Several years back I was raking leaves in the late autumn sun while Keri pruned a rose bush. When I reached down to grab a big pile of leaves to stuff in the bag, my fingers grasped a handful of thorny briers Keri had tossed under the leaves when I wasn’t looking. As the thorns punctured my fingers, I did what any other godly pastor would do: I cursed like a sailor!
The question that matters for us today is in which direction did I direct my curse? You have a few options: 1) I could have cursed God, taking the Lord’s name in vain; 2) I could have cursed myself for not being more careful; 3) I could have cursed Keri for throwing her thorny branches in my pile of leaves. I chose a fourth option, my mind immediately drawn back to the third chapter of the Bible, where we read that it is the ground itself that is cursed. We live in a world now marred by sin and death. God told our first parents after their disobedience, “Cursed is the ground…It will produce thorns and thistles for you” (Gen. 3:17-18). This means that since Genesis 3, the world is not as God originally intended it to be.
So, my main point today is to to suggest that when we find ourselves pricked by our own thorny experience of suffering and pain, let us not rush to cursing God, or blaming ourselves and others for our pain. Let our first instinct be to blame the fact that we live in a fallen creation where bad things happen for no particular reason other than things are not as they were intended to be. We live east of Eden, walk an earth still suffering under the ripple effects of the curse. East of Eden we find earthquakes and tsunamis, stillborn babies and cancer, death and mourning, tears and heartache.
Just yesterday a well-known Christian author and sought after speaker with a big influence, Rachel Held Evans, died at the age of 37 from brain seizures caused by an allergic reaction to some medication she was given for a urinary tract infection. She leaves behind a husband with two small children under 3 years old. We don’t have to look beyond these walls for our own accounts of tragedy and suffering, grief and loss. The following age-old questions rise to the surface, stare us in the face and beg for an answer.
- If God is all good, why is there so much evil and suffering?
- If God is all powerful, then why doesn’t he stop evil?
- If God has given real free will to human and angelic beings, then can his plans be thwarted?
- If creatures can genuinely rebel against God, then can we be certain God’s purposes will ultimately prevail?
All of these questions circle around what is known as “God’s Providence.” These are massive questions, which the brightest minds have wrestled with through 20 centuries with no consensus. Only a few weeks ago, Mike Fox threw his hat in the ring and preached a sermon on it. I want to give my own two-cents on this topic because I feel like last week’s sermon on prayer ended with a few loose ends—especially pertaining to why some prayers get answered and others do not.
While the conclusions I have drawn on these questions are significant to me and really shape some of my core beliefs about God and our faith, it is perfectly okay if you end up reaching different conclusions. I hope to have a few minutes at the end to address any questions my message stir up. If you would rather not ask out loud, please text me your question to 612-865-7817.
STARTING PLACE: JESUS REVEALS GOD’S CHARACTER
When we come to big questions like this, the most important thing I want to get right and be clear about is the character of God. There are a lot of things we’ll never know, many mysteries we may never resolve on this side of Heaven, and a lot of doubts that may linger on through our lives. While we will often be unable to answer the ‘Why’ question, we can be confident about the ‘Who’ question. We can know without a doubt the true character of God, even if the world itself seems out of whack, often unjust and puzzling. Why? God has revealed His heart, his character, his loving nature and goodness to us in and through His Son Jesus the Christ.
Jesus said, “If you have seen me, you have see the Father.” (John 14:9)
“I and the Father are one.” (John 10:30)
Paul wrote, “For God, who said, “Let there be light in the darkness,” has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Cor. 4:6)
“Christ is the visible likeness of the invisible God.” (Col. 1:15)
“The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God.” (Heb. 1:3)
What does Jesus reveal to us about God’s character and the evil and suffering of this world? We know that Jesus was loving, and compassionate, and Jesus’ earthly ministry was spent coming against the forces of evil by casting out demons, alleviating human suffering by healing diseases, restoring the sight of the blind, helping the crippled walk, and even raising the dead back to life. His entire ministry can be seen as an act of spiritual warfare against all the dark forces and broken nature of this sin-stained world. So, when I come face to face with my own suffering and behold all the suffering all around us each day, I do not try to comfort myself by muttering things like:
“God is on the Throne.”
“God has some mysterious, inscrutable purpose for this suffering.”
“It’s all part of his master plan.”
