By Mathew Gilbert
Tim Keller once wrote, “Evil is an intrusion into God’s good creation. And often evil and suffering occur without regard to an individual’s relative moral decency.”
Evil, suffering, and death. Three enemies of mankind. Three products of mankind by the Fall. While these three enemies are far from God, not a part of his original creation, and the last enemies to be defeated, they are all under God’s control. In attempts to understand how God relates to evil, suffering, and death, many place God under a microscope. They limit the extent of his knowledge or they distort the level of his control. They try to bring God down to our level. Surely God could not have total control over evil and suffering, for if he did we would not see so much of it! Right.
What we are actually saying is, “Surely if we cannot see God’s purpose in evil and suffering, then he must not have anything to do with it.” In order to defend God’s existence by making him look like the “good guy,” we totally misunderstand and misrepresent him. In trying to make excuses for God, we totally miss him. Make no mistake. God is utterly and totally sovereign over suffering.
However, this does not mean God is coldly indifferent to evil and suffering. Oh, quite the opposite. In his magnificent book, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?, David Bentley Hart vividly describes where God stands in relation to our enemies. Namely, evil and suffering are his enemies as well:
“Our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred…As for comfort…I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child, I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy.”
Hart finds greatest comfort in the face of evil and suffering from the fact that evil and suffering are the enemies of God. Standing over a grave or visiting a cemetery, while filling us with deep sorrow, should also fill us with comfort. We should not just feel comfort in knowing our loved ones who died in Christ are with God, but also because their deaths stand as the enemy of God, albeit under the sovereignty of God.
So, God is definitely sovereign over evil, suffering, and death. But he is also with us in the trenches of suffering and death. This means much more than God consoling you through your suffering. God’s position toward your suffering is much more in line with your natural inclinations than you may realize.
In John 11, Jesus comes to visit a family very close to him when his friend Lazarus died. Mary and Martha (Lazarus’ sisters) plead with Jesus to come when Lazarus took ill. Jesus intentionally lingered in coming to Lazarus, because he desired his glory to be displayed through Lazarus’ resurrection. But when Jesus arrives, Lazarus is dead. Then, Jesus does something unexpected: he wept. Jesus wept (John 11:35). Now, everyone around him assumed it was because of his great love and compassion for Lazarus that he wept. Makes sense, right? We all weep when our close friends die. But it does seem a little strange for Jesus to be expressing any kind of significant emotion because he knows that he is about to conquer Lazarus’ death. But the following verses suggest something grander is at hand. Jesus was expressing a deeply human emotion, but it was not simple sadness.
When Jesus approached the tomb of his friend, just before he brought the dead back to life, the Bible says he was “deeply moved again” (John 11:38). So, the earlier weeping is connected to Jesus being “deeply moved.” Our English translations do a very poor job of capturing the idea and meaning of the Greek word in this case. Reformed theologian B.B. Warfield comments on the word: “What John tells us, in point of fact, is that Jesus approached the grave of Lazarus in a state, not of uncontrollable grief, but of irrepressible anger.”
Wow. Jesus was not weeping out of sadness. He was so enraged with anger that he cried. So, his emotion was an insatiable I-can’t-see-straight kind of anger. As Jesus stands toe to toe with death, he stares it down with indignant anger. I love this picture of Jesus. Down in the trenches with his people, not holding our hand, but sharpening his sword, whetting his fierce appetite for the destruction of death. The enemy for which he chiefly came to destroy is bearing down. And much like two rival teams at tip-off, Jesus’ passion for God’s glory brewed a holy hatred of sin and death, which ignited a death-defeating work of resurrection power.
Warfield (with the help of Calvin) expresses better than anyone the concept of Christ as our weeping warrior. The in-the-trenches picture of Christ for which I have been arguing is on full display in Warfield’s commentary on this passage:
“The spectacle of the distress of Mary and her companions enraged Jesus because it brought poignantly home to his consciousness the evil of death, its unnaturalness, its “violent tyranny” as Calvin phrases it. In Mary’s grief, he “contemplates”–still to adopt Calvin’s words–“the general misery of the whole human race” and burns with rage against the oppressor of men. Inextinguishable fury seizes upon him; his whole being is discomposed and perturbed…
It is death that is the object of his wrath, and behind death him who has the power of death, and whom he has come into the world to destroy. Tears of sympathy may fill his eyes, but this is incidental. His soul is held by rage: and he advances to the tomb, in Calvin’s words again, “as a champion who prepares for conflict.”…What John does for us in this particular statement is to uncover to us the heart of Jesus, as he wins for us our salvation. Not in cold unconcern, but in flaming wrath against the foe, Jesus smites in our behalf. He has not only saved us from the evils which oppress us; he has felt for and with us in our oppression, and under the impulse of these feelings has wrought out our redemption.”
Jesus Christ is not a distant general commanding troops into battle formations. He is a King, a weeping warrior, leading his people into battle and conquering their enemies for them. And he does this with vibrant and holy passion, hating most that which robs God of glory and his people of joy. Take comfort in the holy anger of Christ’s tears as you face evil, suffering, and death in your life. Hate with a holy hatred sin and death, and in doing so embody the way of your Suffering Savior who died so that all that enrages him and you is no more.
Mathew Gilbert (B.A. Boyce College) is the Children’s Pastor at First Baptist Church in East Bernstadt, KY. He is an M.Div student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their son, Jude Adoniram.