“It Was the Will of God”: Why this statement may not offer comfort in the face of suffering.

I’ve been a psychotherapist for nearly two decades now, and I’ve met with many people experiencing loss and/or trauma. It is often the case that well-meaning Christians attempt to offer comfort by describing some horrible experience as “the will of God.”

Typically, hardships allegedly from God are portrayed as one of three things:

1. Punishment for sin,
2. A lesson the sufferer needs to learn,
3. A necessary (though evil) means to a noble end.

Some of the tragedies I have worked to address, with the help of God, have included things like child abduction, sexual abuse, murder and ethnic-cleansing (genocide). Though it staggers the mind to consider it, some individuals have been impacted by all of these events in one life-time. Needless to say, they are in pain.

Which of the three explanations sometimes offered by well-meaning Christians affords them any comfort?

“Your child was abducted because you have sinned.”
“You were raped because God is trying to teach you a lesson.”
“God caused your spouse to be murdered to accomplish something noble, down the road.”

It’s a rhetorical question.

When presented with these explanations for tragedy, those suffering trauma or loss may feel that they can identify with the following words of Job:

“How helpful you all are to the powerless! Isn’t it wonderful that you aid the weak arm! How wonderful that you counsel the witless, always ready with a helpful suggestion! But who are you talking to, with these words of wisdom? Whose spirit spoke from your mouth?” (Job 26:2-4, TIB)

Whose spirit indeed?

Many who have read the Bible will be aware that Job is the story of a man who undergoes tremendous hardship, and is then approached by friends who attempt to comfort him. The comfort they offer is very similar to the three explanations often supplied by well-meaning Christians. Job did not receive this well.

Neither did God.

These are the words of God to Job’s would-be helpers:

“I am very angry with you and your two friends,” YHWH said, for not speaking truthfully about me as Job, my faithful one, did… I will accept Job’s prayer and not punish you as your folly deserves, for you have not spoken truthfully about me as Job, my faithful one, did” (Job 42:7-8, TIB).

The words of Job’s comforters wounded their friend; they also offended God because they did not speak truthfully about Him.

If this form of comfort wounds those we mean to help and simultaneously misrepresents the character of God, why do people offer it?

I can’t answer this question for everyone. I can, however, share what motivated a well-known theologian who attributed everything, including human sin (abduction, rape, murder), to the “will of God.” His name was John Calvin, and this is what he said,

“In short, Augustine everywhere teaches, that if anything is left to fortune the world moves at random… For which reason, he also excludes the contingency which depends on human will, maintaining a little further on in clearer terms, that no cause must be sought for but the will of God” (Institutes of the Christian Religion; as cited in Edwards, A God I’d Like to Meet, 2014, pp. 32-33).

John Calvin lived in a tumultuous time. In his own words, he tells us that the one thing he could not tolerate was the notion that “the world moves at random.” He evidently took comfort in the notion that everything on earth (including human decisions) are actually caused by “the will of God.” To paraphrase his worldview, one might say, “Despite all of the chaos, war, pestilence and plague we all experience or bear witness to, everything is proceeding exactly as God has planned.”

Is this a comforting thought? To John Calvin, it was. Apparently, he successfully addressed his fear of uncertainty by embracing a worldview commonly known as “determinism.” He is not the only influential theologian to take this approach. He indicates that he derived his worldview from the work of a 4th century A.D. Roman Catholic Bishop, named Augustine.

Augustine expressed the same deterministic worldview in the following terms:

“And so it comes to pass that the will of God is the first and the highest cause of all corporeal appearances and motions. For nothing is done visibly or sensibly, unless either by command or permission from the interior palace, invisible and intelligible, of the supreme Governor…” (De Trinity lib. 3 cap. 4; as cited in Edwards, 2014, p. 34).

In the eyes of these two influential theologians—one Catholic and the other Protestant—eliminating the notion that terrible things happen at random was paramount. To achieve this end, they also believed they had to eliminate the very notion of human choice. God, therefore, was made directly responsible for everything that takes place on earth, including human sin.

