Editor's Note: In the next few weeks, Ryan will continue to explore the reality of suffering from a prepositional understanding. Each post will relate God to suffering using a different preposition. This is the second part. Other parts to the series are linked below. All parts of this series were originally posted as a single article in its entirety, written by Ryan Lister, Ph.D., in the Fall 2015 edition of Western Magazine and is posted per their permission. All rights belong to Western Seminary. Thanks, Western!
God Before Suffering
We do not find pain and suffering in the first two chapters of our Bibles. All we have is God and the good world he speaks into existence. This tells us that there is but one God; he alone rules. God does not have to wrestle his authority from another. There is no deity or power equal in control and influence with whom he must square off in a cosmic battle for the ages. Scripture makes clear that Yahweh is the one, true God who creates and rules with an authority that is his alone.
Pain and suffering make their debut in the third chapter of our Bibles. They are introduced as a consequence of Adam and Eve’s divine usurpation experiment. They tasted the fruit and found it laced with guilt, shame, and death. Our post-Eden world makes this clear day in and day out: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is still producing a lethal harvest for all the sons and daughters of Adam, you and me included. In this toxic environment, we must remember that God was before suffering. This means, first, that there never was and never will be any rival to his throne—neither the serpent nor Adam or the suffering they introduce are his equal. We know this because both the first man and Satan succumb to God’s immediate judgment in Genesis 3. Second, the world of suffering we know today is the anomaly. Creation, in its current state, is nothing like it was in the beginning nor, as we will see, is it like it will be in eternity. This world of pain and suffering is temporary and short-lived compared to the way the world should be and will be forever.
God Over Suffering
Now it is great that God was before suffering but we live east of Eden, in a world stained with blood, sweat, and tears. It is the right starting point to be sure, but reflecting on “the way things should have been” offers very little comfort when our context is one where suffering and pain constantly loom on the horizon. If the doctor hasn’t called to break the news yet, the phone will ring soon. If the police officer isn’t at the door he very well may be just a few blocks away. The inevitability of suffering feeds its cruelty. Pain seems unbeatable, unbearable, and unrelenting.
But our Bibles say otherwise. God is not overcome by suffering and evil but rather God rules over it. Now we must tread carefully here. Unorthodoxy lies on both sides of this statement. On one side there is the attempt to distance God so far from suffering that it undercuts his control and rule in the world. On the other side, we could move beyond Scripture to say that God is the author of evil and suffering.
But we cannot sacrifice God’s sovereignty or God’s goodness on the altar of theodicy. Instead we must follow God’s revelation of himself to a right understanding of him. We hold that the Lord rules and reigns over all things, including the serpent in the garden and the suffering in this world. And, simultaneously, we hold that God is good and righteous, unblemished by sin and evil.
No matter our theological dispositions, whether Calvinist or Arminian, Edwardsian or Wesleyan, we dare not say that there is another power equal to or surpassing God, nor do we lay evil and suffering at God’s feet. As Peter preaches Christ crucified, he makes clear that Jesus “was delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” and also “crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23). The most scandalous act in history is attributed to sinful men and concurrently Peter makes it clear that this scandalous act is not beyond the bounds of God’s rule. In fact, it is a part of his plan.
This may leave us with questions, as is often the case when the finite ponders the infinite or when the sinner contemplates the sinless. But we can cling to this: God is over suffering—he is not caught off guard by it and it is not beyond his control. As we struggle with this and with God’s answering our questions with questions of his own (“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” Job 38:4; “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty?” Job 40:2; cf. Job 38-42), may we turn to him in faith and trust. He is the one who turns things upside down because he is the potter, and he can do as he pleases with the clay he has made (Isa 29:16).
Ryan Lister is a husband, father, blogger, author, and professor of theology at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of The Presence of God: Its Place in the Storyline of Scripture and the Story of Our Lives. Follow him on Twitter!
image credit belongs to Bastien Grivet: http://fav.me/d7mrqvp