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Does God Allow or Cause Bad Things?

A discussion of this came up in our church group last Sunday after a sermon on the life of Joesph, who–if you’re not familiar with the story–had a lot of bad breaks in life.

Does God, who is good, and loving, directly cause things like cancer, slavery, earthquakes, war, shootings, the death of children, terrorist attacks? I had a knee-jerk reaction and so did others, but with different conclusions. The typical Christian response is that God ‘allows’ these things to happen because we live in a fallen world, but that he doesn’t cause them directly.

I know what this means but for some reason when I hear this I envision God with one hand tied behind his back, shaking his head and waving on Satan and his minions as they wreak havoc and mayhem large and small. It gives me the idea that God is powerful but he can be persuaded to look the other way, forget his goodness for a time and just let bad stuff happen, as if perhaps he’s taking a break from being God? It also makes me feel as though when bad things happen there is a causal agent standing in between me and God, blocking us from each other, and keeping him from being active in my life. It feels fuzzy.

In Job’s story we have a suggestion of this. Satan asks permission to create disaster in Job’s life and receives it (with qualification) from the Almighty. The things Satan does to Job would make your hair curl. It gives us perspective as to the real relationship between God and Satan. Satan asks, God answers yes or no.

I wondered for a long time about the term ‘fear of God’. I didn’t like it, and I didn’t want to have to fear him. It seemed to fly in the face my concept of a God of love. You may recall CS Lewis instructing on the nature of God when describing the character of Aslan (the original Lion King) in his Narnia books, “Safe? Of course he’s not safe! But he’s good.” In the story of the Exodus we are told that “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” This is another piece of the puzzle. If Pharoah had been a great accommodating guy, the Israelites would never have wanted to leave Egypt and get to the Promised Land. The horrible medicine which must be swallowed is that great times and success do not really teach us anything. And let’s face it, we have not yet ‘arrived’.

Proverbs and Psalms reiterate, “The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.” Psalm 115:11 urges, “You who fear the Lord, trust in him.” It seems a contradiction. If you are afraid of someone can you still trust him or her? What about a firm but loving father? A competent sports coach? A military officer in charge of a troop of soldiers? A doctor who is going to perform surgery?

My problem is that I don’t always view fear as healthy. But a world without fear is downright deadly. If I don’t have a healthy fear for the yellow line while driving, or the flame on my gas stove, or the sound of a smoke alarm, consequences will quickly teach me or do me in.

Its easy to discuss this, to toss ideas around arguments when all seems to be going well. Such is the condition I found myself at the beginning of the discussion last week. It was a philosophical question. But life has brought trouble. I suddenly find the topic intensely personal. I once heard a man say to another man, “God’s playing rough with you, isn’t he?” That about sums it up.

This must be one of those times where truth is held in tension, where it exists in paradox. Paradox isn’t particularly comforting, but it does satisfy my need for categorizing and sorting the myriad of complexities that make up life on earth.

I started this post yesterday with no idea how to conclude. Just this morning came I across a phrase in Psalm 119:91 where the psalmist sings, “…all things serve you.” This is how I prefer to think about the world, that all events are in the service of God himself.

I do not know the hellish circumstances you will or are now having to endure. I hope that this will not come across as trite or callous. Life is all too often filled with pain. But from so very many sources including my own personal experience, I’m learning that growth, transformation, redemption and new beginnings can and do emerge from awful, even unspeakable things.

I’m resolving to fear and trust my Heavenly Father all at once. I find it is possible.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.


Artistic specialist, wonderer, idea maven, mom of four, and two more. Words and notes are my media of choice.