In part one of this series we explored some philosophical implications of God being truly all-powerful and all-knowing. We came to the conclusion that if God is truly omnipotent, then he is either actively or passively responsible for either doing or allowing everything that has ever happened. He is able to stop anything he wants (because he is all-powerful) so therefore anything that happens must be allowed by God, or else he isn’t God. In part two of this series we synthesized some broad ideas from a variety of Scriptural statements that together form a systematic view of God. Starting with the belief that the Bible holds the truth, we discovered and discussed many passages that specifically and directly spoke of God being all-powerful. In addition to that, many passages actually showed God’s omnipotence in action, directing nature, society, civilization, life, death, and other things, both good and “bad.” Finally we also explored passages that claimed God is good and that humans are responsible for their own actions.
THE TWO WILLS OF GOD: PERFECT AND PERMISSIVE
Reading the Bible with the intent to form a systematic theology of God is a hard thing indeed. How can we fit all of these contradicting pieces together? God the son told us to love our enemies, God the father killed thousands of them, and the Bible even says God doesn’t change, to make things even more confusing. Elsewhere God often tells us to cease from our sins as though that’s what He wants and wills, and yet He doesn’t stop us from sinning, even though he could simply stop us, or at least change our heart to achieve this (in Calvinism), or change our circumstances to help us make that free choice (in Arminianism). Quite frankly, if it is God’s will that we stop all sin and evil, why doesn’t he simply appear in the sky and yell at everyone? I can guarantee the churches would be packed that evening. Also, many sinners are often affected and seduced by Satan (like Eve in the Garden) and even Christians are tempted into sinning by this evil being. The work of Satan is surely not what God wants, is it? Yet if the Bible is true, then God can crush Satan as surely as I could crush an ant, but God doesn’t; why not? It appears as though Gods will is confusing at best, and demented otherwise. So many people’s faith has been broken on this rock, smashed like a flimsy wooden ship against the sharp ragged edges of this colossal corner stone. Is there an answer? Yes there are two possible answers, (1) that the Bible is not true and is full of contradictions or (2) that there is a cohesive view that synthesizes all of these ideas. Most of the world’s atheists have chosen option 1 because they were not able to believe or understand option 2. It is this second option that we would like to explore, and hopefully embrace.
One big misconception that we as humans often propagate is our assumption that God’s will is as simple and impulse driven as our will and desire. However, this is a highly naïve proposition, and in the Scriptures we can see the opposite, namely that God’s will is more complex than our own. The things that God desires and the things that he wills may not always be in alignment, at least in the present. In fact it may seem as though God’s will is split into two very separate wills, as though God is bi-polar. And indeed this differentiation apparent in Scripture (though it does not mean that God is bi-polar). When Scripture talks about God’s will it differentiates between two seperate wills, one pertaining to the “secret things” and another related to the “revealed things” (Deut. 29:29). Theologically these two have often been called “Gods perfect will” (related to the revealed things) and “Gods permissive will (related to the secret things). On the one hand God gives humanity a (revealed) law and he desires for us to obey this law and be righteous. On the other hand God (for some secret reason) permissively ordains that we freely choose to break this law and create chaos and destruction, provoking his judgment and chastisement. How do these two wills look in our life and what are the practical implications.
Moral Evil: My sin, was it Gods will?
When I was in the seventh grade, right before we moved I stole a friends Gameboy Color. A few weeks later (once I was hundreds of miles away) I felt a huge amount of guilt, as though I committed a sin, and indeed the Scriptures say stealing is a sin. Was it God’s will that I stole it? Often people oversimplify Gods will into a “yes” or ”no” question, which bears horrific implications. If it was God’s will that I stole it, then I did a good thing, not a sin! If it was not God’s will or plan for me to steal it, and I did it anyway, then it appears that I beat God’s plan, and therefore am stronger than God! Thus instead of a simple “yes” or “no” answer, we must give an almost paradoxical answer of “both yes and no.” No it was not God’s revealed will, as he clearly stated his desire and command is for us to be just and not steal (Eph 4:28). Yes it was God’s permissive will to let me sin (which does not justify my sin). For reasons I don’t know, He did not stop me. As I drove my bike to my friend’s house, on the last day before we moved, with an evil intent to steal his Gameboy, God could have caused my bike to break, my friend to be not home, or even my friends parents to say “no” when I asked to borrow it. Yet God in his omnipotence, did not stop me, even though he clearly stops and prevents many other things from happening. As a result of the sin God allowed me to choose, my friend was likely hurt and sad. Perhaps God allowed my sin in order to do something good that we can know and see in this lifetime (my friend grew wiser, his grief was good for him, God’s good justice was served on him) or perhaps my sin caused something unknowable in this life. Does this mean God is liable for sin or is the author of sin? No, far from it, as was mentioned a few times before, there are two separate persons wills involved in every sin, both being fully active and neither being forced. There is the individuals inner desire and will to commit a sin and this is joined by God’s will to permit and govern that sin for good. God does not control the individual, nor can the individual control God. In addition God has clearly laid down his Law, and this is what we are called to obey, not to discern his hidden purposes to permit our evil for good (Deut. 29:29). If a father told his son to be safe on a bike, and when his son ignored him, the father did not save his son from a fall, letting him bruise both knees in order to learn from the event, the fathers revealed will is safety. This should be followed by the son, rather than the fathers permissive will (which is to teach the son to obey the revealed will). So like this God ordains and allows sin to ultimately destroy sin, it’s a beautiful paradox. For a good discussion on this please see: Is God the Author of Sin? Further down we will discuss what all of this means for us today.
