I had lunch with a friend last week and he had a question for me. He mentioned, Jaycee Lee Dugard, the little girl in California who was kidnapped by Phillip and Nancy Garrido and used as a sex slave for eighteen years, bearing two children by Garrido during the time.

My friend’s question was, “Why did God allow this to happen?” It didn’t seem fair to him that an innocent little girl should suffer through such a terrible and prolonged tragedy. In fact (he’s been reading his Bible) it didn’t seem fair when God threatened to kill Moses because he had neglected to circumcise his son (Exodus 4:24), and it didn’t seem fair when God killed Uzzah for putting out his hand to steady the Ark of the Covenant (I Chronicles 13:10), and it didn’t seem fair when God killed Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, for using ‘unauthorized fire’ in their burnt offering (Numbers 3:4). The entire Old Testament, in my friend’s eyes, is a collection of nightmare stories demonstrating the unfairness of God.

“Why is God so unfair?” “Why did God allow this to happen?”

It was a coincidence (not really) that I had brought a book for him that day, Why Does God Allow Natural Disasters?, in which author David Pawson seeks to answer, or at least pose the proper questions, on the subject of why God allows bad things to happen to ‘good’ people. The material in the book came from a three hour television series in the aftermath of the 2004 Asian tsunami that killed 230,000 people. A lot of what I told my friend and what is in this letter, stems from Pawson’s book. If you’re asking the same question, I strongly recommend you read Why Does God Allow Natural Disasters?.

What we think about God has everything to do with the questions we ask about Him. And when something seemingly bad happens to someone seemingly good, the question, “Why did God allow this to happen?” reflects some basic assumptions the questioner makes about God.

First of all, if a person doesn’t believe God exists, he certainly wouldn’t ask why God allows bad things to happen. If there is no God, events can only be acts of nature or man. A non-existent God certainly has nothing to do with it.

The same is true for agnostics – people who aren’t convinced whether or not there is such a thing as ‘God’, and if there was, he/she/it would be unknowable or unknowing of man. Under those circumstances, it’s certainly not fair to question a God, who, if he/she/it is even out there, “Why did you allow this to happen?”

Only people who hold two basic assumptions about God can ask, “Why did you allow this to happen?” The first assumption is that God is capable of preventing anything bad that happens to people. The second assumption is that God ought to prevent anything bad from happening to people. Simply stated, the person asking God, “Why did you allow this to happen?” assumes God is all-powerful (nothing is stopping Him from acting on man’s behalf) and all-loving (an all-loving God shouldn’t allow bad things to happen to people).

My friend must believe that God is all-powerful and all-loving; otherwise his question wouldn’t make sense. Do you believe God is all-powerful and all-loving? If you do (I do too, by the way), then why would God allow bad things, whether an act of nature like a tsunami, or an act of man like kidnapping a little girl, to happen? If He loves us and is capable of preventing bad things from happening to us, why doesn’t He?

Is God really all-powerful? Can He do anything He wants? To be perfectly honest, there are a lot of things God can’t do. Pawson claims that he’s made a list of thirty things God can’t do. I can think up three right off the bat: He can’t tell a lie, He can’t break a promise, and he can’t let a debt go unpaid. But as far preventing bad things from happening to ‘good’ people, God does possess the power to act, and He has in the past.

If you believe what is recorded in the Bible as fact, as I do, then you know that He can control nature – He parted the Red Sea so the Israelites could escape the Egyptians and then caused it to flow back on Pharaoh’s army, killing them all. He stopped the sun from going down for a day at Joshua’s request in the middle of a battle against the Amorites (Joshua 10:13).

God also has the power to prevent bad people from acting. He blinded the men of Sodom when they stormed Lot’s house in an effort to take and rape God’s messengers. He confused the language of the men building the tower of Babel. God does have the ability to act on nature and on men.

But does He want to? God loves everybody, right? And if God does love everybody why would he allow people to suffer? This is the number one question skeptics ask believers.

Does God really love everybody? The Bible doesn’t say God loves everybody. If you’re thinking John 3:16, we haven’t got the room to get into it here but we’ll tackle just what John 3:16 says and doesn’t say in a future letter. In the mean time, read the third chapter of John instead of just the sixteenth verse (John didn’t divide his gospel into chapters and verses, that was done by well meaning guys who shouldn’t have 1200 and 1500 years later, respectively) or read Pawson’s book, Is John 3:16 the Gospel?

