fIf you have been following our latest posts exploring Bill Johnson’s new book Good is Good: He is Better than You Think and the broader topic of God’s goodness, then you will know by now the fact that God is ultimately responsible for human suffering is inescapable. In fact, for Him not to be responsible, He would either have to be not aware of the suffering taking place, not present when it does, or not powerful enough to do anything about it. In short, He would have to not be God.
But what exactly do we mean by saying God is responsible for human suffering? Johnson concludes that if God is responsible for causing or even allowing human suffering then He is an abusive Father. But is this necessarily true? The simple answer is no. To understand why, we must go back to the very beginning.
In the Garden, mankind rebelled against God and His commandments in a defining moment of human history know as the Fall. In response, God pronounced judgment upon mankind, which resulted in a curse not only affecting the human race but also the world itself.
According to Christian doctrine, the effects of this event are seen throughout the world to this very day in the form of disease, calamity, poverty and death. In other words: Not only does God’s nature demand it, but Scripture itself testifies that God is ultimately responsible for human suffering.
A Righteous Act
According to both Old Testament and New, God’s judgment was the righteous response by a Holy God to mankind’s act of rebellion. By righteous, we do not simply mean God is righteous (which He is) but rather the act itself was. That is, in light of man’s willful act of rebellion before God’s holiness, the most appropriate and just response was judgment; for God to have done differently would have been the wrong thing to do. Man’s rebellion demanded God’s judgment. This is what the New Testament means when it says, “The wages of sin is death.”
Further, the rightness of God’s judgment upon mankind makes Jesus’ death upon the Cross what it is: An act of mercy. If God’s act of judgment were not perfectly just, Jesus’ death would cease to be merciful. Only the justly condemned require mercy; the wrongly condemned require only justice.
An Act of Abuse?
What we are saying here of course is not revolutionary. It is the basic Gospel message which has been preached and believed by the church for centuries, and it is the ground upon which every new believer believes: That they are condemnable before a Holy God and in need of a Savior.
But now comes a very important question: Was God’s pronouncement of judgment upon mankind an act of abuse? The answer is: Clearly not. To think so would be to reject the very foundation of Christianity and of Scripture.
But what then are we to do with Johnson’s claim that for God to be the cause of disease or natural disasters, or any other form of human suffering, means that He is an abusive Father? Before us, God’s judgment of mankind stands as an undeniable instance of God not only allowing but causing human suffering — in fact, causing all of human suffering.
And yet both Scripture and Judeo-Christian tradition regard it not as an expression of evil, but quite the opposite: The expression of an absolutely perfect and just God.
The True Nature of Abuse
Cleary then, there are exceptions to Johnson’s claim. In fact, ordinary life itself speaks to a vital truth concerning the true relationship between human suffering and the one who causes it. Let’s look at a few examples.
Suppose your child is about to run out into the street in front of a speeding car. To save the child, you tackle her to the ground just in time, bruising her arms and legs and scraping her knees. Have you caused human suffering? Yes, you have. But are you guilty of abuse? Not in the slightest.
But now let’s suppose a child comes to school one day with one small bruise on her arm and explains to her teacher that the night before, her father tackled her to the ground for no apparent reason, causing her injury. Is this abuse? Absolutely.
But how can this be so? Why is it that one action at the hands of a father resulting in more injury is not abuse, while the other resulting in less injury is? The answer is simple. Abuse is never established by the mere presence of human suffering. It is always established by the intent behind that suffering.
Abuse is never established by the mere presence of suffering; it is always established by the intent behind that suffering.
This same principle is illustrated perfectly in our judicial system. A man cannot take another person against his will, detain him for years and eventually kill him.
On the other hand, a police officer can takes a person suspected of murder against his will, even forcibly, and detain him. And if he is tried and sentenced to death, others can even kill him.
In both cases, we see the same degree of human suffering, but one is called kidnapping and murder and the other is called upholding justice. The difference is not found in the presence or degree of suffering: It is found only in the intent and motivation behind that suffering.
When we turn to God’s role in human suffering, therefore, the material point is not whether God allows it — or even causes it. The question is His intent and motivation behind it. God can only be evil in causing human suffering if it is found that his intentions for that suffering are, in fact, evil. No matter what the suffering, His intentions alone determine whether God is undeniably abusive, or infinitely good.
And based on the authority of Scripture, of this we can be sure: No matter what his relationship to suffering, God is always infinitely good.
There is an irony, then, in claiming God is simply too good to cause or even allow human suffering: By doing so, we are implicitly accusing God for his part in human suffering of being evil.
Two conclusions are important to note here. The first is to realize that in order to preserve God’s goodness, distancing God from His role in human suffering is simply not necessary. We have shown plainly both from Scripture and from ordinary life that being the cause of suffering does not necessarily make one evil.
But secondly, once we accuse God of evil for His role in human suffering, then distancing God from human suffering becomes absolutely necessary. We must eradicate God from any part in suffering wherever we find it, both in life and in Scripture. It is the only way to protect God from our own judgment, and to preserve our own idea of goodness.
And this has grave implications, which we shall explore in later posts.
None of this is to suggest that God is in the business of still judging us for our sins as believers. If He were to do so, He would be just. But He saw it fitting to be both just and merciful through the Person of Jesus Christ, who came to take our place in the condemnation we rightly deserved, to die that we might live.
I would love to here from you regarding how God has demonstrated His own acts of mercy in your own life.