Four months ago my mother and younger brother both died in the same week. I had to give the order to withdraw life support from my little brother and hold his hand as he left this world. That experience has left an undeniable mark on my soul; the pain is still beyond words to describe. I write that only to let you know that I am no stranger to pain and doubt. I believe God is big enough to handle my questions, my doubts, and even my anger. I believe that God understands, but even if He didn’t, I’m not sure I would really care. I think that’s okay too. I am writing to thank you for sharing your doubts about God’s “sovereignty” with me and to offer some further reflections on this subject.
My friend, I cannot even begin to imagine the suffering and anguish you have experienced. I am so sorry you have had to go through this. It’s funny how easy it is to offer neatly packaged Bible verses in a sterile church which, ultimately, feel hollow in the face of real suffering. While I continue to believe that God is all powerful, through our conversation, I realize that I need to clarify what this all-powerfulness may actually look like. If you can bear with me, I would like to offer what I believe is a biblically faithful view of the sovereignty of God and the problem of our suffering.
If we were to open a systematic theology text book to the section on the doctrine of God we would likely be confronted with a list of God’s attributes beginning with words like omnipotent (all powerful), omniscient (all knowing), omnipresent (present everywhere) and so on. Yet, the central “attribute” of God, from a biblical perspective, is love. It has been said that love is the first and last word in the biblical portrait of God.[i] Emil Brunner considers the statement “God is love” (1 John 4:8) to be the “most daring statement that has ever been made in human language.”[ii] Richard Rice considers this to mean that “love is not a mere quality that God happens to have in common with other beings; it is the very nature of God himself.”[iii] Through God’s self disclosure in Christ we have come to know that he eternally exists in divine community as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Love is not something that God chose to do in relation to his creation; it is his very nature from eternity – seen in the Father’s love for the Son, the Son’s love for the Father, the Spirit’s love for the Father and Son, and the Father and Son’s love for the Spirit. To enjoy the love of God is to participate in the divine nature. The revelation of God as the one who loves should inform all of our further understandings about the being and actions of God.[iv]
Creating a world where love could be genuinely experienced and expressed required God to give humanity real freedom to be for him and others.[v] In so doing God’s world consequently possessed the potential to soar to unimaginable heights; to participate in the very life of God himself. The unfortunate, or shadow side, of this is the reality that humans could use this good gift of freedom to be against God and each other rather than to be for them.[vi] For God to respond to the rebellion of “sin” in this world by removing human freedom would be essentially to destroy the very humanity which he desires to save. This is apparently not a viable option in the mind of God – he loves humanity. Because humans have real freedom they are in a sense co-creating this world with God for better or for worse.[vii] God’s sovereignty is not exercised over a world in which he has absolute control and determines everything; instead, God rules over a world in which creatures can disobey and things go contrary to his will; yet he can deal with whatever situations arise.[viii]
If God is both loving and all powerful why is there still pain and suffering in the world? Doesn’t his goodness motivate him to action? Doesn’t his power mean that his will is unstoppable? But there is still evil in the world. Since the central characteristic of God is love, surely he despises the evil which causes such suffering within his creation. It seems then that we must conclude, because evil and suffering are still present in the world, God must not be powerful enough to do anything about it. This seems like the unavoidable conclusion to which logic leads. That is unless our definition of power is itself evidence of the very evil of which we speak.
Power, as generally understood in our world, is the ability to bend others to our control; to manipulate, subdue, and force.[ix] If this is what we mean by power then God may prove to be quite powerless after all. But, if we consider power as God defines and displays it, we will find a power which “runs counter to virtually every conventional human concept.”[x] The all-powerfulness of God is found in his “superior self-possession of the love which surrenders itself.”[xi] It is the “irresistible force of God’s self-surrender, the strength, the almightiness of God’s self emptying and other-centered love.”[xii] Almightiness and love are not polar opposites pulling against each other in the being of God; they exist in “reciprocal relation.”[xiii] As Michael Jinkins states:
“Any view of the love of God that does not understand the fierce, burning power of that love, the positive force of that love against sin, evil and death has resigned itself to sentimentalism, because the wrath of God is nothing less than the burning passion of God turned against all those things which threaten to destroy God’s good creation.”[xiv]
The biblical grand-finale of God’s display of power comes as quite a shock for those of us raised on the tales of armies drowned in the Red Sea, temples pulled down on Philistines, and giants slain by shepherd boys. The climax of God’s self revelation paints a most unthinkable picture; God on a cross[xv]; the creator in human flesh; bleeding, gasping, dying – suffering; God with us. It is at this sight, according to Mark’s Gospel, that a Roman centurion, representing a culture obsessed with power, exclaims “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39). It is when we encounter God on the cross that we come to understand true power and indeed recognize him as all-powerful. It is the gospel of kingdom, made available to all through the death of God on a cross, which Paul proclaims as the very power of God for those who believe (Romans 1:16). Both God’s love for us and his power toward us become most visible “in the helpless and broken figure of Jesus of Nazareth hanging dying on the cross.”[xvi]
In Romans 8:28 we are told that, “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” Far from saying “everything happens for a reason” this text communicates the idea that, though God does not cause, or even “allow” everything, he can be counted on to take whatever comes, whatever he’s given, and work to bring good out of it for those who love him; even if the good he brings out was not part of some original plan on his part. This is an often random and tragic world. In it we can find a measure of comfort knowing that we are not alone in our suffering. The God who hung and died on the cross will never leave us or forsake us. As we follow in the way of Jesus our sufferings are given meaning and we place our hopes, not in this age, but in the age to come in which God will “wipe every tear from [our] eyes”, where “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for [this] old order of things [will have] passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
My friend, I am truly sorry for your loss. I know that my words can never take away the pain you endure. I pray that the God who suffered will reveal himself to you as the “God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles” (1 Corinthians 1:3-4). Jesus reminds us that in this life we will have troubles, but we can face every day with courage because he has overcome the world. The God on the cross is also the God of the empty tomb. May God’s richest blessing be with you and your family.
