I get emails like this a lot. They always break my heart and I hope my answer to this woman will help others struggling with the same question: Does God allow bad things to happen to us?
Most Christians think so. They’ve been trapped in a false and simplistic theology that concludes that because God is all-powerful he either orchestrates our pain, or at least allows it. He could stop it, but for some reason he chooses not to. Their thought is that God allows horrible tragedies to happen to his children, either because they either loved something too much, or they needed to really learn a lesson, or through the tragedy he would save a hundred other people.
I know I’ve been banging this drum for awhile, but that’s because believers as well as scholars have viewed the Bible as a legal document and one out of which we can draw any principle we want out of it as long as we can find a prooftext or two to back us up. That leads to some brutal misunderstandings about God. They fail to see the Bible as a story of God’s unfolding revelation in the world and one huge element of that story is the fall of humanity, the subsequent subjugation of the creation in futility, and how God is winning that back through the work of his Son. We live in a dynamic story of the new creation rising up inside the old, and as we live in this world we are often victims of its pains and excesses.
God is all-powerful, and completely loving, but that doesn’t mean people who follow him get a free pass from tragedy or pain in the world. Jesus clearly told us that, as did every writer of the New Testament. In fact, the life of faith will encounter greater difficulty than those who coast along plaing the world’s game. We are told that God works incredible good in the tragedies of this world, but that does not mean that he orchestrates them. The world provides trouble enough.
What we must never forget is that he is the redeemer and rescuer in the story, not the one passing out pain in the interest of making us better people. What a horrible God he would be if he did!
Here’s the email I received:
I have been listening to the podcast with Kevin Smith. After listening many times and mulling over it I need some clarification. My confusion lies in God sending or allowing pain. We lost a grandchild 11years ago due to being stillborn. She was a beautiful 5 lb, fully developed baby girl. I struggled with God allowing it and settled that He did. Her death caused me to rethink who is this God? I thought I had been so faithful in doing what He expected of me—daily quiet time, prayer, involved in the church, etc. Why did He allow this to happen? This is when He started untwisting my thinking about legalism and religious obligation.
However, when you and Kevin were speaking it was unsettling to me. Isn’t God the blessed controller of all things? I believe He could have prevented her death, but He chose not to, thus allowing it to happen. Am I viewing God as superman as Kevin mentioned?
I didn’t understand what you were saying as to how we should view God in painful circumstances. It is apparent that your view is different than what I believe or have been taught. I am sorry to bother you, but would appreciate your help in helping me see God differently in painful circumstances.
This was my response: This is not an easy conversation to have, since it touches something so deeply in you and because I don’t know you enough to speak into a specific situation. It’s even worse trying to do it in a few words in an email. This is a heavily nuanced conversation that involves God’s love, power, and sovereignty. Most people have come to learn those things out of the Christian religion that looks for a logical explanation for everything as if God is not present with us in the world.
That’s why you struggled with God “allowing” your precious granddaughter to die. It didn’t make sense that a loving Father would make such an intentional decision in your case. Well I don’t think it did. That’s an answer Christianity has used for years to give people a false sense of security. We’re OK because every event comes through God first. But I think the Bible actually teaches us that we are safe because God is with us and will work all things together for good. There is much that happens in our world that wouldn’t be God’s specific choice. Though he could control everything and make us his robots, he does not. This world is out of synch with it’s Creator and because of that it’s natural state is chaos. It is broken and under control of the evil one. Sin, sickness, and tragedies are part of all of our lives as we live in this world awaiting its final redemption in Christ. God is in the world to redeem it back to himself and has plan that will bring all things together under Christ. He will get the last word on everything, but he doesn’t have it yet. That’s coming in the day when all things are summed up in him. He works toward that fulfillment even now as I write this email.
To think that God would “allow” your granddaughter to die, in my view, disfigures him. I don’t see how it makes it better for God to be behind the deaths of our loved ones as the agent of their dying or making an active decision not to intervene and stop something that hurts us so deeply. It is the devil who steals, kills, and destroys. Death is God’s enemy according to I Corinthians 15, not his friend. Sometimes, for purposes beyond our understand God will intrude into our circumstances and in miraculous ways right some wrong. That’s the kingdom of heaven making itself known here. Jesus walked in that reality and invited us to as well, but even with that he knew incredible pain and tragedy as well. We get to be part of an unfolding kingdom with him, but since it is HIS kingdom, we don’t get to control the outcomes. God doesn’t work miracles to make our lives easy and comfortable circumstantially. He does them to advance a far greater purpose in the world. He wants to unfold the kingdom in our midst and work through us as we learn to listen and respond to him.
We can enjoy the miracles when they come, and when they don’t, we learn to lean more deeply into him. For he is in our tragedies and heartache every bit as much as he is in the miracles. He’s there to comfort us in our pain and draw us more deeply into himself so that we can be more transformed to think and live consistent with the new creation in us, rather than be manipulated by the brokenness of the old creation around us. We can’t do that if we begin with God as the cause of the bad things that happen to us.
I’m so sorry your grandchild died, but I don’t think God allowed it in any overt way. That wouldn’t be his nature, any more than you would have allowed your child to go through that loss if you could have stopped it. There are mysteries about God we won’t understand in this life, but the fact that he loves you, loves your child, and loves that little girl who was stillborn is the one thing we do know. And as we grieve the pains of this world, we keep finding a life in him that goes beyond this age participating in a greater redemption that is unfolding in the world. So in the chaos of our lives today, we get to look for the seedlings of that new creation popping up around us, like grass poking through the asphalt in a parking lot. We get to grieve with him (and each other) where we hurt, and we get to rejoice in his goodness as he does extraordinary things in us. And all the while his kingdom of light keeps growing even among the kingdom of darkness. It’s what makes the unbearable, bearable.
And some day when you sit with that little girl in the kingdom of our Father this will all make sense far more to us all than it does today.