“In the end, it will all make sense.”
Now to add some Christian cliches to the mix:
“God’s ways are not our ways.”
“God paints straight with crooked lines.”
“There’s a silver lining behind every cloud.”
“This is ultimately all for the glory to God.”
No, certain as I am of the character of God revealed in Jesus Christ, I therefore conclude that God weeps over his broken creation and is angered by the ways his precious image-bearers continue to hurt one another, dehumanize others, defacing the crown of his creation. When I stare another act of evil in the face, or stand over another child-sized casket at the front of a church, I don’t try to discern God’s mysterious purposes in it. I instead quote the words of the farmer in Jesus’ parable who, upon discovering weeds choking out the life of his crops, says defiantly: “An enemy did this” (Matt 13:28).
The world as we find it, in many ways, is simply not operating according to God’s plans. We live east of Eden and under the effects of the curse. We live in a cosmic war zone of competing agendas. The Scriptures are so clear that there’s dark forces—angelic and human—conspiring against God. The gravity of evil and suffering around the globe should not drive us to speculation on God’s strange purposes for it all; our first reaction should be to shake our heads and say, “An enemy did this.” Consider some of the biblical evidence:
“…the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.” 1 John 3:8
“Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.” (Eph. 6:12)
“Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith.” 1 Pet. 5:8-9
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” John 10:10
“Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God. (2 Cor. 4:4)
Here’s a hard truth for many of us to accept. If we’re honest, we find comfort in the thought that God is in control when our lives seem out of control. We also find a degree of solace believing there is some greater meaning behind what appears to be senseless suffering. This is why when mom dies of cancer leaving 3 small children behind, or a young child is killed in a car accident, we tell ourselves things like, “God must have a special need for them in Heaven, and that’s why He took them from us.”
If we’ll ponder this logic just a minute, we’ll find it doesn’t really make sense. But it’s just more comforting than accepting the fact that in a broken world, sometimes things just happen for no good reason. There is such thing as senseless suffering and evil. Death is an unwanted invader in God’s original world, and until God ushers in the New Heavens and New Earth someday, we have to accept the fact that sometimes Death wins a short-term victory. Our hope lies in the fact that Christ, on the cross and in his resurrection, has signed Death’s own death warrant, and Death will not have the last word. Our loved ones who die are in the arms of God, no longer suffering, and waiting with us for the coming Day when death will at last be done away with for good.
So, without trying to minimize the true anti-god nature of suffering, evil and death, we people of faith in the Resurrected Christ who has conquered Death, can indeed find great comfort in the words of Romans 8 that declare that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him” and “our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” Paul’s hope-filled rant against the worst the world can throw at us comes to a crescendo in vv. 35-39 with those memorable words:
35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[k] neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
So, to summarize so far, I have argued that: 1) God is good and his character is revealed in the person of Jesus; 2) Jesus’ entire ministry demonstrated that God is all about defeating evil, undoing suffering, healing the brokenness, restoring the sick, and overcoming the power of Death. Thus, it goes against His nature and character to be pulling all the strings, mysteriously causing suffering and using death and evil for his purposes.
AN ALL-CONTROLLING GOD?
So, we come to the big question at last regarding God’s providence or sovereign control over history. Many, many of us have a different starting place when it comes to God’s nature and character. Our working assumption about God is that He is all-controlling, all-powerful, nothing can thwart His purposes, and therefore nothing happens on earth or in Heaven contrary to His will. This image of God is so pervasive that makes some of our hands sweat to even question it.
Why does it make us nervous to entertain the notion that somethings may happen outside God’s control? One reason might be because we ourselves are “control freaks” by nature. If we’re honest, our blood pressure goes down when we feel like we have our own life momentarily under control. But when we are again reminded that very few things are actually within our control, our blood pressure rises again. We are finite creatures with limited power and limited wisdom, so we have finite control over what comes to pass in our lives. But God is infinite in wisdom, power, and resourcefulness as He goes about running the universe. So we should be careful not to impose our human limitations and creaturely anxiety onto God when it comes to how He exercises “control” over the creation and guides history toward His ends.
