This week I learned of the tragic loss of a Christian family within my own church community. The automatic response to hearing the news of course was “why”? So is our response to all such events, and while we must turn to God for comfort from his Spirit (for where else can true comfort come from?), we are also stretched in our faith to reconcile these things with our belief in God’s goodness and love for us; and we don’t do so lightly.
But I have many times found Christians who in their moments of grief find their faith in God not stretched but completely dismantled, due in large part to the fact that they have not worked through the matter at all in their own minds beforehand. Consequently, their faith can’t accommodate their present experience of suffering and their grief turns to cognitive dissonance. Needless to say, it’s very difficult to comprehend inside of grief what we never took time to understand outside of it.
That said, we take this “outsider’s” look today at this perplexing problem of why bad people prosper and good people suffer, and we find in Augustine a treasure trove of wisdom. In an attempt to keep things brief, I will simply summarize some of his more salient points.
1. A Christian must process all things within the framework of redemptive history and final judgment.
“Surely it pleased divine providence to prepare future goods for the just which the unjust will not enjoy, and future evils for the impious which will not torment the good.” (City of God, Chapter 8)
How vital for the Christian to continually keep all things of this world within the broader context of eternity. In Canada this is especially important since our culture and even sometimes would-be “Christian” teaching attempts to place the locus of God’s rewards or our attainment of “the good life” in this world. Don’t forget Jesus’ words: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
God’s final display of justice will not be observed in this life, but will be revealed when Christ comes to “judge the living and the dead” (Acts 17:31). So, to the extent that we experience the apparent injustice of the “wicked“ prospering while the “good“ suffer, we can take heart that such situations are not inconsistent with God’s divine purpose. This age we live in is NOT the age of final justice, but the time of redemption and calling sinners to repentance. Apparent suffering and reward, therefore, serve a different purpose than dispensing divine “ultimate” justice. As Augustine points out, God has stored up rewards for the “just“ and punishment for the “wicked“ that will not be revealed until Christ returns (Acts 10:42; 2 Tim. 4:1; 1 Peter 4:5).
2. The Christian must accept that both the righteous and the unrighteous are recipients of God’s goodness.
Jesus instructs us to “love our enemies” and “pray for those who persecute us”. Why? Because that’s how our Father acts, who “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt 5:45). And this serves its own purpose since this common experience allows the Christian to testify to the non-Christian of God’s goodness at the level of their own experience.
The skeptic typically points to the experience of evil as cause for disbelief. One automatic response should be to remind the same that their disbelief must equally give an accounting for the experience of goodness. “From where then does goodness come?”
3. The Christian must accept that receiving God’s goodness serves a purpose now for both the believer and the unbeliever.
It isn’t just benevolence that causes God to extend his goodness seemingly without prejudice. Scripture tells us that God has a purpose in blessing both the righteous and the unrighteous. For the believer, it’s most of all for the purpose of experiencing his love. God loves to bless his children (Matt 7:11), so that they will live in the light of his love for them and consequently live in the appropriate posture of worship through thanksgiving toward him.
To know God is to know his love for us (John 17:26), and so while our final hope of resurrection in Christ secures the fact of his love, receiving gifts of temporal goodness in part allows us to know the experience of his love in the present. (I say “in part” because the Holy Spirit is also a huge participant in the experiential communication of God’s love for his children).
But for the unbeliever, too, God’s goodness serves a purpose. This purpose Augustine points to from Paul in Romans 2:4-6:
Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.
The goodness God grants the unbeliever He intends as a witness to his love. He shows them kindness in the hope that they will receive it as His kindness and turn to Him as its giver. Conversely, for those who take all the goodness they can get and receive it as its’ own end, “worshipping and serving created things rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25) they’re storing up judgment for themselves. As a result, God will be proved right when he renders his final judgment for greedily receiving the good he gave, while knowingly rejecting Him as its giver.
4. We must accept that experiencing evil also serves a purpose now for both the believer and unbeliever.
This is perhaps the most difficult point to accept, but one which through the eyes of faith again ends in glory to God in his providence.
The typical objection to evil goes something like this: “If God is truly good, then wouldn’t he prevent anyone from experiencing evil?” We’ll leave the logical arguments aside for another discussion, but at this point simply reply that this statement is true, unless God has a “truly good” reason for not doing so. Granted, his reasons must be embraced through the eyes of faith, but they do not therefore stand opposed to reason.
I found Augustine’s insight here sufficient enough to quote him at length. To this question he first states,
God often plainly shows his working even in the distributing of goods and evils, for if every sin were punished by an obvious penalty now, nothing would be thought to be reserved for the last judgment; on the other hand, if no sin were punished clearly by the divine nature now, no one would believe in the existence of divine providence.
