Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Is this God’s will?

We don’t have to live long before we will experience difficult situations in our lives. Poverty, sickness, pain and suffering, bereavement, depression, divorce, relationship breakdown, a demanding boss or awkward co-workers, rebellious children, and so on. I’m sure you can add many more of your own to the list. For some this is reason enough to reject Christianity. In my last post I questioned some of the assumptions that underpin that objection.

Nevertheless it must be admitted that this can be a difficult question for Christians too. How do we reconcile the existence of evil and suffering with our belief in God’s perfect love and almighty power? At some point most Christians have probably asked the question, “is this God’s will?”, but behind this question are two assumptions:
1. Since God is good, He wouldn’t let bad things happen to me
2. God should tell me His will.

Can these assumptions be supported by scripture?

Scripture in fact clearly states that God keeps part of His will ‘secret’ from us: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” (Deut. 29:29). To understand this it is helpful to think in terms of a distinction between God’s revealed will and His secret will. His revealed will includes His commands and promises to us. Of course, we know that many care nothing for obeying God's commands. Even we Christians constantly fail to love Him with all our mind, heart and strength. So in this sense of the meaning of God's will we can say that, when His commands are disobeyed, then we are not acting in line with His will. But this is where His "secret" will comes in for God rules over all His creation, even the wind and waves (Mark 4:41), and good and bad (Lam 3:38). Nothing comes to pass that He hasn't fore-ordained (Pr. 20:24, Acts 2:23). He planned the beginning to the end (Ecc. 3:11, Isa. 46:10). His secret will cannot be stopped or thwarted (Dan. 4:35). All that He has ordained according to His secret will shall come to pass (Ezek. 12:25). In other words, in this sense of His will, everything that happens is always God's will. This is not to say that God causes bad things to happen but rather that He allows them and uses them for wise, inscrutable reasons related to a higher purpose that we know nothing about. What Satan intends for harm God limits and turns for good (e.g. see Gen. 50:20).

So the first thing to note is that nowhere in scripture does it tell us that God will reveal His will for us in any situation. Quite the opposite in fact. Much of God’s will remains hidden from us. What He does reveal is enough about Himself and what He has done for us in Christ Jesus that we can know that we can trust Him and enough about what He expects from us in response. Obviously this would include trusting Him, even through difficult times.

I recognise that some just can’t conceive of God’s will for us involving suffering. “God loves us”, they reason, “He wouldn’t let us suffer”. So what they do is attribute suffering to some other cause: most probably the devil – as though the devil sometimes gets the upper hand over God. But such a view robs God of His sovereignty by saying that He isn’t fully in control. What they are doing is trying to resolve what they perceive to be a contradiction between God loving us and having plans for our good (Jer. 29:11) and at the same time allowing bad things to happen to us. This is actually a very self-centred, short-term view of God’s will. Consider the following illustration. Suppose a child has a painful splinter. Naturally the child’s parents love their child and don’t want them to suffer pain so they will want to remove the splinter. However, removing the splinter will temporarily cause even more pain. Here we have two conflicting desires. Obviously the caring parent will remove the splinter to reduce the pain but in doing so they will have to (briefly) act against their own desire for their child not to suffer. In other words, we can sometimes desire to do something we don’t want to do because it is necessary to the achievement of some greater, longer-term purpose. If we, who are made in His image, can have multiple conflicting desires how then can we refuse to ascribe to God something that we recognise in ourselves?

Our problem is that we have little awareness of how sinful we really are or of how great God’s purposes are for the restoration of His creation. When mankind first sinned, forces of evil, decay, destruction and death were unleashed on the world. The problem with asking God to destroy evil and suffering is that He couldn’t do that without destroying us for we are part of the problem (see Rom. 3:9-19). In fact the problem would be far worse if God didn’t limit the evil desires of mankind and turn them for His good purposes. As part of the corruption that has come on the earth we have become selfish. Our greatest desires are for our own comfort and happiness. But ultimately this leads us on a course of self-destruction for we all must give an account of ourselves before God. Thus one reason God may allow difficulties in to our lives is to show us that our hope is in things that will perish instead of in Him. This is not to say that we understand all the reasons all the time but the one thing we do know is that when we suffer we need not wonder whether God cares about us. He has removed any cause of doubt about that by dying on the cross for us. So, we can be certain that God is both good and in control and that, ultimately, if we have put our hope in the Lord Jesus Christ, He will work all things for good (Rom. 8:28).

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