Rebecca Stark is the author of The Good Portion: God, the second title in The Good Portion series, a series written to encourage women to immerse themselves in the depths of Christian doctrine.

The Good Portion — God explores what Scripture teaches about God in hopes that readers will see his perfection, worth, magnificence, and beauty as they study his triune nature, infinite attributes, and wondrous works. 

Rebecca also blogs at Out of the Ordinary.


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On Preparing for Suffering and Evil from D. A. Carson

Last week I gave you notes on the first sermon of Donald Carson’s two sermons on this subject.  The two sermons give us five pillars on which to “lay out a stable way on which to think about suffering and evil.”  (I suggest you listen to this second sermon for yourself and only use my notes to supplement it. I like to listen to sermons and lectures while I do the drudgework around here, and that might work for you, too.)  The first sermon included the first three of the five pillars, and this one included the last two. I’m including the first three pillars in my list here for clarity’s sake, and then the notes on the second sermon start with pillars four and five.
  1. Insights from the beginning of the Bible’s story line: Creation and fall.
  2. Insights from the end of the Bible’s story line: There’s a heaven to be gained, and a hell to be shunned.
  3. Insights from the place of innocent suffering: Job.

  4. Insights from the mystery of providence: God is sovereign, but human beings are responsible.

    Carson starts by saying that is one of the most difficult areas to work through theologically, and yet it is very important for us to come to some sort of stable view of these matters. He begins with two propositions, which he says are biblically mandated for thoughtful Christians. 

    • God is utterly sovereign, but his sovereignty never functions to mitigate human responsibility.
    • Human beings are morally responsible creatures, but their moral responsibility never functions to make God absolutely contingent (dependent on us in some way).
    These propositions can be defended in a multitude of biblical texts. The trick is to put them together. In philosophical theology, the fact that they belong together is sometimes called compatibilism.  Compatibilism doesn’t claim that we can know exactly how they are compatible, but merely claims that we can know enough to believe both propositions.

    Carson then looks at three texts.

    • Genesis 50:19-20:
      But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”
      Carson says that we can see some things the text does not say, as in “God intended to send me down in a chauffer driven limousine and you chaps mucked up his plan. ” Nor does it say, “You folks intended to do me harm, and that day God wasn’t paying attention and so it happened, but God came in after the fact and sorted it out.”  Rather, of the one event, it says “You intended it for evil, God intended it for good.”

    • Isaiah 10:5ff: 
      Ah, Assyria, the rod of my anger;
         the staff in their hands is my fury!
      Against a godless nation I send him,
         and against the people of my wrath I command him,
      to take spoil and seize plunder,
         and to tread them down like the mire of the streets.
      But he does not so intend,
         and his heart does not so think;
      but it is in his heart to destroy,
         and to cut off nations not a few;
      for he says:

      “Are not my commanders all kings?
      Is not Calno like Carchemish?
         Is not Hamath like Arpad?
         Is not Samaria like Damascus?
      As my hand has reached to the kingdoms of the idols,
         whose carved images were greater than those of Jerusalem and Samaria,
      shall I not do to Jerusalem and her idols
         as I have done to Samaria and her images?”

      When the Lord has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the speech of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the boastful look in his eyes. For he says:

      “By the strength of my hand I have done it,
         and by my wisdom, for I have understanding;
      I remove the boundaries of peoples,
         and plunder their treasures;
         like a bull I bring down those who sit on thrones.
      My hand has found like a nest
         the wealth of the peoples;
      and as one gathers eggs that have been forsaken,
         so I have gathered all the earth;
      and there was none that moved a wing
         or opened the mouth or chirped.”

      Shall the axe boast over him who hews with it,
         or the saw magnify itself against him who wields it?
      As if a rod should wield him who lifts it,
         or as if a staff should lift him who is not wood!
      Therefore the Lord GOD of hosts
         will send wasting sickness among his stout warriors…
      In these war maneuvers, God is actually sending Assyria, treating it like a tool.  That doesn’t mean Assyria is not responsible for what they’ve done, and they get clobbered by God, in turn, for what they did.

    • Acts 4:24ff
      And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, 25 who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit,

      “‘Why did the Gentiles rage,
      and the peoples plot in vain?
      26 The kings of the earth set themselves,
      and the rulers were gathered together,
      against the Lord and against his Anointed’—

      27 for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, 28 to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.

      The first whiff of persecution has broken out against the church, and historically, when the church is going through persecution, they begin by confessing God’s sovereignty. 

      Suppose we ripped verse 27 out, and just kept verse 28. Viewed this way, we’d see that all the events that go up to the cross are God’s own doing. We wouldn’t worry about human agents and their responsibility.  If we viewed things only with the information in verse 28, we might conclude that Pilate and Herod and the rest were all excused for what they did. 

      In light of verse 27, however, we know that God’s sovereignty does not make the human agents not responsible.  But if we were to view verse 27 without verse 28, we’d be missing the whole Bible story line of the purposefulness of the cross of Christ.
    What Carson wants to argue is that these two propositions have to be believed by any thinking Christian or you destroy the cross. While there are some well-intentioned Christians who try to avoid compatibilism, at the end of the day, we can’t duck it.  We’ve got to believe it, because there’s just too much turning on those propositions.

