After preaching on the topic of God’s providence this past Sunday, I am writing a few blog posts to dig into this important topic more. Yesterday, I tried to explain that there is great comfort in knowing that God is providentially working, ordaining, bringing about “all things according to the counsel of his will.”
Today, I’d like to address the questions this often brings up about God’s disposition or attitude towards evil and suffering. There are many things to say about this (and we’ll address the subject of human responsibility in another post), so we’ll just keep our focus to one matter today, though it is a hugely important one.
Consider the words of Lamentations 3:31-33:
For the Lord will not
cast off forever,
32 but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
33 for he does not afflict from his heart
or grieve the children of men.
This passage is highlighted in-depth in two recent books—Providence by John Piper and Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortland, and much of what I will point out was gleaned from their reflections.
Notice two things this passage teaches. First, it says that God causes grief and affliction. When God’s people (who are in view here) experience hardships, they are ultimately ordained, providentially-arranged, brought about by God. Yes, there are other causes at work–human sin, the devil, the brokenness of the world—but none of them are ultimate, none are operating outside of what God wills to bring about. See the end of the previous post for why this is ultimately good and comforting news.
But secondly, note the critical distinction made: “he does not afflict from his heart.” While he does bring affliction, hardships, trials and the like, he does not do it with the same heart, or perhaps motive, as when he, for example, removes affliction and comforts his people. We have to be careful with our words here, because God is not conflicted in himself, and has good purpose in all he does.
I’ll let Piper explain:
The author “is saying rather that, while not disapproving of anything God does, some of God’s acts are means to the ends that are more ultimately aimed at and more heartily desired as the final end. The means affliction and grief are exactly what God wills for that time and situation. They are perfect as means. And, as perfect, they are perfectly approved by God’s perfect mind. But in God’s overall view of history, and in view of the totality of his nature, there are acts which are preeminent and more suited for his ultimate goal. Causing affliction and grief has its place in the expression of God’s justice and holiness against sin (and I, Derek, would add, the loving discipline and training of his people). But more central to God’s nature is ‘the abundance of his steadfast love’ (3:32).”
In other words, God does not coldly and dispassionately mete out joys and sorrows, comforts and afflictions, with the same heart, disposition, purpose and delight through it all. No! He goes out of his way to show mercy and compassion and steadfast love: these come from his very heart, and are a sort of end in themselves.
On the other hand, He will ordain affliction and grief, not as an end in itself, not because he delights in these things, but to bring about a greater purpose, whether the discipline and training of his people to increasing their trust and delight in him, or the display of his justice.
Knowing this about the heart and purposes of God gives us great comfort and endurance when we experience hardships in life. I’ll let Ortland have the last word:
“When we speak of what God does or does not do from his heart, we are not limiting his sovereign rule more broadly; indeed, to the degree that we believe God is sovereign in all our affliction, to that degree we are able to be comforted that he does not afflict us from his heart.”