Have you ever entered into a conversation late and made an observation, only to have others say “Yes, we’ve already covered that. Welcome to yesterday.”
Well, I’m about to do that.
So if you’ve already read a dozen blogs on this subject, resume Skyping with your bestie. Or trying to figure out the last clever usage for the “Ermahgerd” meme before it’s too late. Or whatever it is you were doing.
For the rest of you, I’m going to address the topic of God’s providence; namely, why a good, all-powerful God allows evil and suffering. This is a question that has been asked since cavemen figured out how to draw stick-figure woolly mammoths, but has recently hit the public forum in the wake of Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock’s remarks about God intending rape, as well as the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy.
This is a difficult topic to address, not simply because it rattles our brains, but because it is usually discussed when our hearts are rattled because of personal loss. Since evil does exist and its presence is painful, doubters argue that God must either be 1) Not good, 2) Not all-powerful, or 3) Not real.
Understanding why God allows suffering is a real curiosity that affects people to the core of their being, so Christians must be ready to respond. But first, here are four insufficient responses:
1) “God works in mysterious ways.” This answer satisfies no one, and God has given us a reason. It is cowardly for Christians to simply claim ignorance so as to avoid any confrontation.
2) “God punishes the wicked.” We can’t escape pg. 2 of the Bible (pg. 1 in big Bibles) without realizing that everyone is wicked. Especially you and me.
3) “God doesn’t want evil to happen.” This means that evil is outside of God's control, which means that the future restoration of all things is uncertain, which isn’t just a scary thought that could spawn an action thriller starring Kirk Cameron, it’s flat out hard to support biblically (see Is. 45:7, Psalm 135:7, Amos 3:6, 2 Sam. 12:15-18, Josh 11:20).
To say that things like cancer and storms are simply the effects of fallen creation is nothing but deism, which to varying extent says that God lets creation operate on its own. But God is intimately involved in the world now as much as he was when he created it.
4) “God is working out all things for your good.” This is the most dangerous and deceptive of them all.
Now, this statement is found in the Bible (Rom. 8:28), and is true. However, it's how it's often applied that causes the problem.
The classic example used to back this statement up is the story of Joseph, whose brothers were jealous of him, hated him, wanted to kill him, and sold him into slavery (Gen. 37:1-8). But after Joseph becomes a high ranking Egyptian official and saves the entire Near Eastern world from famine, he later tells his brothers that what they meant as evil, God meant for good (Gen. 45:5).
So the compassionate inclination in us wants to use Joseph's account as grounds to say “You may be suffering now, but just wait and see the good God has in store for you next!”
However, the story of Joseph is not meant to be applied this way, and it can actually be dangerous when used to explain why pain and suffering exist.
If we isolate Joseph’s story to the sole message that his slavery was necessary for him to become a great Egyptian official, we end up with the idea that our pain and suffering leads to greater earthly success, which is not always true. Not every personal story line is going to end up as tear-jerkingly heartwarming as the Blindside guy's.
Sometimes the child with a debilitating illness doesn’t pull through and inspire thousands.
Sometimes the nasty divorce doesn’t set the table for a better future marriage.
Sometimes poor people work hard and still stay poor.
Have I depressed you yet? Stay with me, because there is a better reason for pain and suffering.
Suffering connects us to the brutal murder of Jesus Christ.
Acts 2:23 says that Jesus was crucified according to the “definite plan and foreknowledge of God,” meaning that not only were the events surrounding his crucifixion divinely ordained (the betrayal, the rejection by his disciples, the nails in his hands and feet), but so was every event in the world leading up to it. Jesus' bloody murder was not a reaction to our sin, it was the plan all along.
The Joseph narrative is a foreshadowing of the crucifixion of Jesus, and the salvation and redemption that came as a result. And all the pain and suffering we experience now points back to the event of the crucifixion, and forces us to ask ourselves whether or not Jesus is who he says he is - the savior who suffered like we do so that we might know the God of the universe.
"Jesus' bloody murder was not a reaction to our sin, it was the plan all along."
There are of course other reasons for suffering too, such as the testing of our faith (James 1:2-4, 1 Pet. 1:6-7). But if all of our pain in this lifetime is primarily a mechanism for us to understand the reality of the cross, then amen.
This is hard to swallow, but the fact that God does in fact intend for evil to happen isn’t a radical or shocking position to hold. It’s only shocking when we lack an understanding of the role of the cross as the pinnacle of human history.
Christians don’t need to make excuses for God’s actions. We don’t need to hold onto the illusion that God uses suffering as a rite of passage for our glory and material comfort. Sometimes God does make a person a modern day Joseph, but it is wrong for us to hold him to promises that he hasn't given.
If the meaning of life is for us to know and worship our creator, then maybe more suffering is actually an evidence of grace, because it reminds us of our suffering savior, and brings to the forefront of our minds that this present world is impermanent.
I understand, but trust that God is greater and wiser than we are. We may not know the reason for each specific instance of pain and suffering, but we have been clearly shown the bigger picture, and we can be certain that all suffering will pale in comparison to future glory (Rom. 8:18).
Until that future glory is revealed in heaven, we preach the suffering savior, and directly care for the needs of those who are suffering.