Lately I decided to be more public about some grieving in my personal life. This has sparked some great discussions, which was my hope in being more open and vulnerable in the public sphere.
One of the most common issues that comes up in these discussions is the role of God in human suffering. The other day I noted that I do not believe God has a master plan that unfolds meticulously and without deviation (I reject that all future events are predetermined by God), precisely because any such blueprint to the unfolding of events would mean that God is the agent of causation behind evil and human suffering.
The idea that God plans and actually causes our suffering for a higher, mysterious purpose, is likely the most prevalent Christian view out there– at least in one form or another. Many of us are taught very early on that we must thank God for all things, because he planned all things– even the horrible tragedies of life– to be something ultimately for our own good.
On one hand, I can see why we gravitate to this position. Such a position allows us to emotionally detach from the depths of our sorrow, and to shift from grieving into things like trust and gratitude. This position allows us to find comfort in car accidents, brain tumors, and house fires, because no matter how horrific a life event, one believes that God had planned it, and that God planned it for a beautiful purpose that we just can’t see yet.
On the other hand, I think a closer inspection of this concept should quickly show us why it’s not just false, but disgustingly false. God is not the causing agent in our suffering, and he does not plan bad things to happen to us for some mysterious higher purpose.
Let’s look at it this way: If everything God does is good and loving, and if we are called to be imitators of God (Ephesians 5:1), we should also be able to mimic this attribute of God. If God is our perfect example, and God purposely inflicts suffering in order to achieve a greater good, it would also be good and loving for us to do it. So, let’s test that theory out.
I have a 14-year-old daughter named Johanna. She is my life, my heart. I would do anything for her, especially if it were something that would deepen our relationship and give her valuable life-lessons for the future.
Let’s say one day I decide that I want to help Johanna learn and grow, and I want to do something that will deepen our relationship. I walk her out into my garage, and ask her to place both of her arms on my workbench and to hold still. I then pick up a hammer and explain to her, “Johanna, I love you more than anything in the world. So right now, I’m going to break both of your arms with this hammer. I know it’s going to hurt, and it will take you a long time to recover from this injury. However, I want you to know that I am doing it for a greater good: in the months that you’ll spend in casts, you will be unable to do anything for yourself. This is going to cause you to learn to have a deeper dependency on me, and to trust that I am going to take care of you, and meet your needs. Oh—and this will also bring us closer together emotionally, because as soon as you feel the pain, you’re going to want me to comfort you and hold you close in a way you haven’t wanted in a while.”
This would be disgusting, no? It would be horrific abuse, worthy of losing my child forever and being thrown in prison. It would be an unspeakably evil act.
So here’s my question: If it would be abuse if I did it, why is it good and beautiful when God does it? Why do we say that God plans, causes, and ordains our suffering so that we’ll draw closer to him and learn to depend more deeply upon him?
Because, I’m sorry, but if God decided to break both of my arms on purpose, he’s kinda a jerk.
How can we be so ethically inconsistent between what God does, and what we do? Surely, if God does it and God is perfect, it should be something we do as we obey the biblical imperative to be God-imitators.
But may this never be– because purposely causing and inflicting suffering is an evil action.
It is an evil action if I break my child’s arms, purposely steer her into oncoming traffic, shoot her dog because she pays more attention to the dog than me, or push her out of a window because I know her suffering will cause her to pull closer to me, and teach her something.
It is an evil action if God plans for us to fall off the roof, if he sends a drunk driver to hit us head on, or if he gives us a brain tumor simply so that we’ll learn to love him better, and draw closer to him.
It’s an evil action if I do it.
It is an evil action if God does it.
Thus, if we’re unable to justify inflicting suffering upon our own children in order to achieve some greater good, perhaps it’s time we rethink God’s role in our own.
(I do believe that God uses our suffering to bring about beauty, but this is entirely different from saying that he caused it to bring about beauty. We’ll explore this idea further, along with a better reading of Romans 8:28 in my next post.)
Dr. Benjamin L. Corey is a public theologian and cultural anthropologist who is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with graduate degrees in the fields of Theology and International Culture, and holds a doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is also the author of the new book, Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, which is available wherever good books are sold. www.Unafraid-book.com.