About: this paper was delivered to Dr. Libby Vincent at Fuller Theological Seminary during my first year for a class on systematic theology.
Why is there suffering in this life? Some argue that it is by the hand of evil that suffering comes. But this answer naturally leads to another question, which asks, “Where did evil come from?” Some argue that God created evil in his sovereignty, while others argue differently. Suffering and evil pose a large problem for many, especially when it comes to placing faith in God. Not only does it pose a problem for people, but also for theology. There are many systematic theological interpretations and views, but many—if not all—do not do well in answering the problem of suffering and evil. And how exactly do systematic approaches attempt to answer the problem of evil? The answer rests in the interpretations of the doctrine of the providence and sovereignty of God.
However, there is a problem in this doctrine, because God is an infinite God, which means that finite humans cannot completely understand him in his nature and in his ways, meaning that we cannot infallibly know the providence and sovereignty of God. Although we may not fully comprehend the eternal God, we can examine several different interpretations and applications of the doctrines of the providence and sovereignty of God to the problem of suffering and evil in an effort to determine how we might apply them to the problem ourselves in our lives and ministries. The application of this theology is absolutely imperative, for as faith without works is dead (cf. James 2:14ff.), so also is theology without practice. Yet, before we can apply our theology, we must first come to an understanding of the doctrine of the providence and sovereignty of God. We will first define our terms, and second we will examine the major systematic approaches—Arminianism, Calvinism, Open Theism and Molinism—to the providence and sovereignty of God before looking at how each fails in dialogue with the problem of suffering and evil. Then, we will look at other views and interpretations before we determine the best way to approach an answer to our problem before we get practical.
Providence and Sovereignty in Dialogue with Suffering and Evil
Sovereignty and Providence
Before we look at systematic approaches to the providence and sovereignty of God, we ought to define what it is that we are specifically looking at. Providence is understood in the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 as God’s power upholding creation while at the same time ruling over creation in such a way that every single event, whether rain drops or hurricanes, sickness or health, or life or death, is not happenstance, but rather by his hand (Migliore 2004, 118). Therefore, the providence of God includes his sovereignty, which is his supreme control over all things, including humanity (Geisler 1999, 15). The various approaches looked at below, however, take different interpretations of these definitions. We should grasp these different views in order that we might learn how we can apply God’s providence and sovereignty to the problem of suffering and evil.
The sovereignty of God in Arminian theology does not mean determinism, but rather, a control over all things that is not absolute, meaning it is not meticulous in governance to the point that it excludes human free will (Olson 2006, 116). In other words, the sovereignty of God in Arminianism upholds that God has a contingent control over all of creation, including humanity, whom He has given the right to choose. The providence of God is understood in the classical sense in Arminian theology in three parts: God’s preserving (sustaining); concurring; and governing (2006, 117). God’s sustaining means the providential preservation of creation, which includes the laws of nature (2006, 117). God’s concurrence is his consent for any and all of creation’s choices and actions (2006, 117). God’s governance involves how God governs, rules, leads and guides the world (2006, 117). It is in the interpretation of how God governs that Arminian theology is different from Calvinism and the others.
Arminian theology upholds that the governance of God involves his exercise of control, but that he does not use that control to the point that he excludes human free will nor does it make him the creator of evil (Olson 2006, 117). In fact, Arminians reject meticulous control on the basis that it will not make God the author of sin and evil (2006, 118). However, Arminians do argue that God “indirectly [causes sin and evil] to happen; God renders it certain because he wants it to happen for some greater good and ultimately for his own glory” (2006, 119). The issue for Arminians is not that they deny the sovereignty and providence of God, because they actually uphold it, but they interpret them differently than Calvinists and others do (2006, 119). Yet, Calvinists and others seem to have a misunderstanding of Arminian theology, because they often claim that Arminians deny the sovereignty of God on the basis that God’s sovereignty is incompatible with human free will.
