Early yesterday morning, I awoke to the news of a tragic shooting that took place in Las Vegas. While the full details of this tragedy are still being gathered at this time, what we do know is that this shooting at a music festival on Sunday night will go down as the most deadly shooting in American history—surpassing the Orlando club shooting in 2016 that took the lives of 49.
When tragedies strike, it’s far too common to witness people expressing their concern on social media by sending “positive thoughts” to hurting people. While it’s commendable for people to desire to help or to seek to encourage a fellow human being, it’s important to realize that positive thoughts are empty words that have zero benefit to anyone. It would be better to pray. If you’re not a Christian, it would be better to intentionally encourage a fellow human being with real words that have real meaning as opposed to sending positive thoughts in the direction of a person in need.
The Truth About Positive Thinking
The whole notion of positive thinking is derived from a combination of mysticism and psychology. The idea is that a person is capable of tapping into the inner being of a human’s brain and release positive vibes that will change the person’s feelings about their condition and increase self worth. According to the EOC Institute:
In basic terms, the law of attraction states that your thoughts & belief systems send certain “vibrations” out to the cosmos. In turn, the universe responds by giving you a kind of customized made-to-order set of experiences which directly validate said thoughts and beliefs.
Since our “thoughts become things” — then we are ultimately the creators of the life circumstances we now find ourselves.
Today, we see people who have bought into this idea and now believe it’s possible to change someone else’s feelings, emotions, and circumstances by sending those same positive vibes across geographic territory to the specific person they’re focusing on. It has become very common to see people who say things such as, “Sending positive thoughts your way” in the comment threads of social media outlets. Once again, this is not a new phenomenon. We see such teaching from Norman Vincent Peale who popularized his teaching in a work titled, The Power of Positive Thinking. According to Norman Vincent Peale, “The person who sends out the most positive thoughts activates the world around him positively and draws back to himself positive results.”
The longing for happiness is an age-old pursuit of the human soul. The desire to feel supported by a community such as your family or a network of friends is as ancient as human civilization—dating back to the Garden of Eden. People want to feel connected and supported—especially in times of need. It doesn’t matter if you call it positive thoughts, vibes, or energy—all such attempts to change people’s circumstances through such efforts will be like clouds without water and empty wells.
What People Really Need in Times of Difficulty
In James, we find a sobering warning about the idea of positive thoughts in the midst of a time of need. James refers to such talk as dead faith. James writes:
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead (James 2:14-17).
Jesus provided us with hopeful words regarding the power of prayer. In his famous sermon on the mount, Jesus said these words to his followers:
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil (Matthew 6:9-13).
According to Jesus, our heavenly Father is capable of hearing the prayers of people and responding in accordance with his sovereign will. Everything from daily bread to deliverance from evil—God reigns and is supreme. Our God rules from heaven’s throne and is capable of caring for the needs of his people and delivering them from perils of this fallen world. We are never commanded to send positive thoughts or energy to another person. Instead, we are called to pray to our God who hears and answers the cries of his people.
Hurting people need God. Hurting people need to hear the prayers of God’s people. Hurting people need to see the people of God praying and working to aid those who are in need. No amount of positive thinking, positive energy sending, or any other mystical trend will bring comfort to hurting people. When Jesus’ followers beseech the throne of glory on behalf of hurting people—God hears and God responds.
Please don’t send positive energy or positive thoughts to Las Vegas. The god of positive energy is dead (Ps. 115:4-8). The one true and living God who has revealed himself in the pages of Scripture is alive. He rules and reigns. He will accomplish his will (Ps. 115:2-3). We can expect the unbelieving world to attempt to beam positive vibes to other people and we can expect to hear them repeat empty phrases. However, the Church of Jesus Christ is called to pray and then serve out of a heart of love. The next time you hear of a human tragedy or you scroll through your social media newsfeed and see a friend who is hurting—pray.
Over the past two days, my wife and I have logged many miles over the cobblestone roads of Rome, Italy. During our time in Rome, we have managed to hit all of the historic sites on our personal list—including the majestic Sistine Chapel that was in progress by Michelangelo when Martin Luther made his historic pilgrimage to Rome over 500 years ago.
