Is God Sovereign Over Illness and Suffering?

It can be easy to trust in the Lord in times of joy and ease, but how do we view Him in the midst of illness and suffering? As believers, we take comfort in the hope that can only be found in Jesus Christ.

Topics: Suffering | The Sovereignty of God

Scripture is clear that God is in control of all things and sovereign over them (Rom. 13:1; Heb. 1:3; Eph. 1:11; Ps. 135:6; Prov. 16:33). This sounds great when God puts you in a certain location at a certain time, which led to the new job you’ve been hoping for, or when you look back at all the things that came together for you to meet your spouse. It’s easy to clearly see God working for our good in those situations.

But what about when the doctor tells you your child has leukodystrophy, Down syndrome or cystic fibrosis? What about when you get the test results back and it’s diabetes, multiple sclerosis or cancer? What about when you have suffered for months or years from depression or pain, from which you have experienced very little relief? It’s harder to see God working for our good in these situations.

In the midst of hard situations, our temptation may be to distance God’s sovereignty and to simply consider these a result of sin, random chance or Satan—but is this the complete, correct response? It is certainly more difficult to see how God is working for our good in suffering, but does this mean He can’t be intimately involved in it?

In Scripture, we see God working through the fallenness of our world to bring about great pain and suffering for His glory and the good of His people, ranging from the widespread plagues (Ex. 7:17, 8:2, 8:21, 11:1, 14:14; Jos. 24:6-7) to the personal account of Job losing everything he held dear (Jb. 1:13-19). We see God place a thorn in Paul’s flesh, about which he laments but for which he does not curse God (2 Cor. 12:7-10). Even the suffering of our Lord Jesus Christ was ordained by God (Isa. 53; Acts 2:22-24). Jesus begged the Father to take the cup of suffering from Him (Matt. 26:39,42), but when God’s will was that the Son drink the cup, Jesus obediently submitted and like a lamb was led to slaughter.

If we aren’t careful when reading some of these passages, it can seem as if God and Satan are in a cosmic battle of good versus evil where God is always simply reacting to Satan’s strategic moves—playing defense, in a sense. However, we learn in Job that Satan cannot act without God’s permission (Jb. 1:12; Job 2:6), which should bring the believer an immense amount of comfort. The one who is prowling about, seeking your destruction (1 Pet. 5:8) is simply a pawn in the hands of God who loves you and always does what is best for you. It is vitally important to understand that even though God ordains and uses suffering, He does not commit sin or evil. Sin and suffering entered the world through Adam and fractured God’s perfect design. There is a great mystery in the relationship between God’s sovereignty and the existence of evil. So while we believe in God’s sovereignty, we also mourn and despise evil because it is the antithesis of our good God. Job gives us an incredible example of how to trust in the sovereign God to bring about what is ultimately best for us even in the midst of our pain and suffering. When we see passages speaking of Satan carrying out evil deeds, as believers we have hope that our God is sovereign.

While we believe in God’s sovereignty, we also mourn and despise evil because it is the antithesis of our good God.

So we ask, “When God brings suffering into our lives, what will be our reaction?” My own battle with chronic illness has been filled with ups and downs. There have been times when I have been lying in a hospital bed crying out, “Why? What purpose is this illness serving?” And there have been other times where I’ve praised God for bringing me closer to Him through my illness. It isn’t the road I would have chosen, but in His infinite knowledge, He knew my illness would bring me closer to Him and would be eternally worth it.

Some people say we shouldn’t question God and His ways, and to an extent, this is true. We should not come to God in an accusatory way, as if we know a better plan. However, when we come to Him broken and weary with questions to which we don’t have answers, God is not intimidated or frustrated by our petitions. He delights in us coming and laying our burdens at His feet.

There are many places we can run to find comfort or an explanation as to why suffering has come into our life. We sometimes put guilt on ourselves or believe the lie that God is punishing us for our sin. But Jesus corrects the disciples in John 9 who thought like this by saying, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” We can also seek comfort in doctors or medical technology (and believe me, I’m incredibly thankful for brilliant minds and technological advancements), but it’s still God who makes the medicine work or steadies the hand of the surgeon.

After 28 years of living with chronic illness, I can say with confidence that the only thing that has brought me deep and unwavering peace in the midst of suffering is the sovereignty of God.  My battle with cystic fibrosis, a genetic lung disease, has brought about many painful days. I’ve experienced the doctor walking in with bad news, treatments not working as we hoped they might, painful tests and procedures and the emotional toll of knowing that the median life expectancy for someone with cystic fibrosis is less than 40. Most recently, I spent seven grueling weeks in the hospital during which my lungs, riddled with disease, finally gave out. I was placed on life support that assisted my breathing for 16 days and then God, in His sovereignty, provided new life. I received a double-lung transplant when I literally had hours left to live. While I would have never wanted to go through that experience, I rested in the fact that God is in control and that He is good. He loves me, and He does what is best for me. Always.

As Christians, our ultimate hope and comfort can only be found in Jesus and what Paul refers to as the “eternal weight of glory” being prepared for God’s children as they endure suffering. One day, because of the work of Jesus Christ on the cross, the age of death will be over, and we will stand beside our Lord with no more pain, no more tears, no more suffering and no more disease. Cancer will be gone. Lungs will be restored. Depression will be turned to endless joy, and we will finally see clearly the works of the Lord. How great is our God!