The biggest obstacle to faith for a lot of people is this: “If God is all powerful, then why does He cause (or allow) bad things to happen?”
There’s something fundamental that we must establish before we ever address this question directly: God is good, all the time (James 1:16-17).
We know this, at least in part, by what Jesus did. Jesus said that he who has seen him has seen the Father (John 14:8-9), and Jesus went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil (Acts 10:38, Matt 15:30, Matt 4:23-24, Matt 8:16, Matt 9:35, Matt 10:1, Matt 12:15, Matt 15:30, Luke 4:40, Luke 10:9). He never refused healing to anyone who came to Him. He never harmed anyone “for their own good,” or put a disease on anyone “to teach them something” or “to discipline them.” Not once. In fact, He actively worked against all sickness and disease, to destroy the devil’s work (1 John 3:8). He is the same today as He was when He was on earth (Hebrews 13:8).
God the Father doesn’t change either (Malachi 3:6). We know of God’s character from His names in the Old Testament. He is Jehovah Nissi (The Lord my Banner – Ex 17:15). He is Jehovah-Raah (The Lord my Shepherd, or My Friend – Gen 48:15, Psalm 23:1, 80:1, Ez 34:11-15). He is Jehovah Rapha (The Lord That Heals, Ex 15:26). He is Jehovah Shammah (The Lord is There – He has not abandoned you: Eze 48:35). He is Jehovah Tsidkenu (The Lord Our Righteousness, Jer 23:6, 33:16). He is Jehovah Mekoddishkem (The Lord who Sanctifies You: Ex 31:13, Lev 20:8). He is Jehovah Jireh (The Lord will Provide, Gen 22:14). He is Jehovah Shalom (The Lord is Peace, Judges 6:24). He is Jehovah Sabaoth (The Lord of Hosts, 1 Sam 1:3, Ps 24:9-10, 84:3, Isa 6:5).
Many other scriptures establish His goodness. He is ONLY good. (1 John 1:5, Psalm 84:11-12; Psalm 146:6-10; Psalm 107:9, Psalm 31:19, 1 Tim 4:4-5, Eph 1:3, Romans 8:28, Ps 103:2-5, Ps 145:16-19).
God doesn’t do bad things to His children. Yet He’s powerful enough that for those who trust in Him, He can take even terrible circumstances that were not part of His plan, and bring good out of them.“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
Those who know their scriptures well may point out Old Testament passages that sound like God, in fact, did do evil things. One example is in 2 Sam 24:1, when it says the Lord moved David (in pride) to count the number of his subjects… and then condemned David’s sin in having done so (2 Sam 24:10) and punished him severely for it. Yet the exact same story appears in 1 Chron 21:1, where it says Satan moved David to number Israel. This is a very rare glimpse into what was happening in the spiritual realm in the Old Testament, where there is almost no doctrine of Satan. The primary exception to this is at the beginning of the book of Job; otherwise Satan is only mentioned by name here, and in Zechariah 3:1-2. (He is mentioned in Genesis 3 as “the serpent,” of course, and also as Lucifer in Isaiah 14:12 and Ezekiel 28 as well.) The Old Testament had almost no doctrine of Satan because the people had no authority over him under the Mosaic covenant. What good would it do to learn that you have a bloodthirsty enemy, but there is nothing you can do to protect yourself from him? Because of this, in the Old Testament, anything supernatural, good or bad, was attributed to God, whether God was the instigator or not. The New Testament (and the revelation in Job 1:6-12) shows that this is not the case; there is a spiritual war going on, and we have an adversary who hates us. (For more on how God’s dealings with man changed with different covenants, see my Blood Covenant biblical retellings duology: Blood Covenant Origins and Blood Covenant Fulfilled.)
So if God doesn’t cause bad things to happen, why do they happen? Evil comes about as a result of one of or a combination of three things —
1) Satan, the enemy of God and therefore of us, who would like nothing better than to see us destroyed:“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I [Jesus] have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).1 Peter 5:8 — “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.”
