In life it is often the case that things have a tendency to get worse before they get better, and part two of our discussion in reviewing Bill Johnson’s new book God is Good: He is Better Than You Think is no exception.
We ended our last discussion establishing the fact that the only way for God not to be responsible for human suffering is for Him to cease to be God — a point we now need to expand upon. It is necessary that we do, for without acknowledging the inevitability of God’s involvement in human suffering, we will continue to attempt to remove him from His place of absolute sovereignty instead of achieving a proper understanding of His relationship to human suffering in that place of sovereignty.
We shall begin with an illustration. Imagine in your home town one evening there is a tragic accident. A young child is killed by a drunk driver. It is later found that the drunk driver, having run a red light, plowed head-on into the child who was crossing the street at the crosswalk, and the child died instantly.
Now who is responsible for the child’s death? Clearly the drunk driver. Would the eyewitnesses at the scene of the crime be responsible? No. And neither would anyone who happened to be a block away at the time of the accident. The only one responsible is the drunk driver.
But now let us suppose you were present at the time of the accident. In fact, you were there moments before the unfolding of events occurred. You were there early enough to observe the drunk driver pass you at top speed as he headed toward the intersection where the child stood. Are you responsible? No. You may feel a sense of guilt (that is, unfulfilled responsibility) simply because you observed the events leading up to the accident. But you clearly had no control over them.
But what if you were not only present but also with the child moments before the event occurred? In fact, what if you stood right next to the child as you watched the drunk driver approach. Are you now responsible? Most likely, yes. Even though you weren’t the drunk driver, you were aware of what was about to take place and had the ability to do something about it, but chose to do nothing.
God the Eyewitness
The parallel to our present discussion may be clear. The difficulty with excluding God from responsibility for human suffering is that unlike us, he is always present at the scene of the crime and is always able to do something about it. Otherwise, He is not God. In fact, to believe otherwise is to deny the chief characteristics of His divinity: His omniscience (He is all-knowing), His omnipresence (He is everywhere) and His omnipotence (He is all-powerful).
Johnson contends that for us to claim God allows human suffering is foolish and even suggests that we are trying to “escape the pain of our shameful thinking” by doing so. But I would suggest the opposite is actually true. By claiming God is not responsible for human suffering, we are trying to escape the difficult tension of a God who is both infinitely good but absolutely in control of a world where human tragedy and suffering exist.
God’s Hands Are Tied
Of course Johnson is not alone. We often hear that the reason God does not act in a given situation is because he is limited by the spiritual laws He has put in place: He wants to relieve our suffering, but His “hands are tied.”
No doubt God desires to relieve our suffering. But if God’s hands are really tied, it must be asked: Who is tying God’s hands? Is there a Power in the Universe greater than God limiting His ultimate desire? We must admit there is not. On the contrary, “Our God is in Heaven; he does whatever pleases him.” In fact, if there were, that power would be the true God, not the God we serve.
Here we might be tempted to say, “God is limited by His Word.” In other words, God has made up His mind about something (in this case, His spiritual laws that govern what he can or cannot do), and because He takes His own word seriously, He will not go back on it. In a sense, then, God is limited by Himself.
This is all fine — until we, like Johnson, ask: If I know my children are being beaten by the neighbors but refuse to intervene on the grounds that I made up my mind not to leave the house, does that make me any better a Father? Not really. In fact, the case could be made that it makes me no better than the one doing the abusing.
The truth is, God is no more powerless over the laws He puts in place than a parent over the rules he or she institutes in the home. God’s spiritual laws are not a limitation of His will: They are the very expression of it.
But what about our role in the equation? Does mankind not have any responsibility over the human suffering we both experience and observe? Johnson explains that the source of human suffering is Satan1, and mankind was given authority over Satan in the Garden, subsequently lost it at the Fall, and now have regained it through the Cross. Johnson would argue that God has delegated the responsibility to stamp out human suffering wherever it may exist to us. It is no longer God’s responsibility, but ours.
Mankind’s role here on Earth is an important topic (one we will explore later). Unfortunately, however, it does not help us here. For once the allegation of child abuse has been leveled, we must allow the question to be asked: If my children are being abused and I decide to make it my oldest child’s job to rescue them, does that excuse me from any responsibility? Unfortunately, no. In fact in makes me more responsible, for I chose to delegate my own responsibility, and in this case to one less capable. At best it shows poor judgment on my part as a father; in the worst case, it shows downright neglect.
