His-Story

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Undeserved Suffering

Thoughts from the Realm of Ideas and The Story of Job, Part 2

In my last post I introduced a concept that D. A. Carson calls asymmetry, (How Long O Lord, pg 213) a suggestion that reconciles the apparent contradiction that God is sovereign over both good and evil. I further introduced a theological context for his suggestion that is as follows:

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)

Far from being a simple, convenient way to answer the unanswerable predicament of innocent suffering, these thoughts are clearly biblical in their origin. Today I share a few illustrations.

The fact that God is absolutely sovereign is clearly portrayed in Psalm 115:2-3

Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?” Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.  (Psa 115:2-3 ESV)

In the NT the Apostle Paul declares,

In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, (Eph 1:11 ESV)

Proverbs 21:1 tells of God’s rule over the heart of a king. Proverbs 16:9 also describes God’s sway over every human decision. God is the one who turned the hearts of the Egyptians favorably toward the Hebrews during the Exodus. In Isa 45:6-7 God declares his sovereignty over prosperity and disaster. Yet in all of his absolute control, human responsibility (culpability) for sin remains. For example, God motivates David to take a census, and then judges him for this act of disobedience (2 Sam 24:1ff). God intends to punish Eli’s sons, so he somehow stands behind their disobedience but it is nonetheless their own responsibility to bear the consequences. So, the first statement is clearly presented in the Bible. God is absolutely sovereign, but humanity is responsible for sinful actions.

The second statement is also clearly presented in Scripture. Over and over, we are commanded to obey the Law given by God and we are given the freedom to obey or disobey.

 “Now therefore fear the LORD and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”  (Jos 24:14-15 ESV)

The Ten Commandments and the many invitations to believe the Gospel all point to the freedom of humanity in choices.   But never is God dependent on these choices (contingent), or obligated to humanity for the maintenance of his own character or governance over his creation.  At the same time, however, God is loving, just and good in all that he does.

“The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he. (Deu 32:4 ESV)

“Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations! Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.”  (Rev 15:3-4 ESV

One of the most revealing passages that illustrates how both of these statements are true and not contradictory is the conclusion of the Joseph saga that is told in Gen 37-50.  Summarizing the egregious act of Joseph’s brothers and the sovereign oversight of our good God, Joseph declares:

As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. (Gen 50:20 ESV)

With this statement, Joseph acknowledged that God was behind every dastardly deed of his brothers, yet he was doing more than merely turning a bad situation into something good. It was God’s intention (“…God intended it…” ) for his brothers to sell Joseph into slavery. But there is never any indication that God was the author of evil; in fact, all along he was only accomplishing good. Joseph’s brothers, and only they, are held responsible for Joseph’s suffering.

If this seems too convenient for God – allowing him to be absolutely sovereign but not responsible for evil and never beholding to the free decisions of man – understand that this describes, exactly, the God of the Bible. Now we understand the term, ”the Mystery of Providence.” (Carson, pg. 199ff)

I hope you have a place in your thinking for mystery, because we clearly see it at work in the life of Job, the ultimate illustration of undeserved or innocent suffering, but suffering that is under the loving and sovereign hand of God.

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