If God truly loves His spirit-begotten children, why does He sometimes permit suffering and pain? Perhaps we have failed to understand just HOW God expresses His divine love.
IF GOD is wiser than we, His judgment must differ from our own on many things. What seems right to us may be wrong to God and vice versa. We are told by Isaiah: "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are you! ways my ways, saith the Lord" (Isa. 55:8). Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the manner in which God expresses His love is not always what we might expect.
A Grandfather — Or a Father?
Humanly speaking, we tend to wish for a God who is a kindly grandfather rather than a father. We would like to believe that God is more of a "senile benevolence," as C. S. Lewis expressed it, who is concerned only that we all have a "good time" here below. We would like God to express His love for us by merely extending kindness (by which we really mean indulgence) as opposed to outgoing concern and involvement. Carnal man would like God to keep him out of painful situations and to bless him with "goodies" and spiritual bon-bons. Human inclination tends to resist too much direct involvement on the part of God. A plaque in a gift shop reads, "God is not dead — He just doesn't want to get involved." This is a shallow slogan reflecting a tragic misunderstanding of God's nature — typical of most of humanity. Yet when we look around at the world, how much of God's direct involvement do we actually recognize? We do see endless suffering and pain. We see injustice of every type. But where is God in all of this?
Who Has Rejected Whom?
The problem, of course, is not that God does not want to "get involved." Rather, it is that man does not want God to be involved unless it is on man's terms. Historically, when God thundered to the children of Israel from Mount Sinai, the people shrank back in fear. This was no kindly, senile grandfather! Rather, the powerful rock-shattering voice of the living God penetrated to the depth of their consciousness! Here was power! Too much power for puny men to cope with. "Let the man Moses speak on behalf of God," the people pleaded. They wanted to deal with someone who was vulnerable — flesh and blood like themselves. God's direct involvement was too much for them to handle. Later, when the children of Israel asked the Prophet Samuel to arrange for them to have a human king like all the surrounding Gentile nations, God clearly framed the real problem. He said: "... they have not rejected thee [Samuel], but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them" (I Sam. 8:7). And humanity has been rejecting God ever since. It is man who does not want to get involved with his Creator! Isaiah was inspired to write: "And there is none that calleth upon thy name, that stirreth up himself to take hold of thee..." (Isa. 64:7).
To extend His love toward His creation, it was necessary for God to make the first move. We are told by the Apostle John that Christ said: "No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him..." John 6:44). It just isn't in us to automatically love our Creator. God must first express His love toward us before we are able to reciprocate. We are told in Scripture that "God is love" (I John 4:8). He personifies it. He is the ultimate source of all love. John further states, "Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us..." (I John 4:10). Man does not by nature love God. In fact, we are instructed that the natural human mind is animosity and enmity toward God! (Rom. 8:7.) How then does a human being ever come to love God? John answers: "We love him, because he first loved us" (I John 4:19). But how is the love of God expressed? And how may it be reconciled with the suffering and pain we sometimes are allowed to endure) God, in His revealed Word, makes several analogies which help throw light on this problem.
The Artist and His Creation
Perhaps the least profound example which may be used to illustrate God's love for his human creation is the love of the artist for the artifact. Jeremiah used an illustration from the arts in chapter 18, verse 6 — "O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? saith the Lord. Behold, as the clay is in the potter's hand, so are ye in my hand, O house of Israel." Have you ever seen a landscape or portrait artist lovingly labor over a painting? He plans it, draws it in with loving care, and applies the pigment with careful diligence. Each stroke is significant. All the elements are painstakingly weighed against each other. Color, value, hue, light and shade, intensity and chroma are all evaluated and considered. The artist exults in the rendering and rejoices if the result is what he set out to achieve. A sculptor may set out to sculpt a magnificent marble piece. He goes to great lengths to select the material with which to work. He may oversee the quarrying of a fine marble monolith. He examines it closely for quality and purity. He makes sure it is carefully protected as it is shipped to his studio. There he begins work by careful planning and measuring. Each stroke of the hammer is cautiously yet authoritatively executed as the chisel does its creative work. Soon the piece begins to emerge. The more it looks like what the sculptor envisioned, the more he delights in his work. God is a great Artist who is lovingly involved in a great work of art. He is the Master Architect and Builder who is producing a great spiritual house. Peter used this analogy in I Peter 2:5. "Ye also, as lively [living} stones, are built up a spiritual house... acceptable to God by Jesus Christ." Paul also used this analogy: "But Christ as a son over his own house; whose house are we [Christians}..." (Heb. 3:6). God is also a Master Potter who will not be satisfied with the clay until it has achieved a certain character. (See "Lessons from... The Master Potter," Sept.-Oct. 1970 GOOD NEWS.) Of course, any artist or artisan has to manipulate the materials with which he works. He does so with loving care and devotion. He pays attention to detail. He plans, he tests, he probes. He works with the end product in mind. So it is with the great Artist of the universe. He lovingly works with man and his environment to produce a glorious product that will give both Himself and the product immense satisfaction upon its completion. Great art glorifies the artist who produced it! God intends that His children be brought to glory — a condition of spiritual perfection and maturity. This in turn will glorify the Creator Himself. And all of this expresses God's great love for His human creation.
