We have an all-powerful friend who loves us, but bad things still happen. How can that be?
Deep in our hearts, adults aren't so different from small children who tend to see humanity in two categories — nice people and mean. We like nice ones. We're afraid of and sometimes angry at mean ones. In what category do we place God?
It would be difficult to find anything else in life that has more impact on our overall outlook and attitude than how we feel about God on the subject of pain. Even some atheists get angry at Him when they see children hurting. (I know this seems counterintuitive, but it's often true anyway.) It injures the soul if every story of hurt triggers the question: How can God be good and allow this suffering?
You may feel no anxiety over the question, but if you say you've never bumped into it, you need to get out more.
First, let's look at the case against God. It may seem pretty devastating, but don't worry. And whatever you do, don't stop reading before you read the response.
The Case Against God
As I write this, a woman is on trial in Dayton, Ohio. She's accused of murdering her month-old child by placing her in a microwave oven. The Bible teaches that God is everywhere — He's omnipresent— so
He must have been there. It teaches that God is all-powerful — He's omnipotent — so He had the ability to stop the child's horror. It also teaches that He knows everything — He's omniscient — so He knew what was going on. He was there, knew what was happening, could have stopped it, but didn't.
The Bible also teaches that God is good, but you would have a hard time finding even a bad human being who would passively stand by and watch such a crime if he had the power to stop it. This is an especially bad case, but unimaginable horrors are happening to children and adults all over the world right now.
The Bible tells us God is personal, that He intervenes in the flow of history, both the grand sweep of world history and the relatively smaller matters individuals face. Why doesn't He always intervene in ways we can see and that make sense to us?
In Genesis 18:25, Abraham asked a powerful question, "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?"
Since God is all-powerful, doesn't ultimate responsibility for all things rest on Him and Him alone? Is every skinned knee, every hurtful word, every wounded animal eaten alive by another animal, every pain, injustice, and sadness to be attributed to our Maker? God designed then built us and all the worlds. If there are flaws, don't they have to be His doing?
And then the coup de grace. The Bible says, "God is love." Here the mind seems to break under the weight of an enormous paradox. How can a Being who, not only loves, but is love, also be the Creator of this mess?
The Great Wash-out
The Genesis account of the great flood (Noah and the ark) contains a subtext more amazing than the flood itself. God, it says, got sick of the mess. He said, "I will wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth — men and animals, and creatures that move along the ground, and birds of the air — for I am grieved that I have made them." He destroyed almost the whole species. He created humanity, humans became evil, and God, as Creator, took responsibility for what His creation had become.
How the Universe Works
God created a cosmos. The word means "order," the opposite of "chaos" meaning "disorder." Were the universe a chaos and not a cosmos, science would hold no meaning. There could be no such thing as understanding. There could be no such thing as matter, much less humans. Where there is order, cosmos, there is cause and effect — if . . . then. If this . . . then that. Patterns of causality — form, order, cosmos.
We build machines in this way and in this way discipline children. The child does a "good thing" and receives praise. He does a "bad thing" and receives correction. We want to prepare our kids for the world and we know that's the way the world works, whether it's math, physics, or dating. Cause and effect. If this, then that.
The Bible says, "A man reaps what he sows."
God told the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, they could eat the fruit of any tree in the entire Garden except one. He called it the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil." He said, in effect,"If you eat this, then you will die."
They ate, and death was unleashed with all its accompanying pain.
The omniscient God knew what Adam and Eve would do before He created them. Why then did He do it? It begins to sound as if He created humanity only to make us miserable.
He didn't, of course, but it raises the question we must answer before we can understand the rest. Why did He create us? The question, in various forms, has been asked through the ages: Who am I? What am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? Why am I here? Why did God create man in the first place?
Why . . . Me?
The Psalmist, in awe, asked, "What is man that thou art mindful of him?"
Job, in darkest misery, asked, "What is man that you make so much of him, that you give him so much attention, that you examine him every morning and test him every moment? Will you never look away from me . . . O watcher of men?"
If you're a Christian, you may be thinking of the beautiful answer to the question of human purpose given in the Westminster Confession. "Man's chief and highest end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever."
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke relate an incident in the life of Jesus that, from a Christian perspective, has to be one of history's most dramatic moments. A group of religious legal experts had been working hard to confound Jesus. They hit him with their toughest questions. Imagine a group of lawyers trying to trip up "the Judge of all the earth."
Two main religious factions were dead set against Jesus — the Pharisees and Sadducees. After Jesus deftly used the questions of the latter group to prove wrong their pet doctrine, the Pharisees huddled on the sideline to work out a strategy they could use against Him. One of their lawyers, apparently an especially bright one because he was called both a "teacher of the law" and "an expert in the law," approached the Lord.
"Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked Him, ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?'" So, while joining the others in trying to confound the Master, he also appreciates the brilliance of the answers already given. We can infer he is sinister, curious, and amazed all at the same time.
If your goal is to learn something profound, it's a great question. And if you're trying to trip someone up in front of a group of theologians hoping to find some kind of error, it's also a great question. He's giving the Lord enough rope to hang Himself, but he probably longed for the answer just as we do, because his question goes to the very root of everything.
In this moment, a Jewish lawyer from two thousand years ago serves as a "mouthpiece" for all mankind. He's a lawyer representing you and me. He stands before God in human flesh and asks, "What is the greatest commandment?" which is to say, "What is man's highest purpose?" or, "Why are we here?"
Jesus replied: "‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'"
In these ancient words we find God's purpose in creating us and our purpose for being. Both the commandments Jesus quoted deal with relationship, so we know at least one of our prime purposes. We are made for relationships. What Jesus called the "first and greatest commandment" defines our proper response to and relationship with God. If the Creator's first and greatest commandment is to love Him, then that must be the most important thing we can do. Loving God is not our only purpose, but it is our first and highest one.
So, when God created man, did He make a mistake? Let's face it, most humans don't love God. Was there in the human creature some flaw that caused him to fail?
If I create a machine and the machine fails, then there must be a flaw, a weakness, a weak link in the construction. If I create a computer that turns against me, I clearly did a poor job building or programming the computer. The universe is a cause and effect place — garbage in, garbage out. God made man. Man failed to perform up to specs. When a machine fails, do you blame the machine or its builder?
Our Most Wondrous Feature
Man is more than a machine. It isn't a flaw that makes "failure" possible. It is our most wondrous feature. God built into human beings the ability to choose.
He could have fixed it so we would always do the right thing, but removing the possibility of a wrong choice would have removed the meaning of choice itself. Instead, He gave us choice, made choice real, and really ours.
If a computer program self-destructs, you blame the programmer. But a computer program does not have the capacity of moral choice. We do. That Adam and Eve made the wrong choice proves the choice real.
Jesus listed two great commandments, two things God tells us to do above all else, our highest purpose — to love God and one another. While evil and its accompanying pain would not be possible without choice, neither would our purpose — love.
Here's the situation. God creates, not simply a universe, but a cosmos — a place where things make sense. He makes human beings for the purpose of friendship and love. These things are not possible for automatons. For love to mean anything, it must be rooted in choice. Choice can work toward love or toward alienation. Alienation from God leads to suffering.
Why pain? Heaven we understand, but why hell? Why can't God just let us choose and let that be that? Why attach consequence to choice?
Without consequence, choice loses meaning. It's back to cause and effect. Let's take the greatest commandment as an example. You should choose to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and body. Is there a consequence to this right action? Yes. Fellowship with God.
But what if a man chooses against God? What if he wants nothing to do with the Almighty? If the right choice means fellowship with God, then the wrong choice must mean alienation from God. But without consequences to our choice, we would have fellowship with God either way. If I have fellowship with God though I choose none, the choice has been made meaningless by removal of the consequence.
We can infer from these things two important points. First, God values choice so much He considers the possibility of choosing well, worth the risk of choosing poorly. Second, He considers the possibility of redemption worth the risk of existence.
Someone will say, "He's risking us, not Himself."
But a moment's thought puts the issue to rest. From our point of view there is no risk — only choice. He allows us to have what we choose.
The risk belongs to Him.
In creating humanity, giving us free will and choosing to love us, God put Himself on the line. To love includes becoming vulnerable to the loved, even for God. He suffered rejection, not once, but more times than we can calculate. Every sin specifically and poignantly rejects God and He feels it with a capacity for pain we cannot imagine.
It will help to understand what I mean by "His capacity to experience pain", if you think first of a cockroach. Most of us feel little compunction about using a pesticide, despite the pain inflicted on the insect. We link the creature's capacity for feeling pain to its capacity for thought. Hardly anyone worries that the roach's short life is flashing before his tiny tentacles. On the other hand, seeing a dog suffer may bring tears to the eyes of the person who, only moments ago, sprayed a cockroach with what amounts to insect nerve gas. It makes sense. A dog's greater ability to think multiplies its ability to know pain. Of course, human capacity for suffering far exceeds a dog's.
Try then to imagine God's capacity to suffer, His ability to feel pain. Because Jesus was both fully man and fully God, He could in one act of sacrifice pay for all our sin. As God, He has the capacity to pay an infinite price in a finite period of time, a price that would take a finite being an infinity to fulfill.