Calvinist authors Robert A. Peterson and Michael D. Williams, in Why I am Not an Arminian, write that Arminian theology is lead by human free will toward an indeterminist incompatibilism, where divine sovereignty and human free will are incompatible, because human beings are free, which means that God simply cannot be sovereign over the history of humanity (2004, 138). In other words, Calvinists argue that Arminians believe that if our choices are determined and are therefore necessary, then such decisions are not actually free, meaning that humans are not responsible for their choices (2004, 138). Furthermore, they argue that Arminians believe that because the Bible declares humans are morally responsible for their choices, God must not determine human choices; therefore, he is not sovereign (2004, 139). These arguments may be true of some Arminians, but certainly not all, as Roger E. Olson, an Arminian and a theology professor, has contested in his book, Arminian Theology: myths and realities, that “Classical Arminians do believe in God’s sovereignty and providence over human history” (2006, 119).
Arminian theology believes in the providence and sovereignty of God, despite what outside critics say, but Arminians define sovereignty in such a way that they do not uphold meticulous governance. Human free will is important in Arminianism, but it is not the sole feature of God’s providence. Arminian theology believes God does not meticulously govern and determine every little detail of our lives, particularly our choices and actions, but he is still sovereign and in control over all that happens in creation so that he points all things to a good end (Olson 2006, 121). For Arminians, “God’s governing providence is comprehensive and active without being all-controlling or omnicausal” (2006, 121).
Whereas the sovereignty of God in Arminian theology does not mean determinism, in Calvinistic theology it does (Geisler 1999, 17). God’s sovereignty means that he has absolute control of all things (1999, 15). Therefore, Calvinistic theology upholds the providence of God as meticulous governance with his absolute control over all things (Peterson and Williams 2004, 144). In other words, God’s providence means that he oversees and guides all of creation (2004, 157). Calvinists believe that God governs all things in his sovereignty, and that nothing that comes to pass has any effect on his sovereign ordinances (Walls and Dongell 2004, 122). In fact, God knows all things, including what humans will do in the future, precisely because he has determined beforehand what they will decide to do and what actions they will perform” (2004, 122). This determination is part of the Calvinist’s doctrine of the theology of the governance of God, which is part of the doctrine of providence. Calvinism varies drastically from Arminianism simply in the determinism factor in the governance of God.
There is some diversity in Calvinistic theology, however, just like any systematic theology, when it comes to interpreting how the determinism of all events affects human free will. Some Calvinists actually sacrifice human free will in order to uphold God’s sovereignty, thus denying the whole of the biblical corpus in an effort to uphold one facet of Scripture. However, there are Calvinists who, although they believe in meticulous determination, uphold human free will in tension with God’s sovereignty as two noncontradictory parts to the whole of providence. Norman L. Geisler, a moderate Calvinist (as opposed to an extreme Calvinist), views providence like a two-sided coin: one side is the divine sovereignty of God; on the other is human responsibility or free will (1999, 19). Geisler argues that there is no contradiction between the two in chapter three of his book, Chosen But Free: a balanced view of divine election. Geisler points out what he calls the law of noncontradiction, which states that there is a contradiction only “if two logically opposite statements are said of the same thing at the same time and in the same relationship” (1999, 46). Because foreknowledge and determination are in different relationships to events than human free will, there is no contradiction between the two. For example, to say that Jesus’ death on the cross was determined by God and to also say that Jesus’ death on the cross was freely chosen by Jesus himself is “not contradictory because they are said in a different relation (or ‘sense’)” (1999, 46). However, to say Jesus freely chose it and to say Jesus did not freely choose it would be a contradiction, or to say God determined it and to say God did not determine it would too (1999, 46). Geisler successfully demonstrates that providence is not self-contradicting, but it does pose a mystery for humans.
