Bad things happen. The reality of calamity isn’t news to anybody. Just live long enough and you’ll know it firsthand. But the “why” question is usually what’s burning on everybody’s heart.
Do you ever wonder why bad things happen? I’m not talking about the immediate cause, like the accelerator sticking on a Toyota Camry. I’m talking about ultimate cause.
Now, the atheist has no trouble in this area. He doesn’t believe in a good god or any god for that matter. From his perspective, life is just hard, and then you die. Crap happens…deal with it. He sees the world as a dog-eat-dog place ruled by natural laws such as the Darwinian survival of the fittest. Calamity is just a natural thing to the atheist.
But for we theists—those of us who believe in God’s existence and personal activity in the world—calamity is not natural. The world as we know it was created with no bad thing in it and will eventually be restored to that state at the end of the age, but for now, we live in the in-between time filled with suffering and evil—calamity—which leads us to wonder why a good God would allow bad things to happen. God is good, yet there is misery and evil in the world. Indeed, that’s sort of a conundrum.
My hope in this essay is to begin to resolve the conundrum and answer the “why” question. In order to do this, we must first start with a brief doctrine of God. Three things must be understood as we approach this question.
God Is Creator of All Things
First, God is the creator of all things. We read in Genesis 1:1, In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Everything that exists finds its beginning in God—flowers, stars, dogs, rocks, black holes, angels (which include Satan and the other demons), humanity, etc.
God Is Sovereign
Second, God is sovereign, which means that He rules over His creation. He’s in control. Since He’s Creator, it’s only right that He’s also Ruler. I’m sure you know well that simple song celebrating God’s sovereignty “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” He certainly does.
God’s in control, but to what extent? Ephesians 1:11 tells us, also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will. Notice how the Scripture describes God here. God is the one who works all things after the counsel of His will. “All” includes everything. Indeed, the entirety of Scripture, which is God’s self-revelation, describes Him as completely sovereign. The great preacher Charles Spurgeon rightly described the extent of God’s sovereignty in this way, “I believe that every particle of dust that dances in the sunbeam does not move an atom more or less than God wishes—that every particle of spray that dashes against the steamboat has its orbit, as well as the sun in the heavens—that the chaff from the hand of the winnower is steered as the stars in their courses. The creeping of an aphid over the rosebud is as much fixed as the march of the devastating pestilence—the fall of sere leaves from a poplar is as fully ordained as the tumbling of an avalanche,” (“God’s Providence”).
Friend, God is intimately involved in the affairs of this world to the extent that nothing happens in the universe that God has not determined to bring about or let happen, including righteous, evil, and amoral events. God’s decision to act in this way is what we might call His secret will or sovereign will. If it happens, God at least allowed it to happen and (here’s the most important part) has a purpose for it happening.
I pray that this will be good news to you. Whatever tragedy or tribulation that’s hit your life, God has a purpose in it. It’s not random. It’s not chance or fate. It’s God’s purpose.
So, in God’s sovereign will, there are active facets (what God himself causes to happen) and passive facets (what God allows to happen). Now, let me clarify so that I’m not misunderstood: God does not cause people to sin, but He has determined or ordained that they will sin. The Bible is absolutely full of texts that support this, but let’s look at the premiere event that illustrates this truth—the crucifixion of Christ. We get the event itself in the Gospels, but God pulls back the curtain for us in the book of Acts and reveals to us the unseen.
- Acts 2:22-24, Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know— 23 this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death. 24 But God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power.
- Acts 4:24-28, And when they heard this, they lifted their voices to God with one accord and said, “O Lord, it is You who MADE THE HEAVEN AND THE EARTH AND THE SEA, AND ALL THAT IS IN THEM, 25 who by the Holy Spirit, through the mouth of our father David Your servant, said, ‘WHY DID THE GENTILES RAGE, AND THE PEOPLES DEVISE FUTILE THINGS? 26 THE KINGS OF THE EARTH TOOK THEIR STAND, AND THE RULERS WERE GATHERED TOGETHER AGAINST THE Lord AND AGAINST HIS CHRIST.’ 27 For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, 28 to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur.”
Both passages tell us that it was God’s plan for Jesus to be crucified. The Jews and Romans freely sinned (in other words, they murdered Christ because they wanted to), but at the same time, it was God’s plan that Christ be murdered. They did it “freely” because they did what they wanted to do. God did not constrain them or coerce them. Alluding to Acts 4:28, they freely did exactly what God had predestined to occur. So, God does not make people sin, but He has determined or ordained that they will sin.
One more thing must be said concerning this truth. Just because something is part of God’s sovereign will, that doesn’t mean He morally approves of it. God hates murder and lying and injustice (all of which were at play in the crucifixion of Jesus), and you can rest assured that the people involved are condemned for their actions. They did what they wanted to do! Nevertheless, it was all a part of God’s sovereign plan. God is completely sovereign.
