This year, I’ve been meditating on how peace is often found in the tension between two extremes. In March I wrote about finding peace in the tension of perspective, between the truths that every moment matters and it’s all about the big picture. This tension is one I felt particularly keenly in my role as a parent.
This month, I’m writing about another two simultaneously true extremes, and my search to find peace in the tension between the two: God’s sovereignty vs our free will.
For me, the tension of these two extremes is felt most keenly in the reality of suffering.
As a species, humans love stories. We take great joy in epics, in long tales of adventure, of drama and excitement, or trial and heartbreak and perseverance, and we are comforted with the certainty that evil will lose, good will win.
In our house, we have a rule: the bad guys have to lose. Whatever game is being played, at the end, the bad guys lose. Either they repent and become good guys, or they suffer the fate of the dragon in Revelation and are chained up and thrown into the pit. One way or another, good wins, evil looses.
As a kid, I was comforted through the scary parts of stories, knowing the good guys won.
But as adults – and maybe as teenagers, or perhaps horrifically as children – we all reach a place where we wonder if that’s true.
Someone dies. Gets hurt. Is betrayed. Violated. We witness or experience injustice. War breaks out. Evil people do evil things in an evil world, and we cry out, my God, my God, why have you forsaken us?
God is sovereign, and loves us, yet allows us to choose to do evil and lets bad things happen to good people. How can a good God allow people He loves to suffer?
In my previous post about timing, I found peace once I identified the lies that were sneaking in alongside the truth. I find the same in the questions of suffering.
God is sovereign and we have free will. What lies sneak in with these truths?
When I focus on God’s sovereignty, I struggle with the existence of free will and our capacity to choose evil.
The truth is we have freedom to choose our actions. But the lie that often sneaks in for me is that free will is then, itself, evil. That humanity is evil, that we are doomed to constantly choose selfishness and greed and to inflict suffering on one another. That God permits free will as some sort of necessary thing, but that there is no good in it.
Free will is neither good nor evil. It is all potential. When I embrace the gift of choice that the Lord has given me, I can choose to use it for evil or for good. I can use it in selfishness and say ‘my will be done’. Or I can choose freely to submit to God’s sovereignty, to say ‘Thy will be done’. It’s a choice, day after day, even to eternity. But it’s a choice I can make. I need help from the Lord, and from other people to make those choices. It’s a hard things to shape my will to submit to God’s sovereignty and to choose to define what is good and what is evil by what He says is good and evil, not by what I think or feel.
When I expose the lie that God’s sovereignty must mean free will is a bad thing, I see the beauty and joy of it. I am awestruck by the wonder of being able to choose good, to choose love. I get to experience the beauty of choosing good and choosing love even when it’s hard. Even when I’m suffering from the consequences of free will, from evil.
At the other end of the line, when I focus on free will, when I recognize the freedom we have to choose evil, to inflict evil and suffering on one another, I struggle with the issue of God’s sovereignty. And there’s a lie that sneaks in here as well.
Is it that God’s sovereignty means He is not compassionate? Or that God’s sovereignty is not absolute? Perhaps. But the one that sneaks in for me is the lie that if God is sovereign, He must have the power to stop suffering and that if He loves me He must have the will or motivation; therefore, the fact that He doesn’t must mean He is either not truly sovereign or truly loving.
Unraveling this lie means asking a hard, hard question.
Is all suffering inherently evil? Is there a good kind of suffering? A woman labouring to give birth is perhaps an overused and oft oversimplified example. But what about another, similar example? The athlete who trains their body to reach incredible new heights in their sport suffers even in the healthiest, most productive training regimen. At a basic, biological level: to build muscles, we tear muscles. We stretch again and again and again, each time pushing just a little bit further, a little bit harder, a little bit higher, and we grow. Muscle grows when it is worked. Perhaps that is a better word then, for this kind of suffering, this kind of work: growth. Growth as a form of good suffering. The ache of well used (but well cared for) muscles. The fatigue of a brain that has studied hard and learned new things and is ready to rest. The stretching of a soul to acts of compassion beyond what is comfortable, or easy, or pleasant. This growth is not one exclusive to this earth, it is a part of our eternal reality. Our growth continues in heaven, to eternity! Growth is an essential part of the human condition and not one we will ever shake off.
If this is part of how we are made, perhaps the existence of suffering (or more accurately, the existence of our capacity to suffer) is not a contradiction of God’s sovereignty or goodness.
Is this where my free will intersects with God’s sovereignty in my suffering?
In my suffering, I still have choices. When evil is inflicted on me, my free will gives me the chance to not repay evil for evil and instead to choose good. God’s sovereignty is what allows me to choose this.
This unravels the lies for me and I can see the truth of God’s sovereignty and of free will. I can also see the goodness in both. I find peace in the face of suffering when I stand in the tension of the simultaneous truths that God is sovereign and people have free will.
If there is good growth born of a sort of good suffering, what does it mean that good growth can come from evil suffering? What does this tell us about God’s nature and His sovereignty?
Catholics have a teaching about this type of redemptive suffering. They are encouraged to “offer it up”. Whatever suffering we experience, we can offer it to the Lord, praying that He would use it, not just to build us, but to build His church, His Kingdom, on earth and in heaven.
3 thoughts on “Peace in Tension: Suffering”
Oh Anne, I hope you write a book someday. Your reflections here resonate so deeply and with such truth. As for good growth coming from bad suffering, that to me is proof if the Lord’s sovereignty. He bends good to come out of evil however He can without violating our free will. There is such hope in that tension. Offering it up to the Lord seems like a healing act of hope and trust in His love and omnipotence.
Thank you so much, Anne. This is a powerful article and really helpful to me. I’ll probably read it multiple times – there is so much to think about in it.
….That’s a really cool, insightful perspective, Anne Grace: comparing some kinds of suffering to the tearing and consequent growth of muscles. Thanks, I like that.
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