* This was originally written in November 2019, months before most of us had even heard of the Covid 19 virus sweeping the globe, and also before a dear friend of mine would pass away unexpectedly. This updated version is in honor of him – Petya Zagurskiy, his wife and his family who live in the truth that God is good.
Even before living in quarantine, wearing masks and hearing of growing numbers of deaths became our new normal, simply the daily news headlines of sadness and atrocities around the world were enough to tempt anyone to question God’s goodness. Add to that extreme personal losses, and the notion of a “good God”can feel like a cruel joke. I know because two days ago – in the midst of living in lockdown in Budapest, Hungary where I am a missionary, I got word that the son of dear friends, this 27 years old young man a friend to me himself, had unexpectedly and tragically died, leaving behind his bride of less than a year. The first word out of my mouth when I got the text was “NO!” I did not immediately respond like one who rested in the goodness of God. If I am honest, in that initial moment, my thoughts were probably more along the lines of “if God is good, why do things keep going from bad to worse?”
Tragedy forces the eternal question: why does God allow pain and suffering?
My friend’s death is especially painful because it seems to have been a fluke, as far as is known, and not the result of anything he did or didn’t do. Because sometimes suffering is an obvious consequence of behavior. But when it is not we find ourselves like “Job’s counselors” trying to explain tragedy.
In an effort to make sense of suffering some try to find reasons “down the road” that will supposedly redeem the pain. Hopeful salve is applied to wounds with “see God knew…” And God does know and thankfully does redeem, giving “beauty for ashes and joy for mourning” (Is.61:3). But I am sure that there is no rationalization that would be enough to justify my friend’s death to his young bride, or his parents and siblings. Trying to figure out the mind of God by rationalizing suffering against the hope of good things to come can feel like so much salt in open wounds. Good can come of suffering, but it is not our place to say that this is why God allows it.
Still yet others, with tender, empathetic hearts are tempted to massage God’s character when facing suffering. Recently in a popular magazine a Christian woman said that she had learned to “forgive God” for the suffering in her life. In context I think I understood that she wasn’t trying to say that God had done anything wrong (as much as her actual words sounded that way) but rather that she needed to let go of expecting an explanation from God about why He had allowed these hard things in her life. I sincerely hope no one suggests to my friend’s parents that they should forgive God for losing their son. It will not bring healing, but rather further muddle their already tear-stained vision of a Holy God that does not falter or stumble, let alone need to be forgiven.
So if not those responses, what should our response to suffering be?
Inherent in that very question is the idea of why does suffering even exist? Isn’t God supposed to be good? And if so why isn’t He being good to me right now? Why isn’t He good to those who have died and are suffering from this pandemic? Why was he not good to my friend and all of us that loved him?
Does God even want to be good to me?
This is something that – if we’re honest – many of us think. Whether it is because of tragedy or simply delayed blessing. Often, we say “God is good”, but then turn and mutter under our breath – “but it sure doesn’t seem like it to me”.
Some understanding can be found in many of Jesus’ parables where the context of vineyards was used to explain the Kingdom of God. (Whenever we see the words – “the kingdom of God is like” – we should lean in hard!)
These common themes of God’s sovereignty and our submission to His will are shown through interactions between vineyard owners and their workers. Yet it is our very acceptance of these truths that may actually intensify the real issue we have with God allowing hardship in our lives.
We know He is in control. We know we are not. He knows what’s going on. He loves us. He could stop things or cause “better” things to happen. He has both the authority and the ability. He often seems to not have the desire. Ouch.
Who says what is “good”?
One of those “vineyard parables” (mentioned earlier) is in Matthew’s Gospel account (Ch.25:14-30) and reveals more understanding about suffering. The “Parable of the Talents” tells of workers given varying amounts of their employer’s money to invest in his absence. Upon his return he commends each for their management of his money. Except one. The worker who received the least had simply buried it and then returned his master’s money with no interest gained.
This employee explained his inaction saying, “Lord, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you have not sown, and gathering where you have not scattered seed.”. This master responded by punishing his servant severely, having him thrown “out into utter darkness”. Simply because he hadn’t made a profit for his master? Hardly.
But rather, consider this: who sets the standard of what is “good”?
It wasn’t for his actions alone that this servant was punished. (Our actions always reveal our hearts.) Rather it was because this servant called his master “hard” (skléros in Greek, where we get ostiosclerosis, hardening of the bones). But is it truly “hard” for a Master to do what he wants with what is his? Or is that not simply the very definition of Master, or more common to our age – owner? The owner had simply asked his employee to do something that was usual and able to be done and when it wasn’t done, the employee blamed the owner.
In another parable (Matthew Ch. 20:1-16) workers hired at different times of the day all received the same pay, despite how long they worked. When challenged, the owner responded “I am doing you no wrong.”, explaining “Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?’” (Some translations say “Do you wish to call evil the good I am doing?”) Yet the vineyard workers that worked all day and got the same wage as those who worked much less thought it was anything but good.
