The Problem of Suffering:
God, Free Will and Consequences
Everyone encounters suffering in life. For some—the happy few—pain and problems roll through their days like small waves in the surf. A sunny optimism keeps them bouncing above the water at least for a season. For others, suffering invades their life like an armed man, holding them captive not only to troubles, but also to negative attitudes every bit as troublesome. Suffering comes in all sizes and shapes: physical, emotional, mental even spiritual. How we hate it!
Elizabeth Elliot (whose first husband was speared to death while she was pregnant with their only child) summed up suffering nicely by saying that it’s “Having what you don’t want and wanting what you don’t have.” By this formula suffering may gnaw on us slowly, relentlessly over the years, or take harrowing, hurtful bites out of us in an instant. Am I leaving anyone out?
Suffering is a true “cross to bear.” I once heard Derek Prince describe the cross as “The place where your will and God’s will cross.” That stuck with me. At the time, I was impaled on a cross of suffering and couldn’t get off no matter how hard I tried. Several things that I had but didn’t want were “killing” me. Had been for over a dozen years. So, trust me with this, I thought long and hard about suffering, not from a theoretical standpoint, but one that was intensely personal.
What’s the point of it? Who’s to blame for it? Why does God allow it? How can I avoid it? How can I get free of it? Why is it so hard to get free? Those last three questions anyone can ask. The first three require faith. That’s what makes it so thorny.
The truly thorny questions about suffering all grow out of faith in God. If God is good, then why? If God is all-powerful, then why? If God loves us (me), then why? The idea of God intensifies these questions. If there is no God and everything came about by chance, then there is no rhyme or reason for suffering. It just exists like everything else in the cosmos. It is a natural part of life. Deal with it. Or better still, fight to survive it and pass your genes along.
Until my conversion, I didn’t have a problem with God about my suffering. I had no faith in God’s existence, goodness or power, so there was no point in blaming Someone who wasn’t even involved. No, my problem with suffering was me: Why did I have to be such a bone-headed fool as to keep making my life miserable? Others cast the blame outward, pinning it squarely on the ones who brought suffering to them. The world’s a dangerous place: either you or someone else can louse it up. Watch out!
Faith Is the Spoiler
It’s only when you become a believer in the true God, that suffering stops making sense. When I first met Jesus, it thrilled me that He was saving me from all my self-induced suffering. He overwhelmed me with His love and His matchless power. Then it sank it. Within a few years I began blaming Him for letting me wreck my life in the first place. Big time. One night I yelled at God so loudly and long, I lost my voice the next day. Ironically, the women at church thought I was “suffering for Jesus.” By then I was over it (for the moment), but that deep well-spring of anger remained, now that I had Someone to blame.
Fortunately, I wasn’t always angry. Mostly, I was trying to trust Him with everything and that meant I was willing to let Him show me anything He wanted to in His Word, especially when it came to explaining suffering to me. I had seen enough to know that if you carry your hard doubts and accusations against God into His Word, even the answers you think you are getting will be wrong. It is simple, trusting faith that receives grace. So, I buried a lot a question marks and (mercifully) lived long enough to harvest them as exclamation points. If you have anger around these issues, make sure that you, too, set it aside, or risk staying stuck.
The question of suffering leads directly into two mysteries: God’s sovereignty and our free will. Imagine these as two mountains. We want to walk through the valley that lies between them. If you climb the heights of God’s Sovereign will, the sight of His immense, unequaled wisdom and power makes it difficult to see how any other will could hinder His. On the other height is the very real experience we have of our own freedom to think, act and choose, under-girded by the Lord’s declaration that we have just such a power (Deuteronomy 20:19).
Some who gaze too intently at the peak of God’s sovereignty conclude that nothing happens except what He chooses, wills and desires. This easily makes God seem a monster. On the other hand, if we look too closely at the immense stubbornness of some people we know (never ourselves!), we may conclude that even a sovereign God cannot change a freely set will. Then there’s the question: Are our wills truly free? Augustine said unaided by grace we are free only to sin. There is a truth to that, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Lack of knowledge and insufficient motivation hinder the use of our wills, but by God’s own design, we are free to make choices all day long. Indeed, He will judge us by our choices.
