The Steadfast Love of God in Suffering

As we look to the book of Job over the next several weeks, we are asking this question, “How should we handle suffering and loss?” In this, Pastor Bill has asked us to think biblically, theologically, and philosophically. Since God created the whole person, it follows that we should engage our intellect, emotions, and our will in this task. This is one of the remarkable things about the book of Job—we don’t see Job hiding his emotions, but expressing them in deep grief. At the same time, Job must work through what he knows to be true, over and against the arguments of his friends, which may at times have been more palatable. Toward the end of the book, God confronts Job with the truths of his eternality, his creation, and his sovereignty in order to deal with Job’s sense of suffering and loss.

From Job’s story, we can learn that truth is not isolated from the emotions or the will. Rather, truth should inform both our emotions and our will. While postmodernity would have us compartmentalize these three realms (the intellect, the emotion, and the will), the Bible clearly teaches otherwise. One needn’t look further than the Psalms to illustrate this point. In the Psalms, we find poetic renderings of the truths of Scripture which were designed to evoke emotion as well as to inform and instruct God’s people. Many Psalms are arranged as Hebrew acrostics, pneumonic devices designed to teach God’s truth. Psalm 119 is a classic example of this, and it is clearly informative, emotive, and volitional.

So, how does all this relate to the Bible’s treatment of suffering and loss? One of the great truths taught throughout these Psalms is the steadfast love of God, this Hebrew concept of hesed.

Hesed is a Hebrew word with a broad range of meaning, but it most often occurs in the context of the phrase “steadfast love.” It is often associated with God’s faithfulness to his covenants of promise, as it is in Exodus 34:

The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6-7 ESV)

Here, God was renewing his covenant with his people despite their idolatry in the golden calf incident.

In the Psalms, this kind of love becomes the key theme of the worship of the Old Testament people of God. One great example of this is Psalm 136, often called the Great Hallel:

Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.
Give thanks to the God of gods, for his steadfast love endures forever.
Give thanks to the Lord of lords, for his steadfast love endures forever;

The Psalm goes on to recount God's hesed throughout Israel's history, from their deliverance from Egypt to the conquest of the Promised Land. The point of liturgy like this is to teach the concept of God’s steadfast love—He promised it, and He will do it.

Where do we see this concept in the New Testament? Interestingly, Matthew records that when Jesus had celebrated the Passover with his disciples on the night he was betrayed, he led them in the singing of a hymn (Matt 26:30). Many Bible scholars believe that the very hymn Jesus sang with his disciples on this night was the Great Hallel from Psalm 136. Jesus was about to demonstrate God's faithfulness to his covenant by spilling his own blood for the remission of sins, the redemption of his people.

When Martin Luther translated the Bible into German, he used the German word for "grace," as the same term for God's steadfast love. What we call hesed in the Old Testament is most clearly seen to be God's grace (Greek: charis) in the New Testament.

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. (Ephesians 1:7-10 ESV)

How does this grace give us hope in the midst of suffering and loss? See Paul’s confidence in Romans 8:

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:31-32 ESV)

Here, we have an argument from the lesser to the greater. If God did not spare his own Son (the greatest sacrifice God can make) in order to satisfy His own wrath toward our sins, how will He not also, by His grace, give us all things? And what exactly does Paul mean by “all things?” He has already told us:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28 ESV)

You see, this promise doesn’t mean that God will give us everything we ask for or deliver us from every bit of temporal suffering. It means something better than that. It means that the sovereign God, who delivered Israel by his steadfast love even when they rebelled against him, is the same God that will deliver us, even though that deliverance may not come in the form we expect.

God, in His grace, has already delivered us in Christ. He has already spared us from the kind of suffering we ourselves deserve because of sin. How will He not also work out all things (even our suffering) for good? Do you trust in his steadfast love?