Today is the fifth anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks. I returned from my first trip to India on September 4, 2001, exactly one week prior to the terrorist attacks. One of my possible itineraries had me returning on Tuesday, September 11th. Had I taken that flight from Amsterdam to Atlanta in 2001, I would have been diverted to Canada. Today was the perfect day to wrestle with the issues of God’s sovereignty and providence.
I am preparing for a sermon that I will preach at the end of the month on the subject of chance. Is there such a thing as chance or coincidence? How much of life is controlled by God? Today is a perfect day to reflect on these questions, because the terrorist attacks of September 11th raise the questions about pain, suffering, tragedy and the providence of God. I spent much of the day reading online articles and essays, mostly from Reformed thinkers, on the issues of sovereignty, suffering and evil. I then took some of these issues into a meeting with our elders where we spent 45 minutes discussing the pastoral concerns related to a biblical understand of sovereignty. I really wrestled today with an article by John Piper entitled, “Is God Less Glorious Because He Ordained that Evil Be?” I love reading Piper. I do not always agree with him at the end of the day, but I love his passion for biblical and historical orthodoxy. He is provocative and unashamed to tackle tough theological subjects.
I am still wrestling with a lot of these issues. I have no problem with saying that God works everything out for our good (Romans 8:28; Ephesians 1:11). My problem is the age-old question, “How can a loving God allow (permit or will) evil (suffering or pain)?” I have often heard it said that God does not will evil, but he permits it. The classic example is with Job. They will say, “God did not take away Job’s health, kids and stuff, the devil did.” The devil is the bad guy, not God. I have never been satisfied with that explanation, because whether God did all that to Job or allow it to happen, it still makes God look unloving. It doesn’t matter if I beat my kids or I allow my kids to be beaten – both make me look unloving.
Piper has got me thinking in another direction. What if God actual wills sin as a part of his plan? Do what? Are you kidding me??? Piper piles up a bunch of Scripture that indicates that God will’s calamity (i.e. destruction, suffering, evil). Piper writes:
For example, Isaiah 45:7 says God is the “The One forming light and creating darkness, Causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the LORD who does all these.” Amos 3:6 says, “If a calamity occurs in a city has not the LORD done it?” In Job 42:2, Job confesses, “I know that You can do all things, And that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted.” And Nebuchadnezzar says (in Daniel 4:35), “[God] does according to his will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What are you doing?'” And Paul says, in Ephesians 1:11, that God is the one “who works all things after the counsel of His will.”
And if someone should raise the question of sheer chance and the kinds of things that just seem to happen with no more meaning than the role of the dice, Proverbs 16:33 answers: “The lot is cast into the lap, But its every decision is from the LORD.” In other words, there is no such thing as “chance” from God’s perspective.
He goes on to present the strongest biblical evidence that God can will evil as he discusses the death of Christ. Piper writes, “The death of Jesus offers another example of how God’s sovereign will ordains that a sinful act come to pass.”
Piper makes it clear that God is not the author of sin. He quotes Jonathan Edwards from The Freedom of the Will who writes, “sin is not the fruit of any positive agency or influence of the most High, but on the contrary, arises from the withholding of his action and energy, and under certain circumstances, necessarily follows on the want of his influence.” This is a powerful thought from Edwards that may help me understand how God can ordain (or will) sinful actions. If we say that sinful actions occur when God withholds his action and energy, as Edwards describes it, then we must assume that God this is an act of God’s will. To act or to refrain from acting requires the use of will. So God could will not to act in order to allow an evil act to take place and this can be according to his plan. So in this you can say that God willed evil. He willed it by not acting. Ultimately, he wills it to make his glory known.
If I buy in to this more reformed view, then I will have to change my definition of “God’s will.” However, if God will evil by his inaction, then I must separate God’s will (his preordained plan) from God’s desire (the things he receives pleasure in). I have often said that God’s will is the things that please him, but Piper has got me thinking that maybe God will’s things that he hates.
We cannot let this turn us into fatalists, where we go passive and ignore our responsibility to obey God. God may will evil in my life, but that does not mean that I have to passively accept everything that comes into my life, but the mystery between sovereignty and human responsibility is for another blog.