My dear friend: There’s probably a huge list of questions I’d like to ask God the second I see Him (right after I collect my eyeballs back into my head). So right upfront: I’m not sure why the devil is given a long leash. I’m going to ask about that one, probably with my arms crossed.
The Question of Evil has not been adequately answered by the greatest philosophers of history, and I probably won’t be the one to crack the code on that today either. It’s the kind of stuff that makes me doubt God everyday. Even if I did have some solid theology on why certain atrocities happen, I still doubt it would satisfy the victim of rape and abuse and slavery and oppression, no matter how much “logical sense” it makes to the brain. Even if I concluded, “All the bad stuff is really Satan,” then a suffering person could only reply, “So now what?”
I can only offer a few thoughts that might help you on your journey here: because this tension of why bad things happen will never be resolved by any single answer. Anything we say on pain will always be inadequate for the actual suffering person. No such all-encompassing answer from any belief system really exists. I can only say that I believe the Christian perspective best accommodates the problems we see today. I’m also aware that some of us will never meet eye-to-eye on this and it’s easy to “deconstructively reduce” anything I’m saying with our current artistic cynicism. And that’s okay. We are free to disagree and wrestle and think for ourselves.
And please know: I would never, ever enumerate these reasons out loud the moment after a person has been seriously harmed. Really none of this theology matters as much as you being there in the trenches with a heart of listening and love.
As always, please feel free to skip around.
1) Our current world is not the way it ought to be.
The Bible tells us our world is fractured by sin. Sin is not just disobedience against God and how we’re made, but also a disconnection from the all-fulfilling love of God. So we try to find God in things that are not God, and that’s how our internal disconnection manifests into external disobedience. In other words: a legitimate need to seek comfort can lead to alcohol addiction or codependency or a string of shallow one-night stands.
We end up abusing people as “obstacles” and using people as “vehicles.” We build a kingdom of self because we’re apart from our true king. We try to find fulfillment through stuff and people and experiences — and none of this is very wrong, but we go about this in illegitimate harmful ways. We try to squeeze from people and things what only God can give us. These expectations crush others and crush ourselves, and in a way, it crushes the heart of God. The elevation of self-fulfillment leads to an authoritarian tyranny of self that no one could possibly bear, including ourselves.
Sin not only causes problems with other people, but also personal issues (like vanity and insecurity and greed) and planet issues (which is why our earth doesn’t function liked it was supposed to). At every level, our whole world is shriveled by the disease we call sin. It’s not as bad as it could be, but it’s nowhere near where it should be.
From God’s point of view, He’s working with a world that is in every way completely disarrayed. It’s like walking into a room where someone flung paint and glass all over the place. Where do you start cleaning up a mess like that? And beyond that, the Bible tells us there is a devil who exacerbates our struggle, so that we’re getting mixed signals thrown into our already turbulent mess.
Before we even talk about why God lets this or that happen, I hope we first confess that a major part of the problem is me. It’s you. It’s us. The devil only comes in to poke at our pre-existing selfishness. We are the ones who marred the world with dirty paint; we chucked the shards of glass at God’s creation. If you think, “That’s not fair, Adam and Eve did that!” — well, let’s imagine you and me in that perfect Garden. How long before each of us would’ve done exactly what they did? Even if it took a million more years, we would’ve done the same thing.
2) If this world is not how it was meant to be, then not every pain is meant to be God teaching us a “lesson.”
Since our world is broken apart from its original design, this also means that God suffers with us when we suffer. He doesn’t stand by waiting for us to “get” some kind of epiphany. Which leads me to believe that pain is pain, that pain sucks, that it doesn’t need to be spiritualized, and that God doesn’t so much lead us towards it but leads us through it.
To more fully answer your question, I’m not sure if God purposefully leads us into harmful situations. I don’t know if “yes” or “no” would suffice for that. But I do know we’re all walking through a world of jagged glass, and at every turn we are wading through an innumerable number of consequences that began in the Garden. And God is working through this infinite number of misaligned imperfections in our universe to write (and re-write) His story the best He knows how — and from His throne, I can’t imagine how difficult His job must be to guide the best possible options for the human story while never infringing upon our free will.
When Jesus taught us to pray, “Your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven” — this implies that God doesn’t always get what He wants. However blasphemous that might sound to you, this world can’t possibly be how God wants it to be. Which means God is just as angry as you are when injustice happens. He’s looking at the human story with all the anguish of a single mother who lost her only child, with all the betrayal of a church with a lying pastor, with all the hurt of a father who prays for his prodigal son.
When Job’s friends try to tell him, “You got wrecked because you sinned bro,” at the end God drops by in a storm and says all of Job’s friends are wrong. God is pretty angry that they would connect “hurt” with some kind of unconfessed sin. At the same time, God doesn’t give some simple answer about life and pain and lessons. Probably because no human words could accurately resolve this tension between what is and what ought to be.
