Saying God Has a Reason for Something Doesn’t Mean You Know What It Is (And Other Concerns)

JobMost of Christian theology, one way or another, is caught up with the problem of evil–what it is, where it comes from, how will it be defeated, and how do we live with it in this world. God’s providence, though, is one of those doctrines that seems to uniquely impinge on the question of evil. How could a good, all-powerful God allow the amount and kinds of evil we see and experience in the world? Is it possible to speak of his control and sovereignty, his foreknowledge and wisdom, in a way that’s consistent with the world as we know it.

I’ve written on this before, but it bears repeating that one of the key points made in recent, philosophy of religion (especially of the analytic sort) is that if God had a good enough reason, then it’s possible for a good, powerful God to allow evil to exist for a time. One of the key issues distinguishing different forms of Christian theology is which kinds of reasons are deemed to be sufficient to justify the sorts of evil we see in the world. Your overall theology of salvation and providence plays out in your view of the problem of evil.

Arminian and Wesleyan (and open or relational) theologies typically appeal to the good of libertarian free will (the ability to do otherwise in any decision, without being ultimately or finally determined by situation, disposition, or metaphysical constraint) at this point. On their account, it is supposed to be necessary to the nature of love, and the good of freely-chosen love, significant moral choices, etc. Because of that, it’s worth the risk, the possibility, and the actuality of evil in the world. More Reformed theologians typically eschew that account because their view of human freedom sees it as fully compatible with God’s eternal decree for what will come to pass in human history whether by a decision to cause or permit different, human events.

Instead, Reformed theologians have offered a couple of different, interlocking considerations. Some, appealing to Romans 9, say that God’s deepest reason for allowing all that he does is the display of his own glory in human history (through his work of creation, judgment, redemption, etc). If some tragedy befalls, then, we can know that its direct purpose is to somehow glorify God.

Others, more modestly (I think), confess that while in the end all things will redound to the glory of God, we simply don’t know what his reason is for various, specific events or the way they fit into the broader tapestry of the Triune God’s purposes for history. We are finite, small, and too sinful to expect to have that kind of comprehensive knowledge. That said, we view all things in light of God’s work in the tragi-comedy of the cross and resurrection, wherein the Son came in the power of the Spirit at the behest of the Father to give himself up into the hands of sinful men on our behalf, so that one day we might be raised with him. Because of that we know that our good God is loving, powerful, and does have purposes in all of human history, even the darkest and most opaque of our trials. And these are purposes that, if we knew all that God knows, were as good as God is, and saw all that he sees, we would see that he is right to allow all that he has and redeem it in all the ways that he eventually will.

I bring all of this up because of a recent conversation about the problem of evil and what it means to assert that God has a good enough reason to justify and allow the evil that we see in the world.

Some see this sort of defense as a rationalizing system that calls evil good and good evil. Or it’s a cold comfort that alienates the truly broken-hearted with bland pieties about “God’s plan.” Or even more, a possible attempt to act as God’s spokesman, because if you’re the one who can say that God has purposes for all things, then you’re the mediator of God’s purposes. An appeal to God’s sovereignty over all things and inscrutable purposes puts you in danger of becoming one of Job’s friends, offering up proverbs of ashes and unwitting condemnation.

I simply want to make a few points by way of clarification and response here.

First, it should be obvious that to say that God has a purpose for all things is not to say that I have any clue what those specific purposes are from case to case. It’s simply to point out that a God of infinite goodness, wisdom, and love doesn’t simply let evil befall the world for no good reason, or only general ones. It is an affirmation that God is not careless, nor is he asleep at the wheel but is attentive to the plans he has for all of his creatures. If anyone is tempted to claim that kind of specific knowledge, they have missed the point of Job and are probably at the risk of coming under judgment themselves. It’s the difference between saying that you believe the Bible is inerrant and claiming that your own interpretations of it are also inerrant. It is by no means the case that the one follows logically from the others. It’s possible to have a very high view of God’s Word and little confidence of your own ability to work your way through it without making a mess of things.  In the same way, it’s quite possible to have a very high view of God’s wisdom in history and acknowledge your own blindness to what that wisdom is.

