Faith, Suffering, and the Purpose of God

Soon after my conversion from atheism to Christianity in early 2014, I became involved in the Pentecostal movement. Over the next year and a half, I began to move toward the Charismatic movement, and one branch in particular—the New Apostolic Reformation, so-called. I was an avid follower of Bill Johnson, the alleged ‘apostle’ of Bethel Church in Redding, CA. It was in Bible college from late 2015 onward that I began to realize much of what I thought I knew about faith and the will of God was squarely at odds with the Bible.

Faith and Fiat

Bethel, and many others in the Charismatic, Pentecostal, and Word of Faith worlds, teach that it is always God’s will to heal every disease and bring deliverance from every trial; all you need is faith. Common is this notion in the Evangelical world today: we see faith as a currency to be traded with God, that Cosmic Coke Machine, for whatever miracle you need—Good health, a fat wallet, whatever your little heart desires. And doesn’t the Bible say, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4)? It is also claimed that it is never God’s will for you to suffer; rather. that is Satan at work. And didn’t Jesus say, “The thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy” (John 10:10)?

It sounds pretty cool, until you pray with sincere faith for something that does not come to pass. Bill Johnson’s answer when asked why it is that not everyone for whom he prays is healed? In summary, “It’s a mystery, but I won’t let that stop me from telling everyone it is always God’s will to heal them.” Never mind the damage this does to those who buy this false bill of goods; we must maintain the narrative at all costs.

When the Check Bounces

If you are committed to those earlier premises—faith can get you whatever you want, and God never wills for you to suffer—then what do you say when what you pray for doesn’t come to pass? When the doctor’s report doesn’t change? When cancer takes someone you love? In order to be consistent, there’s really only one option.

If you accept those ideas, then you can’t say that the unwillingness was on God’s part; He only wants your material good. In order for God to have simply said “no,” you have to reject the idea that God’s will never includes suffering. So you must conclude that the fault lies with you: God couldn’t heal you because you didn’t have enough faith.

I was personally told this—not by some unhinged Charismatics in California, but by ministers from Lee University in my former, more reserved Pentecostal denomination—regarding the disease that has affected my vision all my life, Achromatopsia. Having been prayed for at a long altar call and clearly not having 20/20 vision, a minister from the school told me that my problem was “latent unbelief from [my] days as an atheist.”

God’s Purpose in the Midst of Your Suffering

The alternative is Biblically faithful but unpopular: God’s will is not always to heal, it is not always to inflate your bank account, it is not always for you to have the things that you think represent your best interest in this world. Rather, “this is the will of God, even your sanctification” (1 Thessalonians 4:3). God causes all things to work together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28), but what is that good and that purpose toward which God is working all things? That His Elect should become more like Christ (8:29-30).

Sometimes, God’s will is actually for the Christian to suffer (1 Peter 4:19a), but never without a clear, good, and Fatherly purpose.

Scripture teaches us that God wills suffering in the life of the believer for many reasons:

  • To teach you to entrust yourselves to Christ as you experience His faithfulness in the midst of your suffering (1 Peter 4:19)
  • So that sin loses sway over you (1 Peter 4:1-2)
  • To keep you from becoming conceited (2 Corinthians 12:7)
  • To magnify the name of Jesus through your endurance (Acts 5:41)
  • To magnify God’s strength in and through your weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9)

This is revolting to our flesh, because we cannot possibly conceive of any way in which disease or sickness or death or sorrow or hardship could be to our benefit—even a gift. We think material blessings such as health and wealth are what we need the most, but that is far from the truth; Christians need to be saved from the present power of sin and to be made more like their selfless Savior.

The Wrong Response

What happens when you have a Biblically deficient understanding of suffering and God’s will?

  • You can damage yourself and others by speaking to them in ways consistent with that bad theology—“You didn’t have enough faith,” “God wasn’t in that,” etc.
  • You can dishonor God by painting a picture of a Devil who is able to thwart God’s plans.
  • You accidentally buy into an unbiblical worldview called Dualism that sees God and Satan as equal but opposite forces, both trying to get their will done in the world, one sometimes thwarting the other.
  • You don’t see the good purpose of God in the middle of horrible tragedies. Therefore, you cannot encourage yourself or anyone else with the truth that God is still in control, that He has a purpose even in our darkest moments.
  • You will not look for how the trials that come upon you can teach you how to be like Jesus.
  • You will not be grateful for the trials because you see them as being opposed to God’s will for you.
  • You will resent God when He doesn’t do what you believe He promised to do, when in reality He never promised you perfect health, no suffering, or a big bank account.

I have seen it happen, and it could have been me if not for the grace of God.

Did God Say, and Hasn’t He Said…?

The reality is that the hermeneutic adopted by the Word of Faith movement is identical to that of Satan tempting Christ: In the Garden, the Serpent said, “Did God really say?” But in the wilderness, the Devil says, “Has God not said?” And then the Enemy proceeded to take Scripture completely out of their context to tempt Christ with a vision of material prosperity and power rather than to be obedient to the plan of God: It was the will of the Lord to crush the Messiah (Isaiah 53:10). In fact, God predestined the Gentiles and the Jews to do what they did to Jesus (Acts 4:27-28).

Was God being malicious or malevolent? Did He cease to be good because He ordained evil to fall on His Son? God forbid. He was acting for our good and His glory.

Conclusion

Are we so deceived as to believe that He is not doing the same with all the suffering He allows in the lives of His children? Without a sovereign God, we are left to conclude that all the hurt and evil in the world is purposeless. With a sovereign God, we can know that nothing happens purposelessly or capriciously; we can know that it all means something, and that something is good and glorious—the conforming of God’s people to the image of His Son.

If God is really at work even in our darkest days to accomplish His purposes, then Peter’s words can resonate deeply in our hearts in those hours: “Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.” (1 Peter 4:19). And as we walk that out, our God-given faith can become a supernatural anchor to that faithful Savior rather than a currency with which to be bargained.

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