How Do I Know If It’s God or the Devil? A Mega-Post On Pain, Evil, and Suffering


Anonymous asked a question:

Would God purposely put His children in a situation where they would be hurt in any way (rape, kidnapped, something like that)? Or is this the work of the devil? I don’t think He would, but I don’t know.


My dear friend: There’s probably a huge list of questions I’d like to ask God the second I see Him (right after I collect my eyeballs back into my head).  So right upfront: I’m not sure why the devil is given such a long leash.  I’m going to ask God about that one, probably with my arms crossed and eyes rolled (and my head on fire).

The Question of Evil has not been adequately answered by the greatest philosophers of history, and I probably won’t be the one to crack it today, either.  It’s the kind of stuff that makes me doubt God everyday.  Even if I did have some solid theology on why certain atrocities happen, I still doubt it would satisfy the victim of abuse and slavery and oppression and terminal illness, no matter how much “logical sense” it makes to the brain.  Even if I concluded, “All the bad stuff is really from Satan,” then a suffering person could only reply, “So what?”

I can only offer a few thoughts that might help you on your journey here, because this tension of why bad things happen will never be resolved by any single answer.  Anything we say on pain will always be inadequate for the actual suffering person.  No such all-encompassing answer from any belief system really exists. I say this as a chaplain who works in the hospital, who has seen the very worst kinds of suffering, knowing that any amount of inspiration or explanation will never be enough.

I can only say that I believe the Christian perspective best accommodates the problems we see today.  I’m also aware that some of us will never meet eye-to-eye on this and we can “deconstructively reduce” anything I’m saying with snark and cynicism. That’s easy mode.  And that’s okay.  We’re free to disagree and wrestle and think for ourselves.

And please know: I would never, ever enumerate these reasons out loud the moment after a person has been seriously harmed.  I would never bring this to the bedside of any of my patients in their inexplicable grief. None of this theology really matters as much as you being there in the trenches with a heart of listening and love.

As always, please feel free to skip around.


1) Our current world is not the way it ought to be.

The Bible tells us our world is fractured by sin.  Sin is not just disobedience against God and how we’re made, but also a disconnection from the all-fulfilling love of God.  So we try to find God in things that are not God, and that’s how our internal disconnection manifests into external disobedience.  In other words: a legitimate need to seek comfort can lead to alcohol addiction or codependency or a string of shallow one-night stands.

We end up abusing people as “obstacles” and using people as “vehicles.”  We build a kingdom of self because we’re apart from our true king.  We try to find fulfillment through stuff and people and experiences – and none of this is very wrong, but we go about this in illegitimate harmful ways.  We try to squeeze from people and things what only God can give us.  These expectations crush others and crush ourselves, and in a way, it crushes the heart of God.  The elevation of self-fulfillment leads to an authoritarian tyranny of self that no one could possibly bear, including ourselves.

Sin not only causes problems with other people, but also personal issues (like vanity and insecurity and greed) and planet issues (which is why our earth doesn’t function liked it was supposed to).  At every level, our whole world is shriveled by the disease we call sin.  It’s not as bad as it could be, but it’s nowhere near where it should be.

From God’s point of view, He’s working with a world that is in every way completely disarrayed.  It’s like walking into a room where someone flung paint and glass all over the place.  Where do you start cleaning up a mess like that?  And beyond that, the Bible tells us there is a devil who exacerbates our struggle, so that we’re getting mixed signals thrown into our already turbulent mess.

Before we even talk about why God lets this or that happen, I hope we first confess that a major part of the problem is me.  It’s you.  It’s us.  The devil only comes in to poke at our pre-existing selfishness.  We are the ones who marred the world with dirty paint; we chucked the shards of glass at God’s creation.  If you think, “That’s not fair, Adam and Eve did that!” – well, let’s imagine you and me in that perfect Garden.  How long before each of us would’ve done exactly what they did?  Even if it took a million more years, we would’ve done the same thing.


2) If this world is not how it was meant to be, then not every pain is meant to be God teaching us a “lesson.”

