Wrestling for Jesus: The Truth about the Christian and Suffering

My family and I joined countless others in a new phenomenon changing the entertainment business: we subscribed to Netflix. Recently, I watched a documentary on Netflix called Wrestling for Jesus: The Story of T-Money. The movie was based on the life of a wrestler/wrestling promoter who goes by the name T-Money. T-Money had organized a wrestling company that shared the gospel message during the events. The wrestling company was named, as the title suggests, WFJ “Wrestling for Jesus.”

The documentary takes a fascinating twist towards the end of the movie. T-Money and his wife seemed to have the perfect marriage. They were in church bragging about their relationship. T-Money seemed to have everything together bound together in his relationship with God. However, T-Money continuously struggled with the loss of his father who had died by suicide. This was an issue that resonated with me since I also had a grandfather who committed suicide. I understood fully the struggles and questions that he possessed. This agony along with other issues led T-Money and his wife to divorce.

Now with a broken marriage and a broken heart along with his best friend and fellow wrestler suffering a severe injury, T-Money began questioning everything he had ever believed and everything that he had ever heard. With his life in chaos, T-Money decided to fold the company.

The documentary demonstrates the problems associated with the so-called “health and wellness Gospel.” That is, the belief that Christianity promises an existence full of financial blessings and the absence of suffering. T-Money even said, “I’ve heard about God not giving you more than you can bear and about how he will see you through. It seems like none of that is working.”

I suspect that T-Money had bought into the idea that many American churches are promoting; the idea that Christianity means the absence of suffering. It may surprise T-Money and you the reader to know that the Bible NEVER says such a thing. In fact, it may be that the Christian is called to suffer. So, what does the Bible say about God’s support in a time of suffering?

God may call the Christian to suffer (Matt. 10:38).

Being a Christian may mean that one is called to suffer. What??? Yes! Jesus brought a message that falls on deaf ears in many of an American congregation. Jesus said, “whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:38).[1] Understand, the cross that Jesus is referencing is not a gold-laced cross found on a piece of jewelry worn around the neck. It was an instrument of torture and death.

This certainly does not mean that the Christian should seek suffering and martyrdom. However, it does not mean that one is surprised when it happens either. The reference may not necessarily point towards even physical brutality. It may also point towards the hardships that are endured by the Christian. Many feel that God will remove any and all suffering when in fact the opposite is often true.

God will provide strength during times of suffering (Hebrews 2:18).

Many misuse the phrase “God will not put more on you than you can bear.” This does not mean that you will not be sometimes called to endure great times of stress. Folks who believe that are often perplexed when they are met with an array of troubles. The phrase would be better understood as God will provide you strength to bear many things. The writer of Hebrews notes that “because he himself has gone through suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested” (Hebrews 2:18, NLT).[2] I am also reminded of the words of Jesus when he says, “Come to me, all who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28, NLT).

God uses suffering to strengthen our character (Romans 5:3-5).

God has a purpose behind the Christian’s suffering. Paul writes that “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5). Suffering has a purpose. It is through suffering that one is strengthened and is given character which leads to a fervent hope found in God.

God uses suffering to share the message of hope (Philippians 1:12-14).

God may use the Christian’s suffering to bring others to salvation. Paul, writing to the church of Philippi, notes that his suffering had a purpose. As he was enduring imprisonment, he was able to reach individuals with the gospel message that he otherwise would have been able to reach. Paul notes that “what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it is known through the whole imperial guard” (Philippians 1:12-13). Through your commitment to Christ during times of suffering, you may have a greater impact on others than one who is healthy and vibrant.

God will reward us for the sufferings that we endure (Matthew 5:12).

Jesus indicates that the suffering Christian who endures in their faith will be given a reward in heaven. Jesus says that “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12). So, the eternal rewards in heaven will far exceed any suffering endured on earth.

Conclusion

Where in these passages do we find the teaching that the Christian is excused from suffering? Where in these passages do we find a “get rich quick with as little work possible” mentality? Where in these passages do we find the theology that holds that faith will eliminate any and all ailments? Keep looking, because you won’t find such teachings. T-Money had the expectation, at least as it was presented in the documentary, that Christianity excused a person from suffering and hardships. This is certainly not the case. All people are people. The difference between the Christian and the unbeliever is that God turns the Christian’s suffering into integrity and will use their suffering for good, ultimately resulting in an eternal reward. Remember, our Savior died a brutal death on a Roman cross.

Suffering is not something from which the Christian is excused. Suffering, from the beginning, has been ingrained in the Christian experience…but only momentarily. For “What 9).no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). Heaven will be worth it all.

timothy-portrait          Note: If T-Money were to read this post, I would want him to understand that the promises that God has made (in that he will never leave you nor forsake  still stand. We must seek his guidance. We must seek his strength. We cannot handle these situations alone. Brother, God is not through with you yet. Blessings.

© February 5, 2016. Brian Chilton.

Notes

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture comes from the English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001).

[2] Scriptures marked NLT come from the New Living Translation (Carol Stream: Tyndale, 2013).

The Correlation of God’s Response and the Theodicy Problem of Job

The book of Job is, for most, the quintessential source for dealing with the problem of righteous suffering.[1] Why do the righteous suffer? This is a question that countless individuals have posited throughout the ages. The psalmist asked God “Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression” (Psalm 44:24)?[2] The majority of Job’s text is an exchange between Job and four friends: “Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite…Zophar the Naamathite” (Job 2:11)[3] along with the later friend “Elihu the son of Barachel the Buzite, of the family of Ram” (32:2). However, the climax of the book comes when God “answered Job out of the whirlwind” (38:1, NASB).[4] This paper will argue that God’s response provides distinctive theological aspects which in turn offer insights to the overall message of Job. To defend this thesis, the paper will evaluate two distinct theological perspectives stemming from God’s response to Job. Then, the paper will evaluate how two implicit aspects of God’s response relates to the overall message found in Job.

The Theological Aspects of God’s Response

 The best way to learn about God is through the direct revelation of God. Chapters 38 through 42 provide God’s direct revelation to Job. Up until this point, Job had been conversing with four so-called friends. These friends did not offer much support as it relates to Job’s suffering. Now, Job finds himself confronted with God in the midst of a whirlwind and begins to converse with God, although Job does more listening than speaking at this stage. James E. Smith denotes that “Instead of answering questions from Job, God fired the questions—over seventy—at him! God was not on the witness stand. Job was, and he was subjected to intensive cross examination.”[5] In God’s cross-examination of Job, God provides four distinct theological attributes. Robert Alden denotes that “of the attributes of God, the ones that stand out in the Book of Job are sovereignty, omnipotence, omniscience, and justice.”[6] God’s omniscience and omnipotence stand as two major theological themes, whereas divine sovereignty and divine justice are two more implicit attributes found within God’s response. Omniscience and omnipotence will be examined in this section, whereas God’s implicit attributes are tied with the overall themes of the book and, thus, will be evaluated in the forthcoming section.

The Aspect of God’s Omniscience

Concerning omniscience, Norman Geisler writes, “Historically, the omniscience of God was a straightforward doctrine: God knows everything—past, present, and future; He knows the actual and the possible; only the impossible (contradictory) is outside the knowledge of God.”[7] Yahweh provides two addresses to Job. Yahweh’s first address, found in 38:1-42:6, demonstrates the great omniscience that he possesses and, as Barker and Kohlenberger denote, that “neither the counselors nor Job possessed complete knowledge…[showing] how very limited human knowledge is.”[8] Yahweh begins his prosecution of Job with the words “Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge” (38:2)? Yahweh did not provide a response to Job’s queries, but instead pointed Job back to the acknowledgement that he had been accusing the One who had limitless knowledge. Yahweh provides two limitations upon Job’s knowledge in demonstrating the omniscience of his own.

First, Yahweh acknowledges his omniscience as it relates to time. Yahweh directly asks Job, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation” (38:4)? Alden denotes that “Unlike personified Wisdom, who was present at the creation (Prov 8:22–31), Job was a creature of time. When God “laid the earth’s foundation,” Job simply was not yet born…Job could not answer because he was not there and could not know.”[9] One finds a connection between the Logos of John 1:1, the Wisdom denoted in Proverbs 8:22-31, and Yahweh’s message to Job in 38:4. While Job did not understand the circumstances, Yahweh reminded Job that he did. Yahweh also addresses not only the limitation of time pertaining to Job’s knowledge and the superiority of his own knowledge, but Yahweh also addresses another limitation of human knowledge.

In addition, Yahweh introduces Job’s limitation of knowledge as it relates to creation. Yahweh demonstrates Job’s finite understanding of the working of geology in 38:4-18, cosmology in 38:19-38, and biology in 38:39-39:30. While Yahweh distinguishes the nature of particular animals (e.g. the ostrich in 39:13-18) and the structure of particular constellations (e.g. Pleiades and Orion in 38:31-32); the core essential doctrine provided is discovered in Yahweh’s question to Job in saying “Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it” (38:5)? Walton, Matthews, and Chavalas indicate that verses 4-6 of chapter 38 view the cosmos in the “terms of a temple, and the temple was understood to represent a microcosmos. Here the most important elements in building the temple are referred to in God’s setting up the cosmos.”[10] Yahweh intended to demonstrate the limited knowledge of humanity compared to his limitless knowledge. While modern individuals have access to greater understandings as to the workings of nature around them, humans are still vastly limited in their knowledge. Scientific discoveries and theories are constructed only to be constantly uprooted. As Harry Hunt denotes, “The human mind cannot control all knowledge or understand all situations.”[11] God in his infinite knowledge poses no theories or hypotheses as it relates to creation; rather, God has limitless knowledge of how things exist and will exist. While Job did not understand the workings of the tragedies around him, God did. Yahweh demonstrates another personal attribute: that of power.

The Aspect of God’s Omnipotence

Norman Geisler defines omnipotence as meaning that “God has unlimited power (omni=all; potent=powerful)…Theologically, omnipotent means that God can do whatever is possible to do. Or, God can do what is not impossible to do.”[12] Millard Erickson adds that omnipotence means “that God is able to do all things that are proper objects of his power.”[13]In Yahweh’s[14] response to Job, one finds clear evidence of the divine attribute of omnipotence. This section of the paper will evaluate two examples of divine omnipotence through Yahweh’s address to Job.

First, the theophanic presentation through the whirlwind demonstrates the omnipotence of God. Job possesses multiple references to the whirlwind. The NIV translates 38:1 as “the storm.” However, the NASB more accurately translates the verse as “the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind” (38:1, NASB). The whirlwind, or storm, finds itself in several passages within the text of Job. Job’s children were killed when “a mighty wind swept in from the desert and struck the four corners of the house” (1:19). The term “wind” is used in 6:26; 8:2; 9:17; 15:2; 21:18; 27:21; 28:25; 30:15, 22; 37:9, 17, 21; and 38:24. The term “storm” is used in 9:17; 30:22; 36:33; 40:6; and with “whirlwind” (NASB) in 38:1. It is intriguing that Yahweh appeared to Job in a storm. Job’s family and wealth were destroyed by elements from a storm. Job even indicates that God would “crush me with a storm and multiply my wounds for no reason” (9:17). Alex Luc, describing Job’s use of the storm in describing his pain, notes that “The fearful and destructive power of the storm makes it the most powerful vehicle to describe Job’s pain.”[15] Yet, here Yahweh arrives shrouded in a storm. Through this imagery, one finds God’s great omnipotent strength. The storm motif will be noted again in the paper. Omnipotence is demonstrated in another means.

In the second discourse given to Job, Yahweh notes his great power over creation. Barker and Kohlenberger denote that the “purpose goes beyond showing Job that God is creator and sustainer of the natural world. It is to convince Job that God is Lord also of the moral order.”[16] Throughout the second discourse, Yahweh demonstrates his omnipotence through the examples of the Leviathan and the Behemoth. The identities of the Leviathan (41:1) and the Behemoth (40:15) have been the center of a great deal of speculation and debate. Considering the identity of the Behemoth, Alden postulates that the “hippopotamus has been the most popular identification for the ‘behemoth,’ with the elephant a distant second.”[17] Some interpreters have even posited a dinosaur of sorts. However, Walton, Matthews, and Chavalas denote that “Early intertestamental interpretation favors a mythical/supernatural identification.”[18] Comparably, the Leviathan is, according to Carson, “thought to be a dolphin, a tunny fish or a whale, but the general view is that it is a crocodile.”[19] If Barker and Kohlenberger present a tantalizing view that due to the placement of the beastly duo after the “assertions of the Lord’s justice and maintenance of moral order, lends weight to the contention that they are symbolic, though their features are drawn from animals.”[20] Barker and Kohlenberger are correct, then the Leviathan and Behemoth represent “evil political powers”[21]

Whether Yahweh indicates evil political forces, ferocious animals found in the here and now, dinosaurs that coexisted with humanity, or mythological beings known to Job and the people of his time with the Leviathan and Behemoth; the underlying belief is that God had the power to subdue Leviathan and Behemoth, whereas humanity remained incapable of doing the same. Therefore, Yahweh is merited trust due to his overwhelming power. Whereas the current section has evaluated the two underlying theological attributes presented in Yahweh’s address to Job, the forthcoming section will consider the two fundamental correlations as it pertains to the overall theme of Job.

