Undeserved Suffering

Thoughts from the Realm of Ideas and The Story of Job, Part 1

It doesn’t take much effort to observe that there is suffering in this world that is not the result of personal decisions. Some people suffer illness because of lifestyle decisions (smoking, alcohol, and drug abuse, etc.). Some people suffer because of unwise relational practices (anger, lying, adultery, cause marital dysfunction). Other people suffer because of selfishness (debt, gambling, risky investments). All of these instances of suffering make sense. There is much suffering in this world simply because we are sinners and sinners live lives that often produce suffering. We take risks, we neglect safety precautions, we make mistakes. Much of the world’s suffering is our own fault. Paul tells us, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.” (Gal 6:7 ESV)

But there is a category of suffering that causes those who follow Jesus Christ considerable angst. We call it innocent suffering, or undeserved suffering. This is suffering that has no apparent cause or reason. It is suffering that appears arbitrary. Examples might include disease that just appears (cancer, MS, arthritis), sexual abuse of children, children playing on a school playground caught in the crossfire of a gang gun fight, loss of life and property due to hurricanes or tornadoes. The litany of undeserved suffering could grow quite substantial. Atheists and critics of biblical Christianity use this category of suffering as a major assault on our faith. How could a loving and all-powerful God allow this type of suffering? Either he is not loving, he is not all-powerful, or he doesn’t exist. What is our response? I want to share some thoughts from the realm of ideas and then from an example from the Bible. First, from the realm of ideas.

It is possible (I would say that what I am about to say is in fact true, but for the sake of not being dogmatic, I’ll say possible) that God can be loving and all-powerful and govern a world where undeserved or innocent suffering exists. Now, I am not a trained philosopher, but I do have some mileage under my belt in theology, so here goes. It is possible that God is sovereign over both good and evil, but not in the same way. He is sovereign over good in a way that is active and causative. He is active over good in that he initiates it. He causes it because he is the source of all that is good. When God created, the Bible says that he declared creation “very good.” But when sin entered the world, his very good world became broken and infected with sin, which produced suffering. Creation cries out in agony, longing to be released from the bondage of sin (Rom 8:22-23). Therefore, undeserved and innocent suffering is a reality. However, this does not require that God initiated and caused evil. I maintain that the Bible clearly teaches that God  can be sovereign over evil but that he did not initiate it nor did he cause it. Rather he is sovereign over evil passively and permissively. Passive means that he did not initiate it. It was initiated by someone other than himself (Satan in heaven and Adam and Eve on earth). Permissively means that before it could come into existence, it had to go through him, which keeps him firmly in control, but not culpable for the havoc it creates. In summary, God is sovereign over both good and evil, but not in the same way. A word to describe this is asymmetry. Symmetry requires a point-by-point parallelism. Asymmetry maintains a comparison, but not an exact comparison. Another way to describe this is in the phrase, “the mystery of providence.” Providence means that God is in control, but the way he can be in control over both good and evil is a mystery. So here we have it, the providential mystery of asymmetry! That is a door wide enough for a critic of our faith to drive a truck filled with explosives right into our biblical storehouse and blow it to smithereens. But maybe not. If God is who the Bible portrays him to be, it is possible that this scenario of life is actually reality. Why can’t there be a category that is unknown but possible, especially if that is the world that is presented in the Bible? I am quite taken by the suggestion of D.A. Carson in his book, How Long O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil,where he introduces readers to two propositions:

God is absolutely sovereign, but his sovereignty never functions in such a way that human responsibility is curtailed, minimized or mitigated.

Human beings are morally responsible creatures–they significantly choose, rebel, obey, believe, defy, make decisions, and so forth, and they are rightly held accountable for such actions; but this characteristic never functions so as to make God absolutely contingent.  (pg 201)

These two statements fall within the bounds of the Bible’s storyline of creation, fall, redemption, and recreation. Over and over, material is given that presents these two statements as fact. While they may appear convenient for the argument I am presenting, the truth is that, taken at face value, this is exactly how God presents His-story!

I’ll present some of the evidence in my next post.

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