What is the extent to which God exercises his sovereign authority over creation?
To what degree are moral creatures free?
Evil and suffering in our world result from sin. Even natural evil (storms, floods, etc.) are seen to be realities specifically because our world is broken due to the effects of sin (see Romans 8). The distinction becomes apparent when you move beyond that premise. Is the choice to sin a free choice? If it is a free choice, is the choice to sin made by the creature outside of God’s effective and sovereign will? Or is the choice to sin made within the scope of God’s will? How in “control” is God exactly?
The Bible actually presents this reality as more of a continuum than as a fixed point. We would all probably like it if the Bible presented all choices as being pre-determined or all choices as being free. This is not the case. It seems that God is in actuality exactly as in control as he chooses to be in any given situation. Thus, on one side of the continuum, if God needs Pharoah to respond in a certain way in order to accomplish his will, God is willing to harden Pharoah’s heart to ensure that outcome. On the other side of this continuum, if God wants to relate in love relationships to human beings, and if love must by definition be freely chosen to actually be love, then God allows humans to receive or reject his grace and pursuit by the exercise of their own will.
It seems to me that overall, in most cases God has set things up for the latter of these two options. He has created moral creatures (humans and angels) and given them the opportunities to love him. For love to be real it must be chosen. For that choice to be significant it must be free. For a choice to be free there must be a real option to choose between alternatives. It therefore must be possible for moral creatures to choose to reject God and operate outside of his will.
This seems to be what in fact has taken place. Suffering in our world is the result of selfish people making selfish choices. For instance, many people are starving each day because the don’t have enough food. But this is not because there is not enough food, but rather because the food has not been made available to them. Most of it is hoarded and consumed in other nations where the obesity rate is skyrocketing. And, charitable efforts to distribute that food to the needy are often interrupted by warlords competing for power and grabbing resources for their own maintenance of power before they reach the needy. Hurricanes bring devestation and thousands suffer. Why? Because selfish people (Adam for instance) made a selfish choice and introduced a fatal flaw of brokenness into creation outside of God’s design and will.
This freedom is a gift from God to creatures that makes love genuinely possible. Without this gift, there could be no meaningful love. There could be determined behaviors with the word “love” attached, but they would be shallow and empty, not being freely given. But, this freedom is not without limitation. There is genuine freedom, but it is boundaried freedom. When God gives us the freedom to make choices, he himself is making a choice. He is choosing to limit himself. But this limitation is self imposed. It is not intrinsic in God’s nature. He in himself is not limited. So he is as sovereign as he chooses to be. When he limits himself, it is to accomplish his purposes. When he chooses to exercise his authority and strength in a determinitive fasion, it is also to accomplish his purposes.
So when sickness comes, I have to think in terms of this continuum. In general, why do evil and suffering exist? Because a world without choice is a world without love and God values love very highly. So I can, within this continuum, see that sickness for instance is a result of sin, which is ultimately the result of free choices made by free moral agents who have acted outside the scope of God’s will (within the parameters of God’s sovereign self limitation). It is a result of rebellion against God’s will, not an expression of God’s will. God didn’t make me sick.
On the other hand, I must recognize that the very reality in which this continuum exists was created sovereignly by God where he had the full knowledge that these rebellious choices would in fact be made resulting in evil and suffering within God’s good creation. So these sinful choices, though made in opposition to God’s will are made within the parameters of freedom he himself has defined and could have defined otherwise (at the cost of the removal of all love from creation). So God does not will evil and suffering. But he does will a world in which love is possible, and therefore evil and suffering are a possibility and even a certainty.
Given this, it is important for us to recognize that when God chooses to exercise his sovereignty or chooses to grant freedom even at his own cost, in both cases he is making a sovereign choice. He makes these choices to accomplish his purposes. So, it is very possible for me to experience some evil and suffering, and recognize that this evil and suffering are wholly the result of sin and evil within our world because of rebellion against God, and still, in the midst of that very reality, find that God’s purposes are still moving forward.
The ultimate expression of this is the cross. Ultimately, God’s answer to human suffering is not to explain it, or sovereignly disallow it (thereby making love impossible). His answer, rather, is to enter into suffering. God values love. Love must be freely chosen. For this choice to be real, selfishness must be a genuine option. His creatures have chosen that alternative and much evil and suffering has come into the world. God could have prevented that, but he would have ended up with a world of robots rather than relationships. So to make genuine relationship possible, he must allow evil and suffering – for the sake of love. But what does real love do in the face of evil and suffering? He dies on a cross. He enters our suffering and absorbs in himself all the evil and suffering in the world. It is in fact the provision of God through the death and resurrection of Jesus that will finally result in the new heavens and earth (Rev 21) in which all evil and suffering is finally eliminated and those who have freely chosen to love God will be able to enjoy him and glorify him forever.
I am glad we don’t have to simply wait for that day. The Holy Spirit has been given to us in the present as a down-payment toward that future reality. In that future day, all the old things will pass away and everything will be made new (Rev 21). In the present, the old things are passing away and new creation is happening in and through my life (2Cor 5:17). So I am living today in light of that future reality. When I encounter suffering, sickness, evil, injustice, I work in the power of the Holy Spirit to appropriate the provision of Jesus in advance of that future day.
So suffering is not God’s will, but it always presents an opportunity for me to step into God’s will and to help others to do so. Evil exists because love is possible. Whenever I encouter evil then, there is an opportunity to step into love. I can always find God’s purpose in evil by receiving and giving love. Evil is like darkness. It is not a thing. It is the absence of a thing. Evil and suffering are the absence of love. When I encounter them, I have opportunity to express love, to freely choose love. And since love is what God is after, God accomplishes his goal through evil that he did not will. God is very smart.