Lately I decided to be more public about some grieving in my personal life. This has sparked some great discussions, which was my hope in being more open and vulnerable in the public sphere.
One of the most common issues that comes up in these discussions is the role of God in human suffering. The other day I noted that I do not believe God has a master plan that unfolds meticulously and without deviation (I reject that all future events are predetermined by God), precisely because any such blueprint to the unfolding of events would mean that God is the agent of causation behind evil and human suffering.
The idea that God plans and actually causes our suffering for a higher, mysterious purpose, is likely the most prevalent Christian view out there– at least in one form or another. Many of us are taught very early on that we must thank God for all things, because he planned all things– even the horrible tragedies of life– to be something ultimately for our own good.
On one hand, I can see why we gravitate to this position. Such a position allows us to emotionally detach from the depths of our sorrow, and to shift from grieving into things like trust and gratitude. This position allows us to find comfort in car accidents, brain tumors, and house fires, because no matter how horrific a life event, one believes that God had planned it, and that God planned it for a beautiful purpose that we just can’t see yet.
On the other hand, I think a closer inspection of this concept should quickly show us why it’s not just false, but disgustingly false. God is not the causing agent in our suffering, and he does not plan bad things to happen to us for some mysterious higher purpose.
Let’s look at it this way: If everything God does is good and loving, and if we are called to be imitators of God (Ephesians 5:1), we should also be able to mimic this attribute of God. If God is our perfect example, and God purposely inflicts suffering in order to achieve a greater good, it would also be good and loving for us to do it. So, let’s test that theory out.
I have a 14-year-old daughter named Johanna. She is my life, my heart. I would do anything for her, especially if it were something that would deepen our relationship and give her valuable life-lessons for the future.
Let’s say one day I decide that I want to help Johanna learn and grow, and I want to do something that will deepen our relationship. I walk her out into my garage, and ask her to place both of her arms on my workbench and to hold still. I then pick up a hammer and explain to her, “Johanna, I love you more than anything in the world. So right now, I’m going to break both of your arms with this hammer. I know it’s going to hurt, and it will take you a long time to recover from this injury. However, I want you to know that I am doing it for a greater good: in the months that you’ll spend in casts, you will be unable to do anything for yourself. This is going to cause you to learn to have a deeper dependency on me, and to trust that I am going to take care of you, and meet your needs. Oh—and this will also bring us closer together emotionally, because as soon as you feel the pain, you’re going to want me to comfort you and hold you close in a way you haven’t wanted in a while.”
This would be disgusting, no? It would be horrific abuse, worthy of losing my child forever and being thrown in prison. It would be an unspeakably evil act.
So here’s my question: If it would be abuse if I did it, why is it good and beautiful when God does it? Why do we say that God plans, causes, and ordains our suffering so that we’ll draw closer to him and learn to depend more deeply upon him?
Because, I’m sorry, but if God decided to break both of my arms on purpose, he’s kinda a jerk.
How can we be so ethically inconsistent between what God does, and what we do? Surely, if God does it and God is perfect, it should be something we do as we obey the biblical imperative to be God-imitators.
But may this never be– because purposely causing and inflicting suffering is an evil action.
It is an evil action if I break my child’s arms, purposely steer her into oncoming traffic, shoot her dog because she pays more attention to the dog than me, or push her out of a window because I know her suffering will cause her to pull closer to me, and teach her something.
It is an evil action if God plans for us to fall off the roof, if he sends a drunk driver to hit us head on, or if he gives us a brain tumor simply so that we’ll learn to love him better, and draw closer to him.
It’s an evil action if I do it.
It is an evil action if God does it.
Thus, if we’re unable to justify inflicting suffering upon our own children in order to achieve some greater good, perhaps it’s time we rethink God’s role in our own.
(I do believe that God uses our suffering to bring about beauty, but this is entirely different from saying that he caused it to bring about beauty. We’ll explore this idea further, along with a better reading of Romans 8:28 in my next post.)
Follow follow BLC on Facebook:
Saying God creates suffering is like saying an umbrella creates rain. And then blaming the umbrella because you get wet.
Death, destruction, and chaos are the natural order. Life is SUPERnatural.
I have been diagnosed after almost 7 months of misdiagnosis with an inoperative brain tumour and at first was given 3 months to live. Now I am nearing the end of almost 2 months of radiation and chemo. I cannot eat anything by mouth and have not had a solid meal in almost year and there is no certainty the tumour will release my jaw enough so that i can. Since I had to have the radiation the possibility of surgery on my jaw could be very dangerous. Do I believe that God sent this? Absolutely NOT. Do I think it is part of some divine plan, no! The why is I had the HVP virus and it caused the tumour and the arrogance of some of the doctors who refused to look for a condition other than the one they insisted on which was trigeminal neuralgia. Why does God allow such suffering I have no idea. What I am convinced of is that the lesson is that this life is just the beginning and what lies ahead is wonderment and joy. However God did not need to smite me with cancer to teach me this. If God is Jesus then it means he does not abandon us to the suffering but will bring us to Resurrection and Restitution.
