The Problem of Pain – Part 3b

I had thought I was through with this part of our discussion of pain but an issue came up the other night that I haven’t said anything about. I was at a concert and the lead singer was talking about having been broken by God so that God could remake him into the person He wanted him to be. The group then sang a song about God being a potter and how wonderful it was that when we messed up and destroyed our “vessel” He didn’t throw way the clay but just started over and remade us into something new. And that reminded me of an old hymn whose first verse is about God being the potter and I am the clay and praying that God would mold me and make me after His will. Both are nice songs, but are they Biblically accurate?

After the concert my wife and I were talking about it and I was wondering about the accuracy of the theology of the song. My wife reminded me that God does discipline us and test us. And after thinking about it for a while, I realized she is right, in Proverbs 3:11-12 (NIV) it says, “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.” And in Hebrews we read, “Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:10-11) In fact the writer of Hebrews says, “If you are not disciplined (and everyone is disciplined), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons.” (Hebrews 12:8) So the Bible clearly teaches that God, as our Father, will discipline us.

And we also find that God will test us, not as a punishment, but to purify us like a jeweler refines silver or gold. “For you, O God, tested us; you refined us like silver.” (Psalms 66:10) The apostle Paul also talks about our works being tested by fire. “By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than that already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.” (1 Corinthians 3:10-15)

So it seems we can expect discipline and “fiery testing” from God. But my question is this, does God cause the events He uses to discipline and test us or does He just “step back” and let us suffer the consequences of our own bad choices? We know, from our study of Job and what happened to him, that some bad things that happen are due solely to the war going on between God and Satan. So does God use some of those events? We have also seen that, in this broken and fallen world, things don’t always work the way they should and bad things happen – people get hurt when things fail, babies are born with birth defects, people – even babies die, people accidentally or intentionally hurt other people, even kill them. Does God use these events? Does God really need to actually cause events to discipline and test us when we are faced with so many problems that will happen without Him doing anything? Why can’t He just use those events?

We have already seen that God shapes and controls the bad things that happen to us (see the Problem of Pain – Part 1). And Paul tells us, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) So it is clear that in the “normal” “day to day” bad things God is working in those events to turn them into times that will ultimately be for our good. Does that mean that those are testing times? Or are they different? Is He using those events to discipline us or are they just routine bad things that He is working out to our ultimate good? Remember the verse says in ALL things. So if He disciplines us for our good, and He is working for our good in ALL things, then isn’t it possible that He is using things that occur “naturally” – i.e., things other people do to us, things we do to ourselves, things that are due to the fallen and broken nature of this world, things that are due to the war he is fighting with Satan (the Adversary)?

James seems to think that our discipline or testing happens as a normal course of life, that the trials and testing are just normal events in the life of a Christian. “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:2-4) Notice James doesn’t say “if”, but “when” these things happen. So he doesn’t seem to think that these are special events that may be brought into our lives if God thinks it is needed, but just the normal things that will happen, things that we should expect to happen, and that these “normal” events are used to develop our characters.

This theme is also presented by Peter. “In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (1 Peter 1:6-7)

So, does God really need to add to the pain of our daily lives to build our character? Or does He work “in all things” as Paul tells us to build our character? If He is already working for our good in the day to day bad things that happen, why would He need to cause extra bad things to happen just so He can work even more good in our lives in order to build up our character and faith as Peter and James says He is doing by His discipline?

And then there are Jesus’ comments to consider. In the “Sermon on the Mount” He had this to say, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48) Jesus says that God sends good things on everyone alike – no matter if they are good or bad – all are treated the same.

Luke records the same thing, but words it just a bit differently. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:32-36)

So if God is merciful to the ungrateful and the wicked, why would He then be unmerciful to those who are His children? Why would He cause them more pain than they are already experiencing as a normal consequence of life on this planet? The only time I can find in the Bible of God causing “bad” things to happen to people are His acts of judgment and He works right up to the last minute trying to get them to repent so He doesn’t have to do even that. As the prophet Ezekiel tells us,  “Therefore, you Israelites, I will judge each of you according to your own ways, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, people of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!” (Ezekiel 18:30-32) God is telling Israel, “Quit doing what you are doing! I don’t want to send judgment on you. Please repent and turn back to me so you can live!” Does that sound like a God who makes bad things happen to people just to “teach them a lesson”?

In this fallen and broken, war torn world, that is in rebellion against God, enough bad things happen all the time due to free agents making free choices to do their own thing with no regard to the damage they might cause others that there is no need for God to add to the pain and misery with evil acts of His own.

And that brings up another question. How can a God who is perfect and perfectly good, commit acts of evil and remain good? If you or I did those same things, we would be rightly condemned for them, so why do so many say is it OK for God to do them? I’ve heard the argument that God doesn’t really commit them Himself, He uses “bad” people to do them for Him. But how is that any better? These same people tell me that God’s will is ALWAYS done, i.e., what God wants to happen WILL happen even if you or I don’t want to do it – we WILL do it. What those people refuse to acknowledge is that means we really don’t have free will after all, we can only act as God wills. So, the “bad” person God “gets” to do His evil acts (read “forces to do”) is then sent to hell for doing what God made him do! WE are responsible for our actions of doing exactly what God wanted us to do, but God is not?

But then James tells us, “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” (James 1:13-17) God does not tempt anyone to sin, we do it to ourselves. Every good and perfect thing that comes to us is from God, James says, so how can God, who never changes, after sending us good gifts, turn around and send us evil “gifts”?

I will close with a repeat of the response I got when I was praying about this very issue several months ago now (you can also read about it in The Problem of Pain – Part 1). “Do you think this world is a basically good world that has bad things happen it, or do you think it is a broken and fallen world that I make good things happen in? Do you think, when I promised Israel I would bring a sword among them if they refused to follow Me that I forced the surrounding nations to attack Israel against their will or did I just quit protecting Israel and allowed the surrounding nations to do what they wanted to do all along?”

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