Thursday, December 17, 2009

Despite Real Human Suffering, God is (Really) Good

Book Review: If God is Good: Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil by Randy Alcorn (Multnomah, 2009)

To hear modern secularists and atheists talk, one would think that they discovered the "problem of suffering," a problem which Christians were too stupid or insensitive to notice. Ironically, having "discovered" the "problem of suffering and evil" these same people do not have a worldview that is capable of dealing with it. For the atheist or secularist worldview, the reality of evil and suffering is not a problem but simply part of the way the world is. Evil and suffering can only be real problems if there is some type of cosmic goodness that they apparently deny.
In this big (494 page) book, Randy Alcorn sets out to challenge what he judges to be an unexamined premise among atheists and even some Christians: the idea that an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God can not be reconciled with a world in which evil and suffering occur. Atheists assume this premise to justify their atheism and some Christians assume this premise and then proceed to limit either God's goodness or power (or both) to rescue their faith (but their faith is saved at a very high cost--a limited God). Alcorn in no way attempts to deny the existence or horror of suffering and evil; he simply argues that the fact that God permits suffering does not by itself deny God's goodness but that it only indicates that God's wisdom may be beyond our's. Alcorn has put his finger on a very important point: It is now assumed by many that suffering can have no redemptive value at all so all suffering must count against God's goodness. For Alcorn the issue comes down to this: Is the ultimate purpose of the universe short-term human happiness (in this life) or God's eternal glory which is the ultimate human good?
In the third section of the book Alcorn takes up the inability of naturalism and secularism to deal with the problem of evil and suffering. To my mind, it is one of the most helpful aspects of his argument. While lacking a foundation for an objectively valid moral philosophy which can coherently use the term "evil" (a term which presupposes some absolute goodness) and protest against suffering, naturalistic worldviews continue to use the existence of evil and suffering as an argument against God. But if the existence of evil counts against the existence of God should not the existence of real good count for it? Does not all protest against suffering and evil finally presuppose that they are not the norm but, rather, an anomaly? Alcorn's conclusion in this section seems to me to be completely true: Only the Christian worldview offers a foundation for objective morality and outrage against evil; naturalism offers support to neither.
Contrary to atheist propaganda, Christianity has never regarded suffering and evil as inconvenient facts to be passed over. The fact is that Christianity discovered the problem of suffering and it did so by insisting that despite real human pain the universe is fundamentally good. Neither Scripture nor Christian doctrine pretend to know why God permits evil and suffering; they do claim to know that God is neither indifferent nor powerless in the fact of evil and suffering. This is what is revealed in the Cross. This brings us to what I consider the book's greatest gem of an insight: "Some people can't believe God would create a world in which people would suffer so much. Isn't it more remarkable that God would create a world in which no one would suffer more than he?" The Cross does not "solve" the "problem of evil" as if it were the answer to a philosophical puzzle. What the Cross does, or should do, is to provide a context in which suffering and evil may be considered. The Cross demonstrates that God is not indifferent to human suffering. It also demonstrates that having brought immense good out of the suffering of Christ, God can bring good out of our suffering as well. While we may wish that God would demonstrate his power by instantly eliminating suffering and evil, we need to remember that on the Christian reckoning God is not the cause of human wickedness and that God may have chosen to deal with suffering and evil not by an instantaneous act of omnipotence but by a long process of purification which takes place within the lives of his human creatures.
I hope that Alcorn forces some people to re-think their presuppositions. God's ultimate purpose is not to protect us from all harm nor is it to maintain our comfort. God's ultimate purpose is, rather, to bring us back to himself which means a process of purification, character formation and humbling--none of which we will experience as things which make us happy. But God is not finally interested in our happiness; God is ultimately interested in our joy and he knows the one thing that is its source--himself.
At the end of the book we arrive at an important piece of wisdom, wisdom all but forgotten in a Christianity saturated by modern therapeutic culture: "God uses suffering to purge sin from our lives, strengthen our commitment to him, force us to depend on his grace, bind us together with other believers, produce discernment, foster sensitivity, discipline our minds, impart wisdom, stretch our hope, cause us to know Christ better, make us long for truth, lead us to repentance of sin, teach us to give thanks in times of sorrow, increase our faith, and strengthen our character...God doesn't simply want us to feel good. He wants us to be good. And very often, the road to being good involves not feeling good."


Blogger David W Brewer said...

Your review has been an encouragement to read Alcorn's book. Already purchased and sitting on my desk unread.

I am so often surprised by the attitudes of committed Christians who hold to the deeply held belief that suffering is and should not be part of the Christian experience. This attitude is found in the presumption of health and well being and the expectation that when trials occur their resolution should be positive and rapid.

Being a person with increasing heart failure for 12 years that thankfully ended with a heart transplant last year I experienced this frequently.

Often friends or acquaintances would comment something like "You feeling better?" while I was in fact moving toward my death if not transplanted. I know the comments were well meaning but my only response was rather morbid. "While I appear to feel better today without a transplant I am going to die."

Their desire for my feeling better was much appreciated but spoke volumes about how much Christians do not wish to embrace suffering or trials. Though my trials were unbelievably difficult and I would not have chosen them on my own I would not change anyone of them as they lead to further my sanctification and God's glory.

David Brewer ( A blog on Suffering Well

December 21, 2009 at 12:20 PM  

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