The Relationship Between Hardship and the Love of God
When I first became a Christian at the age of 22, my faith was a simple childlike faith that Jesus died for my sins and I was forgiven and would spend eternal life in heaven with Him. When I shared this with a friend at work, he told me he could prove that there is no God. He said that the God of the Bible was portrayed as all-powerful and all-good, but the existence of evil proves that is impossible. If God was all good and loving then He would prevent evil and do away with evil if He had the power to do it. Therefore, if God is all powerful He must not be good, or if God is all good then He must not have the power to end evil. Since the God of the Bible is supposed to be both, the existence of evil proves there is no God. He said there was a better chance that eastern religions like Hinduism had the correct explanation of the existence of evil. Eastern religions as well as New Age religions claimed that evil is not real, it is an illusion. Evil is part of the rule of Karma, which governs reincarnation. If you do good deeds and live a pure life, you will be rewarded, but if you aren’t good, evil will result in this life and the next. Another concept of evil is the Deist’s beliefs that God created all things but then removed Himself, left, or maybe is dead so He is not there to do anything about evil. Some call this the “absent landlord” concept meaning that God is like a guy who built a building then abandoned it to the tenants to govern. However you look at the problem of the existence of evil, it presents a challenge to Christians who believe in the all loving and all powerful God of the Bible. I remember back about ten years ago there was a tsunami that killed about 200,000 people, and many were seeking answers for the tragedy. One reporter even said, “If there is a God, he is not good.”
The Flaw in the Assumption
When I first heard these arguments, I realized I didn’t have the answers, but decided to take it by faith that there is a reasonable answer to the problem of evil. Years later we were studying the life of Joseph in the book of Genesis and the light bulb came on for me to understand. Horrible evil things happened to Joseph who was a godly believer, but clearly God was working even in Joseph’s mistreatment to bring about good. Joseph had a dream from God basically laying out Joseph’s future, therefore God had foreknowledge of the evil things that were going to happen to him, yet in the end God had already determined that Joseph would save his whole family as a result of the evil that happened. Joseph’s brothers hated him and plotted to kill him. They beat him and threw him in a pit, and later sold him into slavery to a caravan headed for Egypt. Joseph was sold as a slave to an important man in Egypt, but he was falsely accused and thrown in a dungeon where he suffered for many years. Through the providence of God, Joseph was able to help the Pharaoh of Egypt save the country from a severe famine that struck the entire Middle East. The Pharaoh made Joseph his Prime Minister in control of all things. A few years later Joseph’s brothers showed up desperate for food, and without help the whole family would perish. Joseph was in a position to save them and bring them all to Egypt where they thrived and became a great nation of people. Naturally the brothers were afraid Joseph would seek revenge and harm them, but Joseph said something that helps explain the whole problem of evil. He said in Genesis 50:20, “Don’t fear, you meant it for evil, but God used it for good”. Joseph was explaining that people do great evil to each other, but God has a long range plan that brings good out of the very evil that people are responsible for.
The flaw in my friends premise that evil proved that God does not exist is that if evil appears pointless to him then it must be pointless. What he failed to realize is that just because he can’t see the point doesn’t mean there isn’t a good reason. In his arrogance he was saying that his cognitive capabilities were perfect, and he was able to see all possibilities. The truth is that none of us can see all the possibilities, so when trouble comes we are myopic, only able to see the short term circumstances. People tend to set themselves up as being capable judges of what is evil and what is not, but history and experience prove that we people are terrible judges. In addition, all of us tend to put ourselves up as being good, and rarely see the faults in our own selves. One theologian asked the valid question, “Since none of us are perfect, if God decided to remove evil, what if He began with you?” Fortunately for all of us, God is not interested in a partial current containment of evil. It is His plan to eventually eliminate evil all together, but He will not do so according to my judgment or my timing.
In Tim Keller’s book, THE REASON FOR GOD, he sites what he calls the principle of “no-see-ums”, which are the things we can’t see but are still there. We can’t see germs and bacteria, but they are definitely there. When people say they can’t see any good that can come from a tragedy, they can’t possibly know what the future holds or even what all the possibilities are. I’m sure Joseph couldn’t see when he was falsely accused and thrown in a dungeon that he would end up saving Israel as the Prime Minister of Egypt. I think all of us know by experience that hardship can build character and maturity. Tom Landry used to say something like, “its my job to make men do hard things they may hate doing (practices) in order to help them become the players and team they want to be”.
The Inconsistency in the Argument of the Evolutionary Atheist
Most atheists believe in evolution, so when they cry out that evil proves that God does not exist, they are being inconsistent. If they are saying that people ought not to suffer, they are violating the core principle of evolution, which is natural selection. Natural selection depends on hardship, suffering, and death. Therefore the atheist cannot judge the world to be unfair.
Secondly, they can’t say that the God of the Bible can’t bring about good from evil. The incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ prove that God can turn evil into good, or put another way, that God can use evil to bring about good in the long run. Christ existed as God in glory and perfection where there was an absence of evil, but He deliberately put Himself into the course of human suffering for a higher purpose of good—the redemption of mankind. Jesus experienced the highest form of pain, humiliation, rejection, and died the worst death in order to bring about the greatest good—our salvation. It also cannot be said that God doesn’t have the power to intervene against evil because He did just that through the incarnation and crucifixion, and of course His resurrection proved His power over death.