Ah bless you! You are a very strong and courageous person and those who know you are lucky! I agree it’s not God who did this to you and fair play to you for the way you are dealing with this. You have a brilliant attitude and have helped me enormously, so thank you and God bless you!
Again, I am sorry about your losses in your family. Many years ago, there was a young couple that were going to be missionaries in Colombia and were flying in an area that had strife from drug lords and were warned by the government not to go into that area. Their plane was shot at and the wife and baby girl were killed. Then the husband gets on the news and coldly states that God directed the bullets that killed his wife and daughter. I couldn’t think of a more sick and twisted theology because no one in their right mind is going to want to believe in and follow a God like that. There are many reasons why bad things happen to good people but to come up with platitude and sayings as if there is always going to be an answer or reason or that “if it happen, it must be God’s will” is not one of them.
As a child of the ’70’s…reminds me of the saying…”The Devil Made Me Do It”. Seems like every time I hear someone going off on blaming Satan for their bad behavior…I ask myself why are demons there and is this person important enough to have the Prince of Darkness pay attention to them acting out who they really are and blaming something/someone else for their bad behavior?
For my part, I don’t think Romans 8:28 refers to God making all events work or God working in all events. This is something Paul says in a portion of Romans where he specifically says he’s speaking to faithful Jews. He talks about how they need to walk by the life of the Spirit and not the condemnation of Torah. He talks about their election, justification, and glorification in the past tense.
These themes of life in the Spirit, justification, etc. prepare us for the latter half of Romans 8 which is about enduring persecution. God’s elect are justified despite their current persecution, and the resurrection of Christ who was “given up” for them and intercedes for them is the proof. Therefore, no amount of persecution or judgement can separate them from the love of Christ. But rather, they are conquerors who will share in his resurrection.
It seems to me that 8:28 is not a generic aphorism about life in general or crap in general, but is an assurance to faithful Jews who have faith in Christ that their current suffering under persecution is neither indicative of their standing before God nor their final destiny.
I would need to see some textual evidence that 8:28 is meant to be understood as an atomistic saying on its own about everything in all our lives rather than the issues Paul is speaking to in the letter at that time. Not saying it’s impossible; I just don’t see it right this second.
Since I am not a first century Jew suffering under the Roman Empire / Temple power structure, Romans 8:28 does not directly comfort me in my suffering as if it were written for me and my life situations. It may comfort me in a general sense in that it shows me the heart of God for those who love Him. I may also be comforted by the hope of the renewal of creation in which even Death itself will be destroyed. But I’m not convinced Romans 8:28 has anything directly to say about everyone’s general life circumstances. There’s a whole lot of other text around that verse.
Kyle Roberts raises important counter examples to the idea that love can never be coerced here:
On Tom Oord’s website Roberts makes the following statement which makes the same point that made in one of the the comments below:
“For Oord, if God cannot coerce, cannot ever exercise unilateral control over people and situations, then God cannot ensure his will is ultimately accomplished. “
“So here’s my question: If it would be abuse if I did it, why is it good and beautiful when God does it? Why do we say that God plans, causes, and ordains our suffering so that we’ll draw closer to him and learn to depend more deeply upon him?”
This. So much this. This has always been a major obstacle in any concept of God for me. Thank you so much for showing me another way to view problems, injustice and suffering. A God who would plan suffering just to make you “draw close” is a jerk – absolutely. But – stuff just happens, sometimes it’s our own fault, sometime it’s not, sometimes it’s simply random luck, sometimes it’s profoundly unjust – but a God who doesn’t plan it, but comforts us when it happens – that I can consider.
However, it does raise a question; is God unable to prevent our suffering? If you stood by while someone broke your child’s arms without attempting to protect her, that would also be a dick-move. Is God simply watching us, unwilling to interfere for some reason, or is God limited in action?
Oh, well, more to think about…
Your confusion over God’s role in our lives comes from your rejection of God’s plan for man explained in the the whole bible. By pretending that the Old Testament is not God’s Word but only the parts of the New Testament you choose to preach, confusion is the only possible result. God does not cause our suffering in general. We are fully able to do that and demonstrate it every day. Man had his opportunity to follow God and obey his voice which he rejected. What follows is the last 6000 years of our history. Everything is going to be put right in the end by God’s plan. You just reject the path that man choose which is the cause of all this suffering. God does not predetermine every event but rather He works out all things for good. Many live by faith even today but it is a diminishing trait. God has ask, will He find faith on the earth when he returns; doubtful as man has in general accepted the lie from Satan which perverted the concept grace as a license to sin. Sin is the cause of all this misery. If man would repent and stop then and only then things would be different during this age.
EXcellent article that clearly explains the problems with believing in God and prayer. Both are so dangerous.
I did a word study several years ago on the words used in scripture that are usually translated “omnipotence/ omnipotent, almighty” or some variation of those. Turns out that when you look at the original languages, the words used do not actually convey the concept of omnipotence.