Other Calvinists, like Peterson and Williams, seem to claim mystery as an ignorant end-all argument, which emphasizes that God is infinite and we cannot understand how in his Sovereignty and meticulous control over all our decisions and actions we can have free will and be held morally responsible for them. This argument is based on the sole fact that the Bible inevitably teaches both, and it is therefore not contradictory (Peterson and Williams 2004, 149). Despite the fact that the sovereignty of God and human free will seem to overlap or even call each other into question throughout Scripture, the Bible teaches both, so Calvinists affirm both, and many claim that the two are compatible without ever working them out as such (2004, 1999). However, this argument presupposes a major and vital assumption: the Bible is the inerrant Word of God. Because Calvinists assume that the Bible cannot be wrong, they also believe that it can in no way be in contradiction to itself. This logic invariably means that since the Bible affirms both God’s sovereignty and human free will, they must in some way not be contradictory, else the Word of God be erroneous. For Peterson and Williams, this argument is good enough on its own and how God’s sovereignty and human free will work out in the providence of God does not need any further explanation. However, this reasoning will not work for many looking with a critical eye at the issue of providence, and so this understanding poses a problem for critical thinkers.
Calvinists believe in the sovereignty of God and the meticulous governance of all creation. However, human free will is in fact important in Calvinistic theology and is not completely discarded for the sake of God’s sovereignty, but it is still subject to the providence and sovereignty of God (Peterson and Williams 2004, 144). For Calvinists, God’s sovereign lordship over “his creation includes the moral responsibility and freedom of human beings” (2004, 144).
Many Arminian or incompatibilist critics seem to confuse these groups with Open Theists, who are actually different from those who uphold Arminian theology. Open Theism is actually the theology that denies the sovereignty of God in its traditional sense, not Arminianism. Open Theists uphold that traditional views of God have been largely shaped by Greek philosophy rather than by biblical exegesis (Walls and Dongell 2004, 142). For this reason, Open Theists argue that doctrines dealing with God as absolutely immutable or unchangeable are ones that were influenced by Greek philosophy rather than by Scripture (2004, 142). Furthermore, Open Theists believe that God is omniscient only in the sense that God knows all that can be known or what is logically possible to know (2004, 142). Since future events are up to humans to choose and enact, in order to be truly free they cannot be known by God according to Open Theists, who determine that God must not know future free events, but he still knows all things that are logically possible to know (2004, 142). Open Theists are making their argument that God knows only that which can be known on the basis of the limitations understood in the doctrine of omnipotence. The logic of Open Theists is as follows:
Most traditional accounts of omnipotence do not claim that God can do literally
anything. Rather, they hold only that God can do anything that is logically possible and
compatible with his perfect nature. Thus God cannot lie or make a square circle. . . .
The fact that God cannot make square circles or married bachelors does not in any way
detract from his perfect power. Similarly, it is argued, the fact that God cannot know
what is impossible to know does not detract from his perfect knowledge. If it is
impossible in principle to know future free actions, then omniscience does not pertain to
such action. (2004, 143)
God is viewed in Open Theism as all knowing of logical facts, but human freedom is unknown territory to God, yet this in know way diminishes his omniscience.
Therefore, in His sovereignty, God created a world that is “logically possible and compatible with his perfect nature” (Walls and Dongell 2004, 144). In his sovereignty, it is admitted by Open Theists, God could have created a world in which libertarian freedom did not exist, so that he meticulously controlled everything (2004, 144). However, because it is obvious that there is human freedom, God made a world in his sovereignty in which it functions from human free will rather than by meticulous control (2004, 145). Open Theists point out that this reason in no way diminishes the sovereignty of God; God is not less sovereign in a world he chose to grant free will any more than in a world where he meticulously determines everything (2004, 145). Therefore, sovereignty for Open Theism is simply human freedom to choose in accord with one’s will (2004, 145).
Open Theists continue their argument, claiming less control does not mean less sovereignty, because God himself chose to have less control” (Walls and Dongell 2004, 145). They do contend, however, that God still maintains control throughout all events. Therefore, Open Theists argue that life is like a chess game, where God is the chess master and we are the novices, so that even though God does not know all our exact moves until we actually make them, he does have ultimate control of life all throughout and will achieve his end goal, and nothing can catch God off-guard (2004, 146).