 The Correlation of God’s Response, Attributes, and the Overall Message of Suffering

 What is the central message of Job? Many hold that the problem of theodicy is the primary theme. However, Andrew E. Steinmann argues that the central message is not about theodicy at all. Steinmann postulates that the following:

 We can only conclude that Job’s main message revolves around the subject of faith and integrity, not the theodicy of suffering. In the view of the author of Job, trust in God precludes questions of theodicy. Indeed, they are irrelevant. All that is relevant is trust that God can sustain a righteous person’s integrity and faith throughout the most severe crises.[22]

Whereas it is conceded that Steinmann is correct in assuming that the book of Job demonstrates the sustenance of one’s faith within periods of suffering and misery, one finds it difficult to bypass the countless scholars who have confirmed the presence of theodicy as a theme in the book of Job. Brooks and Neal denote,

 The book of Job deals directly with the subject of theodicy. The Israelites believed a doctrine known as retributional theology, in which sin resulted in punishment…The subsequent narrative of Job and his interactions with friends presents the classic problem of theodicy: How can a good, all-knowing God allow evil to happen to someone as upright as Job?[23]

By the response of Yahweh, one can rightly demonstrate two theses promoted throughout the entirety of Job. However, it could be argued that Yahweh provides a working answer to the problem of theodicy. The previous section noted two major theological points made in Yahweh’s discourse. While the attributes of omniscience and omnipotence are the general themes of the discourse, one will find moral and non-moral attributes of God illuminated in chapters 38 through 42. Through the moral and non-moral attributes of God, one will find an answer to the problem of theodicy in that God may allow suffering for particular purposes known to God. This section will evaluate how the moral and non-moral attributes of God tie into the aspect that suffering has purpose.

Purpose of Trials through God’s Moral Attributes

Throughout the conversations with Job’s so-called friends, Job had accused God of wrongdoing. After being insulted by his friends, Job accused God in saying “If indeed you vaunt yourselves against me and prove my disgrace to me, know then that God has wronged me and has closed his net around me” (19:5-6, NASB). Had Yahweh truly entrapped Job for no reason? Yahweh’s response demonstrates a major thesis postulated throughout the text in that a purpose exists to human suffering. While Steinmann holds that the major theme of Job is that of human faith, Steinmann concedes that the first of Job’s “two-pronged approach to theodicy…was a rationalist’s explanation of God’s actions.”[24] While Steinmann holds that explicit answers are not provided in Job, in which this writer would concede, it must be noted that Yahweh indirectly provides generalized responses to the theodicy problem. Yahweh demonstrates that a purpose tends to exist in trials. Yahweh inquires of Job, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Now gird up your loins like a man, and I will ask you, and you instruct Me” (38:2-3, NASB)! Smith denotes that the “word ‘counsel’ suggests that the Lord has a plan or meaning in Job’s afflictions.”[25] How is this hypothesis developed? Whereby Yahweh does not demonstrate specifics behind Job’s suffering, Yahweh does demonstrate that trials may have a purpose due to two moral attributes that Yahweh possesses.[26]

First, trials may have purpose if Yahweh is a just God. In many ways, Job felt slighted by God. Job had lost everything. Job inquires “how often is the lamp of the wicked snuffed out? How often does calamity come upon them, the fate God allots in his anger” (21:17). Luc denotes that Job’s “complaint implies that he is treated more oppressively than the wicked: that which rarely happens to the wicked is happening to him.”[27]Yahweh responds by noting that Job should “look on everyone who is proud, and humble him, and tread down the wicked where they stand” (40:12-13, NASB). Here, Yahweh implies his just nature in summoning, as Alden states, “Job to look for ‘every proud man’ and appropriately ‘humble him.’”[28] That is to say, Job did not have the capacity to see all the evil in the world nor did he have the capacity to judge accordingly. Therefore, Job’s trials were not for naught. Rather, Yahweh was not unjust for allowing such an event to transpire. But why? The text does not state the purpose for Job’s suffering, but that Job should trust Yahweh’s just nature. Yahweh could see all things whereas Job could not. Yahweh demonstrated that there are purposes for one’s trials and sufferings by another moral attribute of God, as well.

Along with God’s just nature, Yahweh demonstrates that suffering holds purpose due to God’s goodness. Yahweh’s response demonstrates the great concern and compassion that Yahweh has for all creatures. Yahweh inquires of Job, “Who prepares for the raven its nourishment when its young cry to God and wander about without food” (38:41, NASB)? One may note a parallel with Jesus’ teaching in that one should “look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they” (Matthew 6:26, NASB)? Yahweh demonstrates his concern for Job and all creatures. Therefore, suffering and trials must have a purpose if such are permitted by a good God.

Through the two moral attributes provided by Yahweh in the preceding section, one may note that suffering can hold a purpose if God is morally just and good. However, God may be good and just; but if God did not possess particular non-moral attributes, then God would become powerless to deliver a particular end.

Purpose of Trials through God’s Non-moral Attributes

Yahweh also demonstrated the purpose of trials through his non-moral attributes. Non-moral attributes describe the abilities of God. John S. Feinberg defines God’s non-moral attributes as “natural attributes belong to God’s very constitutional nature apart from his actions.”[29] God possesses many non-moral attributes. God’s omniscience and omnipotence, which were addressed primarily in God’s response, are considered to be two of God’s non-moral attributes. Nevertheless, Yahweh’s application of his non-moral attributes provides two features pertaining to the purpose of a person’s suffering.

The first non-moral attribute of God is exhibited in Yahweh’s response which demonstrates that suffering can have a purpose; that attribute is wisdom. Wisdom is slightly different than knowledge. Wisdom is defined as “practical skills associated with understanding and living a successful life.”[30] Termed another way: wisdom is knowing how to use information to bring about good ends, or applied knowledge. If God is wise, then God knows how to bring about good through even the worst of times. Alex Luc denotes that in Job 28 there exists “a wisdom poem at the end of the dialogs between Job and his three friends. While storm stands for Job’s unbearable experience, here God sees wisdom in it.”[31] In Yahweh’s response, the wisdom motif is revisited. Yahweh raises several inquiries to Job implying that Job has little to no knowledge pertaining to the workings of creation. Yahweh inquires “From whose womb comes the ice? Who gives birth to the frost from the heavens when the waters become hard as stone…” (38:30)? Many other examples could be provided. Nevertheless, Yahweh demonstrates his wisdom, wisdom that would later be described in Proverbs 9 and personified in the Logos of John 1. Job could trust that his suffering held purpose because of the wisdom of God, but Job would have another reason to trust God in the midst of his suffering.

Throughout the message of Yahweh, particularly in the second discourse, Yahweh demonstrates his sovereignty, or complete control, over all creation. Herein is the crux in finding purpose in the sufferings of life: if God is morally good and just, as well as sovereign, then God can be trusted with the events of life. Through the descriptions of the Behemoth and Leviathan, Yahweh denotes his sovereign control. For with the Leviathan, while humanity could not “capture it by the eyes, or trap it and pierce its nose” (40:24), Yahweh could. Yahweh has power that humanity does not possess. Also with the Behemoth, while humanity could not “strip off its outer coat” (41:13), Yahweh could. In addition, one finds descriptions of God’s sovereignty in the whirlwind theophany.

Yahweh appeared to Job with a whirlwind (38:1). As noted earlier in the paper, the storm motif appears throughout the book of Job. Job’s family and livestock were destroyed by a storm in the earlier chapters of the text. Job states “are they as straw before the wind, and like chaff which the storm carries away” (21:18, NASB). Job offers a defense in noting about God that he had snatched “me up and drive me before the wind; you toss me about in the storm” (30:22). Job had encountered the storm initially and compared his plight to a storm. Then Yahweh appears to Job in the midst of a storm (40:6). The storm motif denotes the sovereign power of God. Alex Luc offers a compelling and powerful lesson in that “The reader who cries, ‘Where is God while the storm lingers?’ may find an answer, ‘God is in the storm’. When the storms of life tarry and God seems to retreat into total silence, the book of Job will continue to bring hope.”[32] The suffering of Job had purpose because of the sovereign power of Yahweh.

Conclusion

 This paper has evaluated the response that Yahweh delivered to Job’s accusations pertaining to Job’s sufferings. The paper has defended the thesis in that the response of God demonstrates particular divine attributes which address the overall theme of Job. The paper reviewed the two major theological attributes of God’s omniscience and omnipotence given in Yahweh’s message. The paper also evaluated how the moral and non-moral attributes of God contribute to the general framework of the theodicy theme of Job. Perhaps the most pressing issue that the paper has revealed is that God is not separate from the storms of life. The storms of life are at the discretion of a good, wise, powerful, and sovereign God. Paul sums up Job’s theme well with his statement to the Romans in that “we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28, NASB).

The content of this article represents the academic work of the author. Be advised the paper represented in this article has been scanned through SafeAssign. Any efforts of plagiarism will be detected.

 Bibliography

Alden, Robert L. Job. Volume 11. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993.

Barker, Kenneth L., and John R. Kohlenberger, III. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Old Testament. Abridged Edition. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994.

Brooks, Page, and D. A. Neal. “Theodicy.” The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Edited by John D. Barry, et al. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014.

Carson, D. A., et al., eds. New Bible Commentary. 4th Edition. Leicester, UK; Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. 2nd Edition. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998.

Feinberg, John S. No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God. Foundations of Evangelical Theology. Wheaton: Crossway, 2001.

Geisler, Norman L. Systematic Theology. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2011.

Hunt, Harry. “Job, Book Of.” Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Edited by Chad Brand, et. al. Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003.

Luc, Alex. “Storm and the Message of Job.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 87 (March 1, 2000): 111-123. Accessed April 9, 2015. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost.

Shields, Martin A. “Wisdom.” The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Edited by John D. Barry et. al. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014.

Smith, James E. The Wisdom Literature and Psalms, Old Testament Survey Series. Joplin, MO: College Press, 1996.

Steinmann, Andrew E. “The Structure and Message of the Book of Job.” Vetus Testamentum 46, 1 (January 1, 1996): 85-100. Accessed April 9, 2015. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost.

 Walton, John H., et. al. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament. Downers Grove: IVP, 2000.

———————————Footnotes——————————–

[1] Otherwise, this issue is termed the problem of theodicy.

[2] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture comes from the New International Version (Grand Rapids: Biblica, 2011).

[3] The remainder of the paper will only use chapter and verse addresses for texts found within the book of Job.

[4] All Scripture noted as NASB comes from the New American Standard Bible (La Habra: Lockman Foundation, 1995).

[5] James E. Smith, The Wisdom Literature and Psalms, Old Testament Survey Series (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1996), Job 38–42, Logos Bible Software.

[6] Robert L. Alden, Job, vol. 11, The New American Commentary (Nashville: B&H, 1993), 38.

[7] Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology (Minneapolis: Bethany, 2011), 496.

[8] Kenneth L. Barker and John R. Kohlenberger III, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Abridged ed (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 783.

[9] Alden, Job, NAC, 370.

[10] John H. Walton, et. al. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2000), 509.

[11] Harry Hunt, “Job, Book Of,” Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Chad Brand, et. al., eds (Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 927.

[12] Geisler, Systematic Theology, 487.

[13] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 302.

[14] YHWH, or Yahweh, (often translated LORD) is the personal covenant name for God used in the Old Testament. The paper will use either the generic term God when referring to divinity in a general sense and Yahweh when referring to divine communication with Job.

[15] Alex Luc, “Storm and the Message of Job,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 87 (March 1, 2000): 115, Retrieved April 9, 2015.

[16] Barker and Kohlenberger, Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Old Testament, 783.

[17] Alden, Job, NAC, 395.

[18] Walton, et. al., The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, 510.

[19] D. A. Carson et al., eds., New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, 4th ed. (Leicester, England; Downers Grove: IVP, 1994), 481.

[20] Barker and Kohlenberger, Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Old Testament, 786.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Andrew E. Steinmann, “The Structure and Message of the Book of Job,” Vetus Testamentum 46, 1 (January 1, 1996): 100, retrieved April 9, 2015.

 [23] Page Brooks and D. A. Neal, “Theodicy,” The Lexham Bible Dictionary, John D. Barry et. al., eds (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014), Logos Bible Software.

[24] Steinmann, “The Structure and the Message of the Book of Job,” Vetus Testamentum, 100.

[25] Smith, The Wisdom Literature and Psalms, Logos Bible Software.

[26] By moral attributes, the paper indicates the traits of God’s personal character.

[27] Luc, “The Storm and the Message of Job,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 114.

[28] Alden, Job, NAC, 394.

[29] John S. Feinberg, No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God, Foundations of Evangelical Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001), 236.

[30] Martin A. Shields, “Wisdom,” The Lexham Bible Dictionary, John D. Barry et. al., eds (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014), Logos Bible Software.

[31] Luc, “Storm and the Message of Job,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 116.

[32] Luc, Storm and the Message of Job,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 123.

Copyright May 2015. Brian Chilton.

The Physical Ailment Theory in Regard to Paul’s “Thorn in the Flesh”

honeylocust thorn     Note: This following is a paper that was submitted for coursework at Liberty University. The paper may NOT be reused and is posted only for informational and educational purposes. If anyone chooses to falsely submit this paper as his or her own work, that person may be subject to the plagiarism penalties set by their school or university, which in many universities includes expulsion. Please enjoy, but cite with integrity.

THE PHYSICAL AILMENT THEORY IN REGARD TO PAUL’S “THORN IN THE FLESH”

BY: BRIAN CHILTON

Introduction

The apostle Paul wrote at least four letters to the church of Corinth, however only two survive. In what the modern church understands as 2 Corinthians, Paul wrote, albeit in third person, of a personal experience that he had in which he journeyed to heaven and “heard inexpressible things.”[1] After describing this experience, Paul writes, “Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”[2] Many questions abound pertaining to this passage, but none more pressing than the identification of Paul’s thorn in the flesh.

Four theories exist that seek to identify Paul’s thorn. The physical ailment theory views the thorn as a physical sickness or malady. The mental ailment theory identifies the thorn as some form of mental illness. The spiritual affliction theory identifies the thorn as a spiritual or moral problem. This theory perceives the thorn as some form of demonic oppression. The final theory, the ministerial opposition theory, understands the thorn as persecution or resistance to Paul’s ministry. The adherents of the fourth viewpoint believe that Paul is addressing his many adversaries.

Although many theories exist pertaining to Paul’s thorn in the flesh metaphor used in 2 Corinthians 12:7, the best explanation of the metaphor is found in the physical ailment theory due to the Scriptural evidence of Paul’s ailments, Paul’s understanding of Christian suffering, and the early interpretations of the metaphor. Before the theory is defended, a further examination of the theories must be presented.

Understanding the Theories Pertaining to Paul’s “Thorn in the Flesh”

In order to understand Paul’s thorn in the flesh, it is important to understand the source of Paul’s point of reference. Paul writes,

Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.[3]

Debates have raged for two millennia regarding the identification of this thorn. For the purposes of this paper, four major theories will be addressed: the theory of physical ailments, the theory of mental ailments, the theory of spiritual ailments, and the theory of ministerial opposition.

Physical Ailment Theory

One of the more popular theories is that Paul’s thorn in the flesh is a reference to some form of physical ailment. Terence Mullins writes, “…Paul speaks of the skoloy th sarki ‘thorn in the flesh,’ which was given to him to keep him from exalting himself too much…Almost without exception today the thorn is assumed to represent some physical debility.”[4] This theory is attractive and will be defended in this paper. Since this theory will be defended in the paper, only a brief identification will be given at this point. Before the theory is defended, the other alternatives will be listed.

Mental Ailment Theory

Some scholars suggest that Paul was accursed with a particular mental ailment. This is differentiated from the physical ailment theory due to the fact that adherents of this view mainly focus on supposed mental afflictions that Paul suffered. Landsborough, a proponent of the mental ailment theory, writes,

Numerous attempts have been made to identify the nature of Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’, his possible amblyopia and a physical component in his conversion experience. Not much attention has been paid to the ecstatic vision described in his second letter to the Corinthian church. This experience resembles the pleasurable aura of TLE. Of the other ‘visions’ mentioned in Paul’s own writings and in the historical book of Acts, some were probably ictal, others were instances of spiritual conviction. The question of his having permanently defective vision does not appear relevant to the present argument.[5]

Such interpretations are interesting and could have some link to Paul’s condition. However, a great danger exists with such an interpretation in that it seeks to potentially explain Paul’s conversion and spiritual experiences, in fact some would argue for all spiritual experiences, as a deformity of the mind instead of a real experience in space and time. In such cases, the skeptic could claim that Paul’s experiences, along with other Christian experiences, are the product of schizophrenia or a delusional mind. To counter such a notion, it should be noted that others experienced phenomena along with Paul on the Damascus road. The Christian historian Luke writes of Paul,

As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked. ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. ‘Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.’ The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone.[6]

The great problem for the mental ailment theory is that others heard the voice as well as Paul. Although the men traveling with Paul may not have understood all the words being spoken or the person speaking, they did experience a phenomenon with Paul, though Paul had the full experience. This does not present a good case for mental illness, but a real historical experience. It is possible that part of Paul’s physical condition involved some type of epilepsy; however even in such a case, the experiences of Paul on the Damascus road should not be considered such an episode. If such an episode held other eyewitnesses, then why should one expect the other ecstatic experiences of Paul to fit such a bill? While it is still possible that the experience of 2 Corinthians 12 could have been the result of an epileptic seizure, it is less likely considering the reality of the Damascus road experience. Therefore, this theory is rejected.

Spiritual Affliction Theory

Another theory exists that postulates that Paul’s thorn in the flesh consists of spiritual oppression. In such a theory, Paul is opposed by demonic influence which plagues Paul with doubts or temptations. Some would view that the demonic oppression leads to other ends, such as a physical ailment or opposition. Reid writes, “In fact, Paul maintains, they are ministers of Satan (2 Cor 11:15). Another metaphorical use of angelos occurs in 2 Corinthians 12:7 where Paul speaks of his ‘thorn in the flesh’—perhaps a physical disability or illness—as an angelos Satana, an ‘angel’ or ‘minister’ of Satan.”[7] The demonic presence torments by illnesses and stirs up opposition against the ministry of God’s elect. In such case, this theory is viable.

However, this theory is often presented as only a spiritual attack. In such a case, the spiritual problems may only be a demonic spiritual assault upon Paul, perhaps even in the vision itself. Price writes,

Reconstructing the heavenly scenario, we may imagine this to have been the sequence of events: Paul finds himself caught up to heaven. There he is treated to ineffable revelations. Waxing proud over his enviable position, Paul suddenly finds himself the object of attack by a punishing demon or angel. Paul appeals thrice to the exalted Lord on the heavenly throne before him, who finally declares that Paul must learn his lesson; i.e., ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is make perfect in weakness.’ It is a lesson that Paul learned well, carrying it with him through subsequent, earthly trials (II Corinthians 12:10). This picture may seem to some readers a bit too outlandish to be plausible, but let the reader keep in mind that he is already dealing with the story of a man who claims to have visited heaven one day! Given a camel of this size, why strain at the mere gnat proposed here?[8]

Mullins’ view holds a great problem in this writer’s estimation. Mullins is arguing for an undocumented theory in the midst of a documented event and arguing for the theory’s probability in light of the event’s probability. Yet, Mullins’ interpretation is a possibility if one considers that the demonic attack took physical forms. It could be that the demonic attack brought forth physical afflictions or ministerial opposition. While it could be that the demonic oppression led to physical ailments, the theory is too limited in scope when considering the thorn in the flesh and is, therefore, rejected.

 Ministerial Opposition Theory

It could be argued that Paul’s thorn in the flesh was nothing more than mere human opposition to Paul’s ministry. Paul was certainly met with opposition in Corinth. Kohlenberger and Barker write,

…Paul or his representative was personally insulted by some individual at Corinth in an open act of defiance by which all the Corinthians were to some extent pained—if not at the actual time, at least later on (2:5-11; 7:12). So Paul sent Titus to Corinth after considerable persuasion (7:14) as his personal envoy to deliver the ‘severe letter’…and to organize the collection (8:6a).[9]

Paul certainly met opposition in his ministry. Terence Mullins believes that this opposition best answers the thorn in the flesh conundrum. Mullins writes,

The fact that the OT speaks of people—of enemies—as ‘a briar to prick or a thorn to hurt,’ as ‘pricks in your eyes and thorns in your sides,’ and as ‘a scourge on your sides, and thorns in your eyes.’ This provides the literary pattern for Paul’s phrase ‘thorn in the flesh.’ The clear interpretation of Paul’s use is, therefore, as referring to a person, an enemy.[10]

However, it is difficult to see how this opposition fits with Paul’s statement about weakness. Paul writes, “Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”[11] According to Paul’s statement, it seems that the thorn was something internal. The metaphor seems to suggest an internal battle as Paul differentiates between the weakness of his thorn and persecution in 2 Corinthians 12:10. Although the ministerial opposition is a strong theory and holds many valid points, this viewpoint is rejected in this paper due to the internal nature of the thorn. If Paul was referring to a person or movement, it is likely that Paul would have referred to such individuals.

The Physical Ailment Theory Works Best Because of Scriptural Evidence of Paul’s Sufferings

If the physical ailment theory pertaining to Paul’s thorn in the flesh is a tenable position, then there should be evidence of the apostle suffering from physical issues within the apostle’s writings. In this regard, there is an abundant amount of resources concerning the apostle’s physical distress.

First, there is the classic issue of Paul’s eyesight. The letter to the Galatians is considered one of the apostle’s earlier works. Lea and Black write, “If we accept a South Galatian destination, the letter can be dated as early as A.D. 49-50.”[12] Although the evidence is stronger for the recipients of the letter being southern Galatians, even a northern destination would not place the letter much later. Lea and Black write, “If we accept a North Galatian destination, then we cannot date Galatians until during or after Paul’s second missionary journey, A.D. 50-52.”[13] Even still, Galatians must be considered one of the earlier works of Paul.

Why is the dating of Galatians important? It is important to establish the fact of Paul’s early physical ailments. At the end of the letter, Paul writes, “See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!”[14] R. Alan Cole does not see the text as evidence of Paul’s bad eyesight. Cole writes, “It could refer to the style of writing, for instance. Those who see Paul’s recurrent illness as ophthalmia will point to the large letters often written by the half-blind. But half-literate people also normally use large lettering, and nobody has yet accused Paul of falling into that category.”[15] While Cole is correct in the assessment given, it must be noted that there is other evidence for Paul’s bad eyesight. For instance, when one considers Paul’s conversion experience, one will note that Paul had scale-like elements fall from his eyes. Luke records, “Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized.”[16] It would at least seem rational that Paul would have some lingering effects from such an episode. Even if Paul’s eyesight was not the physical malady that plagued the apostle, one could claim that Paul could have easily suffered from other physical maladies.

Second, Paul suffered physical persecution which would have led to physical problems. As mentioned earlier, the letter to the Galatians was one of Paul’s earliest letters. In the letter, Paul gives some indication that he had suffered physical persecution already. Paul writes, “From now on, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.”[17] Paul’s suffering is evident in the letter of 2 Corinthians. Before the apostle speaks of his thorn in the flesh, Paul mentions the many physical sufferings he has endured. Paul writes,

…I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.[18]

Having read Paul’s testimony, how could one not consider that Paul had some form of physical malady? One must consider that the flogging that Paul endured left Paul with serious injuries. This does not even consider the stoning and the shipwreck that Paul underwent. One must consider the tremendous toil that such suffering must have left upon the frame of the apostle. While this does not necessarily prove that the thorn in the flesh was a physical ailment, it does show the great potential for the thorn being some form of physical problem. Whether the malady was eyesight problems is moot in this case. The more important theme for this paper is showing the potentiality of the thorn being some form of physical ailment. Considering the previous passages, such a viewpoint is supported by a good amount of Scriptural evidence.

The Physical Ailment Theory Works Best Because of Paul’s Understanding of Physical Suffering

Did Paul’s thorn in the flesh indicate a physical ailment? In order to answer this question, one must examine the apostle’s understanding of suffering in the context of the thorn in the flesh. The apostle Paul believed that physical suffering has a positive end. Paul wrote in Romans 8:28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”[19] In the text of 2 Corinthians, Paul seems to indicate that this thorn that was being endured was some form of weakness. Paul writes in the eleventh chapter, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.”[20] In chapter twelve, after presenting the fact that the apostle was suffering a thorn in the flesh, Paul writes, “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”[21] In Paul’s eyes, the endurance of weaknesses was an avenue that God used to show forth God’s strength. In such manner, God’s power would be displayed instead of the person’s strength.

This is not an unusual stance for a Jewish individual. Satan was viewed as existing under the authority of God. Ailments that Satan intended for evil could be used for great good by God. Schmidt writes,

For several reasons, however, a penitential discipline is untenable: it makes Satan an agent for positive ethical change, it overlooks the unmistakable parallel in 1 Corinthians 11:29-30 to illness…and death…as judgments for disobedience, and it misses the allusion to the exceptional circumstances of Job 2:6, where Satan is allowed to visit physical affliction on an individual as God permits…Paul demonstrates his understanding of this in 2 Corinthians 12:7, where his ‘thorn in the flesh’ is a ‘messenger of Satan’; an evil work which ultimately serves God’s purpose (cf. Deut 28:15-68).[22]

If such a parallel is to be made, then it is more probable than not that the thorn in the flesh was a physical malady of some sort. In fact, it would appear that the physical sufferings of Paul were offensive to the Corinthians, who probably admired physical strength and athletic prowess due to the elevation of athletic events such as the Isthmian Games. Yet, Paul believed that the endurance of such physical maladies was suffered for the cause of Christ and for the betterment of the church. Kar Young Lim writes,

This is supported by clear indications that his scars, carrying the notion of shame and dishonour, have not been well received. The charge that Paul’s bodily presence is weak (10.10), seen as a direct reference to his scars of dishonour, should not be discounted. As such, it would be difficult to believe that Paul’s offensive scars escaped the close scrutiny of both the opponents and the Corinthians. How does boasting of his beatings contribute to Paul’s argument in 2 Cor. 10-13? These scars tell the story of weakness; but, more importantly, they tell the story of Jesus. This is the clearest evidence of Paul not only carrying in his body the nekrwsiV tou Ihsou (4.10; cf. 13.4) but also the stigmata tou Ihsou (Gal. 6.17).[23]

Lim’s assessment certainly holds biblical support. Paul wrote, “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.”[24]Paul even seemed to think that physical suffering was part of the apostolic job. Hafemann writes,

Hence, rather than questioning the legitimacy of his apostleship because of his suffering, Paul considered suffering to be a characteristic mark of his apostolic ministry (Gal 6:17; 1 Cor 2:1-5; 2 Cor 11:23-29; Phil 1:30; 2 Tim 1:11-12; 2:9; etc.), and an aspect of his own mortal life concerning which he was content, in which he rejoiced and about which he could appropriately ‘boast’ (2 Cor 11:30; 12:10; Phil 1:19-26).[25]

Therefore, Paul indicated that suffering was part of the apostolic call. Just as Jesus had suffered for the apostles and the church, the apostles would likely be called to suffer for Christ. With Paul’s image of apostolic suffering for Christ set in place, the view that the thorn in the flesh was a physical ailment becomes a rational, if not certain, conclusion.

