'God Intended It for Good'
In 1947, a young New Yorker named Glenn Chambers had a lifelong dream to work for God in Ecuador. At the airport on the day of departure, he wanted to send a note to his mother but he didn’t have time to buy a card. He noticed a piece of paper on the terminal floor and picked it up. It turned out to be an advertisement with ‘Why?’ spread across it. He scribbled his note around the word ‘Why?’ and put it in the post box. That night his aeroplane exploded as it hit the 14,000-foot Colombian peak El Tablazo. When his mother received the note after the news of his death the question burned up at her from the page… ‘Why?’
Why does God allow such suffering?¹ This question is the single greatest challenge to the Christian faith. The amount of suffering and its distribution seem to be random and unfair. It outrages and bewilders us.
Theologians and philosophers have wrestled for centuries with the mystery of undeserved suffering, and no one has ever come up with a simple and complete solution. Today and tomorrow’s passages are only part of the answer, but each of them gives us some insight.
We see that although suffering is never good in itself, God is able to use it for good in a number of ways. God loves you. Your suffering is also God’s suffering. He suffers alongside you. Yet he does not always simply remove suffering from your life; he sometimes uses the bad things that happen to bring about his good purposes.
A psalm of David.
1 Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent?
Who may live on your holy mountain?
2 The one whose walk is blameless,
who does what is righteous,
who speaks the truth from their heart;
3 whose tongue utters no slander,
who does no wrong to a neighbour,
and casts no slur on others;
4 who despises a vile person
but honours those who fear the Lord;
who keeps an oath even when it hurts,
and does not change their mind;
5 who lends money to the poor without interest;
who does not accept a bribe against the innocent.
Whoever does these things
will never be shaken.
God uses suffering to transform you
Have there been times in your life when, because of circumstances, you have felt shaken? Times when you have lost your bearings and felt tempted to give up?
Today’s psalm reminds us that you need ‘never be shaken’ (v.5), even in times of suffering. David describes the kind of life that God intends you to lead. The guidelines he gives are things you can hold on to during the difficult times:
Seek to walk blamelessly and to do what is right (v.2a).
Tell the truth
‘… speak the truth’ from your heart (v.2b).
Do not gossip
Let ‘no slander’ come from your tongue (v.3).
Do not hurt your neighbour
Do your ‘neighbours no wrong’ (v.3).
Keep your word
Keep your promises ‘even when it hurts’ (v.4b). This means doing whatever you have committed to do even when it does not suit you (a particular challenge for our generation, when a simple text message can cancel an arrangement at any moment).
If you lend money don’t charge excessive interest (v.5a).
Never take ‘bribes’ (v.5b).
As our character begins to transform in these ways, difficult circumstances and suffering have less of a destabilising impact upon us. As David notes, ‘Those who do these things will never be shaken’ (v.5c) and you will dwell in the sanctuary of the Lord (v.1a).
As times of suffering lead to character formation, so character formation leads to knowledge of secure hope and experience of God’s love (Romans 5:3–5). Hope and love are the greatest stabilising forces that you can know in the face of suffering and uncertainty.
Jesus Heals a Demon-Possessed Boy
14 When they came to the crowd, a man approached Jesus and knelt before him. 15 “Lord, have mercy on my son,” he said. “He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water. 16 I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him.”
17 “You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.” 18 Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed at that moment.
19 Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”
20 He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” \\[21\\]
Jesus Predicts His Death a Second Time
22 When they came together in Galilee, he said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. 23 They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life.” And the disciples were filled with grief.
The Temple Tax
24 After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?”
25 “Yes, he does,” he replied.
When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes —from their own children or from others?”
26 “From others,” Peter answered.
“Then the children are exempt,” Jesus said to him. 27 “But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.”
The Greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven
18 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
2 He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. 3 And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
Causing to Stumble
6 “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. 7 Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come! 8 If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.
God used suffering to save you
Jesus came to deal with suffering (17:22–23); ultimately to remove all suffering, through the cross and resurrection.
At the heart of the universe is the suffering of God on the cross: ‘“The Son of Man is about to be betrayed to some people who want nothing to do with God. They will murder him – and three days later he will be raised alive.” The disciples felt terrible’ (vv.22–23, MSG). They did not understand that what human beings (and all the demonic powers) intended for evil, God intended for good – the saving of many lives.
He was able to take the greatest evil ever committed (the killing of the Son of God) and use it for the greatest good (the salvation of humankind).
The healing of the boy with epilepsy (v.18) is a foretaste of a time when there will be no more sickness or suffering. The death and resurrection of Jesus means that no one need ‘be thrown into the fire of hell’ (18:9).
How should you respond?