God Is Good
Most certainly, God is good. Can you imagine the tyranny that would ensue if the Sovereign God wasn’t good? Thankfully His goodness controls His sovereignty. Two things must be said about God’s goodness. First, God himself in His character is good and is the final standard of good. These texts point us to this truth:
- Luke 18:19, And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.
- Psalm 100:5, For the Lord is good; His lovingkindness is everlasting And His faithfulness to all generations.
- Psalm 106:1, Praise the Lord! Oh give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; For His lovingkindness is everlasting.
- Psalm 107:1, Oh give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, For His lovingkindness is everlasting.
- Psalm 34:8, O taste and see that the Lord is good; How blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him!
Second, all that God does is good and worthy of approval. These texts point us to this truth:
- Genesis 1:31, God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
- James 1:17, Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.
- Romans 8:28, 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.
To summarize this brief doctrine of God, our good Creator God is completely sovereign.
Everywhere you look, you see calamity—bad things. Just pick up the daily newspaper or turn on your favorite news channel, and there you’ll see it as the leading story. As we try to answer the “why” question, it’s necessary to understand the two types of calamity.
The first type of calamity is what we might call natural calamity because this type has “nature” as its immediate cause. Some examples would be tragedy brought on by the following: tornados, cancer, earthquakes, heart attacks, droughts, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, being attacked by an animal, back injuries, and miscarriages. This type also includes what we would call accidental causes such as car accidents or falling off of a cliff, which are immediately brought on by the physical laws of nature.
The second type of calamity is what we might call moral calamity because this type has human sin as its immediate cause. Some examples would be tragedy brought on by the following: adultery, murder, theft, abortion, and slander.
It’s important to say that both types are a result of the Fall of Adam and Eve. When sin entered the world, calamity of both types entered with it. These things did not happen in the Garden of Eden before the Fall and will not be found after Christ comes back in the age to come.
And now for the rub: given that our Creator God is a good and complete sovereign, there is still calamity in the world. Why is that?
We basically have three options on the “why” question from a theistic viewpoint.
Option 1 – Calamity exists because God can’t stop it. It’s in no way a part of God’s plan. He never meant for suffering and evil to be, but due to His inability, it’s simply out of His control. He really wants it to stop, but there’s nothing He can do about it. The world has sort of become a Frankenstein’s monster, and the only way to stop the consequences of God’s creation is to destroy it, if He can.
Option 2 – Calamity exists because God has chosen to give humanity libertarian freedom, which they’ve misused. Again with this option, calamity is in no way a part of God’s plan. It’s out of His control by choice. God would have the world exist otherwise, but He’s relinquished control, and humans have taken it a different direction. From this viewpoint, God values our libertarian freedom more than His sovereignty and our comfort.
The first two options have this commonality: God never intended for calamity to exist. It wasn’t part of His plan. Of course, there is a difference between the two options.
Option 1 is blatantly unbiblical because it says that there are things in the universe that God cannot control even if He wants to. This option flies squarely in the face of Scripture and offers us no hope. The Bible promises that God will triumph over evil, but if He was unable to stop it in the beginning, He’ll likely be unable to stop it in the end. This option’s basic answer is, “Sorry, stuff happens. Just deal with it.” You see, you can only assure that which you control. As we’ll see in a moment, option 1 is out of the question in light of Scripture.
Option 2 is espoused by many people, but I believe it also falls short of the totality of scriptural teaching. From this viewpoint, God has no purpose for the existence of calamity other than maintaining libertarian human freedom. This option just doesn’t fully square with all the purposes revealed in Scripture. Furthermore, this option is very man-centered, which the Bible is not, and again, offers us little hope in the middle of calamity. God is posited as the “cosmic mess-cleaner-upper” who’s always trying to work our foul-ups for good. This option basically says, “Sorry, stuff happens, but God wants to make it better.” Many thoroughgoing, Bible-believing Christians land on this option. Therefore, I want to tread lightly here, but as we’ll see in a moment, option 2 is not the best answer in light of Scripture.
The Best Biblical Answer
Option 3 – Calamity exists because God desires to use it for His glory and our good. From this viewpoint, calamity is part of God’s plan. He meant for suffering and evil to be because He values His greater glory and our greater good more than our comfort. Don’t misunderstand me here. I’m not saying that God is evil or loves evil or does evil or makes a person do evil. I’m saying that God, for greater purposes, chose to allow suffering and evil into His creation.
The Scripture bears forth at least 5 specific purposes for why God desires to use calamity for His glory and our good.
1) To glorify Himself forever in His Son Jesus Christ
God’s ultimate will is that He be gloried forever in His Son Jesus Christ. If we will get this one purpose, everything will come into focus. Revelation 13:8 is incredibly important here, All who dwell on the earth will worship [the beast], everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain. That verse basically says that Jesus was slain from the foundation of the world. The King James Version says it more clearly, And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship [the beast], whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. Either way you slice it, Jesus dying on the cross was God’s plan before He created the world, before the Fall. Jesus is not Plan B or the emergency plan that had to be implemented in the Garden of Eden. Jesus is and always has been Plan A. You see, God is both eternally love and wrath. We see both at the cross of Christ. Furthermore, redemption is more glorious than the perpetual Garden of Eden or consigning everybody to hell. If God had not allowed evil into the world, there would be neither the cross nor the glory of the cross.