The Shepherd and the Sheep
A second analogy of God and His people is that of the shepherd and the sheep. Asaph spoke of humanity as "... thy people and sheep of thy pasture ..." (Ps. 79:13). This type is used throughout the Bible. Jesus is spoken of as the "good Shepherd." This analogy is somewhat more sophisticated than the previous one. The relationship of a shepherd to his sheep — a man to his beast — illustrates some rather important points. Man is responsive and intelligent, yet decidedly inferior to God, as is the sheep to the shepherd. Yet even a human shepherd, far above the intellectual plane of his sheep, is deeply concerned with their welfare. He will fight off bears, wolves and other carnivores who attempt to rob him of his sheep. He will comfort them when they are frightened. He sees that they have adequate pasture and water. The good shepherd goes to great lengths to see that his sheep are well taken care of. Think of a man and his dog. Why does a man train his dog? Primarily that he may love it, not that it may love him! But in addition, his training also makes the animal better able to serve him, not that he may serve it. Man does not extend himself to the same degree to train a roach or a rat. The man takes pains with a dog — or a horse — because they are high on the intelligence scale of irrational creatures. A rat or a roach would hardly be worthy of such time and concern. A dog is more naturally lovable. And the man works at making it fully lovable — at least as much as is fitting between a human being and a brute beast. No ridiculous anthropomorphic analogy should be made of this, of course. This is a limited analogy. But nevertheless God does make it. And we may learn from it. God takes such pains to express His love to man because man alone is worthy of such concern. He is the apex of God's creation. God is naturally able to love man quite readily — and yet He strives to make man fully lovable! Now ask yourself this question. Could a dog who was being house trained or corrected for some social indiscretion possibly conclude that its master was "good"? (I speak facetiously of course, since a dog is incapable of such rationality.) Even so we sometimes fail to see the goodness of our Master, His purpose and methods.
We may now proceed up the metaphorical ladder. God further explains His love to man by the analogy of the marriage relationship. This very expressive analogy is frequently used in the Bible to depict yet another aspect of God's divine love for humanity. Physical Israel was depicted as an abandoned baby girl left to the mercy of the elements. God found her, cleaned her up, reared her and espoused her (Ezek. 16). But when she reached the full flower of her beauty she betrayed her divine husband. This was spiritual adultery. The same kind of spiritual marriage relationship is also used to illustrate Christ's relationship to spiritual Israel — the Church. "Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify" — set apart or separate — "and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish" (Eph. 5:25-27). Now think about this. When a man enters into a love relationship with a woman, does he cease to care about her beauty, her appearance and cleanliness? Of course he doesn't! He becomes more acutely concerned with such things. Love is more sensitive than hatred to every blemish, every line or wrinkle in one's beloved. Hatred is disinterested, but love is extremely interested and highly involved. Love pays attention, but hatred ignores. God, too, is highly concerned with every spiritual wrinkle or blemish a member of His Church may have. His concern and love may be expressed in a way that we do not recognize as love, however. When God purges us of spiritual blemishes by whatever means He may choose to use, we all too often interpret His correction as undeserved suffering. Did Job take it kindly when God showed His love to him by allowing him to suffer so intensely? Not at all. Job writhed in self-pity. He claimed undeserved suffering. He argued with God and even accused Him! But finally he saw what God was doing and his reciprocal love to God grew even greater and deeper. His latter end was greater than the beginning. Christ is a loving, concerned husband. He wants a wife who is spiritually healthy, morally clean and deeply affectionate toward Him. He will have such a wife by CLEANSING her in advance of His marriage (Rev. 19). While this cleansing may be painful — much like "grandma's lye soap" — now, it will be much appreciated later when Jesus comes in His Kingdom!
The Father/Son Analogy
Perhaps the greatest and most profound analogy used by God to illustrate His great love for mankind is the father! son analogy. This reflects the very relationship between God and Christ. When this analogy was originally made and recorded as scripture, paternal authority stood on a much higher plane than it does today. Today the image of paternal authority is somewhat tarnished. But in biblical times it meant much more. In this analogy — love between father and son — paternal love is essentially authoritative and the son's love is that of obedience. A son is a reflection of the father. Naturally the father wishes that reflection to be favorable. He wishes the son to be honorable — to glorify rather than besmirch the family name. The father uses his authority (if done correctly) to make the son into what the father in his superior wisdom realizes he should be. God chastens and corrects His children in like manner, to strengthen their quality of character. This chastening is an expression of divine love. If God neglected to do this we could not consider ourselves His children. "For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons" (Heb. 12:6-8). Of course we do not rejoice in correction at the time we are receiving it! It is not until later that we realize the good fruit of it. Then we are able to appreciate the love which was extended our way when the punishment was meted out (Heb. 12:11).
Why We Were Created
Was man created so that he could love God? Quite the contrary! Man was primarily created so that God could take pleasure in and express love toward him. "Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created" (Rev. 4:11). God does not exist for the sake of man. Nor does man exist exclusively for his own sake. He exists as an object of God's outgoing love! As a great Master Artisan or Craftsman, God takes pains to ensure that His product is of the finest possible quality and beauty. God expresses His love to His sheep by protecting, feeding and caring for them as a concerned shepherd. As a loving husband strives to enhance his wife's beauty and comeliness, so God purges the Church of blemishes and moral uncleanness. And as a kind, concerned, yet firmly authoritative Father, God chastens and corrects His spiritual children. All of these biblical analogies can aid us in comprehending the love of God for His human creation. But none of them is truly adequate to convey a really profound understanding of God's love. Humanly we are limited. We see as if through a darkened glass. The whole of God's tremendous love is much greater than we can understand. But we can indeed be grateful God is not limited, and that neither is His boundless love and concern for His human creation — especially His spiritually begotten children.