I had intended to post blogs to follow along with the topic of the class I’m currently teaching called Teaching Others to Defend God’s Sovereignty. However, the past few posts have strayed from that general topic of suffering so now I’m going to pick back up with it. In my previous posts, I’ve addressed that identifying suffering and evil means that God exists and questioning the existence of suffering and evil gives life value. So to even stand appalled at atrocity, we affirm that a God exists and that He is what gives life value and meaning. Otherwise we could never be outraged by tragedy. But sometimes in our eagerness to try to give consolation to someone’s difficult circumstance or tragic loss, we find ourselves declaring that things are “God’s will.” I think the heart of the message is that God is still in control in all things, but are we offering bad theology when we say that?
Is it really God’s will for us to endure things that are bad? Sometimes people may even respond by saying that if it’s God’s “will” for a tragedy then they don’t want to worship a God like that. Some people on the other side of the coin may insist that it is never God’s will for us to suffer. They will often quote Jeremiah 29:11 in their defense. It states that God’s plans are for good, not evil, for a future and a hope. Good stuff right? But we have to take it in context. First off, this is being written to the nation of Israel as they are entering their 70 years of captivity--which everyone could easily agree was not a “good” or desirable situation. But we also have to read the next verse: Then you will call upon Me and go 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. God desired to bless Israel but more importantly, He desired for Israel to call upon His name and search for Him with all their hearts. His plans were for good, for a future, and for hope SO THAT Israel would seek Him and follow after Him. Do we always call upon Him? Do we always seek Him? What happens when we don’t?
Therefore, to determine if suffering is part of God’s will, we first need to define what we mean by God’s “will.” God has two types of will, His permissive will and His desired will. God has a perfect and good plan for our lives, His “desired will.” But He gave us free will. We have the ability to choose between our will/desires and God’s will/desires in our lives. And therefore, through His “permissive will,” we experience the consequences of those choices; otherwise our choice doesn’t really mean much. We understand that concept for the laws of nature: If you choose to jump off a cliff, you will fall because there is the force of gravity. God obviously is capable of stopping you mid-air if He so chooses, but the consequence of your free will choice to jump off a cliff is to fall. We understand that with the laws of state. If you use your free will to choose to speed, you may face the consequences of paying a ticket. So we have the same concept for the laws of morality. If you choose to sin, you will face the consequences of that sin.
There are several Biblical accounts that show us the interplay between God’s desire will and His permissive will. The first one comes from Adam and Eve. God’s “perfect, planned will” for the lives of Adam and Eve was for them to walk with Him closely and personally and live in the Garden of Eden. But He also gave them free will. With that free will, Adam and Eve made the choice to disobey God and eat of the forbidden fruit. God’s “permissive will” had them face the consequences of their actions. God had established the rules up front. If they ate of the fruit then they would surely die. If the consequences for obeying God were the same as for disobeying God, Adam and Eve wouldn’t have really had a true choice. In other words, if they chose to eat the forbidden fruit but things continued the same as if they hadn’t, then they didn’t really have the option of not eating. It would have gone against what God had assured them would happen if they weren’t allowed to suffer any consequences from their choice. Therefore, as a result of their choice, Adam and Eve were separated from God and removed from the Garden of Eden. They instantly died spiritually and would one day die physically.
If God had to allow them to suffer the consequence of eating from the forbidden tree, then it begs the question – why did God put the tree there in the first place? We have to understand fully the concept of free will in order to address this appropriately. When God created man, he created something in His own image with the express purpose of walking in fellowship with Him and worshiping Him. The only way for love and worship to be real is for it to be freely chosen. God didn’t want a bunch of robots, forced to praise His name. If He created that, then our praise to Him wouldn’t be worth much. In order for our love for Him to be sincere, we have to have the option to NOT love him. And the fruit of the forbidden tree was our option to NOT love God. Had Adam and Eve never eaten of the fruit, then Adam and Eve would have chosen to love God even in the presence of the option to not love God. They would have been walking with God out of choice, not obligation or necessity or because there was no other option. In other words, you can't show your obedience to someone if there is never the opportunity to disobey.
While this shows we have free will, we do not have autonomous free will. That means that we can freely choose things but we are still confined to the laws around us. We don’t set our own rules and then get to choose whether or not to follow them. We are not self-ruling; God sets the rules. We just have the choice about whether or not we follow those rules.
God’s desired will is for us to worship Him and obey Him, but His permissive will allows us to face the consequences when we choose to walk away from Him and disobey Him.