In this third episode of a four-part series, pastors Derek and Cliff discuss the pastoral implications that flow from a right understanding of God’s relation to evil and suffering.
Derek: Welcome to With All Wisdom, where we are applying biblical truth to everyday life. My name is Derek Brown and I am pastor and elder at Creekside Bible Church in Cupertino, California. And I am here with Cliff McManis, and he is also pastor and elder at Creekside Bible Church. We are both professors of theology at the Cornerstone Bible College and Seminary in Vallejo, California, just north of us. And today we are on Part Three of our discussion on the problem of evil. So we encourage you to go back and check out parts one and two that [are available] at WithAllWisdom.org, where all of our podcasts are hosted. And while I’m talking about WithAllWisdom.org, you should also check that website out for other resources—written resources on a host of topics, all grounded in God’s Word and aimed at helping you grow spiritually in your walk with the Lord. And we cover a variety of topics.
So there’s always something there I think is helpful to just about every Christian. And we are coming back today to talk about the problem of evil. And we introduced it in those first two episodes. In the first episode we basically defined the problem of evil—what it is—and offered some solutions to it. And then in the second episode we talked about those solutions and we challenged those solutions on biblical grounds and offered a biblical answer to the problem of evil. And then today we want to talk about the pastoral implications, because that’s really where it’s going to matter. There are people in your churches, in our churches, who need to have an answer for this issue of evil and God’s goodness and his sovereignty, and there’s a right way to approach it. And there are wrong ways. And first and foremost, we have to have our theology right.
So that’s why we labored in the first couple of episodes in this series to really nail down theologically what Scripture teaches about God’s nature, his character, the nature of evil in the world, why it exists, how God uses it, and how he’s sovereign over it. And now we need to bring it home at a pastoral level so that we can truly help people and help Christians to deal with and navigate life in a world where there is evil, while at the same time knowing that God is all-wise, all-sovereign, all-loving, and all-glorious. And so that’s our aim today, is to bring these all to bear with their pastoral implications. So we have a number of things to get into here. So let’s just start right away. These are really in no particular order. These are just points that we want to make, and each one is important. Cliff and I are just going to go back and forth, hopefully, and offer you several practical points.
I’m trying to synthesize everything we’ve been saying into a coherent whole, while at the same time giving you clear pastoral implication. So the first thing we want to say is that the Christian worldview enables the Christian to fully acknowledge evil as evil. And we want to contrast this with other worldviews that either make evil illusionary or take God out of the picture, so that there really is no way of even defining evil in the Christian worldview because we know God’s plan for it. We know that God himself is good, that he is in control of all things, and that he is even controlling evil for his glory and for his people’s benefit. We don’t have to shy away from the reality of evil. We can look it square in the face and we can call evil what it is, and we can know what evil is because God’s Word tells us what evil is.
And so we can look at it in all its atrocity, tragedy, and brutality. And when we’re preaching and teaching, pastors especially have to embrace the reality of evil and the heartbreak and bewilderment it causes and not gloss over it. And quickly just jump to some sort of platitude like, “Well, God really cares,” or whatever platitude you might choose. We have to be able to call evil what it is and to recognize that it’s devastating to us and to others. We must learn to weep with those who weep. That’s actually a biblical command. Paul tells us in Romans 12, “Weep with those who weep.” And really the only way you can do that is by recognizing evil for what it is. It’s not an illusion—it’s real.
We need to be able to take responsibility for our own participation in sin and evil, recognizing that we are sinners and that we not only experience the fallout from sin and the suffering that it causes, but we also cause it (hopefully not often)—but we do cause it. And we need to repent of that and look forward to when God is going to judge all sin at the end of time, but also thank him for the judgment of sin and evil in Christ where our own sin and evil has been judged and condemned so that we don’t have to suffer the condemnation for the evil that we’ve participated in. But we also look forward to the coming a day when God will justly judge all evil that has ever been committed, and the history of mankind, at the end of time, there will be perfect justice. No evildoer will get away with what they have done. Either your sin and evil will have been punished in Jesus Christ on the cross or it’ll be punished forever in Hell. So God will be upheld as just—completely just—in no way liable for evil, but in fact perfectly just (because evil is punished in one of two places), and acted justly. Cliff, just [on] that first point—learning how to look evil square in the face and weep with those who weep. Any thoughts on that introductory point?
