Some time ago, a friend and I were discussing the sufferings of a mutual acquaintance, which include a major car wreck that occurred several years back. A drunk driver had barreled his semi truck into, over, and through a handful of other vehicles. One man had died. The man we knew had escaped serious injuries, but his wife required surgery and a long and painful recovery.
We were thankful that they had both survived, and that by God’s grace their children hadn’t been in the car, but my friend professed a discomfort with people who had said that this accident—or any other tragedy we hear about—was “God’s will.” My companion felt it made God out to be cruel, to chalk up to his will any and all suffering that befalls humanity. “I think there’s room for accidents,” he said.
This answer to the problem—which I had not felt to be a problem until I heard my friend’s solution—dissatisfied me immediately. It didn’t seem to let God off the hook at all, and I said so. If the Power behind the cosmos is both omniscient and omnipotent, what does accident mean in relation to his will? Whether or not he liked a thing, don’t we have to admit he’s at least consenting to every fact of the earth’s history if he has allowed them to come into being? The all-knowing, all-powerful God we both believe in was fully aware of every event, momentous or minuscule, tragic or triumphant, and had the ability to intervene and prevent any of them. Was God any less responsible, I asked, if he sat passively by and allowed suffering to go forward, than if it was one of his own acts?
My buddy wasn’t inclined to wade into these waters, and veered off into a parsing of Calvinism. But I couldn’t see that it mattered whether the car wreck had been ordained to happen as soon as the universe was created or could have been prevented by our free will: the result was the same. God, who held the last and highest veto, hadn’t used it. People had been hurt, someone had died, and to say the Almighty hadn’t been implicated seemed like nonsensical, wishful thinking.
The conversation rolled over in my mind for days and then weeks. And the more I wrestled with it, the less it seemed that God was shying away from initiating suffering—or was interested in passing the buck as to his part in it. Paul says he was given a “thorn in the flesh” to keep him from getting big-headed over all the visions and insider news he was receiving. The precise nature of the “thorn” he leaves us to speculate over, but he does disclose it to be “a messenger of Satan to buffet me,” which I find just a bit terrifying. And when Paul, apostle to the Gentiles, peeker into the Heavenlies, prays for the affliction to be removed, what he gets is an eloquent but firm Nope. “That devil-thorn is doing my will in you,” God says.
Okay, yes, we know that the Lord uses pain to refine us, bring us closer to him, make us more like him. I acknowledge its efficiency as a tool for spiritual surgery on the diseased soul. I’ve had some work done myself along those lines. But then I got to thinking back over the Job story. You can’t fool around with the Problem of Suffering and/or Evil for long without smacking headlong into miserable, potsherd-scraped Brother Job—the actual first of us to say, “I wish I’d never been born.”
But what had never jumped out at me before was how Job’s woes get started, or you might say, instigated. At the opening Job is sitting fat and happy, acknowledged to be a really good dude, “a blameless and upright man.” Things are going great for him, and when the Devil saunters into God’s court, he isn’t thinking of Job at all. And then God points to Job and calls Satan’s attention to him. He throws down a gauntlet, knowing full well it will be snatched up, and what that will mean for his golden-boy Job. Now we’re looking at something different from using suffering in order to bring us to repentance or prune off something wicked in us. Job was blameless and upright. He was thinking of God day and night, getting up early to pray for his kids and offer sacrifices not just on his behalf, but theirs. The Lord himself holds Job out as the model. But he also holds him out as Devil-bait, and when the hook is set he says, to our ancient enemy and his, “Behold, he is in your hand.”
Might the first sin signify not the derailing of God's intended purpose for humankind, but the commencement of our journey toward that purpose? Matthew Cyr
How this aspect of the story had never joggled my brain before, I couldn’t fathom. God had not just green-lighted Job’s anguish; he had all but whistled to the Adversary and said “Sic ‘em!” But it was so much worse even than that, I realized. Because how did there come to be such a thing as a Satan at all? If it bothered me that my Lord had put Job in the crosshairs, knowing all that his words would set in motion, how was I to think of God creating the archangel that he knew would go astray and become the Devil? Like building an angelic Doomsday device that would unleash every horror and hurt that’s ever rained down on us. I worked the thing backward and forward like it was a Rubik’s cube, and there was no getting around it; at some particular moment in the all-of-this that we call Creation, there had existed no such entity as would go on to open Pandora’s box, and the next moment, there had been. And in that moment of calling Lucifer into being, God had been aware of every sad and loathsome particle of our pain down through the centuries, and of our participation in evil which he was making not just possible, but inevitable.
