Was human choice worth the risk?

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Note From the Editor: “Why bad things happen in the world” is one of the top questions that has been asked for centuries. There’s no simple answer, but it’s an important topic to wrestle with, so we’ve asked some of our top, most faithful thinkers to take a shot at answering in their own words. No one article could ever fully cover it, and each attempt will connect with different people differently. But in time, we’ll have a compilation of thoughts from a variety of authors that might help. Here’s the first entry.”

I hate reading the news.

Besides the fact that it feels like another chore I’m supposed to do if I want to be some sort of responsible adult, it’s a daily torrent of all the world’s brokenness that I’d rather not be reminded of. I hate that I live in a world where starving refugees, abused children, genocide, drug epidemics, and natural disasters are simply the status quo.

Based on the evidence present in any of our news feeds, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that we’re broken people living in a fantastically crappy world. Ten minutes of scrolling, and I’m asking the same questions as millions of others have asked throughout the history of humanity:

Why? Why does suffering happen? Why on earth would God allow such evil?

It doesn’t make much sense in the first place. Why would a good God go to all the trouble of making this whole world only to allow evil and suffering to muck it up? (This assumes, of course, that He both exists and is indeed good; if either isn’t true, then we’ve got a whole different conversation on our hands.) The current situation looks like either weakness or incompetence; neither of which is too flattering for God. If I want to believe that this God is indeed good like He claims, then I have to come to terms with the contradiction of a good God and a world filled with evil.

I use the word “evil” intentionally because that is really what we’re talking about. I can deal with the struggle and “suffering” (as if my first world problems even belong in that category) of my own mistakes, failed relationships, and missed ambitions. But how on earth do I process the three-year-old girl molested by a family member? How do I reconcile the idea that millions live in agony for the sole “crime” of being born in a different hemisphere than me? What do I do with 9/11? The Mandalay Bay shooting? For crying out loud, the Holocaust? In the face of such evil, the typical question we throw at God is, “Why do you allow it? Why permit such atrocity?” That question is understandable, reasonable, and has been asked for hundreds of years.

It’s also the wrong question to ask. It’s a quagmire that doesn’t take us anywhere. In my experience, the only way out of the swamp is to ask the opposite question.

“God, why don’t you mandate good? If you are all powerful, why don’t you force the world to be good?”

Oof. That hits closer to home for sure. While I don’t typically think of myself as evil, I certainly wouldn’t claim to hit the standard of perfectly “good.” So that forceful adjustment would implicate me too. But there’s actually an even deeper reality happening; asking “Why don’t you make everything good?” takes us back to the foundational reality of the world.

According to Genesis 1:31, He did exactly that:

And God saw everything that he had made, and behold it was very good.

He did make everything good. The problem wasn’t how God made it. The “problem” is that he allowed humanity to choose what to do with it after that.

Unsurprisingly, humanity chose to send the world through the wood chipper, and here we are. Like my newsfeed shows me, humanity left to its own devices will inevitably bring calamity on itself and the world around it. We are a species capable of breathtaking good, horrifying atrocity, and everything in between. This can’t have been a surprise to God, so it begs what is (I think) actually the most interesting question in this whole conversation:

Why was human free choice worth the risk?

Knowing that pain, evil, and devastation was a very likely outcome of human free will, what was so valuable on the other side of the scale that made it worth it?

Typically, the feel-good, Christian description for it is “love.” Because God wanted us to be able to choose to love him, to love each other, and so on—he left the option of pain, suffering, and devastation on the table. Unfortunately, our culture has left us with an incredibly skewed definition of love. When we take the cheap, flighty, self-focused thing we often call “love” and put it up against the kinds of pain and suffering we see in our news feed, it paints God in an even worse light than when we started.

Rather than try to reclaim “love” (which is another conversation entirely), let’s put “choice” on the scale instead. When we’re thinking about things from a moral or cosmic standpoint, that’s really what we’re concerned with anyway—not the emotion or actions of love, but the choice to love or not.

And that choice—with all it’s cosmic weight and significance—turns out to be the point after all.

Put simply, free will is what makes us human. More to the point, it is what makes us unique among creation; I believe it is the core of what the Bible describes in Genesis 1:27:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

God gave us—in a limited capacity—the ability to recreate the world he made away from his design and toward our own. He gave us the power to choose to extend blessing or to inflict misery, despite the fact that it sure doesn’t seem like power we’re capable of handling. And we have this choice all day, every day.

I’ll admit that it feels a bit odd to whittle the distinction between us and the rest of creation down to a simple choice. After all, a dog can choose whether to poop in the yard or in your shoe—it doesn’t mean that Fido is made in God’s image too. When we talk about choice in this kind of cosmic context, we’re talking about choices of value. We are made in God’s image not because he gave us the option to choose between option A and option B, but because he gave us the power to decide (and enforce on the world around us, albeit in a limited fashion) whether A was good and B evil, or vice versa.

You see, when we scale all the way back up to the massive problem of evil flooding our world, it is the choices that are the true problem.

This is why motive is such a significant aspect of any criminal trial; no matter the crime, a planned, premeditated act will always carry a harsher sentence than one done in the moment. We’re saddened that someone could shoot their neighbor. But their choice to say, “This act is good and should be done,” is unexplainable and terrible. Abuse is always awful and horrifying, but the unspoken choice that “My gratification is worth more than your innocence,” fills us with rage. We see the acts scroll across the news ticker, but what we internalize (and rage at God about) is the choices, the unspoken value statements that to our eyes are unmistakably evil. It isn’t just that God gave humanity the ability to choose between different actions, but that he gave those choices weight and consequence.

Put simply, our choices mean something. They have to; otherwise, they aren’t actually choices. In giving humanity free will, God was actually making a statement about the kind of universe he was creating.

He was saying that the risk of pain, suffering, and separation was worth it in order to create the possibility for humanity to genuinely choose him (and each other). In God’s eyes, the beauty and joy of relationship and love are absolutely worth the risk of rejection and death. And If I’m honest, that’s a brutal truth to stomach.

It’s hard to deal with the idea that God knew the suffering that would one day fill his world—the utter brutality we would inflict on one another—and chose to let it happen (even though it wasn’t what he wanted).

Yet that isn’t the end of the story. The Bible is jammed full of the choices of humanity, yet it ends with another choice of God’s:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”

That suffering and pain inflicted on the world by all of our—all of my—choices? It will end.

God will not allow our suffering to persist forever, nor will he allow evil to reign over his world forever. Our choices—and the power to bring them to life—are real but limited, and one day they will be swept up into the “new thing” God is making. One day he will indeed enforce good—just not yet.

Written by Eric Ankenman on Mar 22, 2019
Process, journal or discuss the themes of this article - here's a few questions to get the ball rolling...

Discussion Questions

  1. What strikes you most about this article, and why?

  2. Finding “answers” intellectually is one thing, but sometimes that only goes so far. How do you feel about God’s choice that our choice was worth it? Write or share as many emotions as you can as honestly as you can. God prefers our honest anger to passivity, disregard, or complacency. He definitely hates when we fake it. So, wherever it feels like this choice has wounded you, grieve. If you hate God for it, let it out. If you just feel helpless seeing the pain around us, express it.

  3. Whether you’re sharing with friends or writing in a journal, take a minute to hand whatever you just shared with God. Meaning—in your mind or out loud, say, God—what do you have to say about this? What do you want me to hear? Write down whatever comes to mind.

  4. We can’t do much about world poverty or mass oppression today. But all day every day, this choice will face us. In every interaction, we’ll have the chance to extend blessing or harm. Think of a way you can use your choice for good in all of your interactions.

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