Not only did Paul see his suffering as being endured for the good of Christ, but the apostle also saw his suffering as holding benefits for the church. F. F. Bruce writes,

He seems to have held that the more of these sufferings he personally absorbed, the less would remain for his fellow-Christians to endure. ‘I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake,’ he writes to the Colossians, ‘and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church’ (Colossians 1:24). To the same effect he tells his friends in Corinth that ‘if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation’ (2 Corinthians 1:6). As Jesus had offered up to God as an atonement ‘for many’ the injuries inflicted on him, so Paul accepted his injuries and trials the more readily in the hope that thus his converts and other fellow-believers would be spared the like. ‘So, then’, he says, ‘death is at work in us [that is, ‘in me’], but life in you’ (2 Corinthians 4:12).[26]

Bruce demonstrates the selflessness of the apostle. Paul felt that the suffering that he endured would lessen the sufferings of the church. Like a father working long hours for the betterment of one’s family, so Paul took on these sufferings with gladness in hope that the churches would not have to suffer the same.

Concerning the apostle’s scars and the emphasis on the apostle’s suffering for the good of Christ and the church, it would make little sense if the thorn in the flesh was anything other than some form of physical malady. It is certainly possible that the thorn incorporated Paul’s persecution brought forth by Satan. However, even in such a case, the thorn would speak to the results of such opposition which were the physical maladies that came from such persecution. Therefore, the thorn in the flesh would make far more sense if it referred to a physical ailment of some sort.

The Physical Ailment Theory Works Best Due to Early Interpretations

Early interpretations can be useful as they can assist the interpreter understand the mindset of the time nearest the author. When it comes to the thorn in the flesh, early interpreters tended to accept that the thorn was a physical ailment. Russell writes, “The earliest tradition understood the phrase to refer to a physical malady that kept Paul from being too elated by the abundance of revelations. This view was held by Latin fathers (Tertullian, Jerome) and has had its modern proponents, some of whom relate the thorn  to specific illness…”[27] Not only do early interpreters favor the thorn’s identification with a physical ailment, according to Twelftree the majority of early interpreters tend to favor the theory. Twelftree writes, “The majority of interpreters, from Tertullian onward (Pud. 13), take the thorn to be some form of physical illness. In favor of this view is the metaphor of a thorn, the connection in ancient times between demonic manifestations and physical illness, and the structure of the 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 passage imitating the narratives of a healing miracle.”[28] The popularity of the viewpoint has not drifted with time. Kruse writes of the thorn, “Most modern interpreters prefer to see it as some sort of physical ailment, and the fact that Paul calls it a thorn in the flesh offers some support for this.”[29]It would seem that the strength of the theory has carried over throughout the millennia. Although early interpretations do not necessarily prove that Paul’s thorn in the flesh was a physical ailment. It does lay the groundwork in understanding how Paul’s metaphor was received early in the history of the church. If the understanding is strong in favor of one interpretation, it does make that interpretation more likely. For example, if General George Washington wrote something that could be taken as literal or allegorical, one would desire to know how those nearest to the time of Washington perceived the statement. If individuals nearest to the time of Washington perceived the statement as literal and individuals centuries removed understood it as allegorical, the earlier interpretation would be stronger than the latter. Therefore, the physical ailment theory holds greater validity than the alternative interpretations due to the fact that earlier interpreters understood the thorn as a physical ailment.

Conclusion

 This paper has evaluated the various theories pertaining to Paul’s metaphor of his thorn in the flesh. Four theories exist that seek to explain the identity of Paul’s thorn in the flesh. The mental ailment theory suggests that Paul’s problem consisted of some mental health issue such as conditions that could cause hallucinations. This theory was rejected due to Scriptural evidence that suggests that others experienced phenomena during the Damascus road event. Another theory suggests that the thorn in the flesh is some form of spiritual oppression. While this theory is a possibility, it was shown that the end result would have been a physical affliction which the paper defends. A third theory suggests that Paul’s ailment was ministerial opposition. While there is a great amount of evidence that indicates that Paul experienced numerous adversaries during Paul’s ministry, the tone and internal nature of the thorn suggests something more than just opposition. This paper has defended the physical ailment theory.

The physical ailment theory has been defended due to Scriptural evidence that suggests that Paul suffered physical problems during his ministry. Also, this paper has shown that Paul’s understanding of suffering in relation to 2 Corinthians 12 indicates that the thorn was a physical ailment. Finally, this paper demonstrated that early interpreters, as well as a great number of modern interpreters, understand the thorn as a physical ailment. For the reasons presented, the physical ailment theory is preferred. However, one final note needs to be made before concluding the paper. Although a physical ailment is determined as the most likely interpretation of Paul’s thorn in the flesh, it is not suggested that one seeks to specify the particular illness of Paul. There simply is not enough evidence to pinpoint the ailment as opthalmia, malaria, epilepsy, or any other particular disease. One can speculate, but it would be difficult, if not impossible, to identify the illness without further information. Therefore, while this paper suggests a physical ailment as the answer to Paul’s metaphor, it is highly suggested that one leaves the issue at that point.

Bibliography

All Scripture, unless otherwise noted, comes from The New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.

Barker, Kenneth L. and John R. Kohlenberger III. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: New Testament, Abridged Edition. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994.

Bruce, F. F. Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1977.

Cole, R. Alan. Galatians, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1996.

Hafemann, S. J. “Suffering,” In Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. Edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1993.

Kruse, Colin. 2 Corinthians. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Edited by Leon Morris. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1987.

Landsborough, D. “St Paul and temporal lobe epilepsy.” J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry 50 (June, 1987): 659-664.

Lea, Thomas D. and David Alan Black. The New Testament: Its Background and Message, 2nd Ed. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2003.

Lim, Kar Young. The Sufferings of Christ Are Abundant in Us: A Narrative Dynamics Investigation of Paul’s Sufferings in 2 Corinthians. New York: T&T Clark International, 2009.

Mullins, Terence Y. “Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh.” Journal of Biblical Literature. 76, no. 4 (December, 1957): 299-303. Accessed November 9, 2013. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3261900.

Price, Robert M. “Punished in paradise (An exegetical theory on 2 Corinthians 12:1-10).” Journal For the Study of The New Testament, 7 (April 1980): 33-40. ATLASerials, EBSCOhost. Accessed November 19, 2013.

Ramsay, William Mitchell. St. Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1907.

Reid, D. G. “Angels, Archangels.” In Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. Edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1993.

Russell, Ronald. “Redemptive Suffering and Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh.” Journal of The Evangelical Theological Society 39, 4 (December 1996): 559-570. ATLASerials, EBSCOhost. Accessed November 19, 2013.

Schmidt, T. E. “Discipline.” In Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. Edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1993.

Twelftree, G. H. “Healing, Illness.” In Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. Edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1993.


[1]2 Corinthians 12:4.

[2] 2 Corinthians 12:7b-9a.

[3] 2 Corinthians 12:7–9.

[4] Terence Y. Mullins, “Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh,” Journal of Biblical Literature. 76, no. 4 (December, 1957): 299.

[5] D. Landsborough, “St Paul and temporal lobe epilepsy,” J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry 50 (June, 1987): 663.

[6] Acts 9:3-7.

[7] Reid, D. G. “Angels, Archangels,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid, eds (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1993), 22.

 

[8] Terence Y. Mullins, “Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh.” Journal of Biblical Literature. 76, no. 4 (December, 1957): 303.

[9] Kenneth L. Barker and John R. Kohlenberger III, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: New Testament, Abridged Ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 661.

[10] Mullins, “Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 303.

[11] 2 Corinthians 12:9b.

[12] Thomas D. Lea and David Alan Black. The New Testament: Its Background and Message, 2nd Ed. (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2003), 368.

[13]Ibid.

[14]Galatians 6:11.

[15] R. Alan Cole, Galatians, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1996), 233.

[16] Acts 9:17-18.

[17] Galatians 6:17.

[18]2 Corinthians 11:23b-27.

[19] Romans 8:28.

[20] 2 Corinthians 11:30.

[21]2 Corinthians 12:8-10.

[22]T. E. Schmidt, “Discipline,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid, eds. (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1994), 217.

[23]Kar Young Lim, The Sufferings of Christ Are Abundant in Us: A Narrative Dynamics Investigation of Paul’s Sufferings in 2 Corinthians (New York: T&T Clark International, 2009), 179.

[24]Philippians 3:10-11.

[25]S. J. Hafemann, “Suffering,” In Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid, eds. (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1993), 919.

[26]F. F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1977), 139-140.

[27]Ronald Russell, “Redemptive Suffering and Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh,” Journal of Evangelical Theological Society 39, 4 (December 1996): 565.

[28] Twelftree, G. H. “Healing, Illness.” In Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. Edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1993.

[29]Colin Kruse, 2 Corinthians, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1997), 206.

Is God Near When God Feels Distant?

Is God Near When God Feels Distant?.

Is God Near When God Feels Distant?

I regularly listen to Greg Koukl’s Stand to Reason broadcast aired Sunday afternoons on American Family Radio.  The live shows occur on Tuesday afternoons at 4pm Pacific time.  Normally, I listen to the podcasts which are available before the show airs.  This week, an individual that had suffered a great tragedy called the show.  He told the story of how he had lost a loved one during the past two weeks.  The great problem was that he felt that God was so distant during this process.  I must commend Koukl on the great advice given to the individual.

Koukl has stated that he has not felt a great emotional presence of God in his life.  While I can say that I have felt God’s Spirit in a very real way, I too can identify with Koukl and the individual calling in that at times God does seem distant especially during emotionally taxing situations.  There may be reasons why some feel God’s presence strongly and others do not.  Nonetheless, it does not mean that those who have a relationship with God but fail to experience a powerful experience with God are any less of a Christian than those who do.  Some reasons may exist why some have such powerful experiences with God and others do not.  My experiences with God came during a turmoil that resulted from a strong stand for Christ while praying and dwelling in the presence of the Holy Spirit for over an hour.  Some may be more in tune with the spiritual realm than others.  Howard Gardner has posed nine various forms of intelligence which are given in the picture below.  Danah Zohar has suggested that a spiritual form of intelligence be added to the equation (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spiritual_intelligence).  If this is the case, this would mean that some have a greater spiritual awareness than others.  This could offer some explanations as to why some experience the presence of God deeper than others.  It must be warned that the lack of a “deep relationship” does not equate the lack of a relationship.  Regardless of the ability of spiritual depth that one could potentially possess and regardless of whether such depth is related to a spiritual intelligence, most of us will experience times in our lives when we feel that God is distant.  This article will seek to provide comfort to such individuals by showing great persons of faith that also experienced times when they felt that God seemed distant.  In the end, one will find that God is not as distant as one’s emotions would have one to think.  In fact, it is during those times that God is closer than one could ever imagine.

Theory-of-Multiple-Intelligences

Job Felt That God was Distant

job-rebuked-blake

The Bible tells the story of a man named Job.  Job was a good man.  The Bible tells us, “There once was a man named Job who lived in the land of Uz. He was blameless—a man of complete integrity. He feared God and stayed away from evil” (Job 1:1, NLT).  Even though Job was a good man, he lost everything.  He lost his family.  He lost his financial security.  He even lost his health.  He had essentially become a beggar on the streets.  Job kept his faith even when his wife said, “His wife said to him, “Are you still trying to maintain your integrity? Curse God and die” (Job 2:9, NLT).  Even though Job kept his faith, Job seemed to feel that God had abandoned him.  Job even went so far to say, “God has handed me over to sinners.  He has tossed me into the hands of the wicked. I was living quietly until he shattered me” (Job 16:11-12a, NLT).  Job felt abandoned by God.  Yet, God was still with Job.  By the end of the story, God reminds Job of His ability to handle any situation.  God said, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?  Tell me, if you know so much” (Job 38:4, NLT).  Sometimes a person will seek to accuse God of this and that.  But, God is the One who created the universe from nothing.  God is the One who set the laws of nature in place.  The molecules were formed because of this great God.  Therefore, this God can still do a wonderful work even in the midst of the worst of circumstances.  God had not left Job.  God was about to bless Job for his faithfulness.  In the end, Job received much more than he had before.  The Bible records, “So the LORD blessed Job in the second half of his life even more than in the beginning. For now he had 14,000 sheep, 6,000 camels, 1,000 teams of oxen, and 1,000 female donkeys” (Job 42:2, NLT).  What can we learn from this?  Just because God seems distant doesn’t mean that God is distant.  Stay close to God and in due time, God will make His presence known to you.  Even when God seems distant, God will still bless His faithful children.

king david

David Felt That God was Distant

The Apostle Paul described David as, “But God removed Saul and replaced him with David, a man about whom God said, ‘I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart. He will do everything I want him to do’” (Acts 13:22, NLT).  Yet, there were times when David felt that God was distant.  This is especially seen in the songs that David wrote, called psalms.  David wrote, “O LORD, how long will you forget me?  Forever?  How long will you look the other way?  How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul, with sorrow in my heart every day?  How long will my enemy have the upper hand?  Turn and answer me, O LORD my God!  Restore the sparkle to my eyes or I will die” (Psalm 13:1-3, NLT).  If David was as Paul stated, “a man after God’s own heart” and felt that God was distant, why do people today feel as if they are less religious if they go through times of spiritual drought?  David fumbled and bumbled from time to time.  He made mistakes…some major…but God still loved him and used David to fulfill the tasks in which David was called to do.  Even when God seems distant, God still has a task for those whom He has called.

