Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.—Matthew 6:10The Bible clearly states that God is an omnipotent1 and sovereign2 Creator who is confidently guiding the world toward his desired end. Yet, because of this all important truth, many Christians have gone a step further, and assumed that because God is omnipotent, sovereign, and has a plan that He is carrying out, that everything that happens in this world must somehow fit into His sovereign plan. This assumption has permeated much of Christian theology. It is also expressed in some of the clichés we often use in the face of suffering. We attempt to console others and ourselves by saying such trite statements such as “All things happen for a purpose,” “God has his reasons,” and “His ways are not our ways.” Popular hymns have also carried this message, such as Day by Day. The words to this familiar hymn read “Help me then when toil and trouble meeting, E’er to take as from a father’s hand…”
Augustine, arguably the most influential theologian in Church history, wrote “Nothing happens unless the Omnipotent wills it to happen.”3 This view of God’s relationship to the world takes many different forms, some saying that God ordains all things, others saying that He simply allows all tragic events to occur. But each one shares a common assumption that there is a specific divine reason for every tragic event, for, if God had wanted to prevent the event from taking place, He could have done so. Since He did not, He must have had a good reason for not doing so.
This teaching has done almost irreparable damage to the character of God in the hearts of many who have experienced great horror in their lives. It has led some to abandon their belief in God altogether.
Much to many people’s surprise, the scriptures do not support the view that there must be a specific and divine reason behind all tragedies. It is, rather, rooted in an imbalanced reading of the Bible. Although the scriptures do teach that God is sovereign, they also emphasize that there are agents who God has created who are free and can and do resist His will. Scripture does not teach that God controls all behavior of free moral agents, whether human or angel. Humans and angels are able to act contrary to God’s designs and purposes. While God’s general will for this world cannot fail, His particular will for individuals often does fail. Notice the following passages:
Genesis 6:6 And the LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart.
Isaiah 63:10 But they rebelled and grieved His Holy Spirit; So He turned Himself against them as an enemy, And He fought against them.
Luke 7:30 But the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the will of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.
Acts 7:51 You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you.
Ephesians 4:30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.
Hebrews 3:8 Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, In the day of trial in the wilderness.
Hebrews 3:15 While it is said: “Today, if you will hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.”
Hebrews 4:7 Again He designates a certain day, saying in David, “Today,” after such a long time, as it has been said: “Today, if you will hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts.”
Certainly God’s will is for everyone to be saved, yet, at the same time, He has created agents who are morally free, and with the potential to thwart His will.
1 Timothy 2:4 Who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
Peter 3:9 The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.
According to the Bible, all the events of this world need to be understood against the backdrop of a spiritual warfare between God and free moral agents who have rebelled. 4 Therefore, when we look at the events that transpire here on earth, we are to remember that we are in the midst of warfare during which God’s will is not always carried out. The Bible pictures God as warring against opponents precisely because their will is working against His will. According to the Bible, we would not wonder about the specific reason God might have had in allowing a rape, murder, or child molestation. Rather, we would view these individuals as “victims of war” and assign the blame to either human or demonic beings who are opposing God’s will.
It seems, therefore, that we have one of two deductions to make: Either God does not prevent things because He chooses not to or because He is unable to. If we decide that He does not prevent evil events because He chooses not to, we are put in the position of a child who has two parents, one abusing and the other knowing about the abuse and doing nothing to stop it. In the heart of the child, then, neither parent can be trusted. If God knows that free moral agents are about to cause another free moral agent pain, and yet He makes a conscious choice not stop it, can God still be trusted? On the other hand, if you say that God does not prevent evil because He is unable to prevent it, how do you reconcile that with His omnipotence? The answer to these dilemmas, I believe, can be found in a closer look at the nature of love, the necessity of freedom, and the logical possibility that if God is to have His ultimate will carried out for His creation, as a God of Love5, He also risks the possibility of war breaking out in His creation. Yet, as we study the scriptures with the aim of understanding these three themes, we do begin to see that the ultimate explanation for the evil that transpires in our world is the purpose that a genuinely6 free moral agent had in freely carrying out his, her, or its particular deed. We need not look for some higher reason in God for a specific tragic event, but, rather, we need to find the ultimate reason for the atrocity in the free moral agent from whom the tragic event found its source.
Notice that when we look around on this planet, it is not God’s will that we see carried out.
Matthew 6:10 Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
Jesus’ prayer makes sense when we realize that God’s will isn’t yet taking place on earth as it is in heaven. David also seems to hint at this idea.
Psalm 115:16 The heaven, even the heavens, are the LORD’s; But the earth He has given to the children of men.
It is a grave injustice to the character of God to state unqualified that “Nothing happens on this planet unless God allows it to happen” Paul and Jeremiah add clarification to the nature in which God allows evil. God does not specifically allow each particular tragedy, but, rather, He has generally allowed for the possibility of love between Himself and His creation; therefore, He has generally allowed us freedom of choice. Therefore, God has generally allowed the possibility of suffering to exist. Free moral agents themselves are the once who specifically choose whether or not to use their freedom of choice to bring hurt or to bless.
Romans 8:20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope;
God unwillingly subjected the creation to futility. He did not desire us to suffer; rather, we choose to plunge this creation into futility. Yet, if we were ever truly free not to sin, then we must be truly free to sin. Having made that choice, God, against His will, was forced by our choice to allow us to have what we had chosen.
Lamentations 3:33 For He does not afflict willingly, Nor grieve the children of men.
When people do things that they are unwilling to do, we call that being “forced against their will…”
2. Having supreme authority to rule.
3. Enchiridion, Library of Christian Classics, ed. J. Baille, J. Mcneill and H. P. Van Duren, trans. A.C. Outler (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955), p. 395.
4. See Revelation 12:7.
5. I John 4:8.
6. If God prevented us from doing what we freely choose to do, are we truly ever free to commit those actions in the first place?