“How could God let this happen?”
“If God was real, then there wouldn’t be so much suffering in the world.”
Epicurus (an old Greek fella from 300 years before Jesus’ time) said:
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?”
These ideas, whether they’re a desperate plea or a sassy dismissal of God, are about restraint. If God is there, able to remove evil/suffering, and ultimately benevolent, then he must have some reason for restraint.
I have blogged about this idea before, HERE, and HERE. But this is more specifically about restraint.
We have the common complaint that God ought not to restrain himself. His self-restraint is seen as a vice, or as a disqualifier for proper deity (or exercise thereof).
But here are two ideas I came across recently that were a pretty huge whack across the nose when it came to blaming God. Sure, I know in theory that everything is glorifying God. But I too easily have a sort of shallow denial of this. Here are some ideas that show me I have no reason to be anything but Joyful about the way God acts, both for his glory, and in the way that impacts upon me.
Brother Yun, in “The Heavenly Man“, says that he is acutely aware that God owes him nothing, and whatever his worldly suffering, does not allow him to suffer to the level his sin rightfully warrants
If the origin of suffering and brokenness is sinfulness, then we have no reason to complain. If Epicurus’ overtly simple dilemma was solved – evil was just removed – then humanity would be destroyed with it.
It is ONLY due to the self-restraint of God that we can live another moment free from the eternal suffering we call down upon ourselves, which far exceeds any worldly suffering.
But here’s the clincher. In “The Jesus I Never Knew“, Yancey says the following:
“I have marveled at, and sometimes openly questioned, the self-restraint God has shown throughout history, allowing the Genghis Khans and the Hitlers and Stalins to have their way. But nothing – nothing – compares to the self-restraint shown that dark Friday in Jerusalem.”
That statement is massive, and hit me hard. If there is one time where God really should have intervened in suffering, it was this. This is God himself on the cross, being executed falsely. That means both Jesus and the Father restrain themselves, despite the pain it will involve. Our justification and salvation totally depends on God’s restraint – on several levels. If both Christ and the Father had not proverbially sat on their hands every now and then, we would be hopelessly lost to eternal condemnation.
So grace is given through God’s self-restraint at the cross. And our opportunity to accept it (that is, the time we have to encounter Christ and follow him) would not be possible unless God was patient, and held off judgement until we repent and turn to Christ.
It’s important to note here that Jesus’ restraint at other times is crucial – if he had given in to temptation in the Desert, he would not have conquered death and provided a way out. If he had not restrained himself and submitted to the Father’s will in Gethsemane, same result. If he had been the popular champion and used his powers to win over all of Israel, then they would not hate him, and no crucifixion – another dealbreaker.
Looking back to the Old Testament is a little trickier, but it’s still prominent. If God had not shown a little restraint, then all humans would have been wiped out in Noah’s flood. If he had not shown restraint and patience with Israel all the times they abandoned him, there would be no line of David, no Jesus. God restrains himself time and time again.
The irony that you may have spotted is almost amusing; the restraint that allows our salvation is part of a MASSIVE intervention by God; he DOES intervene to prevent our ultimate suffering. The intervention is much larger scale than the complaints we bring before him. Similarly, the Holy Spirit is an intervention in our sufferings; he is God in us, and he provides guidance, comfort and assurance of salvation.
I do not say this callously – worldly suffering is tough, and it’s hard to see how God is glorified. And there is certainly a time for grief (as the bible will tell you). But these sufferings are only a snippet of the wages of sin.
It’s impossible for us to praise a God of justice who is not also a God of mercy – if he were only just we’d be damned. If he gave mercy without justice, he would not be so worthy of praise. Jesus is the only way these two ideals can coexist.
If we are to begrudge God his self-restraint, then the first thing to go is our salvation.