A common belief about God (aka theology) is that God is in control. Everything which happens in the world is either directly done by God or is at least allowed by God. Many take this as a comfort because they believe in a good God and find it encouraging to think that everything which happens is under this good God’s control. However, this idea can also be troublesome when bad things happen as they are for many people right now. This raises questions and doubts for many as to if God is good and cares for us. I want to suggest there is another way to look at the problem of suffering.
Before we proceed, it’s important to quickly differentiate between two kinds of suffering. There are those things which are inconvenient and unpleasant but which otherwise don’t leave a big mark on our lives. If one doesn’t get their ideal job they applied for, it’s easy to think that “God has something better prepared.” However, there are other kinds of suffering, ones I believe go into another category (though there may not always be a clear line between them). An accident which kills a child. A shooting which kills a young man. Bullying. Metal illness. Devastating natural disasters. War. Mass shootings. Genocide. Maybe God can bring good out of even these—after all, God redeemed the brutal killing of Jesus. But there’s a significant difference between this and saying God is actively behind these things, even if only intentionally allowing them. It’s difficult to say God had a purpose behind the Holocaust or genocide in Uganda, etc.
In the west at least, we seem to define God as the entity which has all the power. Especially for those who believe God merely spoke and created everything in seven days, we imagine God as having the power to magically make anything happen instantaneously. But is this actually the way God’s power works in reality?
When it comes to suffering, there are three ideas which seem to be in conflict and of which only two can apparently be true: God is powerful, God is good/loving, and evil suffering exists. Since we tend to define God and the being with all the (magical, instantaneous) power, when suffering is undeniable, then it’s only natural to question God’s goodness or even God’s existence.
Some theology deals with this dilemma by effectively redefining evil as good. “God is good and powerful (in an absolute, micro-controlling way), therefore these things must actually be good though they appear bad.” However I believe this line of thinking is unsatisfactory to most of us; we intuitively know that some things are evil and should not be.
But there is at least one other way of looking at this. What if we acknowledge that evil is evil and also hold on to a belief that God is good and loving? This brings God’s power into question. “Isn’t God all powerful? Can’t God do anything, even the impossible (miraculous)? Isn’t God in control?” Where do these ideas come from, or more specifically, where do our ideas of God’s power come from? The Bible? I’ll suggest that perhaps they are more western ideas we’ve taken and applied to God. Allow me to suggest that while God is most powerful, this doesn’t mean instantaneous, magical power.
When Jesus arrives in the new testament, he heals sickness, disease, and even death in some cases. These miracles weren’t just to show Jesus’ power—they demonstrated what it’s like when Jesus is ruling as king. So why don’t we see this healing universally? Isn’t Jesus lord (in power)? No, not yet fully. In John, Jesus refers to the enemy as “the prince of this world” (12:31, 14:30, 16:11). Likewise in Ephesians, reference is made to the ruler of the “air” (likely referring to the world in which we live) (2:1-2). “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I (Jesus) have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10).
Does covid-19 or any other sickness and disease come from God? No! God heals sickness and disease as demonstrated by Jesus. “An enemy did this.” (Matt. 13:28). Why don’t we see global, universal healing? Because Jesus isn’t yet ruler of the world. Why is Jesus not fully in power? It’s because there is still an enemy and those who live according to the enemy’s ways. God’s power isn’t magical nor instantaneous, so it takes time for the enemy to be fully defeated and banished from the world. We’re still living in the midst of this. The good news is that God is good, has the power, and is in control (just not in a magical, instantaneous way). God can even bring good out of bad.