Why God Wills Suffering for the Children He Loves


Audio Transcript

Welcome back. We’ve been looking at John Piper’s new book recently, titled Come, Lord Jesus: Meditations on the Second Coming of Christ (Crossway, 2023). And we return to the book next time. But we ended the episode on Monday looking at how the second coming of Christ gives us the grace we need to endure suffering with joy. That was 1 Peter 4:12–13, a key text that has appeared twenty times on the podcast. It’s a very critical text if you want to understand Pastor John, Christian Hedonism, and what the Bible says about suffering.

So we’re going to hit pause on our little series on the second coming to press into this reality, connecting our suffering and our joy. This very sensitive connection came up in Hawaii back in 2014, with Pastor John speaking to a room full of pastors and their wives. The room included — likely unknown to Pastor John — a woman from Kahului, Hawaii, who was in the room, suffering silently. She shared this clip with us, and her story. First the clip, then her story. Here’s Pastor John.

Now, connecting joy and suffering is a risky business. And I would only do it because of 21 texts I wrote down here. And I’m not going to read them all; that would be tedious. I’m going to read ten because I think I can read them non-tediously. So this is kind of a bath right now. I’m just going to bathe you with one truth, and you’ll hear it: the connection between joy and suffering in the New Testament.

  1. “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame” (Romans 5:3–4).

  2. “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:2–3).

  3. Rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:13).

  4. “You had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property” (Hebrews 10:34).

  5. “They left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor” (Acts 5:41).

  6. “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9–10).

  7. “Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering [that means die] upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all” (Philippians 2:17).

  8. “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Colossians 1:24).

  9. “You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 1:6).

  10. “We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part” (2 Corinthians 8:1–2).

So that’s ten of the twenty.

Not by Circumstance

Now, you cannot miss the point here. The New Testament pervasively tells us to rejoice when we’re suffering, whether it’s persecution or whether it’s cancer. And the ground of that suffering clearly is not prosperity, or health, or wealth. And you see that in this last text because it says their joy abounded “in a severe test of affliction” (2 Corinthians 8:2). So all their comforts and safety and security are being taken away, and at that moment, they are rejoicing. So it’s not based on comfort and the absence of trouble.

And it says, “Their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty . . . overflowed.” The grace of God in their lives hadn’t taken away their poverty, and their lack of money and resources did not take away their joy. So the joy must be in something else. It’s in the grace of God that was poured out in verse 1, and that’s what you’re preaching for. How do you do it? How are you helping your people not be happy in money, not be happy in health, not be happy in comforts, but be so happy in God that even if they lose all they’re coming to church with joy? That’s what you’re after.

All of your ministry is about how to have your people have a superior joy in Christ over pain and pleasure. The devil has only two weapons: pain and pleasure. He will either hurt you so bad you hate God, or he will give you so much pleasure you don’t need God. And the solution to both is the same: God is more precious than what I lose; God is more precious than what I gain. You can’t have me, Satan. I’m safe from pleasures in Hawaii. I’m safe from pain in south Vietnam.

Reasons for Rejoicing

Okay, what is clear now from these texts so far is that the joy of a Christian is not in circumstances, good or bad. The joy of a Christian is indestructible; it can’t be reached by humans because it’s in God — it’s in Christ. He is precious, he’s our treasure, and he can’t be taken away. So I want to spend the rest of our time on six observations about why he would ordain suffering, because these other guys said he doesn’t have any — he doesn’t have any purposes — and I see at least six in the New Testament.

“The joy of a Christian is indestructible; it can’t be reached by humans because it’s in God — it’s in Christ.”

And just a practical word. Pastors all know this, but I’ll say it anyway just to encourage you. When sufferers in your church or in your family cry out, “Why?” that is a cry of anguish, not a cry of inquiry. And what’s needed at that moment is not six answers. “Piper said there’s six reasons, let me tell you two or three of them right now.” You’re pastors; you know to weep with those who weep. But there comes a time later when it’s no longer an anguished cry; it’s an inquiry. They’re making an appointment, and they want an answer. “Why did he take my husband?”

At that point, I hope you don’t say, “The Bible doesn’t give us answers like that.” That’s not good news to sufferers. We may try to persuade ourselves that ignorance is helpful and bliss, but the Bible doesn’t think so. So here they are, and I’ll see if I can pack them into the next few minutes. These are biblical reasons for why God wills suffering for his children. That’s what I want to know, because I’m serving those people and need answers for them. They need strength; they need help; they need to persevere.

Deeper Holiness, Deeper Faith

First, deeper holiness and deeper faith. Here are a couple of texts. Hebrews 12:10: “He disciplines us for our good.” And in the context, he already said, “You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Hebrews 12:4). So clearly, this is hard. There’s a lot of conflict in the community, but not quite to throat-slitting yet. And he’s explaining what’s going on. He says, “He disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.” That’s probably the biggest overarching banner of why suffering happens: to make us more holy.

Here’s the way Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 1:8–9: “We don’t want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death.” Now here comes a purpose statement, and you’ve got to decide exegetically, theologically, who’s the purpose-er, because this is the purpose clause: “We felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was [in order] to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” That’s why it happened.

Now, whose purpose is that? You have three possibilities: (1) the enemies who were opposing him, (2) the devil, and (3) God. I can’t think of a fourth option. So which one of those three wants Paul to rely more on God? That’s the purpose. Well, the devil sure doesn’t. His purpose is to destroy his faith, and so is the enemies’. “Say ‘Caesar is Lord,’ not ‘Jesus is Lord.’” God is the purpose-er here, so let me just put that in as I read it. “We felt that we had received the sentence of death [we were so unbearably crushed]. But God did this so that we would not rely on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.”

“God’s always doing a thousand things, and you can see two of them.”

And the reason he said, “but on God who raises the dead” is because he was that close to dying. “All I could see between me and death was nothing. If I were to have any hope right in this little gap between where I am and my death, it would be hope in the resurrection.” And so he says, “That’s why you’re there: so you would believe in the God who raises the dead, and you would trust only in him.”

Faith Without Props

Isn’t that the way it works in our lives? How many people have you ever heard say — I’ve never heard one, but you may have since you live here — “I saw God most deeply and I experienced him most fully on the bright and sunniest days of my life”? But I hear everyone say, “I saw God most deeply, I experienced his resources most fully, on the worst days of my life.” That’s the design, according to 2 Corinthians 1:8–9. That’s Paul’s testimony.

So my first point is this: deeper holiness through deeper faith. God knocks the props out from under your life. I could tell you props in my life that I wish were there. I really want things to change in some areas of my family. No answer yet except “no” or “not yet.” Why? There is a work to be done here. There’s a God-centered, Christ-dependent work to be done in John Piper’s heart and my wife’s and others. God’s always doing a thousand things, and you can see two of them.

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