Paul’s Example of the Relationship of Hardship and God’s Love
In 2 Corinthians 11:23-30, Paul was making a defense of his Apostleship and his ministry to the church at Corinth. False teachers had infiltrated the church there and were building themselves up and tearing Paul down. Paul’s defense would surprise most people because he actually used all the terrible painful things that had happened to him in the course of his ministry to prove that God was with him and bringing great things out of his ministry. Paul proceeded to list all the beatings, imprisonments, whippings, shipwrecks, persecution, and constant danger to prove how a real Apostle of Christ must share in the sufferings of Christ in order to bring about the greater good of the Gospel. Paul ends by admitting how weak all that trouble proved him to be, but He says “I will boast of what pertains to my weakness”, because the strength and power from God was proven through Paul’s weakness that God’s power was on display in planting hundreds of churches and bringing thousands to salvation in Christ. Paul went on to say in 2 Cor. 12 that he had been experiencing some kind of terrible physical pain, and had been praying for God to remove it. Paul called the pain a “thorn in the flesh”, but God had revealed to him that this pain was really being used by God to bring about good—Paul’s humility. Paul said that God was using it to “keep me from exalting myself!”. We all can relate to the tendency for us to swell with pride when we have a string of successes, but when we do it’s all about how smart I am or talented I am. The Gospel is all about God, and the Gospel can best be shared through our humility, therefore God kept His Apostle very humble through the use of pain. God revealed that “My grace is sufficient for you, for (My) power is perfected in (your) weakness. Paul responded, “therefore I will boast about my weakness, that the power of Christ may dwell in me”.
Jeremiah’s Explanation in Lamentations 3
About 586 B.C., the prophet Jeremiah sat in the burned out rubble of what was left of his hometown of Jerusalem and penned Lamentations 3. Jeremiah had been preaching to Jerusalem a message of divine punishment because of their idolatry and corruption for 30-40 years and now it had happened. Jeremiah had begged them to repent, but they had ignored him, beat him, thrown him in prison, put him in the stocks, and imposed on him every other kind of humiliation, rejection, and pain. Now Jeremiah laments the pain and trouble he has seen, as well as the total destruction of his country, his city, his friends and family, and the total lack of success he had in turning his countrymen from their wicked ways. He had predicted that if they didn’t repent, God would allow the armies of Babylon to destroy them—and now it had happened. In Lamentations 3, he does a great job of embracing both the reality of pain and suffering, but also the compassion and lovingkindness of God. In Jeremiah’s case, he recognized they were both true. In verses 1-18, Jeremiah gives a detailed imagery filled account of how he felt physically and emotionally, but then pivots in verses 19-42 to what he knows to be true about the compassion and unfailing love of God. God had brought all the trouble upon him but somehow he was still certain that God felt compassion and love for him. In v.32, he says “For if He causes grief, then He will have compassion according to His abundant lovingkindness, for He does not afflict willingly (but for a purpose), nor does He grieve the sons of men (without reason).”
Had Jeremiah suffered terribly? Just read Lam. 3:11-13, “He has…torn me to pieces, He has made me desolate…and set me as a target for the arrow…He made the arrows to enter into my inward parts”. Did Jeremiah see God as the author of all this trouble? Read Lam. 3:1-4, “I am the man who has seen affliction because of the rod of God’s wrath. He has driven me and made me walk in darkness, surely against me He has turned His hand repeatedly. He has caused my flesh and my skin to waste away, He has broken my bones”.
Nevertheless, in verses 19-24, Jeremiah is absolutely certain that God is compassionate, and God’s love never fails or changes. How can both be true? I think we can put it all together if we consult Jeremiah 29:1-14. Jeremiah wrote this part of his letter to Jewish exiles who had already been taken as slaves to Babylon like 12 years before Jerusalem was totally destroyed. King Nebuchadnezzar had already come to Jerusalem, and they voluntarily surrendered to an agreement to pay him huge tribute to spare Jerusalem. As a part of the deal, Nebuchadnezzar had taken thousands of hostages back to Babylon (Daniel was among them). Jeremiah wrote ch.29 to them to give them hope in a terrible situation. In v.10-14, Jeremiah assured them that God was in control and in 70 years He would free them and bring them back to Jerusalem. God’s words to them were very revealing as to why this had happened and how God was going to bring good out of it. “For I know the plans I have for you, plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call on Me and pray to Me and I will listen to you. And you will seek Me and find Me when you search for me with all your heart; and I will restore your fortunes”. Remember that these were the same people involved in apostasy and idolatry, but through the terrible exile and servitude to the evil tyrant, they would turn back to God and pray to him and seek him with all their heart. In short, their all important relationship with the living God would be restored through the very circumstances that they viewed were so evil.
The Answer is in the Bible
People all over the world are desperately searching for answers to the trouble in their lives without success, but God has given us the answer in His Word. Everything that’s bad now is going to come untrue when Christ comes back. Everything that’s wrong will be made right. In eternity, we will be better off for having endured all the trouble. C. S. Lewis said it this way, “Heaven once attained will turn even agony into glory”. God is greater than evil and will defeat it entirely in the future. What is happening now is just part of His omniscient plan to end all evil completely. God’s promise to us is the same as He spoke through Jeremiah, “You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart, and I will restore your fortunes”.