So, is God all-powerful and in control of history? Yes, but we have to let go of some of our human conceptions of power and control. “God is love,” the Bible says. Love is at the heart of God’s being, his nature and purposes for his creation. He could have created robots and remained the only One pulling all the strings, and thereby ensuring that nothing would ever happen outside His will. That’s not the God we meet in the Holy Scriptures. Instead, we meet a God who desires real, authentic relationships with his creatures—both angels and humans. So, he endowed us with free will. True love must be freely chosen, or it’s not really love. You cannot force someone to love you against their will. Likewise, for love to be truly authentic, there must be the real possibility that one could choose “not-love” instead. If love is the highest goal and value in the universe, and love is the trait most central to God’s character, then God would need to voluntarily limit his power and ability to control the decisions of free agents if they are to be genuinely free.
So, I conclude with many others, that God has chosen to create a world where humans and angelic beings are capable of resisting God’s love and rebelling against His good plans. However we choose to define God’s all-powerful, sovereign reign over the universe, it cannot mean He is exercising meticulous control over every single molecule and nothing ever happens against his will. Does this then mean God’s ultimate plans can be thwarted? Does this mean God can’t be trusted to win the ultimate battle? Does this mean God is weak and unworthy of our worship? No, absolutely not.
I however find it harder to worship a God who would ordain all the evil we see in the universe. I find it difficult to trust in a God who is ultimately responsible for all the suffering if we accept that nothing happens outside His sovereign will. Likewise, I’m equally as disturbed by a God who will heal some people and not others, by arbitrarily picking and choosing favorites. Consider the picture of God held by one person my teacher, Greg Boyd, once encountered. This is found in his book Is God To Blame? (I am now paraphrasing the story as I remember it):
Jill had always wanted to be a mom but was unable to conceive. Based on a condition or defect, the doctors gave her very slim odds she would ever conceive. But she and her husband prayed and prayed and prayed, and, alas, the miracle happened. She was pregnant. They were giddy with excitement and overflowing with gratitude to God for this miracle as the day of delivery arrived. During the delivery, however, the umbilical cord got wrapped up around the baby’s neck, as well as other complications, and the baby was stillborn. Jill was absolutely crushed. She sunk into a deep depression, which eventually led her to Greg’s office to share her struggles with God. She had concluded that the miracle baby God gave to them was suddenly taken back by God, supposedly to teach her some lesson—but what lesson was God trying to teach her? She had no clue.
Greg and I both want to know what kind of a God would grant someone their greatest wish—a precious new life—only to end the baby’s life in delivery in order to teach someone a lesson, but not even bother to tell them what that lesson is!? But these are the kinds of conclusions many are forced to draw when they have a view of God’s providence or sovereignty that has him pulling all the strings, ultimately determining what comes to pass, determining who lives and who dies, and whether we will be able conceive a child or not. I suggest we need to rethink our view of God’s providence.
We are each eventually faced with a decision about which kind of power we think characterizes the God revealed in the face of Jesus Christ. Here are two very different conceptions of God’s sovereignty power espoused by two well-known theologians:
“If there is one single molecule in this universe running around loose…then we have no guarantee that a single promise of God will ever be fulfilled. Perhaps that one maverick molecule will lay waste all the grand and glorious plans that God has made and promised to us…” -R.C. Sproul, Calvinist
“There is, I submit, no conceivably weaker view of divine sovereignty than one that is threatened by a single maverick molecule.” -Greg Boyd, Open Theist
Many people, myself among them, are not all that impressed with a God who seems to need to be in control of every little decision made by every little creature in order to guide history toward His good end. This seems to impose on God our own definitions of “all powerful.” Instead, I think Jesus revealed a God who operates not by brute force and coercion, but rather gentle, loving persuasion. He enters into our lives and wants to work with us, hand in hand, in a relational arrangements called “covenants” whereby he guides us without forcing us along his preferred paths and for this ultimate glory and our well-being.
JOB: CAUGHT IN THE CROSSFIRE OF A COSMIC CONFLICT
If we accept that God has chosen to limit his control and honor the free choices of humans and angels, then we shouldn’t be surprised that we find ourselves in a world in rebellion. Dear friends, God’s will is not the only will that determines what comes to pass. We are caught in the crossfire of a cosmic conflict. There’s a genuine battle going on, and in every battle there are casualties of war. Knowing this, then, we should not be so quick to blame God for every tragedy that befalls us. We should not shake our fist at the heavens and curse God when cancer shows up on our front doorstep and invades our homes. We should not cry out, “Why, God, why!?” when a tornado strikes or a bridge collapses. God is not the only one pulling the strings. We need to learn the same lesson Job and his friends needed to learn long ago in the Book of Job. We need God to show up in our own whirlwind to correct our flawed theology—a theology that goes way, way back to the beginnings of human civilization and held by people of many different religions! Let me close by giving an overview of this much misunderstood book of the Bible dealing with God and Suffering.
