God and Suffering

On Wednesday evening, we were under a severe weather threat. We had cloud rotation to our south and tornadic activity to our north. Kati and I had our emergency bags packed just in case (and we actually have a “justincase” that Kati’s cousin, Justin, bought us one year for Christmas in case we needed it). We grabbed those few things that we really didn’t want to lose if the rest of our property were to be swept away. There is one thing I have that I can’t take with me: my books. I know, I could simply go digital and start buying e-books. They are not the same, and you know it. I came to this realization again. I was reminded that there will come a day when I lose all of my material possessions and there is nothing I can do about it. Death will even take my body from me. This is because of my own sin. Genesis 2 tells us explicitly that the consequence of sin is death. I trust that God will give gracious rewards according to my participation in the building of His church on this earth (1 Corinthians 3:13), and I trust that I will receive a glorified body in the resurrections (1 Corinthians 15:42-46). Because of sin, I must lose everything that is sown in corruption- my material possessions on this earth and my worldly body in death. There is suffering in every form. We suffer from disease, natural disaster, war, sickness, pain, hatred, the whole aging process, deformity, and stupidity. Sometimes we regret something idiotic we have said. Sometimes we simply suffer at the stupidity of others. I have to wonder, why would such a good God allow things to be so broken? What is the point?

Judges 2:1-5

The Angel of the Lord went up from Gilgal to Bochim and said, “I brought you out of Egypt and led you into the land I had promised to your fathers. I also said: I will never break My covenant with you. You are not to make a covenant with the people who are living in this land, and you are to tear down their altars. But you have not obeyed Me. What is this you have done? Therefore, I now say: I will not drive out these people before you. They will be thorns in your sides, and their gods will be a trap for you.” When the Angel of the Lord had spoken these words to all the Israelites, the people wept loudly. So they named that place Bochim and offered sacrifices there to the Lord.

My sin

In this part of the story, after the Israelites had entered the promised land, we read that God had blessed the Israelites greatly. He had chosen them as a people. He brought them out of Egypt. He gave them a land of their own in which He would bring about creation’s messiah through them. God enabled the people to take land from armies that were more powerful than them. In chapter one, we read also of territories that were not conquered and where the Canaanites had not been driven out of the land according to God’s command.

It is important for us to remember why the Canaanites were being driven out by God’s command, and so we go back to Genesis 15. In Genesis 15, God makes a covenant with Abraham. This covenant was made according to the tradition of the time. Animals would be brought and cut in half. The two people making the covenant would walk between the halves of the animal after the terms of their agreement had been decided. If either person was to break the verbal contract, they essentially said, “Let it be done to me as has been done to these animals” (described in Jeremiah 34:18, 19). In Genesis 15, God was the only one who walked between the animal carcasses, signifying for Abraham that the covenant was God’s responsibility to keep and that He would keep His covenant. The agreement was that Abraham’s descendants would come in and occupy the land after the iniquity of the Amorites was complete. In Joshua and Judges, we read about God fulfilling this part of His covenant. God is bringing justice to the land while also providing a place for His chosen national people. There are two things we learn: First, God is merciful to all people and He cares about justice. Second, God is faithful to His chosen people and His covenant does not depend on them. Even though I have sinned, God is the covenant maker and keeper.

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In Judges 2, God reaffirms this truth before He addresses the sin of His people, “I will never break My covenant with you.” Before we even think about working through our sin, we recognize this promise that God has made to His chosen people. He is faithful and His covenant does not depend on us. Okay, now let’s talk about all of our mistakes. Hold on tight.

The Israelites failed to obey God. Instead, they sought their own glory. Not only did they fail to, by God’s command, bring justice to the region by displacing the land’s inhabitants. They also started making slaves of the land’s inhabitants and treated them harshly (like what was being done in Egypt and like what the inhabitants of the land were already doing to one another (Judges 1:7). They were not concerned with God’s glory, they were concerned with achieving their own glory. So, God rebuked them.