Natural Evil: The tornado, was it Gods will?
A few days ago a tornado struck the city of Moore, Oklahoma, killing twenty-four people, nine of them being children (1). I don’t know anyone there, but were I face-to-face with those devastated by this disaster, no doubt I would fall to my knees and grieve with them. If asked “why did this happen?” I would not offer a simplistic or naïve reply, nor would I have a real or specific answer. If asked “was this God’s will” I would not insult God’s complexity and cause him to be hated by a simple “yes,” nor would I lie and obscure what is clear in Scripture with a “no.” I would simply grieve until broken hearts have begun to heal. Scripture tells us to grieve with those who grieve, not give them answers that may hurt (Rom 12:15). However, at some point these answers need to be addressed, and to do this there are two examples in Scripture, both with different ideas that offer us two separate possibilities. First off the practical (cause & effect; sowing & reaping) cause of everything bad in this world is our sin, we broke the world. Yet as a theological answer that is largely unsatisfying and incomplete (if we all sinned, why did only a few of us die in that tornado, and not the worst ones? Is it random?). So beyond our sin as a source, by which we have indeed deserved death (Rom 6:23), there are these two specific causes for natural disaster, Satan and God. It is possible that they often work concurrently, Satan as the agent doing the actual destruction, desiring to crush Gods creation; God governing it, with the grand purpose to create good from the ashes of evil in a way we may not be able to comprehend today, but will be able to enjoy for eternity.
1. Satan did it, by God’s permission and for a purpose
The book of Job is a whole book of the Bible devoted to exploring and explaining pain and suffering. It primarily addresses the common belief that specific suffering in God’s retributive vengeance for a specific sin. According to this common view, every act of suffering happens in response to every act of personal sin; those that suffer more, must have sinned more. The story of Job shows us the exact opposite, as Job is righteous rather than wicked (Job 1:7-8). Satan slanders against Job, telling God that Job is not truly righteous, and so God allows Satan to destroy Job’s life in order to test him. In this picture we have two entities, first is Satan, who eagerly desires to destroy Job and his family, and second is God, who for some secret reason allows this (Job 1:12). Satan desires the end result of Jobs destruction and nothing more, God, even while permitting destruction has a higher plan. It’s important to note that without God, Satan had no power to do it. As a result of God’s permission Satan destroyed Jobs family, much of it with a storm like the Oklahoma tornado (Job 1:13-19). And yet Job still trusted God, rightly recognizing that “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:24).
2. God did it, by his discretion and for a purpose
Jesus once commented on two disasters that affected people in his time and age. His comments have a great deal of explanatory power for disasters, both natural and manmade. First, I’d like to note that Jesus himself grieved with those who grieved in moments of suffering and death (John 11:35), he was not cruel or cold hearted towards the suffering. Second, Jesus himself came to suffer with the suffering humans, a fate he did not have to bear, unlike us who deserved the cruel reimbursement for our many sins. Yet, when all is said and done Jesus, God in the flesh, did not shy away from being the God of the Old Testament who takes responsibility for the forces of nature (Psa 89:11-13; Isa 40:26; Amos 9:6 Mat 8:26) and claims natural disasters (Gen 6:17; Nums 16:31-33; Jonah 1:4; 1 Sam 14:15; Psa 135:6-7; Acts 16:25-26). Jesus explains two such disasters, the first being a mass murder of a group of Galileans (Luke 13:1), the second being a tower that fell and crushed many people (Luke 13:4). In both cases Christ’s essential point is to declare that the fallacy of the Pharisees, namely that specific sin yields specific earthly punishment, is an incorrect assertion. Rather, Christ’s says in response to both cases, everyone is liable for even worse judgment as a result of our own personal sin. Christ’s response to these two events is that we ought to look to them as a call for our personal repentance. (Luke 13:1-5). And to drive home the point, he instantly begins to tell a parable of a fruitless fig tree being visited multiple times, before finally being cut down (Luke 13:6-9), the implications being that natural disasters are God’s visits to us (the fruitless fig tree) in order to warn us, lest we too be cut down.