The Book of Job introduces us to a man who suffers unspeakable tragedy including the loss of all his wealth, his reputation, the death of all his kids, and finally great physical suffering himself including painful sores all over his body. We, the reader, are given a glimpse behind the divine curtain, and know that Satan is the one causing all the suffering, since God has removed a hedge of protection from around Job. But the whole premise of the book is that Job and his friends, like you and me, don’t have this heavenly insight and therefore do not know why bad things sometimes happen to good people.
I think the book is written to expose and correct some flawed theology about why there’s suffering in the world and who’s to blame. Job’s friends hold the very common view that Job’s suffering must be divine punishment for some unconfessed, secret sin. The friends urge Job to get down on his knees and repent so God will relent. Job rejects their pastorally insensitive counsel, claiming he is no greater sinner than any of them. But Job still believes God is the one pulling all the strings, and he eventually ends up accusing God of being cruel and unjust! He’s knows he’s not perfect, but he doesn’t deserve this kind of suffering. So his friends blame Job and Job blames God. Job’s wife then sticks her nose into things as well, also blaming God, and considering the heinous nature of Job’s thorn-and thistle-infested life, she tells Job to just “curse God and die.” But back to raking leaves and being pricked by the rose bush, in which direction should Job and his friends be sending curses?
The book reaches its climax in the last few chapters where God finally shows up and confronts Job. He skewers his mistaken theology and lack of knowledge.
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know! (Job 38:1-2)
God’s long string of questions for Job all serve to point out how little Job knows about the complexity of his creation, how things work, why things work, as well as the presence of dark powerful forces of chaos (symbolized by Behemoth and Leviathan) at work in the spiritual realm.
The entire point is to show Job (and us!) that we are extremely limited in our knowledge of why things happen, the inner workings of God and his divine counsel, the plots of evil dark spiritual forces, the nature of the creation, etc. and we should therefore be much less quick to judge who or what is responsible for the things that come to pass. Job’s friends curse Job. Job curses God. God shows up and draws our attention to the unfathomable mysteries at work in creation.
Most importantly (please note) God places the mystery surrounding evil and suffering in the complex nature of creation, and NOT in the mysterious providence and character of God! The Book of Job was written to correct the mistaken view that when suffering comes, the blame should be placed on either God or ourselves. The Book of Job instead reveals to the reader (again, not the characters inside the story) that Satan is one key factor, as well as the unfathomable complexities of the creation in which we find ourselves—especially the invisible spiritual powers that God is holding at bay, waging war against, and trying to place a hedge of protection around his children.
Last Sunday I ended by talking about unanswered prayers. My handout was intended to help us avoid the temptation to try to place the blame or figure out “why” some prayers are answered and others go unanswered. The nine variables possibly at work in influencing whether or not a prayer is answered are not meant to be a checklist to help us figure out why. The point is that we simply cannot ever really know why some prayers are answered and others not. There are too many variables at work. Let us stand in awe of God and the infinitely complex nature of creation, like Job, and humbly confess that we too have often “uttered what we did not understand, things too wonderful for us, which we did not know” (Job 42:3).
What I hope we all leave with this morning is the assurance that we can know the good and loving character of God as revealed in the person of Jesus. Even when we don’t know why bad things happen, we can know God is never the author behind evil. He is carrying on from the Heavenly realms with the cosmic battle we saw waged on earth in the ministry of Jesus. He and the angels are pushing back the darkness; casting out evil demons; healing the sick; giving sight to those physically and spiritually blind; he is giving hope beyond the grave and assuring wounded soldiers and dying saints of the ultimate victory.
Until the day comes when he “makes all things new” and “wipes away every tear,” we can know for certain that the God revealed partially to Job in the violent whirlwind has been fully revealed in Jesus. He revealed the true character of God as One who, out of great love and compassion, steps down into this cursed and broken creation and takes the worst of the thorns and thistles onto his own brow. And with Isaiah, we stand in awe and wonder before our Savior, Jesus, who “was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).