How do you respond when bad things happen? Randy Alcorn searches the Scriptures for answers to the problem of pain.
How do you respond when bad things happen? Randy Alcorn searches the Scriptures for answers to the problem of pain.
Bob: When we see the reality of evil and suffering in our world and wonder, “How could God allow something like this?” is it possible that there is a purpose that goes beyond that person’s ability to understand? Randy Alcorn thinks so.
Randy: Let’s just say they are the smartest person that’s ever been, and they know 10 percent of all there is to know in the universe, then the question would be, “You, the smartest person that’s ever lived: is it possible that God has a purpose that is good and redemptive and will be proven to be so that exists that is in that 90 percent of the things to be known that you don’t know?”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, June 15th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife Dennis Rainey and I’m Bob Lepine. Randy Alcorn joins us today to help us understand how God can be good and all-powerful and still allow for evil and suffering in our world.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us. I’ve been thinking as we were talking this week with Randy Alcorn about his book If God Is Good, I don’t know if you’ve ever shared with him your favorite quote from Tom Skinner that you learned back when you were in college? But it really does relate to this subject, doesn’t it?
Dennis: It really does. Randy, welcome back on the broadcast. You’ve been on our program many times, and it’s great to have you back.
Randy: Thanks, it’s great to be with you guys.
Dennis: The quote that Bob’s talking about, Randy…Tom Skinner was a chaplain for the Washington Redskins, grew up in Harlem, was a PK, a “preacher’s kid” but heard the gospel over the radio…
Randy: I remember him. Was it Words of Revolution? Did he write that?
Bob: That’s right!
Dennis: Great memory! Because he gave me that book in 1968. I carted him around the University of Arkansas as he spoke all over campus, and interestingly, probably one of the first black evangelists ever to speak on the campus. Our pastor invited him in, H.D. McCarty, and he gave five messages at church in addition to his other speaking assignments, but he started and ended each message with this quote:
“I spent a long time trying to come to grips with my doubts, when suddenly I realized I better come to grips with what I believe. I have since moved from the agony of questions that I cannot answer to the reality of answers that I cannot escape. And it’s a great relief.”
Dennis: That hit me between the eyes because, Randy you don’t know this about me, but I grew up in the “Show Me” State of Missouri (chuckles), and if I was to have been in any of the tribes of the disciples, I would have been in the tribe of the Doubting Thomas. So I was kind of the “Show Me” guy.
I had all these questions about God, and I remember grappling with the theme that you’ve written about in your book, If God Is Good, just about why does God allow evil and suffering, and if He’s good, how can this be? If you were to give a reader’s digest, I hate to force you to that because you’re such a good thinker, but-if you had to answer that to a new Christian just starting out their walk with Christ, how would you answer that?
Randy: Well, I would say when we ask the question “If God is good…” we’re asking a fundamental worldview type of question, and that’s where I would back up with people to say we all have a worldview. It’s just do you have a good one? Do you have a bad one? What’s it based on?
And if you have a worldview that is based on God’s Word, then you have an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good, all-wise God who creates the world, knowing where it’s going, having a plan and having a purpose and understanding you’re not always going to know the details of that purpose and why He’s doing this particular thing. But in broad strokes, from the very beginning, He tells us He wants righteous people to rule the earth to the glory of God (Genesis 1 and 2), then this catastrophe of sin happens, the Fall, curse, everything goes bad.
And then He sends His Son into the world, does what He does, and then the last two chapters of Revelation, after the return of Christ, after the setting up of His eternal kingdom, New Heaven and New Earth, you’re going to see almost a mirror image of what you saw in Genesis 1 and 2 and in the last two chapters, Revelation 21 and 22. So, in answering the question “If God is good...,” you are actually going through an unfolding drama of redemption in which God brings about an eternal, greater good.