Yesterday morning, we began the day at the Colosseum—one of the most famous sites of ancient Rome that still stands today as a piece of history linking modernity to antiquity. The emperors of Rome’s history would buy and sell gladiators much like modern day football teams hire and trade athletes. Sometimes slaves or prisoners would appear in the midst of the Colosseum too—where they would fight wild beasts including lions, tigers, leopards, and even hippopotamuses. What a way to go, right?
Just under a half a mile from the Colosseum is the Mamertine Prison where Paul was held in chains. The ancient dungeon prison had a stone floor, stone walls, and a stone ceiling with one way in and one way out through the small hole above that provided a bit of light to the damp and dark dungeon below. Sometimes as many as 100 prisoners would have been kept in the small dungeon below—and everyone who was placed into that hole received a death sentence.
While being held as a prisoner in the shadow of the Colosseum, Paul would have heard loud thundering cheers from the crowds in the Colosseum numbering between 40k-70k. Much like a loud and vibrant athletic event in modern times complete with competition, drama, and passionate fans—the whole area surrounding the Colosseum would have felt the pulsating cheers.
As Paul sat in the dark dungeon contemplating the fighting of the gladiators—he would have reflected upon his life and ministry of the gospel.
- Five different times Jews whipped him with 39 stripes.
- Three times he was beaten with rods.
- One time he was stoned, dragged out of the city, and forsaken as dead.
- Three times he suffered shipwreck. A night and a day he spend in the deep.
- Perils of waters – Floods or rivers as he journeyed.
- Perils of robbers – those who would rob him as he was on his journey.
- Perils by his own country men – his own people rejected him.
- Perils by the heathen – the lost and unregenerate wicked ones – persecuted.
- Perils in the city – as he would travel to the city to work or buy food.
- Perils in the wilderness – animals or violent people.
- Perils in the sea – as he was shipwrecked and faced storms on the sea.
- Perils among false brethren – those who claimed to be Christians.
Paul had been able to plant many churches on his missionary travels that spanned many countries, cities, and continents. Paul had invested in others and discipled men to carry on the gospel torch. Men like Timothy, Titus, and others were placed in strategic posts where they would oversee churches and make disciples. Yet, at the end of his life, Paul sat in the dungeon cell listening to the ground shaking crowds in the Colosseum and he viewed his ministry of the gospel as a good fight. Rather than a wasted fight or a vain fight—it was a good fight. The cause was worthy and the price of imprisonment, suffering, and martyrdom joyful. In a strange way in the eyes of the world, Paul was at peace to be aligned with Jesus Christ in his suffering.
The scars the gladiator received in his epic battles in the Colosseum could not compare to the deep wounds suffered by Paul in his missionary labors. However, Paul was able to reflect upon his journey of faith as a good fight rather than a wasted pursuit for fame and vain success. Paul longed to preach the gospel in Rome, and he finally was able to do so—only from a dark dungeon. In his final letter recorded in the New Testament before he was taken from the dungeon through the hole and transported to a place in the streets of Rome where executioners cut off his head, the battle scared gospel gladiator penned these final words to Timothy—his young disciple:
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing (2 Timothy 4:7-8).
Most gladiators died by the sword or weapons of other warriors in the Colosseum as a means of entertainment for the people. Paul died in the streets as a condemned criminal. Paul’s death had a great purpose that transcended the entertainment of the Colosseum—and for that reason we remember him to this very day unlike the warriors of the Colosseum.
Many people today hold to a theological position that claims God often has nothing to do with the pain and suffering that we endure in this life. Those that hold to such a view claim that our pain, suffering, and trials are the byproduct of bad choices made by humans who misused their free will. This position claims that God often has nothing to do with such evil and suffering. While I can appreciate people who try to prevent anyone from accusing God of being the author of evil and sin, we must question the foundation of their argument by Holy Scripture alone. Are the trials and suffering of humans outside of God or does He rule over those problems to bring about His perfect will? What about missionaries who die for their faith? Is God sovereign over the pain and suffering we experience or do we walk through such trials outside of God’s sovereign rule as a byproduct of sin and the free will of man? Below are several examples from Holy Scripture that demonstrate the sovereign rule of our God over the pain and suffering we experience in this life.
