Watch this clip from the movie "Bruce Almighty," and then read my thoughts:
The most consistent and credible challenge to belief in God is the problem of evil and human suffering. The 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, all knowing, and powerful. If God is all-powerful, is it not reasonable to expect Him to deliver people from suffering? But 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, what we call the “laws of nature.” Pain is the price of an ordered universe and human free will.
And so we finally arrive at my point. I believe in free will, but I get the impression that many members of Churches of Christ now do “low calorie Calvinism.” I constantly hear the language of God controlling what we do in every situation, and it bothers me – a lot! Here are some 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? 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. 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. If God always rewards the righteous, 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 or believe that God controls everything, 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 “puppet master” God negates the concept of love. 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. Determinism also tends to negate the love of God. In a word, I believe in free will because of love.