Open Theists deny the traditional understanding of sovereignty and completely uphold human free will. However, human free will was and is God’s will for us to have according to Open Theists, which means that God’s sovereignty is seen in the fact that we have free will. For Open Theism, providence is God’s sovereignty expressed in human free will combined with God’s intervention throughout history to bring about his end goal (Roy 2006, 261).
Molinism takes a “middle” approach to Calvinism and Arminianism. Now, by “middle” we do not mean in between Calvinism and Arminiansm, but rather in between natural and free knowledge. Molinism upholds middle knowledge, which is all knowledge that falls in the middle of natural and free knowledge. The natural knowledge of God is truths that are essential, meaning all truths that could not be other than they are, like mathematical truths (Walls and Dongell 2004, 135). The free knowledge of God is the opposite of natural knowledge, and it is truths that could have been other than they are (2004, 135). Middle knowledge, therefore, is everything in between these two in that it shares a characteristic from each, which is seen in the following statement:
On the one hand, it is similar to natural knowledge in that it is known by God prior to his decision to create and it does not depend on what he decides on that score. On the other hand, it is similar to free knowledge in the sense that it pertains to truths that are contingent rather than necessary. . . . the object of middle knowledge, broadly speaking, is what all possible created free wills would do in all possible circumstances or states of affairs. (2004, 135)
Therefore, Molinism is represented in this conditional statement: “If A, then Y, but if B, then Z”; and so on and so forth. Middle knowledge itself is God’s knowledge of all possible employments of free will in any given event or choice, including the one that will actually be employed (2004, 134). Providence is therefore seen in Molinism as God’s arrangement of the world as he chooses in accordance with his middle knowledge (2004, 137).
In Molinism, God has no control of his middle knowledge (Walls and Dongell 2004, 137). Yet, even though he does not have control over it, he does possess such knowledge. In terms of the providence of God, Molinism gives an explanation for how God can have control over various circumstances without being a determinist of human choices (2004, 138).
Molinism suffers from its inability to work out God’s foreknowledge with middle knowledge. It does not logically work to exaplain “how God can have foreknowledge of our future free choices as well as the middle knowledge on which such foreknowledge depends” (Walls and Dongell 2004, 141). Like some Calvinists who claim ignorance, it has been suggested within the Molinist interpretation that we simply need to embrace mystery at this juncture (2004, 138). On the basis that there are several things about God that we do not know and are a mystery to us, it seems fair to accept that we cannot even begin to understand how God knows future free choices (2004, 138). This ignorance causes a problem for us later on in our dialogue with suffering and evil, however.
Molinism upholds the sovereignty of God in His providence while still allowing for human freedom, but it goes beyond Arminianism or Calvinism by believing God knows all choices that one could make in addition to the one choice that one will make. God still has complete control while humans take their own paths, and God also knows all the possible paths that they could have also taken.
Suffering and Evil
Now that we know what it is exactly that we are looking at and the different interpretations involved, we can begin to look at how they interact with the problem of suffering and evil. The question is, “How can we affirm the providence of God in the face of evil and suffering?” The doctrine of providence really is haunted by the reality of evil, and therefore we ought to look at how the aforementioned systematic approaches attempt to solve the problem of suffering and evil.
Arminianism, Open Theism, and Molinism
Arminianism, Open Theism and Molinism, all operating off of the importance of human free will over or in the sovereignty of God, uphold that God is not the author of sin or of evil, but rather humans are. Since they have free will, the problem is not God’s, but humanity’s. Humans are responsible for all the suffering and evil that exists in the world, and in his Sovereignty, God permits and allows suffering and evil to exist as a result of human free will. In Open Theism, God does not actually intend for evil events and suffering to happen, but they happen because humans bring it upon themselves, and yet, at times God will turn the events of suffering and evil into good, and others he will intervene and keep them from happening at all (Roy 2006, 263). In Arminianism, God permits things to happen in his sovereignty, and to this permission he has ordained the events, but he can turn those events into good (Olson 2006, 119). In Molinism, God permits things to happen in his sovereignty, because in the end he knows that the bad events will eventually become good in the choices that we make along the way (Walls and Dongell 2004, 137-8). These answers to the problem of suffering and evil are helpful, but they are not flawless.