Jesus Window at Mtn View

Jesus Felt that God was Distant

The wild truth is: even Jesus felt distant from Father God while on the cross.  Classical Christians understand Jesus to have been the embodiment of God on earth.  Yet, Jesus Himself felt what it was like when a person experiences spiritual drought.  Jesus said from the cross, “‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachtani?‘ which means ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me'” (Matthew 27:46b, NLT)?  Granted there are great theological depths with Jesus being identified as God and experiencing the separation of the Father.  Those issues are for another article at another time.  But for the moment, the reader enduring a spiritual distance from God should recognize that God understands.  There were theological reasons for the momentary separation between the Father and Son at Golgotha.  However, one needs not think that when God seems distant that God is not associated with the person.  Even when God seems distant, God still loves you and still cares for you.

Conclusion

Some individuals use anything to make themselves appear to be superior to another.  Spirituality may be one of those areas.  Those who have experienced God in a real way may use those experiences to make those who have not feel less spiritual.  However, the experience originates with God.  If you are going through the storms of life and God feels distant in your life, do not fret.  God is still there if you have entered into a relationship with God.  You will one day feel God as near to you as God actually is.  I offer the following nine steps to help you get there quicker.

Tips to Stay Focused During Times of Divine Distance:

1.      Keep a Regular Prayer Routine.  Keep praying.  Don’t stop.  Just because God seems distant, God is there with you.  Communicate with God.  Don’t lose the line of communication through your spiritual drought.

2.      Keep a Regular Devotional Routine.  Keep reading the Word of God.  In my experience, even when God seems distant, God continues to communicate timeless truths through the regular study of God’s Word.  It may be that through the study of God’s Word that you regain that intimacy that you once felt.

3.      Focus on the Promises of God.  There is a story of an aged man who was facing death.  Blind and rigid, the man told his pastor, “I am troubled because I don’t remember the promises of God.”  The wise pastor said, “Sir, don’t worry.  You may have forgotten, but God hasn’t.”  God will keep the promises that God has made.  Stay focused on those promises.

4.      Keep in Mind What You Know about God.  Remember the truths that God has taught you about Himself.  Focus on the things you know about God instead of the things you don’t know.  You may not know what the future holds, but you will know that God is beyond the scope of space and time.  It may seem like everything is flying out of control, but you will be reminded of the God who holds everything together and gives things order.

5.      Remember the Times that God has Previously Delivered You.  This is where a journal may become handy.  When God does something great for you, record it.  Write it down.  When you go through times of spiritual drought, you might find great encouragement by scrolling back to rediscover the times where God has made a way for you.

6.      Keep Asking for God’s Presence.  Some Christians are under the impression that they can not ask or question God about anything.  This is not what is found in the pages of the Bible.  Many a person of faith has boldly asked God why things were happening as they were (ie. Job, Habakkuk, and David).  Be honest with God.  God already knows everything is going on anyhow.  Ask God for His presence to return as you have once experienced it.  If you have never had such an intimacy with God, ask for it…repeatedly.

7.      Dwell in the Shadow of Spiritual Giants.  Christianity has never been meant to be an individual affair.  Christianity is about relationships…a relationship with God and a relationship with others.  Befriend individuals who maintain a great spiritual disciplines.  Grow with them in the Lord.  Do not think that you must travel this Christian walk alone.

8.      Serve Others.  The reason you may be going through a spiritual drought may be due to the fact that you have suffered some form of loss.  The worst thing you can do is to lock yourself up in your home and never get out.  Join your local congregation.  Help out in some ministry.  Volunteer.  You may find that by helping others that you find the intimacy with God that you desire.

9.      Keep a Thankful Heart.  Finally, do not get caught up in a personal pity party.  Yes, allow yourself to grieve if you have lost a loved one.  But, instead of focusing on what you have lost, focus on what you have…or perhaps had.  If you did lose a loved one and this caused the spiritual drought with God, focus on the years that you had with the loved one.  I understand that this is easier said than done.  However, when one keeps a thankful heart, one might find that one not only finds intimacy with God, but also an optimistic spirit.

Seeking intimacy with God,

Pastor Brian

All Scripture, unless otherwise noted, comes from Tyndale House Publishers, Holy Bible: New Living Translation, 3rd ed. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2007.

Enduring Difficulties

It is easy for a person to feel that one’s problems are overwhelming.  Sometimes, a person is met with problems so great that one is left wondering, “Where is God” or “why me”?  Yet, the Scripture gives a bizarre look at difficulties.  It is bizarre to the world because it requires a supernatural kind of intervention.  James, the half-brother of Jesus, wrote about enduring difficulties.  His words bring great perspective on enduring difficulties and hardships.

Enduring Difficulties Brings Endurance

 “Dear brothers and sisters,* when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. (James 1:2-4, NLT).

Have you ever heard of someone training to run a marathon?  A person does not choose to run a marathon on Friday and run the marathon on Saturday unless the person has previous training.  Many will train for weeks, months, or even up to a year to prepare for a marathon.  A person slowly builds up one’s endurance by running a little longer each time.  This training brings endurance.  The same is true with the trials that occur.  James shows us that God uses these difficulties to bring forth endurance to the believer’s life.

Enduring Difficulties Brings Wisdom

” If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking.” (James 1:5, NLT).

Knowledge and wisdom are similar, but different.  A person can be extremely knowledgeable in that one knows numerous facts and figures while remaining unwise.  Merriam-Webster defines “wisdom” as “abilities to discern inner qualities and relationships…exercising sound judgment…or, possessing inside information” (Merriam-Webster, “wisdom,” “wise”).  The last definition is telling.  The person with sound judgment normally has inside information…that inside information comes from God.  The Greek word used is “σοφία” (sophia).  “Sophia” is defined as, “the intelligence evinced in discovering the meaning of some mysterious number or vision. skill in the management of affairs. devout and proper prudence in intercourse with men not disciples of Christ, skill and discretion in imparting Christian truth. the knowledge and practice of the requisites for godly and upright living” (James Strong, Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2001).  Although James shows that wisdom comes by asking, it is also developed through the process of enduring trials.  I have heard many say, “If I could go back knowing what I know now, I would ________.”  Surely God brings wisdom through our trials.

Enduring Difficulties Brings Loyalty

“But when you ask him, be sure that your faith is in God alone. Do not waver, for a person with divided loyalty is as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is blown and tossed by the wind. Such people should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Their loyalty is divided between God and the world, and they are unstable in everything they do.” (James 1:6-8, NLT). 

A friend who is also an enormous sports fan once said, “I can’t stand sports fans who change their favorite team according to who wins the championship each year.”  He has a point.  Can such a person really be called a devoted fan?  The fact is; trials and tribulations force us to consider who it is in which we place our trust.  Is it in other people?  They will fail you.  Is it in sports teams?  They will eventually lose.  Is it in a vehicle?  It will eventually corrode.  The only sure place that one’s trust can be placed in which disappointment will never occur, and faithlessness will never be found is in the Lord God Almighty.  Difficulties have a way in directing our loyalty to the One whom deserves our loyalty.

Enduring Difficulties Brings Trust

“Believers who are* poor have something to boast about, for God has honored them. And those who are rich should boast that God has humbled them. They will fade away like a little flower in the field. The hot sun rises and the grass withers; the little flower droops and falls, and its beauty fades away. In the same way, the rich will fade away with all of their achievements.”  (James 1:9-11, NLT).

Do riches and good times bring trust?  Well, consider the fact that people throughout history have strayed from God during the good times far more than they have during the bad times.  When people have it nice and easy, discipleship wanes.  This is especially true with the children of Israel.  After Solomon’s days, Israel’s trust in God waned which eventually led to the division of the nation, the destruction of the northern part, and the exile of the southern part.  God eventually brought prophets to speak to the problem of faithfulness.

The church has noticed a decline in attendance over the past century.  But, have we also noticed that we have it better now than ever in the history of humanity?  This is not true in all places in the world, but it is true in most “First World Nations.”  The map below shows what is called “First World Nations” (in blue), “Second World Nations” (in red), and “Third World Nations” (in green).  Consider this fact: the church is seeing the greatest decline in the nations listed in blue and seeing the greatest increase in nations listed in green and red.  Do you see a correlation?  Those nations listed in blue have it pretty nice.  Yet, the Spirit of God is bringing great increase to the church in the fields of Africa, in the jungles of South America, tropical atmosphere of Korea, and the deserts of the Middle East.  The Holy Spirit is moving so much, in fact, that the center of Christianity will no longer be found in the United States and Europe but in Africa, Asia, and South America.  In other words, difficulties have a way in showing us where we need to place our trust.  The richest is not always the happiest.  As a matter of fact, quite the opposite is true especially if God is in the equation.

File:First second third worlds map.svg

Map from Wikipedia.org.

Enduring Difficulties Brings Character

“God blesses those who patiently endure testing and temptation. Afterward they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him. And remember, when you are being tempted, do not say, “God is tempting me.” God is never tempted to do wrong,* and he never tempts anyone else. Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death.” (James 1: 12-15, NLT). 

So much can be said of the previously listed text.  But for now, it must be noted that trials and tribulations bring about character in one’s life.  The person has a choice: allow character to be developed by trusting in God during the trials and tribulations, or allow sin to grow and develop which will lead to death.  When difficulties and trials arise, it is amazing to see which direction the person chooses.  Some deal with things much better than others.  Some bounce back after a problem, while others marinate in the problem.  Those who dwell on the issue will eventually allow the problem to destroy them.  However, if trust in God is maintained, the difficulties can be allowed to bring forth character.

Enduring Difficulties Brings Christlikeness

“So don’t be misled, my dear brothers and sisters. Whatever is good and perfect comes down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens.* He never changes or casts a shifting shadow.* He chose to give birth to us by giving us his true word. And we, out of all creation, became his prized possession.”* (James 1:16-18, NLT).

Did you know that if you are in Christ, you are a masterpiece?  You are a prized possession.  In other words, you matter!!!  God is concerned about the most minute details of your life.  This is difficult to fathom that that Creator of the universe would be concerned about one like me.  But God is.  All these traits lead us to Christlikeness.  Christ, the embodiment of God come to earth, was perfect through and through.  A Christian will never be perfect on this side of eternity…Lord knows that I keep a “God at Work” sign on my soul which shows that I have a looooong way to go…but, this should not keep us from striving for the mark found in the will of God.

Conclusion

Difficulties are indeed difficult.  One thing we must remember is that as bad as we have it, there is always someone who has it perhaps a little bit worse than we do.  It may be a different kind of load in which we may not be able to carry.  As I recently interviewed Siv Ashley, I was amazed at her story of freedom in Christ from her sins and from the evil regime of Pol Pot in Cambodia.  I do not know how she was, and is, able to keep her optimistic spirit.  But, she does through the power of Christ.  I leave you with one final verse which will hopefully help you in your time of need.  Paul writes, “For I can do everything through Christ,* who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13, NLT).  Keep holding on to your source of strength: Christ Jesus.

 

 

All Scripture, unless otherwise noted, comes from Tyndale House Publishers, Holy Bible: New Living Translation, 3rd ed. (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2007).

Some Possible Reasons Why God Allows Disasters to Strike

Some Possible Reasons Why God Allows Disasters to Strike.

Some Possible Reasons Why God Allows Disasters to Strike

It is a classic question.  “Why did God allow _______ to happen?”  You can fill-in-the-blank with a variety of terms.  Recently, this question has had to do with a rash of natural disasters that have struck Oklahoma and other areas.  Anytime a disaster strikes, one of the first questions asked is, “Why did a loving God allow this to happen”.  Even insurance companies describe disasters as “acts of God.”  Funny that we should attribute negative things to God.  Why not call the birth of a child an act of God or the miraculous healing of a person an act of God?  Some might, but many do not think about God unless something disastrous takes place.

Although it is impossible to accurately pinpoint God’s intentions in every event, God has given us some principles with which to work found in the Bible.  In the Bible, at least five possible reasons are given as to why God may allow disasters to strike.

