God’s “causal relationship” to suffering

keller_bookMy reading, my thinking, and not to mention my experience of life over the past few years has led me to an inescapable conclusion: God has, as Tim Keller refers to in Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, a “causal relationship” to suffering.

This is not to say, simply, that God causes all suffering: it’s another way of saying that God’s sovereignty implies that God uses all suffering for his good purposes. Therefore, it is perfectly O.K. for us to ask God a question that I used to resist asking: Why is this happening to me? Or Why is this happening now? God always has a good answer to this question, whether we figure out what it is or not. And given that God is God and we’re not, we shouldn’t be surprised when we can’t figure it out.

I was more or less saying the same thing last month on this blog, and in a recent sermon, but I’ll say it again:

A while back I was going through a tough time in my life, and I was complaining to a friend, who happens to be a Jew, as well as a Bible scholar. I asked angrily: “Why is this happening to me?” And my friend, who’s sort of like an honorary rabbi to me, said, “Don’t ask, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ Instead ask, ‘Why is this happening to me now?’” In other words, he wanted me to imagine that God was using this disappointment—this setback, this bad situation—in order to teach me something that I needed to learn.

And I’m like, “Of course! You’re exactly right!” God’s always doing stuff like that, isn’t he?

Yes, he is. Always. I can’t tell you how comforting my friend’s words were to me. God is in complete control of whatever good or bad thing is happening to me. I can say this as a Wesleyan-Arminian, believing both that God doesn’t cause evil and that we human beings have free will. But by all means, God uses evil and suffering to direct history, including our lives within it, according to his purposes.

Therefore, if some good thing happens, God has a reason for it; if some evil thing happens, God has a reason for permitting it. That may sound obvious to most of you, but here’s the sharp edge we have to live with if we believe in God’s sovereignty: If God wants to prevent a particular evil thing from happening, he will do so. Why he does or doesn’t in a particular instance—which is really another way of asking why he does or doesn’t give us what we pray for—only God knows sometimes, but we should trust that God knows best.

After all, young children often perceive that their parents make decisions that are unfair and they ask why they’ve made those decisions. Parents may rightly refuse to answer this question because the child isn’t mature enough to understand. Parents need their children to trust that they know best. To say the least, if this is true in the relationship between parents and children, who relate as “like kind to like kind,” how much more will it be true of our heavenly Father’s relationship to us, infinite to finite.

One thing’s for sure: a God who himself suffers—as we Christians believe God has and does—has paid for the privilege of our trusting him.

Tim Keller says that we must hold these two truths—that God is sovereign and God suffers—in tension with one another. I know, and he knows, that we Christians tend to overemphasize one at the expense of the other. In mainline Protestant thought, we err on the side of suffering and minimize sovereignty. (It’s not even close.)

[T]here are an increasing number of theologians who are so glad to emphasize the suffering of God that they lose the idea of divine sovereignty, depicting God as one who is not all-powerful and not able to stop suffering in the world. Ronald Rittgers writes: “The idea that God has a causal relationship to adversity and misfortune is rejected by many contemporary theologians. The notion of God as co-sufferer is welcomed, but the idea of God as agent of suffering is shunned.

But Rittgers adds, “the God who has no causal relationship to suffering is no God at all, certainly not the God of the Bible… who is both suffering and sovereign. Both beliefs were (and are) essential to the traditional Christian assertion that suffering ultimately has some meaning.” That is absolutely right. If God is out of control of history, then suffering is not part of any plan; it is random and senseless… On the other hand, if God has not suffered, then how can we trust him?[1]

I now see how inadequate David Bentley Hart’s treatment of suffering and evil is in The Doors of the Sea. From his perspective, God is completely off the hook for evil and suffering, which is nice, but he gets really fuzzy about God’s sovereignty. In my view, God can and does enfold evil and suffering in his plans for the world.

This is not to say that God causes evil. Rather, evil happens (for any number of reasons, natural and, in the case of the demonic, supernatural), but look what God does with it. God always has the power to prevent it, and one day God will completely vanquish it forever. In the meantime, however, God chooses to do something constructive with it.

Dr. Hart, of course, has perfectly well-thought-out theological reasons for saying that evil is privation—the absence of good—and God therefore makes no positive use of it, but his reasons don’t accord with the overall thrust of scripture. And if I were arguing with him (which I would never want to do), I would be reduced to saying, “Yes, but what about this passage?… What about that passage?” And he would probably attack my doctrine of scripture as Western and Reformed and whatever. At some point, however, we need to put more faith in the Bible than theology.

By all means, let’s be very humble about attempting to answer why bad things happen; let’s not rush to the microphone after every hurricane, earthquake, tsunami, or mass murder and say, “Here’s why God permitted this…” (John Piper and Pat Robertson, I’m looking at you.) But let’s not be stuck with a God who couldn’t have prevented this bad thing from happening in the first place!

The fact that God didn’t prevent it means something. We don’t have to know what it means, but be sure that it does mean something.

I said earlier that if we believe in God’s sovereignty we have to live with some sharp edges. We have to test this belief against the worst cases of evil and suffering. At the risk of being accused of “reductio ad Hitlerum,” I refer to what I’ve written on this blog about how Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl put it to the test: he said in Man’s Search for Meaning that everyone, in the midst of the worst kinds of suffering, always faces a choice: we always get to decide whether this experience of suffering will be harmful or helpful to us; will crush our spirits or enable spiritual growth. He counseled potential suicides in the concentration camps: “You may want to kill yourself because you expect nothing else out of life, but life still expects something out of you: even if it’s only to walk into the gas chamber with your head held high.”

Reductio ad Hitlerum or not, we can all agree, I hope, that no one stood on higher moral high ground in saying that than he.

At the risk of tears, let me have Frankl share what he learned:

Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate…

Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him—mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp. Dostoevski said once, “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful.[2]

Thank God there is always meaning in suffering. If God weren’t sovereign, there wouldn’t be. We would only ever be victims, with a God who stands by powerless—sorrowful and suffering to be sure, but also powerless to do anything.

I simply don’t believe that anymore.

1. Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 152-3.

2. Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Boston: Beacon, 2006), 66-7.

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