Some people feel there is no God, or they say He is a weak God. So we have a dilemma—those of us who base our theology upon the Bible face a confusing conundrum. We affirm the following truths:
- There is a God.
- God is good.
- God is all-powerful.
- Life is hard.
Life is hard, not only for bad people who deserve what they get, but also for good people who honour God with their lives, and for innocent people, like little babies stricken with grave illnesses. Although the intensity of suffering varies but, in the end, life is hard for all people. So, we wonder:
- if there is a God, so we reject the ‘no God’ answer, and
- if God is good, so we reject the ‘bad God’ answer, and
- if God is all-powerful, so we reject the ‘weak God’ answer,
then, how can we make sense of the fact that life is hard?
The Genesis of a Hard Life
The biblical answer to this question begins right in the opening chapters of Genesis in the Old Testament. There, God creates the heavens and the earth, demonstrating his superlative power. Surely the God of creation is an all-powerful God. Furthermore, after God surveys his work, he declares it good, and then ‘very good’ (Genesis 1:31). Arguing backwards from this declaration, we begin to see the ‘very goodness’ of God himself, something that echoes throughout the whole of Scripture. As Psalm 34:8 celebrates, “O taste and see that the LORD is good.”
In Genesis 1 God creates humankind in his image, and then assigns to the man and woman a ‘godlike’ stewardship over all creation. Genesis 2 clarifies the scope of human responsibility for God’s creation. But it also defines the limits of human freedom. They are not to eat from one particular tree in the garden.
In Genesis 3 the man and the woman disobey God, and everything begins to unravel. The perfect intimacy between the man and woman is broken as they seek to hide from each other. Their intimacy with God is broken as they seek to hide from him. Even the order of nature is broken because of sin, as the woman will experience pain in childbearing, and the man will experience pain as he works in the world. The paradise God had intended is locked away, so that human beings may not enjoy it again, at least not in this age.
Input from Romans
Genesis answers the question of why life is hard by pointing the finger at humanity. Our sin, we’re told, is the reason God’s creation is broken. This assumes, of course, a profound connection between people and the natural world. This connection is reaffirmed and clarified in the New Testament book of Romans. There, in the eighth chapter, we find another clear acknowledgement of life’s sufferings.
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Creation itself, we’re told, “waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (Romans 8:19). In other words, when God completes his work with humanity, creation itself will be restored. Why is this necessary? As Romans explains, “the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it” (Romans 8:20).
God, for his own reasons, subjected creation to the authority of human beings, so that it might be broken by the impact of sin. Yet this isn’t the end of the story. In fact, we have “hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). When God finally sets us completely free from our bondage to sin, creation itself will enjoy freedom as well.
Until this happens, creation is not at peace. Romans says, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:22-23).
I realise that all of this can be rather confusing. But the main points seem clear enough. God created all things so that there is an inexorable link between human experience and universal experience. When human beings sinned, the ‘very goodness’ of creation itself was broken. But when God completes his work of human restoration, then creation will also be renewed. That’s why Christians hope, not merely for life after death somewhere up in the sky, but for a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1).
We Christians hope for a new heaven and a new earth
Recently the Dutch television firm Endemol set a world record by setting up and then systematically knocking down 4,155,476 dominoes. The toppling began when one, and only one domino, was knocked over. Soon, all 4,155,476 dominoes fell—all from one little domino. That’s rather like what happened when the first human beings sinned. They set in motion a chain reaction that impacted all of creation.
Now perhaps the toughest part of this for us is the realisation that God set up the cosmic dominoes. It was God’s decision to form creation so that human beings had genuine freedom both to do good and to do evil, and so that human evil would corrupt creation itself. When we’re faced with terrible suffering, it’s easy to think that God’s idea isn’t the best. Surely he could have come up with a better idea? We might wonder.
Though there are ways to defend God’s choice here, in the end we come down to faith. Are we willing to trust that the God revealed in Scripture—the God who is both powerful and good, the God who is most perfectly revealed in Jesus Christ, a God of love, mercy, and self-sacrifice—are we willing to trust that this God chooses what’s best, even when it’s hard for us to see it? I’m not suggesting this is easy. Indeed, this is tough faith, risky faith, sometimes even desperate faith. But it is the faith we need to sustain us in the midst of a hard life.
Accepting What We Can’t Fully Understand
When life is hard, and when life’s suffering just doesn’t make sense, at some point, by God’s mercy, we come to a place of acceptance, a place where we acknowledge God’s power and goodness, where we recognise God’s sovereignty, where we admit that we can’t fully understand God’s ways, and yet where we sense God’s presence in our lives.
This is exactly what happened to the American artist Queen Latifah after the death of her brother. Let me read a couple of excerpts from an interview with her:
When my brother passed away, that was definitely a ‘why?’ I don’t even know if it was just a ‘why me?’ But it was surely a big old ‘why’. And luckily I was able to come through that and kind of open myself up to the divine design of it all. That’s not something that I liked or expected…
I always leave open that things happen for a reason, and I don’t understand that reason always, but it’s something I have to accept. So, it’s kind of where I left that situation…I really believe that God had his hands on me the whole time, and my family as well, and we’ve come through it and we really probably didn’t think we could.
Queen Latifah was able to accept God’s divine design, even though it’s not what she liked or wanted. She was able to accept that God has his reasons, even when they don’t quite make sense to us. And she was able to see that God’s gracious hands were upon her, upholding her through a time of intense pain.
Hope Beyond the Pain
As I close, I want to go back to the text in Romans 8:19-21—a rather complicated passage:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
God subjected creation to the authority of human beings, who broke God’s masterpiece. Yet, in forming this plan, which led to creation being subjected to futility, God did so in hope of the time when creation itself will be set free. Hope, in this case, doesn’t mean wishful thinking on God’s part. Rather, it’s God’s foresight, his long-range plan, his ultimate vision. God’s design for the cosmos includes the ultimate mending of all things, when creation, alongside humankind, will enjoy freedom and glory.
As Christians we live with this hope, and it keeps us going when life is hard. We realise that God isn’t finished with us yet, and he isn’t finished with creation either. The time will come when he will restore all things. So now we wait, yet with the confident hope in a God who “works all things together for good,” as it says later in Romans 8:28. And we’re sustained by faith in a God whose love for us never lets go. Let me close by reading the last sentences of Romans 8:
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
With this confidence in God’s love, we are able to endure the hard things of life, until God finishes his work of the new creation.
Copyright © 2006 by Mark D. Roberts