I. Did God have anything to do with the pain and suffering of Job?
In the story of Job, found in the book that bears his name, we witness many horrible things that occur to this upright and Godly man. After all of the destruction of his wealth and family, Job makes a powerful statement. In Job 1:20-22 he says, “Then Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground, and worshipped, And said, Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD. In all this Job sinned not, nor charged God foolishly.” It seems obvious that Job understood that God had “taken away.” Job didn’t give the credit to Satan, although he was certainly the one behind such evil. Job had solid theology that caused him to realize that God was actually in control – even in the midst of great suffering.
If we go back in the story, we see in the first chapter a conversation between God and Satan (Job 1:6-12). Satan accused Job before the LORD as a man who feared God because of his great blessings and wealth. The LORD allowed Satan to remove that wealth and those blessings in order to reveal the true faith of Job. The purpose ultimately was to glorify God. However, in that conversation, we see that God was the One in control – not Satan, circumstances, free will of man, or sin.
II. Did God have anything to do with the pain and suffering of Joseph?
In the story of Joseph found in the Old Testament book of Genesis, we see a clear reminder that evil does not rule God, but God rules over evil. In chapter 37 of Genesis, the brothers of Joseph were angered because he was their father’s favorite. They called him the dreamer (vs. 19) and conspired to kill him. However, because of Reuben’s plea, they did not kill him, but they did work together to sell him off into slavery (vs. 25-28). After Joseph was taken to Egypt as a slave, his brothers took his coat (which was given to him by his father) and covered it with the blood of a goat. They presented the coat to their father and told a horrible tale about their brother being attacked by a fierce animal and torn to pieces (vs. 29-33). This news brought great pain to the heart of their father.
As we look back at this story, we see that Joseph and his father undoubtedly experienced great pain and suffering as a result of the evil that his brothers did against him. Years later after spending time in slavery, being falsely accused, and being sent to a dungeon, Joseph was released and promoted to a powerful position in Egypt. During those days, a great famine was plaguing the land. Egypt had stored up food (Gen. 41:25-36) and people were coming from far away lands to buy food (Genesis 41:57). One day a group of men approached Joseph to buy grain. Joseph recognized these men to be his brothers, but he treated them as strangers at first (Genesis 42:6-7). After Joseph made known his identity, he made an extremely profound statement. He said, “I am Joseph your brother, whom ye sold into Egypt. 5 Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life. 6 For these two years hath the famine been in the land: and yet there are five years, in the which there shall neither be earing nor harvest. 7 And God sent me before you to preserve you a posterity in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance. 8 So now it was not you that sent me hither, but God: and he hath made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and a ruler throughout all the land of Egypt.”
The truth is clear from what Joseph said to his brothers. It was God who sent Him to Egypt. Although it was through the vehicle of slavery and lies from his brothers that resulted in him arriving in Egypt, it was the ultimate plan and design of God. In case it isn’t abundantly clear, when Joseph was reunited with his father after his death, he made another profound statement in Genesis 50:20, “But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.” The point is absolutely clear! It was not the fallen condition of our sinful world that allowed the hardships of Joseph, but it was ultimately God that allowed it. God cannot be the author of the sin that his brothers committed, and they will give account for their sin, but He did use it for His ultimate purposes to be accomplished for His glory. Like in the case with Job, God was the One who allowed the evil brothers to commit their sin. They intended evil, but God was accomplishing good. He is the Sovereign King who rules over all things.
III. Did God have anything to do with the pain and suffering of Jesus?
As we read the Gospel, we often find ourselves angry at the wicked men who are killing the very Son of God. They brutally murdered Him on an instrument, known to us as a cross, used to execute the most horrific criminals of the day. They pain was horrible and the suffering was great. However, in light of this discussion, where was God the Father through all of this? Did He have anything to do with the suffering of Jesus?
1. Notice the plan of the cross before time.
Revelation 13:8 – And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.
1 Peter 1:20 – Who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you.
Acts 2:22-24 – Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know: 23 Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain: 24 Whom God hath raised up, having loosed the pains of death: because it was not possible that he should be holden of it.
