My guest blogger here is Greg Russell: worship leader/associate pastor at SHV, defender of the faith, MMA guy, artist, leader, good friend. How’s that for a combination?! Greg wrote this right after the wildfires a few months ago. I especially appreciate his thoughtful responses re: our questions, the causes of suffering, and the goodness of God.
In light of the wild fires in Colorado, I thought I would make my first official blog entry on the problem of suffering and the goodness of God. Before I start writing about that, I first need to mention that people who are suffering are often not looking for answers. They’re looking for comfort and are often in shock. If you know someone that lost a home in the fires, or someone that is experiencing suffering right now for some other reason, the best thing you can probably do is love them and help them with their practical needs. “Answers” probably won’t help them right now.
So why write about this?
First, I write about it for those who watch the people of God suffer. One of the most common questions from people that are wrestling with the existence of God is: “how can an all powerful, good God allow His people to suffer like I see them suffering?”
Second, I was recently at a one-day conference hosted by the Barna Group. Barna is a research group that specializes in statistical data that affects the Church. One of the main points of this conference was to present data to pastors about how young people are leaving the church in masses. One of the main reasons given for this mass departure was that the church is failing to address the hard questions in life. One of the big questions that we are failing to answer is that of suffering and the goodness of God. I write this for the people seeking answers.
Many of the ideas below are not original to me. People a lot smarter than I am have written about this subject. What I am attempting to do is summarize what I think are the best of those ideas and condense them into something short and understandable.
I want to point out from the start that when we question the goodness of God, or when we question the existence of God based on the presence of suffering, we are, at best, approaching arrogance. Here’s why: If you question God’s existence, I would challenge you to tell me, where did you even get the idea of “good” and “evil” if there is no God? If there is no transcendent God, there can be no transcendent morality. If you question the goodness of God, then you are challenging the only One that could give meaning to the word “good”. That puts you in the place of judging Him. It is not bad to have the question, as long as you are open to the answer. Some people just want to be mad and don’t really want the truth of the matter. I doubt that anyone that has read this far is in that category.
What exactly is the question we are trying to answer? I believe it is something like, “If God is all powerful, why is there so much suffering in the world?” If God is good, he isn’t God, and if he is God, then he isn’t good. In other words, if God is a good God, then he isn’t all-powerful enough to stop the bad stuff, and therefore he is not really God. And if he is really God and chooses not to stop the bad stuff, or even causes it, then he isn’t good. Either way, in this line of thinking, he is not worth following even if he does exist.
On the surface, this seems like a very logical and even moral stance. We need to look deeper than the surface, however, to get to the truth of this matter. Reality is almost always much more complex than we think it is or would like it to be. And while I hope to shed some light on this topic, it is much more complex than I can fully address in this context. My goal is simply to show the “tip of the iceberg”.
Attributes of God
As a follower of Jesus, I believe that “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights”. (James 1:17) I also believe that “God is Love” (1 John 4), and that He cannot do evil of any kind (James 1:13, Duet 32:4, 2 Cor 5:21). I believe that God is all-powerful (Job 42:2).
So how do we reconcile the apparent contradiction between a good God that is all-powerful yet allows such horrible suffering to take place in the world he created? Bear with me while I build to that.
Made for Love
Why did God create us? Many Christians would answer, “we were created to worship” or “to glorify God.” Atheists are appalled by the thought of a God that would create the human race just so they could adore him. Actually, that does sound ego maniacal and seems morally repugnant (that, however, again begs the question, where did we get the standard of what is morally repugnant?). I believe it is true that we were created to worship, but that is only part of the reason. Worship is how we express our love to God. The second part of the purpose is so God could love us. So, why did God create us? Simply put: to love and to be loved. In light of all the suffering and evil in the world you may ask, “was creation a good idea?” God, in his omniscience (knowing all), thought it was.
There is a very high cost for love. In order to love, you must be free. Choice requires freedom. Love requires choice. Therefore, love requires freedom. A robot can serve you, but it cannot love because it cannot choose. It can only do what it is programmed to do. A being can only love if it can also choose to not love. If God was only concerned with us serving him in the worship we give, he could have made us like robots that go through the motions, but He chose to create beings that could choose to not love him, thus giving us the capacity for real love. Now if we can choose to not love, that means we have the capacity for all sorts of unspeakable evils, and history and the nightly news show ample examples of this truth. Much of human suffering comes at the hands of other humans. But not all.
Behind Enemy Lines
Humans are not the only beings that God created with free will. There are other beings and some of them chose to rebel against God. Among these was Satan, or the Devil. He is the leader of the other beings that rebelled against God. Mathew 12:24 calls him the “prince of demons”. He is also known as “the enemy” (Matt 13:39), “the prince of this world” ( John 12:31;14:30;16:11) and “the god of this world” (2 Cor 4:4). He has been given dominion in the world we live in (Col 1:13). In other words, we live behind enemy lines where a being that comes to steal, kill and destroy (John 10:10) has power and is raging against the people that follow Jesus (Rev 12). He is not God’s equal adversary. He (and every other being) is ultimately subject to the rule of God. But for now, he is at war with God and with man (Eph 6:12). He deserves most of the credit for the pain and suffering in the world. And, as mentioned above, we also bring a lot of it upon ourselves (Prov 19:3; James 1:14). But there’s more.
Humans have free will, but only partial free will. We cannot choose who our parents are, or our genetic makeup, or many factors of our environment. We are subjected to the free will choices of those that came before us. We are also subjected to the free will choices of many around us; even some we have never met. If a stranger decides to commit a crime against us, he or she is using their free will to usurp ours. Many more examples could be made.
Now, add to that the free will of other created beings, like the Devil and demons mentioned above, and the other good created beings mentioned in the Bible. Think of the interaction of all these free agents, and how natural processes play into that and we have some extremely complex interaction going on. That is chaos, at least from our standpoint. However, God is not at all overwhelmed by it. He knows and completely understands EVERYTHING. He has make provision for it all.
What about the question against God’s goodness? Since God is all-powerful, does He deserve credit for all the good and all the evil in the world? No. He designed a world where people are capable of love, and therefore able to choose to not love. The kind of world He created is one of complex interactions that sometimes result in temporary pain for some. We cannot judge His character based on these things. Where should we look to see it?
God’s character is perfectly visible in Jesus. Look at what is written in Hebrews 1:13 “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being”. When we see Jesus, we see the father. What was Jesus’ response to suffering and evil? He hated it and was constantly at work defeating the works of the enemy, even to the point of surrendering his earthly life to death to defeat him (1 Cor 15). He was constantly healing and delivering, feeding the poor and giving guidance on how to overcome. He gave love, perfectly fulfilling his part of the purpose of his creation. For that, I am forever thankful and I worship him. “We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)
Maybe you read all that I have just written and still feel that God is not good because of something you have experienced. If that’s you, please consider this. How long is this life when compared to eternity? If we are eternal beings, then the “light and momentary troubles” (2 Cor 4:17) are nothing compared to the glory of eternity with Jesus. This world is not our home. Even death has no power. “When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? (1 Cor 15:54-55)
God is in control and he is good. EVERYTHING that is broken will be made right. All those that belong to him will receive eternal, retroactive redemption.