Since our world is broken apart from its original design, this also means that God suffers with us when we suffer.  He doesn’t stand by waiting for us to “get” some kind of epiphany. Which leads me to believe that pain is pain, that pain sucks, that it doesn’t need to be spiritualized, and that God doesn’t so much lead us towards it but leads us through it.

To more fully answer your question, I’m not sure if God purposefully leads us into harmful situations.  I don’t know if “yes” or “no” would suffice for that.  But I do know we’re all walking through a world of jagged glass, and at every turn we are wading through an innumerable number of consequences that began in the Garden.  And God is working through this infinite number of misaligned imperfections in our universe to write (and re-write) His story the best He knows how – and from His throne, I can’t imagine how difficult His job must be to guide the best possible options for the human story while never infringing upon our free will.

When Jesus taught us to pray, “Your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven” – this implies that God doesn’t always get what He wants.  However blasphemous that might sound to you, this world can’t possibly be how God wants it to be.  Which means God is just as angry as you are when injustice happens.  He’s looking at the human story with all the anguish of a single mother who lost her only child, with all the betrayal of a church with a lying pastor, with all the hurt of a father who prays for his prodigal son.

When Job’s friends essentially tell him, “You brought this on yourself,” at the end God drops by in a storm and says all of Job’s friends are wrong.  God is pretty angry that they would connect “hurt” with some kind of unconfessed sin.  At the same time, God doesn’t give some simple answer about life and pain and lessons.  Probably because no human words could accurately resolve this tension between what is and what ought to be.


3) If God were to intervene every single time, there would be nothing left.

It seems like God could step in at any time and stop evil.  But I just wonder at what point God should do this.  At the level of action?  At the level of thought?  Of atoms?  Of free will?  If God were to electrocute us every time we were about to do something bad, we would all be fried chicken.

Much of the evil in the world is a direct result of our choices.  The irony is that the very gift of God-given Free Will, the same gift that can work to improve our every condition, has been largely used to destroy each other throughout history.  To blame God for all this is a serious lack of responsibility for our choices, and it only exposes the Westernized entitlement that is killing us today.  We can blame our parents or environment or government or city, and while all these are partially responsible, it’s really just me.  We are each accountable.

God allows our cycle of consequences to unroll, mostly because this is what makes us more human and not less.  And even then, God does often relieve us by His grace over and over.  That brings us to the next point.


4) God has probably saved us by an innumerable amount of close calls.

Whenever someone asks, “Why couldn’t God have prevented this one?” – I always want to counter that God probably has prevented a lot of stuff, and that the world is not as bad as it possibly could be or should be.

I don’t think I can count all the times I almost got into a car accident or was steered out of an explosive situation or found random help at the exact right time: and from God’s point of view, we never thank Him for this stuff.  We just explain it away as “coincidence” or “serendipity” or “good luck.”  An earthquake happens in the ocean and it’s a “weather pattern.”  When it happens on land, we call it an atrocious oversight by God.  But maybe this says more about us than God.

In the Book of Acts, the account of the early church, we find out that Peter and James are both arrested for their faith (Acts 12).  James is immediately beheaded but Peter is kept alive.  Try to imagine this happening in your church.  “Did you hear?  Pastor Bob and Deacon Bill were arrested for being Christians.  Bob was killed and we don’t know about Bill.”  Imagine Bob’s family.  They would be going crazy, asking God why He let Bob die, and perhaps secretly wondering why God let Bill live.

We never find out why.  It feels cruel when you read the passage.  God prevented Peter’s death, but in some sense did not intervene for James.  Yet both actually could’ve died, because evil men were killing Christians by their own free will.  And when Peter and James were arrested, their church thought they were both pretty much dead.  It’s only a miracle that Peter actually lives, and I hope we can celebrate that.  I hope we can see that God’s gracious hand is still at work.  It’s definitely awful that James died and I never want to diminish that.  But I also imagine the families of both Peter and James comforting each other throughout the whole ordeal, because really, this is what matters.