1. Determinate Counsel = Definite plan.
2. Foreknowledge of God = (πρόγνωσις) Prearranged plan of God to bring about His perfect will. It should be noted here that “foreknowledge” in this verse and other places that reference God’s foreknowledge, refers to more than God seeing into the future. If foreknowledge (πρόγνωσις), as used here, refers to God seeing into the future, how would foresight into the future be able to secure a definite plan? Foresight would not secure anything. Therefore, God’s foreknowledge refers to a prearranged and definite plan. That is abundantly clear in this passage.
In these three passages, we see that the brutal and bloody cross of Jesus Christ was actually no accident at all. It is clear that God ordained it before time was created by God. The cross of Christ was not the result of evil. The cross of Christ was not the outplaying of bad choices made by the free will of intelligent human beings. The cross of Christ was the predetermined plan whereby wicked men intended evil, but God intended salvation.
2. Notice the words of Jesus.
Luke 22:42 – Saying, Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.
John 19:30 – When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost.
It is clear from these two verses that something more than a betrayal of Judas was being played out in the death of Jesus. The plan referenced by Jesus when He cried out, “It is finished” was not some horrible mistake brought to pass by sin. Rather, it is the predetermined plan of Jesus’ suffering and pain that led to His brutal death. That horrific scene of Calvary’s hill with the blood of Jesus saturating the foot of the cross resulted in the salvation of many (Hebrews 9:24-28).
While a crowd of angry people insisted that Jesus be executed on a wooden cross, it was the merciful and loving plan of God that brought it to pass. Jesus came to earth to die. Although the wicked sinners intended evil, God intended the Gospel. Did God have anything to do with the suffering and pain of Jesus? Was His death a mere byproduct of bad choices and a fallen world? It is absolutely clear that Jesus suffered at the hands of wicked men, but God was accomplishing His divine will.
IV. Did God have anything to do with the pain and suffering of Paul?
Paul was, in my opinion, the greatest Christian to ever live on planet earth. He suffered and eventually died for the Christ he once labored to destroy.
1. Paul suffered greatly.
Notice 2 Corinthians 11:24-26
– Five times he received 39 stripes.
– Three times he was beaten with rods.
– Once he was stoned.
– Three times he experienced a shipwreck at sea.
– Dangers from the waters.
– Dangers from the robbers.
– Dangers from his own countrymen – the Jews.
– Dangers from the heathen.
– Dangers in the city.
– Danger in the wilderness.
– Danger in the sea.
– Danger from false converts.
2. Paul understood his suffering was God’s plan.
Colossians 1:24-25 – Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church: 25 Whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfill the word of God;
It is absolutely clear, Paul understood that his sufferings were not due to a byproduct of bad choices. He understood that the sufferings he endured were for a greater cause outside of the fulfillment of sinful and fleshly purposes of sin. Paul understood that his suffering and pain was the divine will and plan of God. Did God have anything to do with Paul’s suffering? Was his pain the byproduct of man’s abused free will? Absolutely not! Man intended evil against Paul, but as he acted, it was the fulfillment of God’s divine and perfect will.
Many other examples exist within the history of the church related to the suffering of God’s people. Missionaries have suffered and died for their faith. Was that an accident? Was it the byproduct of bad choices? As we see that God is absolutely sovereign and in control of all things – including suffering – we have increased confidence in our God. If God was unable to control the calamities, disasters, mudslides, earthquakes, tornadoes, heart attacks, cancer, and even the horrific murders that take place – life would be a living nightmare and prayer would be worthless! If God was merely the One who responds to our trials as the minister of love and healing, how could we pray for safety? The truth of the matter is, we have a God who loves us and is sovereignly ruling the world. He rules over nature and all created beings – even Satan. With that truth settled in our hearts, we can serve boldly, have confidence in our God, and know that the One who hears our prayers is capable of providing healing from disasters and safety from future problems that linger on the horizon. The truth of God’s absolute sovereignty provides us peace during the sunny days and the stormy trials of life.
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul
Horatio G. Spafford – after the death of his four daughters at sea.
Pastor Josh Buice