I thought back to an essay by Helena Sorensen from a couple years ago, “The Failings of Eden,” in which she suggests that the eating of the forbidden fruit was something more than our tragic and disgusting rejection of God’s divine Plan A, to be answered with a cobbled-together Plan B involving millennia of Curse and Law and Blood. What if, she asks, what we call The Fall was a necessary step in God’s raising of children that are not just of him, but in him? Joined to him, at one with him? Might the first sin signify not the derailing of God’s intended purpose for humankind, but the commencement of our journey toward that purpose?
These words troubled me when the essay went up. Sin is bad, God hates sin…how could it be part of the plan? I remember feeling that the piece minimized—even attempted to justify—that which we’ve always been warned against, that which has separated us all these generations from the One who is our Joy and our Life. But now, the longer I think about all the arrangements the Lord has made for sin to exist, the harder it becomes to disagree with Helena. There’s the Enemy’s existence: if we can’t quite say God made a Devil, he knowingly made a being ticking down to converting itself into one. But going on from there, he made a garden and gave the serpent access. The intimidating cherubim watchdog wasn’t set at the gate until after Adam and Eve were evicted. God intervenes to keep them away from the Tree of Life, but not the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. And what of that tree? How did it come to be in the Garden, and why? Who was it for? Our Father even creates opportunity by his absence; he is clearly not immediately at hand while the firstlings are listening to snake-talk and eating fruit. He has withdrawn, the training wheels are off, and the moment he’s orchestrated has come. They will either obey or eat, and God knows they will eat.
What do we do with this? We’ve long heard and said that God saw the Cross and chose the Cross from before he fashioned a man from dust—from before the words “let there be light.” God made a dark place knowing he would bring light to it. But I’m not sure how I ever believed words like omniscience and omnipotence had meaning, yet failed to see the ramifications of Genesis 3. I can’t dodge that there is some sense in which God, not just man or devil, is at the back of the huge groaning weight of suffering and sin. And I still love him, to the feeble extent that I’m able, and call him “Father,” and believe that he loves me. To say that these two things are not easy to reconcile doesn’t begin to touch it.
Why must we take such a long and rocky detour to endless Joy? Matthew Cyr
And yet, there is the Cross. It stands searing and impossible in the dead center of history, the axis on which all creation turns. In my most lucid, clear-sighted moments, it’s an effective deterrent to any complaint or accusation I might bring against my Maker. Because the collective suffering of the cosmos wasn’t merely, or even primarily, suffered by us. He himself took the brunt of it like a titanic hammer blow, leaving us a mere tinge. All the most searing pains, the bottomless depths of loss and grief that we experience, are just a shade and a trace of what he got. It often doesn’t feel that way, and I’m not always clear-sighted, but when I look long at him sweating drops of blood into the dirt of Gethsemane—watering a garden, another garden, with his pain—I admit it to be true. I’ve known hurts I didn’t think I could bear, and still I’ve never experienced hematidrosis, when severe psychological stress overloads the sympathetic nervous system, and the body’s neurons fire to the point of bursting the skin’s capillaries. But Jesus experienced it, and that wasn’t even the actual suffering and sacrifice he made for us—only the anticipation of it.
I am grateful, I am awed…and still I have nagging questions. Even if he paid the cost that is beyond my comprehension, it’s an answer to sin without being a why. Why must there be a cost at all? Why not seal out the serpent, annihilate him, never make him in the first place? Why plant forbidden fruit? Ought not our Paradise have been safe and secure, that we could have enjoyed it with God forever in innocence, our naked pink skins bathing eternally in his radiance? Why must we take such a long and rocky detour to endless Joy?
