by Mark KarrisHeadshot

I am a pastor and therapist who works with those who have experienced trauma. I have recently come to the conclusion that “God allows,” in regard to evil and suffering, is a terrible theological phrase. I have discovered it often erodes trust in a profoundly loving and trustworthy God.

Deconstructing “God Allows”

The word “allow” is poison to the sensitive, God-seeking, and traumatized soul. It is poison for at least two reasons.

First, saying God “allows evil” makes God out to be a voyeur who arbitrarily jumps into time, willfully intervening in some people’s lives to save them from harm, and willfully not intervening in others.

Imagine, for example, what it must be like for God watching a disturbed psychopath begin to rape a helpless woman. The God most people believe in must say, “I planned this before the foundation of the world. I know I could stop this, but I am going to allow it to happen.” Although all-powerful, this God just watches and does nothing to stop the rape.

In another moment, God watches another psychopath begin to rape another helpless woman. But this time, God says, “I also planned this before the foundation of the world. But in this case, I will intervene and stop this man.” Perhaps God intervened by causing a neighbor to stop by the victim’s house. The perpetrator became startled, frantically running out the door.

I am among many people who are aghast at the God who allows some evil but prevents others. The God most people believe in is 1) in control of everything that happens in the world, 2) powerful enough to stop any evil act from happening but often doesn’t (which is monstrous), and 3) preordains these evils as part of some master plan.

There’s a second, related reason why I don’t think saying “God allows evil” makes much sense. If God “allows” something to occur, this means God could have done otherwise.

Let’s return to the rape example. If God “allows” the rape, God must have also been able to take His big metaphysical index finger and flick the rapist away. Or God could have acted like Quicksilver in X-Men: Days of Future Past by manipulating objects or people at the speed of light to keep the rape victim from harm.

But God doesn’t flex his metaphysical muscles in this way often enough. As we will see shortly, there are problems with this kind of interventionist and unilaterally controlling God.

God Is Not In Control

To say God “allows” evil events to occur means that God could have stopped it. I don’t believe that is so.

Contrary to popular belief, there are things God cannot do. For instance, the Bible tells us that God can’t lie. One thing God cannot do, which is important for this discussion, is unilaterally control people and events.

In his book, The Uncontrolling Love of God, Thomas Jay Oord offers this comparison: “Mermaids cannot run marathons because a mermaid’s nature includes leglessness. [Analogously], God cannot create controllable creatures because God’s nature is uncontrolling love” (p.148).

The idea here is that God cannot unilaterally control events, because God’s loving nature is uncontrolling. God cannot control people and events in the world, and God’s agency competes with other variables, such as randomness, creaturely agency, and law-like regularities.

The point is this: If God’s love is uncontrolling, we should not say God allows evil or horrific events to occur. Instead, we should say it is impossible for God to control people and events. And this uncontrolling influence enables free creatures, randomness, and law-like regularities (e.g. gravity, weather systems, etc.,) that sometimes run amok.

Evil events occur precisely because a loving and uncontrolling God does not control all things.

God Is Controlling (Just Not Like We Think) 

Just because God is not in unilateral control does not mean that God is passive. According to the Oxford dictionary, the word control can mean “the power to influence or direct people’s behavior or the course of events.”

I suggest that God can lovingly influence us by inviting, empowering, inspiring, filling, convicting, leading, comforting, healing, and challenging us, toward ever-increasing experiences of shalom. God exerts this kind of “control.”

God is a Spirit, and God is love. God always does the most loving acts possible in every moment, in every nook and cranny of existence. Furthermore, God can be one hundred percent trusted, because God would never purposely or maliciously harm any person, especially for some grand Machiavellian purpose.

What I’m suggesting may seem a grand revelation. But it becomes believable without the cognitive dissonance-producing phrase “God allowed,” so typical of Christian responses to evil.

A Few Words for Moving Forward

Permit me to make a request to my fellow Christians.

Would you please stop saying things like, “God allowed your husband to die in that car accident?” Could you stop attempting to cheer traumatized parents by saying, “God allowed your baby to die as part of a plan?”

I propose we Christians get rid of the phrase “God allows.” If we did, I suspect fewer people would be confused or, worse, blame God for the horrific events that occur. Eliminating “God allows” could remove an unnecessary obstacle that prevents many from having a loving connection with their Creator.

Permit me also to say a word to spiritual seekers.

I get it. I also wouldn’t want to love a God who arbitrarily allows some evils and prevents others. But I hope my comments in this essay will prompt you to rethink what God does.

When you think about the abuse, pain, suffering, or flat out evil in your life, you don’t have to believe God allowed or caused it. Often, other people with free will cause evil. Sometimes evil occurs as an unfortunate random event. Sometimes we suffer because of our own unwise choices.

I hope that after some reflection, you will come to believe in a freedom-giving, uncontrolling God. This loving God seeks only what is good for your life.

 

Mark Karris is an ordained pastor, author, musician, licensed marriage and family therapist, and all around biophilic.
MarkGregoryKarris.com

 

19 thoughts on “Rethinking the Phrase “God Allows”

  1. I really like your blog, Mark. Saying “God allows,” as you say, suggests that God could not allow, if God wanted to do so. But that way of thinking leads to the view that God picks and chooses whom will experience evil, instead of acting to rescue to whatever extent possible.

