God’s Will and Human Suffering — David Lipe


Some Introductory Remarks

The fact of human suffering has been discussed it seems “forever.” It is discussed in the book of Job as well as in ancient and medieval literature. The Enlightenment saw it as a weapon against theism. Set in the age of Reason, the argument regarding the problem of evil and suffering became and remains a major stumbling-block for faith in the God of the Bible. Suffering is a common and universal experience which must be addressed in Christian thought. All around us there is sickness, disease, poverty, injustice, oppression, war, and senseless violence. Thus, for most people there seems to exist a great amount of suffering in the world. Some of this suffering is extremely intense and prevails over a long period of time.

Suffering results from: (1) inanimate nature, (2) animate nature, (3) the human condition, and (4) from sin (others as well as one’s own). Concerning (1) suffering from inanimate nature refers to “evils” not perpetuated by human beings. This is called by some “physical” evil or “natural” evil, though not evil in the truest sense. Sin (that which frustrates one’s relationship with God or his fellow man) is really the only intrinsic evil. Thousands have been hurt or killed and untold millions of dollars of property has been destroyed by hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, droughts, blizzards, etc. One has only to watch the news to see evidence of this. Regarding  (2) men, women, and children have been maimed or killed by wild animals. Other have been hurt or killed by bites from insects and reptiles. (3) Much suffering has resulted from the human condition. Various diseases torment man. Diseases such as leprosy and cancer would not be thought to be the work of a benevolent creator. Suffering is to blame for various physical deformities and defects with which so many are born such as blindness, deafness, dumbness, mental deficiency and insanity. These contribute towards increasing human pain and suffering. (4) Some suffering is because of sin. (a) Men have suffered due to the sin of other men– evils such as slander, backbiting, selfishness, envy, greed, deceit, and cruelty of all kinds. (b) Others suffer from neglect by their fellowman. The news accounts of child abuse are almost unfathomable. (c) There is much suffering because nations wage war on other nations. The Holocaust coupled together with all the other cruelties and devastations of the twentieth century have forced us to confess the existence of unimaginable evil. This says nothing about the millions of wounded, of the untold suffering of the living, of the poverty, starvation, dehumanization, immorality, and disruption of normal lives that war brings about. (5) Men also suffer because of their own weaknesses and failures. A sense of moral oughtness exists in all men but men fail to live up to this sense of moral obligation thus bringing suffering and anguish upon themselves.  Another problem is the seeming chaotic nature of the distribution of suffering: the unjust and the just (Mt. 5:45); adults and children; and, humans and animals. There is the meaningless nature of suffering in the world.  Some would hold that even if some suffering could be justified on some grounds, there is a surplus of suffering such as to make the possibility of the existence of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God simply unbelievable.

The above considerations raise a number of perplexing questions: Why is there any suffering?  Why didn’t God make a pleasure paradise in which man could dwell? Why is there so much suffering? Why do the righteous suffer? (cf. Judges 6:13; Gen. 18:23-25; Hab. 1:12, 13). Why do little children suffer? Why can’t God do something about suffering? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why? Why? Why?

Problems Advanced Because of Suffering

Unbelievers point to what seems to them to be a logical contradiction between God’s attributes and the existence of evil and suffering. The amount of suffering, the distribution of suffering, and the meaningless nature of suffering have caused many to conclude that such must be incompatible with the existence of God.  Warren calls attention to Lactantius, a so-called Christian apologist of the fourth century, who quotes Epicurus as follows:

“God either wishes to take away evils and is unable; or he is able and unwilling; or he is neither willing nor able, or he is both willing and able.  If he is willing and unable, he is feeble, which is not in accordance with the character of God; if he is able and unwilling, he is envious, which is equally at variance with God; if he is neither willing nor able, he is both envious and feeble, and therefore, not God; if he is both willing and able, which is alone suitable to God, from what source then are evils?  Or why does he not remove them?”

