A young mother is dying of cancer. A teenage girl overdoses on drugs. A plane crashes, killing dozens of people and injuring more. A little boy bears permanent physical and emotional scars from parental abuse. People in Africa and Asia are slowly starving to death.
Horrible things happen. We hear about them so frequently that we become numb, even callused, to other’s suffering. When they happen in our own families, they cause intense pain and test our faith in God. Why does the Lord allow such evil?
Sometimes it seems impossible to understand God’s reasons. We might wonder whether He wants us to know His plans. We might say, “Truly You are a God who hides Yourself” (Isaiah 45:15). “There is no searching His understanding” (Isaiah 40:28). There is no doubt that we are limited in our understanding of the Lord’s working. Perhaps we hurt so deeply we feel no explanation can right the wrong. We may be so angry that we don’t want to hear His will. Yet the Lord does care about us and does want us to understand Him. In spite of heart-wrenching situations, we can know some very important truths about His providence, if we are willing. “The secret of the Lord is with those who fear Him; and He will show them His covenant” (Psalm 25:14).
God Is In Control
One central truth is that the Lord is in control of every situation. Every least detail is part of His Providence: “Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will. But the very hairs of your head are numbered. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:29). What seems to be the result of our own careful planning would never happen without the Lord allowing it. “A man’s heart plans his way: but the Lord directs his steps” (Proverbs 16:9). Even seemingly chance events are governed by Him. “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord” (Proverbs 16:33). God does more than occasionally intervene. He is constantly guiding human history at every moment. “The Lord kills and makes alive; He brings down to the grave, and brings up. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; He brings low and lifts up” (1 Samuel 2:6,7). “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
Because the Lord is in control of evil, it has its limits. Hitler’s actions sparked a vast amount of evil. But he did not take over the world. Evil rules for some time in some places, and then a balance is restored, and goodness revives. “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all” (Psalm 34:19). The Bible tells us that we will face evil; but it will not finally destroy the human spirit or make goodness impossible. “A just man falls seven times and rises up again” (Proverbs 24:16). “You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, relatives and friends,” Jesus said, “and they will send some of you to your death. And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But not a hair of your head shall be lost” (Luke 21:18). “The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord…. Though he fall, he shall not be utterly cast down” (Psalm 37:23).
What the Lord Wants
Knowing that the Lord is in control may not be satisfying. If the Lord is in control, then isn’t He to blame for evil events? This leads us to a second basic truth: The Lord never wants evil things to happen. Evil is not part of the Lord’s will. “‘I know the thoughts I think towards you,’ says the Lord, ‘thoughts of peace and not of evil.’” (Jeremiah 29:11). When a young child dies, remember: “It is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish” (Matthew 18:14).
God cannot cause evil because He is totally good. God is love (1 John 4:7,8). He is merciful and forgiving, gentle and kind (Exodus 34:6). And because He cannot work against Himself, He cannot do evil. “Far be it from God to do wickedness; and from the Almighty to commit iniquity” (Job 34:10). “His work is perfect…a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is He” (Deuteronomy 32:4).
We might think that God does not care about us because He allows us to suffer. In fact He is aware of our suffering, and He grieves when we are not happy. When Mary and other Jews were weeping in mourning for Lazarus, the Lord felt their sorrow in Himself–He wept, groaning within Himself (John 11:33, 35, 38). And He wept for Jerusalem because of the twisted passions that had taken away its peace (Luke 19:41). “How often would I have gathered your children together, even as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings and you would not” (Matthew 23:37). Even moments before His crucifixion after having been ridiculed, beaten and whipped, the Lord spoke with concern for the suffering of others, not His own: “Weep not for me, but for yourselves and your children” (Luke 23:38).
Mercy is love grieving. The grief and suffering of Jesus was the ultimate expression of the Divine love for humankind. He came into the world to fight beside us and within us against the subtle hellish urges that threatened the existence of any genuinely human love. He took up—takes up–our struggle against evil, because with Divine compassion He feels our misery as if it were His own. “His soul was grieved for the misery of Israel” (Judges 10:16). “He took our infirmities and bore our sicknesses” (Isaiah 53:4). “In all their affliction He was afflicted” (Isaiah 63:9). Because He has experienced our suffering, He can help us survive it. “For in that He Himself has suffered being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted” (Hebrews 2:11, 18). He is one who can “be touched with the feeling of our infirmities” (Hebrews 4:15).
Again and again we read of the Lord’s awareness and experience of our suffering. “You have considered my trouble; You have known my soul in adversities” (Psalm 31:7). “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,…You are with me” (Psalm 23:4). “Is Ephraim my dear son?…My bowels are troubled for him” (Jeremiah 31:20). The Lord so much identifies with us, that whatever suffering we inflict–or benefits we confer–upon each other, He feels our pain or joy as if we had done it to Him. “If you have done it to one of the least of these My brethren, you have done it to Me” (Matthew 25:40, 45).
It is clear that human suffering is not part of His will. He permits it reluctantly. “He does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men” (Lamentations 3:33). “‘I have no pleasure in the death of one who dies,’ says the Lord God. ‘Therefore turn, and live!’” (Ezekiel 18:23, 32; 33:11).
As much as the Lord desires our welfare, there is one thing he desires even more: our freedom. He allows us to choose between evil and good, and when we choose evil, it has its consequences. But neither the evil nor its consequences are His will. “I have set before you life and death, a blessing and a cursing: Therefore choose life!’ (Deuteronomy 30:19). Taking away our free choice and its consequences would remove any sense of self-determination and any freely given love or freely received joy. Evil results from humankind using that precious gift of freedom to go against God’s will.
Turning It to Good
Freedom to choose is not the only reason that the Lord allows good people to suffer. A final important truth is that the Lord allows evil and suffering because He can bring good from it. The Lord allowed Joseph to be sold as a slave by his brothers, and imprisoned. Yet through this, Joseph came to rule the Egyptians and save them from starvation during seven years of famine. Later Joseph forgave his brothers: “You thought evil against me, but God meant it for good,…to save many people alive” (Genesis 50:20). The Lord can turn a curse into a blessing (Deuteronomy 23:5). “All things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). He allows us to experience suffering because of the benefits that can come from it. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted…. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:4, 10).
We cannot fully understand the infinite wisdom of the Lord’s providence. However, we can know certainly that the Lord is in control, and that His only concern is for our eternal happiness. We know that He can bring good from every evil, and we can try to cooperate with His plans by finding ways to grow in strength, sensitivity, conviction and humility as a result of the experience.