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Foundations of the Faith
Romans 8:28 God's Plan For Our Good
By Paul Smith
Moody PressCopyright © 2000 Paul Smith
All rights reserved.
How Could God Let This Happen?
There are moments in our lives when the huge, pitiless oppressiveness of our universe rolls over us with inescapable force. One of those moments struck me recently as I stood praying in the children's intensive care unit of a local hospital. In my left hand I held the hand of a vibrant and beautiful eleven-year-old girl. In my right I held the warm but unresponsive hand of her nine-year-old sister, equally beautiful, but slowly slipping toward what seemed to us a tragic and untimely death—the result of a sudden and traumatic brain hemorrhage. A few days earlier she had been dancing through the house, excitedly demonstrating her latest ballet techniques. Now she lay pale and still, unable to resist the menacing approach of the angel of death. The question on the heart of every person in that room was, "How could God let this happen?"
It wasn't the first time that question had been asked, nor would it be the last. In John 11:32, another young woman, Mary, had just watched her brother die. "Lord," she said to Jesus when He arrived, "if you had been here, my brother would not have died." The question was implicit, but it was the same as ours: How could You let this happen? You might have done something about it. Jesus was clearly moved by the pain this question represented. The Scripture says, "He was deeply moved in spirit and troubled" (v. 33). It hurt to see people grieving and bewildered.
We ask the question when malevolent teens murder their classmates, when ethnic groups are viciously massacred, when vulnerable women and children are assaulted. God, how could You let this happen? We ask it when hurricanes or tidal waves or fires or other natural disasters destroy lives and property and, perhaps worst of all, hope. God, how could You let that happen? We ask it when we lose our jobs or find our reputations damaged by false accusations, or even when we make foolish choices. God, how could You let this happen? Couldn't You have intervened? Couldn't You have saved us this pain?
I will not presume to judge anyone who asks the question. It is easy enough to challenge the questioner when all is well in our own lives. Perhaps we will be strong enough to resist the question even when things are not going so well. But when someone who appears innocent suffers the consequences of a tragedy that God alone might have prevented, it is almost impossible to avoid the question, God, how could You let this happen? The question haunts us most deeply when it involves someone we know and love. "If I could have prevented it, I would have done everything in my power, at whatever cost. Why wouldn't God have done the same?"
Our True Assumptions About God's Goodness
Two fundamental, true assumptions lie behind this question. (1) God is supposed to be good; and (2) God is supposed to be sovereign, or all-powerful. But here a "bad" thing has obviously happened. When bad things happen to good people, obviously (we reason) God must have failed either to be good or to exercise His sovereignty.
At first glance, it seems difficult to argue with this conclusion, and we find ourselves becoming angry with God for allowing something even we would not have allowed. But there is a problem with standing in judgment of God. He Himself is the standard by which all things are judged. We do not know good apart from God. His actions are the very definition of good. To complain that God has done something that He ought not to have done is rather like complaining that the sun came up too late to start the day. The day is defined by the rising of the sun, even as good is defined by the actions of God. Where could we find another standard by which to judge the actions of God? To presume that we can judge God is to place ourselves over God.
But even if we could justify our accusation, I don't think we want to go there. If God is not good—if by some higher standard He may be accused of evil—then our situation is utterly and finally hopeless. What imaginable hope could there be if the sovereign force behind the universe were monstrously evil? And if He is not sovereign—if the God responsible for running the universe can't handle it—then once again the implications are absolutely staggering. Those who draw this conclusion, or who conclude that God must not exist at all, cannot but end in utter despair, for the universe is then careening out of control and we shall all inevitably become its hapless victims.
Two other possible explanations for why God allows pain and suffering have consistently been advanced, but in the end they too prove insupportable. One is that if a person suffers, God must be punishing that person for something bad he has done. Although it is true that God, like any loving parent or just judge, punishes evil, this will simply not do as an explanation for all suffering. The earliest statement of this explanation is in the Old Testament where Job had lost his crops, his flocks and herds, his children, and finally his own health. Job's friends insisted that he must have done something terrible to bring such suffering on himself. But in the end, without giving any alternate explanation, God revealed in no uncertain terms that Job had been a righteous man and that his friends were absolutely wrong in accusing him.