Because Calvinistic theology upholds that God is meticulously sovereign, it also upholds that God has ordained sin, evil and suffering since before the dawn of time. However, moderate Calvinists would say that the Bible does not say that God authored sin, evil or suffering. Therefore, Calvinism upholds that all events, the good and the bad, the directly and the indirectly caused, happen because God intends for them to happen (Walls and Dongell 2004, 127). Therefore, sin, suffering and evil do not exist outside of God’s sovereign rule (Peterson and Williams 2004, 158). However, Calvinism’s answer is not without its problems, either.
None of the aforementioned theological approaches can fully answer the problem of suffering and evil, which means we still have a problem. Calvinism suffers from the fact that it relies on philosophical judgments at particular theological junctures, especially here in the problem of suffering and evil (Walls and Dongell 2004, 149). In presenting its case for the providence of God in the problem of suffering and evil, “Calvinism depends on both a controversial philosophical judgment and a contested interpretation of Scripture” (2004, 149). As it is, popular Calvinism is not fully able to support its claims for the meticulous governance in suffering and evil. Arminianism and Molinism fail to address that God created the world knowing beforehand that sin and evil would eventually enter it, which in essence means that he ordained it from the beginning (Peterson and Williams 2004, 157). Molinism also suffers from the fact that it fails to logically work out God’s foreknowledge of future free choices with middle knowledge. Because it is not able to work this problem out, neither can it even begin to answer the problem of suffering and evil in God’s providence. Open Theism does not give any help in answering the problem of suffering and evil, because while humans are responsible for it, God still intervenes part of the time, but the problem then becomes why God does not intervene all the time (Roy 2006, 263). The question in Open Theism is, “By what basis ‘will God’s wisdom decide which evils to prevent and which to permit’ (2006, 263)?” None of these theologies have proven infallible. Now our question is, “What can we do as Christians who believe in the providence of God since suffering and evil exist?”
In every aforementioned systematic approach, no matter how we look at them, all of them uphold some sense of God’s providence and sovereignty. How, then, can we apply God’s providence and sovereignty to suffering and evil? The answer is simply to draw applications from the fundamental truth that God is in fact, whether we know how or not, in control of all things, events and people in some way or another. Daniel L. Migliore provides some helpful guidance in answering our problem in his book, Faith Seeking Understanding: an introduction to Christian theology. He does recognize that the providence of God is severely challenged by the reality of evil (2004, 118). To start, he explores how some theologians have looked at the providence of God in the past in relation to suffering and evil. First he looks at Augustine and then he looks at Calvin.
Migliore shows how Augustine talked of God’s allowing or permitting events to occur and uses all events, including the good and the bad, to accomplish his divine purposes. Migliore writes of Augustine’s understanding, “God exercises sovereignty over evil by bringing good out of what by itself is only negative and destructive” (2004, 122). In his City of God, Augustine wrote, “By the ineffable mercy of God even the penalty of man’s offense is turned into an instrument of virtue” (13.4). To sum up Augustine in the light of the way Migliore describes him and his theology of providence, he believes in a sort of salvage providence, where God obviously uses good events for his good purposes, but he also salvages bad ones and uses them for good purposes too. Calvin, however, does not see the providence of God in the same light.
Calvin upholds a providential micro-management. In this micro-management of God, things do not happen by fortune, chance or caprice, but by God’s secret plan (Migliore 2004, 122). In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin wrote, “[N]othing happens except what is knowingly and willingly decreed by God” (1960, 1.16.3). Everything that happens, whether good or bad, is specifically ordained by God as part of his meticulous plan according to Calvin as Migliore interprets.