TWO WAYS TO RESPOND
So how do you deal with this? What if you were hurt, abused, were or are going through serious and heavy suffering? I grieve with you, and I believe what we know about Jesus tells us that he is weeping with you, just like he wept over Lazarus. It’s easier to say the pain is completely random and God is not involved. It’s easier to say that the pain is only from Satan and that God would never allow this. It may be easier for you to feel this in your grief, however, it will ultimately unravel into a world scarier than one we would like to live in. if all suffering is random, then we have no hope, we could become prey to this randomness at any moment. And far more terrifying, if all suffering is merely random and God is uninvolved, then ultimately it does not matter for its an outworking of randomness. If the ultimate reason you are suffering is all about random chance, rather than God allowing evil in order to bring even greater good, then your suffering is meaningless. Then all of the bad that you endure is futile and the universe is dark, hopeless, and pointless. If your friends suffering and death causes others to think about their life, meet Jesus, and live together for eternity in joy, the good far outweighs the bad, even though the bad is horrific and gut-wrenching as we live through it. Yet if God is not in control of the bad, then all of that gut-wrenching pain is not taken away, it is there and has no resolution and no purpose, making it far more worse.
What about Satan? If Satan is really the only cause of evil and suffering, we are left in a hopeless world, nor merely one without purpose and meaning. The reason your friend suffers and dies from cancer is because an evil entity named Satan attacked them and God does not care enough to intervene or is too weak to make a difference. Not only did your friends suffering have no eventual good purpose for him or others, but it had a bad purpose, to display the cruel destruction of Satan. His death would only serve one reason, to drive fear and hopelessness into the rest of us who are at Satan’s mercy. Such a reality would bring horrific implications, starting with Gods weakness and resulting in our utter hopelessness. We would be always looking over our shoulders, wondering if Satan was going to destroy us next, knowing our God is powerless to stop him. There would be no one to turn to, except Satan, and he would only rejoice in our hopeless decimation and destruction.
Ultimately we must leave the cold sea of randomness and Satan to swim back to the solid shores of God’s providence. Though like the sea, these shores also have pain and suffering (Phil 1:29), and it often seems there is enough tears to fill rivers, we have a glorious promise that each tear is counted and has a purpose. Each tear of suffering, in God’s providence, will join a river of that will become the antithesis of suffering and usher in God’s goodness. Sorrow in God’s permissive will means that there is a future glorious eternal purpose and joy that will far outweigh the past and present pain of temporary sorrow. Although many things on this earth cause pain, grief, and sorrow, we can rest assured that the ultimate climax of Gods grand scheme will culminate in a glorious obliteration of evil. There will be final restoration where everything bad will be turned good, and your suffering will be a grand part of that. And somehow, the fact that all this sin was ordained and allowed by God, and willingly carried out by Satan and people like me, will bring an eternal goodness that far outweighs this temporary pain. If I may be so bold, perhaps from an eternal perspective todays pain shall be remembered as though it was a temporary hunger, which made the greatest meal of eternal joy and reconciliation far more pleasurable than if we had not been hungry in the first place.
1. Obey God’s perfect will
Now as you are looking at your own life, seeing the many mistakes, suffering, pain, sorrow, what do you do? Perhaps you are in a broken marriage, failed career, shattered family, utter loneliness, or harsh sickness and asking “is this God’s will?” Yes and no. God’s ultimate and perfect will for those who love him (Rom 8:28) is greater joy than you or I can imagine. Yet God’s permissive will allowed you to reach this point and time. If your brokenness is a result of sin, then repent and follow God’s perfect will. Obey it and cherish it. Yes, God did allow you to end up here, but is he not even now calling you towards a better place? Work at restoring friendships and relationships, strive to be honest, fair, and kind, bring justice and love into the world. God has revealed this and desires this.
2. Find Comfort in the purpose of God’s permissive will
Paul, led by the spirit, wrote one of the greatest passages of the Bible, Rom 8:28, which is often considered the ultimate bastion in a world gone mad. If it were any other way, you would not know that a good resolution exists or that the suffering has a reason. Yet, knowing that God is the ruler over every single thing that has ever happened or will happen can grant your heart safety that you never knew. You can join Job (Job 1:24) and Habakkuk (Hab 3:17) in finding safety in the God who promises a good ultimate purpose. Even as evil happens all around you, and people weep in utter agony, you can find hope in the understanding that God is bringing an end to evil, in part through this evil. You can rest in the understanding that God has a good reason for this suffering; it is not meaningless, neither are you hopeless. And one day, as you look back, everything will make sense because throughout this whole time of pain, God cared about you and loved you.