In this passage we see the terrible suffering (17:15, MSG) of a child with sickness and the resulting suffering of a parent. In this particular case, the disciples’ inability to heal came from their lack of faith (although this is not always the case – some people have prayed for healing with enormous faith but without obvious results). Jesus says that if you have even a tiny bit of faith you can move mountains. ‘Nothing will be impossible for you’ (v.20).
Don’t cause unnecessary offence
Jesus explains that though he is exempt from paying the tax for the temple (God’s house) because he is God’s own Son, he makes a miraculous payment for both himself and Peter, ‘So that we may not offend them’ (v.27). Although Jesus was willing to cause offence if necessary, he did not want to cause unnecessary offence.
Greatness in the kingdom of heaven is not about achievement; it is about humbling yourself like a child (18:4).
Jesus calls us to be ruthless in cutting sin out of our lives (vv.7–9).
Jacob Blesses His Sons
49 Then Jacob called for his sons and said: “Gather around so I can tell you what will happen to you in days to come.
2 “Assemble and listen, sons of Jacob;
listen to your father Israel.
3 “Reuben, you are my firstborn,
my might, the first sign of my strength,
excelling in honour, excelling in power.
4 Turbulent as the waters, you will no longer excel,
for you went up onto your father’s bed,
onto my couch and defiled it.
5 “Simeon and Levi are brothers—
their swords are weapons of violence.
6 Let me not enter their council,
let me not join their assembly,
for they have killed men in their anger
and hamstrung oxen as they pleased.
7 Cursed be their anger, so fierce,
and their fury, so cruel!
I will scatter them in Jacob
and disperse them in Israel.
8 “Judah, your brothers will praise you;
your hand will be on the neck of your enemies;
your father’s sons will bow down to you.
9 You are a lion’s cub, Judah;
you return from the prey, my son.
Like a lion he crouches and lies down,
like a lioness—who dares to rouse him?
10 The scepter will not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until he to whom it belongs shall come
and the obedience of the nations shall be his.
11 He will tether his donkey to a vine,
his colt to the choicest branch;
he will wash his garments in wine,
his robes in the blood of grapes.
12 His eyes will be darker than wine,
his teeth whiter than milk.
13 “Zebulun will live by the seashore
and become a haven for ships;
his border will extend toward Sidon.
14 “Issachar is a rawboned donkey
lying down among the sheep pens.
15 When he sees how good is his resting place
and how pleasant is his land,
he will bend his shoulder to the burden
and submit to forced labour.
16 “Dan will provide justice for his people
as one of the tribes of Israel.
17 Dan will be a snake by the roadside,
a viper along the path,
that bites the horse’s heels
so that its rider tumbles backward.
18 “I look for your deliverance, Lord.
19 “Gad will be attacked by a band of raiders,
but he will attack them at their heels.
20 “Asher’s food will be rich;
he will provide delicacies fit for a king.
21 “Naphtali is a doe set free
that bears beautiful fawns.
22 “Joseph is a fruitful vine,
a fruitful vine near a spring,
whose branches climb over a wall.
23 With bitterness archers attacked him;
they shot at him with hostility.
24 But his bow remained steady,
his strong arms stayed supple,
because of the hand of the Mighty One of Jacob,
because of the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel,
25 because of your father’s God, who helps you,
because of the Almighty, who blesses you
with blessings of the skies above,
blessings of the deep springs below,
blessings of the breast and womb.
26 Your father’s blessings are greater
than the blessings of the ancient mountains,
than the bounty of the age-old hills.
Let all these rest on the head of Joseph,
on the brow of the prince among his brothers.
27 “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf;
in the morning he devours the prey,
in the evening he divides the plunder.”
28 All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is what their father said to them when he blessed them, giving each the blessing appropriate to him.
The Death of Jacob
29 Then he gave them these instructions: “I am about to be gathered to my people. Bury me with my fathers in the cave in the field of Ephron the Hittite, 30 the cave in the field of Machpelah, near Mamre in Canaan, which Abraham bought along with the field as a burial place from Ephron the Hittite. 31 There Abraham and his wife Sarah were buried, there Isaac and his wife Rebekah were buried, and there I buried Leah. 32 The field and the cave in it were bought from the Hittites. ”
33 When Jacob had finished giving instructions to his sons, he drew his feet up into the bed, breathed his last and was gathered to his people.
50 Joseph threw himself on his father and wept over him and kissed him. 2 Then Joseph directed the physicians in his service to embalm his father Israel. So the physicians embalmed him, 3 taking a full forty days, for that was the time required for embalming. And the Egyptians mourned for him seventy days.