It seems that the Arminian, Open Theistic and Molinistic theologies of the providence of God seem to align themselves with Augustine in some way or another, while Calvinism obviously follows Calvin. But these interpretations are not the only ones that exist. Building off of the systematic approaches, there are a number of various non-systematic interpretations that are quite practical in dealing with the problem of suffering and evil. Migliore highlights three other different yet practical answers to the problem of suffering and evil in the providence and sovereignty of God.
The first answer Migliore highlights is the incomprehensibility of God interpretation. This answer states, “We do not know why there is so much evil in the world, or why it is distributed so unevenly, but we are nevertheless to trust God and have patience” (2004, 123). This interpretation calls people to claim ignorance and that we do not need to understand why we are in a world with suffering and evil because God is God and we cannot conceivably fathom it. It is true that “[w]e must surely agree that our knowledge of God’s ways is limited and that sometimes silence is a far more appropriate response to the enormity of suffering than feeble attempts to answer the question why” (2004, 123). However, we really ought to be weary of suppressing all questions and be careful of encouraging the unchallenged acceptance of any or all suffering (2004, 123).
The second answer Migliore highlights is the punishment versus the chastisement of God interpretation. In this answer, suffering can be looked at in two different ways. It can be considered as the punishment of the wicked, or it can be considered as the chastisement of the children of God. This answer says, “[B]oth the good and the wicked receive what they deserve, if not in this life, then in the life to come” (Calvin 1960, 1.5.10). This interpretation calls people to unquestionably accept suffering and evil as part of either God’s punishment or chastisement. However, there is a problem with this answer, because Jesus explicitly calls this line of thinking into question, like in John 9:1-3 and Luke 13:4 for example (Migliore 2004, 124). Indeed, human actions have consequences, and sometimes a person’s reckless and sinful behavior brings suffering in its wake, but not all suffering can be caused by sin alone, and it certainly cannot be attributed solely to the sin of the one suffering (2004, 124).
The third answer Migliore highlights is a divine pedagogy interpretation. It states, “Christians are to view all suffering as an opportunity for spiritual growth” (2004, 124). This answer focuses on learning to have contempt for our present lives and to meditate on our future lives (2004, 124). This answer believes that “God sends poverty, bereavement, diseases, and other perils to wean us away from this earth, to cause us to fix our eyes on heaven rather than on the goods of the present life” (Calvin 1960, 3.9.1). This interpretation calls people to hate God-given life and place all hope in the future. Unfortunately, this answer is problematic, because it leans toward calling suffering itself good, and it seems to devalue this life for the sake of the next, at least at the surface level. Additionally, in this answer, Paul is often quoted to support it, but he must be understood in that his primary thinking of suffering is about events of suffering that are willingly assumed for the sake of Christ and the gospel, not for any or all suffering in general (Migliore 2004, 124-5). Furthermore, advocates of this divine pedagogy quote Romans 8:18 as proof, but Paul’s statement here “ought not to be used to obscure the distinction between suffering that is willingly accepted for the sake of God’s reign and suffering that arises from conditions that can and should be changed” (2004, 125). At best, in this answer we can learn from our suffering like Jesus did (Heb. 5:8), but we should not convert suffering into the general truth that it is good (2004, 125).
Thus far, none of the systematic approaches proved fully capable of providing a sound argument for the providence of God in the problem of suffering and evil, nor have any of the non-systematic answers proved completely sound. Where then shall we go? Shall we protest God and put him on trial for being silent and inactive in the midst of suffering and evil (Migliore 2004, 129)? Shall we affirm that God is in fact not all sovereign and give up hope (2004, 129)? Or shall we fall back on the idea that evil and suffering exist for the sole purpose of providing opportunities for us to grow and thus accept human suffering (2004, 130)? We can turn to two places in theology: first, the Trinity; and second, the fundamental premise of any orthodox theology that in some sense God is sovereign.
