Excerpt from The Allure of Gentleness

How then do we reply to the objec­tions that the cre­ator and sus­tain­er of a world in which there is war, defor­mi­ty, sui­cide, depres­sion, earth­quakes, famine, pesti­lence, and can­cer can­not be a good God, able to assist those who trust him and those who must depend upon his care?

First, we agree that many things that hap­pen, when con­sid­ered by them­selves, are not good. They are indeed trag­ic. We must nev­er deny this. It’s impor­tant not to give a cav­a­lier or sim­ple answer to those who have suf­fered. You have to accept the full real­i­ty of suf­fer­ing and not try to explain it away. Let those who suf­fer tell you their sto­ry and real­ly lis­ten to them. Where was God? God is always where the suf­fer­ing is. Those who are there and turn to him will find him.

Imag­ine your­self talk­ing to some­one whose loved one was on the top floor of the World Trade Cen­ter when it was col­laps­ing. You could nev­er say any­thing to dimin­ish the pain they actu­al­ly feel or explain it away. But you can say that there is some­thing beyond the pain. Those who look to God and call upon him can be sure that good will tri­umph in their lives.

Sec­ond, we agree that God is not the agent behind these things. God doesn’t do evil. He knows bet­ter. It’s the same rea­son I don’t stick a pen in my eye. It’s because I know bet­ter. God designed a world where peo­ple have space to choose their own actions, start­ing at the very begin­ning with Adam and Eve, and there is an ene­my in the pic­ture tak­ing advan­tage of this. On the larg­er scale, we all know this.

The book of Job is impor­tant here. It helps us under­stand we’re in a bat­tle. After read­ing Job, you might think it would be a good idea not to call the Devil’s atten­tion to your­self by being too good, but test­ing will still come. God does not tor­ture or send suf­fer­ing upon his peo­ple. Some­times he allows them to expe­ri­ence suf­fer­ing, because they’ve walked away from him, but suf­fer­ing doesn’t always occur for that rea­son. It occurs because there is an ene­my who wish­es to make you doubt God. In the over­all pic­ture, that is the mean­ing of the book of Job. In the mid­dle of all his pain and loss­es, Job says, Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him” (13:15 KJV). Your trust in God is what matters.

Now, no mat­ter what the dif­fi­cul­ties are, and some­times they’re extreme­ly hard to bear, we do not want to doubt God. We want to cling to God. If we think, God is test­ing me,” we’re apt not to focus on him. Let me assure you that God does not need to test you to find out about you. I have to test my stu­dents to find out about them, but God doesn’t have that prob­lem. He already knows. So under­stand that test­ing comes, but it’s not God’s work to test by caus­ing suf­fer­ing. He knows who we are, and he knows what we can bear. When trou­ble does come, the impor­tant thing is to know that God is against it.

Third, we point out that the cre­ation of a world with a gen­er­al order in which pain and evil are pos­si­ble is good, beyond any com­par­i­son pos­si­ble to us. And it is the great­est con­ceiv­able good, giv­ing human­i­ty the oppor­tu­ni­ty to devel­op into crea­tures of the high­est val­ue. C.S. Lewis wrote:

It is a seri­ous thing to live in a soci­ety of pos­si­ble gods and god­dess­es, to remem­ber that the dullest, most unin­ter­est­ing per­son you talk to may one day be a crea­ture which, if you saw it now, you would be
strong­ly tempt­ed to wor­ship, or else a hor­ror and a cor­rup­tion such as you now meet, if at all, only in a night­mare. All day long we are, in some degree, help­ing each oth­er to one or the oth­er of these des­ti­na­tions…. There are no ordi­nary peo­ple. You have nev­er talked to a mere mor­tal. Nations, cul­tures, arts, civ­i­liza­tions — these are mor­tal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immor­tals whom we joke with, work with, mar­ry, snub, and exploit — immor­tal hor­rors or ever­last­ing splen­dors…. Next to the holy sacra­ment itself, your neigh­bor is the holi­est object pre­sent­ed to your sens­es.
—The Weight of Glo­ry, p.15

