“All things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” We’re quick to hear this verse quoted in times of trouble and uncertainty. But I’m not sure that it always fits. While we may quibble with context and components of hermeneutics, this passage is clearly not promising that everything is going to be immediately okay for all who face trials. And this passage doesn’t promise good for all people, but only those found in Christ. Paul seems focused on the ultimate good of believers, not our immediate well-being. Still, we are likely to hear this verse quoted during this Coronavirus scare, especially in relation to our students.
A little more than a year ago I had a student whose dad died randomly in an accident at work. I remember going to the funeral, and listening to the sermon. As the message finished, my wife and I went forward to talk and comfort the young man. You could tell that he was still in shock, not fully present in the moment—and who could blame him? As soon as we got in the car I began to cry. Really, I wept. As my wife sat next to me in the passenger seat, I said over and over again “How is this fair? Why would this happen to him? He’s so young.”
I knew all the right “answers.” I could talk your ear off about the nature of evil in the world. I could wax eloquently about Augustine’s view of evil, various theodicies, and how atheists may respond to the argument. But at the end of the day, I was left with a broken teenager, a heavy heart, and a ton of questions of “why?” Although I care about the philosophical problems, the pastoral ones are just as real—whether in the sudden death of a students’ father or the devastating effects of a global pandemic.
One truth that comes up over and over in our discussions of evil is this idea that with every bad thing that happens to a person, there must be some greater good that is associated. That is, if an evil befalls me, there must be good that is connected to it. We see leaders make this claim all the time. How often when we’ve turned on the television after a natural disaster do we hear a pastor say, “God allow this to happen because …” or, after a horrific act of evil, “God is doing this because …”
While philosophers continue to debate the issue of greater-good theodicies, we can agree that is there is a problem. The problem is, we don’t have any promise of an immediate greater good in Scripture. While it may be true that we receive a greater good for each evil we face, it’s not explicit in the Bible. It’s true that God does good for His people, but we are not promised a greater good as a direct result of every evil we encounter.
Think of Job and his suffering. Sure, we might note that in Job 42, he receives seven sons and three daughters, the same amount he had lost in Job 1. But I would dare to say that having more children did not equal a “greater good” for Job. His life wasn’t necessarily better because he now had children again. He was still faced with the pain of loss. And he would still remember the suffering he went through. Although his prosperity had returned, he would be faced with the giant question of “why?” Why did he experience so much suffering and evil? What was the purpose of so much death and disaster? I doubt someone promising him some “good” will come out of this would have helped.
In the Book of Job (and elsewhere in Scripture) we’re not given the purpose for individual sufferings and evils in the world. In the absence of an explicit answer, what do we do? When we see the effects of the Coronavirus, we might be tempted to look for some specific greater good connected to it. The problem is that we’re just not in a place to know that. We don’t have a God’s-eye view of the world; we don’t know all that God is doing and will do (Isaiah 55:8-9). God’s ways are not our ways. And if, like Job’s friends, we’re tempted to give a pat answer for suffering, we’ll often find ourselves to be in the wrong.
Still we can have hope. While I would argue that we need to stop looking in each act of evil and suffering for a greater good, we do need to look to the greatest Good: Jesus Christ. It is so easy for us to turn toward the things of God, and not to God Himself. We often look to the gifts and not the Giver. During a time of worry and concern, let’s stop looking for immediate good, and turn our eyes to the greatest good. While we might not have an answer to why evil is present, why viruses continue to spread, why people get sick, we can have hope.
When we turn and look at the cross the one thing we can’t say is that God doesn’t care. He cared so much about evil and suffering that He sent His Son to die, to conquer evil. As we imagine Christ suffering on the cross, we know that we have a God who suffers with us, a great high priest who sympathizes with us in our weakness (Hebrews 4:14). We have a God who not only suffers, but also saves, and one who is wondrous in His sovereignty. In the midst of anxiety, evil, and suffering, that truth offers us an otherworldly comfort.
May we be reminded of what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:3-5: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.”
As we point our students to Christ during this uncertain time, we trust they will experience the greatest good of all: Sharing not only in his sufferings, but in his comfort, too.