Turning to the Trinity
The Trinity would be a great place for us to turn to in order to understand the providence of God in dialogue with suffering and evil. When we look at the cross event in the Trinity, which was no doubt part of God’s plan and thus within His providential care, we see all of the suffering in the world as encompassed in the Son’s affliction, the Father’s grief, and the Spirit’s comfort, and it is the Spirit “who inspires courage and hope to pray and work for the renewal of all things” (Migliore 2004, 132). Therefore, we can “couple emphasis on the suffering of the triune God with hope in the eschatological victory of divine love over all evil and the participation of creation in God’s eternal joy” (2004, 133). We accept suffering in the present because we have hope in the future, knowing that God will eventually end all suffering and bring us into his eternal presence.
The central feature of the Trinitarian understanding of divine providence in dialogue with the problem of suffering and evil is fixed on the power love, which is at work in Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection (Migliore 2004, 133). This understanding is not based on the “logic of control” but on the “logic of Trinitarian love,” which is “the self-giving love of the creator, redeemer, and consummator of the world” (2004, 133). The Trinitarian view upholds that the “God who creates and preserves the world is not a despotic ruler but ‘our Father in heaven’; not a distant God but a God who becomes one of us and accompanies us as the incarnate, crucified, risen Lord; not an ineffective God but one who rules all things by Word and Spirit rather than by the power of coercion” (2004, 133). This Trinitarian power of love teaches us three lessons.
One, providence does not mean fatalism. Migliore writes, “The love of God the creator and provider is at work not only where life is sustained and enhanced but also where all that jeopardizes life and its fulfillment is resisted and set under judgment” (2004, 133). Therefore, the providence of the triune God does not foster fatalism, and evil itself is to be resisted, as seen in Romans 12:21, for example (2004, 134).
Two, God is always faithful. Migliore writes, “The love of God the redeemer is at work both in the heights and in the depths of creaturely experience, both when the creature is strong and active and when it is weak and passive” (2004, 134). As indicated in Romans 8:28, God is ever faithful (2004, 134). In fact, “God does more than work for the preservation of life and against all that threatens it; God also intimately accompanies creatures in their activity and in their suffering” (2004, 134). God is not so far removed from his creation that he does not or cannot relate with it, including events that are full of evil and suffering. Indeed, “God is present as co-sufferer with all the wretched of the earth, whether in cancer wards or in concentration camps” (2004, 134).
Three, new life testifies to God’s Spirit still at work. Migliore writes, “The love of God the sanctifier is at work everywhere, preparing for the coming reign of God, planting seeds of hope, renewing and transforming all things” (2004, 135). The simple fact of the matter is that the “appearance of new life in the midst of death, wherever it may occur, is a sign that God’s Spirit is still at work, transforming the groaning creation and moving it toward the completion of God’s purpose in Christ” (2004, 135).
Turning to Fundamental Sovereignty
The fundamental doctrine of sovereignty is also a great place to turn to in order to understand the providence of God in dialogue with suffering and evil. We must understand that at the very least “[w]e can be confident that God reigns and that evil is firmly under God’s control” (Migliore 2004, 123). This truth has three lessons.
First, this lesson “teaches us the humility to receive adversity from God’s hand even though we cannot understand the reason” (Migliore 2004, 123). Although we may or may not have it all figured out, we do know that God is sovereign; therefore, we ought to humble ourselves and accept God’s providential control over anything that happens to us, thus trusting in him to provide and care for us in the good and the bad events that fill our lives. Second, this lesson teaches us “to give thanks for the times when we prosper” (2004, 123). Because God reigns, when we come to times in our lives when we prosper, we ought to give thanks to God who has allowed us to prosper, or who has given us our prosperity. Third, this lesson teaches us that “trust in God’s providence sets us free from all undue anxiety and care” (2004, 123). The truth is that God’s reign over evil and all creation empowers us to trust God in all circumstances, even when things are looking grim.
