The Problem of Good

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I’m going to take a bit deeper dive today—because deep questions deserve deeper reflection.

I face questions about the problem of evil and suffering day in and day out—in my own life as well in my interactions with others. But there’s another problem we don’t discuss: What about the “Problem of Good”?

This occurred to me one day when I was visiting in the hospital. I heard myself praying, “… And Lord, while we pray for your healing, we also thank you that so many things actually work in our bodies—including the healing powers within that you’ve given us.” I wasn’t minimizing the illness. I was also recognizing the resources God provides to overcome it.

The thought was so clear– and contrary to what I often think in the midst of a hospital visit. While many things go wrong, we also need to be aware that so many things, for the most part, go well. This fact flips our normal perspective on its head. Instead of asking only, “Why is there suffering?” we also need to ask, “Why is there good? Why do many things work?”

I remember being intrigued by an essay entitled, “The Problem of Pleasure,” by Philip Yancey. He wrote:

Why is eating fun? Plants and the lower animals manage to obtain their quota of nutrients without the luxury of taste buds. Why can’t we? Why are there colors in the world? Some people get along fine without the ability to detect color. Why complicate vision for all the rest of us?

Those who argue that life is random, the product of impersonal forces, have a challenge to explain goodness and pleasure. Something more than utility and necessity are at work in this world, continually bringing pleasure, energy, healing and hope.

Here’s the issue: in a world that “runs down,” and where many things go wrong, how do we explain all that goes right? Physicists explain that systems move toward disorder and disorganization unless energy is supplied to disrupt that process. Bodies decay. Flowers die. Coasting bicycles come to a stop. Your coffee and tea cool to room temperature. And that clean, organized space you created quickly moves to disorder in a matter of days. (They explain these as evidence of the second law of thermodynamics and entropy– but there’s no time to develop these concepts now.)

If running down, decay and disorder are “normal,” how do we explain the continual supply of life necessities and countless enhancements to our experience? Music and art that inspire, ideas that empower, friendships that encourage and challenge– why are these and so many other positive aspects part of our everyday life?

In his book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, clinical psychologist Jordan B. Peterson addresses this theme when he points out that problems and negative responses are actually the easiest issues to explain. The real challenge comes from explaining the source of goodness and virtue. He writes,

“Vice is easy. Failure is easy, too … Success: that’s the mystery. Virtue: that’s what’s inexplicable … Violence, after all, is no mystery. It’s peace that’s the mystery. Violence is the default. It’s easy. It’s peace that is difficult: Learned, inculcated, earned… Why do people suffer from anxiety? That’s not a mystery. How is it that people can ever be calm? There’s the mystery” (pages 80, 82 and 125).

In a world of suffering and evil, success, virtue, peace and calmness are examples of the Good that gives us hope.

What is the source of this Good? In theology, we call this Good God’s “common grace.” “Special grace” is the forgiveness, reconciliation and new life God gives us through faith in Jesus Christ. “Common grace,” on the other hand, refers to God’s provision for all creation, as described by Jesus in Matthew 5:44-45,

“But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

So, amid all the truly hard situations that disrupt your life, give thanks that many things do go right. This is not about denial. It’s the way to faith, hope and perspective.

God is great, and God is good. And we thank God.

God Hates Death

picture of eiffel tower
Photo by Thorsten technoman on Pexels.com

“Doug, I’d like to ask you a theological question.” That’s not a typical comment from my brother, Dave. And we weren’t in a typical location—but it was perfect for getting perspective.

Let me set the context: In June 2018 my wife, Sarah, and I led a missions retreat in Austria. We decided to stay overseas for an additional 10 days in France. We wanted to do a bus tour of northern France and the Loire valley and invited my middle brother (I’m the youngest) and his wife to join us. We had a delightful time.

So we were on the second level of the Eiffel Tower. After walking around to take in the views, we all got cappuccinos. Dave and I sat down, overlooking the Champ de Mars, the larger green space southeast of the Eiffel Tower.

Then came the question: “What do you say to parents who’ve lost their young child? Why would God allow that?”

That’s one version of the toughest question we all ask: Why does God allow suffering and evil?

Within moments I heard myself say, “Dave, God hates death.” I paused as that thought sunk in—for both of us. I can’t recall ever saying it that bluntly before.

“God hates death. Like a doctor hates cancer. Like an educator hates ignorance. Like a judge hates injustice. God is all about life. God gave us life in the first place and made this amazing creation. Death – and all that goes along with it—came into the picture because humanity didn’t want to love God or live in harmony with God.”

“The whole Bible is about God providing ways for us to choose life and love and hope in the midst of death,” I said, “God hates death so much he sent Jesus to defeat death so we could have abundant life now and eternal life with him forever.”

“Is that what you tell parents?” Dave asked.

“In a more interactive and pastoral way, yes, that’s part of the conversation.”

I am so thankful that, in midst of unbearable pain, through faith in Christ, death is not the last word.

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 
57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
58 Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. 
Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord,
because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.

As Dave and I continued in conversation, one other thought came to me, “And I don’t think we will ever know why things happen the way they do (at least, not in this life). But that’s probably for the best…”

In my experience, even knowing why some decisions are made or why some things happen doesn’t necessarily help. We are likely to question and challenge any reasons. It’s not about why. It’s about God’s love giving us hope and God’s power giving us strength.