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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.
I recently spoke with a pastor whose wife was diagnosed a few years ago with cancer. After a two-year battle she died. I asked him how he made it through her death with his faith intact. He told me how, following his wife's death, he would go to her grave and shout at God. It struck me as he described these times that even this shouting was an act of faith. To shout at God requires that one believe in God. God is "big enough" to handle the anger that comes from our profound grief.
This pastor noted that he had never believed God gave his wife cancer, but his anger was a part of grieving. He continued to pray, and his friends surrounded him with love. Slowly the anger began to diminish, and in his loneliness he felt God's presence once again. One night he sat on his front porch looking up at the stars in the dark western Kansas sky, and he realized how big God is, and at that moment he felt once more the confidence that his wife was with God and that he would see her again one day. He trusted once again in God and allowed God to carry him. As we spoke he quoted the first verse of Psalm 136: "O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, / for his steadfast love endures forever."
In this chapter, I have encouraged you to question a couple of the common misconceptions about the Christian faith: the idea that if we have faith in God and seek to do what is right we will be exempt from suffering, and the assumption that "everything happens for a reason." We have looked at three foundational ideas that allow us to make sense of God and suffering: God gave human beings dominion over the planet, to be human is to be free, and human beings have a tendency to be drawn to the wrong path. Finally, we looked at how we reconcile the idea of a good and loving God with natural disasters, with suffering brought about by human decisions, and with suffering that results from illness.
One thought has often struck me when I meet people who reject God in the face of suffering. Rejecting God doesn't change the situation that has caused our suffering; it only removes the greatest source of hope, help, comfort, and strength we have.
This leads me to one final thought that we will flesh out in more detail in chapter 4: suffering never has the final word in the Christian faith. As we have seen, Christianity does not promise that we will not suffer, but it does promise that suffering will never have the final word. The Israelites were set free from slavery. David found deliverance from his affliction. And on the third day, Jesus rose from the dead. God does not bring unjust suffering upon God's children. But God will, however, force such things to serve God's good purposes. God will walk with us through the fires and the floodwaters. And God promises that "the present suffering is nothing compared to the coming glory that is going to be revealed to us" (Romans 8:18 CEB).CHAPTER 2
Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, "I will never leave you or forsake you." So we can say with confidence, "The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.
And [Jesus] said to them, "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions."
Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure.... Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind.
In 2007, a large area of Southern California was ravaged by wildfires, and nearly one million people were evacuated from their homes. As I watched the tragedy unfold via television news coverage, it struck me that this was a moment in which so many people were being forced to think about their relationship to material possessions. The words of Jesus echoed in my ears every time I saw another picture of the raging fires: "One's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions" (Luke 12:15).
So many people had very little notice that the fires were coming their direction. One family was awakened in the middle of the night by the daughter in time to look out the back window and see the fire leap across the interstate and begin a rapid climb up the hillside toward their home. They and thousands of others had ten minutes to grab everything they could take from their homes and flee.
Time magazine's online edition asked the question "What did you save from the fire?" of people staying at the emergency shelter at Qualcom Stadium.
Andrew saved his pillow.
Shervi saved her family pictures and books.
Angel saved the saxophone he had been learning to play.
Karen saved her two cats and important documents.
Michelle saved her Bible, purse, shoes, diploma, and cell phone.
What would you save? Imagine a wildfire is headed toward your home and you have ten minutes to grab what you can and flee. What will you take with you?
Natural disasters remind us that everything in this world is temporary. If our stuff is taken away by bankruptcy or plundered by thieves or blown away by a tornado or burned in a wildfire, we must remember that material things are only temporary. When I'm gone, most of my stuff will be outdated, worn out, or simply of no value to anyone else—either hawked in a garage sale or thrown in the trash. This is why I can say with Jesus, "[My] life does not consist in the abundance of possessions."
Excerpted from Why? by Adam Hamilton. Copyright © 2011 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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