Second, to claim that God has specific purposes for what he permits is not to claim that evil isn’t really evil. That’s a very sloppy, unbiblical claim. It is only to say that God means something good to come out of the evil which he still calls evil. As with the situation of Joseph being sold into slavery, God still condemns the hatred and jealousy of his brothers and their sale of Joseph as evil, though God permitted and even decreed it so that one day he could save Jacob’s family and the birth-line of the Messiah through Joseph. Saying that God doesn’t allow the evil of cancer for no good reason, by no means commits me to saying that any case of cancer is a positive good. We have to have a space for the infinite, Creator God to view a single event or activity from a far more expanded, complex, unified perspective than you or I typically do. For more on this, see here.

Third, to say that God has purposes for all things in no way necessitates that God’s providence is the only doctrine we can appeal to in the context of pastoral comfort. One thing I’ve noticed over the years is how little attention we give to the fact that not only is right doctrine a matter of chief importance, so is the proper use of doctrine. Just as having a high view of Scripture won’t save you from a misuse of Scripture, neither will having correct doctrine always mean you’re applying it properly. But this is of chief importance. Being a good doctor is not simply a matter of knowing varieties of good medicines, but the ability to prescribe the right medicine at the right time, because even good medicines misapplied can do harm. There are dozens of other glorious, comforting truths such as the resurrection, God’s atonement, his grace, etc, that you can apply to people in times of suffering and pain beyond the issue of the providence of God.

As always, there’s more to say, but hopefully these considerations offer some clarity as to what we are and are not saying when we claim that our sovereign God has a good reason for all things.

Soli Deo Gloria

14 thoughts on “Saying God Has a Reason for Something Doesn’t Mean You Know What It Is (And Other Concerns)

  1. Thank you Derek for such a simple and straightforward approach to this issue. Too often we try to come up with all the answers because we are afraid secular people will mock us if we say we don’t know (as though they know all the answers on their side). Accepting we may not know is expressing intellectual humility while not necessarily accepting that we will not keep trying to find out.



  2. Conservative evangelical United Methodist pastor here. (Sorry to modify the kind of Methodist I am, but they come in a wide variety these days, unfortunately.) Even as a Wesleyan, I really like this post. Thanks.

    You write the following of our Arminian emphasis on free will and how love must be freely chosen: “More Reformed theologians typically eschew that account because their view of human freedom sees it as fully compatible with God’s eternal decree for what will come to pass in human history whether by a decision to cause or permit different, human events.”

    I would only add that we Arminians wonder why God must eternally decree that these things come to pass. Why can’t God foresee that they will come to pass when free human beings (however corrupted by sin their freedom may be) exert their will in this way—and then plan accordingly? We believe strongly that God redeems and transforms evil for good.

    Regardless, like you, I’m sure, I don’t see nearly so great a difference between God’s “causing” and God’s “allowing” as many Christians see—especially my more progressive clergy colleagues. If you want to start a fight with them, tell them that “everything happens for a reason” (even if, as you indicate, the reason will likely will be unknowable to us). From my perspective, this is obviously true.

    If we believe that God answers prayer and grants our petitions at least sometimes (even most progressives in my denomination say they believe this), then what happens when God doesn’t grant our petition? Do we say that God doesn’t have the power to do so? Do we say “that’s just the breaks, kid” because whether God does or doesn’t is completely arbitrary? Or do we say, “God heard our petition, considered it, and chose not to give us what we asked for”—and here’s the inevitable conclusion—”for a good reason.”

    But as you say, if we knew what God knows and we were as good as God is, we would understand the reason and praise him for it.

    What’s the alternative to this? My progressive colleagues end up implicitly saying (as far as I can tell) that God doesn’t really do much of anything—except, you know, be with us (whatever that means), suffer alongside us (whatever that means). Providence isn’t real. God’s hands are tied.

    Thanks again. I like your blog and the Mere Fidelity podcast. I listen to it whenever it comes out.

