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A God-Centered Theology of Suffering

Truth in Love 252

Is God sovereign in our suffering? Does He truly work all things together for our good and His glory?

Mar 30, 2020

Dale Johnson: I am delighted to have Paul Tautges with us on the podcast. Paul is an ACBC certified member and a Fellow with our organization. He’s also the pastor of Cornerstone Community Church in Mayfield Heights, Ohio. He’s married to Karen and they have 10 children and six grandchildren.

Paul, you do not look old enough to have six grandchildren. It’s amazing. He’s also written a little booklet, a 31-Day Devotional called Anxiety: Knowing God’s Peace. Paul, I’m so grateful that you’re here to talk with us about this very difficult subject of suffering and how to have a God-centered theology. Welcome to the podcast.

Paul Tautges: Thanks so much, Dale, it’s good to be here.

Dale Johnson: What happens often in suffering is that people begin to question the goodness of God, the kindness of God, and even the the sovereignty of God. They ask, “Can God really be sovereign? Can He be good in moments of suffering?” Suffering brings pressure that is immense and forces us—as the Bible recognizes—to ask all sorts of raw and real questions about God in our pain. Can you talk for a second about having a God-centered theology in suffering, and what we focus on to maintain that God-centered theology?

Paul Tautges: The sovereignty of God is a bedrock truth in our theological foundation, but I found that in my own heart and in ministry with others, it’s vital to keep the connection between the sovereignty of God and the goodness and wisdom of God. Together those qualities, or those attributes, combine to form what we would call the providence of God. God’s not only has sovereignty and governance over everything, which can sometimes be perceived as being cold or detached; providence reminds us that God is intimately acquainted with all of our ways and He has a good purpose that He’s accomplishing even through the most difficult things we go through.

Dale Johnson: Suffering comes in varied ways, and often in different styles or degrees. When we suffer, what are some of the primary things that would tempt someone to question that bedrock of trusting in the sovereignty and providence of a good God?

Paul Tautges: Many times we want to blame someone for our suffering, and sometimes we blame ourselves. Perhaps there is even a degree of truth in that, for at times we bring upon ourselves certain trials. We do tend to want to look for someone to blame, and even possibly blame God.

I have found even in my own response to trials, at times the Holy Spirit shows me that actually at the bottom and the root of my response was a questioning of the goodness of God. Similar to the way that Satan tempted Eve in the garden to question the goodness of God—I think that he’s doing the same thing to us when we suffer.

Dale Johnson: Even when we question the goodness of God by our suffering, we know from Scripture that the bedrock of our trust is in what Scripture says about God. He is sovereign and He’s providential, but there have to be certain pillars, or maybe we would say anchors, of truth that we tie ourselves down to when the winds of suffering are blowing. Can you talk about what some of those pillars might look like?

Paul Tautges: I think fundamentally we need to remember that God does all things well. He does all things good. And especially for those who are in Christ, He works all things together for good to those who love Him (Romans 8:28). That isn’t just a quaint, little verse that we throw around in a casual way. It really becomes for us a deep-seated pillar of truth that we cling to in times of suffering. God doesn’t always let us see what He’s doing. He always sees the whole puzzle already put together, and we might see one or two pieces, and we don’t understand how it all fits in.

If we go on then in the next verse, in Romans 8:29 Paul tells us what the good is. That good is to conform us to the image of Christ. Somehow through the suffering, God wants me to humbly submit to His rulership in my life and walk by faith in such a way that I become a different person—more like Christ because of the suffering.

Dale Johnson: What we’re seeing is that God does work these things together for our good—chief among that good is that we be transformed into the image of Christ. Talk about some of the other good purposes that we see from God in our suffering.

Paul Tautges: I think one of the most amazing things the Lord does through our suffering is equip us for ministry. 2 Corinthians 1 describes how, as we experience the comfort of God, then God puts into our lives more and more people who need the same comfort that we have received from Him. I think this dovetails with 2 Corinthians 12, where the Apostle is talking about this thorn in the flesh that was given to him by Satan under the sovereign governance of God, but it was for the purpose of humbling him and I believe making him more useful. I think suffering makes us more useful to God in His work, provided that we respond in the humility and the faith that He’s after in our hearts.

Dale Johnson: The beauty of this is it begins to really help us come to grips with our weakness. And in our weakness we see Christ as strong. When we talk about these things, it’s fun for us to talk about the beauty of the sovereignty of God, the way that we’re impacted to question our own abilities or our own strengths, but it’s another thing altogether to take these truths and to sit across the table from someone who’s experienced some sort of suffering.

Bring this into the counseling room—the beautiful truths that you’ve been describing, the pillars of truth that God has given us to anchor our soul. How do we begin to work with somebody who is struggling through some sort of deep issue of suffering? How do we begin to take this part of the water of the Word and wash their soul with it? How do we begin to practically do that?

Paul Tautges: I like to use different genres of Scripture to do that. You would use the teaching portions, that would be filled with exhortations and promises. I think also there are narrative portions of the Bible that are incredibly helpful to us in counseling, because we see Scripture’s total honesty about human beings and what we are really like. In the area of suffering, one of my favorite passages would be 1 Peter 1, where Peter talks about trials and exhorts the believers there (who were suffering) to not be surprised by the suffering. One of the most beautiful things that comes out of that passage is this picture of suffering as being the refining furnace. God heats up our lives for the purpose of letting the impurities in our heart float to the surface so we can see them, we can repent of them, and we can become more like Christ.

I like to go to Genesis 39-50 as well and walk through the life of Joseph. It is incredible when you consider all that God was doing, not just in Joseph’s life and his heart in humbling him—because I do think that even though the Scripture doesn’t exactly say in a very clear way that Joseph was proud in those early years, I think that we can see some of his joy in being lifted up above his brothers and even his parents. Yet, at the end of the book, we see a broken, humble man, who was used by God to actually preserve the earthly line of the Messiah. We don’t see the big picture. I like to help people see that in the midst of your suffering, God is doing so much more than you realize, and so much more than you can see. He really is trustworthy.

Dale Johnson: I think that’s such an important truth—we can’t see the big picture and oftentimes our eyes are fuzzy to see what God might be doing, especially when we get myopic in a situation. The truth of the matter is that, Paul, you’re no stranger to suffering. You’ve experienced suffering in your life. When I read something like James 1:2, that we can consider it joy when we walk through trials of various kinds, there’s a testimony there where you can confidently say these things about the Word of God because you yourself have experienced that these truths from God’s Word are absolutely true and trustworthy. You’ve seen the joy you can experience through suffering.

Paul Tautges: Yes, and it’s so rewarding and glorifying to God to be able to look backwards and see that I really am a different person today than I was five years ago or ten years ago. God has used certain forms of suffering to confront things in my own heart and to teach me to trust Him at a deeper level. It brings joy to know that God really is doing what He said He would do.

Dale Johnson: I know for counselors, that changes us personally. It makes us confident that when we minister the Word of God, that the Word of God is true and effective because we see it effective even in our own hearts. Paul, thank you for being here. Thank you for being transparent and describing the beautiful truth of God’s Word in the difficulty of suffering.