I agree, Jennifer, this can be a difficult and sensitive topic and one that can even cause tension within the church, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to discuss these sorts of topics here as we extend mercy and grace to one another just as we would to one outside the faith. I’d like to offer some thoughts and biblical texts in the interest of seeking how you and others understand them.
It may be challenging to believe, but some Christians, like me, hold precious and find great comfort and strength in affirming that God ordains even the suffering they endure because this suffering has intrinsic purpose because God ordained it for a purpose. It could be your fellow Sunday school class member feels this way.
With regard to how this relates to human responsibility, God’s foreordination, does not at all lessen my responsibility for my thoughts, emotions, and actions. A few examples of where God seems to ordain suffering for some good while not relieving human responsibility that come to mind are:
- Joseph sold into slavery: God meant/intended/planned the evil committed by Joseph’s brothers for good, but his brothers committed evil (Genesis 50:20)
- Israelites’ slavery: God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 7:3, et al); God hardened his heart for his glory (Exodus 14:4, 17-18); Pharaoh was responsible for hardening his heart (Exodus 8:15, 32, 9:34, et al)
- Job: God pointed Satan to Job and handed Job over (Job 1:8, 1:12, 2:6), but Satan did the tempting; All the suffering that befell Job are ultimately ascribed to the will of God (Job 1:11, 1:21, 2:5, 2:9, 2:10, 42:11); Job’s relationship with and adoration of God was deepened (Job 42:5)
- Paul’s suffering: Given by God to keep Paul from conceit (2 Corinthians 12:7)
- Death of Lazarus: Willed by God for the glory of God and the faith of Jesus’ disciples (John 11:4, 6, 15)
- Killing of the Son of God (arguably the greatest sin and suffering ever): Ordained by God, yet those who committed the sin were responsible (Acts 2:23, 4:27-28)
The cross of Christ, interestingly, seems to display the most vivid juxtaposition of God ordaining the most horrible suffering ever in order to bring about the greatest good ever. Yet, in all his ordaining, I affirm God does so while remaining perfectly holy and good (James 1:13, 17; 1 John 1:5; Isaiah 6:3). The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it this way:
God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.
What do you take the above accounts and texts to mean regarding God’s role or lack of role in ordaining those instances of suffering, and how that does or does not lessen human responsibility for that suffering? Why do you think your classmate believes God ordained the challenges in her life?
I’m interested to learn your perspective here and why you believe what you believe. And, I sincerely can understand why you and others may find discomfort in and even reject this idea of God ordaining everything, including all suffering. I just wanted to share that there are Christians, like me, who cherish this idea as an unshakable rock during our times of worst suffering - that we know it will work out because God purposed it from before creation to work for our good. I think this challenging subject you’ve raised, Jennifer, is one of meaningful relevance and importance to the everyday life of Christians and one I’m always eager to further explore. As such, I look forward to more discussion here.