Now, that’s a Christian worldview. Without that worldview, all you’re going to see is little bits or big bits of evil and suffering that’s just going to poke away at your faith unless your faith is grounded on a big picture of God’s plan.
Bob: Yes, because it appears random and meaningless and, in some ways, when people say, “Well if God is good, and if He’s all-loving, and if He’s all-knowing…” when they ask the question, the hidden worldview behind that is “If He was good, all-knowing, and all-loving, then He would do things the way I think they ought to be done.”
Randy: Right! It would make sense to me! And because it doesn’t, He must not be.
Bob: And what we’re really saying is, “I’m all good, I’m all-knowing, I’m all-loving, and if God was good, He’d do it the way I think it ought to be done.” I mean fundamentally, to ask the question is to say, “I think I know best,” isn’t it?
Randy: Absolutely! I remember a very graphic example where a woman who was a very young Christian who was the mother of one of our daughter’s friends in high school, and we were visiting her in the hospital, and she had an illness that was perhaps going to result in her death, and sure enough, it did within a couple of weeks of this conversation.
But my wife, Nancy, used an illustration with her—there have been different forms of this illustration around for awhile but the way that Nancy framed it was—just imagine because she was asking “If God loves me, why would He be doing this? If God loves my family, why would I have this disease?”—of her saying “Imagine the child that gets into the poison, swallows the poison, the father has to throw the child in the car.
There’s no time to wait for an ambulance, drive to the emergency room, and they tell him on the phone “Whatever you do, don’t let him fall asleep, because if he does, the poison will kill him.” So the child’s just a two or three-year-old, so they strap him in, and then imagine you’re the dad, and you’re driving, you’re going down the freeway to the hospital, and it’s a February, and you’re rolling down the windows because he’s falling asleep, and you’re reaching over and you’re slapping him to keep him awake.
Now, is this father acting in the best interests of his child?
Randy: The answer is yes. Absolutely. Does that child have any basis upon which to grasp that his father is acting in his best interests? Does any of this even possibly make sense to him?
Dennis: No capacity to understand that whatsoever.
Randy: Exactly! And we are finite, and God is infinite. Isaiah 55: “As far as the heavens are above the earth, so far are my thoughts above your thoughts and my ways above your ways.”
Bob: And not only that, but everybody driving by who’s watching that dad doing that…everybody driving by is thinking, “What’s that man doing abusing his child?! Because they don’t know…
Randy: Because they don’t know.
Bob: …what the bigger picture is!
Dennis: It’s context. What we’re talking about here is all about the context, God’s context for life.
Bob: And you know this, Randy, there are pastors and theologians who have grappled with this issue and where it has lead them is to the conclusion that if God is all-loving, if God is all-wise, and bad things happen, then it must be that there are some things in the future that God doesn’t know are going to happen, can’t orchestrate beyond His grasp. He has to wait for them to unfold and implement the best plan He can based on how human liberty gets us there.
How do you respond to a pastor? I mean he draws that conclusion because he looks at a child grown up in a home where a father is sexually abusing him every night, and says “How can I really believe that this is the plan of God? That this is the gracious act of a loving God, to let that child be in that situation? So it must be that it’s just outside of his divine knowing?”
Randy: Right. One of the most common things that we have going right now is people trying to solve the problems of evil and suffering by limiting an attribute of God. So some people limit His power. That’s what Rabbi Kushner did when he wrote his book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. He said, “I can believe in a God of love or I can believe in a God who is all-powerful, but I cannot believe in both, because of what I see,” and because of the evil and suffering in the world and his own son who died of this rare disease.
And so, he actually states—and I quote him in If God is Good—that there are some things that are just too hard even for God to fix. Okay, so that’s one way to solve a problem, but of course, if you look at what scripture says, you immediately realize that in your attempt to solve a problem, you have created a problem of immense proportions.