Cliff: In our first two episodes, we didn’t really emphasize, I mean we mentioned it. You did explicitly—that evil is real, and we weren’t minimizing it by our agenda—what we’re laying out and trying to explain. So I just want to emphasize that, again, we do affirm evil is real, it is prevalent, it’s horrible. It makes life difficult. Jesus himself was subjected to it in his life because he was called a “Man of Sorrows.” So if there’s anybody that can identify with the reality of evil, it’s those who hold to a biblical and Christian worldview. And for you and I, as counselors, that’s one of our basic jobs. We’re just to counsel people as you were reading that verse of weeping with those who weep.
The only reason we counsel is because we’re dealing with evil that’s real in the world. Every time anybody comes in with a problem, it doesn’t matter what it is, if it’s marriage or somebody died and they’re dealing with depression—what we’re really dealing with is this person’s very real experience with some manifestation of evil in their life and we’re trying to find a biblical solution for them and comfort them in light of that truth. So in terms of a pastoral perspective on evil, it’s something that we live with every single day as shepherds.
Derek: Exactly. And kind of a corollary is that when we do, one thing we’ll talk about and I’ll mention is that we don’t want to hedge on God’s sovereignty when talking about evil. We don’t want to lack compassion and just kind of throw around theology. But we can’t hedge on God’s sovereignty. We do need to be clear about it. Because that ultimately is the hope of the believer: that God is in control of all things. But we want to make clear that God’s sovereignty does not make evil good. And in fact, when James says to rejoice, he’s not saying that we rejoice in the suffering in and of itself.
Cliff: Can I make a comment there?
Cliff: It was probably 1994, and I was a Bible teacher of a 12th grade Bible class at a Christian school in Southern California. I don’t even remember what the topic was, but it was an apologetics class. And there was a 12th grade senior girl who was in the front row of the Bible class. She was a sweet girl. She was a Christian in a Christian home. But anyway, I read Romans 8:28 out loud to the seniors: “God works all things together for good.” And she had a visceral, audible reaction to that verse, and she was angry when I read the verse, because she thought that meant that God was saying that evil is good—that all things are good—including evil things, when that’s not what the verse says. That verse does recognize that evil is a reality, but it doesn’t call it good. What it is saying is that God can and will turn that evil thing that God thinks is evil for a good purpose.
Derek: And that’s an excellent point. And the cross—and we discussed this in the last episode—the cross is really the ultimate example of that very thing. Crucifying the Son of God—that was the most evil thing that could happen. And yet God used that to redeem his people and to bring himself glory. And so that needs to be clear as we are dealing with this issue. God’s sovereignty does not make evil good. Evil is always evil, but in his goodness, God can turn those things, and he does turn those things amazingly, to his glory and to his people’s good, and to his benefit. And even when James says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, when you face trials of various kinds,” he’s not suggesting that the trials themselves are good or that suffering in and of itself is good, but [he’s asking], what are you taking joy in?
Derek: Well, the fact that testing of your faith produces perseverance, that God is doing something with this suffering to make you more like Christ, to deepen your assurance, to strengthen your faith, whatever it might be. So it’s just an important point to make for pastors as they deal with other people. And I mean, as Christians, as we deal with other Christians, you don’t have to be a pastor necessarily to know that when you’re counseling and helping another brother or sister in the Lord. You don’t want to lead them to believe that you’re saying that God’s sovereignty makes evil good. Evil is always evil, and you have to face that.
Derek: Another point that we want to make is that God—again, this leads logically from the last point. God often uses evil and suffering, which are bad things—those things which are not good—for good. And I recommended a book to our listeners last time called What about Evil? A Defense of God’s Sovereign Glory by Scott Christensen. I want to recommend another book that relates to God’s sovereignty specifically, and it’s called God’s Greater Glory by Bruce Ware. Good, great book. Just a defense of God’s meticulous sovereignty. And he has a great section in there that’s been helpful for me. I use this with our seminary students. He gives several ways that God uses evil and suffering things—which are not good—for good. So I just want to run through these quickly, and I’ll mention the Bible references. We won’t have time to read the Bible references, but I will mention them so you can go look them up. First thing, God uses evil and suffering to enact righteous judgments upon rebellious sinners. And you might kind of hear that and be like, “Ooh, that’s a good thing!” Yeah, it is a good thing. It is good that God calls evil “evil” and acts decisively to judge evil. You want to go to heaven to be with a God who has decisively judged evil and will never allow evil into his perfect heaven. And so it is good that God makes clear what is good and makes clear what is evil by judging evil.