5) God did send an ultimate provision to upturn evil.

Here’s why I believe in Jesus.

Because at some point in human history, God became one of us and reversed the human condition.  Just one place, at one time, in the dirtiest sand-swept stain of a city, He healed our entropy: and He invites us into that better story.

Many things happened in the cross and resurrection.  Jesus absorbed the cycle of human violence.  He showed there was a better way than self-centered tyranny and retaliation.  He paid the cost of sin on our behalf.  He reversed the ultimate consequence of death from the first Garden by turning death backwards in a new Garden.  He bestowed that same death-defeating power into those who believed his story.  He identified with us by taking on all the harm of sin though he never sinned himself.  He promised us a union with Him by being united with the Spirit (or the “mind”) of God.  He inaugurated a new kind of kingdom where the weak can win, the poor can succeed, and all our survival values are flipped into sacrifice.  Jesus redefined what it meant to be human by creating an upside-down kingdom where the humble will be elevated and the prideful would be melted by love.

Jesus essentially stepped into the glass and re-did the paint.  He went into the mess and re-created the pieces.  He doesn’t answer why bad things happen, but he gives us a love stronger than all that does happen.

Which reminds me of our brother C.S. Lewis, who said –

“I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?”

 

All this means that no one has to let their circumstances define who they are.  We don’t have to let what happens here on earth to say who we are forever.  While I don’t know why God might “allow” these things to happen, I believe that God doesn’t want these things to be the final word about us.  I want to believe Genesis 50:20 is true, and that the devil has limitations, and that even the worldwide permeation of sin is no match for the healing work of Christ.

A last note.  If your friend is going through some horrible pain right now at the hands of another person, it’s not our job to explain this within the box of our theology.  That’s a cold thing to do.  Jesus never did this: he only wept when he heard of Lazarus, he wept over Jerusalem, he stayed at the homes of lepers and demoniacs, he fed the hungry multitudes.  More than our persuasion, our friends need presence.  This is what God did when He became one of us, and this is how we embody love – by mourning when others mourn, by giving space to grieve, and by allowing joy to find its place when the time is right.

– J.S.


Photo by Alfonso Maseda Varela, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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10 thoughts on “How Do I Know If It’s God or the Devil? A Mega-Post On Pain, Evil, and Suffering

  1. It is very difficult, if not impossible, for me even try an answer to any of the so complex questios you put . Many of them occur us along our life and sometimes we spend a lot of time trying to ‘understand’ the ‘why’s’. And I doubt anyone had ever came to a conclusão, unless he needs it so much that he decided to give for certain a conclusion when it becomes too tiresome or feels to small to face such enormous and uncertificable questions.
    As for me – I am a very simple thinker and a strong believer in the mystery that lyes in the wonder of being – I thing that the main problem is that the time os God – if we can say such a thing as time is an invention of ours…- and the infinity of Its space have nothing to do with all the things we think about in our spaces and times. I think the main problem resides there. We are human, we are a lot, we are too small in front of a Being that is infite from the smallest celule we can imagine (the infinity small) to an infinite we dare to imagine though knwoing we will never attain unless there is Eternity, a point where there is no time to worry us. There , if we believe that life must have a meaning and this meaning is not for us to find because is part of the totallity of being a Holly Spirit, we will rest with noone questioning whether we have been the best of the creatures or someone who brought a lot of trouble to the Existence.
    I believe animals – also God creatures – do a lot of what we shall call ‘awful things’ to survive not only as individuals but also as members of a species. I doubt God gives them such a judgment! They are as close to the earth and the simplicity of life as we become far distant of it when we decided to win the world , unfortunatly, a desire that seems to last forever because there is no such a thing as ‘the world’. It’s a invention of ours we are paying ‘trop chére’ with fear, psychosomatic diseases , and a lot of strange symptoms close to madness.
    I do my best to understand what you feel by the bed of someone suffering to the limit and trying to give hope or an acceptable consolation to their family and friends. It must be very difficult to put up with such situations and even more in a time people seem to have forgoten that there is health and illness, life and death, success and failure. Everyday we listen of the presence of psychologists when some pain, whatever the cause, attain a person or a group. This, as you know, had not always been like that. ‘Sage’ people knew from the beginning they should put up with those painful cases as well as with the happy ones.
    I really don’t believe suffering to be a God’s punishment! We suffer because something went wrong in that machine of ours and, perhaps mos of the time, because we did not pay it the necessary attention or took a time to learn how to deal with it. I don’t believe in Hell the way it had been shown to my counscience when I was a child. I see lots of things alike that hell in many oplaces of our paradisiac earth. All the Apocalypse themes are everyday in the news that those blessed technologies we are so proud to have invented bring to us. We have been working very enthusiastically to the world we have and God has nothing to do with this. It is the way we choose and it seems greatly hypocrite to pray God to undo what we have done and – as it happens in confession…- we wiil do again even if by another and more sophisticated way.
    The question seems to be:
    So what is God for?
    It depends on the answer we find inside us. For me He is the eternal presence that allow me to question myself about my role in the facts that include me and of how I am supposed to BE with other beings like myself. What Christ called ‘our neighbours’ (please read this in the evangelic sense…).
    I sincerely believe Christ existed and is a historical personage that is not easy to deny even if we question the circumstances of his birth ans of his death. Christ, for me, is THE MAN! Someone who lived in the world longing for the lost paradise and trying to give people a way of truth to regain life. This is the Christ, the son of God, I believe in. As I believe we ae all sons of God though being to close to a so demanding realitty that we live forgetting this condition.

