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Can a Good God Plan Our Pain? Thoughts on Sovereignty and the Problem of Pain

My son burst through the screen door, crying. It was the sound of a child who was slightly hurt and looking for excessive sympathy.

“I was climbing the tree, all the way to the top. Then I slid down a branch and scraped my hand and my leg!” He held out his hand, where a flap of skin pointed up, and pulled up a pant leg to show a scrape.

“Go wash your hand off. You’ll be fine.” He grumped about the soap stinging, but at look at my unsympathetic face and he trudged off to the bathroom. After a couple of minutes, he headed back outside.

But within minutes, he was back.

“I just hit my knee climbing the ladder. I’m not going outside to play again,” his voice stomped.

I sat down, looking at him and thinking hard. I wanted to say, “Suck it up and snap out of it” but that wouldn’t keep a conversation going. The best advice I’ve been given about parenting is to cultivate dialogue with my kids. They need to know they can tell me anything, and that I will take time to hear them without lecturing or freaking out.

“Honey, you can’t hide from pain by staying indoors. You can be hurt anywhere.”  I paused to let that sink in… for both of us. So often, I’m talking to myself when I’m talking with my children.

I thought of all the painful experiences I’ve had: injuries, failures, childbirth, child death. I want my son to be ready to face and willing to do hard things, even when it means getting hurt.

“Sometimes the best things, the most fun things, also involve getting hurt along the way. If you hide from the pain, you won’t get to do those things you love, like climbing trees and romping in your fort. Are you willing to give that up?”

He lay curled up in the chair, head tucked, for a few minutes. He chews on ideas like his mother. I’ve learned to give him time to think and answer. Our conversations are filled with long pauses.

“O.K.” He headed back outside.


Pain happens. Wherever and whenever evil came from (people have thought and argued about that for millenia and won’t stop any time soon), it’s here now. Nature can be merciless (tsunamis, earthquakes, tornadoes), and so can people (murder, persecution, the Crusades, witch-hunts).

I also believe that God exists, that God created this world, and that he interacts with the world and with us. I’ve never struggled with the idea of a big, all-powerful God. What I struggle with is whether that God is good.

These two ideas seem like a paradox. How can God and evil co-exist unless God is evil?

Last summer, we attended a class at church on the various attributes of God. We spent several weeks talking about what that church (now our church) calls the sovereignty of God — that God controls everything that happens, the good and the bad, our successes and failures, who leads for how long, life and death, cancers and birth defects, tsunamis and earthquakes.

Our teacher explained, “I typically see three different responses to teaching on the sovereignty of God. People either reject it, accept but hate it, or accept and find comfort in it.”

I think the entire group must have felt the shock radiating from me.

Find comfort in God controlling tragedy? That’s impossible. If God controls everything, he’s like the evil scientist tinkering with his experiments to see what happens if I electrocute this one or pour acid on this one. That God is not good – that God is capricious and callous. I can’t love a God like that.

He went on. “If things can happen outside God’s will, then he isn’t a very big God, is he? If he can be caught off-guard and have to scramble together a Plan B, how can we call him God? Tragedy that just happens has no purpose. It’s totally meaningless. But if God chooses to allow something to happen in your life, you can bank on him having a purpose in doing so. And that is a comfort and a hope we can cling to. God is at work in this situation, he is in control and not surprised or caught off-guard, and he will bring some good out of this even if I never see it.”

I raised my hand. “What is the difference between God allowing something and God doing it? We have already had discussions about the goodness of God and the holiness of God — that he cannot do anything evil. I’m struggling to see how he isn’t responsible if he allows evil?”

I thought of my children, and how it seemed that believing this would be to hold God responsible for their health problems, for the years of struggle, for Ellie’s death.

The teacher referred us to Job, and the story in the beginning (the part of the story that Job is never privy to) which shows the Devil asking God for permission to put Job through the wringer. The Devil believes Job only loves God because his life has been really good. He wants to prove that Job will walk away if his life goes south. God gives the Devil permission, within limits. The teacher explained that the Devil is the one who is the primary mover, the causer of the thieves taking all of Job’s flocks (his livelihood), the earthquake that kills Job’s family, and the boils that torment him. God allows and limits the Devil’s efforts, but he doesn’t do it himself.

Since that day, I’ve been chewing on the idea that God can still be good and also permit painful, tragic, even evil things to happen… if they happen for a higher purpose. 

I don’t want my daughter’s brain injury to be an accident. I want it to have meaning.

I want both my children’s heart defects to have a purpose. I don’t want the way their hearts formed to be something God didn’t know about and didn’t intend to happen.

I want the years of bone-crushing fatigue and sacrifice to be part of some plan, not a cruel twist of fate.

I have to acknowledge that I only grow as person through doing hard things. That the hardest things are also the most worthwhile. That the best encouragement in the midst of a hard thing comes from others who have also persevered through hard things. Somehow, I think that this reality must figure into this whole “God is good and also sovereign over everything” concept somehow.

Most important, I want God to be God, and I want him to be good. 

Today, a friend posted this quotation from Charles Spurgeon:

“There is no attribute more comforting to His children than that of God’s Sovereignty. Under the most adverse circumstances, in the most severe trials, they believe that Sovereignty has ordained their afflictions, that Sovereignty overrules them, and that Sovereignty will sanctify them all.”

I think I’m somewhere between accepting but hating the idea and accepting and finding comfort in the idea. The difference between the two lies in whether God is truly good even though he allows evil.

Where do you fall on the spectrum? Do you reject the idea of God’s sovereignty? Do you accept it but hate it? Do you find comfort in it? Why? Do you differentiate between allowing something and directly causing it?

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