Don't we all struggle with the question of why bad things happen to good people? Even if we believe that God is both good and omnipotent, even if we believe the Bible's exhortations to "consider it joy" when we suffer, we may sometimes question why God doesn't do more to help those in pain, or to prevent their suffering all together. We know better, but our theology is challenged by what we and others experience.
Now, the Bible has a lot to say on God's sovereignty -- that his ways are higher than our ways, and he does have a plan, even if we don't understand it. See, for example, Ephesians 1 -- how Paul repeatedly speaks of God's plan and purpose. Will we trust God that his plan is better than our plans?
Reading Ephesians 3 this evening, it struck me that the familiar praise ending this chapter: "Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us . . ." (v. 20), is more than just an acknowledgement that God can bless us beyond what we can imagine. It also speaks to my own frequent inability -- or unwillingness -- to trust that God is both good enough and powerful enough to handle suffering in the best possible way. I want him to do "all that I ask or think," such as healing this person of cancer or restoring that person's marriage; but he is able to do "far more abundantly" than that. What he can do is literally unimaginable. But Paul gives us some clues in this chapter about what God does with his power, and it is good.
It seems that God is most interested in using his power not to relieve of us suffering, but so that we will know him. First, Paul says that he was "made a minister [of the gospel] according to the gift of God's grace, which was given me by the working of his power" (v. 7). Paul's call is to make known Jesus Christ and him crucified -- in other words, to reveal God to us.
Second, Paul prays that "according to the riches of his glory [the Father] may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith . . . and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God" (16, 17, 19). Again, God uses his power so that we will know him.
If we know God well enough, we will trust him even in pain and suffering to use his power for our good. If I didn't know that my dentist both cared about my health and had the power to do what was best for my teeth, I would avoid him. Instead, I submit regularly to the pain he administers for my good. Think of how Paul both suffered greatly and trusted God deeply. Paul knows God, and therefore his suffering is endurable. "So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory" (Eph. 3:13).
This is consistent with part of Paul's prayer for the Colossians: "that you may be filled wiht the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding . . . . May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for" -- for productive ministries? prosperity? health? no, but for "all endurance and patience with joy" (1:9, 11), the very qualities we need to know God and to handle suffering. And we are assured that "this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison . . ." (2 Cor. 4:17).
It's hard, in the face of great suffering, to believe what the Bible says. But we walk by faith, not by sight.