Bring fresh insight into an age-old question of how to understand the will of God.
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Making Sense of God's Will
By Adam Hamilton
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2011 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Why Do the Innocent Suffer?
God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." GENESIS 1:27-28
Sitting in an airport, a woman looks up at the television screen to learn that a natural disaster has forced millions from their homes in a poor country. The camera crews show scenes of the devastation, and the reporter speaks of how many people lost their lives in a particular city. Speaking to no one in particular, but loud enough that those nearby can hear her, she says, "How can you still believe in God when you've seen something like that?"
A man who lost everything in the Great Recession of 2008 did not reject his faith, but he wanted to know, "Why is God punishing me? I prayed. I gave to the church. I volunteered to serve others. And I lost everything! I just want to know what I did that was so bad that God would do this to me?"
A young woman speaks to me, confused. Her husband had died leaving her a single mom to care for two small children. Several Christian friends suggested that she take comfort in the fact that "it must have been the will of God." Far from comforting her, it leaves her angry with God.
Suffering, unanswered prayers, and the unfairness of life naturally lead us to question God's goodness and sometimes to question God's very existence. Ask atheists why they reject the idea of God, and this will be among their answers. But ask thoughtful Christians and you will find that they, too, have wrestled with these questions throughout their lives.
The question is traditionally posed in this way, "If God is loving and just, then God must not be all powerful. Or, if God is all-powerful, God must not be loving and just." For if God were all-powerful and loving and just, then God would stop the evil, pain, and suffering in our world. Theologians have a special name for the attempt to resolve this quandary: they call it theodicy, from the Greek words for God and justice. Theodicy is the attempt to reconcile belief in a loving and powerful God with the suffering present in our world.
I have spent much of the last twenty-five years in ministry helping people wrestle with these questions. I've done this by inviting them to question the assumptions they have held about God and God's work in the world, and by helping them to see how the biblical authors and the leading characters of the Bible wrestled with and ultimately answered these questions.
In this chapter I'd like to invite you into a conversation about these issues. I don't propose that in these few pages we will completely resolve the issue, but my hope is to give you a bit of help as you seek to answer the questions for yourself. Then, in the following chapters, we'll consider questions related to unanswered prayer, questions related to God's will, and finally, God's ultimate triumph over evil and suffering.
The Bible and Suffering
Our disappointment with God in the face of suffering or tragedy or injustice typically stems from our assumptions about how God is supposed to work in our world. When God does not meet our expectations, we are disappointed, disillusioned, and confused. I'd like to invite you to challenge two commonly held but misguided assumptions before we attempt to reconcile God's goodness with suffering.
Among the assumptions I once held was that the Bible teaches that if I believe in God and try to be a good person, God will take care of me and bless me and nothing bad will happen to me. Because this is what I thought the Bible taught, every time something bad happened in my life (my parents divorced, our house burned down, two of my best friends were killed in an accident), I was left wondering if I was being punished by God because I had been bad, or if I simply did not have enough faith in God, or if, perhaps, there really was no God after all.
As I began to actually read the Bible I found that my assumptions about what the Bible taught were wrong. The sweeping message of the Bible is not a promise that those who believe and do good will not suffer. Instead the Bible is largely a book about people who refused to let go of their faith in the face of suffering.
Consider a few of the major stories of suffering in the Old Testament: Joseph (the son of Jacob) is sold into slavery by his brothers. The Israelites spend 400 years oppressed by the Egyptians. Moses does God's work and yet is so miserable at times he prays for God to kill him. Saul spends years attempting to kill the young David (during which time David writes many of the Bible's "complaint psalms"). The entire epic poem of Job is about a good man who suffers terribly yet refuses to give up his faith.
The prophets, too, include their share of complaints against God in the face of their own suffering or the suffering of Israel. The book of Lamentations is written after the destruction of Jerusalem, when the Babylonian army takes the city's inhabitants into exile. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are thrown into a fiery furnace, and Daniel is thrown into a den of lions. Yet through all of this the Old Testament is the story of people who, in the face of their suffering, can claim with the writer of the Seventy-third Psalm, "My flesh and my heart may fail, / but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.... I have made the Lord GOD my refuge" (verses 26, 28a).