2) A fallen world that will be redeemed one day, but isn’t yet: “For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Rom 8:20-21).
and 3) people who are sinners, and either aren’t yet saved or aren’t yet perfected:“There is no one righteous [apart from God], not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God” (Rom 3:10-11).
But if God is truly sovereign, or all-powerful, even if He doesn’t cause bad things to happen, doesn’t He at least allow them, for His own purposes–which largely boils down to the same thing? I thought this way for a very long time–that He was like a great General of an army, who sometimes had to make sacrifices for a greater good. Sometimes (sorry), that sacrifice turned out to be you.
On one particular night, sitting in front of my fire alone and in the midst of a major life crisis, the Lord disabused me of this mistaken belief about Him. At the time it was an emotional, intuitive understanding, and the fruit of it–renewed joy, hope, faith, and trust in Him–was one layer of evidence that it was true. It was only later that I studied why this definition of God’s sovereignty is also biblically inaccurate. God is sovereign in the sense that He is all-powerful, all-loving, and all-knowing, but He is not all-controlling. God told Adam and Eve not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil; they did anyway. Was that God’s will? Certainly not! He did everything He could to keep them from doing it, short of making them automatons, when He told them, don’t do it. Likewise, any sovereign can set laws that his citizens may not necessarily obey. The US is a sovereign nation and in 1974 the administration set the “National Maximum Speed Law” of 55mph. But many drivers exceeded that speed limit regularly.
The New English Translation has the word “sovereign” appear more than any other biblical translation (368 times). Not one of the original Hebrew or Greek words connotes the idea that He controls everything that happens. Most of the time it’s just the way they render God’s names.The word sovereign is often translated from Shaddai (meaning Almighty) when it’s part of God’s name (48 times in the OT). Other times it’s translated from ‘elohiym: supreme God, as a superlative, or ‘elyown, meaning High or Most High. Sometimes it’s thrown in as part of the transition of ‘Adonay: an emphatic form of the Lord. Sometimes it’s translated from tsaba’, also translated the Lord of Hosts, meaning one who commands an army. In some cases the word sovereign is used to describe God’s characteristics, but in context, it doesn’t mean what we typically mean by the word (that His will always happens).
The NET version of 1 Chronicles 29:11 says, “O LORD, you are great, mighty, majestic, magnificent, glorious, and sovereign over all the sky and earth! You have dominion and exalt yourself as the ruler of all.” Only this translation uses the word sovereign; the others , translate it Head. This word connotes the idea of a supreme ruler, but not of one who always gets His way.
Psalm 84:11 is one of my favorites. It says, “For the Lord God is a sun and shield (magen: shield, buckler, protector).” The same verse is translated in NET: “For the LORD God is our sovereign protector.” Clearly this doesn’t say anything about His will always being done, either.
Sovereign power is also translated as holiness from qadash: “to consecrate, sanctify, prepare, dedicate, be hallowed, be holy, be sanctified, be separate.” This word is used in Ezekiel 28:25: “‘This is what the sovereign LORD says: When I regather the house of Israel from the peoples where they are dispersed, I will reveal my sovereign power (or holiness) over them in the sight of the nations, and they will live in their land that I gave to my servant Jacob.” Micah 5:4 says, “He will assume his post and shepherd the people by the LORD’s strength, by the sovereign authority of the LORD his God. They will live securely, for at that time he will be honored even in the distant regions of the earth.” Sovereign authority is ga’own (exaltation, majesty, pride) shem (name, reputation, fame, glory): thus, better translated “in the majesty of the name” of the Lord.
Habakkuk 2:14 says, “For recognition of the LORD’s sovereign majesty will fill the earth just as the waters fill up the sea.” Sovereign majesty here is yada (to know, to perceive, to make known) kabowd (glory, honour, glorious, abundance), also translated “for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord.”
Of course God’s will does not always come to pass. The classic example of this is 2 Peter 3:9: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance,” and 1 Timothy 2:4: “Who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” Matthew 18:14 also says, “Even so it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” Jesus paid for the sins of the whole world, not just those who are saved. 1 John 2:2 says, “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world”, and 1 Tim 4:10 says, “That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.” But not everybody will be saved, clearly. God gave us free will; He doesn’t force us to choose Him, nor does He make any of our other decisions for us, either. Jesus said in Matthew 7:13: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.” God wills it; He paid for it; but He won’t get everyone as He would like.
There are other verses that imply the concept of sovereignty (in the sense that when God decides to do something, He does it, and no one can stop Him). But this refers to God’s right and His power, and says nothing about potential restrictions He places on His right and power one way or the other. Here are a few of those verses:
- Job 42:2: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.”
- Isaiah 46:10: “I declare the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.”
- Romans 8:28: “All things work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose.” (i.e. He can use bad and work it for good.)
So what restrictions did God place on His own power, and why are they there?
God gave dominion of earth to men in the Garden of Eden (Gen 1:26-29)–like the lease on a property, the earth lease. When Adam obeyed Satan instead of God, he gave the earth to Satan, and Satan became the god of this world (2 Cor 4:4). Jesus defeated Satan on the cross, but the earth lease has yet to run out. Even the demons whom Jesus cast out knew that there was a set time when they would be evicted–but it was not yet (Matt 8:29). Once God had given His word, He had to abide by it. Everything in the universe is upheld by the integrity of His word (Hebrews 1:3). And yet, He still wanted to save us–but we’d locked Him outside of His own world by our choices. He had to find a way to “legally” get back on the inside. He’d given dominion of the earth to men (Psalm 115:16), so He had to become a man, to buy it back–our kinsman redeemer (see the book of Ruth for a true story that is also a parable of this). Jesus did buy it back, but even though He now has the rights to it, He won’t take possession of it until He returns. He has delayed only so that all who would will be saved (2 Peter 3:9).
Revelation 5 depicts the moment when the earth lease is finally up. Jesus begins to take possession of it, and to “evict” the evil from the world. Even then, He won’t do it all at once, but in progressive steps, because part of the purpose of the Tribulation is to redeem His chosen people, Israel. Indeed, their turning to Him and asking Him to return is a prerequisite for His second coming (Matt 23:39).
Until then, though, God has made “legal” provision for those who follow Him through successive covenants with men on earth who could agree to give Him permission. Prior to Abraham, God had no “legal” right to protect His favorites, which is why the book of Job played out the way it did. But once the Mosaic law came, it laid out blessings for those who followed God, and cursings for those who disobeyed Him (Deut 28)–because sin still had to be punished. The story of the Old Testament shows repeated episodes of disobedience, because the Jews could not follow the Law. God always knew this, of course–Paul’s treatise in Romans demonstrates that the point of the Law was to show that all people are incapable of following it. Even so, there were those even in the Old Testament who figured out that what God really wanted was a changed heart (Psalm 51:10, Micah 6:8), not sacrifice (Hosea 6:6). Those few, like Abraham, Moses, Elijah, and David, got to enjoy a real relationship with God, even before Christ.
Aside from spiritual blessings from obedience in the Old Covenant, God wanted good things for His people so much that He built in multiple paths to receive it. He designed the body such that it heals itself. In the law, He also instructed His people on how to work with the natural laws so that their bodies would be healthy. He told them to rest one day per week (the Sabbath). The Old Covenant is full of dietary rules, to eat certain things and not to eat others (corresponding to modern recommendations for health), to quarantine those who contracted contagious diseases, to decontaminate objects that had been in contact with mold, and many other things that would have made no medical sense to the Jews at the time.
More than that, the most common command in scripture is to “fear not.” We now know that stress (anxiety, fear, panic, etc) contributes to, by some estimation, up to 90% of chronic illness.
