One subject that has always been an area of comfort and an area of great distress is that of “Free Will”. Does God control everything in our lives or do we make our own decisions and God merely uses a ‘light touch’ to ensure His plan comes to fruition? Specifically, if our actions and circumstances are the result of God’s every move in our life, how do we explain all the ‘bad’ that befalls people around us? If God is so ‘good’, how can He allow pain and suffering to persist?
An Example of Suffering
A fellow Christian one time shared a story with their Bible study group regarding a dear friend who passed away. The friend was extremely young, barely an adult. As the family was grieving over the terminally ill individual, the family’s pastor entered the room. He looked the family in the eye and said, ‘Your boy will not die. I know God will heal this boy.’ As you might have guessed, this boy did end up passing away leaving an emotional hole in his loved ones and damaging the testimony of the pastor who over-stepped his knowledge of what God would and would not do.
Most reasonable people would agree that the pastor over-stepped what he had the authority to predict. His statement may sound foolish when we look back on it, but how many times do we hear someone say to a person in suffering “I’m sure God has a plan for this”? I want everyone to consider the implications of this statement. God having a plan for a child with leukemia implies that the suffering of this child is the result of something God planned. That means that God, in effect, predestined the suffering of the child. This is something I have a hard time believing; not only because it seems heartless, but also because it seems to fly in the face of the admiration Christ has for children (Luke 18:15-17).
If pain isn’t a part of ‘God’s plan’, then why do we even have pain and suffering at all? Furthermore, why does pain and suffering happen to people who may be relatively innocent?
What Is The Cause Of Our Pain?
When I look at suffering and consider whether God really controls the circumstances in which we find ourselves, I look at Genesis 3 where pain and suffering was first introduced into the world.
To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your pain in childbirth. You will bring forth children in pain. Your desire will be toward your husband, but he will rule over you.” To Adam he said, “Because you listened to what your wife said and ate from the tree about which I gave you the order, ‘You are not to eat from it,’ the ground is cursed on your account; you will work hard to eat from it as long as you live. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat field plants. You will eat bread by the sweat of your forehead till you return to the ground — for you were taken out of it: you are dust, and you will return to dust.” (Source: Genesis 3:16-19, CJB)
We see that God pronounced the pain and suffering of mankind following the introduction of Adam and Eve’s sin. It’s important to note that God says (v.17) “…the ground is cursed on your account.” The reason why this becomes important is because it sets the stage for all suffering that would follow for the rest of creation: suffering is the result of our (mankind’s) introduction of sin into the world and not due to the actions or decisions of God. God did not “plan” or “will” pain to be a part of creation; However, God is just and cannot tolerate sin in His presence. Therefore, it became necessary that pain be introduced as a protective barrier between things that were of God and sinful ways. Think of pain as the ‘buffer zone’ between God who represents all that is good, and sin which represents all that is evil.
This makes sense, but it almost starts to sound like a medieval type of theology where people are blamed for their afflictions. This is obviously not true because we also see in this story that the Free Will decisions of some people often impact the suffering of others. In verses 16-19, God tells Adam and Eve of the pain they must endure, but these pains aren’t just limited to Adam and Eve. It’s not as if Adam and Eve would have a child and suddenly the child would be free from pain and suffering until he committed his own sin! No, the children would suffer from sin as well because that was just as a result of the corruption of creation. The theme here is that the Free Will actions of some often impact the circumstances of another. In this way, we begin to understand ‘how God could allow’ horrible things to happen like the disease and discomfort of loved ones and major tragedies like massive terrorist attacks and periods such as the Holocaust. These actions are not God ‘willing’ or ‘predestining’ pain and suffering; it is God allowing His creation the Free Will decision to live for sin or live for Him. So long as sin exists in creation, that ‘buffer zone’ of pain and suffering must always be present.
The Good News: God is Merciful Despite What We Deserve (and What We Chose To Do)!
The good news is that, despite the Free Will decisions we make, and those around us make, God is still merciful and continues to love His people. In Genesis 3:21, following God’s pronouncement of the punishments for Adam and Eve’s sins, it is written…
Adonai, God, made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. (Source: Genesis 3:21, CJB)
God does not want us to suffer; despite Adam and Eve’s Free Will decisions to sin against God, He still provided comfort to them. Recall in verse 9 that God called to Adam and Eve who were hiding. Adam said, “I heard your voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid myself.” Adam and Eve chose to sin and were not entitled to any pardon. They received their punishment from a just God and that could have been the end of it. However, God went one step further and provided mercy by giving Adam and Eve clothes to ease their embarrassment.
As Christians we see another great example of God’s justice and God’s mercy in the deliverance of a savior. Jesus Christ represents the ultimate mercy in that He came to save something more enduring and everlasting than our bodies; Jesus came to save our everlasting souls.
Here on earth, we are still very much in the same boat we were after we were ousted from the Garden of Eden: sin is painful and it impacts all those around us. We suffer from diseases, tragedies, man-made abominations, and all manner of emotional torment from those around us in addition to suffering the consequences of our own actions. None of this pain would be necessary in a creation that still existed within the Garden absent of sin. It is important to note that pain and suffering is a result of our actions and not some twisted plan from a loving, just, and merciful God. When we suffer, let it remind us of God’s justice and God’s mercy that He shows to those who believe both here on earth and in eternity. God may not always heal our hearts or heal our bodies, but our souls are forever His.