassure us that , “Cancer is not wasted when it is healed by God. He gets the glory and that is why cancer exists. So not to pray for healing may waste your cancer. But healing is not God’s plan for everyone (pp. 207).

Following are the 10 ways to not waste your cancer! You will not waste your cancer if…
1. …You do not believe it is designed for you by God (pp. 207-208).
2. …You believe it is a curse and not a gift (pp. 209).
3. …You seek comfort from your odds rather than from God (pp. 209-210).
4. …You refuse to think about death (pp. 210-211)
5. …You think that “beating” cancer means staying alive rather than cherishing Christ (pp. 211-212).
6. …You spend too much time reading about cancer and not enough time reading about God (pp. 212-213).
7. …You let it drive you into solitude instead of deepen your relationships with manifest affection (pp. 213-214).
8. …You grieve as those who have no hope (pp. 214-215).
9. …You treat sin as casually as before (pp. 215-216).
10. …You fail to use it as a means of witness to the truth and glory of Christ (pp. 216-217).

You really have to read this book. The help that the truths in this have given to me, by God’s grace, have been very great. To finish are the words of the hymn “I Bind unto Myself Today” given by David Powlison (pp. 217).
“Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.

Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.”

May God’s grace be multiplied to you in the suffering you will experience…or are experiencing. And remember we're in this together. 2 Corinthians 4:17, “For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison… [ESV]” Cling to Christ!

In Christ
Noah Braymen

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