Recently I heard a christian friend talking about the tragic death of her sister. She described her sister’s death as God’s taking that sister away. Here was a Christian woman in the prime of life, suddenly killed in anaccident. My friend’s remark startled me. Was God the one who took this woman away? Was God responsible for her death?
We often hear Christians talking as if everything that happens in their lives is the direct result of God’s action. This has a pious ring to it, implying that we are always living in the presence of God with a sensitive awareness of God’s control over our lives. And it seems especially appropriate for us Calvinists. After all, don’t we profess that God is sovereign over everything and ultimately the cause of everything that happens?
I find problems with this view of God’s involvement in our lives, however. My own experiences have challenged me to question how God relates to the events in our lives. I’ve encountered a lot of failure and frustration in my life. After graduating from seminary I developed voice problems, became sick with mono, and endured an unsuccessful candidacy for the ministry. All of that convinced me that ministry was not the right calling for me.
Not long afterward I started a social work position that ended after only three months with my supervisor asking me to resign. During the following years I worked at three different stores, always having to quit my job because of some difficulty or problem that came up. I continually felt dissatisfied and searched in vain for something more fulfilling. Next I got a job with a business that seemed certain to go bankrupt. This led to severe anxiety and depression.
How do I explain it all? Did God engineer those failures to shape me into a better person? Is God the cause behind those negative experiences? It’s hard to see any of it as God’s activity in my life. Far from helping me grow, the repeated frustrations merely drove me to despair. Is there still some sense, then, in which God caused those things to happen?
In My God and I, Lewis Smedes discusses his response to the death of his infant son, who lived less than a day. Smedes decided that his picture of God as the micromanager of all the events in our lives had to change. He simply could not accept that God would cause the death of a perfect infant baby any more than God would cause the Holocaust. For Smedes there had to be a different picture of God: God is always and everywhere fighting against evil. God is the opponent, not the cause, of evil in our lives.
I thought of those experiences while studying the first chapter of James. In verse 13 James tells us we should never blame God when we are tempted because “God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone.” Earlier in the chapter James talks about enduring trials to develop perseverance. But the words “trial” and “temptation” in our English-language Bibles are translated from the same word in the Greek original. So when James says that temptations do not come from God, he’s also saying that trials do not come from God.
Although James talks about the positive results that can derive from trials, he makes it clear that trials or temptations themselves do not come from God.
Emphasizing this further, James continues in verses 16-18: “Don’t be deceived, my dear [ones]. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.”
Here James explicitly instructs us to identify God as the source of all good things in our lives. The greatest good is the new birth we have experienced through the “word of truth,” but that is only the firstfruits of many other blessings of creation. The point is that we not be deceived into thinking that God is changeable “like shifting shadows” and that God could therefore be seen as the source of both good and evil. God alone is the source of all good; evil must come from somewhere else.
No Easy Answers
So where does evil in our lives come from? James warns us in verse 14 that temptation comes from our own evil desires. But what about other trials? Where did my failure and depression come from? And what about the deaths of Smedes’ infant son and my friend’s sister? Those questions have no easy answers. Sometimes the fallen, sinful world may be responsible. Sometimes some demonic influence may be trying to thwart our godly lives and purposes. And sometimes we simply don’t know. My point is that we should not blame God. To me, doing so is a cop-out that comes dangerously close to calling God the cause of evil.
God has shown once and for all that he is the God of salvation and life. Look at what Jesus did while he was on earth: he healed the sick, identified with the oppressed, cleansed the lepers, preached good news to the poor, and raised the dead to life. And in the cross and the empty tomb we see God winning the ultimate victory over sin and suffering and death. God is in the business of bringing healing and life, not pain or death.
How does God do this? Does God ignore the pain and struggle in the world? Does God abolish it? No, God absorbs it and overpowers it. In the suffering and death of Christ, God took upon himself the pain and evil of this world. God suffered the worst hatred and rejection the world could dish out, and God triumphed over it.
Because of God’s victory over evil, God is able to turn the most awful events in this world into something good. Even though we may at times be overwhelmed by pain and struggle, we know that God can bring blessing and healing out of our experiences. Even though we cannot see God’s providential care at work, we can trust that somehow behind and beyond the appearances of evil, God is working out his sovereign plan.
The pain and evil in this world are very real. We should never belittle them. And God’s power and sovereignty are often more hidden than obvious. Yet God does not have to directly control or cause every individual event in history in order to maintain his sovereignty or advance his kingdom. God is powerful enough to achieve his purposes in spite of humanity’s best efforts to the contrary.
Understanding God as the one who is ultimately in control even though evil forces may win partial victories exalts God’s sovereign power. God is not a nervous monarch, fearful that some disturbance in his realm may dethrone him. God is the Almighty sovereign, certain of final victory.
I cannot accept that God caused all the failures and difficulties that have plagued my life. If we think that everything is caused by God, we are tempted to become passive and fatalistic. If God is causing my problems, what can I do to change anything?
Psychologists tell us to take responsibility for our own lives, and I believe that in this case good psychology is also good theology. As long as I sat around and felt sorry for myself, nothing got better. God does not want us to live that way. We need to confidently seek to live our lives joyfully and abundantly for God’s glory. To do anything less would be a denial of God’s goodness and grace in our lives. ¦For Discussion
- Is it good theology for us to say “God took him or her” when a person dies tragically?
- Which experiences in your life have made you wonder if God is really in charge or question why God would allow them to happen at all?
- Do you agree with Lewis Smedes that “God is the opponent, not the cause, of evil in our lives”? Are there unpleasant, even painful experiences we may have that are not evil and that do come directly from God’s hand? (Hint: read Hebrews 12:4-11.)
- How does God “absorb and overpower” suffering in our lives?
- How does our experience of suffering and evil relate to God’s work of redemption? Is there a connection? How does it play out in your experience?
- Make a list of as many reasons you can think of as to why bad things might happen to good people (e.g. for someone else’s good, as a result of Satan’s rebellion, etc.). Can you ever be sure which one applies to the horrible things you or your loved ones might experience? Do you need to be able to identify the cause, or is it enough to leave the answer to the “Why?” question in God’s good hands?