4 When the days of mourning had passed, Joseph said to Pharaoh’s court, “If I have found favour in your eyes, speak to Pharaoh for me. Tell him, 5 ‘My father made me swear an oath and said, “I am about to die; bury me in the tomb I dug for myself in the land of Canaan.” Now let me go up and bury my father; then I will return.’”
6 Pharaoh said, “Go up and bury your father, as he made you swear to do.”
7 So Joseph went up to bury his father. All Pharaoh’s officials accompanied him—the dignitaries of his court and all the dignitaries of Egypt— 8 besides all the members of Joseph’s household and his brothers and those belonging to his father’s household. Only their children and their flocks and herds were left in Goshen. 9 Chariots and horsemen also went up with him. It was a very large company.
10 When they reached the threshing floor of Atad, near the Jordan, they lamented loudly and bitterly; and there Joseph observed a seven-day period of mourning for his father. 11 When the Canaanites who lived there saw the mourning at the threshing floor of Atad, they said, “The Egyptians are holding a solemn ceremony of mourning.” That is why that place near the Jordan is called Abel Mizraim.
12 So Jacob’s sons did as he had commanded them: 13 They carried him to the land of Canaan and buried him in the cave in the field of Machpelah, near Mamre, which Abraham had bought along with the field as a burial place from Ephron the Hittite. 14 After burying his father, Joseph returned to Egypt, together with his brothers and all the others who had gone with him to bury his father.
Joseph Reassures His Brothers
15 When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” 16 So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: 17 ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father. ” When their message came to him, Joseph wept.
18 His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said.
19 But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? 20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. 21 So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children. ” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.
The Death of Joseph
22 Joseph stayed in Egypt, along with all his father’s family. He lived a hundred and ten years 23 and saw the third generation of Ephraim’s children. Also the children of Makir son of Manasseh were placed at birth on Joseph’s knees.
24 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die. But God will surely come to your aid and take you up out of this land to the land he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” 25 And Joseph made the Israelites swear an oath and said, “God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up from this place.”
26 So Joseph died at the age of a hundred and ten. And after they embalmed him, he was placed in a coffin in Egypt.
God uses suffering for his good purposes
Whatever evil other people – or even the devil – plan against you, God is able to use for his own good purposes: for your own good and the benefit of others who will be blessed through your life and ministry.
As Jacob came to the end of his life, he blessed his sons. He blessed Judah with victory, prosperity and leadership. Judah was to become the most powerful southern tribe of Israel and, in the person of David, provided the king of the whole nation.
We see here a foreshadowing of Jesus: ‘The sceptre will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet’ (49:10). Later on, we will read that ‘A star will come out of Jacob; a sceptre will rise out of Israel’ (Numbers 24:17). Jacob uses the image of the lion (Genesis 49:9). Jesus is described as the ‘Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David’ (Revelation 5:5).
Jacob went on to bless Joseph, ‘a fruitful vine’ (Genesis 49:22). He had been through difficulties and attacks, but God used it all for good. Joseph was successful because God’s hand was upon him and turned the evil into blessing (50:20).
When Jacob died, Joseph’s brothers were worried that Joseph would take revenge for all the wrongs they had done to him (v.15). But Joseph said to them, ‘“Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them’ (vv.19–21).
R.T. Kendall writes, ‘For Joseph, vindication on the spot might have done something for him in that moment; but it wouldn’t have done anything for the kingdom of God. When we are mistreated in any way, we must realise that our suffering has profound and vast implications for the greater kingdom of God. There are unseen reasons for continued suffering. Who knows what God will do with your life if you take mistreatment with dignity?’
See God’s hand in everything that happens to you – good and bad. See it all with the eyes of faith. Understand it all as part of God’s plan to bring good out of evil (just as he did through Jesus’ death on the cross).
The promise of the New Testament is that God will use everything that happens to you for good. As you face trials, temptation, struggles and difficulty, the New Testament assures you that ‘in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose’ (Romans 8:28).
In Matthew 17:20, it says, ‘… if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ”Move from here to there…”’
A mustard seed doesn’t sound very much. It must be possible. There are still some big mountains on my prayer list that don’t seem to have moved. This is an encouragement to keep praying, even for the big things.
Verse of the Day
‘… if you have faith as small as a mustard seed… nothing will be impossible for you.’
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¹For a wider discussion about suffering, see Nicky Gumbel’s booklet: Why Does God Allow Suffering?
It is also available in chapter 1 of Nicky Gumbel’s book Searching Issues.
R. T. Kendall, God Meant it for Good, (Paternoster Press, 2003) p.62
Unless otherwise stated, Scripture quotations taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version Anglicised, Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 Biblica, formerly International Bible Society. Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, an Hachette UK company. All rights reserved. ‘NIV’ is a registered trademark of Biblica. UK trademark number 1448790.
Scripture marked (MSG) taken from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.