In sum the charge is this: (1) Either God is all-good (and wishes to get rid of suffering) but is too weak to do anything about it; or (2) Or, God, is all-powerful (and can get rid of suffering) but is not good and does not wish to do anything about suffering.

Believers are concerned about how to reconcile the existence of the God of the Bible with the evil and suffering in the world. This is faith seeking understanding. “Lord, I believe.  Help thou mine unbelief” (Mk. 9:24). We believe but we want to understand; thus, we seek to “justify the ways of God man.” Yet, in a very real sense we cannot fully justify God’s ways. Neither I, nor anyone can put God in a box, as it were, for inspection purposes. It would be the height of presumption for any human to claim to be able to “justify” the infinite being, God. Theists only seek to offer some remarks in an effort to demonstrate that the biblical revelation is plausible even in the midst of human suffering. To demonstrate the self-consistency of biblical theism is a sufficient intellectual response to charges made by skeptics. God does not need our justification but a rational response which might be helpful for some. Such a response can and should be given.

While the problem of suffering is a cognitive problem for both unbelievers and believers, it is a practical problem for those who are suffering themselves. They need to know how to cope and endure the suffering they are experiencing on a daily basis. We should hasten to say that a logical explanation of human suffering is of little value to those who find themselves in the very midst of suffering. Such individuals do not need a logical explanation while they are suffering; on the contrary, they need to know of the love and care of God. The sufferer needs from his or her fellow man care and compassion–not philosophical argument. This is the case because of the emotional trauma of suffering which is not overcome in intellectual discussion but in trusting in the love and care of God. One’s emotional needs are different than one’s intellectual needs. Each of these needs must be met, but they are not met in the same way. This essay is designed to address the intellectual needs of the individual.

God’s Will–The Key to the Problem

Much confusion prevails concerning “God’s will.” God only does what is in harmony with His nature.  So was the earthquake God’s will?  Was it God’s will that a child burns to death?  I am sure that we have all heard people tell others that when loved ones die or lose a job or contract a terminal illness that it is just God’s will. We should be careful how we use the phrase “God’s will,” lest we accuse God of something He did not do (as Job’s friends did).

What do we mean when we say that something is “God’s Will”?  If everything is God’s will, then can a person defeat God’s will?  If everything that happens is God’s will, why punish the thief or rapist?  Why try to cure disease?  Some think we should leave it alone and let “God’s will” run its course.  After all, one would not want to attempt to oppose God’s will.

Weatherhead, in his The Will of God, has suggested at least three aspects of the will of God: (1) God’s intentional will; (2) God’s circumstantial will; and, (3) God’s ideal will. First, God’s intentional will involves God’s ideal plan for man.  God’s ideal will is what God would intend or prefer to happen to us. He wanted a being to choose freely to be a son of His and brother to his fellow man. This is what parents want for their children. Parents want their children to be faithful, happy, marry well, etc.  But, they may freely decide to leave what they have been taught or marry a hoodlum.

God had a definite purpose before the creation of man and the world.ii Why did he create human beings? Creation was not out of some inner necessity but was an act of love (Rev. 4:11). To understand why he created, we must understand what he created. God created a community. He always intended a people for himself. He created a people with whom he could share communion and love (cf. Rev. 21:3). Creation involved all the members of the Godhead. The Godhead is a community of loving fellowship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (cf. John 17). Just as a couple, in an ideal sense, decides to have children in order to share the love that they have for one another, so when the Godhead decided to create, they decided to share with another something they already enjoyed. Creation magnifies the glory of God who shares his fellowship with those whom he creates.

The definite purpose God had in creating the world is captured well by Warren when he says:

 “Prior to his creation of man and the world, God, because he is omniscient, had a plan.  This plan involved the creation of a being (who would have descendants like himself) who would be capable of becoming a son of God, who (thus) would have to be capable of deciding freely to believe him, to love him with all his heart, to submit to him in obedience, and whom God could love and eventually glorify.  In the light of Bible teaching, we conclude that this is basically the one purpose which God had in creating the world.” (Have Atheists Proved There Is No God ? p. 44.)