God Allows Disasters to Occur Because of Judgment

Due to the rebellious nature of humanity, God has to keep things in check.  Although this is not popular to mention in modern times, one can easily find examples of God bringing disaster upon certain immoral societies by disasters.  The clearest example is found in the annihilation of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Did God destroy the cities by volcanic eruptions or was it by an asteroid?  This writer thinks that it is the latter.  Nonetheless, God delivered due to the moral corruption of the area.  Prior to this time, God had allowed a massive flood to nearly wipe out humanity saving only a few faithful.  In Habakkuk, God shows that God allows disaster to strike because of judgment.  God says to Habakkuk, “Woe to him who builds a city with bloodshed and founds a town with violence!  Is it not indeed from the LORD of hosts that peoples toil for fire, and nations grow weary for nothing?  For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:12-14, NASB).  In Jonah, God allows a storm to take place due to Jonah’s rebellion.  In Jonah, it is written, “The LORD hurled a great wind on the sea and there was a great storm on the sea so that the ship was about to break up…Then (the sailors) said to (Jonah), ‘Tell us now!  On what account has this calamity struck us?” (Jonah 1:4, 8a).  Clearly from these examples, it can be seen that God does allow disasters to strike due to an overflow of human rebellion.  One may ask, well why would God do this?  Why WOULDN’T God do this?  From the examples of Sodom, Gomorrah, and the days of Noah, the people were extremely wicked.  Depravity had grown to the level of becoming reprobates…a condition where the hard has grown hard and repentance is nearly impossible.  The people were not going to get better.  So God protected the innocent by giving them a way out for those who would listen.  Why would God bring judgment to Jonah?  Well, it was through Jonah that the land of Nineveh would repent and be spared.  Our rebellion may have effects on others.  God must correct our paths from time to time.  But this is not the only reason why God may allow disasters to occur.

God Allows Disasters to Occur to Build Our Faith

Humans have the innate desire to escape any and all pain and suffering.  This is a natural response because pleasure is much nicer than pain.  However, if we never went through painful experiences, would we be better or worse?  It would seem that we would be much worse.  Through difficult times, a person’s faith in God is built.  What is the biblical definition of faith; dependency on God.  Paul writes, “We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brethren, as it is only fitting, because your faith is greatly enlarged, and the love of each one of you toward one another grows ever greater; therefore, we ourselves speak proudly of you among the churches of God for your perseverance and faith in the midst of your persecutions and afflictions which you endure.  This is a plain indication of God’s righteous judgment so that you will be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which indeed you are suffering” (2 Thessalonians 1:3-5, NASB).

I love weightlifting.  The process is intriguing.  Before one can build muscle, one must first tear the muscle down by way of vigorous exercise.  It is during the recuperation time that the muscle is built stronger.  God does the same with us in our lives.  To make us stronger, God must put or allow us to go through difficult circumstances in order to trust in Him more and to develop character in ourselves.

Cindy Smith is an exceptional lady.  She is a member of our church.  Cindy was born with cerebral palsy.  The palsy makes it difficult for Cindy to accomplish things that would be taken for granted by most individuals.  However, Cindy told me once that she embraced her palsy.  According to her own testimony, she would not be the person she is today if it were not for having the palsy.  Dr. William Lane Craig, one of the premier apologists of our day, had said the same thing about his medical condition.  Craig has a medical condition which has kept him from playing sports to the level that he desired.  However, he has said that having the disease has made him the man he is today.  Instead of devoting his passion and competitive nature to sports, he did so with Christian apologetics.  This is why that he is to this day feared by many atheists (including Richard Dawkins who has refused to debate him numerous times) and revered by many Christians.  Another biblical explanation exists for why God may allow disasters to strike.

God Allows Disasters to Occur to Glorify Himself

It may sound arrogant to the skeptic.  But, God does seem to allow disasters to happen so that God may be glorified.  This glorification, however, is not to boast in Himself.  Rather, this glorification is to show others that God is a reality and that people can trust in God.  So the principle is, disasters do not always occur because someone did something wrong.  See the example in John’s gospel.  John writes, “As He passed by, He saw a man blind from birth.  And His disciples asked Him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?’  Jesus answered, ‘It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him'” (John 9:1-3, NASB).  The man did become an example of God’s glory.  Jesus healed the blind man and everyone witnessed the power of God firsthand.  Furthermore, the blind man became a witness of God’s power.

Think about the Oklahoma tornadoes.  Yes the disaster was awful.  But consider the power of God shown through the miracles that occurred in the aftermath.  Think of the protection of God over the teacher who prayed over her class.  Not a child was hurt in that classroom.  Think of the compassion and love that was seen by Christians in this time of need.  Someone even said, “Don’t count on the government to help out.  Count on the Baptist men.”   Isn’t that the way it is supposed to be anyhow?  Shouldn’t the church stand in the gaps?  There is another biblical reason why God may allow disasters to occur.

God Allows Disasters to Occur for Nature’s Benefit

Believe it or not, storms and disasters can hold benefit to nature.  Dr. Hugh Ross stated at a recent conference that tornadoes can have a benefit for the land.  It is being seen that tornadoes can plow up and distribute essential nutrients in the area.  Also, tornadoes can clear out bad vegetation.  For hurricanes, these massive cyclones can bring necessary rain and moisture to dry lands.  Some areas depend on the moisture brought by these storms.  Volcanoes are important for the earth as they create new land masses, provides healthy gases even by the poisonous gases, and even provide diamonds through the intense heat.  God has made an amazing earth.  Each person must take into an account for the possible disasters in the area in which they live.  If you live near a volcano, one risks the chance that a volcanic eruption may take place.  If one lives near an area that has hurricanes, one must be prepared for a hurricane to make landfall.  If one lives near an area prone to massive tornadoes, one needs to be prepared.  If one lives in a colder environment, one needs to be prepared for a massive snowfall each winter.  That does not mean that it is any less heartbreaking when disaster strikes.  But, this at least the person will not be as surprised when disasters strike.  Job 38:34-37 says, “Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that an abundance of water will cover you?  “Can you send forth lightnings that they may go and say to you, ‘Here we are’?  “Who has put wisdom in the innermost being or given understanding to the mind?  “Who can count the clouds by wisdom, or tip the water jars of the heavens, when the dust hardens into a mass and the clods stick together?” (Job 38:34–38, NASB).  Things may occur for reasons we never know…which brings us to our final point.

God Allows Disasters to Occur Sometimes for Reasons Known Only to God

God is infinite and we are finite.  Sometimes we will not understand the things of God because we cannot know all there is to know about God.  When Job had questioned God about the difficulties that he had endured, he demanded an answer while his “so-called” friends gave possible answers.  The friends gave accusatory answers blaming Job.  They were wrong in the assessment.  God stepped in the scene and gave a response to Job’s inquisition.  God said, “Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? “Now gird up your loins like a man, and I will ask you, and you instruct Me!  “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding, Who set its measurements? Since you know.  Or who stretched the line on it?  “On what were its bases sunk?  Or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:1–7, NASB).  The point of God’s answer was not arrogance but to remind Job that he would not have all the answers.  Neither will we.  God is the one who established everything in place.  God is the only one who has all the answers.  God knows how everything works together.  In the end, God works everything together and for a  purpose.  We may not know the the purpose until we get into eternity.  But, we can trust God in His love and infinite goodness that everything will work out in the end.

Conclusion

God has reasons behind things we cannot understand.  Even when things look bleak and do not make sense, God can bring out some great things despite the problems we endure.  Sometimes God may bring disasters for judgment against depraved societies.  Other times God may allow disasters to take place to test our faith.  At other times God may allow disasters to take place in order to glorify God and show God’s power to those who do not know God.  Other times God may allow disasters to occur for the benefit of the natural order.  Finally, disasters may occur for reasons known only to God.  In the end, every worldview must deal with the reality of disasters and suffering.  Some will choose not to believe in a loving God.  But then, what hope does that person have?  Does the person have hope in the midst of the storm?  Does the person have hope beyond this life?  What about justice?  Are wrongs just allowed to occur with no ultimate consequence?  When you understand the fact that God is a reality and that the gospel is true, then one can be filled with faith, hope, and ultimately love despite the storms of life that may come.

Love in Christ,

Pastor Brian Chilton

“The Problem of Evil” by Drew Payne

The Problem of Evil
Addressed from a Philosophical Perspective
J. Andrew Payne

Foreword: Last week, we posted an article addressing the co-existence of a loving, powerful God with the presence of suffering and evil.  We approached the issue from a more theological perspective.  In today’s article, our resident philosopher, Drew Payne, examines the issue from a philosophical perspective.  Granted, philosophy and theology are intertwined to a great degree especially when relating to God and the world.  Be that as it may, it is our prayer that with both articles that you will be left with a working basis on how to handle the issue of suffering and evil in light of the existence of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God.  -Pastor Brian Chilton

Drew Payne

            As last week focused on the theological justification of why God would allow suffering in the world, this week has been scheduled to address the problem philosophically. Before we begin, however, there is a point which merits a brief digression. That point is the charge of “moral insensitivity” that can often be thrust at the rather callous seeming answers to this problem of evil that philosophy often grants.

As evil has the propensity to evoke an emotional reaction, especially to those whom the problem of evil has recently effected, I must ask that the reader consider what is said and not just merely reject it because it sounds callous. Rather, carefully weigh what is proposed based on the merits of the claims here laid forth. Though I do not agree with his stance as an Open Theist, Peter van Inwagen well answered the charge of moral insensitivity when he wrote, “Philosophy is hard. Thinking clearly for an extended period is hard. It is easier to pour scorn on those who disagree with you than actually to address their argument.”[1] All too often this is the response, and I here ask that the reader put aside any inclinations to do so and consider what is being said of its own virtue.

The Typical Answers of Philosophy

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            Philosophers have wrestled with this problem for as long as philosophy has existed and have come up with a plethora of answers. Some have been incredibly effective though unsatisfying while others have been short sighted and ultimately ineffective. To a degree, the question must always remain a mystery as nineteenth century Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain maintained. Still, though there is no great or common consensus regarding the answers to the issue, by no means does it follow that the problem has not been answered.

The problem, which is admittedly predominately a religious one[2], must reconcile what seems initially irreconcilable. As the great Enlightenment skeptic, David Hume, put it, “Is (God) willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?”[3] Is it even possible for there to be a loving, all powerful, omniscient God in a world that seems inundated with evil? Such is the dilemma that is our topic of discussion here.

To begin with, I will here outline a few approaches to the problem that have been offered throughout the history of philosophy. The first of the views which we will be discussing is that of philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz. Though this will by no means be a comprehensive look at his philosophy, it will nevertheless give a summary of what is important for our purposes.

Leibniz is an Enlightenment adumbration of the approach to the problem of evil that will be predominantly adopted by analytic Christian philosophers of our contemporary times. He theorized that God was rightly defined as the Scholastic philosopher Anselm had written of Him; that God is the greatest thing of which nothing greater can be conceived. God is thus a perfect being in every sense of the word. This definition, though, would prevent God from being able to create anything equal to Him, let alone greater. If God is the greatest being, beyond which nothing greater can be conceived, and God is also perfect, then it is a contradiction to presume God to be able to create anything that is perfect. Here, Leibniz takes hold of the Scholastic definition of God, yet misunderstands it, seeing God’s perfection in terms of degree. For the medieval philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas, perfection was not rightly understood as the highest of degrees, but rather as completeness, or more accurately lacking nothing.

This misunderstanding ultimately is Leibniz’s undoing. God is understood as differing from His creation not in kind, but by degree. Thus all He has to work with when creating the world is a bunch of imperfect parts. With these He must merely to the best He can. So God, who is the greatest being, must also do that which is the greatest of his potential actions. As being is better than non-being, then God must create. Thus the world that He will create will also be the greatest possible world. Yet this world of necessity must be fallen due to the logical constraints of the order of the world.

Leibniz points out that presuming God to be omnipotent is in no way threatened by His inability to do logically contradictory things. As C.S. Lewis astutely pointed out, “Meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other worlds ‘God can’.”[4] From this Leibniz merely concludes that this must necessarily mean that any world greater than this one in which we live must of necessity be a logical impossibility. Presumably each facet, or state of affairs (technically speaking), that God seeks to create the world with logically necessitate that what is created entails evil.

This argument seeks to answer the problem and preserve God’s goodness by arguing that He’s doing the best He can with the cards that He’s dealt (though few who hold to such a view would put it in such terms). The logical necessities of freewill, of God being the greatest possible being, etc, constrain God so that anything better than this is literally unfathomable and impossible. There are many issues that I have with such a view.

Criticisms of the Best of All Possible Worlds

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The first problem is not so much a problem of logic but rather more properly understood as an observation of the effects of the above outline view. If the world in which we live is the best of all possible worlds, then of what hope is the afterlife? How is heaven rendered if what we exist in now is the best? Logically either heaven is no greater than the world in which we live, and thus nothing more than a possible change in scenery, or it is worse. Such a view, though not a contradiction, is still a rather absurd consequence that should alone deter one from embracing the above view.