Navigating the Valley
The middle path we will be taking keeps both these salient truths in view. Keep in mind that fogs and clouds abound in the mountains, obscuring sight even in the valleys. Our vision of truth necessarily includes learning when to step back and allow mystery to cloak some unanswered questions. Happily, we can still make progress by walking with balance and humility, because the boundaries are clear (as you will soon see).
To see even better, let’s be sure to put on our “gospel glasses.” The great Luther said that we can only rightly understand scripture through the lens of the gospel, because the New Testament gives us the clearest image of what God is like by showing us the Person and Work of Jesus. Let’s see what it shows us.
Since suffering is an evil, we must trace it back to the origin of evil.
1) Suffering exists because evil exists.
In a perfect world, there would be no suffering. We are clearly shown that is exactly what heaven is like: It is gloriously free of evil and suffering. We are also told in Genesis that this is what the world was like before everything became disordered by the Fall
2) God is not the author of evil.
The New Testament emphatically declares that God is innocent of any wrongdoing. He cannot and will not do anything evil. God is a thoroughly good God. He is all-powerful, but His power is never used apart from His wisdom, love and holy perfection.
3) Evil exists because God gave free will to the angels.
The Fall didn’t begin with us. According to scripture, God created everything good, including the angels who later fell away from Him by choosing to follow Satan, the one who first chose to rebel. In seeking self-will over God’s will, Satan set evil loose in creation.
These revealed truths provide important boundaries for how we are to think about evil. First of all, there is nothing (thank God) wrong with God. He never does evil, nor does He want it for anyone. All evil traces back to the free will decision of Satan to go a separate way from God. Since God is entirely good, separating from His will can only lead to evil. Indeed, even the desire to separate is itself evil.
Why then did God give Satan free will? Couldn’t He have stopped all the suffering right there? Yes, but that would have created something far worse: slavery and a kind of living death. For created beings to have true life (modeled after His own), freedom is required. For love to flourish, freedom is required. God in His love and wisdom apparently foresaw that giving true life and cultivating genuine love would be worth the suffering, even if the gift of free will became abused.
Another way to see this is that since God is entirely good, it must have been entirely good of God to give free will to the angels and to us. The thing that was not good, was the way some of the angels choose to fall into the Great Rebellion and all humanity joined in with them. We cannot blame any of that on God, especially since all of us rightly cherish whatever freedom we enjoy, wishing only that we had more of it.
We also cannot find fault in the way God responded to this cosmic tragedy. It proved impossible for a single fallen angel to be made right again (Curious? See this). They were immediately and eternally judged. Fortunately for us, the Father opened the Way of Return: repentance. And to throw the door wide open He sent Jesus to the cross. You know the rest (but if you want a primer on salvation go here: Getting to Heaven).
We are now living in the In-between: between the beginning of God’s reversal at the Cross and the final elimination of evil with the Return of Jesus. You don’t need me to tell you how badly many of us feel the pinch of suffering while we are being squeezed between those two tremendous appearances of Jesus. So, let’s turn from the evil that God suffers (allows) to exist to the evil of suffering which afflicts us.
All suffering is due to one or a combination of these three things:
1) Human free will.
The consequences of our own sins of thought, word, and deed can bring a landslide of suffering into our lives. The sins of others also afflict us with suffering. Then add to this the sins of earlier generations. That’s a lot of sin and suffering! And it all traces back to free will.
2) A real-world setting.
We don’t live in padded cells. This world is exquisitely responsive to us in all kinds of ways, not all of them pleasant. And it can be very unforgiving. The law of gravity, for instance, enables us to walk and climb, but it guarantees pain if we fall. That’s just the way it is.
3) The sins of an invisible enemy.
You didn’t ask for this and neither did I, but Satan and his dark kingdom have been sinning against us from the beginning. All temptation, accusation, deception and destruction traces back to him. He and his team struck us first and they keep striking whenever they can.
Our response to this is inconsistent at best. I stated earlier that we all want freedom to make choices. Nevertheless, we may cherish significant qualifications that just aren’t being offered to us. For instance, we want freedom of will, but don’t want the real-world consequences that go along with it, not if those consequences go against us. Again, we want freedom for ourselves, but not for others, especially if they are about to hurt us with theirs. I don’t want anyone grabbing at the wheel when I’m driving, but I secretly hope the Lord will control everyone else. Do you see a problem?