Likewise, we see this even with evangelical circles today with what is called “Open Theism,” and this is the idea that God does not know in advance the contingent choices that His children will make, because if He did know them in advance, then they would be predetermined, they would have to happen, and they would not be true choices. And we deal with in why this is not either a logical or a biblical approach to the problem.
But the intention is to help think, “Well, okay, this bad thing that’s happening to me, I will feel better about it if I tell myself, ‘God didn’t know in advance the evil choice that someone was going to make that was going to result in my child’s abuse because if God had known it from eternity past He surely would never have ordained or permitted it to happen.’”
Well, of course, that doesn’t solve the problem at all. Not only does it take away from a precious attribute of God, the fact that He is all-knowing, but it also brings it down to the moment. Well God surely—if you’re saying He doesn’t know the future—well, doesn’t He know the present? I mean, in the present, this man is abusing him, so why doesn’t God stop it? In other words, it doesn’t solve the problem, and meanwhile it eliminates an attribute of God.
What we need to do is back up and say, “Is it possible—and I’ve asked people this a number of times—just is it possible, first of all, how much of all there is to know in the universe do you know? And if it’s a very arrogant person, they might say, “I know one percent,” you know if they said that, that would be like, “Oh wow, you know one percent of all there is to know?” You know, there aren’t enough zeros to put after the decimal point before you get to a one in terms of a fraction of all there is in the world that the smartest person has ever lived will ever know.
But let’s just say they are the smartest person that’s ever been, and they know 10 percent of all there is to know in the universe, then the question would be, “You, the smartest person that’s ever lived: is it possible that God has a purpose that is good and redemptive and will be proven to be so that exists that is in that 90 percent of the things to be known that you don’t know?” Well, you got to have a pretty arrogant person to confidently respond to that and say, “Yes, I do know that for sure.”
Well, actually, if you do know that for sure, that there can’t be an ultimately good and redemptive purpose, then you actually do believe in an all-knowing being, and that’s you (chuckling), because if you know that.
And so the point is let’s take this with AW Tozer said that “once we see God as He is, and ourselves as we are, there’s no question about where we should stand in this thing.” I think this is the reminder that faith is trusting in a God not because I understand all the answers, but because He has shown enough of Himself to me in Christ to demonstrate His love toward me in that while I was yet a sinner, Christ died for me. If He has done all this for me, how much more beyond that will He do for me also?
Dennis: I want to take that great answer and I want to apply it to a current circumstance that we’ve been facing here in families over the past six to eight to nine months: Haiti. Let’s say your son or your daughter comes home from school. He’s nine years old, and you’re sitting around the dinner table, and you’ve just watched the evening news and not only have you seen the devastation that the earthquake created and a loss of life, but now there’s 200,000 orphans and there’s the masses in the midst of the heat of the summer, hurricane season.
I mean, the human misery just continues to pile up in that little island country.
What would you say simply to that nine-year-old to communicate what you just masterfully described, but to do the same thing and applying that about, “How does evil work in here, Daddy? Did they do something wrong? What’s God up to?”
Randy: Well, I think first you go back to the suffering is real. It breaks the heart of God. I think of Jesus when He reveals Himself to Paul in Acts 9, and He says to Him, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” What an interesting statement. Who was Paul persecuting? Well he was persecuting God’s children; he was persecuting Christians. But Jesus says, “I’m feeling their pain. In persecuting them, you’re persecuting me.”
So God feels our pain; God feels the pain of people of Haiti. And I would say that God is also giving an opportunity for His children to demonstrate His love. God shows His love to the world through what His children-through what you do through what I do. We are His hands and feet. We are the body of Christ. And so the truth of the Gospel and the redemptive purposes of God and the very loving character of God can be demonstrated through the care that we extend.
2 Corinthians 1 talks about the comfort that we give others is the comfort that we have received from God.
And in terms of ultimate, redemptive purpose, that’s where we have to say once again, “We don’t know the why,” we can eliminate some things, certainly John 9 is insightful in this regard because the man born blind, the disciple said, “Who sinned, Lord, this man or his father, that he should be born blind?” Jesus said, “It’s not about either of their sin. It’s that God will be glorified in the man’s life.”
And this is where again, we can’t understand it, but we can say we should not go pointing our finger around at people who are suffering and say, “Well they’re just suffering because of the bad choices they make.”
In general, yes, suffering in the world is a result of sin and fallen curse. But specifically we get on very dangerous ground when we do what Job’s friends did, which is, “Oh, you’re suffering like this, Job? Clearly it’s because of sin in your life,” when in fact God said he’s the most blameless person on the planet.
Bob: Okay, I’m going to circle back, though, here and put that nine-year-old back up on your lap? So the nine-year-old says, “Daddy? Why did God let that earthquake happen in Haiti and why is He letting those people die and suffer?” What do you say?
Randy: I think you say, “I don’t know the complete answer to this because only God knows the complete answer. Your earthly father doesn’t know the complete answer, your Heavenly Father does, and one day I think He’s going to explain it to you and you’ll have a better capacity to understand.”
Dennis: You know, what we’re talking about here is pretty weighty stuff. And if I could attempt to summarize, which is very dangerous based upon the depth of the water we’ve been in here. As you look at things you don’t understand, you take a step back and you go, Number 1: this is about a worldview.
Does your worldview believe that God has a plan, has a purpose and He’s in charge, that He’s ruling, and He’s sovereignly ruling? He’s not partially in charge. He is really in charge? Does that mean we understand it? No.
The second thing we need to know is somehow in His masterful way, and we use the illustration of Joni Eareckson Tada, His glory is being displayed, even in the midst of human suffering and misery. I immediately think of 1 Corinthians 2 verse 14 where it talks about the natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him. He’s not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. You’re not going to be able to go on Nightline or NBC News and make this explanation, and have the world rush to our side and say, “Oh yes! We really believe that, that God’s in charge and this is about His glory!”
Bob: We get it now, yes, thanks for explaining that! We were confused and now we understand!
Dennis: Now we understand. You’re a Looney tune is what you are. That’s what they’re going to say because in their minds they don’t understand. But the third thing, and interestingly, I don’t know that I thought of it quite in the way you explained it, Randy. I think it is so important we dare not miss it, especially as we raise our children and as we go about lives ourselves, the third thing is it’s also about our obedience, and how we’re going to engage in these disasters and human crises.
It may not be an earthquake in Haiti. It may be a neighbor next door who’s getting a divorce who needs someone to intercept them before they make a choice that’s going to result in generation after generation, never knowing the Gospel. It really is about our acts of obedience to God and engaging in the battle at some level.
I can’t engage all the battles, but you know what, I can engage in some. So the answer is what’s the battle before you or what’s the crisis before you? Where you need to take God at His Word and step out and go, I don’t know why this is happening, but I just want to step in and love to express kindness, comfort, and maybe hope and perspective. Maybe in the process I’ll get a chance to lead someone to Christ. I think that’s what’s at stake here.
Bob: Well, you don’t want to go in like you’re the answer man, I think you’re right. You want to go in with love and kindness and compassion and concern for the reality of what somebody is going through. But in the process, it would not be unusual for somebody to say, “I just don’t understand how God would allow such a thing.”
It’s good to have in your mind as you’re in that situation some ways to respond to that, not that you’re going to try and talk them into something as we’ve already said, but so that you can minister the truth of God’s Word to that person. I think your book is very helpful in that regard. We got the book in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center, it’s called If God Is Good: Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil. Randy Alcorn is the author. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com,
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We hope you’ll be back with us tomorrow when we’re going to continue our conversation with Randy Alcorn about the goodness of God in a world where there is evil and suffering.
I want to thank our engineer today Keith Lynch and our entire broadcast production team on behalf of our host Dennis Rainey I’m Bob Lepine. Join us back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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