The second issue is that the above view seeks to depict God as doing the best He can with the cards that He’s dealt, while forgetting that it is God who created the cards. Metaphysically, if we accept the classical approach to God (as I do), God exists as the uncaused cause. By definition He is the cause and creation is the effect. It must be noted that causation is a one way road. Cases have effects yet effects cannot affect the cause. Simply put, this is the very heart of the Creator/creature distinction. If this is true, then it seems absurd to imply that creation can in any way limit God as it is God who establishes the bounds and limitations of things, and He does so from infinity. Limiting God’s ability through created things literally limits His ability to create and once this is done, you no longer are dealing with a truly infinite God. This leads into my third problem with the above outlined view.

It is of no small importance, this term infinity. Technically speaking it is a negative term that merely exists as a negation of the finite. It literally means not-finite. Saying what a thing is not is far from saying what a thing is, and it is so with our understanding of God. Gaining a clear understanding of what God is not is important if we are to approach Him properly. One must understand that God is infinite. However, the negative term infinite comes with a set of consequences, and to declare that the world we live in is the greatest possible world, is to transgress what is properly understood as infinite.

The infinite cannot be divided. The idea of two infinites is incoherent as one infinite, by the law of identity, would not be the other infinite, and thus neither can be properly said to be infinite. Thus God, if He is infinite as we maintain, must also be simple. One cannot merely come to know a part of Him, as there are no parts if He is infinite. Though the word infinite entails in its meaning a loss of all limitations, the term itself is a great limitation to our language. We come to realize that there is no way our words can adequately speak of the infinite. Though I can speak or write the word, its true meaning cannot be contained in the sign infinite. Perhaps then, what is really meant by the term infinite is little more than “I know not what.” For if to understand the infinite is to grasp all of it, then such a task is impossible for one who is finite. The moment I speak of God, who is infinite, my language denigrate the true meaning of what I say so that what I say no longer applies properly to Him. It is also worth stating here that it is an equivocation to assume that the infinity of which I here write is the same idea of the infinite that mathematicians speak of. These two views will be further addressed later.

If God’s perfection is to be understood in terms of degree, of which He is merely at the highest possible point, then His very nature cannot be infinite. For God’s nature being perfect by degree would mean that there is no higher degree to aspire to. Thus also to say that this is the best possible world is to say that He can do no better. Such views do not understand what is properly meant by infinity. There is no ‘best possible’ with God; there is only His perfection.

C.S. Lewis and the Contemporary Approach

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            Though Leibniz is not explicitly the view that is taken by many contemporary philosophers, he is at least implicitly influencing the approach. Whether it is the brilliant essay by Alvin Plantinga or the piquant argument put forth by Peter van Inwagen, the approach has become somewhat generic. It begins by establishing that God can do all things logically possible as Leibniz had argued. Following this the burden of evil is laid on the guilty shoulders of man’s freewill (though I must stress that it does not merit libertarian freewill to make this claim as Alvin Plantinga is considered to be largely of a Reformed view). All that is left, seemingly, is to establish how God denying man’s freewill would be a contradiction and thus God, to an extent, God is constrained into allowing the evil of the world in order to achieve a greater good. This strategy is often used to great effect and is largely considered to have won the day.

C.S. Lewis also followed in the strategy of Leibniz to a small degree while also adding to the approach two more distinctions. The first is that he pointed out that there is a difference between evil and pain. Pain is often a good thing. To one who has just complete a strenuous workout, a degree of pain in the muscles can actually even be pleasurable, thus pain itself should not properly be considered to be evil. It is often something that is also used to indicate a greater danger and prevent a yet further danger from becoming actualized. This observation thus allows the problem of pain to be essentially crossed off of the list of problems to be reconciled. His second point is far more problematic, though.

Lewis writes early on in his work, The Problem of Pain, of God’s moral judgments. He wrote, “On the other hand, if God’s moral judgment differs from ours so that our ‘black’ may be His ‘white’, we can mean nothing by calling Him good; for to say ‘God is good’, while asserting that His goodness is wholly other than ours, is really only to say ‘God is we know not what’. And an utterly unknown quality in God cannot give us moral grounds for loving or obeying Him. If He is not (in our sense) ‘good’ we shall obey, if at all, only through fear—and should be equally ready to obey an omnipotent Fiend.”[5] I do not think that one has to be a Calvinist as I am to be perturbed by that claim. Such a view places God as one who is to be judged by man. It also separates goodness from where it properly belongs as one of the attributes of God. This view was adopted by atheist philosopher William Rowe who noted that “the dominant answer in religious thinking concerning God and morality is that what God commands is morally right independent of his commands. God’s commanding us to perform certain actions does not make those actions morally right; they are morally right independent of his commands and he commands them because he sees that they are morally right.”[6] If this is so then God can be held accountable to such a law as it is apart from even Him.

Again let us examine God as the uncaused cause of all things. If He exists as such then it is literally incoherent to assert that goodness exists apart from Him because outside of Him is nothing. To exist is to have being and if God is the subsistent source of all being then one cannot say that moral law exists apart from God. Rather, moral goodness must be one with His being. So how are we to understand the good? To a degree I must embrace what Lewis ardently rejected. To a degree we cannot perfectly know the good. To more properly answer this I must explain the doctrine of analogy.

Classically, there are two ways one can speak about God: the via negativa, and the doctrine of analogy. The via negativa literally means “the way of negations.” It is a way of explaining what God is not. He is not-evil, He is immutable (not able to be changed), He is infinite. Though this can explain some of the ways we approach God, it can by no means be assumed to be the only way we speak of God. The way in which we speak positively of God is understood through the doctrine of analogy.

An analogy is nothing complicated and should not intimidate the reader simply because the word “doctrine” is placed before it. Currently my neighbor is a survivor of the Jewish holocaust. I have had the honor of hearing him speak of his experiences in the concentration camps and struggle to imagine just exactly what he endured. Though no matter how hard I imagine what he endured, I can never truly know what he endured. What I imagine of his horrific experiences is known mostly through analogy. When explaining to me what he experienced, he must do so by telling me that it was like something else which I do have experience of. (He might say that experiencing winters in the ghettos of Poland were like enduring the coldest winters I’ve ever seen, only greater still without any respite.) Always contained within an analogy is a reference to a common experience. However, the knowledge that is gained through analogies is not properly speaking actually of the thing the analogy is being compared to. Thus when the doctrine of analogy is applied to God I still am not understanding truly what God is by understanding Him through analogy, yet I am gaining proper knowledge on how to approach Him.

Good in creation is to be understood as the proper way of existing. God created a proper order in the universe and it is rightly functioning in that universe that is what is considered good. More broadly, merely existence itself is properly understood as good as it is from God that existence comes and all things from God are good. So that raises the question of what it means for a thing to be bad. Metaphysically evil must be understood as a privation. But what does this mean?

A privation is not like a negation which is just simply a denial of being. Rather, a privation is a denial of some property which a thing ought to possess. A common example of this is blindness existing in an eye. When properly functioning an eye should possess sight yet when an eye is blind such a property is denied. This is the idea of a privation. How evil exists as a privation is well captured when one surveys the language we use when describing evil. For example, when surveying the shocking evil of the holocaust, it is not uncommon for someone to say, “This should not be.” In that declarative sentence one can see what is fully meant by the terms good and evil. To be good is to be properly. To be evil is to be, still, but rather to be not as a thing should be. Evil remains a negative term, as it can be seen that evil is not properly a thing. Yet evil does exist as it is that things exist, and evil exists as a perversion of how it should be.

Thus to answer Lewis’ assertion, it can never be proper to hold God in judgment of evil for evil is impossible for God to do. It is no arbitrary statement to declare that God cannot do evil because of His nature, for to assert that God does evil would be incoherent. It is no limitation, it is rather a contradiction. Thus it becomes a most profound declaration to proclaim that God is good because He is.

God, Evil, and the Great Mystery

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            “I AM.” This is the statement God gave Moses when he told him to go to the Egyptians and free God’s people. Such a statement is endlessly profound and has blown away many scholastic philosophers from Medieval times through now. But as must now be seen with that, above the mere metaphysical statement trumpeted God as the uncaused cause of the universe long before Plato or Aristotle ever walked the earth, implicit within that declaration is the reminder that God is good.

Though all the talk of metaphysics, privations, and analogy can leave little comfort to those who are suffering, the powerful and profound yet gentle reassurance that God is good can work wonders. And it is this one point which must be grasped and held to as tightly as one can when approaching the problem of evil. God is good.

There are only two ways that we can come to know. One is through experience and the other is through revelation. Though we experience evil as an effect, we are hard pressed to be able to grasp or understand evil ontologically. The reason for evils existence lies in the mind of God and to a degree is unknowable to us. Thus experience affords us no answer to our problem. So it is that we must turn to revelation. Such revelation has been granted us in God’s word. Yet that book, our most holy and sacred Bible, to my knowledge does not tell us the reason why sin exists. We can attribute it to the fall, yet we cannot know why God even allowed the fall in the first place.

Some intellectuals, such as C.S. Lewis, have declared that God used the fall, and the effects of evil, to teach us of a different side of Him that we otherwise would not have known. It is used to teach us of God’s greatness and prepare us for our future in heaven. Thus those who experience such terrible effects of evil are to rejoice because they have will see an even greater God. Such a view is incredibly flawed. To begin with, not all are going to heaven and it is far from just the Christians who suffer the effects of sin. Indeed the greatest effect of sin is suffered by those who are damned to hell for all of eternity, never to be filled with the reward of the experience of the divine. Thus viewing evil as a learning tool is somewhat shortsighted.

Secondly, if it is through terrible evil that we come to learn even more about God, then why are things not worse still? It seems somewhat arbitrary that things are only this bad and not worse. If the greater the evil the more of God that we come to know, why are we not to experience yet even more evil than we are already? And in light of an infinite God, there is not a level of potential evil that we could experience that would not be arbitrary. Further still, if it is merely used as a tool to show us an aspect of God that we otherwise might not have seen, does this not mean that there must be aspects of God that we will never know? After all, surely one is not to declare that it is through this that we come to know more of God. As has already been established, dichotomizing God as such is a rather incoherent idea. It is all or nothing. Anything else makes no sense.

Could evil be reconciled by declaring that God will bring about a greater good through allowing such evil? Certainly not. I cannot stress enough that an infinite God needs nothing. It is God that limits creation, not creation that limits God. Thus God cannot need certain evils to bring about a certain good. After all, of what comfort would it be to appeal to a God who needed evil in some cases? Further still, God does not exist for the purpose of maximizing our happiness. He is not some sort of divine utilitarian. Whatever His plan may be, it is far greater than merely arranging the best possible world to cultivate our happiness while we’re here.

So how can evil be reconciled with God? I am afraid I can only answer this by admitting humbly that it is a mystery. Yet as comfortless as this answer might at first seem, consider that we have not been told to endure this alone. I submit that the Christian answer to the problem of evil must be understood in light of the cross. In fact I know of no aspect of the Christian message that can afford to move away from the cross. It is our very life.

Interestingly enough this very problem and this very answer were at the center of the oldest work of philosophy known to man: the book of Job. Throughout the book, Job is declaring his innocence (as even God Himself attested to) and asking for the problem of evil and suffering to be answered. The debate between Job and his companions is centered around this issue with the friends offering a systematized answer seeking to know the limitations and bounds of God and therein trap Him, constraining His power in order to answer the problem of evil. I wonder if we do not often enough do likewise today. Yet when God finally arrives on the scene, He rebukes the friends and it is Job himself, the one who had been accused of great evil by the friends, who intercedes with God on their behalf. God declares plainly that Job’s friends have not spoken truthfully of Him. Consider now the beginning of His answer to Job:

“Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it?…Who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment and wrapped it in thick darkness, when I fixed limits for it and set its doors and bars in place, when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt’? Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place, that it might take the earth by the edges and shake the wicked out of it?…Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea or walked in the recess of the deep? Have the gates of death been shown to you? Have you seen the gates of the shadow of death? Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth? Tell me, if you know all this.” (Job 38:2-18)

In this grand and glorious passage, God puts Job in his place, yet He does not answer Job beyond the reminder that God is in charge of all things. God is, and He is good. Yet we are not bereft of comfort, for God does not subject us to this arbitrarily. For at the cross, Jesus—God in human form—came to earth and subjected Himself to the full force and fury and wickedness of man. He took upon Himself the weight of the burden of sin and evil and bore it for us. And though I do not suggest that this was His primary reason in coming, I submit that it is at least implicit in His coming was the assurance that we are not enduring this suffering alone. God’s love for us was so great that He humbled Himself so far as to endure the effects of evil along with us. It must never be forgotten that God does not only subject us to the suffering, though it is only rightly us who deserve it as it is man, not God, who is guilty of sin, but endured it for us. Of this Spurgeon wrote, “(Christ) looks beyond the Roman spear and nail, beyond the Jewish taunt and jeer, up to the Sacred Fount, whence all things flow, and traces the crucifixion of Christ to the breast of Deity. He believes with Peter—‘Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain.’ We dare not impute to God the sin, but at the same time the fact, with all its marvelous effects in the world’s redemption, we must ever trace to the Sacred Fountain of divine love.”[7]

God should not be thought here to be a masochist of some sort, for that would be illogical. Instead it would be more proper to remember the work He did on the cross. Not only is it to be seen as a comfort in that it is the tool of His salvation. But further still we should look to the cross as a reassurance that God is good, and we are not asked to suffer alone. The answer is ultimately a mystery. And yet the answer is also a reminder. Though a mystery may seem unsatisfactory, this does not mean we should seek out whatever lie might bring us peace. Rather, we should turn to face God, and in Him find our peace as He reminds us again and again that He is, and that He is good.