But isn’t this worldview “biblical”? Augustine believed that it was, and Calvin believed Augustine. Today, many pastors, priests and other church leaders continue to believe Augustine and Calvin. What they may not realize, however, is that Augustine did not derive this worldview from the Bible. He found it in what he referred to as the books of the “Platonists”:

“Simplicianus congratulated me that I had not fallen upon the writings of other philosophers, which were full of fallacies and deceit, ‘after the beggarly elements of this world,’ whereas in the Platonists, at every turn, the pathway led to belief in God and his Word” (Augustine’s Confessions, Book VIII, Chapter II; as cited in Edwards, 2014, p. 21).

One of the most popular Platonists read in Augustine’s day was a philosopher named Plotinus. In his work entitled, “The Enneads,” he shares a vision of a deterministic world:

“Evil has its origin in the All [the Source of all things], and without it, the All is incomplete. Are the evils in the universe necessary because it is of later origin than the Higher Sphere? Perhaps rather because without evil the All would be incomplete. For most or even all forms of evil serve the Universe–much as the poisonous snake has its use–though in most cases their function is unknown. Vice itself has many useful sides: it brings about much that is beautiful, in artistic creations for example, and it stirs us to thoughtful living, not allowing us to drowse in security” (as cited in Edwards, 2014, pp. 35-36).

According to Plotinus’ evil had its origin in the All [God] because even “vice” (e.g. human sin) “has many useful sides.” This is the source of Augustine and Calvin’s deterministic worldview. It is the source of the idea that God causes human sin: to punish us, to teach us, or to later accomplish some greater good.

If someone already believes in determinism, he or she is likely to interpret the Bible through these lenses. Bible passages that can be interpreted in many different ways will be hijacked by determinism. Present-day Calvinist, John Piper, for example uses the following passage to support a deterministic worldview:

“Proverbs 19:21: Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails” (Man’s Sin and God’s Sovereignty, Christian Post article; as cited in Edwards, 2014, p. 26).

Does this verse say that God causes everything that takes place on earth, including human sin? Frankly, no it does not. We’re simply told that whatever human beings may plan, it is God’s purpose that will ultimately prevail. The gospel of John tells us, for example, that God sent Jesus to take away the sins of the world (1:29). The gospel of Matthew tells us that King Herod would have prevented this from happening by slaughtering all of the boys in Bethlehem that were two years old or younger, including Jesus (2:16). God intervened, however, by warning Joseph in a dream to take Jesus and flee to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15).

In this story, did God cause Herod to slaughter innocent children? Of course not. What a horrendous thought! In fact, the Bible tells us clearly to never hold God responsible for human sin:

“When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:13-17).

In the story of Jesus’ preservation from Herod, did God take control of human choices? No. He simply warned Joseph in a dream to flee to Egypt, and Joseph—wisely—obeyed. “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails.” This passage has nothing to say in support of determinism, despite how it is sometimes interpreted.

When we encounter human suffering, I think we can expect to feel uncomfortable. In our discomfort, we may wish to reassure ourselves and others—as did Augustine and Calvin—that “everything is directly under God’s control.” In doing this, however, we may—like Job’s comforters—add insult to someone else’s profound injury. We may also be confusing a non-biblical philosophy (i.e. determinism) with the word of God. I pray that we will pause and reflect on other approaches to the problem of pain that is caused by human sin.

“See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ” (Colossians 2:8).

Some personal thoughts:

When I have experienced trauma or loss (and I have experienced both) I have found the following Bible passages comforting:

“And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever” (John 14:16).

“I will never leave you or forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me” (Psalm 23:4).

“Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you” (Psalm 55:22).

“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans” (Romans 8:26).

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). Please note, this does not say that God “causes” all things; the Bible actually never says this. Determinism is only inferred by people who already believe in a deterministic worldview.

“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

“Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).

“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

“God is love” (1 John 4:16).