Calvin sums these lessons up in these words: “[G]ratitude of mind for the favorable outcome of things, patience in adversity, and also incredible freedom from worry about the future all necessarily follow upon this knowledge [of providence]” (1960, 1.17.7). God’s providence leads believers to gratitude, patience and freedom. When we understand God’s providence in the general sovereignty of God, we learn to live through evil in the comfort of God’s power as he suffers with us while we work against suffering and evil.
Even though we might not understand God, His providence or His sovereignty completely, because we are finite creatures and He is the infinite Creator, we do know that in at least some sense He is in control over all things and events, and so we conclude that we can believe in God’s providence despite the problem of evil and suffering. Suffering and evil pose a huge problem for systematic theologians throughout the various theological interpretations that exist. None of the systematic approaches to the providence and sovereignty of God seem adequate enough to infallibly answer the problem of suffering and evil. Each one has its own faults. Other attempts to answer the problem of suffering and evil within the framework of God’s providence and sovereignty have proven practical but somewhat misleading, yet at least they are practical. Despite their shortcomings, the sovereignty of God in any orthodox biblical account of God should be recognized as a great source of comfort, because “God is in control and all things are indeed ordained and governed by him in some sense” (Wall and Dongell 2004, 151). Roy is right when he says, “[I]n and through every experience of suffering and evil, God is at work to accomplish his good purposes” (2006, 266). Therefore, there is hope in the midst of suffering and evil for all those who recognize in at least some sense that God is in fact in control over all creation and that nothing falls outside of his power and authority, and while suffering and evil pose a problem for theologians, they do not pose a problem for God.
Additionally, when we look at the cross event, we see a God who suffers alongside the sufferer—Jesus Christ. This fact also gives courage to those who affirm the providence of God to seek refuge in Him. Prayer becomes an essential tool for all those who are going through suffering or some sort of evil event, because it enables God to meet His children where they are at; through prayer God suffers with us, and through prayer we humble ourselves, yielding ourselves to God’s providential control. Furthermore, because God is in control, we can also thank him in prayer for the times that we prosper. But when we undergo suffering, we can approach him in prayer, express our anxiety and feelings to him, knowing that he has everything under control. We must learn to, in light of his sovereignty, humble ourselves and trust Him in times of suffering and evil, realizing that all trouble and hardship is “foreseen by God and ordered and used by him for their ultimate good” (Roy 2006, 266).
In light of all these interpretations, there are two things we must bear in mind as we learn about providence and sovereignty in tandem with suffering and evil. First, no image of God and no doctrine of providence “can be compelling that is not rooted in and tested by the gospel of the crucified Lord” (Migliore 2004, 137). Second, prayer is necessary in the life of the Christian and in theological work, “most especially in response to the continuing power of radical evil” (2004, 137). Although the search of faith for understanding never actually reaches full comprehension now in the present, “the call to discipleship in faith, hope, and love is clear. Christians know that they are summoned to watch, pray, and struggle for God’s new world of justice and peace in the company of all who are afflicted and cry for deliverance” (2004, 137).
Augustine. City of God. Quoted in Daniel L. Migliore. Faith Seeking Understanding: an
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Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004.
Calvin, Jean. 1960. Institutes of the Christian Religion. 2 vols. Ed. John T. McNeill.
Philadelphia: Westminster Press. Quoted in Daniel L. Migliore. Faith Seeking
Understanding: an introduction to Christian theology, 2nd ed., 122-4, n. 11, 14, 19.
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Geisler, Norman L. 1999. Chosen But Free: a balanced view of divine election. Minneapolis:
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Migliore, Daniel L. 2004. Faith Seeking Understanding: an introduction to Christian theology.
2nd ed. Grand Rapids and Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Olson, Roger E. 2006. Arminian Theology: myths and realities. Downers Grove: InterVarsity
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Walls, Jerry L. and Dongell, Joseph R. 2004. Why I am Not a Calvinist. Downers Grove: