(Note: This is a long post!)
“Why would God allow that?”
I’ve heard the question – in one form or another – a zillion times. And yes, I’ve also asked some variation of it myself on more than one occasion. If God is both powerful and good – why does he “allow” so much evil and heartache in the world?
I recently returned from a trip to Northern California where I spent the Thanksgiving holiday with family. One night after dinner, through a strange sequence of topics, my sister mentioned hearing about the death of Christian recording artist Steven Curtis Chapman’s adopted daughter. (Chapman’s youngest daughter, Maria, who was just five at the time, was killed in a tragic accident last year when she was struck by an SUV driven by her teenaged brother.) As we briefly discussed how unimaginably difficult the circumstances of that event would have been for any family, it inevitably led to the same oft asked question. My sister-in-law, Marsha, shook her head and exclaimed, “I don’t get it! Why would God allow that?”
She was looking at me. As the token family “Jesus freak” it certainly wasn’t the first time a question of that nature had been directed my way. I answered from the heart, but honestly it felt pretty lame. More importantly, my response didn’t answer the question in Marsha’s heart. She started to make a follow up comment, but wisely redirected and opted instead to let it go. I was glad. I wasn’t up for the volley and apparently neither was she. It is pretty hard to convince someone else of something when you are still sorting it out for yourself.
I believe the heart of the question is this: Could God have stopped ___ (stopped this, done that, healed this person, etc., etc.)? Just fill in the blank. If the answer is “yes” – as I believe it is – the logical follow up question is: Then why didn’t he? There are plenty of “stock” replies – most with at least an element of truth – but when I’m being brutally honest (as opposed to playing games with semantics) the only answer I really have is that I simply don’t know. I can’t give a fully satisfying answer because, quite frankly, I don’t believe there is one.
There are many who would argue that point. I think I’ve heard most of them. There are those who contend that God actively controls all events and it is his prerogative to do as he pleases – when bad things happen, God has some ultimate good in mind and, as a result, everything he does (or “allows”) is also ultimately for good. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are those who believe God desperately wants to intervene more in the affairs of man but he is “handcuffed” to a process he imposed upon himself when he elected to give all of mankind a free-will. Both views – and a whole lot in between – represent a part of the truth. But they also leave many questions unanswered. So much so, that the debate amongst sincere Bible-believing Christians has gone on, seemingly, ad infinitum! If those with a similar foundation of faith can’t seem to agree on this topic – how can we possibly hope to share any kind of satisfying “explanation” with those who may be approaching the subject from a different perspective?
During the long drive home that weekend, I pondered the question – and my response – again. I so wished I had been able to convey “something” in my answer that would have expressed a bit more of the true nature of God. While I don’t always have a lot of answers, I do desperately desire to rightly represent his character and heart. That fact took my thoughts down a different path and I came to this simple realization: Sometimes it isn’t a matter of having the right answers – sometimes it is a matter of asking the right questions.
For example, why do I care so deeply about rightly representing the heart and nature of God? Why – despite the lack of answers in many areas of faith and life — do I have an absolutely unshakeable conviction that God is, in fact, always good? Why do I know that I know that I know that God has a profound and personal love for me?
Even more relevant, despite the recent tragedy in their lives, how is it that Steven Curtis Chapman and his wife, Mary Beth, still love, trust and serve God? How is it that within days of losing all four of his daughters, Horatio Spafford was able to pen the lyrically rich and profound hymn, “It is Well With My Soul”? How is it that I was able to sit in church on a recent Sunday with a dear friend who, though she has recently lost the love of her life, was able to worship with unashamed tears flowing down her cheeks as she sang those very same enduring words? Her husband was too young to die and she is far too young to be a widow – I know it is far and away the most difficult and heartbreaking thing she has ever walked through – yet I also know her well enough to know it’s true: It is well with her soul.
I freely confess that I don’t have the answers to a lot of life’s questions, but this is one answer I do have. It is simply this – we know him. I am painfully aware of how simplistic and trite that may sound to some who are sincerely seeking answers. Many throughout history have claimed to know God and have done absolutely heinous things in his name. Many others claim to know him but are just as stressed and depressed as anyone else on the planet – often even more so! That’s reality. But this is also reality – there have always been, and will always be, those who do genuinely know him. And for those who do – it is a transcendent and supernatural reality that changes absolutely everything.
It is a “knowing” that is much deeper than merely believing in the pages of a Book. It’s definitely far greater than intellectually assenting to a system of theology or belief. It’s not about being “right” and it’s not about rules, rituals, traditions or even values. And it certainly isn’t about fairy tales, positive confessions or being a good person. It’s not about belonging to a church, or to a culture, or even about being called a Christian. It’s about a relationship with a real and living person – who just happens to be the Creator of the Universe. Jesus never came to establish a religious system called Christianity – he came to repair man’s broken relationship with God and made a way for us know him – once again – face to face.
But the fact remains that no matter how well I come to know him, he is still God and I am not. I will never understand it all. If I could fully comprehend the ways of God, it would mean he was no bigger than my intellect and understanding. Now, that is a truly scary thought! There will always be an element of mystery required in faith. Years ago I remember reading a book where the author pointed out that his faith wasn’t based on the absence of doubt, but rather on the presence of certainties he couldn’t escape. That has stuck with me through the years. There will always be flickers of doubt present in one form or another. There will always be unanswered questions. But for anyone with “eyes to see and ears to hear,” there are also a multitude of certainties that cannot be denied.
God is good. That is one of the certainties in my life that I cannot escape because I have personally tasted of his goodness – over and over again. I’ve been held close by invisible arms through some of the darkest nights of my life. I’ve heard him call my name and have even heard him sing over me. He’s whispered exactly the right words to my heart at exactly the right time – things no one else would know and often things I had no idea I needed to hear. I’ve looked into eyes of fire and have been captivated by a love so pure that my heart has literally been branded by the intensity of his gaze. I’ve glimpsed beauty more dazzling than the light of a thousand suns and I’ve fallen on my face in the presence of holiness that can’t be described with human words. Fear no longer grips me – I’m not afraid of death because I’ve tasted eternity.
He doesn’t give up on me and he is always faithful. He’s never rejected me, he’s never forgotten me, and he’s never let me down. I know that he’ll never leave me. I’ve experienced crazy “God-incidents” of just about every kind imaginable – from the sweet and silly, to the jaw-dropping miraculous. As if all of that weren’t enough, he’s also given me the amazing privilege of partnering with him in touching people’s lives in various places both near and far and, with my own eyes, I’ve seen broken bodies, broken hearts and broken lives healed and restored by his touch. And I know he longs to do – and will do – even more.
So why hasn’t he yet? Why aren’t more sick people healed? Why isn’t there justice for the poor and oppressed? Why don’t all the children in the world have something to eat and a safe place to live? Why is there still so much suffering virtually everywhere? Why? Some of those answers are quite obvious to me; others remain shrouded in mystery. It’s never as black and white as we’d like to make it out to be. But again, are those really the right questions? Personally, I don’t think so.
Don’t get me wrong – I do believe that those who know the heart of God owe the world a far more accurate reflection of his love, as well as a far greater demonstration of his power to heal, save, and deliver. By and large, we’ve done a pretty lousy job of that. Sadly, I’ve been part of the problem more times than I care to admit. We’ve majored in the minors and, as a result, have often failed horribly at the greatest commandment of all which is simply to love. I had a pastor years ago who made a statement that struck me to the core. He said that he thought very few people actually reject the real Jesus. There are some, to be sure, but his point was that because, as a whole, we’ve represented him so badly, many people are simply rejecting the powerless two-dimensional Jesus they’ve seen portrayed so often in the church and by others. An awful lot of people haven’t seen enough of the real Jesus to be able to make an intelligent decision about who he is one way or the other.
But that, too, is only one side of the coin. Despite our many human failings, God is still God and his declaration in Jeremiah 29:11-13 is still available to anyone willing to take him up on it:
“For I know the plans I have for you”, declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me and I will listen to you. You will seek me and you will find me when you seek me with all your heart.”
To me, those words aren’t just nice sentiment, they are reality – another of those certainties I can’t deny. But I also know that I can’t make my reality anyone else’s reality. I can’t give my relationship with Jesus to anyone else. Frankly, I’m not trying to. I’m not even particularly trying to change anyone’s opinion about anything! We do have choices and one of those choices is that we choose who and what to believe. God has never forced anyone to love him and he never will. All I’m really trying to do, in a nutshell, is rightly represent what I believe – and why. It’s one of the few “why” questions I can actually answer.
I don’t have this thing figured out. I still have doubts. I still have heartache. I’m not always joyful and I’m not always filled with faith. I don’t always extend grace and love to others in anywhere near the measure he has extended it to me. And I’m still very much trying to lay hold of everything he wants to be in and through me. But one thing I do consistently have is hope. Hope in his grace and mercy here and now and hope for eternity. I recently heard hope defined as “the confident expectation of the goodness of God.” That sort of says it all for me. In the midst of a world I don’t always understand, I hold onto what I do understand – the goodness of God.
One final thought – as I was writing this I started pondering something I had honestly never considered before. There was a specific point in time when I began to know this hope that endures and this peace that passes understanding. There was a specific point in time when my heart began to heal from the wounds of this world and started to become increasingly joyful and light. Really, there was a specific point in time when I began to know the heart of God…
It was when I stopped asking the wrong questions – and started asking the right ones.