I think God’s omnipotence is a result of His existing outside of time & space as we humans comprehend it (Ill use the traditional male pronoun just to make things easier). He is in what the Buddhists would refer to as the eternal now: He is experiencing simultaneously and eternally every instant that we humans perceive as past-present-future. He neither predicts (as in guesses) nor ordains (as in commands) the future; He sees it happening with the same clarity he sees what’s happening right now, and what is happening a billion years ago. Being infinite, He has an infinite amount of time and attention to spend on every moment.
We human being perceive time traveling in a linear fashion, we see past events affecting future outcomes, we cannot accurately guess or fathom our future, and so we have from our POV free will: We can make a choice then see the results of that choice play out.
Conversely, God is always seeing us making the choice, as well as always seeing the results of that choice. This would seem to be born out by the Bible verses that refer to Him as having perfect knowledge and being unchanging.
Could God change the future? Probably just as easily as he could change the past, since both are identical to Him.
Which then raises this question: If God could change the past, how would we know?
Ben, It is heartbreaking to hear everything your family has gone through of late. I cannot imagine losing the chance to raise your daughter.
I agree with you that God cannot cause evil and still be good. I also agree that there must be some correlation between our view of good and God’s view of good otherwise it makes no sense to call God’s actions good. If God caused abuse of a child, he would be a child abuser, and therefore evil. Here is my struggle, a parent who abuses their child is evil and should be held morally culpable. And a parent who knows that their child is being abused, and is able to intervene, but chooses not to intervene would also be held morally culpable for the abuse of that child. It doesn’t make sense to say that the parent could not intervene because that would violate the free will of the abuser. You probably see where I am going here. If God knows about abuse, and fails to intervene then God becomes an accessory to the crime.
You get God off the hook for not causing the abuse, but he is still on the hook for allowing it to happen. How would you answer this? I ask these questions honestly because I wrestle with various doubts not because I am trying to make you eat your worlds.
The orthodox view you describe is akin to flipping a coin and saying, “heads God wins, tails I lose.”
But then the most evil thing to ever happen, God planned and brought complete, 100% good out of. 🙂
22 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.” Acts 2:22,24
A real good article at the link below, called The Problem of Evil.
Benjamin, in your decision to have Johanna, didn’t you know she would be subjected to suffering in this life? So, given that you knew this, why were you willing to subject her to it? And why should she forgive you for any suffering she experiences which you could have prevented by not having her in the first place?
I can’t see how God can have a fixed plan if we are in it, since what we did would instantly change what is to happen and stuff it up. I can see God having a fixed emd game and outcome but he would have to be constantly changing the route to cope with what we did to put a spanner in the works.
I suppose as God is to an extent operating outside the umiverse and conventional time and can thus forsee what we do he may when an event occurs be already working on a plan to make it right, but that doesn’t mean he intended it in the first place.
The difference between causing something and permitting it is in allowing independent agency to people, not only to actually sin but also to make mistakes, try things out, learn for themselves and forge their own destiny. If actions had no potential consequences they couldn’t arguably couldn’t really be properly actions at all.
It is only when children are sent out into the world that they can become fully adult and create their own lives (and in the story Adam and Eve are sent out of the garden to earn their own living when they eat the fruit seeking knowledge). That being said it is a serious issue as to why God set up quite so hostile a playground for his children to learn in.
So, the bumper sticker is right, “Sh** Happens.”
I happen to agree with you. One analogy that I use is that we know auto accidents kill 10,000 teenagers a year, but when that beloved daughter turns 16, you teach her to drive and shortly thereafter get her a car. You do so not because you don’t care, but rather because you do, and want her to have a full life. It is is price we pay to live this existence.
doesn’t this take us to a discussion about free will and the sovereignty of God ?
I have long taught two things: God does not have some kind of detailed “plan” or “purpose” for our lives, other than for us to know and love God and our neighbor, and to be with God for all eternity; and God does not cause, allow, tolerate, or ignore our suffering. Rather, God sees our suffering, shares our pain, is present to us, offers us consolation and the strength to endure, and rejoices when we come through it or is sorrowful if we don’t. Why do bad things happen? Because God created a universe with physical laws. If a plane’s engines fail at 30,000 feet, people will die, regardless of their prayers, goodness, sinfulness, or anything else. Why? Because God created a world where we can rely upon gravity to keep us safe on the ground. This is much more than deism. I believe that God loves each of us and cares deeply what happens to us, that God wants us to love God and one another, and that God is always a bulwark and consolation in our suffering. God is not a external, dispassionate, unconcerned observer, but rather is involved with us in all that befalls us, offering love and hope.
What’s the difference between causing and allowing?
You wrote, “If God is our perfect example, and God purposely inflicts suffering in order to achieve a greater good, it would also be good and loving for us to do it.”
Tragically, there are many Christian leaders in the past and the present who do carry this very wrong belief out.