One of the age old questions about religion and faith is: If God is all-powerful and truly good, then why is there evil and suffering in the world? When people experience deep pain or tragedy in their lives or in the life of someone they love, often the question is asked: “Where was God?? Why did He let this happen??”
Do you remember the story of Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden from Genesis chapter 3? In the previous chapter God had given Adam and Eve only one command:
“You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:17). The serpent succeeds in tricking both Eve and her husband into violating God’s command and eating from the forbidden tree, bringing untold misery on themselves and generations to come as a result of their disobedience.
The world and the garden God created for Adam and Eve were perfect. They contained no evil. There was no death, no disease, no sin, no misery, no suffering, no tragedy, no unfortunate accidents, no natural disasters. It truly was a paradise.
Adam and Eve’s disobedience changed all that. By obeying the serpent, Adam and Eve became enslaved to him. Scripture tells us the serpent was really Satan, the enemy of God, in disguise (Revelation 20:2). Satan’s goal was to thwart God’s plans by interfering in His new creation, and subjugate mankind to himself. Sadly, it worked.
When Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s command, the entire nature of creation changed. Everything was thrown out of kilter. Paradise became a prison. Through sin, evil, death, disease, suffering, and tragedy entered the world. We have to understand that none of these things were in God’s original plan and purpose for the earth, and we have to understand that it was man’s disobedience to his Creator that brought them into existence. Evil and tragedy entered creation because of us. We brought it upon ourselves. Or at least our first ancestors brought it upon us. And we, as their descendants, inherited it all.
But not only did we inherit death, disease, and tragedy, we also inherited their sinfulness, and their guilt. Once sin entered the world, it became natural for Adam and Eve to sin, and we inherited that trait. Sin became natural for us as well. Along with their tendency to sin, we inherited their guilt, too.
Genesis 3 tells us that Adam and Eve’s sin brought with it a curse, and that curse was passed on to all mankind. That’s another reason bad things happen, because the unredeemed human race is under a curse (see Genesis 3:14-19).
Now the Bible tells us that God sent Jesus Christ into the world to redeem us from the curse. Gal 3:13-14 says “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.’ 14 He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.” But we only receive freedom from the curse if we accept Christ’s remedy for it, his death and resurrection. And by faith we must walk in the new freedom He gives us in order to experience it fully.
Now as we ponder that scene in the Garden between the serpent and Eve, we might think to ask, “Where was God?” Where was God when the snake was telling Eve his subtle lies and she was buying it all hook, line, and sinker? Why didn’t He show up and warn her “Don’t listen to him!! He’s just deceiving you!!”? Why didn’t God stop this awful tragedy from happening? Especially when He no doubt knew its ramifications? Surely God knew what would happen to His world and His new creatures if He allowed this to happen. So why didn’t He intervene??
So you see, the age-old question “Where was God??” goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden itself.
In fact, we could go so far as to ask, Why did God even put the Tree of Knowledge (and the serpent!) in the Garden in the first place??
The fact that God did these things tells us some important things about Him, and about us. For one thing, it tells us God trusted us. He told Adam and Eve what He expected, and then He trusted them to do it.
Genesis 1 says God made human beings in His image. That’s not talking about a physical image but a spiritual image. In his book Creation and Fall Dietrich Bonhoeffer says being made in the image of God means God gave us a will like His own will, and then entrusted us to use it. He gave us choice. He gave us freedom. And God respected our freedom so much He didn’t force us to obey him, He left it up to us, and was prepared to deal with the consequences. Part of the reason for this is that love is only real love if it’s freely chosen. God wanted us to love Him, but he wanted us to be free to choose to love Him or not. I imagine it broke His heart when we rebelled, even though He had to know it was going to happen; because He knows everything.
I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me.
I make known the end from the beginning,
from ancient times, what is still to come.
I say: My purpose will stand,
and I will do all that I please. – Isa 46:9-10
The fact that God left Eve and Adam alone in the Garden to choose to obey him or not also shows He’s not a control freak. He doesn’t force us to make the decisions He’d like us to make. This comes with respecting us, and respecting our choices, even when they are bad choices, and also allowing us to experience the consequences of those choices. Let’s be honest, often it’s the bad consequences of our choices that humble us and cause us to realize we were wrong and to turn back to God in repentance. “You were right, God, and I was wrong. Your way really is the best way, though I refused to accept that for a long time.”
Another lesson from the story of the serpent and Eve is that God doesn’t always step in and rescue us from making bad or stupid choices, or even tragic choices. God let Eve and Adam do what they were going to do and, as I said above, was prepared to deal with the consequences. Thankfully he didn’t abandon us when we sinned but already had a plan prepared to redeem us. In fact, the Bible says His plan of salvation was set up before the creation of the world. He knew what was going to happen, and had planned for it in advance. 1 Peter 1:18-21 says
“For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. 20 He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. 21 Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God” (emphasis added).
Before the creation of the world God had already chosen Christ to be the one who would save us from our sins.