3) If God were to intervene every single time, there would be nothing left.
It seems like God could step in at any time and stop evil. But I just wonder at what point God should do this. At the level of action? At the level of thought? Of atoms? Of free will? If God were to electrocute us every time we were about to do something bad, we would all be fried chicken.
Much of the evil in the world is a direct result of our choices. The irony is that the very gift of Free Will that God gave us to make us human is also the same gift that could make this world a better place — but by and large, we still continue to destroy each other throughout history. To blame God for all this is a serious lack of responsibility for our choices, and it only exposes the Western over-privileged entitlement that is killing us postmoderns today. Even the non-religious person will blame their parents or environment or government or city, and while all these are partially responsible, it’s really just me. We are each accountable. I can yell, “God why do you let this happen?” — but God could just as easily ask me, “Why do you?”
God allows our cycle of consequences to unroll, mostly because this is what makes us human and accountable. And even then, God does often relieve us by His grace over and over. That brings us to the next point.
4) God has probably saved us by an innumerable amount of close calls.
Whenever someone asks, “Why couldn’t God have prevented this one?” — I always want to counter that God probably has prevented a lot of stuff, and that the world is not as bad as it possibly could be or should be.
I don’t think I can count all the times I almost got into a car accident or was steered out of an explosive situation or found random help at the exact right time: and from God’s point of view, we never thank Him for this stuff. We just explain it away as “coincidence” or “serendipity” or “good luck.” An earthquake happens in the ocean and it’s a “weather pattern.” When it happens on land, we call it an atrocious oversight by God. But maybe this says more about us than God.
In the Book of Acts, the account of the early church, we find out that Peter and James are both arrested for their faith (Acts 12). James is immediately beheaded but Peter is kept alive. Try to imagine this happening in your church. “Did you hear? Pastor Bob and Deacon Bill were arrested for being Christians. Bob was killed and we don’t know about Bill.” Imagine Bob’s family. They would be going crazy, asking God why He let Bob die, and perhaps secretly wondering why God let Bill live.
We never find out why. It feels cruel when you read the passage. God prevented Peter’s death, but in some sense did not intervene for James. Yet both actually could’ve died, because evil men were killing Christians by their own free will. And when Peter and James were arrested, their church thought they were both pretty much dead. It’s only a miracle that Peter actually lives, and I hope we can celebrate that. I hope we can see that God’s gracious hand is still at work. It’s definitely awful that James died and I never want to diminish that. But I also imagine the families of both Peter and James comforting each other throughout the whole ordeal, because really, this is what matters.
5) God did send an ultimate provision to upturn evil.
Here’s why I believe in Jesus.
Because at some point in human history, God became one of us and reversed the human condition. Just one place, at one time, in the dirtiest sand-swept stain of a city, He healed our entropy: and He invites us into that better story.
Many things happened in the cross and resurrection. Jesus absorbed the cycle of human violence. He showed there was a better way than self-centered tyranny and retaliation. He paid the cost of sin on our behalf. He reversed the ultimate consequence of death from the first Garden by turning death backwards in a new Garden. He bestowed that same death-defeating power into those who believed his story. He identified with us by taking on all the harm of sin though he never sinned himself. He promised us a union with Him by being united with the Spirit (or the “mind”) of God. He inaugurated a new kind of kingdom where the weak can win, the poor can succeed, and all our survival values are flipped into sacrifice. Jesus redefined what it meant to be human by creating an upside-down kingdom where the humble will be elevated and the prideful would be melted by love.
Jesus essentially stepped into the glass and re-did the paint. He went into the mess and re-created the pieces. He doesn’t answer why bad things happen, but he gives us a love stronger than all that does happen.
Which reminds me of our brother C.S. Lewis, who said —
“I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?”
All this means that a victim doesn’t have to let their circumstances define who they are. We don’t have to let what happens here on earth to say who we are forever. While I don’t know why God might “allow” these things to happen, I believe that God doesn’t want these things to be the final word about us. I want to believe Genesis 50:20 is true, and that the devil has limitations, and that even the worldwide permeation of sin is no match for the healing work of Christ.
A last note. If your friend is going through some horrible pain right now at the hands of another person, it’s not our job to explain this within the box of our theology. That’s a cold thing to do. Jesus never did this: he only wept when he heard of Lazarus, he wept over Jerusalem, he stayed at the homes of lepers and demoniacs, he fed the hungry multitudes. More than our persuasion, our friends need presence. This is what God did when He became one of us, and this is how we embody love — by mourning when others mourn, by giving space to grieve, and by allowing joy to find its place when the time is right.