    I hope to keep receiving your texts. You are such an interesting thinker that can’t help thinking of the questions we put and that is, through the Spirit, a way to be closer to God. And, believe me, I need it very much. Many things that, believing or not in their truth , were important in my way of living, are today so far that I doubt to be able to cathc them again. And I even do not know if I wish it…

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    1. Thank you so much for thinking through this with me. I’m definitely in that “in-between” where I don’t know how God always fits into our suffering, yet still trusting that God is in the situation somehow. Appreciate you and your thoughtfulness!

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  2. The best answers in scripture to the problem of pain, evil, and suffering tend not to be ones people are ready to be introduced to while in the thick of things. Sometimes, all we are ready to hear is how Christ is fully sympathetic to our struggles (Hebrews 4:15). God is not uncaring when we hurt, and we can bring that pain to him. However, it does help to think about his sovereignty when we’re not so emotionally biased, because the next time hurt comes around we can be more confident and comforted.

    While this world is not how it ought to be in the sense that it does not reflect godly perfection, every thing that happens is still intended. God isn’t juggling our lives just trying to clean up the mess and dropping the ball every time we don’t like where we are.

    God does not force us to make decisions, and our decisions rightly have consequences for us. All of creation groans from the effects of sin (Romans 8:22). However, even our bad decisions play right into God’s intent (Proverbs 16:9). Nothing anyone does can prevent God from lovingly caring for those who love him.

    For a believer, the comfort of that truth is that every single thing is working together for our good (Romans 8:28). For the unbeliever, the problem of suffering is actually a great introduction to the gospel. Why doesn’t God get rid of everything wrong? Is it because he’s incapable, cruel, or just doesn’t know how?

    Actually, it is because of his great love (as your third point speaks to). Some day God will remove all sin (and it’s effects) from the world, but that means destroying everything wrong. If we are not perfect standing with God, that includes us. Thankfully, he is patient with us (2 Peter 3:9) and sent his son to suffer the wrath we deserve so that we can become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).

    We can’t have a perfect world, because a perfect world is impossible so long as imperfect beings are in it. The perishable will not inherent the imperishable (1 Corinthians 15:50). A person who doesn’t have the righteousness of Jesus should heed the warning in Amos 5:18 and stop demanding that God make the world right. For those in Christ, come Lord Jesus!

