Anyone who is even slightly observant about the happenings in our world must draw the conclusion that there is indeed great suffering across God’s creation. From the abject poverty millions face each day, to the wars that continue to rage, to the natural disasters that wreak havoc on our world, we witness many problems in our world that call us to question God’s providence. In more recent weeks, we have observed the enormous and unthinkable suffering of the people of Haiti as a result of an earthquake that may shake our faith in God.
But even in our personal lives we find that there are times when we experience the reality of human suffering. We face the death of loved ones, the pain of illness, the loss of employment and the brokenness of relationships torn apart. All of us could list times and situations in life that cause us to question the providence of God. Indeed, as I have written in the past, the suffering we witness each day and the trials we face personally ought to cause us to question God’s providence, even protest against God, just as Jesus did from the cross.
Yet such questioning does not necessarily prevent us from trusting in God’s good providence. Yes, many who have suffered or who have witnessed great suffering have abandoned a belief in God, arguing that if God exists, then why is there suffering? But the suffering of our world, no matter how devastating, does not automatically negate the existence of God or the belief in God’s good providence.
But how shall we understand the idea of God’s providence? If we are to hold on to our faith in God’s goodness while we witness evil and suffering, even as we bring serious accusations and questions against God, how are we to comprehend God’s good providence during these times?
First, God’s providence should not be confused with some sort of arbitrary manipulation of things that happen in this world. God is not a puppeteer and we are not God’s puppets. Nor should we see God’s providence as a fixed fate in which the world runs like a machine. Indeed, we are wrong to assume that God has predetermined all that happens.
Moreover, it is not theologically appropriate to respond to such suffering, whether we experience it or someone else faces it, with misguided platitudes such as, “This happened for a reason.” In my mind, this statement, and many others like it, only mock God’s providence.
The biblical story informs us that God’s good providence flows from God’s sovereignty over creation. To say that God is sovereign is to say God exists apart from anything else; God has no beginning and no ending. Moreover, to say that God is sovereign is also to affirm that God is both the creator and sustainer of all.
Thus, God’s sovereignty over creation means that creation, and particularly humanity, finds its existence, its being, its meaning and purpose, and its life and death in the eternal and good will and work of God. That very purpose leads us to understand that to assert that God is sovereign is to say that God is moving and shaping creation toward God’s divine and righteous will, even as that will and purpose is significantly challenged by the power of evil and suffering.
But we must be careful in making this assertion into an absolute that is applicable to every instance of human pain and suffering. God’s providence is not so much God’s control of everything that happens. Indeed, it is hard for us to assume and believe that God controls everything. There is too much pain and suffering in the world for us to believe this. Rather, God’s providence is God’s will and work in this world to achieve God’s purposes for all of creation and particularly humanity, even as God struggles against the chaos itself.
If we look at the way the writers of the New Testament speak about the death of Jesus, we come away with the theological interpretation that Jesus’ tragic and painful death was a result of God’s will and purpose as much as it was the workings of a Jewish trial and a Roman execution. Taking such a view of Jesus as their Messiah was surely an outrageous move on the part of Jesus’ followers, for such an interpretation was not what the people of Israel envisioned for their Messiah.
Yet such an interpretation, for them and for us, points us to the real power of God’s providence. Though Jesus suffered death, and God was unable to stop such death, the providence of God is more fully realized as a result of Jesus’ death. Because of Jesus’ suffering and death at the hands of evil, God was able to cause resurrection and hope.
In other words, in response to the evil which God could not prevent, God raised Jesus from death. Thus, in the providence of God, God reached through the death of Jesus to bring resurrection and hope – a hope that fuels our persistent trust in God’s good providence even as we continue, with God, to struggle against evil.
Drew Smith, an ordained Baptist minister, is director of international programs at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark. He blogs at Wilderness Preacher.
Assistant Director of the Honors College at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas.