Following last week’s Nick of Time essay entitled, “Fate and Providence,” I received the following email from a pastor:
I always enjoy and appreciate your writing. I struggle with this present [essay] however. Just recently a young lady started attending our church. Nine years ago she married her college sweetheart—(both from a Christian college). They were in ministry together in her father’s church. Just this last February her husband kissed her and her children goodbye as he headed for work—and he never came home. He is now…living with another woman. This whole mess took this dear woman by surprise. She had no idea that it was coming. Did God predestine that husband’s sin? Can I say to this woman what you said in your article: “Just as God ordained the sufferings of Christ for our good, He also lovingly ordains our pain and hurt for our good and His glory (Rom 8:28; Heb 12:10-11)”? Of course I believe that God knew what was going to happen, but did God predetermine it, or did he just “allow” it? Thank you for your many good articles—even this one. However, can you address my question?
Sincerely, Pastor _____
What follows is my answer to his email, with a few minor adjustments to add clarity.
Thank you for your good question. The problem of evil and the sovereignty of God has been with us since the Fall, so we are not the first people to wrestle with this.
I believe we need to use good theology whenever we seek to offer helpful pastoral care—especially to those who have experienced a horrible personal tragedy like the one you’ve described. I’m afraid that sometimes in our effort to protect God from what appears to be a contradiction (e.g. a holy God who ordains evil), we open the door to advocating for a weak God who doesn’t have a grasp on things at all. This is certainly not an encouraging pastoral strategy!
First of all, if God could ordain the most horrific event in human history (the death of Jesus, as Acts 2:23; 4:27-28 clearly show), there is no event, nor matter how terrible, that could not have been ordained by Him (which Eph 1:11; Ps 115:3; Isa 45:7; and Dan 4:35 all affirm).
Second, I don’t think saying that God “allows” something is much different than saying God “ordains” something. After all, if I allow something, I have the power to not allow it. It seems you still have the same problem whether you use “allow” or “ordain.”
Third, some try to avoid this issue of God ordaining (or allowing) evil by saying that God is not strong enough to stop bad things from happening, i.e. they question His omnipotence. Or some avoid the issue of God ordaining evil by saying that God doesn’t know the future and so He takes risks with regard to the future and sometimes gets surprised when free creatures make bad or wicked choices. These folks hold to a doctrine called open theism which questions God’s omniscience in order to guarantee libertarian freedom. A final way to avoid the issue of God ordaining evil is to question God’s love and wisdom by suggesting that God is capricious in His ordering of the universe and that sometimes people get what they deserve or people become collateral damage in the cosmic battle that God is waging with evil. Now none of these three alternatives is scripturally satisfying; we don’t want to question God’s power, knowledge, wisdom or love.
Fourth, we must understand God as the ultimate cause while knowing that the responsibility and guilt lie with secondary causes such as sin, the world, the flesh, and the devil, all operating under God’s authority. I think Acts 2:23 and 4:27-28 show this when they speak of God ordaining the death of Jesus while the hands of lawless men crucified and killed Him; in fact, Pilate and Herod were anointed by God to “do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” Theologians refer to this state of affairs as compatibilism, the idea that God is sovereign over all things but never in such a way that human responsibility is curtailed or minimized. Said another way, God’s exercise of His supreme authority is compatible with my creaturely freedom such that I am morally responsible for my actions while He ordains all that occurs (Gen 45:8).
Now all of this does not make perfect sense to us, and I find that when speaking to those who have experienced great personal tragedy, the best thing to say is that they can trust (and must trust!) our loving and wise God even though things don’t make sense to us in the middle of the tragedy. As one pastor I know says, “If I ever doubt the love of God, I look to the cross, and if I ever doubt the power of God to make things right, I look to the empty tomb.”
All this is what I was trying to say in that part of the sentence you’ve cited. I’m glad to talk more with you if you’d like, but I hope these ideas will be helpful. Can I recommend three more books (besides Christopher Ash’s) that have been greatly helpful to me in thinking through this whole issue? Jerry Bridges, Trusting God (Navpress, 1988); John Murray, Behind a Frowning Providence (Banner of Truth Trust, 1990); and Bruce Ware, God’s Lesser Glory (Crossway, 2000).
Grace and peace,
May God help us to understand and articulate the sweet doctrine of Providence with clarity. Knowing that our sovereign God rules this universe with absolute goodness and wisdom provides the Christian with the only true hope to see us through the sufferings and trials of this sin-cursed world.
For further reading: D. A. Carson, How Long, O Lord? (Baker, 1990); Mark Talbot, “True Freedom: The Liberty that Scripture Portrays as Worth Having,” pp. 77-109 in Beyond the Bounds, ed. John Piper, Justin Taylor, and Paul Helseth (Crossway, 2003).
This essay is by Jon Pratt, Vice President of Academics and Professor of New Testament at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
’Tis My Happiness Below
William Cowper (1731–1800)
’Tis my happiness below
Not to live without the cross;
But the Savior’s pow’r to know,
Sanctifying every loss:
Trials must and will befall;
But with humble faith to see
Love inscrib’d upon them all.
This is happiness to me.
God in Israel sows the seeds,
Of afflictions, pain and toil;
These spring up, and choke the weeds,
Which would else o’erspread the soil;
Trials make the promise sweet,
Trials give ne life to pray’r;
Trials bring me to his feet,
Lay me low, and keep me there.
Did I meet no trials here,
No chastisement by the way;
Might I not, with reason fear,
I should be a cast away:
Bastards may escape the rod,
Sunk in earthly vain delight;
But the true born son of God,
Must not, would not, if he might.