I heard it again last week, the platitude people use in the face of tragedy: “We do not know the mind of God. What we see as bad may, in fact, be part of God’s mysterious plan. God is in control.” People seem to need either to comfort themselves over the fact that life is always uncertain and often painful, or to protect God, or their idea of God, from involvement in, nay, from responsibility for, a messy, imperfect world. Nonetheless, to call the death of a child a clandestine good act of God borders on blasphemy.
Theologically, the problem falls under the category of divine sovereignty, the doctrine that emphasizes God’s lordship over God’s creation. The question hinges, however, around the nature of that sovereignty. If God were to exercise absolute and total control over every aspect of creation, including the human will, then God’s sovereignty would take the form of tyranny. If, on the other hand, God were to permit creation, especially human beings, some degree of freedom, then God’s sovereignty would not be absolute and total.
The idea of God’s absolute sovereignty makes perfect sense as an a priori deduction in the fashion of medieval philosophy. By definition, God must be the “being than which no greater can be conceived” (Anselm’s ontological argument). Such a being must also be “perfect” and unchanging: if such a being could become greater, then a greater being can be conceived; if such a being could be diminished, such a being would no longer be the greatest conceivable. God, must, therefore, be static, perfectly unchanging and unchangeable. God’s will must also be perfectly irresistible; God must be in absolute control.
Unfortunately, several categories of evidence available to theological reasoning contradict this abstract theory of the deity. Medieval theologians and philosophers already debated whether God could create a rock too large for God to move. Whatever the answer, God would then be unable to do so something. In a universe under the absolute control of the deity, everything that happens would express God’s will. There would be no good and bad. Even catastrophes would be “part of God’s mysterious plan.”
What is sin if it is not acting contrary to God’s will? If God already absolutely and totally controls the universe, why did Jesus teach his disciples to pray that God’s will “be done on earth as in heaven”? Why did the unbelief of the people of Nazareth render Jesus unable to do mighty works there (Mark 6:5-6; Matt 13:58)? The entire story of God’s work to redeem creation depends on the biblical implication that God gave human beings freedom of will, thereby choosing a limitation on God’s own will. God created the world, and human beings in it, to be genuinely other than God, free to enter into relationship or to reject it, to cooperate with God’s will or to resist it. God did not choose to script every event in a “perfect” world.
Instead of the tyranny of perfection, the Bible tells the story of God’s powerful persistence, of God’s steadfast love and care, of God’s unwavering determination to pursue God’s original intention. When Abraham and Sarah improvised the birth of Ishmael, God adapted to incorporate Ishmael into the promise made to Abraham, but did not abandon God’s plans for Isaac. When Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery (instead of murdering him), it was not a good thing, but it did bring him to Potiphar’s household where he could learn management skills. When Potiphar’s wife accused him falsely and sent him to prison, it was not a good thing, but it did bring him ultimately to Pharaoh’s attention and to a position of authority in Egypt. The wonder is not that bad things were actually good things (they were not), but that God found a way to bring good out of bad.
Paul had this confidence in mind when he wrote to the church in Rome saying that, “We know that [God] works all things together to good for those who love God, for those called according to [his] purpose” (Οἴδαμεν δὲ ὅτι τοῖς ἀγαπῶσιν τὸν θεὸν πάντα συνεργεῖ εἰς ἀγαθόν, τοῖς κατὰ πρόθεσιν κλητοῖς οὖσιν; Rom 8:28, my trans.). Indeed, people often cite this text in the well-known KJV rendering (“And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose”; cf. ASV, ESV, and NRSV) to support the idea that even bad things can, themselves, be mysteriously good.
It is a difficult text, so I think it is important to deal with the technicalities at least briefly. It presents translators with two major questions: (A) What is the subject of the verb, “God,” “the Holy Spirit,” or “all things”? (B) Is the verb transitive (the subject “causes to work together”) or intransitive (the subject “works together”)? My translation opts for “God” as the subject of the verb because, while some ancient manuscripts omit the noun “God,” three important manuscripts (P46, Alexandrinus, and Vaticanus) specify “God” as the subject of the verb (so also 81 and sa). Further, the verb is a third person masculine singular. “All things” is plural. Finally, the closest clear masculine singular referent in context is the noun in the phrase, “for those who love God,” which precedes the verb in the Greek word order. If “God” is the subject, “all things” must be the object and the verb must be transitive.
Paul’s assertion of God’s power to change bad to good is a statement of the fundamental message of the Gospel. Easter demonstrates God’s power over even death. Human beings killed Jesus; God would not allow death to be the end of Jesus’ story.
Nevertheless, neither Paul nor the Gospel asserts that God authors the bad. The wonder of the Gospel is God’s power to transform evil, not to disguise it as good.