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?

0 Responses to “When People Do Bad Things to Us . . .”

  1. Bennett

    The word “slippage” seems to unravel this description. For one, most people would consider the amount of evil in the world more than just a slip. Slippage sounds like a minor problem, but humans feel it is THE major problem. Secondly, it makes it sound like either a mistake or intentional neglect. It seems like what you are describing is more along the lines of intentional neglect (albeit with a higher goal in mind).

    It seems like for God to be God he needs to be unified in his response to suffering. What I mean is, how can He be just and let some wrongs slip while preventing others? I believe He IS unified. I believe his response is singular. He is infinite and so from our perspective his responses are varied and inconsistent. Our perspective, however, is what falls short. We most often do not, cannot see the justice in what God allows or disallows. Our pride makes us think we have the right to understand, as if our suffering deserves an explanation from God himself (thus we see in Job).
    Perhaps, now that I consider it further, that pride is just a perversion of a good and natural desire we feel when we are suffering: to know that we are not alone. Pain makes us turn to others and ultimately to God himself. Pain is such a reminder of our depravity that we feel a primal urge to return to God. That same depravity takes those emotions and twists them into blame, doubt, and rebellion.

    Otherwise, I do agree with encouraging people to learn from and grow through suffering. Questioning God is a good thing to do. It is not a safe thing to do, but it is sometimes the right thing to do. We should do so only with our head bowed in humility and the bigger picture of Christ’s suffering in mind. His example shows us that the very best things in all of creation cost us the very most.

  2. Jon Coutts

    Good point about the word “slippage”, there, Bennett. However, I’d quibble with your choice of the words “unified” and “singular”. It sort of forces us to assume that we can fully discern what is the “best thing” for God to do in any circumstance, that we know exactly what God must do in order to be true to His character or His plans. I am not saying we can have no idea what God would do, but I’m saying we can expect there to be a fair amount of mystery as to what does or does not represent a “unified” approach of God to the world.

    All in all I agree with this post that God’s way with the world involves (from the outset) the freedom of his created beings. That the exercise of this freedom can take them to the life God has for them or the tragic alternative is part and parcel of the price of freedom. Our “slippage” is indeed the tragedy of humanity, and while that word may not do it justice, I’m not sure what word does. Even “fall” seems too lightweight.

  3. John Stackhouse

    Before this thread goes much further (!), let me refer back to the original use of the term “slippage” in what I wrote: “a certain amount of sin and stupidity and willfulness that keeps things from being as good as they could have otherwise been.”

    I do not mean anything so comprehensive and gigantic as “The Fall” in toto. I mean instead that I think God allows some relatively minor, if still significant and damaging, evil in the world along with the unquestionably obvious evil in the world as part of his allowing us still a certain measure of freedom.

    Thus God allows Adam and Eve to plunge us all into Trouble. He directly brings the Chaldeans, in all their awfulness, to judge Jerusalem (so the Book of Habakkuk). God allows Satan to torment Job and to tempt Jesus. This isn’t “slippage”: it’s big-time evil.

    Instead, I’m talking about God also allowing me to hurt someone’s feelings by a cruel joke, or allowing another driver to cut you off in traffic, or allowing your boss to overlook your contribution on that project and give credit to another.

    In these cases, we don’t have to look for or even assume that there is some Special Big Meaning to those events (while there certainly is a Special Big Meaning to the events I listed earlier). Instead, that’s the way the world is, and God allows it to be that way in order that goods may emerge from it, yes (praise God!)–but there’s no special thing happening in each of these moments: that’s my point in the word “slippage.”

    Clearer now?

  4. chad

    I resonate with the post, that seems to be the way things have worked out for me and do work out for me – although sometimes I fear I am a sheltered American with only the most tenuous grasp of pain and suffering. One (sort-of) mantra that I find myself returning to over and over is this: God is working to redeem EVERYTHING (no exceptions). Granted that saying wreaks some havoc with more than a few theologies, but I have chosen to believe it.

  5. kbartha

    “It may be also that we are not able to become fully mature without a certain amount and kind of suffering.”

    I want to “learn” from people who have come through suffering and pain “in a good way”… Those who have suffered great inusrmountable pains and hurts and have yet remained close to and perpetually point people to I Corinthians 13, Philippians 2 and the Sermon on the Mount… they are worth listening to.

    And if I have not suffered, what do I have to say to those who are presently suffering or have suffered greatly? Which is why I must continually point everyone to the life and words of Jesus Christ… because frankly, I havn’t found anyone in history like Jesus who has handled suffering, pain and death wll and taught adequately about suffering, pain and death… and in the end (or the new beginning) admittedly “overcame” them all… and leads us through them all into what N.T. Wright calls “life BEFORE death” 🙂

  6. links « signs of life

    […] Professor John Stackhouse on “When people do bad things to us.” 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. […]

  7. Emm

    Hi I’m a college student writing a paper on how you critically examine in your book, Can God Be Trusted?, whether or not the existence of evil is compatible with the goodness and omnipotence of God. I just want to clarify that you believe God didn’t create evil but rather he allows it through granting us free-will. Though that events such as the holocaust (as you mentioned on pg. 58) are not to just be easily said for the good outcomes in life. Am I on the right path?

  8. John Stackhouse

    Hello, Emm! I say that there is no such thing as evil, so God didn’t create “it.” But God does allow us to do evil for various reasons, and I do say that some evil events are so evil that it is not clear at all why God would allow them. I say more than that, of course, but you are indeed on the right path.

    Which college do you attend?


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