One of the issues raised by the situation I described the other day is the old issue of providence and suffering. It goes like this: If God is all good and all powerful, how could he allow the innocent to suffer? I’m not sure this is a great way to frame this question, because in the face of suffering, it only really leaves us with two options: either God is not good, or he is not all powerful. Said another way, either he can’t prevent bad things from happening, or worse, he doesn’t want to. I don’t know about you, but I’m not comfortable with either of those choices. Perhaps we need to think a bit deeper here.
But first, let’s make a few things clear. The Bible strongly affirms both God’s love and God’s power. Here are just a few of many examples:
“How priceless is your unfailing love! Both high and low among men find refuge in the shadow of your wings” (Ps. 36:7).
“Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Pet. 5:7).
“I am the Lord, the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me?” (Jer. 32:27).
“With God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26).
So if God is both loving and all powerful, how do I make sense of the pain wrought in so many lives by my friend’s actions? Well, in part, I don’t try. Sin and its resulting devastation is not a sensible thing. Throughout this ordeal, I’ve heard people say, among other things, “I just don’t understand how someone could do such things to children!” While I sympathize with those feelings of confusion, sin is not a logical endeavor. Child molestation (along with premarital sex, or infidelity, or drug/alcohol abuse, or murder, or any of a thousand other sins) is not a sensible or logical act. Sin never is. We will never completely understand what makes people engage in the kinds of deviant and destructive behaviors they do. So in part, I need to stop trying to make sense of this.
We could talk, as I did on Thursday, about the fact that we all live in a world where free will is allowed. God apparently places a high value on free will, as evidenced by the fact that he designed it into creation. The pros of a free-will system are that when we choose to love one another (and when we choose to love God), it is love freely given, and there is no more beautiful part of creation than this. The dark side of free will, unfortunately, is that people will hurt each other occasionally, sometimes intentionally, and sometimes unintentionally.
We could spend time discussing this in a number of ways from a number of perspectives. But what has occupied my thoughts recently is thinking about how, and particularly where, God chooses to exercise his power. Certainly he can intervene in creation and alter the forces of nature if he so chooses (the parting of the Red Sea, for example). But I’m not sure that manipulating externals is God’s preferred venue for exercising power. Nor am I convinced that such demonstrations are even the strongest or most persuasive uses of God’s power.
The book of Ephesians has been helpful here. Chapters 1-3 contain a lot of what scholars call indicative statements, which are statements about what God has done on behalf of the believer. Chapters 4-6, on the other hand, contain a lot of imperative statements, which are the covenant obligations; the things that God expects in the life that’s worthy of the all these things that make up the indicative. In Ephesians 3:14-21, in a transitional passage between the indicatives of chapters 1-3 and the imperatives of chapters 4-6, Paul talks a lot about the power of God. What’s interesting here is the venue of God’s power; where God is exercising power.
In this passage, Paul tells the Ephesians that he’s praying for them in some specific ways. First, he’s praying that “out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being” (Eph. 3:16, emphasis mine). Just a few verses down, Paul closes this section by saying, “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (Eph. 3:20, emphasis mine).
See, we typically want to see God using his power to fix the external messes of life. I want to believe that God “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine,” and I want to see him do it . . . usually now! I want to see decisive action. The sweeping away of my enemies. The innocent rescued from evil and the crushing of the opposition. Abundant provision. Sadly, I don’t typically see God doing things like that. Occasionally he does, to be sure, but not nearly as often as I’d like! Things like rape and domestic violence and emotional abuse and child abuse are far too common.
But rather than ask God to fix all the pain in the lives of the Ephesians, Paul is asking him to exercise his power in the inner lives of the Christians in Ephesus. In fact, my experience is that the venue in which God is most eager to exercise his power on our behalf is in our inner lives. God is most willing to move with power in our hearts. To what end, you ask?
We skipped a few verses earlier. Let’s go back and look at them. Paul is praying for the Ephesians that God may grant them to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in their inner being “so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” He goes on to say, “And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power [there’s our word again], together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge — that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Eph. 3:17-19).
Okay, important stuff here. Let me try and synthesize this: Paul’s praying that they’d receive power, again, in their inner being, so that Christ may dwell within them and show them how expansive (wide, long, high and deep) is his love for us. And he tells us that knowing his love will do far more for us that knowledge (or understanding).
The most life-changing way God can use his power on our behalf is to dwell within us and to help us come to see and experience his desperate, intense love for us. Sounds so simple as to be ridiculous, doesn’t it? Yet I believe this to be the most profound impact of Christianity, one which many, many Christians have never experienced. This intimate experience of God’s everlasting love is what absolutely transforms and energizes and heals our broken and desperate lives.
Does this fix all problems? Nope. Does it settle all scores? Not even close. But it gives us a safe, warm, peaceful, and even joyous place to stand amidst the chaos. Make no mistake, this is not life inside a little joy bubble. Life with God is not a disengagement from the pain and messiness of real life. Nor does it constitute escape. It is, rather, power. Strength to be able to walk through this life secure in the certainty that somehow, in ways you cannot yet fathom or even see, Father, who loves you desperately, has got this. Your security comes from the certainty of his love, not from the certainty of how this mess will work out. You are certain of his love because it is a love you will have experienced, not just read about.
I have been a Christian for twenty years this year, and for much of that time, I’ve been in full-time ministry. Yet it’s only been in the last three years that I’ve fully begun experiencing this for myself. Were the previous 17 years a waste? Not at all. But they were incomplete. I was living far below my privilege, and was far more dependent on my power than on God’s. Paul’s right in his prayer. I’m sure what he asked God for is exactly what the Ephesians needed. It’s exactly what I needed. I’m learning to live differently now, and having tried it both ways, this way is much, much better!