And yet Christ didn’t come immediately after the fall. Several thousand years passed between the time Adam and Eve sinned and Christ came into the world to rescue us. This shows that God’s timetable is not the same as ours. Most likely we would have rushed in to repair things as soon as we saw a problem, but God had other plans and purposes to fulfill. But then again, 2 Peter 3:8 says “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” God is not bound by time as we are so from his perspective it may have seemed as though the time between Adam’s fall and Christ’s coming was just a few days. At any rate, Scripture says God had an appointed time for Christ to come, and He was right on time.
The big picture in all this is that the God we are dealing with is good and just. We may not understand everything He does, or all He allows, but we can trust that He’s good and will ultimately deal with every person and every situation wisely, justly, and fairly. Everyone is going to get a fair shake from God.
Also, God is totally and completely sovereign. That means that, even though He’s not a control freak, He is in complete control. God and Satan are not equals battling it out for the souls of men. Satan was created by God and so God is superior to Him in every way. (To explain: Satan was originally the archangel Lucifer, one of the highest angels, created good. He became prideful and rebelled against God, trying to usurp God’s place in Heaven. A third of the angels rebelled along with Lucifer. There was an attempted coup in heaven, but God was more powerful and overthrew Lucifer and kicked him and his cronies out.)
God will have His way, which is a good way. When Christ died on the cross and then rose from the dead, Satan was defeated once and for all, and provision was made for mankind to be restored to God, through faith in Christ. When Jesus returns to the earth in bodily form he will defeat the evil that remains on the earth and set up his eternal kingdom. The Bible says God has given Jesus the name that is above every name, and that every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:9-11).
I want to close my reflections on this topic with a story from the Bible about someone who experienced deep suffering. The book of Ruth tells of Naomi, an Israelite from the tribe of Judah. During a time of famine, Naomi along with her husband and two sons move to the neighboring country of Moab to find food. While they’re living in Moab, Naomi’s husband dies. Some years after that Naomi’s two sons die. Now, I think having a child die must be one of the worst things a person can go through. It goes against the natural of order of things. Every parent expects their children to outlive them, and when this doesn’t happen, it’s just devastating. People who have lost a child experience a kind of hell I doubt anyone else can understand.
Naomi went through this hell not once, but twice. When she and her daughter-in-law Ruth (who has also lost her husband, one of Naomi’s two sons) finally return to Israel all her friends are excited to see her and exclaim “Naomi! Can it really be you?!!”
Naomi replies, “Don’t call me ‘Naomi'” (which means “pleasant”) “…Call me ‘Mara,'” (which means “bitter”) “because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.” Naomi was very bitter about all she had lost, and she blamed God. And who can fault her? She went through probably one of the most painful losses a human being can experience.
Naomi loved her daughter-in-law Ruth, though, and did what she could to help Ruth find happiness again. She introduced Ruth to her kinsman Boaz. Ruth and Boaz fell in love and got married, and Ruth conceived a son. This brought joy to Naomi’s life again, as she got to help raise the child. Naomi’s story ends on a hopeful note:
“The women said to Naomi: ‘Praise be to the Lord, who this day has not left you without a kinsman-redeemer. May he become famous throughout Israel! 15 He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth.’ 16 Then Naomi took the child, laid him in her lap and cared for him. 17 The women living there said, ‘Naomi has a son.'” – Ruth 4:14-15
Naomi never got her husband or her sons back. But she did learn to find joy and comfort again in the good things God brought her way. And she did what she could to make the lives of those she loved more meaningful.
Our circumstances may not change. When suffering comes into our lives, we can choose to become bitter, or we can make the choice to become better, with God’s help. The path of bitterness only hurts us. Taking our hurts and our pain, even our anger, to God is really the only way to deal with tragedy, suffering, and pain. There’s really only two choices: You can deal with your pain by yourself, or you can ask God to help you with it. Thankfully, we can trust that God is good, kind, loving, and just, and will do what is good and right and fair according to His infinite and unknowable wisdom.
If we know Jesus Christ, then we have the Holy Spirit as a companion in our sufferings. In the gospel of John the Holy Spirit is called the Paraclete. This Greek word can be translated several different ways, but one of those ways is “comforter.”
15 If ye love me, keep my commandments. 16 And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; 17 Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you.
18 I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you. 19 Yet a little while, and the world seeth me no more; but ye see me: because I live, ye shall live also. 20 At that day ye shall know that I am in my Father, and ye in me, and I in you. – John 14:15-20
25 These things have I spoken unto you, being yet present with you. 26 But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.
27 Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. – John 14:25-27
2 Corinthians 2 also tells us that when we go through suffering, God is there to comfort us, and then we have an opportunity to comfort others who are going through something similar:
3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. 5 For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. – 2 Corinthians 1:3-5
For more on the story of Naomi and reflections on how to face suffering in this life, check out the book Shattered Dreams by Larry Crabb.