God’s creation was perfect for his purposes. It was the ideal environment, a garden furnished with all that is necessary to life (Gen. 2:8-10; a task, cf. 2:15). His creation included companionship with the creating of male and female (Gen. 1:26-28; 2:18). It included the fellowship of God himself. At this point, humanity endured no pain, no sorrow, no disease, no tears, no worry, and no death. This is what God wanted ideally for man.

The one purpose God had in his creation was a people for himself—a people who would love and obey him with all their heart. To have this they would have to have an environment suitable for his purpose. They would have to have a “vale of soul-making.” To accomplish his purpose he gave humanity a choice (Gen. 2:17). Humanity would have to choose communion with God over “knowledge of good and evil.” Can man interfere with this aspect of God’s will?  Yes, he can freely decide not to respond to God’s love; he can decide to be disobedient and thus sin.  God’s original plan for man’s well-being was spoiled by man’s folly and sin. God wants the very best for man but he will not force him into obedience. He does not treat man as a puppet.

The second aspect of God’s will is his circumstantial will. This involves God’s plan within certain circumstances; what God does due to the circumstances arising that He did not ideally desire to happen. God gave a choice as to whether humanity would choose communion with God or a life independent of God. Adam and Eve chose arrogantly to guide their own path. Because Adam and Eve chose autonomy and asserted their own path, they were excluded from the Garden and thus from God’s communion (Gen. 3:22). In making this decision the holiness of the community was at stake; God cannot commune with evil (Psa. 5:4). Because of the choice, man deserved eternal separation; strict justice would cast him off forever. Because of God’s love, He devised a plan for man’s redemption. This plan was fulfilled in Jesus, the perfect atonement for humanity’s disobedient choice (Heb. 2:17; 5:2; 4:15; Rom. 5:6-11). After his resurrection he commissioned the preaching of the Gospel (Mk. 16:15). All the obedient shall be saved by his blood (Heb. 9:22; 10:4; 1 Pet. 1:18, 19).

Thus, God’s circumstantial will is God’s response to man’s free choices even when man does not choose as God ideally would have him choose.  God’s ideal will is that man would not sin; but, man did.  God’s circumstantial will, therefore, is that man will still enter into a relationship with him. God made this possible through Jesus Christ because of his love and mercy.

Third, God’s ultimate will is his final realization of His purpose, the goal God reaches in spite of man’s evil and even using those evil choices to further rather than defeat His ultimate plan.  Job said, “I know that you can do everything. And that no purpose of yours can be withheld from you” (Job 42:2). As children might divert a stream, they do not succeed in preventing it from reaching the river, so humanity may divert and hinder God’s purposes but humanity will never defeat them. God ideally wanted man to freely love and serve Him.  God circumstantially wanted Jesus to accept death for man’s sins and wanted man to accept salvation.  God ultimately will see justice done, namely, the punishment of the wicked and the rewarding of the righteous (2 Cor. 5:10; Heb. 9:27; Matt. 25:31-46).  God will ultimately bless the righteous and curse the unrighteous (Matt. 25:46). Some may reject God’s gracious offer of Jesus, but they will not prevent God’s intentional will. Can man interfere with this.  NO!  God is omnipotent and WILL definitely accomplish His ultimate will.

Some Concluding Remarks

We often use the “will of God” to cover all three aspects of God’s will.  We should at least understand that we do this. The preceding facts show, among other things, that: (1) it is the ideal or intentional will of God for man to be happy and free from sorrow and pain; (2) God loves man and wishes for man to be blessed to the extent that He gave His Son to die for man; (3) each man who sins and refuses to repent of his sin thereby cuts himself off from the blessings which God wishes to give him; (4) pain, sorrow, suffering, tears, and death in the world is here because of man’s sins; and, (5) God is infinitely powerful and infinitely wise.  That there is suffering in the world means neither that God is weak nor that God is not benevolent.  It means that God has given man freedom to make choices and that man has made and continues to make many evil choices.


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