[i] According to Richard Rice God’s love is viewed as his central characteristic throughout both the Old and the New Testaments. Richard Rice, The Openness of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 18.
[ii] Rice references Emil Brunner’s view that the statement “God is Love” is the “most daring statement that has ever been made in human language.” According to his view this statement is the closest that the Bible comes to giving us a definition of the divine reality. Ibid., 20.
[iv] Rice makes the argument that, because love is the central characteristic of God’s revealed nature, it must play a central role in all of our understandings about God. He states: “According to the Bible, God is not a center of infinite power who happens to be loving, he is loving above all else. Consequently, when we enumerate God’s qualities, we must not only include love; to be faithful to the Bible we must put love at the head of the list.” Ibid., 21.
[v] The freedom which human beings are given is significant freedom to be for God and others. In the Garden of Eden Adam and Eve had a seemingly endless variety of possible choices from which to feed themselves and be for God. Unfortunately they chose to focus on the one way to exercise their freedom against God. Ray S. Anderson, Theological Anthropology and the Revelation of God: Course Lecture Outlines (Fuller Theological Seminary), 23.
[vi] Evil can be understood as the shadow side of the Good. It is not a self-existent entity but rather exists as the absence of the good. In his work Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis described evil as the rot on the apple; The apple can exist without the rot, but the rot cannot exist without the apple. Anderson, Lecture Outlines, 23.
[vii] Because human being exercise their free will and make choices over which God has no control, it can be said that humanity is co-creating the world and bear a tremendous responsibility for the way things are. Clark H. Pinnock, The Openness of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 112.
[viii] Though God is not directly responsible for much of what takes place in the world, he chooses to be responsive to our situations, actions and prayers. He has the ability to handle every situation which arises. Ibid.
[ix] While power is generally considered to be the ability to accomplish ones desires in spite of all obstacles and usually carries with it the idea of force an coercion, for God to exercise this kind of “power” would be contrary to his divine nature, of which the chief characteristic is love, and would ultimately destroy humanity by arresting their free will. Michael Jinkins, Invitation to Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 84.
[x] An understanding of God’s power, like an understanding of the kingdom of God, is not what we often take it to be. Jesus’s teachings usually turned conventional thinking on its head and caused those who claimed to see to become blind. We must come to God on his terms and not attempt to impose our terms upon him. Ibid., 83.
[xi] God’s power is seen in his selfless giving of himself for the good of his creation. It is a power which is unlike any power we recognize in this world; which usually amounts to the means to accomplish selfish desires. It should not surprise us that God’s power is qualitatively different from the evil power of those who oppose him. Christ did instruct his followers to overcome evil with good, bless those who curse them, pray for those who spitefully use them, go the extra mile, turn the other cheek…etc. Ibid.
[xii] Ibid., 84.
[xiii] God’s love and power are not at odds within him. They are functionally inseparable so that one does not act without the other. Ibid.
[xv] Anderson recounts an experience he had in Pastoral ministry to a woman who was dying. Those he could not explain why God would not heal her he could assure her that God was indeed with her and for her as she died. He used the idea of God on the cross to communicate the idea that God is intimately acquainted with suffering and could identify with her in the time on her deepest need. She found tremendous comfort in the God on the cross and was able to face death with peace. He states that “God’s providence is expressed through his partnership with human persons in suffering, which is the divine power to be present as advocate in the context of suffering and for the purpose of redeeming those who suffer.” Anderson, Lecture Outlines, 36.
[xvi] Michael Jinkins, Invitation to Theology, 86.