God, however, is the heart and soul of consistency. He has placed all of us in a real world in which even the devils have freedom of choice. To live with a free will in a real world under assault by a real enemy, means that we will have to learn to love God’s ways or face the consequences. The chief way we must learn is the way of surrender to Him.
The Key of Surrender
The reason heaven is so free of sin and suffering is because everyone there has freely surrendered their will to Him. We see this in the way people “make peace” with God before they die by letting go of their own will and placing it in His. In this way, they enter heaven ready to experience perfect freedom, because His will for us is freedom: freedom to make right choices, freedom from suffering, freedom from sin. How bad is that?
It’s not bad at all; it’s fantastic. And yet many a devoted Christian has confessed to me in private that the single hardest thing for them to do is “give up control” and surrender themselves entirely to the Lord! How ironical: We actually fight against surrendering to the Lord, thinking that somehow it won’t be good for us, when the opposite is the case.
Our lack of surrender, our sinful choices, give the enemy countless open doors to bring sin and its consequences into our world. God allows us to say “No!” to Him and to His ways. He does this for the sake of preserving our free wills (though He gets roundly blamed for what we do). He even works through the evils our free wills allow, to restore us to love and to our lost humanity. Fortunately for us, He has many ways of turning our no’s back into yes’s, but in the interval much suffering can happen.
One Difference Between God and Us
I like to say that the One Person who rarely gets what He wants upfront is God. Think about it. God doesn’t want anyone to sin or to suffer sin’s consequences. He doesn’t even want any thoroughgoing sinner to go to hell. He wants all of us to surrender to Him in every moment and experience the exhilarating power of His Holy Spirit lifting us into a river of peace. Does He get that? No, we crowned Him with thorns instead.
We, however, always choose to think, say or do exactly as we please. We just don’t like the results! We may complain about how we are using our will retrospectively, but up front, we’re not about to move out of the driver’s seat. We are so strong-willed that we can even resist conscience, the Holy Spirit’s conviction and the warning of friends around us. Even those who seem to have weak wills cling to their doubts and second guessing by a stubborn tenacity that defies all reason.
So far, it seems like our free wills are triumphing over God. What happened to His sovereign will and power? Let’s admit right away that all God has to do is show up in Person and like Job (or Isaiah before the throne, or Saul on the road to Damascus) we would all be thrown for a loop. Nothing brings our will-full pride crashing down like meeting face to Face with the One who has no pride—and yet has everything to boast about going for Him. But He rarely does that. The Lord seems to prefer working with us by slow degrees, rather than sudden, blazing revelations.
My hunch is that many of us confuse the idea of God’s sovereignty with control. When President Abraham Lincoln was shot, panic began breaking out in Ford’s Theater. Then someone stood up and declared, “God is still in control.” The crowd immediately calmed down. Did that mean that God wanted Lincoln shot, or that He in some way aided and abetted his assassin? Of course not. But it did mean that God foresaw what was coming and had a plan for how to go forward despite the tragedy.
In our own lives when disaster strikes we are tempted to think that God is somehow against us, or that He saw it coming and didn’t care enough to stop it, or that He has no interest in removing it. These are temptations to believe a lie. Believing a lie, any lie, will always put us into further pain and bondage. That’s why knowing the truth about suffering is so liberating. It may not free us from the original suffering, but it certainly frees us from the tormenting questions that try to come with it.
God hates sin and suffering and always works to prevent it. He grieves over what grieves us. It gives Him no pleasure to see us reap the negative consequences of our actions. But He also works to preserve our freedom of will. For instance, He won’t take the bottle away from an alcoholic as much as He may want to. He will work with him until he freely gives it up.
In some ways, we have too low an opinion of God’s sovereignty. He could easily overrule anyone’s will and anything the devil desires to do. He does this occasionally. I know a man who came to conversion because he was trying desperately to murder someone in his power, but knew at the last moment that God created an invisible barrier against him beating the man to death. God simply wouldn’t allow it.
What God Allows
On the other hand, Christians I talk with seem reluctant to acknowledge what God does allow, as in “Do you think that what happened might have been God’s permissive will?” Of course it was. If something happened, it was only because God permitted it to happen. He permits everything going on in the world! That doesn’t mean that He desires it, only that He has made room for free will to operate (and has a plan to overcome it and redeem it).