Jesus challenged His own disciples when they advanced the same theory in Luke 13. After certain men from Galilee had been brutally massacred, Jesus said, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them," Jesus volunteered (vv. 2–4a), referring to some disaster in the news, "do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no!" (vv. 4b–5a). You see, that's not the only explanation for suffering, God says.
And if these examples are not enough, there is the image of Jesus Himself, in enormous pain, impaled on a Roman cross, and quoting Psalm 22:1, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Jesus is surely innocent!
"Ah, but," you say, "He was suffering the punishment for sin on the cross." True, but not His own sin. Sin and suffering are certainly loose in the world. But what we see at the cross is an innocent victim, and as well a refusal on God's part to intervene and spare His innocent Son from the suffering inherent in a broken world. It is simply impossible, in the light of Scripture, to say that when a person suffers pain or grief or loss it is necessarily the result of his or her sin. Our own sins may well cause the suffering of others who are wounded by our cruel or insensitive actions or words.
The second explanation people often give, equally insupportable, is that those who suffer do not have enough faith, as if having enough faith somehow "earns" us God's miraculous intervention. The same examples will suffice to explode this theory. God commended Job for being "blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil" (Job 1:1), and later added a commendation for his faithfulness and integrity even under the assault of Satan. If Job didn't have enough faith to earn God's miraculous intervention, then you and I certainly don't. And what of Jesus on the cross? He too prayed for a miracle. Did He not have enough faith for God to reward Him by removing the cup of suffering He was about to face?
Besides, all of us recognize examples of the very opposite circumstances, which also disprove the theory about faith. We know evil people who don't suffer at all, a phenomenon that inspired the searching questions of Psalm 73:13: "Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure," the writer said, when he saw the wicked "always carefree" and "increas[ing] in wealth" (v. 12). We see evil people who prosper.
No, the answer to the question, How could God let this happen? is neither that somehow God has failed us nor that we have somehow failed God. The disappointment with God shown in this question arises from two false or precarious assumptions that we have made about ourselves and about God. One is that God is obligated to intervene in our world to accomplish a precise justice. The other is that we really know what is good and what is evil. Let's look at the first of these two assumptions: that a good God must necessarily be always intervening to keep everything in perfect balance in His world.
Our False Assumption That God Will Overrule Our Choices
The classic statement of our dilemma is: Why does God allow suffering and evil? Notice that the operative word in this statement is "allow." God does not cause suffering and evil, but He does, obviously, allow it. The question is, Why?
This is a legitimate question, and the answer reveals something profound. It has to do with the very heart of the human experiment. You see, God wanted to share His own experience of life and joy with a being in His creation. But to do that necessarily involved a genuine freedom for that being. In order to share God's delight in life, this creature would have to go beyond animal instinct and actually participate in life through the ability to make conscious choices.
Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the ability to love. Throughout the history of the human race, love has been one of our highest pursuits. Kingdoms are won or lost for it. Fortunes are sacrificed for it. Lives are consumed by it. Our literature is obsessed with it. Almost no price seems too high to pay for it. But love, this high goal of ours, is impossible without free choices. No one really confuses an animal's instinctive drive to mate with genuine romance. You would not be satisfied with a "zombie" lover programmed by some internal drive to follow you around offering mechanical hugs and continually replaying a recorded message of eternal love. The wonder and joy of love is its voluntary nature, and the ever-present possibility that it could be withdrawn. There is no love without risk! Indeed, there is no joy, there is no life without risk. What takes our breath away is the realization that the person who commits to love us has freely chosen to do so, and need not have done it. The possibility that it wouldn't happen is what gives us the thrill when it does.
Choice is necessary in order to participate in and appreciate life. But with all free choice comes risk, for if we may freely choose what is good, we may also choose what is evil. This may be intentional, or it may be unintentional. We may think we are choosing the good when in fact we are choosing the evil. And choices, involving alternate destinies, will certainly have unforeseen consequences for us. Clearly, offering human creatures the possibility of free choice placed God's creation at enormous risk. The possibility of a sovereign God bringing good even out of our evil choices does not reduce the jeopardy in which we place His creation by those choices. Indeed, it opened the door for the possibility of terrible distortions and their consequent suffering. But it was a risk God obviously thought worth the taking, as it also offered the only possibility for that unfathomable delight in life that He wanted us to enjoy.