 God is good


[1] Peter van Inwagen, “The Problem of Evil” in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 190-191.

[2] Though I must here concede that the problem is a religious problem, an equally curious problem exists for those who do not believe in the existence of an all powerful God. The problem of evil, for the non-believer is reduced to a mere aesthetic distaste for what is perceived as evil. There is no ultimate meaning or reason to reconcile the problem with, thus the experience of evil can be merely reduced to subjectively dissatisfying events. Contrarily to this, though, if such things as meaning and purpose are reduced to nothingness—mere subjective experience—then one has no way to explain the nature and existence of the good either. If there is no wrong way of being, there is also no right way of being. As the atheist existentialist philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre, put it, all such ideas of good and bad are mere nothingness.

 [3] David Hume, Dialogs Concerning Natural Religion ( New York: Penguin Books, 1990), 108-109.

 [4] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Harper Collins, 1960), 18.

[5] Ibid., 28-29.

[6]William L. Rowe, “Divine Power, Goodness, and Knowledge,” in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 22.

[7] Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “The Death of Christ” in Spurgeon’s Sermons, Vol. 4 (Peabody, MA, Hendrickson Publishers, 2011), 210.

Why Does a Loving, Powerful God Allow Suffering and Evil?

Why Does a Loving God Allow Suffering?

A Theological Look at How a Loving, Powerful God can Co-exist with Evil and Suffering in the World

 

By: Pastor Brian Chilton

 Pulitzers

You do not have to look very far to find evil and suffering in the world.  A few weeks ago from the writing of this article, the world was rocked as we learned of the bombings which killed 3 people in Boston, Massachusetts.  One of the victims was a little boy.  Prior to this, we were saddened this past Christmas to learn of the atrocious shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  The pages of our newpapers are full with stories of violence, suffering, and evil.  How does one deal with this?

Ergun Caner has given three ways the Christian deals with the issue of suffering and evil.  But, I would add a fourth.  Caner writes, “Solution Number One: God predestined evil” (Caner, Class Notes, Lecture 14).[1]  Adherents to this solution would claim that humans do not have any control over anything and that everything is worked out by God.  Unfortunately, this makes God the author of sin and the Bible makes it clear that there is not evil or sin found in the character of God.  So, this solution has major problems.

Caner gives a second solution, “Solution Number Two: Evil does not exist” (Caner, Class Notes, Lecture 14).  Adherents of this view would claim that evil does not really exist.  Evil is an illusion and is not real.  But any serious minded person can clearly see that evil is indeed a reality.  This solution, too, holds some major problems.

Caner gives a final solution, “Solution Number Three: God created Man who chose evil” (Caner, Class Notes, Lecture 14).  This solution holds the fewest problems.  This solution, like Caner, is the solution I choose.  In other words, God did not create evil and suffering but allowed it as an option for reasons on which we will expound.

In this article, we will examine how a powerful, loving God can co-exist with evil in society and why God would allow this suffering and evil to exist…only temporarily.  We will examine the characteristics of God, the transformation of man, love and freedom, responsibility and freedom, the promise of working things together, and the final judgment.

We need to add one more note before proceeding.  When we speak of suffering and evil, two forms of suffering and evil exist: moral evil and natural evil.  Moral evil is the evil that comes from the hands of fellow human beings, whereas natural evil is the supposed evil that comes from natural disasters and birth defects.  We will deal with moral evil in this article and will address natural evil at a later date.

The Characteristics of God

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Many characteristics of God could be mentioned in this article.  For the sake of time and space, we will only speak of two: holiness and love.  First, we must understand that God is a holy God.  In the Harper Bible Dictionary, holiness is defined as, …a term in Hebrew probably meaning separate from the ordinary or profane. Also in Hebrew and in Greek ‘holy’ implies connection with God or the divine. Thus, God is holy and people, things, and actions may be holy by association with God. Holiness may also include the ideas of consecration to God and purity from what is evil or improper.”[2]  In other words, God has not evil in Him.  Quite frankly, even though God is all-powerful, there are some things the Bible tells us that God cannot do.  For instance, the Paul writes to Titus, “in the hope of eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, promised long ages ago” (Titus 1:2, NASB).[3]  So, God cannot lie.  God cannot do evil.  He is holy and without sin.

Secondly, God is love.  Perhaps, there is no greater reference to this fact than in John 3:16 and also in 1 John.  John writes in his letter, “We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 John 4:16).  Paul writes, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).  So, God’s love for all humanity is limitless. This love transforms every person who partakes in His glory.

The Transformation of Humanity

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When a person allows Christ to become the Lord of his or her life, a transformation occurs.  Yes, salvation is a work of God.  Yes, God does the transformation.  But, yes, we have to be willing to allow God to do that work in our lives.  More on that later in the article, but for now, let us simply say that if a transformation has not occurred in an individual then there is a good chance that the individual never received Christ.

Although I consider all Christians who are under the umbrella of classic Christian doctrine to be my brothers and sisters, I am most in line with “Free Will Baptist” theology.  Some have accused Baptists of proclaiming a “do-nothing salvation.”  In other words, all you have to do is say a prayer and do nothing else.  Well, honestly, if that was the way Baptist theology really presented salvation, I would not be one.  We all understand whether you are Arminian or Calvinist, Protestant or Catholic, Pentecostal or Methodist, Baptist or Lutheran, that a transformation must take place in order for one to truly be proclaimed a Christian.  You cannot live like the Devil and proclaim Jesus as your Lord and think that you have a right relationship with God.  It does not work that way.

We are told that the Christian must display the Fruits of the Spirit, or manifestations of God working in the person’s life.  Those fruits are: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23).  This does not indicate that the Christian will always be patient or always be kind.  But it does indicate that the overall persona of the Christian should be filled with these attributes as they are attributes of God given to the person.  So, a relationship with Christ brings love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  If this is the case, then the life that lives without God would produce the antitheses of these things: hate, sorrow, war, impatience, harshness, evil, infidelity, harshness, and personal and familial chaos.  Get the picture?  So, why does God allow evil?  We begin to get a glimpse as we examine the next section.

Love and Freedom

Couple hugging

We get a clear picture of this in the all-star verse of the Bible.  Jesus said, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him” (John 3:16-17).  Notice the “whosoever” word?  For love to be freely received, it must first be freely given.  But for love to be freely given, it must also be freely received.  As David said to his son Solomon, “As for you, my son Solomon, know the God of your father, and serve Him with a whole heart and a willing mind; for the Lord searches all hearts, and understands every intent of the thoughts. If you seek Him, He will let you find Him; but if you forsake Him, He will reject you forever” (1 Chronicles 28:9).  Yes, God saves.  Yes, God reveals Himself to us.  Yes, salvation is God’s gift.  But, for love to work, it must be reciprocated.

A great example of this was found 12 years ago from the time of this writing.  I was walking down the beach with my, then, girlfriend.  It was a beautiful night.  The moon lit the waves of the ocean as they crashed against the shore.  A few clouds gave the sky a mystical look this night.  I was extremely nervous because I was going to ask my girlfriend a very important question.  Every time I was getting ready to ask her, something would interrupt me…a dog crossing our paths.  A young child running around.  Finally, the moment of opportunity appeared and I asked this girl a very important question.  “Would you like to spend the rest of your life with me?  Would you like to marry me?”  I gave her the ring which I had purchased for her.  She looked at me in disbelief.  She looked…and looked…and looked…and finally asked, “Are you SURE???”  Well, that was not the response I was looking for, but I answered, “Of course I am sure, or I wouldn’t have asked.”  After contemplating a few more moments…leaving me hanging for what felt like an eternity…she finally responded, “Well, I guess we are going to have a good life together.  Yes, I will marry you.”

The Friday before I write this article, that girl and I will have celebrated 10 years of marriage together.  God has blessed us with a little boy.  I can honestly say that even though our relationship is not perfect, I love her more now than I even did then.  But that would not be possible if we both did not act freely.  I freely chose to ask her to marry me and she freely chose to accept my offer.  Love is never forced.  Forced love is not love…it is rape.  Rape is the antithesis of love.  Love must be freely given and freely received.

The same holds true with our relationship with God.  God saves.  God calls.  God gives us the opportunity to enter into a relationship with God through Christ Jesus.  God does 99.9% of the work.  The only thing we must do is say “Yes.”  We must open the door to God’s invitation.  In many ways, our relationship with God is like a marriage.  God is the groom and we are the bride.

But, this offer only exists if we are given the choice to receive or reject.  In order to allow for perfect relational love, God had to create us with the opportunity that we might just say “No.”  Some will say, “No God.  I do not want You in my life.”  Just as some with some proposals, the asked person will say, “No dear, I do not love you and do not want to spend my life with you.”  The clear cut result of a life lived without God is evil.

Some would say, “Yes, but why doesn’t God stop every evil act from occurring.”  I would say that God could and does from time to time.  But, if God interjected every time an evil act was committed, this would remove the freedom that the human being possesses.  Suffering and evil exists because of the freedom that God has given people.  We cannot blame God for suffering and evil.  We must truly blame ourselves.  This of course gives humans responsibility.

Responsibility and Freedom

Responsibility-large

Human beings must take responsibility for his or her actions.  Many times we blame God for things that we bring on ourselves.  If a person stepped out on a major highway and was hit by a Mack truck, can the person really blame God for such an action?  No, it was the person’s own stupidity.  Would God be obligated to stop the Mack truck causing a massive pile up while taking many innocent lives over one person’s ignorant decision?  I don’t think so.  Really, God is not obliged to us for anything, really.  The fact that God saves any of us shows the grace and mercy of God.  It speaks more of God’s character instead of a person’s.  However, it must be noted that sin and rebellion do in fact hurt people.  The things we do affect far more people than we ever could imagine.  But, despite this, God has given a promise to work all things for good to God’s children.

Working All Things For Good

God-at-work-sign

Paul writes, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).  This promise is not for everyone.  Notice that Paul says that God works all things for good to those who love God and are called according to His purpose.  God has the uncanny way of working out good things through the most horrific of circumstances.  It may be that through the death of a young child who will automatically go to heaven that another child would receive life through an organ transplant.  It may be that the woman who allowed God to strengthen her through the death of her beloved husband displays such a Christ like demeanor that her lifestyle encourages another to come to eternal life in Christ.  God has the ability to work out all things for good if we are His children and allow the Spirit of God to work in our lives without quenching Him.  But, there is yet one more thing that must be remembered in all of this.

Prepare to Meet Your God: Judgment Time IS Coming

judgment

One day, God will bring judgment.  Many ask as the Prophet Habakkuk did, “How long, O LORD, will I call for help, and You will not hear?  I cry out to You, ‘Violence!’ Yet You do not save” (Habakkuk 1:2).  Will God not bring judgment to those who do such wicked things?  Yes, God indeed will.  When God brings judgment, it is fast, furious, and final.  Don’t believe me?  Just look at Sodom and Gomorrah.  The cities were lush cities in an area much like a tropical paradise.  Look at them now.  They are surrounded by massive amounts of salt in the region now known as the Dead Sea.

God will one day bring judgment.  As Paul writes, “So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God” (Romans 14:12).  Everyone will give an account of their lives to God.  The only salvation we have in this day is through the blood of Christ…the payment for our sins.  But, this does not mean that we will not have to give an account of the things we do.  God will one day make all things right.  So, let’s bring this all together.

Conclusion:

Christ the Redeemer

God is loving and is all-powerful.  The reason why evil and suffering exists is due to the freedom that God gives us to choose His grace or to reject His grace.  This freedom was evident in the Garden of Eden as it is today.  When God calls us and reveals Himself to us, we have the choice to accept God’s grace or to reject God’s grace.  A life that accepts God’s grace is filled with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.  A person who rejects God’s grace is filled with hate, sorrow, war, impatience, harshness, evil, infidelity, harshness, and personal and familial chaos.  Love is not forced, so if God grants that we can know Him then He must also grant that we may reject Him.  This is why evil and suffering sometimes occurs…because of rejection of God’s grace and love.

God allows evil and suffering to exist now because God is granting more time for people to receive God’s grace, love, and forgiveness.  More souls are yet to be saved.  This is why God is delaying the time for judgment.  But understand this; the age of grace will not be extended forever.  One day, the age of grace will be replaced by the Day of Judgment.  At that time, every person will have to give an account of his or her life; and the decision that the person made, in acceptance or rejection of the grace that God freely gave, will carry eternal consequences.  Let us end this article with a warning that the Prophet Amos gives us, “Prepare to meet your God” (Amos 4:12).

 


[1] Note: for easy reference, Bible references and some other references will appear in the MLA format.  For major works, Turabian footnotes will be used.  This will help the reader as he/she reads the article.

[2] Paul J. Achtemeier, Harper & Row and Society of Biblical Literature, Harper’s Bible Dictionary, 1st ed. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), 400.

[3] All Scripture, unless otherwise noted, comes from the New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995).