Even the though the Bible never states that God loves everybody, it mentions who God hates in plenty of places. “Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” the Lord says. “Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated, and I have turned his mountains into a wasteland and left his inheritance to the desert jackals.” (Malachi 1:2) “Because of all their wickedness in Gilgal, I hated them there.” (Hosea 9:15)

Before we go too far down this path, let me go on record: I believe that God is all-powerful and all-loving. It’s just not the kind of power and love most of us are looking for. We want a God who has the ‘power’ to do our bidding at the snap of our fingers and a God whose ‘love’ will overlook any sinful practice we value more than our relationship with Him. We want an all-powerful, all-loving God at our disposal, under our terms. Contrary to some very trendy church doctrine, He’s not that kind of God.

But let’s get back to my friend’s question, whether it’s a tsunami that kills 230,000 people or a sicko that kidnaps a little girl: “Why did God allow this to happen?”

Before I give you what I believe is the right answer, let me give you a few popular answers I believe don’t cut it.

Wrong answer #1: Suffering is a mystery. We can’t understand it because we’re not God. His ways and thoughts are higher than ours. We’ll never understand why God does what He does; all we can do it trust Him.

There’s some truth to this answer; we can’t understand everything God does, because He’s God and we’re not. But God wants us to love Him and want us to understand our existence from His perspective. That’s what the Bible is all about – that’s why He gave it to us – to understand Him in terms of His relationship with us and ours with Him. He sent His Son to us, not only to pay the price of our sin, but to show us Himself. God has gone out of His way to explain Himself to us; we just haven’t been listening. I may not know why God has allowed some great tragedy to take place, but I do know that, ultimately, there is a purpose in everything that happens. I will look for that purpose, ask Him to reveal it, and trust Him to fulfill that purpose while I’m waiting for an answer.

Wrong answer #2: Sometimes God allows bad things to happen so we can step up and show our goodness in the aftermath.

After the tsunami hit, people and countries from around the world came to the aid of those whose lives were devastated. We saw an international outpouring of charity, assistance and unity. It is true that man can show his very best side in the worst of circumstances. But do you really think God allowed 230,000 people to die in the tsunami so relief agencies could show their stuff? That kind of answer denigrates the victims and the heroes. It also fails to deal with the reverse. Great tragedies also allow people to act their worse. Looting was widespread after the tsunami subsided. People were gathering corpses and claiming them as relatives to receive relief money. Children, whose parents were killed in the tsunami were kidnapped and sold as orphans for adoption. Tragedy doesn’t always bring out the ‘good’ in people.

And what does this answer say about God? God, who is all-powerful and all-loving, allows nearly a quarter of a million people die just so some of the rest of us can show our ‘goodness’ to the survivors? As Pawson says in his book, “We have a high view of our goodness and a low view of His badness.”

Wrong answer #3: God loves us; He is there with us in the midst of suffering, but He is powerless to stop our suffering.

Believe it or not, this is a common ‘Christian’ answer. Liberal theology tries to convince us that God began this universe (in some sort of foggy mix of intention, creation and evolution) and that He loves us (whether He created us or we evolved – they’re really not sure) but He’s powerless to interfere with nature or the affairs of man; it’s up to us to make a better world.

Miracles aren’t the result of a loving powerful God ‘interfering’ in human affairs. God doesn’t heal sick people; those who do suddenly exhibit an unexplainable reversal of their illness are simply exhibiting a ‘psycho-somatic reaction to stressful stimuli’ or ‘coincidental spontaneous remission’. God can’t affect the laws of nature. That a tornado averts its path or lifts over a house in which people a praying is simply a quirk of nature, no super natural interference should be inferred.

These three answers to the question, “Why did God allow this to happen?”, all of them common to ‘Christian’ thought, don’t and shouldn’t satisfy us when tragedy strikes. Our God is all-powerful and all-loving and He wants us to understand why He acts or refuses to act when bad things happen to ‘good’ people.

Next week we’ll get into why I believe there’s an answer to “Why did God allow this to happen?” and what the answer is. Until then trust His power and His intention in your life.