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Suffering, tragedy both fall within God’s will, Florida pastor says

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–To believe that tragedy and suffering fall outside the will of God is to misunderstand the absolute sovereignty of God as set forth in Scripture, a Florida pastor recently told an audience at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Tom Ascol, pastor of First Baptist Church of Cape Coral, Fla., and executive director of Founders Ministries, addressed the issue of “A Pastoral Theology of Suffering” at Southern in November. Ascol said a clear understanding of biblical doctrine gives Christians hope and assurance in the midst of tragedies such as the terrorism of Sept. 11.

In the wake of that particular incident, there have been numerous attempts to “exonerate” God from having any connection with the events, but these only undermine His sovereignty and omnipotence, Ascol said. He argued that some Christian leaders have diminished God’s sovereignty by saying the attacks did not fall within His will.

To think of this and all other tragedies as being outside the plan of God is to misunderstand the sovereignty of God, Ascol said. While Ascol said that those persons who perpetrated the evil of Sept. 11 are responsible for their actions, those evil acts — along with all incidences of tragedy — fall within the pale of God’s eternal plan.

Ascol pointed out that a full-orbed biblical view of God’s will reveals that there are two aspects to it: one is tied to God’s decrees which is infallible and always comes to pass, and another which is revealed within his commands in Scripture, and is often broken.

In the ultimate sense, however, God’s will is always done, Ascol said.

Ascol said it is important to think of all events in light of all the doctrines revealed in Scripture and to understand God’s will in the two ways that the Bible sets it forth. The death of Christ on the cross — which was simultaneously God’s eternal plan and an unspeakably depraved act at the hands of wicked men as it is spoken of in Acts — is the paradigm for understanding the two aspects of God’s will, he said.

Post-Sept. 11 statements by some Christian leaders have revealed a fundamental misunderstanding of Scripture’s teaching of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, he said.

“I think sometimes the concerns behind these misstatements betray an unwillingness or an inability to reconcile God’s absolute sovereignty with our responsibility,” Ascol said. “The inability to reconcile or to hold those two things together stems more from rationalism than it does from biblicism because the Bible certainly affirms both.”

Christians must look to the sound exegesis of Scripture and not human reason in attempting to come to grips with issues as profound as suffering and evil, Ascol said. He pointed to the story of Job, Philippians 1:29 and 3:7-11, Colossians 1:24, Luke 13:1-4, John 16:33 and many others as examples that provide a thoroughly biblical framework for understanding how suffering falls within God’s will.

Christians must also be willing to rest in the promises of Scripture even though God’s sovereignty with man’s responsibility cannot be fully understood. They must have true faith as described in Scripture, he said.

“What does faith look like in the midst of horrific suffering and confusion?” Ascol asked. “It’s not the happy-go-lucky, glib kind of superficial expressions that we often see on the cover of glossy magazines and [Christian] television.

“Real faith is built on certainties. And because of that, it is able to live with mysteries. It rests confidently on what it knows and waits humbly on God when confused by what it cannot understand. It refuses to buy into cheap theology when there [are] lots of reasons to attempt to salve your conscience with such theology.”

Ascol urged pastors to develop and apply systematically all the main doctrines of Christianity in a cohesive way to times of tragedy — especially when there are no easy answers. He said pastors and laypersons alike should also develop a biblical understanding of Satan, neither ignoring him nor being obsessed with him. Satan is extremely powerful but his power is limited by God, he said.

“We need to try to think of how the Bible portrays him [as] the one who originates lies, the one who is a murderer, the one who would destroy,” Ascol said. “The Bible ascribes incredible power to the devil: the power to ensnare, the power to make sick, the power to work miracles, the power to kill. We need to believe these things the Bible says about the devil and not forget him. But we must also remember that the devil is inferior to God. He is God’s devil.”

Once Christians gain a thoroughgoing biblical view of suffering and God’s sovereignty, they must view incidents such as Sept. 11 as opportunities for presenting ultimate truth.

“Tragedy presents to us wonderful opportunities,” he said. “Opportunities for good, opportunities for ill. The good is that people are awakened to the realities that otherwise they wouldn’t be.

“Of course C.S. Lewis has made this famous in his little comment that ‘God whispers to us in pleasures, he speaks to us in our conscience, but he shouts at us in pain and pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a sleeping world.'”

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  • Jeff Robinson
    Jeff Robinson is director of news and information at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.Read All by Jeff Robinson ›