- Association of Certified Biblical Counselors - https://biblicalcounseling.com -

Understanding Evil

“Why?” This is the question that many people ask. It comes up in counseling all the time. The woman who was raped as a child and is still dealing with the emotional pain. The child who was physically abused and neglected by his or her parents, struggling to understand love. The boy who was bullied in elementary school, middle school, high school, and in the church youth group who feels like he’ll never be a strong and courageous man. The suffering, the hurting, the poor, and the needy are all crying out to God “Why?” 

I am also someone who has had to answer this question in my own life. Though previously treated for Lyme disease years ago, I was recently diagnosed with lupus. For eleven years, I experienced symptoms with no explanation. This new diagnosis has given me clarity on my condition, but I am certain there is a lot more suffering to come in my future with a chronic disease. I have asked the question many times, “Why the suffering, God?” Deuteronomy 8 has helped me tremendously to answer this question.  

While the whole chapter is excellent, I specifically want to look at Deuteronomy 8:11-20. We see a very big picture of God and His sovereign purposes for evil.1 [1]When I speak of evil I mean any suffering, trial, difficulty, pain, or sickness in a person’s past or present.

God Redeems from Evil 

Moses begins by reminding us what God has done for Israel: He has “brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (8:14b). In Egypt, Israel suffered immensely. In the midst of their slavery, they cried out to God and asked  “why” (cf. Exodus 2:23-25). Enduring profound suffering is often puzzling, but observe how God redeems Israel’s suffering. Could Israel truly understand God’s grace, mercy, love, and compassion if there was no suffering? Redemption from evil puts the glory of God on display. We may not understand why we suffer in the moment, but when redemption comes, the praise that we give to God is far greater than if no suffering and evil ever existed.  

The same is true at the cross. While on the cross, Jesus asked the question “why” as well (cf. Matthew 27:46). Jesus’s cry of dereliction was not because He was confused about God’s purposes for evil; rather, Christ was about to offer the most profound answer to the question “why?” Jesus’s final cry was “it is finished” (John 19:30). The cross is the final and most definitive answer to the problem of evil. Without evil, there is no redemption. If there is no redemption, then there is less praise and glory that God receives from the mouths of sinners because of their redemption. God certainly is not obligated to redeem, but in redeeming His people from slavery, He puts His glory on display in a way that would be less evident without evil.  

Our suffering is intended to cause us to cry out to God, and redemption from evil is intended to produce praise from our lips like never before. It is absolutely essential to teach our counselees that our suffering is never pointless, no matter how bad it is. Rather, our suffering now is preparing us for a greater worship service in heaven because we will be fully and finally redeemed from our suffering (cf. Isaiah 25:8-9; 2 Corinthians 4:17). 

God Leads Through Evil 

Moses continues by telling us that God has “led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water” (8:15a). If slavery in Egypt wasn’t enough, Israel went through another trial immediately after. However, instead of trusting in God’s providence, Israel complained and rejected God’s providence. Yes, Israel complained against Moses as their leader. But Moses gave the best answer to their complaining: “Your grumbling is not against us but against the LORD” (Exodus 16:8). When we grumble and complain about our circumstances or the difficult people we encounter or the suffering we are going through, we are actively rejecting God’s providence in our lives. The complaining that comes out of our mouths demonstrates that our hearts are in rebellion against God’s sovereignty. We may not understand God’s purposes in the midst of the trial, but we must recognize that God never abandons His people in the midst of their suffering, no matter how bad the suffering is.  

God Provides in the Midst of Evil 

Moses then reminds Israel that God has “brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know” (8:15b-16a). Israel was tempted to forget how God provided for and took care of her in the midst of her suffering. Israel’s suffering could have been much worse, but God limited the suffering because of His compassionate mercy. This takes us to 1 Corinthians 10:1-13. Israel’s suffering in the wilderness is intended to be an instructive example for all believers. The same warning for Israel is given to us (1 Corinthians 10:12). The next verse, in the context of Israel’s suffering in the wilderness, reminds us of how God limits our suffering and provides for us in the midst of our suffering: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13). The way to escape from temptation in the midst of profound suffering and trials is to endure through it by trusting in God’s faithfulness and provision. 

God has a Purpose for Evil 

The final point that Moses tells us about what God has done for Israel is that He has done all of this “that he might humble you and test youto do you good in the end” (8:16b). God never intends suffering in our lives for evil, but for good. This is where we must wrestle with God’s sovereignty over evil. Job understood this when he said “‘The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.’ In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong” (Job 1:21-22). Job gave the same answer after his wife told him to curse God and die: “‘Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?’ In all this Job did not sin with his lips” (Job 2:10). The author of the book of Job is even more pointed when he tells us at the end of the story that Job’s friends “showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the LORD had brought upon him” (Job 42:11). Yes, God is absolutely sovereign over evil in the sense that God decrees it for His own purposes. But God cannot be charged with wrong or of being evil Himself because God never intends evil purposes from His heart (Genesis 50:20; Lamentations 3:31-33; Acts 2:23; 4:27; Romans 8:28; Ephesians 1:1).2 [1]See Scott Christensen, What About Evil: A Defense of God’s Sovereign Glory (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2020). This book on evil should be considered absolutely essential reading for anyone suffering. Though it is a thick read, it has shaped my thinking profoundly. I did not cite every concept taken from Christensen, but many of the theological truths in this article must be given credit to Christensen. This point about God’s heart intentions is one of the most helpful points that I gleaned from Christensen’s work.

I have had to seriously wrestle with God’s purposes in my suffering as well. When I came to the point of being “so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself,” it is there that God taught me that this was to “make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:8-9). God is absolutely sovereign over my suffering. But only God’s good purposes for evil and His faithful, unchanging, impassible character is what gives me hope in the midst of my suffering. We need to teach our counselees to understand God’s sovereignty over evil, God’s purposes for evil, and to submit to God’s wisdom in the midst of evil. Teach them to avoid being hardened by their suffering and to submit humbly to God’s purposes instead. The exact reasons “why” our suffering happens may never be known, but God’s greater purposes for evil can be known. 

And in all of this we must point them away from their circumstances and instead point them to a God who is far greater than they realize: “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36).