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    1. Hey Jason, I totally high-five this sentence, the first one:
      “The best answers in scripture to the problem of pain, evil, and suffering tend not to be ones people are ready to be introduced to while in the thick of things.”
      Theology can come off as cold comfort. The world is flawed and we often can only sit there with others, in that stream of broken glass and shattered dreams.

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  3. I shut myself within a small room for two years to meditate on this subject, and then wrote a book… Though I am only left with an individual’s perspective, and personal thoughts and reflections, I am compelled to believe that God, in His eternal existence, never judged His own knowledge of evil, for that knowledge was never expressed. Scripture, describing Satan, stated that Satan was created (meaning in God’s foreknowledge He knew everything Satan would do). Mankind, Satan, and the earth, were created in God’s knowledge of darkness specifically to express that knowledge (which includes all negativity in every form); for in order to judge an action, that action must first be expressed (building up wrath for that DAY of wrath). So, cancer, murder, rape, disease will continue to be expressed (God sends His rain on the evil and the GOOD) until that appointed day of judgment arrives..

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  4. A great post on a topic that all Christians have dealt with and/or are dealing with constantly. For me, the rationale or logic has always been fairly simple. God created us to love and more importantly, love Him. No one can be forced to love, because that is not love at all. To love God, we must choose to love Him. With choice (freewill), we can choose to do right or wrong. Obviously, this is a fallen world where the original sin opened the floodgates to a LOT of wrong being chosen by us sinners. Therefore evil had to exist for freewill to exist, and freewill had to exist for God to be loved. God knew this, and this is why Jesus was the plan from the beginning.
    I grapple with when and even if God intervenes when we suffer. I personally appreciate my times of suffering, because I have more heavily relied upon Jesus, and thus grew from the experience. That old saying; “God only gives you what you can handle” rings false to me. I feel sometimes that God gives us more than we can handle, so that we may rely upon him more heavily, or even completely.

    So, to boil it down, and this may seem controversial… BUT, I think the existence of evil is loving. If God stopped all evil, then we would not have freewill. If we had no choice, would we really be alive? Would we really have a sense of self? Or would we just be a puppet that was restrained by our master’s string pulling?

    I think God only intervenes when we ask Him to, but not always (another mystery). I also think he allows evil to induce the suffering in our lives, because He can see the good on the other side. Yet, I cannot find examples in the Bible of God purposefully harming His children to help “teach” them a lesson. He sure does harm His enemies though!

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    1. Thank you for wrestling alongside, Joshua. I also have a problem with “God only gives you what you can handle,” as I believe it’s a dumbed down interpretation and so untrue of patients I meet in the hospital.

      And though I’m tempted to agree with you on what you stated, I also bristle just a little at how that’s presented to those who are in the midst of suffering. It’s hard to imagine saying “God allows this evil to see good on the other side.” Sometimes evil is just evil and it’s unfair. Sometimes there’s no lesson in the pain, and perhaps none we can see for the foreseeable future. I know you were not claiming otherwise (I’m projecting on you a bit here), but I suppose there’s a time and place when such theology can enter in.

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  5. No one talks about those matters as well as you do!
    I believe you know more than most priests or pastors about bíblic themes and that perhaps in recent times you have had the need to deeply reflect on the meaning of each of them or at last chose and insistently think on those that have to do with your personal conditions, problems, fears , and all those things that afflict all of us, God’s creatures.
    I most appreciated what you write and that made me think about some questions. But I know too little about the Byble to discuss its messages, even with myself.
    So there are some things I agree with you about and others which my ignorance doesn’t allow me to agree because I bring them to my long and common experience of real life and cann’t help seeing a different meaning.
    This is our problem! We change the angle of approach – usually and unconsciously in the most convinient way – but our heads have been ‘done’ in such a subtil and faithful way by those who educated and taught us about our behavers and believes, with so much love and strong arguments involved, that, even for the most we have changed our ways of seeing life, feelings and reasonability, we end turning using the same arguments but the other way round.

