In our ongoing review of Pastor Bill Johnson’s book God is Good: He is Better than You Think, we shall now turn to explore how God’s sovereignty plays out in the Christian life.
Can a Christian Suffer?
We will begin our discussion today by asking an important question: If God has forgiven us completely of our sin at the Cross, is it possible for us to experience suffering? And if we can and do suffer, what does that mean about our relationship to God?
At first glance, it may not be clear how this question fits into our overall discussion. Recently, we discussed the folly of assuming that whatever happens to us is God’s will, especially situations involving hardship or calamity. At the same time, however, we have asserted what Johnson himself acknowledges, that God “is the Sovereign God [who] reigns over all” who is also “all-knowing and all-powerful,” and that “nothing is outside of His reach or His concern.”
Unlike Johnson — who after making this admission, immediately questions, “But is He in control?” — we accept the only logical conclusion to to this eternal truth: Yes, God is in control. If God is a sovereign God before whom nothing is outside of His reach or care — not even a sparrow that falls to the ground — then there is not one event on the Earth or in our lives that God not only allows but orchestrates. Strictly speaking, anything that happens to us is God’s will.
If God is a sovereign God before whom nothing is outside of His reach or care — not even a sparrow that falls to the ground — then there is not one event on the Earth or in our lives that God not only allows but orchestrates.
But we have pointed out that God, though Love itself, is not focused on ensuring that we experience His goodness, but rather that we choose it. This means our choices play a key role in our ability to experience all that God intends, and also leaves open the possibility that what we experience — though ordained by God — is not ultimately what He wanted for us.
The Case for Suffering
All of this makes sense. In fact, a God whose will for us is to choose the good may look very different from a God whose will for us is to simply make sure we experience the good. A God who is only focused on us experiencing good is confined to activity that will only bring about good things in our lives; the moment He does otherwise, He has violated His primary objective.
But a God who is focused on ensuring we choose what is good is not limited to such activity. If the goal is for us to choose the good, God may use any means to bring this about, even if they involve hardship and suffering.
A God who is only focused on us experiencing good is confined to activity that will only bring about good things in our lives; a God who is focused instead on us choosing the good is not limited to such activity.
This idea may sound familiar. In a previous post, we showed how the mere presence of suffering does not constitute abuse. Rather, it is always the motive behind it (and the motive alone) that does. At that time, the context of our discussion was to show that God’s sovereignty (and thus ultimate responsibility for human suffering) did not prove that He was evil. On the contrary, it demonstrated His holiness in His righteous judgment of mankind.
Here we are extending the discussion and applying it to the Christian life. We are saying that if the intention behind God’s will in our lives is not simply for us to experience good but rather to bring about our willingness to choose the good — in effect, to conform our will to the image of His Son — then even in the Christian life, God could use human suffering to bring about His ultimate aim without violating His goodness. For His motivation behind it is our ultimate good.
Love Requires Judgment?
Johnson agrees with this, at least on the surface. In his chapter Love Requires Judgment, he even attempts to go so far as to explain that God’s judgment is motivated by love.
However, it is difficult to do so. It is difficult for example to explain how God, given the choice to pronounce judgment upon mankind or allow him to remain in the perfection of the Garden, acted in love by choosing the former. It is equally difficult to explain how God’s decision to send people to hell is an act of love (a topic we shall address in a future post). This is one of the pitfalls of attempting to define God as a God of love only instead of the God we see in Scripture, who is both love and perfect holiness.
Johnson ultimately concludes that the only loving thing about judgment is the act of informing us we are under it, and that God’s judgment was unavoidable — even for God. In Johnson’s words: “Out of necessity [God] declared, ‘The soul that sins shall die.’ That was something that came forth because He is love.” God of course does nothing out of necessity, and we have already discussed the dangerous footing that results when we attempt to remove God from His rightful place as Judge of mankind.
It is difficult to explain how God, given the choice to pronounce judgment upon mankind or allow him to remain in the perfection of the Garden, acted in love by choosing the former. It is equally difficult to explain God’s decision to send mankind to hell as an act of love. This is one of the pitfalls of defining God as a God of love only, instead of the God we see in Scripture.
We on the other hand are not arguing here that God sends mankind to hell because He loves us. Nor are we suggesting that God indiscriminately makes the life of His children a living hell here on Earth. We are saying that difficulty and hardship in the life of a believer does not necessarily call into question God’s goodness if God’s intention in it is the conforming of our will to His, and that His master plan is one that ultimately demands our cooperation. Depending on our own choices, we could just as easily find ourselves enjoying God’s goodness, or experiencing hardship that leads us to His goodness.
But — returning to our original question — if we have been forgiven by God of our sins, is it even possible for us to suffer? In other words, if all human suffering is caused by God’s judgment of sin, would that not suggest that we should now not experience any suffering, since we are completely forgiven?
The Case for the Faith-Based Church
This is not a mere academic question. In fact it represents the most notable difference between churches that identify themselves as “faith-based” and those that do not in today’s evangelical church culture. The evangelical church at large tends to emphasize what God’s forgiveness has accomplished for our eternal destiny (that is, where we go when we die). It has less to say about what God’s forgiveness has accomplished for us in the here and now.
This lack of emphasis on what to expect from God in this life explains why there is so much confusion about God’s sovereign will in the church today: Most have been taught we simply live in a fallen world where any calamity is possible, and there is not much God or we can do about it. It is not only a fatalistic world in which the worst tragedy that happens is God’s wish but also in many ways an atheistic world in which God is absent from — or at least not in control of — His own Creation.
Most have been taught that we simply live in a fallen world where any calamity is possible. It is not only a fatalistic world where the worst tragedy is God’s wish but also an atheistic world in which God is absent from — or at least not in control of — His own creation.
On the other hand, the faith-based church asserts that Jesus’ death on the Cross has not only secured our eternal destiny but also secured our freedom from all forms of human suffering. This helps to explain Johnson’s mission. Coming from the faith-based tradition, Johnson is primarily targeting the faulty notions about God in the evangelical church at large and seeks to awaken the church out of its unbelieving slumber to a higher opinion of God’s goodness — one that not only is willing to liberate us from all form of human suffering, but guarantees it.
For what it is worth, I find the faith-based position both provocative and persuasive. Through Jesus Christ, we simply do not see in Scripture a God who is unwilling to liberate mankind from any form of oppression. But this only makes the task at hand more difficult — and also explains Johnson’s dilemma: If Jesus’ work on the Cross is so complete as to eliminate the possibility of human suffering, then God cannot use suffering and hardship to achieve a higher good, no matter how advantageous it might be. If He did, he would technically be allowing His children to come under the very judgment he has forgiven them of. He would be adding a “not quite” to Jesus’ declaration on the Cross, “It is finished.”
What is the Answer?
Johnson’s solution, as we have discussed, is to make God smaller. It is to suggest that it is impossible for God to allow us to suffer, and that when we do, He is not responsible for it. In other words, we are simply outside God’s reach. But even Johnson acknowledges that nothing is outside God’s reach, so this answer is insufficient.
So what then is the answer? It is found by returning to our story of the woman with cancer who refused prayer, and by asking a simple question: If the woman had persisted in her refusal to be prayed for, would God be obligated to heal here anyway?
Is God obligated to heal the woman in our story who refuses prayer? Upon this question rests our understanding of the entire Christian life.
Whether we realize it or not, upon this question rests not only our answer but also our understanding of the entire Christian life. Join me for our next discussion as we explore the case of the child who refuses to be comforted.
And in the meantime, feel free to leave a comment. I would love to hear from you!