This proliferation of free wills (7 billion and counting), working at variance with His will, seems to put God’s purposes at a disadvantage. As I said, He doesn’t get what He wants up front. But He will get what He wants down the road. Time is on His side. He works through time by intricate and infallible means to guide our mis-guided creation toward the Restoration He plans. Paul saw this and boldly proclaimed that our present suffering couldn’t hold a candle to the glory God is leading us towards. How is He doing it?
Just because God rarely exercises what we could call direct control over our wills, doesn’t mean He is sitting on His Hands with nothing to do. Nevertheless, what He refuses to do makes a very impressive list. He refuses to terrify us or bully us with fear. He refuses to use guilt and shame to get us to do what He wants. Remember that it is the Enemy who accuses and condemns us, or dives us along with fear, never God. Our God even refuses to hold our sins against us as a way of motivating us. He held them against Jesus and punished Him instead (2 Corinthians 5:19). All parents should heed His example!
So how does God correct the world? He uses love, truth and consequences. He draws all who are willing by His love. As unbelievable as it seems, our Father’s heart is ALWAYS open to us in perfect forgiveness and acceptance. His unconditional, all-loving embrace of us is what everyone experiences who turns to Him. Such love is a true miracle, one that none of us deserves. Because He loves us so thoroughly and so consistently, those who catch on to it are drawn to Him like bees to honey. As His love draws us, we are inevitably drawn out of our fallen ways. This is the transformation of heart that love kindled by faith produces.
He also transforms us by the renewing of our minds by His Word. He turns and leads all who are willing by His Word as He sends it to us in conscience, in nature, in scripture, through others and by His Spirit. Every truth has the power to turn us from a wrong way (of thought, word or deed) into His right way—if we can receive it. Don’t just think of truth as something Biblical only. All truth comes from God, from two plus two equals four to that stove is hot, don’t touch it. If we could know and believe every truth that we need to know, we would be entirely free always. This is the transformation that truth produces through a renewed mind.
Love and truth are God’s grace-filled means of transforming the world, beginning with (but not limited to) the revelation of Jesus Christ. If we are not turned to His ways by these “polite” methods, then He allows some of the consequences of our wrong choices to help us realize that we are heading in a wrong direction. Consequences come in all sizes and shapes; they can come immediately, or tarry a long time before arriving. It is crucial for the Christian to realize that what Jesus did at the cross removed both the wrath and the punishment we deserved for our sins, but not the consequences. We still live in a real world with real world consequences.
Heart peace, trust and mercy-giving love are the ONLY way of life offered to us by God. Things that represent the “curse of the Law” (the consequence of sin) don’t come to us accidentally. We choose our way into them.
As the bird by wandering… so the curse causeless shall not come. Proverbs 26:2 KJV
Our will does not operate in a vacuum. Every thought we have—conscious or unconscious—has consequences in our bodies in terms of neurological or hormonal responses that affect our organs and even individual cells. That is the universe within (see “What Causes Disease”). But our inner life also affects the universe beyond our body through our words, actions and prayers. What we think, say and do “reaps” a response from the world around us—for good or ill. The Bible calls this the law of sowing and reaping. Our choices truly matter.
The Necessity of Repentance
This is why the God of all Grace insists upon the necessity of our repentance. Even grace as good as His cannot (or will not) do everything for us. In the same O.T. passage in which God reveals His glorious grace, He also tells us that He “by no means clears the guilty” (Exodus 34:7). There is only one way of removing sin and its consequences: repentance. Until we repent and return to Him He “keeps” mercy for us (Exodus 33:7), but mercy cannot do its full work until we repent and return to receive it.
When the children of Israel were about to enter their Promised Land, the Lord told them to create a visual picture by having some stand on Mt. Ebal calling down the curses that would come to those who would not listen and obey Him. Others stood on Mt. Gerazim calling down the blessings on those who would listen and obey (Deuteronomy 27:1-10).
This created a graphic picture for them of the law of sowing and reaping at work. Just as every action in the physical universe produces an equal and opposite reaction, so the moral/spiritual universe is also finely attuned to us. When it comes to reaping blessing or cursing, we are in the driver’s seat. The choice is ours!
