[This post is in a weekly devotional series called Everything New. Sign up here if you're interested.]
Suffering is often the direct result of the sinful things humans do to each other. The first murder occurred just four chapters into the Bible. What’s worse is that it was a brother killing his own brother. Why did bad things happen to a shepherd named Abel? It was because Cain chose hot, bitter jealousy. It was because Cain had the opportunity to live in harmony with God, but he took his God-given ability to choose and listened to the dark side of his nature.
God doesn’t murder. People do.
C.S. Lewis speculated that 80 percent of the world’s suffering is caused by the immoral choices of human beings. Several years ago I was in the Ethiopian countryside looking over vast fertile fields. The grain was laid like great sheets across the hills, shifting in color and shadow as it was pushed this way and that by the breezes. Women wearing red and yellow and green walked along the road, hunched over with large baskets on their backs. I recalled the severe famine of Ethiopia in the 1980’s. My guide told me that Ethiopia is fertile enough that it could feed the whole of Africa.
There was a drought in those days, and the crops were affected, but in the end it was sinful human beings who hoarded the available grain and prevented its distribution-purely political and tribal manipulation. That was the reason why hundreds of thousands of people died in the famine. God did not cause people to shrivel up and die of malnutrition. Cruel human beings did. And it is not the way things are supposed to be.
People naturally ask, “So why can’t God prevent people from causing the suffering that they do to other people?” The answer is that he could, and someday he will. He will decisively interrupt the affairs of the world, bring a curtain down on history, and judgment will come, along with a new creation in which there are no more tears and no more pain. But in the meantime, God allows human beings to exercise a quality that is one of the most noble things human beings possess, and also one of the most dangerous: freedom.
Freedom is one of our most cherished attributes. Why did the young men emerge from landing crafts on the beaches of Normandy and run up the beach in the face of leveling gunfire? Why did they throw themselves toward the vicious teeth of a powerful enemy? Why did they lay down their lives, many of them never to take another step toward age 20? It was for freedom. Trapped in a battle, but struggling toward freedom. It was because we need to be free to live. It is because to be human means to be free. It is because that’s the way God made us-it’s the way things were meant to be.
But the very meaning of freedom is that we are free to choose the good and we are free to choose evil. It is, in fact, the only way freedom works.
Now think about how we experience this every day with our growing and developing children. If someone asked you, “So, when exactly did you lose control of your kids?” the right answer would be, “What makes you think I ever had control of them in the first place?” A parent realizes with the passing of years that parenting is not about control, but about training. Even if you physically constrained a child, you would not really control him or her, because a human being, no matter what age, asserts the drive to act freely. He or she may comply on the outside, but crossed arms, knit brow, and stiffened lips reveal an independent will inside. Parents realize that their teenagers are progressively moving toward independence. How could it be any other way? Soon the kid will be an adult and will have to make daily decisions that will come out of whatever ethical and moral fabric has developed in his or her consciousness. With that freedom of choice the adolescent will make good decisions and bad decisions-and that will continue through every phase of life that follows.
To be human means to have freedom, whether we use it or abuse it. (That does not mean we are uninfluenced by forces without and within. The fact of free choice does not mean that we are entirely self-determinative. We are profoundly influenced by God, by other people, by temptation, compulsion, and addiction. But in the end, only we are responsible for the choices we make.)
Why do bad things happen to innocent people? Frequently it is because human beings act carelessly, cruelly, and maliciously toward each other. Of course it leaves us asking, why? Why must this be? Why would a young man abandon a baby at a rest stop? Why would somebody have his wife murdered? Why would somebody drive by a house and fire a gun randomly at it? Why would someone kill someone for a wallet or a jacket? Why would somebody fly a jetliner full of innocent people into a skyscraper? There is no good answer because there is nothing of goodness in this. It is, at its core, unanswerable because it is nonsensical. But even without a rational explanation for what is in essence irrational, this piece of reality does fit with everything else we know about reality. The foolish and dark use of freedom is a fracture in the world that can be traced from one end of the human race to the other; it runs to the heart of human nature. There is a terrible consistency in this randomness.
Could God have created humanity without this awesome power to choose? Yes, he could have, but then we would be robots and not human beings. We would not know a single moment of chosen love or devotion or goodness. We would not be able to worship God, or love our children or our friends. We would be incapable of understanding grace instead of greed, light instead of darkness.
God wanted to make a certain kind of creature as the last step of the creation. He created human beings invested with this incredible privilege and power, the life-giving and life-taking power of freedom. The misuse of freedom has set into human nature a series of fault lines that goes not only through humanity, but through the whole creation as well. Like us, the whole of creation groans “as in the pains of childbirth,” it is “subjected to frustration,” and it “waits in eager expectation” for God’s final redemption when the bondage will end, and the adoption of sons and daughters of God will be complete (see Romans 8:18-39).
Excerpt from Putting the Pieces Back Together: How Real Life and Real Faith Connect. Free DVD available now.
Next time: How God helps us when we suffer.