Confused about God in a world of suffering

What kind of God do we serve? Does he care about how bad things are on the earth?

The way God revealed himself 

God entered our mess when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:1-3,14; Colossians 1:29). When Jesus walked on earth, he suffered in many ways as we do. On one occasion, Jesus wept over the grave of His dear friend (John 11:34-36), even though he knew he would raise him from the dead (John 11:38-44).

Our merciful Lord can empathize with the feelings of our trials and suffering (Hebrews 2:17-18; 4:14-16). But does the Lord continue to weep over graves? Should we think of God in these terms?

Early in human history, the compassionate heart of God was revealed when, “the Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain” (Genesis 6:5-6).

If we only think of God in terms of His sovereignty, we might miss His heart. Of course, God would not be worthy of the title if He did not posses ultimate and final authority over all things. This means (among other things) that God is free to act as He chooses in alleviating suffering or restraining evil or lifting the restraints on evil and evil beings. But God’s sovereign authority over every molecule of life should never be thought of in a way that impugns Him for the evil actions of other beings (James 1:13-17). 

Saddened but not Surprised

While God is deeply saddened by evil, suffering and death, He is never surprised, shocked or “caught off guard.” Sometimes God chooses to restrain evil but, on other occasions, He allows evil to violate His moral will and break His heart. The most dramatic example of this occurred “during the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death” (Hebrews 5:7).

Jesus was “heard by God because of his reverent submission” yet “God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ” (II Corinthians 5:21). God the Father let His Son go to a brutal death at the hands of wicked creatures — even as Jesus cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” Matthew 27:46

The point we must understand is that it’s not enough to think of God in terms of sovereignty and absolute authority. While we should look to God for guidance and protection in this evil world, we must do so recognizing that God never promised that we will not be affected by evil in this life. Nor does God force His moral will on those who reject it. One day everything will conform to God’s moral will under His judgment. When this day comes, Scripture clearly emphasizes that, “God will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

In our efforts to understand how God relates to the evil actions of humans (or even to His own acts of judgment), we must make some important distinctions concerning God’s will. We must learn to think in terms of God’s sovereign, moral and dispositional will. If we look only at God’s sovereign will, our understanding will be inadequately based on selective parts of His revelation of himself in Scripture.

God has also offered us a window into His heart or His inner most intentions — His dispositional will. 

Looking at God’s heart

II Peter 3:9 reminds us of how “God is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” Obviously this refers to something other than the sovereign will or predetermined plan of God because some people will perish. This tells us that God does not desire that people perish – even though, in His judgment, He must cause some to perish (cf. John 3:16-18,36).

A classic statement making this distinction is found in Ezekiel 33:11 – “‘As I live,’ declares the Lord, `I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live’ ” (c.f. Lam. 3:33a).

God made deeply moving pleas for human repentance that offer a window into His heart:

“‘Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, each according to his conduct,’ declares the Lord God. `Repent and turn away from all your transgressions, so that iniquity may not become a stumbling block to you. Cast away from you all your transgressions which you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! For why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies,’ declares the Lord God, `Therefore, repent and live'” (Ezekiel 18:30-32).

We see this emphasis also in the writings of the apostle Paul: “This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” ( I Timothy 2:3-4).

What others have taught

“All things being equal, God does desire that no one perishes, but all things are not equal. Sin is real. Sin violates God’s holiness and righteousness. God also is not willing that sin go unpunished. He desires as well that His holiness be vindicated. When the preceptive will is violated, things are no longer equal. Now God requires punishment while not particularly enjoying the personal application of it” (R.C. Sproul, Following Christ, pp. 217-18).

“Despite everything it (Scripture) says about the limitless reaches of God’s sovereignty, the Bible insists again and again on God’s unblemished goodness. `The Lord is righteous in all His ways, and kind in all His deeds’ (Ps. 145:17). `His work is perfect, for all His ways are just; a God of faithfulness and without injustice, righteous and upright is He’ (Deut. 32:4).” (D.A. Carson).
Wait just a minute!

One might be inclined to ask, “If God is sovereign and He desires that all be saved and none perish, why doesn’t God simply decree what He desires?” An absolutely sovereign God could have decreed a world without the possibility of sin. So why is the world the way it is?

Remember these four truths

  1. First, when God created the earth and gave it to humanity, He declared all He provided to be “very good” (Genesis 1:31). 
  2. Secondly, the apostle Paul wrote, “For by one man sin entered the world and death by sin…” (Rom. 5:12).
  3. Thirdly, God has decreed a world without the possibility of sin and suffering – the new heavens and new earth. “Nothing impure will ever enter it” (Rev. 21:27;Rev. 21:3-5; II Pet. 3:13). Only those who have confessed with their mouth “Jesus is Lord” and believed in their heart that God raised Him from the dead will enter this perfect world.
  4. Finally, Scripture emphasizes that those who reject God’s provision; those who choose not to believe in Christ come under God’s wrath (John 3:16-18, 36). This reveals the extent of God’s respect for human responsibility (cf. Josh. 24:14-15), but also provides hope for those who are too young or unable to make this kind of decision.

For those of us who are able to respond, Scripture warns against taking the kindness of God lightly.

“Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to every man according to his deeds” (Romans 2:4-6).

Scripture also reminds us that God is willing to judge evil but restrains His wrath so that more people might come to salvation.

“What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so in order that He might make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory” (Romans 9:22-23).

Wrap up

We ought to recognize with humble gratitude that if God operated this world on a principle of immediate justice, we all would be doomed (Romans 3:10, 23).

We can avoid unnecessary confusion about God and gain strength and hope by understanding the various dimensions of God’s will revealed in Scripture.

We certainly don’t want to be like Job’s three friends to whom God said, “I am angry with you … for you have not spoken accurately about me,…” (Job 42:7-8).

Steve Cornell

This entry was posted in Apologetics, Assurance, Atheism, Atheists, Bitterness, Christian worldview, Comfort, D. A. Carson, Depravity, Despair, Doctrine, Doubt, Evil in the world, God, God's Patience, God's control, God's Heart, God's power, God's Protection, God's Will, Hope?, Jesus Christ, Justice, Origin of Sin, Pain, Problem of evil, Salvation, Seeking God, Sin, Sovereignty, Suffering, Theodicy, Theology, Will of God and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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