Ask Pastor Dave: How Can God Be Good If He Allows Sexual Abuse?

q-aIt is a terrible thing that this question has to be asked, and I am incredibly sorry for the hurt that must be behind it. This is not one of those theoretical, abstract, purely academic questions. This is a heart-rending question and I want to seek to answer it in a way that is sensitive to the realities behind it. While a logical and theologically consistent answer can be given, the best answer points to God’s compassionate care of the abused.

This question recognizes a significant theological tension: God is sovereign and yet real moral evil exists. The tension is a particular manifestation of the problem of evil and to solve it theologians must turn to the issue of theodicy. Theodicy is the attempt to explain how a good God can permit the manifestation of evil. Sexual abuse is a particularly hard manifestation of evil with which to wrestle. The nature of its violation is so gross, so intrusive, so destructive that words seem inadequate to address it. I will attempt first to explain God’s relationship to evil, as best I can, and then seek to offer hope and encouragement through exploring God’s relationship to the abused.

There are two kinds of evil that exist in the world, natural evil (tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, diseases, injuries, and death) and moral evil (the sinful choices of rational beings, both men and angels). Natural evil we can understand as God’s punishment of the earth for sin, it is part of the curse (Gen. 3:17-19). In fact, to be more precise, natural evil is part of the curse of God on the creation because of the moral evil of man. Natural evil is a punishment for moral evil. Since sexual abuse is a moral evil, we need to consider carefully God’s relationship to moral evil in general.

We should understand at the outset that God is not the author of sin. He does not cause sin or commit sin. In the words of Jonathan Edwards:

sin is not the fruit of any positive agency or influence of the most High, but on the contrary, arises from the withholding of his action and energy, and under certain circumstances, necessarily follows on the want of his influence. (Quoted in John Piper, “Is God Less Glorious Because He Ordained That Evil Be“)

We must readily recognize that God does not cause evil. Evil decisions arise from the wickedness of men’s own hearts; Jesus plainly says that out of the wicked heart comes sexual immorality (Matt. 15:19). We must hold man responsible for his sin. As Calvin says, “For the proper and genuine cause of sin is not God’s hidden counsel but the evident will of man” (Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God, 122). This, however, does not exactly solve our dilemma. For while we may not credit God with direct causation, as in the sense that He commits sin, we understand that His sovereignty makes Him at least a secondary cause, in that He allows it to happen.

There is syllogism that might help explain the dilemma. It looks like this:

  1. If God is omnipotent, He is able to prevent evil.
  2. If God is good, He wants to prevent evil.
  3. But evil exists.

Conclusion: either God is not omnipotent, or He is not good (see, John Frame, The Doctrine of God, 160)

So even without saying God is directly responsible His sovereignty, omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence raise serious concerns. Our syllogism makes one assumption, however, and a big one: God’s goodness means He could see no value in allowing evil to take place. Point #2 states: If God is good, He wants to prevent evil. Yet, we may say that such a statement needs modification, for there is an obvious example in Scripture that contradicts this: the cross of Christ.

The cross of Christ is a moral evil. Peter sates that Jesus was “crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23). They performed wicked deeds of their own volition, yet God, Peter says, foreordained this event to happen. Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” In what sense, then, may we say that God wants to “prevent evil”? God will destroy all evil on the Day of Judgment. He will deliver justice when Christ returns. He will wipe away every tear and every sorrow in the New Heaven and the New Earth. Yet, the cross testifies to the reality that God permits men to commit evil acts for an ultimately good purpose. John Piper is right, I believe, when he says, “Thus in one sense God wills that what he hates come to pass.” He quotes Edwards saying:

God may hate a thing as it is in itself, and considered simply as evil, and yet . . . it may be his will it should come to pass, considering all consequences. . . . God doesn’t will sin as sin or for the sake of anything evil; though it be his pleasure so to order things, that he permitting, sin will come to pass; for the sake of the great good that by his disposal shall be the consequence. His willing to order things so that evil should come to pass, for the sake of the contrary good, is no argument that he doesn’t hate evil, as evil: and if so, then it is no reason why he may not reasonably forbid evil as evil, and punish it as such.

The cross is the ultimate evidence that God can work all things for good (Rom. 8:28). He may permit evil, but not because He delights in it. Rather, God may permit evil that out of it may come some other good, a good which ultimately drives us to Him.

This is a hard answer, and much more could be said, yet still it does not satisfy us. For often we don’t understand the evil done against us, and we certainly don’t sense the good that might come from it. So, I do not give this as some pad, theological answer that intends to be an immediate soothing balm to all wounds. It doesn’t work that way. So, let me conclude this answer by turning to God’s great compassion for the abused.

The Scriptures routinely indicate that God has a heart for the oppressed. We see in the story of Hagar a God who sees the hurt of the oppressed woman. When Hagar is driven off by Sarai she wanders into the wilderness where God comes to her. He tells her to return and promises that He will care for her and the child she bears. So, Hagar names God El-Roi: God who sees (Gen. 16). God sees the hurt of the oppressed. This same realization is evident in the Exodus. The people of Israel have been in bondage and slavery under the wicked Egyptian rule. But Exodus 2:24-25 tells us that God sees, hears, and knows of their suffering. Eventually He responds, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings” (Ex. 3:7). The Psalms also reassure us of two important truths: God hates oppression and loves the oppressed. We read:

The LORD tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence. (Ps. 11:5)

The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit. (Ps. 34:18)

The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. (Ps. 9:9)

For he who avenges blood is mindful of them; he does not forget the cry of the afflicted. (Ps. 9:12)

The Lord is king forever and ever;
    the nations perish from his land.
17 O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted;
    you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear
18 to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed,
    so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more. (Ps. 10:17-18)

Jesus reveals that He is not only against physical violence, but he despises verbal abuse too. He tells the Pharisees:

You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matt. 5:21-22)

There is judgment coming to the emotional and verbal abuser. God cares about both physical and non-physical violence. Jesus assures us of God’s love for the oppressed not merely in His teachings, but in his death.

Justin and Lindsay Holcomb have beautifully spoke on this in their book Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault. They speak of Christ as evidence of God’s solidarity with victims. They write:

God’s compassion for and solidarity with the oppressed is embodied in Jesus Christ. Christ not only suffered for his people but also suffers with them…He understands our sufferings. His identity was attacked. He was rejected and betrayed by others. He was abandoned. He was lied about, slandered, and personally attacked. He was humiliated. He was in emotional agony. He was in physical agony from being beaten and tortured. He was murdered. He experienced the worst agony imaginable, not only physically on the cross, but also emotionally and spiritually as well. At one point, he cried out: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Christ knows how to care for us as a “merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God” (Heb. 2:17). He became like us in every way to identify with us and care for us. God loves us in Christ and knows about our suffering and sorrow. Run to Him and let him care for you friends.

This does not answer all the issues related to this immensely difficult and painful subject. Anyone who has experienced sexual assault should seek out competent counsel and care from those who love them. Know that God sees your hurt and sorrow and He cares, even if we can understand why He has allowed it.

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