We sometimes speak of being in debt as being "in the hole." The owner of an infinite debt would then be in a bottomless pit of a hole. If he had to take a shovel and fill up the hole, it would take eternity — the filling would go on forever because a finite man is trying to fill an infinite hole. But God, being infinite, fills it instantly. We don't need just any Savior. We need an infinite One. We need God as our Savior.
Despite a capacity for pain beyond human imagination, God keeps on loving. Love finally took Jesus to the cross where He bore the pain and horror of all our sin. He experienced the physical pain of crucifixion and the spiritual pain of the sin of the whole world weighing down on Him.
Pain of Sin Past
A friend of mine was staying in the house of an elderly man. As my friend lay down to go to sleep he was startled to hear a groan and a curse come from the old man's bedroom. For more than an hour he lay there listening to more groans and cursing. The next day he asked the man about it. The old fellow knew exactly what my friend was talking about, but was surprised. He hadn't realized that he spoke his despair aloud. He explained that almost every night as he tried to drift off to sleep, he would remember things he had said or done in his life and would cry, "Damn," at his own stupidity and sinfulness. He groaned for the pain he had caused and the bridges he had burned.
In each of our lives, there are things we've done that we hurt to remember. Some of these memories close in, crush and suffocate us. But we're only seeing the tip of the iceberg. We're guilty of the highest crimes of all — crimes against God.
My boss and dear friend of many years, Harald Bredesen, said:
If you were to slap me in the face, it wouldn't be too serious except to me. If you were to slap the mayor of this city, you would be picked up for assault and battery. If you were to slap the President of the United States in the face you'd get a bullet through the head. But you haven't slapped the mayor or the President, you have slapped the Lord God omnipotent in the face. Every time you have gone your way instead of His way, every time you've tried to please yourself instead of Him, it has been a slap in the face of infinite goodness, infinite holiness, infinite love. So, what does that make you? . . . An infinite sinner.
Because we're merely human, we can't fully fathom the true depravity of our sinful state. Jesus, with no sin of His own, bore the weight of the sin of the world. We can no more comprehend it with our limited imaginations than we can measure the ocean with a tea cup.
But with our little cups we can grasp enough to stagger us. We see the pain searching Him, seeking a flaw in His perfect love. We see the pain search His eternal Being through eternity past and future, through time and space and beyond to the fullness of infinity. A single flaw would end all hope of human redemption. As we nail Him to His cross . . . as we gamble for His clothes . . . as we jeer and mock Him, He carries our sin, experiences our death. The pain searches His eternal love, searches all of forever. It finds no flaw.
His love is perfect.
The "risk" was His, but it's not a risk when you know the outcome in advance, and He did. He was, according to Revelation 13:8, "The Lamb slain from the foundation of the world."
The Fact of Moral Failure
Getting people, including ourselves, on the right side of the line by which God defined sin is an age-old problem. We try everything, blame everyone, but nothing works. The song, "Gee, Officer Krupke!" from West Side Story, makes fun of the institutions established to find and solve the problems of juvenile delinquency. Police take the delinquent to the judicial system. The judge decides the problem is not legal, but emotional, and sends him to the psychologist.
"In my opinion, this boy don't need his head shrunk at all," the psychologist declares as he passes him on to the social worker who concludes, "The boy don't need a job, he needs a year in the pen. . . . Deep down inside, he's no good."
Everyone, Christian or not, realizes the fact of moral failure. Even those who claim there's no such thing as right or wrong become believers when they are wronged personally. Step in line in front of the average moral relativist and he's ready to knock your head off.
So, in a cause and effect universe, we have all indulged in the cause, sin, whose effect is death.
And the LORD God commanded the man, "You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die."
In the Bible, death signifies separation. Physical death denotes the separation of the spirit from the body. Spiritual death denotes the separation of a human being from God. Adam and Eve died spiritually when they ate the forbidden fruit. Though their bodies would not cease functioning for many years, death arrived physically in the world that day when God killed (sacrificed) an animal in order to clothe them. And, death entered their bodies that day. The moment they sinned they began to die.
Most important, that day God placed on mankind and on the earth, a curse. An appropriate name for the curse would be the thing He warned them about — death. The Bible depicts death as like a disease whose primary symptom is pain. The germ back of the disease called death also has a name — sin.
Here are the main components of our sickness:
The germ = SIN
The primary symptom = PAIN
The name of the disease and its final outcome = DEATH
Eating the fruit was humanity's first chance to sin and the father and mother of our species quickly took advantage of the opportunity. Sin entered the world through their action and in an instant everything changed. The myth of Pandora's Box is not far off the mark and is, I think, a distorted telling of Eve's story.