I begin to suspect the inherent impossibility of such a thing as a free-will universe in which sin never occurs. This puts me in disagreement with my beloved C. S. Lewis, who said that if there turns out to be other sentient and soul-bearing species in the cosmos, we need not assume they’re fallen like we are. In his (ingenious) book Perelandra he even depicts a version of “Eden” rescued from its serpent and its fall, though this requires the protagonist’s—as well as divine—intervention, which I think undermines his argument a bit. But imagine for a moment that God had just skipped over the making of Lucifer. Was there no other capable of falling? Whichever of the angelic host was the first and most ready to follow the Enemy into rebellion, might he not have eventually found his way to mutiny on his own? And if this fellow was in turn omitted, could not another at some point have set up on his own and authored sin, and so on? Until everyone right down to me and you have to be excluded from Creation? Can God make a universe of free beings with the capacity to choose self, and none of them ever—ever—exercise it?
Maybe by keeping them infants. Maybe by putting up baby gates around Eden—childproofing it within, hedging off or eliminating any negative influence from without—our innocence could have been protected, extended into infantile infinity. Though I’m not positive we couldn’t find our way to sinfulness even then. But how if no Tree of Knowledge had been made? Nothing off limits, nothing made available that was prohibited?
The Lord who bled and wept will not make light of our sufferings, but will make Light of them. Matthew Cyr
Yes, disobedience is rendered impossible. But is not also the fuller understanding of what it means for God to be good—and how much he loves us? Is ignorance, in the end, blissful? And even if blissful, best? Do we not then remain contented babies forever? But if we are to bear his image to the fullest extent a created being can, if we are to grow more in mind and spirit like him, if we are even to grow at all, must not we learn some of those things only God originally knew? Without ever experiencing godlessness, could one ever know a true God-full-ness? “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil,” says the Lord God when the fruit has been eaten. It has the tone not of lamentation or condemnation, but of pronouncement. It now sounds to me like an inauguration, like a “So it begins” that can perhaps be set against the “It is finished” upon the bruising of the serpent’s head.
So here we find ourselves: pilgrims. We travel through darkness and doubt and despair, we take the long way around. We know Goodness as a gleam far off, as a whispered rumor, as a recurring dream. Evil we know because we slog through it either toward or away from those echoes, those glimpses of distant light. We come to God bloodied and torn, if we come at all. But the Light is real, blazing amid the darkness, and when we do come to the God who made us in his image before making himself into ours, there is another “So it begins” even more powerful than that first. A new birth, into something that can be both childlike and knowing, as free and innocent as the dove yet as wise as the serpent.
And here, I think, I begin to see some of the why of the enormous sin and suffering that an all-wise and ever-loving God did not prevent. The twice-born grow to be sons and daughters that can know firsthand those murky depths the serpent wanted to drag us down to, and still behold the Father’s face with joy, and throw up their arms to him to be embraced. In her essay, Helena Sorensen quoted once again those oft-repeated lyrics:
And when the world is new again And the children of the King Are ancient in their youth again, Maybe it’s a better thing, a better thing To be more than merely innocent, But to be broken, then redeemed by love “Don’t You Want To Thank Someone” —Andrew Peterson
And with trembling I think I agree, despite the cost—to us and to him. I’m not discounting how hard it’s been for you, or for me, sometimes. The consequences of feeding ourselves on something beside God are so real and intense all around us. Dare we tell the grief-ravaged that it will be worth it in the end, that there can be anything to come that will balance the scales?
I think we must dare. Because there are still more echoes and gleams of something in the distance, something we are coming to. The Lord who bled and wept will not make light of our sufferings, but will make Light of them. I think we must dare believe that when evil and pain at last are slain, the revealed beauty and goodness of the Lord will make us glad even of our sufferings—glad that his love and power have been shown forth through them. Then we will have grown to be the kind of children capable of loving him with such abandon that even our most heart-rending experiences in the Shadowlands will be significant in that they display his glory.
“To glorify God and enjoy him forever” to degrees we can’t now comprehend: that is the end he was shaping for us when he laid out a garden with serpent-sized gaps in the hedge. To remember the hellishness from which we were rescued and yet bask in God’s love, to have once marched with the rebel forces and now be cherished sons and daughters, these are the things that the angels can never know, but “long to look into.” As the Great Story unfolds, they will only be able to marvel in deepening astonishment and praise as we, God’s later children, grow ever closer to him in love, our capacity for joy in him ever increasing, and his likeness shining out from us ever more clearly.