    • I think your question re: Arminians wondering why God must eternally decree that these things come to pass is on point because I think it drills down pretty close to the heart of the matter. At bottom, I think leaving the description of God’s foreknowledge and government of reality at the level of only seeing what will take place in the exercise of creature’s wills limns an impossible portrait of causation, interrelationality, coherence, and even being itself because God Himself is the ground of all subsidiary being and action. God’s being and action undergird reality such that there is no creaturely possibility of action apart from God’s gift of enablement; He is the open dampener on the piano that frees other keys to ring out without striking them. His being and action determine the arena of our actions, and in constituting their potentialities, limits, and ultimate ends grants creatures the space and the power to be what they are and do what they do.

      I utterly concur that God brings good out of evil and I don’t see how such a thing is ultimately possible if His involvement is only at the level of foresight. His decree must instead be a creative incorporation of creaturely wills though not at a minutely causal level. This is why Calvinists need to temper their theologies of providence and predestination with the theology of the cross, and I think this helps us to find more common ground with Arminians as well as Lutherans and Catholics. Everything I’ve said here is pretty much Thomas Aquinas: God, in knowing Himself, knows all that will transpire in history because He underwrites all creaturely possibility; He is the sine qua non of creaturely action, and in this way can be said to decree all things without being the active agent causing all things. He is the ground from which all action flows, and He turns it where He will to accomplish His good and wise purposes.

      This is why I demur at descriptions of God’s “causing” all things (I’m at Bethlehem College and Seminary so I regularly hear God described as the “real” agent behind nasty things like wars and cancer) and balk at determinism because I genuinely do not see Scripture describing God’s government in such a fashion. Comprehensive and resolutely in control? Yes. But deterministic? I don’t see it. So while I’m still broadly speaking a Calvinist, I remain so with a more Vanhoozer-ian account of God’s sovereignty resembling authorship rather than metaphysical totalitarianism. So there’s my reasoning for why I think foreknowledge (understood only as foresight) is insufficient but also why full-blown fatalism isn’t the proper biblical alternative.

      • Thank you for the thoughtful reply. I didn’t mean to imply that God’s foreknowledge means only foresight. Foresight is the starting point for God’s governance. From there, God can interact with his creatures and arrange events such that his will is accomplished. But if you’re saying that God’s “decree” doesn’t thereby determine in a fatalistic way how otherwise free creatures behave, then I doubt we disagree on much.

      • Right on, man! If you can track it down, I think you might dig Kevin Vanhoozer’s lectures at Asbury Theological Seminary that address some of these matters: that’s where I first heard him formulate the concept of God as author sustaining the existence of creatures who are true to themselves but cannot be so without the Author’s granting of creaturely space and enablement. Righteous stuff, my friend. Grace and kudos!

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  5. Derek

    What a great expression of the same truth that I have learned from studying the Bible! This is what I live by in my own walk with the Lord. I have also found that expressions of God’s providence can bring comfort to me & others when it is viewed within the understanding of God’s character that is revealed in the Bible and in creation around us and in how His Spirit interacts with us in the body of Christ! Because God is faithful, all-knowing, all-powerful, immutable, perfect love, just… then I have learned to fully trust His provident hand in every situation, circumstance, state, every part of my life and the lives of others around me!
    Thank you for your courage to speak out what you know to be truth & be willing to discuss differences of opinions with grace! This is becoming a lost art, and yet I believe it is truly what God calls us to! Col 4:5-6

    Karen 🙂

  6. “It’s possible to have a very high view of God’s Word and little confidence of your own ability to work your way through it without making a mess of things. In the same way, it’s quite possible to have a very high view of God’s wisdom in history and acknowledge your own blindness to what that wisdom is.”

    From what I can tell, it’s not that you’re blind to this rather crucial bit of wisdom–it’s that God just straight up doesn’t fill you in on it. There’s room in the Bible for genealogies and building instructions, but not THE answer to THE question. Your God has a sense of humor, I’ll give him that.

    Might explain why Christians on the lunatic fringe are quick to blame victims of natural disasters for bringing it on themselves with their wickedness and suchlike. The Bible doesn’t have an answer for why people suffer, but it does have stories of Egyptian babies being killed for the sins of their parents, Ananias and Sapphira being killed for stealing from the church, and other fun-filled tales.

    Atheism has a very simple and satisfactory (to me, anyway) answer to this question, and it’s a big part of why I’m an atheist.

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