    But that does not mean we can explain exactly how they fit together. Historically, there have been different ways people have fit them together, but Carson doesn’t want get into them here. What he will say is this: Once you’ve established those two poles as both being true, then there are other steps that need to be taken.

    First, it is important to see that those two propositions are related to what the Bible says about God throughout the Bible. The Bible presents God as sovereign and transcendent on one hand; and on the other hand, he’s personal and interactive. We can’t absolutize either side. God is so big that we don’t have all of the answers about how these things are put together.

    In affirming God’s sovereignty, Christians have been forced, sooner or later, to say things like this: God stands utterly sovereign over all that takes place, but he stands asymmetrically behind good and evil. That is, he stands behind good and evil in that he is sovereign over the whole lot, but he doesn’t stand behind good and evil in exactly the same way.  He stands behind evil such that the evil itself is directly attributable to secondary causes. He stands behind good in such a way that the good is always directly attributable to him.

    If you say that’s all a little too convenient for God, Carson say he will will say, “That’s the only God there is. Get used to it!” Nothing ever happens outside the bounds of God’s sovereignty, and yet he’s still the God of goodness and grace, so that all the good things are directly attributable to him.

    Granting that there are great unknowns in the existence of God, pastorally, the most important move you can make is this: You will allow God’s sovereignty to function only in the ways they function in scripture. And you will allow all the passages that speak of human responsibility and choices and belief and disobedience to function only in the way in which they function in scripture. Otherwise there is a danger that you will begin to make one side function in away in which it destroys the other side.

    What do we infer from the truth of God’s sovereignty? We can’t infer that we are just pawns on a chess board. What we can infer is that God is utterly sovereign, therefore he can be trusted; God works all things together for good; in the end he’ll bring glory and in the end justice will be done; and God’s purposes are greater than ours and sometimes we’re not going to understand them.

    What do we infer from those passages that speak of human beings choosing? We can’t infer that God has done his bit and now it’s up to us. What we can infer is that we need to chose right because we will be held to account for the choices we make, all the while understanding that the wise choices we make are attributable to God, so we must be grateful to him when we make them. And in the end, we must submit ourselves under the mighty hand of God!

    Once that large view of God is in place, we are very close to the idea of the mystery of providence. These things are beyond our capacity to articulate, because God is bigger than we are.

    How does the mystery of providence work out in our lives when the wheels fall off? It doesn’t mean that we don’t wrestle with God, but it does mean that like Job, we’ll say in the midst of anguish and suffering, “Yea though he slay me, still I will trust in him.”

    Subcategories included under this pillar:
    1. Suffering as a temporal discipline. (Hebrews 12 on the chastening of sons.)
    2. Suffering to prepare us for helping others.
    3. Suffering as a form of witness.
    4. Suffering that make us homesick for heaven.

  5. Summary: In the mysterious providence of God, all suffering has a purpose.

  6. Insights from the centrality of the incarnation and the cross: Jesus reigns from the cross.

    Carson reminds us that we do not have a God who has never been tempted as we have. The word became flesh and lived among us and suffered the “ignominious odium of the cross” and all the burden bearing that came with bearing the burden of our sin. Our God incarnates himself to bear our sin and die our death. That Jesus reigns from the cross changes everything.

    This pillar is the answer to the creation and fall of the first pillar. It is the foundation of the second pillar. It enables us to put up with the mystery of innocent suffering (third pillar), for we see the one who is most innocent is the one who suffered the most. And we learn to trust the God of providence (fourth pillar) all the more when this God is not only transcendent, but one of us. When everything else seems to vanish away, you have to go back to the cross.

  7. Summary: The cross is where we find stability and nowhere else. 
Three practical conclusions:
  1. This approach is not a simple proof texting approach.  It is a question of worldview formation: how to think through all of reality in light of what scripture says. This is one of the reasons why this is so hard to get across to an unbeliever or someone with superficial views. But if you want to build stability in people’s lives, you must build this big picture.
  2. This two-part lecture has focused on the intellectual, worldview issues, and this is important; but for most crises, this is not the stuff that you present. The time when people need this is before a crisis comes. It’s preparatory medicine, meant to insure that when the crisis happens, they have the resources to withstand it without a crisis of faith as well.  In the midst of suffering people need sustained practical help.
  3. Christians who get to know God well don’t spend a huge amount of time on these issues. They focus more on contrition than theodicy.

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Reader Comments (3)

What I like about Carson is how incredibly careful he is with his reasoning and presentation (not allowing either to supersede the other) and how grounded he is on Biblical thinking. I was blown away in Desiring God 2006 when he is the only one who deals with a passage in its proper context and using the thought-flow within it to make his points. Excellent thinker.

May 16, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterRey

I'm currently reading through John J. Murray's "A Frowning Providence". These sermon notes are excellent. I appreciate the time you took in presentation and articulation of your thoughts. This is a link I'm keeping in my favorites.

May 16, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterElle

They're not really my thoughts, Elle, but more-or-less straight from Carson's presentation. I'm glad you found them helpful.

May 17, 2007 | Registered Commenterrebecca

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