Fourth, we main­tain that earth has no sor­row that heav­en can­not heal” (Thomas Moore). The bat­tle is not over yet, and God is going to win. To sin­gle out a spe­cif­ic sor­row as evil for­ev­er is to ques­tion the Chris­t­ian view of God and our eter­nal des­tiny in God’s great uni­verse. Romans 8:28 tells us: All things work togeth­er for good for those who love God, who are called accord­ing to his pur­pose.” If we have com­mit­ted our lives to God, he will restore us in our life here on earth, as he promised Israel in Joel 2:25 – 27:

I will repay you for the years that the swarm­ing locust has eat­en,
the hop­per, the destroy­er, and the cut­ter,
my great army, which I sent against you.
You shall eat in plen­ty and be sat­is­fied,
and praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has dealt won­drous­ly with you.
And my peo­ple shall nev­er again be put to shame.
You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel,
and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no oth­er.
And my peo­ple shall nev­er again be put to shame.

God will also redeem every aspect of our lives in the here­after. The claim that this present suf­fer­ing is beyond redemp­tion can only be true if we know that a God of Chris­t­ian dimen­sions does not exist. We hold to the promise in Rev­e­la­tion 21:3 – 4:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne say­ing,
See, the home of God is among mor­tals.
He will dwell with them; they will be his peo­ples,
and God him­self will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more; mourn­ing and cry­ing and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”

The Chris­t­ian faith is com­mit­ted to a pic­ture of God and the world that makes every event ulti­mate­ly redeemable, and there­fore per­mis­si­ble, by a per­son­al God who is both will­ing and able to nur­ture into being a cre­ation that can­not be improved upon. It does not hold that every event is good in itself. Bad things, even hor­ren­dous moral evils, do come to pass. But in the vision of Jesus Christ com­mu­ni­cat­ed to his peo­ple, all human beings — and yes, even the spar­rows and the lilies — are effec­tive­ly cared for. Every per­son is invit­ed to say in faith and obe­di­ence, The Lord is my shep­herd, I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1).

If all the indi­vid­ual has is this” life, then clear­ly evil, pain, and frus­tra­tion are not redeemed. But seen in the con­text of God’s world as a whole, seen as but a part of a life that nev­er ends and end­less­ly becomes more and more glo­ri­ous, there is no evil indi­vid­u­als may suf­fer that can pre­vent them from find­ing life to be good and God to be good. Theirs is the per­spec­tive of the apos­tle Paul, who speaks of great suf­fer­ing as this slight momen­tary afflic­tion [that] is prepar­ing us for an eter­nal weight of glo­ry beyond all mea­sure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what can­not be seen; for what can be seen is tem­po­rary, but what can­not be seen is eter­nal” (2 Corinthi­ans 4:17 – 18).

We get a lit­tle taste of that in this life. When we move into the future and the future is good, the past, which was unbear­able when we went through it, now takes on a dif­fer­ent qual­i­ty because it’s a part of the larg­er whole. It’s the great­ness and good­ness of God that mat­ters. Even David Hume, who is well known for his skep­ti­cism, says, If your God is big enough, there is no prob­lem of evil” (my para­phrase). That’s the key. Jesus affirms that in our lives, and we can go on from that and expe­ri­ence the good­ness of God as we face each new day.

The child who dies dur­ing a famine is ush­ered imme­di­ate­ly into the full world of God in which he or she finds exis­tence good and prospects incom­pre­hen­si­bly grand. There God is seen, as he now sure­ly is not seen, to be good and great with­out lim­it, and every indi­vid­ual received into his pres­ence enjoys the ever­last­ing suf­fi­cien­cy of his good­ness and great­ness. There is no tragedy for those who rely on this God.

Dal­las Willard, The Allure of Gen­tle­ness. Harper­One, 2015 (pp.129 – 133).

Text First Published December 2014

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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