Here is what I find, and this was the case for Adam and Eve in Genesis 3 as well. We often define sin wrongly. We have a set list of actions that we consider to be sins. So, we say, “Stay away from these things and you will honor God.” Then, we turn around and say that salvation is by grace through faith, not by works so no one can boast. Do you see the contradiction? Sin actually has more to do with the motivation of my heart than it does with any single outward action. Sin is when I am motivated by achieving glory for myself rather than by dwelling in the glory of God. Sin is about the condition of our hearts, but in this wretched world, we are often more concerned with outward actions. We might say something like, “If you go to this place or do this certain thing or behave in this manner, you are sinning.” That’s easier to think about because we like doing something to try and achieve our own glory. This means, though, that even our subscription to some sort of works-based righteousness is itself sinful because it comes from a heart that seeks glory for self.

If I define human sexuality in such a way that I am trying to gain glory by promoting my own agenda rather than dwelling in God’s glory, then I am in sin. If I seek a formal education (I am considering Ph.D. work. I’m currently learning German, which is a prerequisite for my desired area of study) in such a way that I am trying to gain glory by advancing myself rather than dwelling in God’s glory, then I am in sin. If I do ministry in such a way that I am trying to gain glory by multiplying my own influence instead of dwelling in God’s glory, I am in sin. If I eat or drink in such a way that I am trying to gain glory by satisfying myself rather than dwelling in God’s glory, I am in sin. If this is God’s standard, then our sin is great and it is more devastating than we could realize. Even if we do something that might be considered good or righteous, we may be in sin because sinfulness is a motivation of the heart. There is a reason Isaiah said,

“All of us have become like something unclean,

and all our righteous acts are like a polluted garment;

all of us wither like a leaf,

and our iniquities carry us away like the wind.

No one calls on Your name,

striving to take hold of You.

For You have hidden Your face from us

and made us melt because of our iniquity” (Isaiah 64:6-7).

I am predisposed to seek my own glory.

My suffering

In Genesis 1-2, we read of how God created all things. He created people in His image to steward creation for His glory and to multiply and fill the earth with His image. If people were created in God’s image, and God has His own will (a will by which He created all things in harmony as good and by which He created people in His image), then the people who are created in God’s image also have their own wills. To act in contradiction to God’s design is to actually bring disharmony. In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve used their freedom to choose what was contrary to God’s design. Consequently, the world was broken.

If God created all things, then the only harmony of existence is found in God’s own design concerning His creation. To exercise an independent will or to seek one’s own glory is to remove one’s self from the harmony of God’s created order. Since people were created to steward God’s creation as His image, all of creation was cursed (Gen. 3:17). Adam and Eve exercised their God-given independent god-like wills by breaking the command of God and thus became like God, knowing good and evil (Gen. 3:22). So, God cut them off from the Tree of Life (which was a symbol as was the Tree of Knowledge), signifying that He did not desire they live forever in wretchedness or in disharmony or in the brokenness that they caused (Gen. 3:22). Adam and Eve could also not live in a perfect state while simultaneously living to gain glory for themselves. If God has all glory and people are created in His image, then people are predisposed to desire glory. There are two ways to accomplish this: abide in God’s glory or seek glory for self. Adam and Eve were slaves to their own wills. They were depraved, which would lead them, given the chance, to seek glory for themselves. The only way for Adam and Eve, people created in God’s image, to realize that they were depraved, that their wills were not God’s and glory did not belong to them, was for their entire estate to be broken. So, God gave them a command and warned them about the consequences. Adam and Eve, though created in perfection, needed to realize, as we do, that harmony can only be found in God’s created order, which God formed for His own glory, not ours.

It is apparent from Genesis 1-3 that creation is broken by design, not by accident. Yes, you read that correctly. The world is broken by design. The way that the world has turned out in our day is part of the plan that God has had from the foundation of the world. It is God’s plan A. He doesn’t change. He didn’t make a mistake. He is not scrambling, trying to put things back together because they fell apart. This being stated, I don’t think every instance of suffering is directly instigated by God. When two planes plowed into the World Trade Center, people were directly responsible. God, though, did intentionally create a perfect world and, through a single command, enabled people to obey their own wills and become enslaved to their depravity. The consequence was suffering because people were God’s image, they were representative rulers in the created order. People rebel, all of creation enters into a rebellious state. That is the doctrine of original sin. God works that suffering together for His glory and the good of those who love Him. He uses it to humble people and to create a yearning in people such that they long to dwell in His glory rather than achieve their own- because that is where we find a happy estate. This is what God was doing with the Hebrew people, and we get to read about it explicitly through the book of Judges.