Cliff: Yeah, I think it’s Exodus 15 where God and Moses led his people through the Red Sea, maybe over a million of them, and then Pharaoh and his chariots were following behind. And then God brought the water down and it said that he drowned all of Pharaoh’s army that were on the chariots, and they were scattered on the seashore afterwards—dead. So God killed the Egyptians, the enemies of Israel. And what did Moses do after that? He wrote a song and celebrated, and so did his sister, Miriam. She got a tambourine and all the ladies, and they started celebrating the death of Pharaoh because of the wrath of God. And for us contemporary readers, we might find that scandalous or a violation to our sensibilities. But no, that was righteous.
Derek: Good reminder. Number two, God uses pain and suffering as an instrument to draw his wandering children back to him. And I have a question specifically about this. I’ll ask it a little later, Cliff. But we do want to recognize that God does use pain and suffering to draw his wandering children back to himself. A couple of verses. Proverbs 3:12 and Hebrews 12:9-11. We want to be careful, though, how we talk about that. And I’m going to bring that up a little later. Cliff, I know you have some thoughts on it. We want to be careful how we draw the correlation between people suffering and their personal sin. Job’s friends made that mistake. They drew a direct line between Job’s suffering and his sin, and they were wrong. And God was angry about their bad counsel. So we’re not suggesting that, but we do want to face up with what Scripture says, and that is one of the tools that he can use—a little discipline to bring a wandering child back to himself. And so that is one way that he uses suffering and evil, which is not good, to bring about good.
Number three, God ordained suffering to produce spiritual growth in his people. And you see that in Romans 5:3-5—this kind of string of character qualities that flows from the suffering that we endure here on earth. I’ll just start in Romans 5:1. “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand, and we boast in the hope of the glory of God.” So we are justified by faith, not by our works. We have full access to God. We are looking forward to the glory of God someday. “But not only that, we also glory in our sufferings because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured onto our hearts through the Holy Spirit, which has been given to us.”
And there you have the exhortation or the example of boasting, even in our sufferings, if you can believe that. Because we know that that suffering produces perseverance and character and hope—it does positive things in our spiritual life. And so there’s an example of God using tribulations and suffering to do good in our life. And we saw that in James 1, and we have already mentioned that. Again, Paul’s not saying that you glory in the suffering as though the suffering and the evil that you’re enduring is somehow good. What you’re glorying in is the fact that God is using that evil to produce something wonderful in you, namely perseverance and character and hope. And so those spiritual blessings come through, sometimes, suffering. Any thoughts on those first three, Cliff? I’ve got two more, but I want to see if you had any.
Cliff: No, good stuff.
Derek: Number four, God can use suffering to reveal our weaknesses so his glory can shine through to us to a greater degree. And he did this with Paul. Paul said actually he would boast his weaknesses so that Christ’s power would be seen all the more, and he could experience Jesus’ power in his life all the more. And so God may bring about some suffering and some evil to reveal our weaknesses so that we rely upon the Lord Jesus even more. And so that the glory of his power can shine through us even more. And then finally, number five, God orients suffering in our lives. You can find textual grounding for that in 2 Corinthians 4:8-12 and 2 Corinthians 12:8-10. And then finally, God ordained suffering in our lives so that we might better comfort and minister to others.
And you see that in 2 Corinthians 1:3-7. Paul said that they suffered and then were comforted by God. So then they could comfort the Corinthians as they suffered and be a tangible means of comforting them. And so I thought that was helpful—the way Bruce Ware categorized those. And he was careful to say that God can use these ways, and to not suggest that every element of suffering is related specifically to one of these categories, but that God can and does use these particular experiences of suffering to do positive things—good things—in our life. So now I want to return to the issue of drawing a correlation between a person suffering and their personal sin. Cliff, I know that you’ve actually talked to people who have suggested that when you suffer, that is actually God’s discipline for your sin. And we would reject that idea. But do you want to comment on that and what Hebrews 12 is teaching?
Cliff: Yeah, that’s found among Christians. It’s a pretty natural conclusion that they come to, sometimes out of guilt or over introspection or reading Bible verses the wrong way maybe. But I’ve found it to be more common than I realized, even recently in counseling, that people think that bad things are happening in their life because God is punishing them. And these are Christians that are telling me this. Some people who have been Christians a long time and have been trained well in Scripture, and that’s a part of their understanding—that this is how God operates everything. God’s mad at me, God’s punishing me, and every bad thing in my life might be some element because I did something wrong. And we know that’s not true because of Scriptures like John 9, where there was a man born blind and the apostles, whom Jesus is training, automatically conclude, “Well, this man was born blind because his parents must have been evil.” Or maybe he’s not evil, but bad things happen because people are evil and God’s punishing them. Right? And Jesus said, “No, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” God sovereignly allowed this man to be born blind for one purpose: that he might reveal his glory with me doing a miracle of allowing him to see. This had nothing to do with his personal sin or his parents’ sin. So John 1 is very clear, but people misinterpret Hebrews 12, where it says that good parents will discipline their children when needed. And God the Father, he’s an even better parent. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that God the Father, who loves his children, is going to discipline us occasionally. And that’s why he does discipline us.
The word there—discipline—doesn’t say submit to or subject to all kinds of torment and suffering, but discipline. It’s just a generic word. It can be a positive or negative means of training. It can be painful teaching, but that’s the word in Hebrews 12. So God the Father, because he loves his children, and because we’re sinful and we’re prone to wander and prone to stray, he wants to keep us on the straight and narrow. And one of the ways he does that is with occasional discipline and training. The Hebrews author uses the word discipline and training. And when God does it, it doesn’t seem joyful. It seems sorrowful or painful—no pain, no gain. But when God’s done doing it, we’re trained by it. It’s effective, it’s efficacious, it accomplishes what God intended, and it yields good fruit and the fruit is righteousness, or what he calls sharing in God’s holiness.
So that’s just one of the ways God helps us grow in the process of sanctification. But it’s at his discretion, and it’s case by case. Every person is different. The nature of how he disciplines isn’t always some kind of form of suffering that we can interpret. That’s probably the biggest mistake Christians make when they’re in the midst of a trial. My spouse just died, I have cancer, I just lost my job. And their mind immediately goes to, Oh, God must be punishing me. I must have done something wrong. That’s completely unbiblical. And that is not what Hebrews 12 was teaching at all. Your mind should first go to, Oh, I live in a fallen world. This world has been cursed. So just as the sparks fly upward, there are problems in life. That’s what Job said. It’s not God’s fault. It’s not God’s means of getting after me. And some people will say that all suffering in our personal lives is discipline from God because of sin in our life. All suffering in my life is discipline from God because of sin in my life. That is categorically false and wrong. And it’s really a twisted view of God and his grace. When I’m in the middle of a trial or I’m suffering about something, I don’t try to figure out what God is doing.
Cliff: God, what are you doing and why? Because I have no idea what he’s doing. I can’t figure it out. He’s completely sovereign. My thoughts are not your thoughts. I’m not going to try to figure out his thoughts. And usually it’s only in hindsight, sometimes it’s years later, when you say, “Oh, that’s what God was doing.” And there’s the likelihood that we will never figure it out in this life. It’s only when we get to heaven. “Oh God, that’s what you were doing. Okay. I didn’t understand that, but I want to trust you. I want to walk by faith, not by sight, and not try to interpret what you’re doing in the moment.” What is God doing right now in the midst of this? What’s God trying to teach me? Sounds like a good question, but I think it’s a futile question because we’re finite. And you’re right, for forty-two chapters in Job, his four friends are trying to actually answer that question. What is God trying to teach you? Job will tell you they were wrong. God said, you don’t know what you’re talking about.
Derek: Yeah. And it’s such a helpful thing to be reminded of, especially for pastors, because if you read this wrong, you’re going to just devastate people and confuse them. And to have them start believing that every element of suffering they experience is direct punishment for their sin—it also takes away from what Christ has accomplished on the cross and just the way that God responds to us and interacts with us. He interacts with us as a loving Father because his wrath has been poured out on the cross. And so even this training and even the unpleasant things that the author of Hebrews talks about in chapter 12 are used for our benefit from a loving father. But as the story of Job points out, you cannot start trying to interpret the ways of God and drawing these lines of correlation between one sin and a person suffering.
However, that does not mean—and I believe you you’d agree with this—that does not mean that there aren’t times when people do experience the fallout from their sin. For example, if you commit adultery and then your marriage starts to fall apart, well, that experience of marital trouble as a result of an adultery is to be expected. And so there are certain things in life where there are just natural consequences that God uses to discipline and to rebuke and correct that are a direct result of your foolishness and your sin. So we do need to say that.
Cliff: Yeah, absolutely. That’s a good point. Galatians 6: you reap what you sow. I mean, God put physical laws in the universe, like the law of gravity, and he also put spiritual laws, and that’s one of them. You sin and they have natural consequences.
Derek: All right. So one thing I want to talk about is kind of the way that we as Christians and as pastors wield the sovereignty of God. I think we need to be balanced here because on the one hand, if a person has been devastated by suffering, you don’t want to flippantly throw around the doctrine of God’s sovereignty or Romans 8:28 and kind of say, “You’ll feel better in the morning!” You know what I mean? Or a conversation with a seminary student recently kind of prompted me to think more about this, but also it’s not helpful for them if you hedge on the sovereignty of God in any way in any of those conversations. So this is kind of a fine line that one must walk. Just remain biblically balanced between not flippantly throwing around the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, but at the same time not hedging on it. Being compassionate, weeping, recognizing the evil of evil and the sinfulness of sin, while at the same time recognizing the state that they’re in.
But what they really, truly do need is a robust vision of God’s sovereignty and meticulous providence over their life and even their suffering. Do you have any thoughts on this balance that we need to have? I know I’ve done it and I’ve had it done to me, and I’ve seen people do it, where they’ll just kind of lack compassion—a lack of empathy, and throw around, almost as a cliché, the Romans 8:28 verse in view of God’s sovereignty. Not to say that there’s something wrong with God’s sovereignty—that’s not what I’m saying—but there seems to be something wrong with that approach. But then I’ve also seen the other side, where people are hesitant to talk about this very clear teaching of the Bible—that God is meticulously sovereign over evil, and that’s what you need to hear. So I’d love to hear what you have to say about that, Cliff.
Cliff: Yeah, I think it’s human nature to gravitate towards one extreme or the other of dismissing God’s sovereignty or trying to explain it away. Like Ephesians 1:11, that God ordains all things that come to pass and that no evil or suffering happens in this world without God allowing it or permitting it. As we see in Job 1 and 2, there are a lot of Christians that have a hard time with that understanding—why would God allow that? He’s completely sovereign and he needs to be allowed to be sovereign as he’s revealed himself and in the Word. We need to embrace that. We need to celebrate that and rejoice in that. That is who God is. And then the balance, the flip side, is not just taking the data of scriptural statements theologically without any personal compassionate element in it. The biblical truths like that need to flow from a shepherd’s heart, the heart of compassion. Weep with those who weep, and do not be so overly matter of fact about it.
Because God is completely sovereign and in charge of all things. He knows the future, he determines the future, and yet he has compassion. Jesus himself, as the God-man, is weeping over those who reject him. In eternity passed he knew they would reject him. So those truths go together, side by side. And that’s from a pastoral point of view. That’s why to be a pastor, I think you need to have the gift of being a pastor. You can go to seminary or whatever and become a pastor and not have the gift of being a pastor. There are lousy pastors. One of the areas where there are lousy pastors may be in terms of being able to comfort people and give counsel. And you can cite the theological truth like a textbook, yet without any pastoral compassion or the heart of Christ whatsoever. So that’s a delicate balance. And it’s not just a matter of practice. I think it’s being led by the spirit of God in an area of giftedness and consciously thinking about it and praying about it to minister to people.
Derek: That is an excellent point. I appreciate that, Cliff. The way you articulated it, I think is helpful. This kind of stoic downloading of biblical data as being the only approach to helping people in their suffering—that is an imbalanced approach. And so that’s a helpful way to put it. Well, we have some more things to say about the pastoral implications of this discussion on the problem of evil. And so we want to come back with part four and discuss those things and wrap up this series on the Problem of Evil. We’d encourage you to check out WithAllWisdom.org. Check out the other podcasts if you haven’t already, and articles on this topic and other topics that are all rooted in God’s Word and aimed at helping you grow in the Lord. And until next time, keep seeking the Lord and his Word.