All too often when there is news of a tragedy, such as a mass shooting or a child suffering from bone cancer, there will be someone who will say something like, “God is in control. We must accept that what’s happened is part of God’s plan!”
At the funeral of a young man who died in a mountain climbing accident, the pastor said in his homily, “We must see what has happened as God’s will!” At that, the father of the young man stood and shouted, “The hell it was God’s will! When my son died, God was the first one who cried.”
In a televised discussion between a Christian apologist and an avowed atheist, the Christian was stymied when asked, “If an all-powerful and loving God is in control of what happens in this world, then why is there so much suffering?”
I do not doubt for one moment that God can challenge us to bring good out of suffering and tragedy. I believe that the proper meaning of Romans 8:28 is that in the midst of all that is happening, God can bring something good out of what is obviously tragic, and perhaps even evil, especially through people who are committed to using tragedy as a motivation for bringing about great blessings. But God does not cause the evil.
I’ve been told that Muslims believe that all that happens was “written” before the foundation of the world, and that we are simply living out God’s pre-ordained script. I am not sure if that kind of fatalistic thinking really is part of the Islamic teachings, but it certainly is not true of basic Christian thinking, nor is it, so far as I can tell, Biblical teaching. The story I get straight from scripture is that there are evil non-rational principalities and powers that are loose in the world, sometimes working through evil people (Ephesians 2:2) and that God is not the author of the confusion and disorder that come from these destructive powers (1 Corinthians 14:33).
All that God created was meant to be good, as it says in the opening chapters of the book of Genesis. Today, however, things are not as God willed for them to be. There are dark forces at work in the world and Jesus refers to such dark forces as personified in, “the Prince of this world” (John 14:30). The Apostle Paul picks up the same theme as he talks about Satan being a dominating presence in history (2 Corinthians 4:4), and perhaps nowhere in the Bible is there a more emphatic declaration that “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one,” as it says in the Revised English Version in 1 John 5:19. God is not the author of the evil and temptations in this world (James 1:13) but has sent His Son to initiate a movement to overcome these things.
I am not questioning the extent of God’s power. I believe that God has chosen not to be in control of everything going on in this world. In Christ, we find a God who deliberately gave up power to control everything in order to save the world through sacrificial love (Philippians 2). If God exercised total control over everything we do, we could not love God because love always requires the lover to freely choose to love. God relinquished power in order to give us the freedom to love. No one is coerced into loving God. Love cannot be coerced. God did not create us to be puppets, but in Christ chose to draw us to Himself through an ultimate act of sacrificial love. That is why Jesus said, “If I be lifted up from the earth, I will draw people to me” (John 12:32). In Christ, God chose to draw us to Himself through sacrificial love, rather than coerce us through power.
As hard as it is for us to grasp, we have to accept that we have a God who was willing to give up power and give up control in order to live out love for us. That is what the cross is all about. The salvation story is about a God who humbles Himself and emptied Himself of power (the words “empty” is the translation of the word kenosis in the Greek of the New Testament) in order to express fully His love for us. In Christ, God became weak for our sakes and became, according to the theologian Jürgen Moltmann, the Crucified God. It’s the choice that God made when he came to us in Jesus Christ.
Now here’s the great news! God so loved the world that Jesus, the only begotten of God, was sent to deliver the world from all the evil that pervades our planet and deliver each of us from the consequences of sin (John 3:16). Christ continues this saving work through those who willingly surrender to the Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence in their lives. These brothers and sisters, which the scripture calls “The Church,” are called to continue this work of rescuing all of creation from its sorry condition (Romans 8:16-22).
As a professor at Eastern University, I earnestly try to challenge my students to define themselves as agents of God, called to participate with God in delivering those sectors of the world where they are called to work and serve from any evil and suffering. I challenge those who are led to be in medical vocations to interpret what they do as nurturing the kind of health that God wants people to enjoy. Those who are in the world of business and industry are challenged to work within the commercial and industrial world to produce what meets people’s needs while simultaneously protecting the environment. The students who sense themselves called to minister to people through education and various social services must likewise understand themselves as being in vocations to help others actualize their potentialities to be fully actualized human beings (i.e. increasingly in the likeness of Jesus).
On the societal level, they all are called to participate in the political process in wrestling against the “principalities and powers.” According to theologians such as Walter Wink and Hendrikus Berkhof, these powers and principalities include the corporate institutional structures of government and economic systems so that they can do the good that God wills for them to do, rather than the evil for which they are often responsible (Ephesians 6:12).
There is further good news! We know where history will end as we struggle through all of these efforts. Jesus is coming back and the good work that He does in us and through us will be completed on the day of His coming (Philippians 1:6). The resurrection of Christ from the dead is the evidence that the forces of darkness are no match for the God revealed in Christ’s resurrection (Philippians 3:10). After Easter we know that the kingdoms of this world will one day become the kingdom of our God, and that He shall reign forever and ever (Revelations 11:15). As we labor, we labor with this hope.
I tell my students at Eastern University that they should view their education as preparation to participate with God in changing the world from what it is, into what God wills for it to be. This is their urgent responsibility. Through loving sacrifice, they can change the world. “Not through force nor power, but by God’s Spirit of loving sacrifice the world will be transformed into God’s kingdom on earth” (Zechariah 4:6).