Is it “just not true” that suffering is God’s will?

July 9, 2015

I hate to let good writing go to waste…

A colleague preached a sermon on suffering last Sunday. (Read it and see what you think.) While I could take issue with many of his points, I made the following comment on Facebook. It summarizes many things I’ve discussed on this blog. Is my response adequate? Would you add or correct anything? Am I missing something?

You write: “We want a reason for everything, and we have this tendency to say that because God is in control, all things that happen, even suffering, are God’s will. And it’s just not true.”

I understand the impulse behind saying this, because God is not the author of evil. But I disagree for two reasons. First, in Arminian theology there is an understanding of God’s “antecedent will” (what God would want in a world without sin, before the Fall) and God’s “consequent will” (what God wants, given that we live in this fallen world of sin, suffering, and death). Events that happen in this world represent God’s consequent will.

But I’m sure you’re not convinced, so consider this thought experiment: If we believe that God can answer prayer—more accurately, that God will, even occasionally, grant our prayer petitions—then what are we to make of those times when God doesn’t grant our petitions?

There are three alternatives, as far as I can see:

1) God heard our request but doesn’t have the power grant our petition.
2) God heard our request and has the power, but whether he does or doesn’t is completely arbitrary. In other words, God is capricious.
3) God heard our request, but chose not to grant our petition for good reasons that may only be known to him. After all, God has foreknowledge. Only God can foresee all possible, even eternal, consequences of granting one petition and not another.

Is there another alternative for those of us who believe in the Christian God? I can’t think of one. Clearly, #3 is the only one that makes sense.

And if that’s the case, then it’s no exaggeration to say that “everything happens for a reason”—even when that reason is to prevent something worse from happening that we can’t foresee.

I would also challenge you to consider the difference between God’s “allowing” something to happen and God’s “causing” something to happen. We often draw a sharp distinction between the two—perhaps in an effort to “let God off the hook for suffering”—but is this distinction really so great? Surely Job would disagree, among others!

Or what about Paul’s thorn in the flesh in 2 Corinthians? He describes it as both a messenger from Satan and something that comes from God, to be used for his own spiritual growth. This is not a contradiction. As Joseph said in Genesis, “What you intended for evil, God intended for good.”

Besides, in your own experience, isn’t suffering often good for you? In my experience it certainly is! This is why a (mostly secular) book like psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” has proven so helpful for 50 years. Frankl was literally a Dachau and Auschwitz survivor. No modern person has stood on higher moral high ground when he says that when we suffer, we always have a choice: to let suffering harm or destroy our souls or to use it as an opportunity for spiritual growth. By all means, in his experience, he usually saw suffering destroy people’s soul, but not always. And he argues that it never needs to—for anyone.

In one moving scene in the book, he talks about a particularly difficult season of suffering and death in the concentration camp. Suicides among the prisoners were very common (they could easily run into the electrified and die instantly). He huddles his fellow prisoners together and says, “I know many of you want to kill yourselves because you no longer expect anything out of life. But life still expects something from you!”—even if, he says, it’s only to walk into the gas chamber with your head held high. He quotes Dostoyevsky, who said his biggest fear wasn’t suffering; it was that he wouldn’t prove worthy of his suffering.

Frankl, a Jew, isn’t speaking from a Christian perspective (interestingly, while his wife died in a separate concentration camp, he married a Catholic woman after the war), but his words are very consistent with Paul’s words, for instance, when he tells us to rejoice in the Lord always—words written when Paul himself was languishing under a very harsh imprisonment, yet seeing God’s providential hand at work all around him.

So I’d recommend your reading Frankl’s book. But also Lewis’s profoundly good Problem of Pain and Tim Keller’s recent masterpiece, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering.

All that to say, I find it immensely comforting to know that God has a reason for whatever I’m going through. I like being able to pray, “God, what are you trying to show me? How are you using this? Why is this happening now?” In fact, far from the ivory tower of mainline Protestant seminary, most people I know do as well.

12 Responses to “Is it “just not true” that suffering is God’s will?”

  1. Grant Essex Says:

    I think your answer is very good, and like everything you say, well grounded in your theology.

    I tend to answer more simply, from the Bible.

    First, I would refer Dalton back to the book of Job. The story of Job is also the story of how God allows Satan to operate in this world. I won’t elaborate on the lessons of Job. You know them better than I.

    Second, there is the fall. With it sin and suffering entered the world. Jesus came to give us a way out of that, didn’t he.

    Which brings me to the third truth. Jesus said that in this world we would know much suffering, but to rejoice, because he has overcome the world.

    Now the thing with God, as I understand it, is that none of these truths are static. They didn’t just happen. They are happening. They are a part of the story every day.

    God allows suffering, he doesn’t cause it. He allows it for reasons of his own. He will end it with one swift word.

    PS: Suicide by a pastor is surely the work of the evil one. Psychologists and bi-polar disorders are human answers.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I knew that pastor very well and also went to the funeral. In all the heartfelt and often very public words of grief that were shared among clergy on social media and in conversations I was privy to, no one besides me ever mentioned the devil or spiritual warfare. I was disappointed.

      For that matter, how do you preach a sermon on suffering without mentioning the role of Satan and the demonic?

  2. Grant Essex Says:

    For one thing, “sophisticated Christians” make fun of you. The concept of a spiritual war of cosmic proportions is just so 19th century, after all…..

  3. Grant Essex Says:

    Peter was no fool. He knew that the devil was after his sheep. His warning was quite clear:

    “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.”

    (1 Peter 5:8-10 ESV)

    He was strengthening the brothers for their suffering. Could suffering be God’s refining fire?

  4. Tom Harkins Says:

    I also agree with the points you make. Certainly sometimes the point(s) of our suffering are pretty hard to see. But that is exactly where faith comes in–you believe what God says even though you fail to see the “proof” from the present circumstances you are going through at the time. See Hebrews 11 in general.

    I even have a “hopeful” case in point. I’ve been having a lot of problems with my daughter. Hard to see any good in it. But, just today (as I shared with you by email), she has ended up with a job at Mardel’s (starting tomorrow). I am hoping and praying that maybe this will bring about some much needed changes. Will have to wait and see.

    In any event, I have to trust that God knows what he is up to, even regardless of how things turn out with my daughter. (She has free will too!)

    • brentwhite Says:

      I saw that! That’s awesome. We don’t have Mardel’s in Georgia. What will she be doing? Anyway, it sounds like a good place for her.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        I don’t even know what she will be doing! Will find out when I get home tonight. Probably cash register. Will let you know on Monday. (Mardel’s is a Christian bookstore, as you probably know.)

      • brentwhite Says:

        Right! I looked it up!

  5. Grant Essex Says:

    I think a Hobby Lobby guy started Mardel’s.

  6. Grant Essex Says:

    Dang, those ACLU guys are right. Hobby Lobby is such a cesspool for promoting hate and intolerance! 🙂

    What an upside down society we live in.


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