From a practical standpoint for provision, scripture is filled with recommendations to be honest, generous, diligent and not lazy, to diversify our efforts, etc –to work with natural laws of sowing and reaping, so that we might prosper. I
n the Old Testament, there are accounts of miraculous interventions for healing, provision, victory, etc–but God always worked through a man who cooperated with Him via the covenant in place at the time. In the New Testament, Jesus was the perfect embodiment of the will of the Father. He healed everyone who came to Him–but the method was often different. In some cases, He healed with a touch (Luke 5:13). In other cases, people touched Him (Mark 5:31), or even the hem of His garment (Matt 14:36). In other cases He merely spoke the word (Matt 8:8, John 11:43). In others He put mud on blind eyes (John 9:6). There was no formula; He met people where they were at, individually.
Then in the New Covenant, Jesus redeemed us from the curse of the law (Galatians 3:13-14), leaving us with only the blessings for those who are in Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20). This means that today, there are many promises for blessing, healing, provision, and victory that we can stand on and receive by faith, whether a sudden miraculous intervention or a slow blessing working with natural laws (which is more common, Mark 4:14, 26-29). God sends His word to heal us (Ps 107:20). We can receive the blessings that are now already ours in Christ (Eph 1:3) by abiding in Him (John 15:7), trusting in Him (Prov 3:5-6, Psalm 91), learning what His word says (Hosea 4:6) and renewing our minds with it (Romans 12:2), casting down all imaginations to the contrary (2 Cor 10:5), and resisting the devil when he tries to lie to us about what is truly ours (James 4:7), by speaking God’s word in faith (Mark 11:23), and by forgiving others and ourselves (James 5:16). Since God’s word is as a seed, it takes time for the harvest to come (Mark 4:14, 26-29) and we will reap if we do not grow weary and lose heart (Gal 6:9).
What if we fail to do our part and for whatever reason, don’t or can’t seem to receive this way, though? The earth is still under Satan’s control until the earth lease runs out, and it’s also still dominated by sinful people. The world itself is still corrupted by sin (Romans 8:19-22). God made provision for us to overcome these things, but there is still much to overcome. Job (who had no covenant to protect him at all) complained to God, “Have you eyes of flesh? or do you see as a man sees?” (Job 10:4). Even in the Old Testament, God pitied us and knew that we are but dust (Psalm 103:14), but then Jesus came and walked in our shoes. He can sympathize with our weaknesses exactly (Hebrews 4:15). When Peter walked on water and then took his eyes off Jesus and began to sink, Jesus still reached out and caught him (Matt 14:28-32). When the disciples feared drowning and woke Jesus, Jesus rebuked the winds and the waves (Mark 4:35-41). If we begin to fear and take our eyes off of Him, He’s there for us too, to give us mercy and grace in time of need (Hebrews 4:16). He also gave us the body of Christ to stand with us and bolster our faith with the prayer of agreement (Matt 18:19, James 5:14-15).
We also still have all of the alternative methods to receive God’s blessings, as well: all truth is His truth. He gave us principles like sowing and reaping (Gal 6:7) which includes blessing the work of our hands (Deut 28:4-8). He gave us the science of natural laws, including medicine and logic. He promises to give us wisdom for whatever we need when we ask for it (James 1:5-8)–we just have to take Him at His word.
Whatever tragedy may have befallen you in your life, God was not the author of it. He wants good things for you, and not evil (Jeremiah 29:11). He is for you, and not against you (Romans 8:31). If He gave you the very best He had, Jesus, to redeem you and make you His, why would He not also freely give you everything else that is good (Romans 8:32)? He weeps with you in your tragedy (John 11:35). He never wanted this for you. But He can take even that tragedy and bring good out of it, if You will trust Him to do so (Romans 8:28).
God has been much maligned, even in the church. It’s convenient and even sometimes comforting, in a twisted way, to say that God must have done, or allowed, some tragedy for some greater purpose of His that we cannot see. But the truth is, the earth is still a battleground, and God is the Hero, not the villain.
He is only good. All the time.