Sin's Domino Effect
Does this mean the sins of the parents are visited on the children, that we pay for their sin? God promises not to hold the offspring responsible for their parents' actions. He makes each of us responsible for our choices only. That your father murdered does not make you a murderer.
Still, you pay. The causality laws of the universe do kick in. Children of a murderer are at a distinct disadvantage because of their father's action. Like it or not, if you do something wrong, you don't hurt yourself alone. You also hurt others, sometimes hundreds of them, sometimes thousands or even millions. Look at Hitler. Look at the children who, as a result of World War II, were left fatherless. They in no way perpetrated the war, but they paid for it big time.
If your father abandoned you as a child, God doesn't hold his sin to your account, but you feel consequences of it every day of your life. The effect of evil ripples on for generations . . . or until stopped by God's redemptive intervention.
Adam and Eve opened the door for sin to enter our world. You and I didn't directly eat that fruit, but we age. We survive a limited time and only by the sweat of our brows. We get sick. We watch loved ones suffer. The consequence of Adam and Eve's choice reached far beyond themselves. It may not seem fair, but it is a fact of history, nonetheless.
Romans 5:12 says:
Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned.
Not fair? Don't forget the last phrase of the verse, "Because all sinned." Yes, we suffer as a result of Adam's sin, but that suffering, though real, remains brief. You won't stand before God on Judgment Day and be asked to account for Adam's life.
Why the Misery Continues
There's something we must remember when we try to fathom God's reasons for letting evil and its accompanying pain continue. God is not a man and He can't be judged like a man. That's not simply a convenient way to justify God, but a completely logical statement.
I said previously we would judge as evil any man who would stand by and allow the microwaving of a small child. But human actions are definable within the context of time and space. They are here and now. God's decisions, His action or inaction, must be viewed in a larger context. He knows everything — the end, the beginning, and all in-between. He knows time, but not merely as a succession of moments like us. He sees the whole thing, every nuance, every fact, every angle, and He sees all this all at once . Finally, the plainest, simplest thing for Him — eternity — stands utterly out of our reach, beyond our ability to imagine.
So, before you judge Him as if he were the fellow down the block, consider the small glimpse He gives us of the context in which He makes His decisions.
God created a cause and effect universe where humans carry the ability to make real moral choices which have real consequences and He did it for the noblest of reasons — to make love possible. Automatons cannot love.
God created a perfect world and gave it to humanity. The disease of death with its symptoms of pain and suffering now runs rampant in our world because the germ back of the disease — sin — runs rampant.
You may feel that by now He's made His point. He should stop the pain, and the disease of death which causes it. If sin is the germ back of the disease and its accompanying pain, then He should stop sin.
You may be relieved to know God hates evil and He promises to stop it one day — to stop it dead in its tracks.
"Why not now?"
Is that how you feel? Do you want God to stop all pain, all suffering, all sin — no more war, no more abuse, no more hunger, no more pain? When He stops evil, He gives evil all it deserves. Sound good? You may be able to think of some people to whom you would enjoy seeing some justice meted out. But . . . if you have sin on your own record, it's not so good.
When we hear of a suffering child, we can't help but wonder why God would allow such a thing. He could have prevented it by stopping evil last week or a thousand years ago. What was He waiting for back then? What is He waiting for now? . . . He may be waiting for you.
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.
When God puts a stop to evil, it won't be a small thing. He waits now in order to give us space for repentance; time to choose Him, His side, His salvation. His original reason for creating beings with the capacity for moral choice remains in effect. Now, as in the beginning, He considers the possibility of redemption worth the risk of existence.
God knew Adam and Eve would sin, but chose to make them anyway. He could have put a stop to it when the mess first happened, but instead went to extraordinary lengths to redeem them and us. He waits for children to be born into the world and into His Kingdom. But He will not always wait.
On an episode of Leave It To Beaver, little Theodore has drilled holes in the garage wall. When his mother finds out, she tries to comfort him by saying, "Now Beaver, you know your father's going to be
He answers, "I know. That's what I'm a'scared of."
Are you really anxious for the day when our choices are set in eternal stone? He will stop the disaster. But because the disaster results from sin and sin from choice, when He stops the pain for the innocent, it will also stop your opportunity for repentance and redemption. Will His stopping the disaster for the innocent be the beginning of your personal disaster?
Some things the Bible makes clear. The most important is this: Back of everything stands the God who is love.
So we could love, He gave us choice. Choice made sin possible along with the pain that follows. But it also made humanity possible. Real friendship, real love cannot exist where there is no choice.
And finally, love makes Him wait . . . for now. He hates wickedness. He will put a stop to it, but He's holding back in order to give more people space to repent, opportunity to receive His provision for cleaning up sin-darkened hearts.
Because more than He hates sin, He loves sinners.
Is God a Nice Person?
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