At the center of the New Testament is the story of a man who is beaten and abused and finally nailed to a cross. His first disciples are nearly all put to death for their faith. Far from promising a life of bliss to those who believe, he promises that they will face persecution, hardship, and trouble, often because of their faith. And the most prolific writer of the New Testament, the Apostle Paul, is arrested, beaten, and abused on numerous occasions, and is ultimately put to death by the Romans. The Bible definitely does not teach that those who follow God will have a life of bliss. It describes the dogged faith of those who continue to trust in God despite their suffering, and the comfort, strength, and hope they find in the face of suffering.
Does Everything Happen for a Reason?
Recognizing that the Bible does not promise that if we believe in God we'll have safety, health, and wealth in this life, let's consider a second misguided assumption commonly held among Christians today. Usually offered as a word of encouragement by well-meaning friends to people going through suffering, Christians say, "Everything happens for a reason." What does that mean? Usually we mean, "God has a plan. We cannot yet see that plan, but somehow the suffering you are going through now is purposeful and God has a good reason for it. Just trust God."
That sounds pious, and it seems logical at first. But I encourage you to examine this idea carefully. If everything happens for a reason, and by that we mean it is part of God's plan, then we have really said, "God planned for this tragedy to come to you. God willed for this thing to happen." If God willed it, then God actually caused it to happen. God wrote this event into your life story. This leads to another well-meaning statement Christians make to comfort their friends in times of suffering: "It must have been the will of God."
Let's think carefully about this. When a young woman is raped and murdered, was this really the will of God? Did God write this into the woman's life story and into her parents' life story? If God wished for this to happen, then God must have put it into the heart of the murderer to do this terrible thing. Does that sound like a just or loving God? The person who committed this crime will be put in prison as a murdering monster, but by saying, "It must have been the will of God," we affirm that God intended this event to happen. How can this be?
I received the following e-mail from a young woman a couple of years ago:
Our baby died this past spring when he was six weeks old. So many Christians that we have encountered since that time tell us "this was God's plan." ... Before this tragic event, I guess I thought this was how life worked too.... But there is no way that the death of an innocent six-week-old ... is part of some master plan. And if it is then I'm simply not interested in the God that has that plan.
The young woman's friends sought to comfort her with the idea that her suffering and loss were a part of God's plan, but she rightly questioned if God really takes little babies away from their mothers.
Twenty to thirty thousand people die every day of diseases related to starvation and malnutrition. Is this God's will? Or is God's will that those who have resources work to help those who do not? The clear message of Scripture is the latter. Further, if one believes that everything happens according to God's foreordained plan and that the death of 30,000 people each day in this way is God's will, then perhaps there is no need for Christians to work and give on behalf of the poor.
Why go to the doctor when we become sick, if it was God's will that this should happen to us? Is the doctor not fighting against God in working for our healing? And why wear seat belts or motorcycle helmets if every automobile death is the will of God and everything happens for a reason? If we are meant to die we will die, and if we are meant to live we will live.
What would we say of a human being who pushed a child over the railing of a tall building? Yet this is precisely what we say God has done if we suggest that a child's fatal accident is the will of God. What would we do to someone who orchestrated the torture and murder of innocent people? We would lock that person away in a prison and label him or her a sociopath. Yet this is precisely what we indicate when we say we believe that these acts are the will of God.
If by "everything happens for a reason" we simply mean that we live in a world of cause and effect, then of course this is true. But if we mean that everything happens according to God's plan, and that God wills everything that happens, this cannot be true. When we say that it is true, then I think we violate the third commandment (prohibiting the misuse of God's name) and misrepresent the nature and character of God. When non-Christians hear Christians say things like "everything happens for a reason" and "it must have been the will of God," they are left with an impression of God that is hardly loving and just, but instead a picture of God who wills evil and suffering in the world.
It is easy to understand why so many people have turned away from God when they have been taught that every disappointment, every tragedy, every loss, and every painful experience was the will of God. Let's begin to consider an alternative way to make sense of the relationship between God and suffering.