And in God’s case, the possibility of God’s own children executing the rescue operation less successfully than Himself is guaranteed. My oldest child is not ultimately responsible for my children remaining abused: I am.
The Powers of Darkness
“But wait a minute!” someone might interject. “I thought the devil was responsible for all the suffering in the world, not God! The Word of God is clear on that point.” This is a common view of human suffering in our revival culture, and one that seems to be foundational for Johnson. The idea is that Satan and his demons alone are responsible for human suffering, and God the cause only of all blessing and favor.
Granted, it is true that Satan’s objective is to bring destruction to our lives wherever he can. It is also true that Jesus, in His own words, has come that we might have life and have it abundantly.
But what is not true is that God is powerless before the devil. The opposite is true: Satan is a created being. In fact, he can do nothing without God’s permission, a point even Johnson makes:
Many make the mistake of thinking that the devil is the opposite of God. He’s a created being and would be more likely compared to the opposite of Michael, also an archangel. The devil has never been a threat to God in any possible measure. He can be removed forever with a simple word. (underline added).
But if this is so, it means that to whatever degree Satan has brought destruction in our lives, God has allowed it. Satan may be the agent of human suffering, but God has granted him permission to do so. Satan may be the drunk driver, but God has given him the keys.
But if I give my neighbor who I know to be a child abuser permission to take my children inside his home, what kind of a father does that make me?
An Irresponsible God is Not the Answer
No matter how we try to work the equation, God cannot be removed from his responsibility over human suffering. He may not be the drunk driver, but he is the eyewitness present at the scene, before and as it unfolds. And He has power to intervene, always.
What then are we to do with this difficult state of affairs? How can we maintain that God is as good as He says He is, and yet acknowledge He is ultimately responsible for every tragic event that transpires here on Earth?
Johnson is acutely aware of this dilemma. It is in fact what drives many of his arguments for the remainder of the book. For example, He claims at one point that “God is in charge, but not in control” in defining His relationship to disease. He also argues that God’s judgment (Biblically speaking, the source of all human suffering) is in reality an act of love. All of these attempts are — in my view — ultimately unsuccessful (and also potentially dangerous, since they represent a departure from orthodox teaching).
Accepting God on His Terms
But the solution here is actually simpler than it might seem. To resolve the apparent conflict between God’s goodness and His ultimate responsibility for human suffering, we simply must accept it. And we do so for a very simple but good reason: Both are what the Word of God teaches.
On this note, I am going to take a page out of Bill Johnson own playbook, one I am indebted to him for: “It is wiser to hold in tension two contradictory ideas than it is to twist what Scripture has said, discounting the one that doesn’t fit your ideal.”
But it is difficult to do at times for all of us.
I would propose two things here. First, that God’s responsibility for human suffering, on the basis of His absolute sovereign control over His creation as well as considerable Scriptural evidence, is what the Bible actually teaches.
Second — and I say this respectfully — that Johnson, though he has so much right about the goodness of God, ultimately fails to follow his own advice here. Instead of holding God’s goodness and ultimate responsibility for human suffering in tension, he has chosen instead to believe that God is too good to have any part in human suffering, and now finds himself in the uncomfortable predicament of having to discount any Biblical evidence that does not conform to this ideal.
Granted, embracing this tension will not mean the immediate answer to all of our questions. But it will make the answers to those questions possible. We are in many ways at the beginning of our journey.
Now that we have established the inevitability of God’s involvement in human suffering, we shall explore His role in it.
Our first task shall be to dispense with the notion that God’s involvement in and responsibility for human suffering automatically makes him a child abuser, or evil in any way, which is simply not true. Indeed, we shall find quite the opposite is true. And this is where things get much better.
Join me for my next post, and in the meantime, I am interested to hear your own thoughts on reconciling the difficulties in your life with God’s absolute goodness.
1References to Satan are capitalized simply because Satan is a proper name (just as “Bob” is a proper name), not because doing so suggests he is considered equal with God, as the text makes clear.