In the current passage of Scripture, God states clearly that He will not drive out the inhabitants of the land because of the Israelite’s sinfulness. Sinfulness is a condition of the heart. God left the inhabitants as a thorn in the sides of the Israelites and He left their false gods so that those false gods would be a snare to the Israelite people. God worked all things together in such a way that people would be tested by false gods, revealing their depravity. God left suffering as a thorn because of sinfulness. In chapter 2:13-15, we read more:

“…for they abandoned Him and worshiped Baal and the Ashtoreths.

The Lord’s anger burned against Israel, and He handed them over to marauders who raided them. He sold them to the enemies around them, and they could no longer resist their enemies. Whenever the Israelites went out, the Lord was against them and brought disaster on them, just as He had promised and sworn to them. So they suffered greatly.”

When we look back at Genesis 3, we witness God doing the same thing with Adam and Eve. God placed a tree and gave a command to test them, revealing their depravity. God gave suffering as a disciplinary measure to both Adam and Eve after they had given in to that depravity and sinned. Work would be toil. Eve’s pain in child-bearing would greatly increase. So, we answer the question of suffering in two parts:

    1. God tests us in order to reveal our depravity to us. He does not test us in order that we might prove ourselves to Him. His tests are not like the tests we take in school. He already knows our hearts and He already knows the depth of our depravity. He knows that on this earth in our current time we are born as slaves to our very depravity- keeping us from everything good that is found in His glory.
    2. Because of our sin, God has placed thorns in the world to remind us that we are depraved and in desperate need of Him. After all, He has created us for His glory. Only in that glory can we experience the life that God designed us for and be fully satisfied.

The apostle Paul referred to His own thorn,

“Therefore, so that I would not exalt myself, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to torment me so I would not exalt myself. Concerning this, I pleaded with the Lord three times to take it away from me. But He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Therefore, I will most gladly boast all the more about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may reside in me. So I take pleasure in weaknesses, insults, catastrophes, persecutions, and in pressures, because of Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:7b-10).

Is God, then, to be blamed for evil in the world? If God is so good, why does He permit evil? Why do we struggle so much with this particular question in our time? The reason we can’t answer this question well is because we have not taken the time to understand who God is. God is the one who receives all glory. We try to answer this question as if God should be interested in giving us His glory. So, we come up with terrible answers. I care far too much about you to lie about this. Far too many people try and cover up what they perceive as bad. “That’s not really what the Bible means,” they say, “God is too loving for that.” One bad answer I hear frequently is, “Everything happens for a reason.” This answer is meant to give a sense of some greater good. Look, God isn’t off the hook because you try and justify His allowing one thing in order to accomplish some greater purpose. God doesn’t need your justification. God works the world together in the way that He does for our good, that in our trials we might recognize our depravity and that in our suffering, which is discipline for sin, we would recognize that we need Him. When we recognize that and turn to Christ, we are given life such that not even Adam and Eve had in the Garden. Even the fall of humankind works together for the good of those who love God.

It’s not like we can even question God’s existence or His goodness logically. We have this idea of what is good and what is not good. The only way we can even appeal to this idea of goodness is if there is a standard for goodness. As soon as we say that anything is good or not good, we declare the existence of a creator who is Himself the standard. If there is no God, then there is no good or bad. There is no suffering and no real pleasure or satisfaction. What is, simply is, and existence is without meaning. We recognize suffering in the world. We experience suffering. As soon as we experience suffering, we recognize that something isn’t right. Something is off kilter. Oh yeah, that’s why God states in His word that He has sovereignly permitted suffering in the world. He wants us to recognize the imbalance. He yearns for us to surrender to Him for our good. This is the opposite of evil. God hasn’t created evil. God hasn’t done evil. People have. God is the good Father who disciplines His children that they would be ready and willing to receive their inheritance in His glory.