Three Foundational Ideas
There are three basic ideas that will provide the foundation for reconciling God's goodness with the suffering we experience in our world. The first is that God has given human beings "dominion" over this planet. That is, God has placed the human race in charge of God's planet, making us responsible for what happens here. The second foundational idea is that what makes us human is our ability to choose good from evil. This ability is a gift from God. The third foundational idea is that we humans struggle with our freedom; we find that we have an innate tendency to be drawn toward those things that are not God's will. These ideas are an important starting place as we seek to make sense of God's will in the light of human suffering.
1. God Places Humanity in Charge of Earth
The opening chapter of the Bible asserts that the universe as we know it, including our planet and all life on it, is a product of a God who willed it into being. Our scientists help us understand the processes and laws that developed the universe as we know it today (the big bang, quantum mechanics, and the theory of evolution to name a few). But Christians believe that behind those processes and laws is a Mathematician, a Physicist, a Biologist, an Artist—God—who created the universe, established the physical laws that govern it, and sustains it by will and power.
But while God is the source of all that exists, and by God's power and will all things hold together, God also created human beings and gave us responsibility to manage and oversee his creation. Here's what we read in Genesis 1:27-28,
God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth."
This passage indicates that human beings are given responsibility to "have dominion" over the earth; to act on God's behalf in managing, tending, and ruling over the planet.
We are not left to our own devices to rule over the planet. God set in motion certain natural laws that govern our planet and that are predictable. Next, God gave human beings intellect, a soul, and a conscience in order to help them know right from wrong. Later God gave the human race the Law and the prophets. When these were not enough, God sent Jesus Christ, "the Word became flesh" (John 1:14), to show us the "way, and the truth, and the life" (John 14:6). He came to show us and teach us God's will for the human race: that we love God and love our neighbor; that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us; that we love even our enemies; that we forgive; that we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and welcome the stranger; that greatness is found in serving; and that by Jesus' death on the cross he demonstrated to us what sacrificial love looks like. Finally, God gave to the human race the Holy Spirit to "guide [us] in all truth" (CEB), and the church.
With all of these, God has sought to help humanity discharge its responsibility to have dominion over the planet on God's behalf. But God has still given us this dominion.
God's primary way of ruling and acting on our planet is through people. When God wants something done in the world, God calls people to do it. When the poor are going to be fed, God doesn't rain down manna from heaven; God sends people. When the sick are going to be cared for, God sends people. When justice is going to be sought, God sends people to fight for it. When others are discouraged and in need of love, God sends people to offer encouragement and care.
In a sense this is how it has always been in the scriptures. When God wanted the Israelites set free from slavery in Egypt, God sent Moses. When God wanted to comfort the Jews living in exile, God prompted Jeremiah to prophesy. When Jesus wanted the gospel to go to the ends of the earth, he sent the apostles. God's primary way of working in the world is through people who are empowered and led by God's Spirit.
2. To Be Human Is to Be Free
That leads to a second foundational idea essential to reconciling God and suffering: to be human is to have the ability to choose right from wrong. In this we are different from the animals who are driven by instinct. Instead, God gave us the ability to make choices. This is an essential part of being human. But such freedom comes with the possibility that we might choose a course of action that will lead to suffering in our own lives or in the lives of others. Likewise, our freedom can be used to do what God does not want us to do.
We find this idea of human freedom in the very beginning of the Bible. In Genesis 2:15, God places Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden to "till it and keep it." But then the very next verses say, "And the LORD God commanded the man, 'You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die'" (verses 16-17).
Have you ever wondered why, knowing that Adam and Eve would eat of the tree, God put the tree there to begin with? God could have left the tree out of the garden altogether, and Adam and Eve would never have disobeyed. But the tree represents the freedom that God gives human beings to choose God's way or another way. God deemed the ability to choose to be an essential part of human existence.
We instinctively know how important our freedom is to us. We are willing to fight and die for it. As children grow up, they yearn for it. We know that we want another to choose to love us, not to be forced to love us. God's decision to give human beings the ability to choose right from wrong is itself an expression of God's love. Yet for reasons we will see momentarily, this very freedom can lead to pain when we make poor decisions or when we or others misuse our freedom.
Excerpted from Why? by Adam Hamilton. Copyright © 2011 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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