I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore, choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days.” Deuteronomy 30:19-20
My principal desire has been to discuss the why of suffering, not the how of getting free. But I don’t want to leave this discussion of transformation and consequences by leaving an impression that we are stuck with the consequences we suffer. Not at all. Some like Paul’s thorn may remain, though transformed into a reminder of dependence on grace. Others, God works relentlessly to remove.
Consider the suffering that came into the world through small pox. How the Lord must have hated that one, which so horribly disfigured people created in His beautiful image. The history of our modern medicine, seen in this light alone, is His Story of working through us patiently and persistently down through the interminable centuries to bring us to the place where His cure could finally be revealed. Now, small pox is eradicated!
Raising an Army
We can be sure that God is working through every means at His disposal to overturn the causes of suffering and bring His restoration. But He will not break His own rules. That includes allowing free will to work within real world conditions, all the while besieged by an invisible enemy. Even so, He is teaching us to fight back. One day the church may again rise to the faith of the Early Church which saw demons driven out and all diseases cured by steady successions of supernatural power. Already the Third World church is leading the way.
In the meantime, while we wait for our healing (as “patients”) upon the advances of medical science and the overcoming church, He has given us the Magnificent Promise of Romans 8:28 that everything—including all we may suffer—WILL be made to work for our good. And that One Day, even our worst afflictions, will seem “light” compared to the glorious outcome He has in store for those who believe (2 Corinthians 4:17). See “How Our Worst Things Become the Best.”
Let’s take what we’ve discussed and try to frame the question of suffering around the issue of disease. As we have seen, all suffering traces back to the existence of evil and God is not the creator of evil. God is the giver of every good gift. Disease is not a good gift! Thankfully, no one with a disease needs to imagine that God desired them to be cursed with it. He desires freedom from sin and its consequences (the curse of the Law) for everyone.
Did God allow it? Of course He did. Nothing can happen without His permission, but that doesn’t mean that He caused it or desired it, and it certainly doesn’t mean that He isn’t grieved by it or that He wants it to stay. The truth is we are the ones who “allowed” every disease, because our sin generated it through the Fall from grace. Sin and disease were never parts of what God created life to be like in the beginning. So disease traces back to us and to the dark kingdom that tempts us.
How then does the curse of disease target an individual? The curse of the Law may enter our lives through any one of three ways:
1) The sins of others, including the Enemy’s kingdom acting against us
2) Un-repented sins of our ancestors (generational sins in the family or on the land going way back)
3) Our own sins of thought (wrong attitudes, desires or motives), word or deed, known or unknown, including things done or left undone.
Considering how pervasive sin is—we are simmering in the “witch’s brew” of original sin—it is a wonder any of us are sane and healthy. The above list points us in multiple directions that we can explore as spiritual/emotional pathways for healing. We can go to doctors, but we can also go to God in prayer and bring our lives to God for deep mending of anything He might consider sin (see Three Paths to Healing). I have often seen this lead to cures.
For instance, we don’t think of being worried or anxious as sin, but God does. It not only separates us from Him (on our side), it also ushers in the stress effect upon our bodies, a principal cause of many diseases. That He loves us no matter how sinful we may be, should mean that we have a God-graced ability to take a real look in the mirror and start naming things as wrong which we may have glossed over. This includes things in our family line, as well as in our emotional state. In this way, we can use the disease to bring us into greater peace and freedom and a deeper sense of the Lord’s presence. That alone would be worth the pain of the passage…
A Caution in Closing
Every theory must be tested by reality and still stand, if it is to be believed. The severest test of our understanding of suffering and the realities that surround it, comes from the reality of suffering itself. When you are hurting, or when your loved one is suffering, you want relief first, answers second. But you won’t want answers at all if they seem to add to the suffering.
That’s why I feel compelled to repeat that there has to be an allowance for mystery surrounding the truth of God’s sovereignty and our free will, especially when it comes down to why this disease, why this suffering. NEVER take on an understanding of truth that puts you under condemnation or casts God in a negative light. The truth rightly understood ALWAYS sets us free. That doesn’t mean it won’t make you mad when first introduced. I hope I haven’t made you mad by advancing these truths. My desire is always to shed light not fire!
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