When people sought their own glory, creation entered into a rebellious state.

God’s win

I want to refer once again to Adam and Eve. Original sin was part of God’s plan. We had to be broken to realize our insufficiency because we were created in God’s image. God is subject only to His own will, and so people were slaves to their own wills. People were not God, they were the image of God; so their wills were images of God’s will. They were insufficient. They were predisposed because they were created in God’s image, to seek glory for themselves given the opportunity- but all glory rightly belonged to God. How would God establish His creation? They needed to be arrested by the will of God, so that those who were created in God’s image would also exist for His glory. People were depraved. So, God gave a command, a test, knowing that people would disobey because they were slaves to their own wills. People freely, and I emphasize freely, rebelled, became slaves to their depravity, and the world was consequently broken so that all of creation could be established. The command not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge was placed as a snare so that people would be broken in depravity and so that God could have a people not merely created in His image, but also established as His people in and for His glory. This is all part of God’s plan as He establishes His creation. He formed the earth in order to establish it (Jeremiah 33:2). There is a great comfort in this. God is using my rebellion to draw me closer to Himself for His glory and my good. If it weren’t for the dissent into disharmony, I would be stuck forever trying to achieve my own glory, never knowing what it is to abide in that of God. I would never be satisfied. Brokenness in the world works out for our good. Though it means that there must be temporary suffering, it also means that we get to experience eternal satisfaction. We are not merely the image of God, God has also made us His people.

God is working for His own glory. If we are created in His image, and to multiply His image in creation, then we exist for God’s glory. Whatever God works together for His own glory also works for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. It would not be possible for anyone to be truly satisfied, to live with immeasurable peace, to experience joy that is not based on our external accomplishments, to recognize their worth apart from their material possessions, or to truly love someone else unconditionally if the world wasn’t broken because we would have continued to try and seek glory for ourselves individually instead of resting and reveling in God’s glory.

What was it that Jesus said? “I have come that you might live for an everlasting span of time in a place that might be described as paradise”? No, but that is often the way that people think. Jesus, who appears in Judges 2 as the Angel of the Lord, said it this way later during His bodily ministry, “I have come so that they may have life and have it in abundance” (John 10:10b). God’s desire is not to simply give us a place to live for all of time. If that were His desire, He would not have created people in His image and Genesis 2 would be the last chapter in our Bibles (there would be much less to memorize). God saw all that He made in the beginning and it was good. Still, He desired a deeper sort of existence for people. God desires that His people actually have life and that we have it abundantly. He formed the world in order to establish it. Adam and Eve had an everlasting existence before they sinned and earned the consequence of physical death. What they did not have, and what we would not have, is abundant life wrapped up in the glory of God for our good. Christ went on to say, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). In this, we read, spelled out for us through the Scriptures, God’s plan regarding human suffering.

    1. God creates people in His image.
      1. Because people are created in God’s image, their disposition is to seek glory given the chance to do so.
    2. God gives a command that self-seeking people will freely disobey, introducing suffering to break people of their self-centeredness, which keeps them from the abundant life that is found only in God’s glory.
    3. Christ suffers the consequence of humankind’s sin so that people might turn to Him and receive this abundant life by trusting in Him rather than self.
    4. Later, God will remove the broken state of the world and those who turned to Christ will both be God’s image and abide in God’s glory (which is impossible without first being broken). Those who do not trust in Christ will forever be slaves to their own depravity and nothing they do will ever be enough to satisfy them because we were designed to abide in God’s glory, not to seek our own.

God created people to be the crown of His creation. So, we display ourselves as a crown. Unless we are tempered, we never realize that there is a King shaping us as a fitting crown for Himself and for His own glory. This is God’s purpose for suffering. He wins the victory of His people through the suffering of this current world.

God works suffering together to draw His people to dwell in His glory for their good.

 

I am predisposed to seek my own glory.

When people sought their own glory, creation entered into a rebellious state.

God works suffering together, drawing His people to dwell in His glory for their good.

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