Does God Allow Bad Things? / Spiritual Meditation

The world is good. The world is fallen. The world can be redeemed. If this sequence describes the story of the universe, then we must learn to look at the world through that lens. Faith means developing an ability to accept that point of view. We learn to trust that God’s mysterious style of working on this planet, and of relating to us his creatures, will one day fit into a pattern that makes sense to us.

According to the apostle Paul, our difficulties in knowing God are a temporary condition: “now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror, then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I will know fully, even as I am fully known.” When God finally restores creation to its original design, any gulf between visible and invisible worlds will disappear. The goal of history, a goal God has staked his existence on, is to bring the two worlds together once more, to reconcile them.

Two Powers

Beginning with the first chapters of Genesis and ending with the last chapters of Revelations, we detect two main power streams in the history of this planet. First, evil seizes what is good and despoils it. Since the Fall we have lived in a world dominated by powers that are not morally neutral but tilt towards evil, as any history book or daily newspaper makes evident. The violence and injustice should not surprise us for we belong to an age in which evil rules.

In opposition, God unleashes a stream of power to redeem what evil has spoiled. For now, God has chosen to exercise his power through the most unlikely foot soldiers: flawed human beings. Because of these tactics, it may sometimes appear that God is losing the battle. But the final victory will be won in power and glory, God will end forever the reign of evil.

The day will come when one set of powers vanquishes the other; we have Jesus’ resurrection as a bright promise of that day. Until then, we experience these conflicting power streams every day, all day long. The powers work subtly, invisibly, and always we find ourselves caught in the two great power streams of history, one defacing the good and the other seeking to redeem what has been despoiled.

How God Works in This World

Philip Vancey clearly explains the irony of God’s work in the world with an example from his life:

“In high school, I took pride in my ability to play chess. I joined the chess club and during lunch hour could be found sitting at a table with other nerds pouring over books with titles like Classic King Pawn Openings. I studied techniques, won most of my matches, and put the game aside for 20 years. Then, in Chicago I met a chess player who had been perfecting his skills long since high school. When we played a few matches, I learned what it is like to play against a master. Any classic offense I tried, he countered with a classic defense. If I turn to more risky, unorthodox techniques, he incorporated my bold forays into his winning strategies. Even apparent mistakes he worked to his advantage. I would gobble up and unprotected night, only to discover he had planted it there as a sacrificial lure, part of some grand design. Although I had complete freedom to make any move I wished, I soon reached the conclusion that none of my strategies mattered very much. His superior skill guaranteed that my purpose inevitably ended up serving his own.”

Perhaps God engages our universe, his own creation, in much the same way. He grants us freedom to rebel against its original design, yet even as we do so, we end up ironically serving his eventual goal of restoration. If we accept that blueprint—a huge step of faith, I confess—it transforms how we view both good and bad things that happen. Good things such as health, talent, and money, we can present to God as offerings for his use. And bad things too—disability, poverty, family dysfunction, failures—can be redeemed as the very instruments that drive us to God.

Once again, a skeptic might accuse us of flagrant rationalization, arguing backwards to make evidence fit a prior conclusion. Yes, exactly. A Christian begins with the conclusion that a good God will restore creation to its original design and see all history as proceeding toward that end. When a grandmaster plays a chess amateur, victory is assured no matter how the board may look at any given moment.

Paul Tournier sums up the pattern well:

“The most wonderful thing in this world is not the good that we accomplish, but the fact that good can come out of the evil that we do. I have been struck, for example, by the numbers of people who have been brought back to God under the influence of a person to whom they had some imperfect attachment… Our vocation is, I believe, to build good out of evil. For if we try to build good out of good, we are in danger of running out of raw material.”

Why does God Allow Bad Things to Happen?

So, “why do bad things happen, even to good people?” This issue more than any other introduces confusion, and even a sense of betrayal, into a relationship with God. How can we trust in a loving God who allows such bad things to happen? Are the terrible things that happen on earth God’s will? Why must God use an ironic style—why not just prevent tragedy in the first place?

God’s Will Evolves

The British Bishop Leslie Weatherhead makes helpful distinctions in the phrase “the will of God.” A sovereign God interacting with a free creation involves at least three kinds of “wills,” he says.

