• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

When People Do Bad Things to Us . . .

A friend and former student wrote recently of having her heart broken by a man who had told her he loved her and wanted to make a life with her.

“Why would God allow me to be hurt like this?” she understandably wondered. “I’m not a kid, not foolish in relationships, said and did all the things I thought I was supposed to say and do, and out of the blue he dumps me. How can such a thing be part of God’s good plan?”

So here’s some of what I replied, which some of you will recognize is the perspective I outline in my book on the problem of evil (Can God Be Trusted?) and in my book on our calling in the world (Making the Best of It):

I believe that God does indeed “work all things together for good” (Rom. 8:28). But that oft-quoted Scripture needs to be understood carefully.

God works with the world as it is, and while he moves among us and in us to achieve his purposes, he does so in a world he created in which (for good reason) people are free to do at least a certain amount of mischief, choose a certain amount of wrong choices, and prevent a certain amount of “optimality” in their own lives and in the lives of others.

In this context, God himself makes the best of things. We therefore can trust that there is no better way for him to direct our lives than he is doing as we trust and obey him.

But we don’t have to believe that everything is as good as it would have been had people not made bad choices—us or others. For part of God’s sovereign, good, and wise plan is to allow for a certain amount of “slippage,” as I would call it, a certain amount of sin and stupidity and willfulness that keeps things from being as good as they could have otherwise been. And sometimes God is able to work with that evil in order to accomplish some good things, such as training us in faith and patience and love when others fail to act properly—and vice versa, of course.

Since I sometimes choose to sin and since it is God’s will that I am free to do so—not that God wills that I sin, of course, but that I am free to do so, at least to a limited extent—then I suffer and others do, too. And the same is true the other way, naturally. If my spouse or my friend or my boss or my insurance agent chooses to mistreat me, or even just screw up without any malice, then I suffer some of the consequences. That’s the way of the world as God has made it in order to accomplish his overarching and ultimate purposes. For among those great purposes is to promote love and goodness, and those qualities are not possible without freedom, including the freedom to not love and to do evil.

It may be also that we are not able to become fully mature without a certain amount and kind of suffering. Given our various sorts of brokenness, perversity, confusion, and so on, it may be that the only way for God to rehabilitate us is through a regimen that requires rigorous reorientation and training.

I find this outlook to be comforting because it is both realistic and hopeful. It is realistic in that I don’t have to try to pretend that everything that happens is somehow simply a good thing. Some things are bad, and a lot of things are less than the best or even a mixture of good and bad.

This outlook is also hopeful because I do believe that God orchestrates our lives such that things are as good as they can be without him continually abrogating the general rules by which he governs the world in order to secure not only the greatest overall good but also the greatest good for each one involved.

One of my students recently pressed me on this point and asked, “So do you believe that this is the best of all possible worlds?”

I suppose I do believe that—with the crucial proviso that this is the best of all possible worlds given all that God is trying to do and all that God has to work with, which includes, it seems, letting human beings wreak a certain amount of havoc.

So maybe this man you have loved just plain treated you badly. We don’t have to try to sugar-coat that. Instead, we can trust that God is using even that shock and disappointment to help you move ahead in his overall plan for you. (We can even hope that God is using this experience to help him somehow, also, in due course.) God knew this hurt was coming and he let it happen, so I believe it must be something he can use for the good—not just the greater good, but for your good also, since he loves you in particular and not just humanity in general—or he wouldn’t let it happen.

By the foregoing I don’t mean that God is stuck with the flow of events and doesn’t ever do miracles. Sometimes he does, and we can always pray for one in a particular situation!

But he mostly doesn’t perform them and I refuse to believe that he doesn’t do so simply because we lack faith or whatever. I think he doesn’t do them because he generally doesn’t want to. His purposes are generally achieved better indirectly, by working through Spirit-filled Christians doing his will, yes, and also everyone else ultimately doing his will, which includes their freedom to do things that are not his will (in the sense that they are against his preferences and law) that nonetheless he can employ to bring about good—again, such as testing and strengthening our faith when things go badly.

Let’s remember that God worked through some pretty bad people and some pretty awful events in the Bible to get some important things done, as well as through his holy ones and through happy events. And that pattern continues to this day.

I hope this helps, at least a bit. Does it?