Phil Cox

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The will of God

6th April 2013

Following last week's column, I received some feedback. I was asked if I really believe that our suffering can be within the will of God. So this week, I'll look at that question in more detail. My answer will inevitably be more theological than pastoral. In a short article like this, I can talk about logic, and I can offer some thought experiments, but I won't have space to write about the anguish some of my readers are going through this week.

Firstly, if God is omnipotent (that is, if God can do anything) then God can heal all my diseases. God can prevent all my persecution, God can get me a well-paid job, God can give saving faith to all my loved ones, God can turn my tap water into wine, and so on. But he doesn't. If I was writing pastorally this week, I'd say that if we prayed more, and repented more, and loved more, and studied the Bible more, and trusted God more, and obeyed Him more, then we would experience more of His blessing, and that blessing may well include better health and other good things. But this week's focus is on God's will, not on our discipleship, and if God is omnipotent (and He is) then He doesn't need us to do any of these things before He acts.

Secondly, if God is omniscient (that is, if God knows everything, including the future) then God knows what will befall us tomorrow and can choose to intervene to prevent bad things from happening to us. But He often doesn't. If I was writing pastorally this week, I'd say that if we prayed more, and committed our way to God more completely, and if we obeyed the prompting of His Holy Spirit more perfectly, then we would avoid much of the trouble we get into. But this week's focus is on God's will, and if God knows the future (and He does - that's how predictive prophecy works) then He doesn't need us to do any of these things before He intervenes to protect us. As well as keeping us away from trouble when we listen to Him, He can keep trouble away from us even when we don't listen to Him.

So we know that God could keep us from all harm, and provide us with all good things. And we know that He doesn't. And we know (I hope) that He loves us. The question is, why is this not a contradiction? The answer must surely be that God is seeking higher goals than our earthly comfort. I'd like to offer three reasons why God sometimes chooses to allow us to suffer.

Firstly, the suffering that God allows us to endure is good for our character development (although it can be very hard for those of us who have suffered grievously to believe that). The apostles said:

Romans 3:3b-5
... we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us...

James 1:2-4
Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

Secondly, If we endure suffering on earth, we will be rewarded in heaven. I'm challenged by:

Hebrews 11:35b
Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection.

because I'm not at all sure that I would keep the faith under torture. But I can believe that those who endure such torment will, indeed, gain a better resurrection. We must learn from this terrifying passage that it's possible to believe than earthly suffering will result in eternal blessing, that the quality of our lives in heaven depends in part on the degree of our suffering on earth. It also depends on the suffering of Jesus Christ on earth.

Thirdly, most of our suffering is because other people sin against us. And, if God were to prevent anyone ever sinning against us, He would have to remove their free will. The preservation of God's gift of free will to humanity is a greater good than my comfort.

Let's look at this question about the will of God from another angle. We all make choices about what we want:

  • I want to avoid obesity, and to eat cream cakes.
  • I want to avoid the dentist, and to have perfect teeth.
  • I want my children to mature and learn now to handle conflict, and I want to protect them from conflict.
  • I want my children to learn patience, without having to suffer.

There's a difference between one aspect of our will - what we like - and another - what we know will keep us healthy - and another what we know is right. There's a difference between our long-term good and our short-term good. There's a difference between what enables our moral development, and what enables our comfort. There's a difference between what we like and what we choose. And the same is true of God. The most obvious example with God is that He chose to let Jesus be crucified. It goes without saying that God didn't like to see His beloved Son nailed to a cross, but we know He chose it. For God, the long-term gain was sufficient for Him to let His Son suffer unimaginable pain. That long term-gain was our salvation.

Romans 8:28-32
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?

The author of this also wrote:

2 Corinthians 11:24-29
Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have laboured and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?

Despite his suffering, Paul knew that God was for him. He knew that God would graciously give [him] all things. He must have known that the suffering was worthwhile, even if he didn't always know why. May God help us to know it, too.