I have two Bible verses that have been bouncing around in my head for the past few days. I’ve read both before, and possibly have even seen them linked together in some context or another, but they suddenly converged this week and grabbed my attention. And not just grabbed my attention, but Jedi Mind-melded with it, affixing my thoughts whenever I wasn’t actively occupied with something else.
Both verses have to do with The Problem of Evil. Here’s the first verse:
Romans 8:28 – “We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God: those who are called according to his purpose.” (HCSB)
This verse is usually quoted by Christians as proof that even when things go wrong, God can and will use those circumstances to our benefit in some way. Often, we imagine some sort of tangible benefit (gaining wisdom, being able to see a new opportunity, etc), but it’s also used as guarantor of spiritual growth (we come to know more about God). Either way, the verse is quoted as encouragement to remain true to the faith no matter what life throws at us.
Personally, I think it’s a fine use of the verse. In fact, Paul himself wrote the verse as an encouragement to the saints in Rome; in a passage where he details the sufferings and sorrows of human experience, Paul points the Roman Christians beyond the temporal discomfort of the age to the eternal glory that awaits. What seems too much to bear now, is, in fact, revealing the better things that are to come. Stay strong, he says, and God will use these afflictions to bless.
It’s comforting. It helps provide solid ground in unsteady times.
But how does God do it, exactly?
Sometimes, when we quote this verse, we make it sound like God is a detached Midas, someone hanging in the shadows until the mess hits the fan. Then, in the nick of time, He benevolently/miraculously steps in and turns our tough times into gold. Our sufferings are made into blessings, and He retreats back into the shadows until we need Him again.
There’s a couple of things troubling about this view: one, if God is in the shadows, that means someone/thing besides Him is in control. Two, God is relegated to a position of wish fulfiller/pooper-scooper that is an affront to His holiness and power. Three, it puts the emphasis on our receiving good instead of on God’s power to bring it about. It’s a defective view of our relationship with Him.
That’s where the other verse comes in. I mentioned two, remember?
Isaiah 45:7 – “I form light and create darkness, I make success and create disaster; I, the LORD, do these things.” (HCSB)
This verse gets brought up a lot when you’re talking about evil because the King James version translates “disaster” as “evil.” But the verse isn’t talking about moral evil (or the choosing of the not-good); it’s talking about physical incidents that bring about disturbance in human events. It’s talking about things like natural disasters, sickness, struggle, hardship. It’s uncomfortable for many Christians to associate these things with God, but from the Old Testament on we see that God not only uses such things to His will, He also brings them to pass when He deems it necessary. Think Pharaoh’s hardened heart; think Noah; think Joshua and the sun; heck, think about Jesus calming the stormy sea.
When you think about the sovereignty of God being that absolute – that He can not only bring about calamity, but use it to bless His people – you have a much different God than one that just hangs around and cleans up messes. You have a God who doesn’t just want worship, He deserves it.
There will be those that disagree, and I will readily admit that this is an issue I go round and round with a lot. It’s easier for me to reconcile and make sense of an all-good, no-bad God when that God is incapable of ever doing anything I would consider bad (like natural disasters, diseases, etc). But that kind of God is also reduced to a bystander; either by His desire or His limits, He’s not able to actively work in my life. He can only respond to the things that happen to me, even if the response is to bring about good for me. Plus, if He’s limited to just making lemonade out of life’s lemons, that means praying for Him to intervene beforehand is useless.
For God to be able to stop disaster and suffering, He must be more than a bystander. But that means He’s more than most of us are comfortable with. He’s greater than our feeble imaginings. Either God is sovereign, able to “make success and create disaster” according to His will, or He’s less-than-the-One-True-God. It’s challenging to think about if you’re used to God just being your cosmic janitor.
What about you? Are you worshiping the Sovereign God or a safety valve?