    I don’t think God punishes us for what we call ‘our sins’ – I don’ even know if God agrees with the concept…- with grief, illness or any kind of troublesome though we tend to associate our problems to punishement. I even often think if there is a reason why so dreadfull things happen to persons who I think to deserve the best of life and to award people who profit others frailties and do everything they can to attain their objectives, troding who and what came to their way. I sorry the first ones and hate the others and, in doing so, I wrongly put myself in the place of some kind unconsistent god.

    I really do not know why but, nowadays, I don’t like a bit to hear or read about Jesus as a model to those who live the way that , it seems to me, was the reason why Jesus went through his passion and death. I cann’t – even if I try hard – to see Jesus speaking about ‘hapiness’ ’solidarity’ and a lot of other comtemporary concepts most people use to deceive other people using the most christian arguments and dids whose intention is to calm people down or giving them those ‘christian’ solutions’ : “Without God we are nothing”, so let the rest with ‘us’ and thing how the world is beautiful, how sexual love and football are entertaining, how marvellous is this technological world of us.
    It is obvious Jesus didn’t chose to be born in the poor social condition he was born – it was God wish, let us think, but this is valid for any of us…- and even if he tried ( and I believe he woud never try ) it would be difficult to ‘upgrade’ his social condition. But his fight was neither for money or power. His fight was for Justice. Not the justice we claim concerning to ponctual cases but the JUSTICE that is the award of men’s effort to “ ganhar o pão com o suor do seu rosto” , not literally but calling for honest ways to make life more happy, loveable and truly human not at the costs of those who are ’the believers’, those who having Faith aplly it to whatever they are told to believe. Politics is the most pure and dirty example.
    This is not morals! Of course if in the same conditions of Adam and Eve we would do the same. That was the reason the Creator gave Adam ‘la petite difference’ hoping both would use the way to fit and give continuity to humankind. And God made of the act a pleasent one so that pleasure would link man and woman. If the sexual act were as painful as giving birth you may be sure people wouldn’t do it so frequently and, not the least, as an entertaining.
    So, lets left Jesus and the will of God out of what is human “demasiado humano” as Nietzshe put it.
    Thank you for giving me serious matters to think about and forgive the portuguese expressions. Hope you have a good dictionary.

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  6. Inspired by a rainny day, a bunch of flowers, the chocolate scent of a candle and the music of Beethoven I dare to add something to what I wrote yesterday.
    This is about the importance of ‘presence’, of beeing present or of enjoying the presence of the other for as far as he might be from us. This is what happens with old friends. Wherever we are and how distant we are geographically our presence remains untouched. We are with them and we know they are with us even when they are no longer in this world of ours.
    However, presence may also be a burden if no space is left for us to enjoy the intimacy of our own presence. Love does not depend of presence though we know the importance of a hug when we feel lonely and sad and want to feell “cosy and warm”.
    More than desire or need for company love is devotion and tenderness, to have an arm around your shoulder, to be on your knees listening to what the other is telling, to know what he wants or needs before he asks, it is when, for some reason, he is no more ‘gifted’ to perform is role of man not start creating situations to recall the problem but to make him feel that he remains ’the one and only’ because what really matters is the person you are,

    The two Great Wars of past century dramatically influenced the concept of love. There was a lack of men. Most of them had been killed in the wars or had returned with serious problems. There was a time when it is said that there were seven women for each man. An awfull percentage!
    At the same time women, though having strong moral prejudices, had Nature working inside and a lot of demographic problems to solve. The world was calling for the increasing of the human presence. Free sexual intercourse was no more a sin but a need. To have a ‘lover’ was no more a caprice of wealthy men but an unconscious answer to a demographic problem that was to remain to our days. Desire and social interests overcome love in order to re-populate the world and a lot of comprehensivel reasons justify the change.
    All this has nothing to do with the kind of love – if we may say so – Jesus wanted for the world of God. There were no pragmatic reasons in it.
    The same with Justice. Justice has nothing to do with ‘rights’. Rights are man’s invention, Justice is a God’s gift. Jesus claimed for Justice, not for rights… and Romans did not like it.

    Sorry for having returned and occcupied your time for so long.

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