2) To accomplish His purposes
Proverbs 16:4 says, The Lord has made everything for its own purpose, even the wicked for the day of evil. We see this in the life of Joseph:
- Genesis 50:20, As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.
We see this in the life of Pharaoh:
- Exodus 4:21, The Lord said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders which I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go.
- Exodus 7:3, But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart that I may multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt.
- Romans 9:17, For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “FOR THIS VERY PURPOSE I RAISED YOU UP, TO DEMONSTRATE MY POWER IN YOU, AND THAT MY NAME MIGHT BE PROCLAIMED THROUGHOUT THE WHOLE EARTH.”
We see this in the life of Job, whose family was devastated by the Sabeans, fire from heaven, the Chaldeans, and a great wind:
- Job 1:21-22, He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, And naked I shall return there. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” 22 Through all this Job did not sin nor did he blame God.
We see this in the death of Christ, as I’ve already stated:
- Acts 4:27-28, For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, 28 to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur.
God never does evil or makes somebody do evil. Furthermore, we can never use the excuse of God’s will to do evil. God has clearly commanded in Scripture, which is the revealed will of God, to never sin. Nevertheless, we do see from Scripture that God sinlessly uses sinful acts of humanity to accomplish His good purposes.
3) To deepen our dependence on and hunger for God
Why do you think the gospel spreads so much more rapidly in Third World countries? I think it’s because they don’t have all the junk that we have to pacify or satisfy them. Many Americans aren’t impressed with the rewards God puts before us because they’re pleased enough in this life, but that’s why events of suffering and loss through calamity are so important. They shake us out business as usual so that we’ll turn from temporal joy and be prepared for eternal joy. It’s in these moments that we realize that all we have is Christ, and Christ really is enough. God uses seasons of tragedy and loss to drive men to the cross of Christ for salvation and then to greater depths of dependence upon the Lord.
The Scripture bears this out:
- Romans 5:1-5, Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God. 3 And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; 4 and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; 5 and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.
- 2 Corinthians 4:7, But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves;
- 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself! 8 Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. 9 And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.
4) To make us into Christ’s likeness
Comfort and goodwill are nice, but there’s something that God desires so much more for our lives, namely that we would be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. God does this in many ways, but one of the ways He does this is through calamity.
Notice two of several passages that bear this truth:
- 1 Peter 4:12-13, Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; 13 but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation.
- Romans 8:28-29, 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. 29 For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren;
God loves us enough to conform us to the image of Jesus Christ. Calamity is simply one of the tools in the Potter’s hand.
5) To bring about judgment and discipline
For those that are not God’s children, judgment is brought about through calamity. We see in Genesis 13:13, Now the men of Sodom were wicked exceedingly and sinners against the Lord. This pagan city, along with Gomorrah, had become a bastion for evil. And so what did the Lord do? We read later on in Genesis 19:24-25, Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven, 25 and He overthrew those cities, and all the valley, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground. The cities with their inhabitants were utterly destroyed by fire from heaven. This example is just one of many in the Bible where God uses calamity to judge those who refuse to worship Him.
However, for those that are God’s children, calamity is used to discipline us. The following texts point this truth out:
- Jeremiah 19:15, Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, “Behold, I am about to bring on this city and all its towns the entire calamity that I have declared against it, because they have stiffened their necks so as not to heed My words.”
- Hebrews 12:7, It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline?
- Revelation 3:19, Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent.
God governs the course of history so that, in the long run, His glory will be more fully displayed, His people will be more fully satisfied in Him, and His people will be more conformed to Christ than they would have been otherwise. Corrie ten Boom, a Jewish Christian Holocaust survivor, expresses this truth this way, “Although the threads of my life have often seemed knotted, I know, by faith, that on the other side of the embroidery there is a crown.” An unknown poet captured the same metaphorical insight in the poem “The Plan of the Master Weaver”:
My life is but a weaving between the Lord and me,
I may not choose the colors,
He knows what they should be
For He can view the pattern upon the upper side,
While I can see it only on this, the under side…
Sometimes He weaveth sorrow, which seemeth strange to me,
But I will trust His judgement, and work on faithfully,
‘Tis He who fills the shuttle, and He knows what is best,
So I shall weave in earnest, leaving to Him the rest…
Not till the loom is silent and the shuttles cease to fly
Shall God unroll the canvas and explain the reason why –
The dark threads are as needed in the Weaver’s skillful hand
As the threads of gold and silver in the pattern He has planned.
What a beautiful way of expressing God’s truth! The fabric of our life is made up of many threads. Some of the individual threads are ugly and full of heartache while others are beautiful and full of gladness. However, when we step back and gaze upon the finished product, there is beauty and glory way beyond any individual thread. God is certainly working out a good plan!
May you entrust your souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right!