First, there is God’s INTENTIONAL WILL. We know what God intends, for the first two chapters of Genesis spell out a world of perfect goodness, and Revelation ends with a similar landscape. God intends for human beings to be healthy and live with companions in pleasant and abundant circumstances. Anything else—poverty, loneliness, hatred, pain, sickness, violence, hunger—goes against God’s intentional will for his creation.

The Fall, however, changed the rules of the planet. In the wake of a decisive victory by the power stream of evil, many bad things appeared on earth. God must then have a “CIRCUMSTANTIAL WILL” that adapts to the evil conditions of earth. Its original goodness having been spoiled on this planet, God must instead salvage good from bad. Many factors defy God’s original plan, causing him much grief. Did God “will” for Joseph (Genesis 37-41), Daniel (see below), Jeremiah (Jer 18-28), Paul, and others to rot in prison? Certainly not in the sense of his intentional will. Yet evil circumstances, such as jealous brothers, political tyrants, and threatening religious leaders, caused each of them to spend time in jail.

Nevertheless, because each of these men trusted, God’s plan went forward despite the evil circumstances, albeit it in very different ways. Joseph triumph and rose to power, Daniel experienced supernatural deliverance, Jeremiah left a lasting testimony as the “weeping prophet,” and Paul formulated much of his theology behind bars.

Like an artist who is able to make use of a fault or an impurity in the stone he is sculpting or the bronze he is casting so as to produce two exquisite lines or a more beautiful tone, God without sparing us the partial deaths, nor the final death, which form an essential part of our lives, transfigures them by integrating them into a better plan—provided we lovingly trust in him. Not only our unavoidable ills but our faults, even our most deliberate ones, can be embraced in that transformation, provided always we repent of them. Not everything is immediately good to those who seek God, but everything is capable of becoming good…. Teilhard de Chardin

The last pattern Weatherhead calls Gods “ULTIMATE WILL.” To those who trust him, God promises to use any circumstances to serve his ultimate will.

Our Expectation of Joy

Anyone who has lived through a natural disaster or war and wonders why some are unaffected while others perish, will agree with Henry Nouwen when he says “Our life is a short time in expectation, a time in which sadness and joy kiss each other at every moment. There is a quality of sadness that pervades all the movements of our life. It seems that there is no such thing as a clear-cut pure joy, but that even in the most happy moments of our existence we sense a tinge of sadness. In every satisfaction, there is an awareness of limitations. In every success there is the fear of jealousy. Behind every smile, there is a tear. In every embrace, there is loneliness. In every friendship, distance. And in all forms of light, there is the knowledge of surrounding darkness… But this intimate experience in which every bit of life is touched by a bit of death can point us beyond the limits of our existence. It can do so by making us look forward in expectation of the day when our heart will be filled with perfect joy, a joy that no one shall take away from us.”

The field had to be broken, the iron molten, the orchard lopped, the wheat winnowed, the stream imprisoned above the mill. Perhaps it was the same with man’s life. From defeat greater endeavor must be born, from tears increased purpose, from despair hope. Why should a man fall but to rise again, die but to live?… George Dell


Though human history with all its evils may place many blockages in the way, in the end these will be overcome. God will get his family back, on an earth restored to something resembling its original state.

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Relevant Scripture

Then they said to the king, “Daniel, who is one of the exiles from Judah, pays no attention to you, Your Majesty, or to the decree you put in writing. He still prays three times a day.” When the king heard this, he was greatly distressed; he was determined to rescue Daniel and made every effort until sundown to save him.

Then the men went as a group to King Darius and said to him, “Remember, Your Majesty, that according to the law of the Medes and Persians no decree or edict that the king issues can be changed.”

So the king gave the order, and they brought Daniel and threw him into the lions’ den. The king said to Daniel, “May your God, whom you serve continually, rescue you!”

A stone was brought and placed over the mouth of the den, and the king sealed it with his own signet ring and with the rings of his nobles, so that Daniel’s situation might not be changed. Then the king returned to his palace and spent the night without eating and without any entertainment being brought to him. And he could not sleep.

At the first light of dawn, the king got up and hurried to the lions’ den. When he came near the den, he called to Daniel in an anguished voice, “Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God, whom you serve continually, been able to rescue you from the lions?”

Daniel answered, “May the king live forever! My God sent his angel, and he shut the mouths of the lions. They have not hurt me, because I was found innocent in his sight. Nor have I ever done any wrong before you, Your Majesty.” (Daniel 6:13-21)


Reaching for the Invisible God by Philip Yancey

Image by Positive Images

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