With the Brussels attack last month and Paris and San Bernardino before them—not to mention gun violence and police brutality on the news every night—the world seems really heavy lately. And, honestly, I’m really starting to wonder what God is doing. So, I know it’s a little cliche of a question, but why is God letting these kinds of bad things happen?
As you know, Confused, that’s really tough question. And the short answer is, I don’t know.
I don’t know the specific reason that God has for letting any particular sad, tragic or violent event take place. None of us on this side of the new creation do.
I cannot speak for God on why He did not stop the bombers in Brussels this January from killing 32 people and injuring dozens more. I don’t pretend to have a special cosmic pipeline as to how the attacks in Paris in November 2015 factor into creating the “best of all possible worlds” by taking the lives of 130 people. And I don’t have a defense for why God allowed the gunning down of 20 children between the ages of 6 and 7 at Sandy Hook Elementary in December 2012.
These incidents and those like them seem as pointless and vain to me, as they do to anyone else. Nothing that you or I can say can make us feel OK with their happening. Our God-given sense of justice tell us that something is terribly wrong with the world and it will not let us settle for pat answers (see Romans 8:18-23).
Nonetheless, we are not left in utter silence and without hope. God has revealed enough about Himself for us to have confidence in Him as not only the just Judge and Ruler of the earth but also the compassionate Creator and Father who hears the groaning of His sin-wrecked creation. We have a God who knows and who cares.
While we can’t necessarily say why God permits a specific bad thing to take place, we can take into account five truths from Scripture that can help us in thinking about—as you put it—“what God is doing.”
God’s Goodness Lets Us See the Badness of ‘Bad Things’
Many have pointed out that you cannot have ‘bad’ without ‘good.’ And they are right. Even though good can exist without bad, bad is the opposite of good and is actually a distortion of good. God’s good character gives us an abiding standard for seeing what good is and for measuring what comes short of it (Romans 3:23). Just as we can’t account for true, objective good without God, no one can recognize the real badness of evil without Him. Otherwise, these “bad things” that happen are simply subjective, human distaste for unfavorable circumstances.
God’s Sovereignty Gives Meaning to Bad Things
If God is not in control, then we can have no sure confidence that there is a point to the evil around us. If God really could not have stopped bad things from taking place, then why should we remain hopeful that He has purpose in those bad things and works them toward the good of His people (Romans 8:28)? If bad things aren’t anything but accidents on a cosmic level, then God is not sovereign. Unless He is both good and sovereign, we can’t say with Job, “Though He slay me, I will trust in Him” (see Job 13:15).
It was faith in God’s sovereign goodness that led Joseph to say to his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20). Further, God’s sovereign goodness is what makes the gravest of human tragedies—the murder and execution of the Son of God—actual good news (Acts 2:22-23; cf. 4:27-28).
We have to affirm God’s sovereign goodness if we are to recognize the good news of the bad thing that is Jesus’ crucifixion.
God’s Holiness Leads Us to a Reverent Agnosticism
I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, and neither are you.
Unlike the prophets in the Old Testament to whom God revealed the meaning behind Israel’s circumstances at a given time, we do not have a specific word from God on His interpretation of contemporary events. He has already shown us enough of His purposes and mission for us in the world with the life, death and resurrection of His Son (see Hebrews 1:1-2).
Because we dare not speak for God presumptively (as you’ve seen some TV preachers do in pronouncing certain public events as unmistakably God’s judgment for specific sins), we should pursue a reverent agnosticism about why individual bad things happen. As the William Cowper hymn states, “God is His own interpreter.” We must never try to make sense of God’s providence apart from what He has told us. This dynamic is what theologians describe as a “word-act” revelation: God’s words interpret God’s actions. And that is precisely what we have with the events recorded in the Bible.
God’s Presence Comforts Us When We Face Bad Things
All this talk about God’s sovereignty and purposes can make Him seem distant, abstract and even absent from the suffering that takes place in our lives. Despite what our feelings can suggest, He is the God who never forsakes His people or gives up on His creation. The One who is exalted is also ever-present, drawing near to the brokenhearted (Isaiah 57:15).
In other words, as both transcendent and immanent, God is sympathetic but not limited. He is sovereign but not stoic. He is neither constrained nor callous. No one hates and laments the bad things more than He does, even though He allowed them. This is one of those places where we must see Him in the fullness of what His Word proclaims Him to be. No one cares more than He does, and no one is in more control than He is.
We see these attributes of God converge in the incarnation.
God’s Incarnation Reminds Us to Accept Mystery
Arguably, the most central truth of Christianity is the incarnation of God the Son. This belief unites all strands of the faith throughout the centuries. It’s simply fundamental to the Christian faith that God became a man (John 1:14; Colossians 2:9).
Let’s be honest: We don’t know how this works—how two seemingly incompatible natures coexist in one person. But, we need to remain committed to our confession that Jesus is Lord (Romans 10:9,13; cf. Joel 2:32). Jesus is fully God and fully man, and we simply cannot explain or exhaust this mystery and reality. The same is true for affirming God’s goodness in light of bad things. We do not know how God can remain completely good and also allow perplexingly terrible things to happen. But, like the person of Jesus, God has revealed that both are true.
Why does a good and sovereign God let bad things happen? Again, I do not know, but that’s only one of many sacred truths that a mere mortal like me cannot grasp.
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Josh Hayes is an editor for 'The Gospel Project' and a Ph.D. candidate in systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. He lives in the Nashville area with his wife, Sara, and their two children.