They thought their master was being unfair, unjust, and possibly even unkind and cruel. And sometimes so do we, if we’re honest.
If God is good, why isn’t He good to me? And how am I supposed to deal with that?
So is God good? Or more specifically, is He good to me?
What do I truly believe?
Sometimes I look at circumstances, and begin to think – “God, you are hard. Because what you have given me is not good.”, (or fair, or right, or…you fill in the blank). Often that comes when I fall into the trap of looking at the lives of others and wondering why I can’t have the “good things” that they have. Sometimes, like with my friend’s passing, I see someone so “good” and wonder why God allowed Him to die so young?
So then it’s understandable why the woman in the magazine article said she was learning to “forgive God”, (again, hopefully meaning “let go of expectations of explanations from God”). I balk at her words but I get her heart-wrenching disappointment. I agree that there is something I need to let go of, but if it is not (obviously) some shortcoming from God, what is it?
There’s a hint to the answer in the question the vineyard master said to his servant – “Or is your eye evil because I am good?” The “evil eye” was a reference to jealousy or greed. The master (God) is essentially saying, “Don’t think that I am not good, just because you want something different than I have given you.” No one wanted our friend to die and no one wants this pandemic to be threatening not only people’s lives but their livelihoods, as well. But this is what God has thus far allowed. So is God still good?
Back to the parable, remember that these servants had been given what they had agreed to before beginning to work, and all had been given a full day’s wage. What was not good about that? Apparently, because they wanted more. Just like we want more.
And is that so bad, to want more? Yes, when it means that the servant’s estimation of “good” has replaced that of the one they call master. Have I done that? Have you? Sometimes the pain that comes with suffering, the fact that it truly is bad, can knock us off our feet and we can begin to question how a good God could allow this.
Yet God’s goodness is firmly established. From the very beginning of life creation shows all that God did was good. Even before that the gospel sprung from God’s heart of love with His justice and His goodness – “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son…” (Jn. 3:16) . We read that “every good and perfect gift” (James 1:17) comes from God and that “no good thing will He withhold from those who walk uprightly” (Ps. 84:11), and on and on. God’s goodness flows from not only every page of His Word but, if we take the time to notice, and ask God for His perspective, from every page of History, as well.
And still, how often do I either act or react because, like the servant, I’m afraid, because somewhere in my heart I think that God is “hard”?
If our actions reveal what we believe, then if I honestly look at what I do (or don’t do) in life, would I discover that I truly don’t believe that God is good? Where do I rush ahead of God to try and make sure I get the “good things” in life that I want? Or where do I hold back because I fear that if I risk or step out God will allow more “bad things” to happen to me? A.W. Tozer knew this well, saying that
“Most of us go through life praying a little, planning a little,
jockeying for position, hoping but never being quite certain of anything,
and always secretly afraid that we will miss the way.”
Just listen to how this thinking creeps into how we sometimes unfortunately speak to each other : “Be careful what you ask for, you may get it!” As if God is somehow sadistic just waiting for us to ask for something that will not be good for us. Sadly, I’ve even said the oft repeated “Do you know how to make God laugh? Tell Him your plans.” Although it’s all meant in humor, what parent would laugh in the face of their children’s heartfelt and hoped for plans? And yet in light of recent tragedies, globally and personally, I get it! I understand the feeling, but although our feelings are very real, they are not always true. And never is that more evident than in the face of suffering.
“Ok”, you say, “ so the truth is that God is good. But often what looks good to God does not feel good to me at all!” Death, horrible illnesses, assault and abuse…all of this God allows. I now know this so much more today than when I originally wrote this 6 months ago. And some of you, tragically, will know this better than I ever can.
So how then can God be good? At the awful risk of sounding cruelly insensitive to pain, my own or those so very dear to me, the question that is the plumb line in facing hardship has to be – who sets the standard, God or me? Who gets to decide what is good?
If it is God, then is it ok to let God know that we are not happy with what He has determined to be good for us? Or that we don’t understand it? Of course! I cried all night after my friend’s death and less than a week later I am still weepy at his name. But this is not just my condition, the Psalms are filled with King David – “a man after God’s own heart” – questioning God’s logic in allowing good people to suffer and evil men to prosper as well as weeping unconsolably at the loss of his infant son. Even the original archetype of suffering, Job, also questioned God regarding the suffering he endured. To believe and submit to the truth that God is good, even when He allows suffering is not to say that we enjoy the suffering or the pain, loss and confusion that it brings.
So questioning God is not sacrilege, but calling God anything but good is.
This is why the servant who called his master “hard” was so harshly punished. To call good evil is blasphemy defined.
Knowing good from evil
So why do we question God’s goodness? Why do I, whether I’m even aware of it or not, question God’s goodness in the face of bitter disappointment and heartache? Maybe it’s because you and I don’t actually truly question God, but rather quickly come to the verdict somewhere in our hearts that God, in fact, is not good.
When Job questioned, God answered with Himself. But often, rather than doing the hard work of wrestling with both God and our doubts, I take the easy way out. Instead of laboring to enter into the Lordship of God’s presence and feeding on the Bread of Life, I hunger to find other more seemingly manageable answers. And at the root of those “other answers” is this lie: “I think I have a right to understand what God does, especially about hardship”.
Essentially, this is striving to “know good from evil” and therefore “be as God”.
Satan knew from the beginning that this would be an appropriate temptation to throw at us because, like every lie, it touches on a truth – our deep connectedness with God. After all, we have been made in God’s very image! He calls us His children, He love us so dearly. He invites us to share every part of our hearts and lives with Him. So, sometimes we can actually forget that He is, in fact, completely “other” than us.
In so many ways we are thankful that God is not like us. We rejoice in His unconditional love, in His long-suffering and patience, and so many of His other overflowing attributes that humanity lacks. But with the issue of pain and hardship so often we are tempted to expect God to fit in a human-sized box of reasoning, explanations and communication.
We find ourselves overwhelmed and at the end of ourselves, unable to accept the bad things God allows or the “good things” He seems to be withholding, all because somewhere in our hearts we think “this is NOT the way I would do things”. Subtly, we begin to fall under the spell of that original lie – “you can know all things and be as god.” We forget that there is One God and we are not Him.
And God, by the very understanding of what the word means, is beyond our complete knowing. So not only are “His ways not our ways” (Is. 55:8-9), He is in no way obligated to explain them to us. As the disciples said to a similarly hard truth – “truly this is a hard saying, who can receive it.” (Jn. 6:60)
The classic devotional writer Oswald Chambers possibly said it best – “If you have not heard a hard word from God I question whether you have truly heard from God at all.” God gives hard words, but He is not hard. God is love, and whether we understand or not, all his “hard” words come from a heart of love and perfect knowledge and understanding, such as we cannot fathom.
So what is the answer?
In the midst of hardship such as few of us will ever know, Job said of God, “Though he slay me, I will hope in him;” but going on to also say “yet I will argue my ways to his face.” (Job 13:5)
Job knew God’s goodness so well that he knew it could withstand even his arguments. God’s goodness was greater than any explanation or answer Job could have hoped for regarding his suffering. And so it can be for us in our time of sufferings, as well.
So although they are troubling, the greatest enemies of the truth of God’s goodness are not the half-truths we concoct to try and make sense of hard things, nor simply gritting our teeth and bearing it when tragedy strikes. Both of these responses to suffering are dangerous to embrace or even tolerate and stand in defiant opposition to the perfect goodness of God. But even so, they are not the greatest enemy of the truth that God is good.
No, our one True Enemy is the same one since the garden, the Original Enemy that cast the firsts shadows on God’s goodness and introduced doubt and deception from which these lesser enemies then took root and have grown. Our only Enemy is Satan himself. He said to Adam and Eve “is God really good? How can He be good if He is withholding the fruit of this one tree from you?”
Thankfully, the same weapon that defeated the serpent then can defeat him now in the midst of your pain and suffering – God’s appearing. Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus.
God entered the Garden and covered man’s sin with a sacrifice. And ever since that day, in every circumstance, just as with Adam and Eve, God has continued to offer an escape from sin. God has shown Himself good in every tragic situation, starting with the worst the world has even known – when man rebelled against God and broke their relationship. But as in that first Garden, again in the second Garden with the Second Adam, God sought man out in the midst of tragedy. On the cross Jesus gave the ultimate evidence of God’s goodness, not just a covering sacrifice, but the final sacrifice that removed the curse of sin forever.
And just as on the cross of Calvary, God seeks us out daily armed with loving sacrifice to cleanse and restore – not only belief in His goodness overall, but the actual reality of God’s goodness in each individual life. God wants to show you His goodness in the midst of your suffering today. This is the purpose of His Word, the reason why He sent His Son and the practice of His Spirit given freely to all who ask: that we would know His goodness being saved from our sins, by His redeeming love and holy Truth, and be transformed and made whole.
Because even if you have all correct biblical knowledge of the goodness of God it will do little to truly convince you of the reality of His goodness without His life-giving presence invading your suffering. He stands at the door and knocks, waiting to come in. In the face of the uncertainties of this pandemic, in the face of the uncertainties of life and ultimately death, knowledge will lead you into truth, but only an open heart to receive that truth will truly set you free.
When we open the door, when we bow before Him, trusting in His goodness, those truths we have read and have been taught are carved into our very being through the sharp blade of suffering and they become our firm foundation for life. The rock upon which we can withstand the storms of life. The rock that my friends have sought shelter on as the wind of grief and sorrow from losing their son howls about them, threatening to carry them off into the sea of despair. But it will not. They long ago built their house upon that Rock.
When suffering strikes, and it will come to all of us, sooner or later, we have to lean into the sometimes hard truths of both God’s goodness – that defies understanding – as well as His complete and utter right to our total submission. His ways are not our ways, and yet, He is good. And He loves you so.