King Jesus: His Sovereignty and Human Suffering

I have lived quite a sheltered life in comparison to many. I grew up in a loving family, but even this blessing created unique opportunities for suffering. I was eleven when Dad picked me up from school with the news my grandmother had just died. Several days later my Nanna joined her in heaven. Two precious beloved godly influences snatched out of my life in the space of a few days. It was smaller suffering than many, yet enough to taste the bitter reality of grief.

Such experiences of suffering and grief (common to all) raise the 'why' question. If Jesus is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords (1 Timothy 6:15); if all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Him (Matthew 28:18); if He is seated at God’s right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, and has had all things put under His feet (Ephesians 1:20-22), then why do His subjects suffer?

Such exalted descriptions of the power and authority of our King surely indicate His ability to protect us from any and all harm. Nothing remains outside the bounds of His all encompassing reign. So why do we, who joyfully bow the knee in willing submission, still suffer? Could it be that our sovereign king doesn’t love us? This thought prompted the Apostle Paul’s words from Romans 8:35ff.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, "For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered." (Romans 8:35-36)

It must be readily admitted by all of Jesus’ loyal subjects that His people suffer. Tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, and the sword are the experiences of Christians. The King Himself had prepared us for this reality. ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 5:10). Do these experiences of suffering mean we have been separated from the love of Christ? Is the Christian undergoing famine to conclude, “Jesus doesn’t love me”? Paul’s answer leaves no room for debate.

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. (Romans 8:37)

No, suffering shall not separate us from the love of Christ our king. Jesus does love us, and because He loves us, His power makes us more than conquerors in our suffering.

We know what a conqueror is (someone who defeats something). But what does it mean to be 'more than a conqueror'? It means that we don’t just defeat something, but we also bring it into our service, so that it now serves us for our good. Jesus’ love for us doesn’t keep us from experiencing suffering, but it does rule over our suffering so that it becomes our servant. This is why we can confidently know Romans 8:28 to be true.

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)

It may be objected that suffering doesn’t seem to serve us for our good. It is at this point, we need to make sure we are using God’s definition of good. If we view ‘good’ as a life of comfort and ease, then suffering does call into question Jesus’ power and love, because such is not Jesus’ goal. The 'good', all things in our lives work together to produce, is God’s purpose according to which we were called. This purpose is spelt out in verse 29.

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (Romans 8:29)

Christlikeness is the good our suffering serves us to produce through the sovereign and loving rule of King Jesus.

Perhaps one of the reasons we question Jesus’ love for us in our suffering is because we don’t share Jesus’ values. It is obvious that for Jesus our transformation into Christlikeness ranks higher than our being kept from suffering. We need to establish the same priority of values in our minds, so we can view our suffering as consistent with the love of our sovereign king.

The idea of Jesus as king, seated on the throne of heaven sovereignly bringing His purposes to pass, can make Him seem cold, aloof, distant. We could perhaps mistakenly imagine him as saying to us in our suffering, “Harden up. This is for your good.” But this is not so. Jesus’ sovereignty is couched in compassion for His people. The hand that grips the iron scepter of the universe is nail pierced. The lion of the tribe of Judah is the slain lamb. He is the one who sovereignly purposed His own suffering for our good and the glory of God. In Jesus absolute sovereignty and abundant compassion meet in total harmony. He is able to weep with us in the very suffering He has designed for our good.

The intertwining of these characteristics comes to the fore in John 11. Jesus received a message saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill” (v.3). But He was not taken by surprise. Instead, with sovereign authority He declared the purpose for the illness. "This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it" (v.4). In order to bring about this purpose Jesus chose to stay two days longer where he was until Lazarus had died (v.6, 11).

It is important to see that Jesus’ sovereignty is couched in love. The gospel writer points out time and again Jesus’ love for Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha (v.3, 5, 36). In fact, verse 6 makes explicit that Jesus’ choice to let Lazarus die was motivated by His love for them.

Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. (John 11:5-6)

Jesus knew what this choice meant for Lazarus, Mary and Martha. He knew Lazarus would have to go through the horror of experiencing death. He knew Mary and Martha would have to go through the terrible grief of losing their beloved brother. But amazingly His love for them motivated Him to make that choice. Jesus’ love resulted in temporary suffering, not because he wanted them to suffer, not because of a sadistic desire to cause pain, but because He had something better for them that could only be attained through their suffering. Jesus’ love is governed by a different priority of values.

Once Lazarus had died, Jesus set off to Bethany to accomplish His good and loving purposes by raising Him back to life. He was met on the way by Martha and then Mary, and in their exchange Jesus’ compassion flowed.

Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to him, "Lord, come and see." Jesus wept. (John 11:32-35)

Jesus sovereignly chose to bring about the painful circumstances resulting in Mary and Martha’s grief and loss, yet in the midst of those very circumstances, He was moved to genuinely weep with them. The same is true for all of our suffering. Jesus knows the pain. He knows the grief. He knows the hurt. He looks upon you with great compassion, and is able to weep with you. But He also knows what He is doing. He has good and wise and loving purposes for you. Will you trust His goodness? Will you trust His wisdom? Will you trust His love to determine what is best? He is our compassionate king.

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