And we, along with the whole of the human race, have made some very bad choices, which have resulted in a bent or broken world where things do not always work the way they should, and where suffering and loss and evil are ever-present possibilities. Understand that God is not responsible for this. We are.
"But," you may protest, "why can't God do something about it? We're not saying He caused it. We may have brought it about. But why can't God intervene and set things right?" Ah, yes, our first assumption, that God is obligated to intervene with suffering in our world. But think about it; to intervene is to overrule and therefore to take away our free choices. Choice is meaningless if the consequences of our choices are constantly overruled, if there is no connection between our choices and what flows from them because of God's intervention.
Try to imagine a world in which God, like a compulsively overprotective or controlling parent, interfered with everything we did to make it come out His way instead of ours. Our choices would be meaningless in such a world. We would never really learn anything. And worst of all, we would never have the opportunity to experience the exhilaration of facing and overcoming the risks that give life its dynamic.
Why do people climb Mt. Everest? It is precisely the enormous risks involved that draw people to attempt an ascent of that awesome mountain. There would be absolutely no thrill in successfully climbing Everest if God simply eliminated every risk, countermanded every wrong choice, and guaranteed safety and success to everyone who made the attempt. No one would make the attempt! It would be as boring and unfulfilling an effort as one could possibly imagine if God were constantly suspending the law of gravity and holding off darkness and storms while we took a leisurely stroll to the top. Would we ever expend an effort if it weren't for the risks involved? Would we ever learn, would we ever dare if there were no real possibility of failure? Taking risks is part of being human.
If God intervened and negated the consequences of our actions, not only would it negate what it means for us to be human, but it would also destroy the possibility of our ever experiencing joy in accomplishment. In a very real way, the possibility of suffering is what makes us human.
Our False Assumption That We Understand Good and Bad
The second precarious assumption implicit in our question about why God allows evil and suffering is that we really understand what is good and what is bad. It is a safe assumption that the reason God forbade Adam and Eve from sampling the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was that it would tempt us to think we really knew what was good and what was bad, when in reality only God can know that. Is it bad for an innocent child to die young? It certainly seems that way to us. But how can we really know, this side of heaven? It is entirely possible that it looks very different from the other side. Is all pain irredeemable? Or is it possible that pain is an indispensable prerequisite for pleasure? Current medical theory suggests the two are intimately linked.
It is very presumptuous for us to think that we can know what God is doing through suffering and loss. I grew up in ranching country, and I often watched terrified livestock doing their best to avoid the trauma imposed by those who were simply looking out for their health and safety. Branding time was particularly traumatic. The animals were chased, roped, thrown to the ground, and immobilized, but the purpose was to mark them with some sort of identification so they could be cared for and to perform certain medical procedures that would protect them from disease and death. It didn't seem good to the animals, but it was the best thing that could happen to them.
Several years ago I got one of those phone calls every parent dreads, telling me that our son had severely fractured his leg while skiing. I met the bus when it arrived and transported him to the emergency room at the local hospital. The doctors decided to set the bone without anesthetic, since the break was clean through the tibia as well as the fibula, and they believed they needed the muscle taut enough to hold the two ends together. I wrapped my arms around my son and held him as his face turned white and his body shook convulsively with the pain while they pulled and twisted the injured leg in the first, rather violent step that would ultimately bring healing.
We live in a broken world, a world broken by our sin and our own errors in judgment, and that causes pain for ourselves and for others. But setting it right may also cause pain. It would have been quite understandable for my son to cry out, "Why are you doing this to me?" and to beg the physicians to stop causing him pain. But of course ending that pain would have been, on the whole, the worst thing we could have done to him. He needed that pain in order to heal.
Jesus cried out from the cross, in the words of Psalm 22:1, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?" David prophesied of His death by saying, "I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted away within me. My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death" (vv. 14–15). Jesus was experiencing both the pain of a broken world and the pain that would be required to put it right. His suffering on the cross, intense and personal as it was, was part of a larger picture. It would bring Jesus Himself, along with all true believers, joy and even an ecstasy we cannot imagine. God's Word says the glory we will experience in His presence won't even be worth comparing to the suffering along the way.
Excerpted from Foundations of the Faith by Paul Smith. Copyright © 2000 Paul Smith. Excerpted by permission of Moody Press.
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