Think about this before reading on.
This is an essential question for each disciple of Jesus Christ to wrestle with. The answer defines my faith. It has implications for my prayer, worship, peace, and action. It frames my love.
Alas, it seems that not enough Christ-followers honestly consider answers beyond passive corporate assumption and acceptance (i.e. what my pastor says, which is often what that other pastor said, which is often an adapted version of what that other pastor said, maybe even that theologian, which . . .). This is disheartening because the result can too often lead to disillusionment about God regarding an injury from a Christian or church, thus tarnishing one's view of the universal Church.
The following excerpt is not exhaustive, but I find it the most coherent and convincing perspective by which to approach the Scriptures about this subject. If anything, after reading it, I encourage you to honestly examine the Scriptures under its light. Whether these thoughts sharpen your understanding of relationship with God or reform them, my hope is that in the end you look up from the text and out toward the surrounding world freshly invigorated by the Holy Spirit to know and love God and to know and love people deeper.
Soli Deo Gloria. Amen.
On Trusting God
“[A common view] is that God cannot be trusted as our source of strength and comfort unless he meticulously controls the world, or at least foreknows in exhaustive detail what is going to happen. William Placher, for example, argues, ‘We could not trust in God and find peace in the midst of the world’s chaos if there were any part of the world out of God’s control (The Domestication of Transcendence: How Modern Thinking About God Went Wrong, 1996).
“What can we trust God for? The first response to this objection is that it is not self-evident what it means to ‘trust God.’ When facing difficult situations, Christians frequently admonish one another, ‘Put your trust in God.’ But we need to define more precisely what it is we are to trust God for. If left undefined, the admonition can be misguiding if not wounding.
“Allow me to offer an illustration of the ambiguity and harm that can be associated with this concept. Several years ago a nineteen-year-old student I will call Laura confessed her feelings of guilt over the fact that she ‘just couldn’t seem to truly trust God.’ In the course of our discussion I discovered that as a nine-year-old daughter of an American missionary to Brazil, Laura had been raped by a missionary ‘friend of the family.’ She reported the man, and he was duly ‘punished’ by being put on leave for several months and then relocated to another mission field! Young Laura was told that even ‘men of God’ sometimes do bad things and need God’s grace, just like everyone else. She was instructed immediately to love and forgive this man and not to talk about the incident to anyone. If God forgives and forgets, she was instructed, so must we.
“To make matters worse, as a typical (and unfortunate) means of comforting this victim, Laura’s parents told her that God ‘always has his reasons’ for allowing things like this to happen, though we of course may not understand these reasons until we get to heaven. Laura must simply believe that God was still ‘on his throne’ and still ‘in control.’ She needed to trust God and believe that what the missionary intended for evil God intended for good. In time, she was told, she would actually be thankful for the experience.
“When I asked Laura what she as a nineteen-year-old believed she was supposed to trust God for, her predictable Christian student answer was, ‘for God’s perfect will for my life.’ When (to her increasing exasperation) I inquired further what that meant, she quoted one of the most quoted verses of the Bible by young Christians, Jeremiah 29:11: ‘For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.’ Finally, when I asked what she believed was included in the Lord’s plan for her ‘welfare and not for harm, she exclaimed in an inpatient matter-of-fact voice: ‘Well, to have a good marriage, of course, to have the right ministry or job and to do well in it, and to be healthy and safe. You know, just to prosper!’
“’Safe?’ I asked. ‘Do you mean, to be safe from rapists?’ After a long pause she nodded sheepish yes as her eyes began to tear up.
“’No wonder you can’t trust God, Laura.’ I said. ‘You already know that God can’t be trusted to deliver on that one.’ Laura initially responded as though I had uttered a hideous blasphemy, yet she saw the obvious and painful truth of the point I was making. For ten years she had been encouraged by a Christian community to trust God for bodily protection when all the while she knew from personal experience that it was not only up to God to decide this matter. Intuitively, she knew that free agents like the missionary who had abused her also have a mind and will of their own. She intuitively knew that if there is no divine guarantee against little girls getting raped, there is no guarantee that nineteen-year-old women will not be raped. The result of this instruction was that Laura now blamed herself for not being able to ‘trust God’ to protect her from being raped.
“What is more, though she was too pious or simply too scared to admit it out loud to herself, Laura was privately enraged toward God. She understood her rape as a child ultimately to be God’s fault. We are supposed to accept such tragedies as somehow fitting into God’s plan—and yet we are supposed to trust God for protection from such tragedies! Could anyone have pieced together a more contradictory—and for victims like Laura, a more tormenting—theological puzzle? No wonder Laura was enraged. My experience has been that many who hold to the classical view of God’s providence and who have had traumatic experiences hold similar sentiments toward God.
“As this story illustrates, evangelical Christians often use the admonition to ‘just trust God’ to encourage people to trust God for things that are not necessarily under his direct control and for things that he never unconditionally promises in his Word. We talk about trusting God to save and protect our families, to prosper us in our jobs or our ministries, to insulate us from spiritual attacks, and the like. And, as was initially the case with Laura toward me, people who dare to suggest that these things are not only up to God to decide are sometimes viewed as heretical. Yet, where in the New Testament does God leverage his character on any guarantee that evil will not befall us in this world? Where in the Bible are we promised that our children, families, jobs, ministries or even our very lives are guaranteed to be divinely protected?
“As I pointed out to Laura, this question cannot be answered by appealing to Jeremiah 29:11. This chapter is addressed specifically to the exiled nation of Israel regarding what God’s specific plan is for them in the near future. Besides, God’s ‘plan’ for them is just that: a plan. It expressed God’s intention, not a foregone conclusion (as the subsequent history of Israel demonstrated). Nor is an answer found in the book of Job, for this entire book is a refutation of this notion. . . . Nor is the answer to be found in the Gospels where Jesus tells us to expect physical and emotional suffering, to be separated from families and even to be put to death for following him (Mt 5:11, 44; 16:24-25; Lk 12:53; 21:12; Jn 15:20; 21:18-19). Nor is the answer found anywhere in the Epistles, in which we are instructed to follow the example of Jesus in suffering for the sake of righteousness (Heb 12:3; Jas 5:10; 1 Pet 2:20-21).
“Indeed, the New Testament promises that ‘in the world you face persecution’ (Jn 16:33). This world is a spiritual war zone under the control of Satan (1 Jn 5:19), the ‘god of this world’ (2 Cor 4:4). Soldiers who seek to overthrow his evil kingdom and establish the kingdom of God can expect to suffer in this war zone.
“To say the least, then, the New Testament never makes our unconditional well-being in this probationary epoch part of the good news. The good news of the gospel is not that we will never suffer, get raped, be maimed or die an early death. The good news is rather that the Lord has given us something so marvelous that even if we suffer or die, our loss is ultimately insignificant. In the light of God’s love, the grace of Jesus Christ and the life we have in the Holy Spirit, the quality and duration of physical life itself dwindles in importance. While moth and rust—to say nothing of missionary rapists—might ruin everything in this age, our treasure is laid up in a realm that is incorruptible (Mt 6:19-20). Since we have this treasure, we do not need to fear any earthly or spiritual authority who might be able to kill the body (Mt 10:28). These agents are indeed capable at times of wounding us or even of killing us, but the only One believers need concern themselves with is the One (God) who is able to ‘destroy both soul and body in hell.’
“Along similar lines, Paul tells us that no matter what happens, we cannot be separated from the love of God toward us in Christ, either in this age of warfare or in the age of God’s coming kingdom. This is the good news. [see Rom 8:35, 37-39] . . .
“What we are guaranteed, what we can ‘trust God’ for, and what makes us ‘more than conquerors’ amidst life’s tragedies is that nothing can ‘separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.’ Our trust in God and our peace are not to be rooted in the up-and-down affairs of this war-torn world. They are rather to be rooted in God’s unchanging character and unconditional promise that his love for us in Christ is unwavering amidst life’s storms. [emphasis added]
“Revolts rather than resignation. Critics may grant that we cannot trust God to guarantee protection from life’s nightmares but nevertheless argue that believers should find consolation in the belief that even the nightmares of life are allowed by God for a good divine reason. This is often part of what Christians mean when they encourage someone to ‘trust God’ in the midst of a difficult situation.
“Scripture certainly encourages the believer to find consolation in the fact that Christ suffers with us when we suffer (Rom 8:17; Phil 3:10; Heb 2:18; 4:15-16; 1 Pet 4:13; cf. Mt 28:20). It admonishes us to trust that God is always working to bring good out of whatever circumstances we find ourselves in, however tragic (Rom 5:3-5; 8:28). It encourages us to be steadfast when we are persecuted for our faith and when the Lord uses trials to build our character (Heb 12:3-13). Finally, as was just argued, the Bible certainly teaches that we can derive a peace that passes understanding from the fact that our eternal fellowship with God in his kingdom will more than make up for our sufferings in this present age (Rom 8:18; Phil 4:7). But I do not believe that Scripture teaches us to find consolation in trusting that everything that ever occurs has a divine reason behind it.*
* “David Griffin makes an insightful point in this regard. After pointing out that the Augustinian view of divine sovereignty reduces the ‘battle between the divine and the demonic’ to ‘a mock, not a real, battle,’ he observes that ‘one of the motives of this monistic monotheism, with its doctrine of divine coercive omnipotence, was to convince us that we really had nothing to fear from the demonic power. That complacent belief, as history has revealed, is just what we do not need’ (“Why Demonic Power Exists: Understanding the Church’s Enemy,” 1993). . . . The atheist Michael Martin forcefully points out that ‘if evil is only an illusion from our limited perspective,’ as it is in the Augustinian system, ‘then acting to change something that appears evil to something that appears good will make no moral difference in the ultimate scheme of things’ (Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, 1990).” (Footnote, p. 162)
“This belief not only goes beyond the teaching of Scripture; it fosters a mentality that is at odds with Scripture. If one holds that there is a divine reason behind all suffering, one is more likely to resign oneself to things that Scripture encourages us to revolt against. Jesus and the New Testament authors instruct us to revolt against evil as coming from the enemies of God rather than trying to find security and consolation in the hope that God is somehow secretly behind it. Jesus never encouraged people to accept their sickness, disease or demonization as somehow fitting into his Father’s plan. Rather, he revealed that God’s plan was to overthrow these things, and he taught his disciples (and us) to adopt the same attitude. We are not to trust that God meticulously controls these things. We are rather to trust that God is against them, that he has empowered us to work with him in battling such evils and that God will ultimately overthrow all his foes and rid his creation of all forms of evil.
“If we adopt a warfare worldview rather than a blueprint worldview, we are encouraged to trust God for everything God himself tells us to trust him for and to fight against everything God himself fights against. God’s character is not tarnished by being entwined with the evil in the world, and the church’s mission is not compromised by accepting things it ought to revolt against.”
This quoted excerpt is from Gregory Boyd's Satan and the Problem of Evil: Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy (2001), pp. 156-163. If you are interested to delving deeper into the subject as examined by Boyd, I recommend beginning with God at War: The Bible & Spiritual Conflict (1997.