After some recent political rants, I want to return to some theology. What is my theology of providence? What about suffering? The million dollar question is why do good people suffer? The most consistent challenge to belief in God has been the problem of evil and human suffering. The essential beliefs Christians hold about the nature of God seem incompatible with the evil that is so prevalent in the world. We believe that God is good (omnibenevolent), all knowing (omniscient), and powerful (omnipotent). The difficulties are, therefore, if God is good, and loves humans beings, why doesn’t He always act to deliver those He loves from suffering? And, if God is all-powerful, is it not reasonable to expect Him to deliver His people from suffering? Without dismissing these concerns, a better question for people of faith might be, what can God accomplish by allowing suffering? Human survival is one answer. For example, pain exists as a biological warning system. If I place my hand into a fire, I will recoil, but imagine the horrific result if my hand felt no pain! Pain and suffering often lead to growth in knowledge and power. Athletes know that temporary pain will lead to a stronger body. The world needs a system of ordered regularities – the “laws of nature.” Pain is the price of an ordered universe and human free will. Also, is it true that a good person must necessarily always stop pain when they have the power to do so? For example, when my mother first took me for immunizations, the needle being jabbed into my arm hurt! I was suffering, and my mother did nothing to stop it. So, was she a good mother or a bad mother?
Here are some central questions. Can God be in control of some things without constantly being in control of everything? Do humans have free will in a created order governed by God? What is the nature of divine sovereignty? Is it to alleviate personal suffering on an individual basis, or is there a higher purpose? Scripture provides some answers to these questions. When God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac in Genesis 22, it was to teach Abraham that freedom from suffering is less important than God’s covenant. The story of Joseph, and his rationale to his brothers is Genesis 50, teaches that the suffering of individual people sometimes brings about good for God’s collective people. Job teaches that we are God’s, to do with as He pleases. “Who has a claim against me that I must pay? Everything under heaven belongs to me” (Job 41:11). God is our Creator. He graciously gives us life, and every breath is a gift from Him. I have no “right” to expect one more breath! In the New Testament, the example of Christ teaches us that freedom from suffering is less important than God’s redemption of the world. In John 9 Jesus’ disciples ask him why a certain man was born blind. Did he sin, or did his parents sin? “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life” (John 9:3).
Can we make deals with God? This question is not often asked as bluntly, but it is asked implicitly. The belief that good people should not suffer because of their own righteousness is rampant in both Jewish and Christian life. Many people of faith believe that they should be able to avoid the calamities that afflict the less pious. This, in essence, is attempting to make a “deal” with God – “I’ll do what you want so that you will do what I want.” Believers, as well as non-believers, seek to reconcile the existence of God with the fact that good people suffer. But an equally appropriate question is, “Why shouldn’t good people suffer?” Rabbi Harold Kushner once asked, in this regard, “Should a pious person be able to go out on a freezing night without a jacket and not get sick?” And yet many Jews and Christians believe that if one observes God’s laws it is therefore unjust for the righteous to suffer. But unjust according to who’s definition of justice? This attitude may help to explain why unjust suffering can be so devastating to people’s faith. For many religious people, the problem of how a just, loving, and powerful Creator can allow terrible injustices is compounded by their belief that if they suffer while doing good, God has reneged on a “deal” with them. But the purpose of religion is to change the behavior of the believer, not God’s behavior. God will reward good and punish evil in the afterlife, not necessarily in this life. If God always rewards the righteous in this life, then the opposite must also be true – suffering is punishment from God. This belief is as prevalent as it is wrongheaded and cruel. I have heard Christians tell people who are suffering that if they prayed more and got closer to God their suffering would be alleviated! This belief renders the question, “Why do good people suffer?” self-contradictory. Those who believe that being righteous will protect them from suffering have already answered the question – if you suffer, you’re not a good person! The answer is not to make deals, but to understand God’s providence. Divine providence is rooted in the character of God, particularly His love. God’s desire to love and to be loved caused Him to create, and His continual desire to love causes Him to interact with that creation. Out of His love, God created humans as moral free agents because virtue cannot be coerced. Divine providence does not imply a tyrannical God who controls the universe at every level. In His great love, God has granted to humanity the power to choose its own destiny through choices. For me, a “puppetmaster” God negates the concept of love (for further guidance watch “Bruce Almighty”). Our understanding of providence provides answers to the tragedies of life by informing the Christian community that love is central to the nature and character of God, and love implies risk since refusal to control another being is a demonstration of love for that being. The outcome of God’s work in the world is not a foregone conclusion since God’s actions are predicated on human decisions. Even His plan for the redemption of humanity had the potential for failure because it depended on choice. In a Christian sense, providence means that God is more concerned with the eternal state of humanity than our temporal level of comfort. This understanding of divine providence is inextricably intertwined with the theology of creation. If God refuses to act as a universal tyrant, determining through foreknowledge, the course of every event, then the world He created necessarily has the potential to evolve freely. In such a system, humans have the intrinsic capacity to commit evil. The dialectic of good and evil is built into creation from the beginning. In a sense, God’s great love makes Him subject to His own creation. He is grieved when evil is committed, He changes His mind when pressed, and He is moved to act when we approach Him in prayer. Believing that God is tied to His creation because of love has implications for how we interact with creation. Any view of providence must dismiss the Deistic view that God has created, and then moved on, never interacting with His creation, but rather watching from afar. On the other end of the theological spectrum, determinism also tends to negate the love of God. In a word, I believe in free will because of LOVE.