In other words, the sometimes “withholding” of punishment for sin allows for the hope of ultimate justice reserved for the day of God’s final judgment. Indeed, God is withholding his full wrath, “bearing with great patience the objects of his wrath” (Romans 9:22) so that again he will be seen as righteous for his judgment in the end. And so that those who are the objects of his wrath may yet repent and find forgiveness and redemption in Christ. In his mercy, he does not yet fully treat sinners as their sin deserves…thank God!
However, at the same time, God does punish sin here and now. As Paul says,
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people…
It’s our experience of evil as punishment for sin that enables us to see that something is horribly wrong in the world and that something is us. As one of my favourite songs by downhere puts it, “The problem with the world is me”.
The revelation of God’s wrath in the here and now then is both judgment and grace. Judgment in that we’re bearing the consequences of sin in rejecting God as God, and grace because while certainly unpleasant these consequences are not yet meted out in their full and final measure, indicating the need of and leaving time and room for repentance. As C.S. Lewis put it, “suffering is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
Conversely, Augustine notes,
It is similar with favourable things. If God did not grant them to some petitioners through a most evident generosity, we would say that such things do not belong to him. Likewise, if he granted them to all petitioners, we would think that, except for the sake of such rewards, we were not required to serve him. Nor would such service make us pious, but rather greedy and avaricious.
Have you ever noticed that sometimes when we pray, God answers and gives us a tangible blessing, while other times we pray and do not receive the “good“ we expected?
While we can’t know God’s reasons in any particular case, Augustine gives us great insight into why God sometimes grants our requests and other times does not. Even as human parents, we understand that in order to teach our children that we generously love them, we sometimes reward them and give them the things they want most. We don’t always do this, however, because we want them to learn that obedience and good behaviour are desirable in their own right, not simply a means to rewards. So, sometimes we give good, and sometimes we withhold it, all depending upon what lesson we feel our children most need to learn at any given moment.
5. We accept that God’s ultimate concern is not with the quality of life we enjoy, but with the kind of person we become.
Perhaps nothing more characterizes the uniqueness of the Christian worldview than this final point. “Why”, we might ask, “has God left us here to live at all?” Why not just transport us to heaven at the moment we profess faith in Christ? Why, especially when for some staying here means living for extended periods in illness or pain?
We may say that it’s so we can witness to those who don’t believe. While true, that’s a tad too pragmatic, since if that were the only reason then surely God could have found a less painful way for us to do so. No, we must accept that God’s purpose in allowing us to remain and endure suffering is again rooted in his love for us. And Augustine gives us a window into why this is so by pointing to the distinction between suffering endured by the “wicked“ and suffering endured by the “righteous“. Again, I will quote in length:
These things being so, whenever the good and the bad are afflicted equally, it is not the case that there is no distinction between them, for the distinction is not based on what they both endure…Subjected to the same fire, gold glows with a reddish gleam but chaff smolders. Subjected to the same threshing sled, the straw breaks into small pieces, but the grain is freed from the husk…So one and the same onrushing force tries, purifies, and refines the good, but condemns, devastates, and exterminates the evil. Thus, visited by the same affliction, the evil curse and blaspheme God, but the good beseech and praise him. It is not the kind of suffering but the kind of person who suffers that is so important.
The fact is that God in his love is working for our ultimate good (Romans 8:28), but we must allow Scripture and Scripture alone to identify what that good is. Too many Christians have refused this and decided to define their “ultimate good” on their own terms, or have accepted the world’s definition of such. But in this life, there’s but one “ultimate good” toward which God is moving us and (if we are wise) we’ll cooperate with him in willing ourselves to be so moved.
What is it that suffering produces in us in a way that nothing else can? We get our answer from the example of Christ himself.
Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him (Hebrews 5:8-9).
Perfect obedience is our greatest good, because only in perfect obedience do we become the kind of beings God made us to be: the kind of beings who can live with a perfect God forever. And the fact that Jesus himself needed to live for 33 years before he was “made perfect” tells us that perfect obedience isn’t just some divine heavenly concept, but is a quality of living human experience.
Yes, God will one day “perfect” us in a miraculous way, but that perfection will not be a completely foreign reality because right now he seeks to train us in obedience. In effect, we’re learning now in part to become that which we will be in full when Christ returns.
And, the fact of the matter is that in the school of obedience, suffering exposes our unlearned lessons in a way that nothing else can. I will never be able to identify my persisting rebellion against my Creator if life is always a “bed of roses”. Like nothing else, suffering exposes what’s rock-bottom true of me, and if it’s only through the crucible of trial and hardship that I can see my ongoing defiance against God, then for the Christian and only by faith we cry, “not my will but yours be done”.
We’re blessed to still possess the preserved witness of those who have grappled with the weighty matters of faith before us. We’re wise to listen to these voices from the past, for while centuries and culture separate us, the condition of the human heart remains the same and God’s work in Christ to redeem a people for himself has not altered.
I hope that you will apply this to your mind so that God may do his necessary work in your heart.
Originally published Apr 12, 2013, last updated May 25, 2021.