    Like

    • Would that be so bad? In John Cobb’s Jesus’ Abba: The God Who Has Not Failed, John Cobb makes a pretty strong case that the Abba of Jesus is much closer to process theism than to classical theism. I see Mark as leaning in this direction as well, whatever his stance toward process theism. I like the way Tom Oord speaks of various “open and relational perspectives,” of which process theism is one valuable form alongside others. On Cobb’s Jesus-centered, process theism, a good overview might be found in an article I wrote about his book: ttp://www.jesusjazzbuddhism.org/rediscovering-god-through-jesus-an-invitation-from-john-cobb.html. For my part, I see Cobb and Oord as complementary invitations, for Christians, to take a Jesus-centered (or Nazarene, if we prefer that language) more seriously.

      Like

  2. I am confused then Mark, how to reconcile what you said about God not purposefully harming people and the account of Noah and the flood.

    Like

    • I thought of Jonah and the great fish. Also Job which says God allowed Satan to bring trials upon Job’s life. Wasn’t every part of Jesus’ birth God intervening or controlling via angels or dreams? Is God cannot intervene or control, is he really Omnipotent? Just a few thougts I had after reading.

      Like

      • Would “influence” be a word for God’s actions in the birth of Jesus. Joseph was free not to respond to the dreams. Mary was free not to accept her mission, so to speak, from the angel.

        Like

    • Hi Bart, perhaps I can help out on this. It is often believed that God rolled up His sleeves to get the job done and rid the earth of those incorrigible rebels that had brought the world to almost an entire departure from righteousness. For doesn’t the Bible say that God looked down and saw that humans had become rampantly violent and was so disgusted by the whole affair that He would just kill them all? (Gen. 6:11-13)

      At face value, this kind of language leaves us speechless. On the surface of it, in our modern standard English reading of the verbiage gives us a picture of a seriously schizophrenic Deity. In my experience, I had two choices: throw away the Bible and tackle life without God, or get to the bottom of the language and figure out how to read the Bible without becoming an atheist.

      To keep this short, let me just say that finding out that the Bible parlance is in the Hebrew idiom, wherein to have within oneself the power to prevent an evil but to not do so, is to DO that evil. In fact, human law will punish us for not acting in some cases. So, how can God do this without becoming complicit in crime? The key lies in the fact that God has given freedom of choice. Along with that freedom there comes consequences to choices. This is justice and judgment. God allows freedom to choose evil and He allows the consequences to come. The Bible definition of God’s wrath is this very thing. A term often employed is the “hiding of His face.” It means that when the free moral agent departs from God, God does not follow Him around forcing His protection upon him. He “gives over,” or “gives up,” or “spares not.” The principle is explicitly stated in the first mention of hiding of face in the Bible:

      Deut. 31:16 And the LORD said unto Moses, Behold, thou shalt sleep with thy fathers; and this people will rise up, and go a whoring after the gods of the strangers of the land, whither they go [to be] among them, and will forsake me, and break my covenant which I have made with them.
      31:17 Then my anger shall be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them, and I will hide my face from them, and they shall be devoured, and many evils and troubles shall befall them; so that they will say in that day, Are not these evils come upon us, because our God [is] not among us?
      31:18 And I will surely hide my face in that day for all the evils which they shall have wrought, in that they are turned unto other gods.

      This was the final instruction that Moses taught the people before he died and they were to remember it in song. We have forgotten it and made God into an arbitrary, genocidal monster.

      The flood was not brought by the exercise of Divine power, wherein God by fiat would speak a word and employ the forces of nature as WMD’s. It also was a giving over to forces let out of His control. The Bible even says it outright:

      Isa. 54:7 For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee.
      54:8 In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the LORD thy Redeemer.
      54:9 For this [is as] the waters of Noah unto me….

      I hope this helps a little to shine a light in the darkness.

      Like

  3. I loved your article “God Allows” Mark. Great job! The essence of the very meaning of life is rooted in the fact that love DOES NOT CONTROL others. The very fact that all of humanity is able to choose against God, and the loving relationships He wants, is proof that God is UNCONTROLLING LOVE!Love is based on freedom. To truly love one must possess the ability to reject, or it is not real love!

    Like

  4. So in then are we to believe that it’s by chance that we’re saved from a bad situation (e.g. the car in front of me gets swept away in a flash flood, but my car is fine)? Should I not thank God for His grace & mercy in that moment? I’m not trying to be snarky, I’m really asking. I don’t like the idea that some people think God is controlling stuff for entertainment purposes, but I also don’t want to dismiss that he keeps those that abide in Him.

    Like

  5. I think your leap from saying that God is in control and if he allows evil then he is “simply a voyeur who arbitrarily jumps into time, willfully intervening in some people’s lives to save them from harm, and willfully not intervening in others” is using totally flawed human logic which is always dangerous to rely on when talking about God. Just as a parent allows a child to make a mistake and have to deal with the consequences, God does that in a perfect loving way. I think you are just playing with words when you say “God allows” is a bad thing. The bottom line is God allows evil to exist (otherwise it would not) though he is not the cause of evil (because his word says there is no evil in him), and we suffer the consequences of humans having free will, even if we individually did not “cause” a difficult circumstance. God uses even terrible actions to bring about good in the lives of those who love him. I think you are correct in saying that because God loves us therefore he does not control our choices. I just don’t understand your dislike of the word allows. It is the same concept in the end..

    Like

  6. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Mark. As I have searched the scriptures. I can not find any text regarding “free will of men”, though it may be implied. Free will of God, yes. I do find texts like in Proverbs when it says “a man plan his way, but God directs his steps”… or as in Isaiah, referring to Christ, that “it was the will of God (or in other translations, “the pleasure of God”) to bruise Him” (most certainly out of love for us). Clearly, we can never diminish the nature of God, the Love God IS, through the lens of suffering. I too have struggled for a long time with the suggestion that God allows, or permits, suffering… making Him passive. However, many passages make it clear that He may be far more intentional about suffering than our theology may want to admit. Great to be having the conversation.

    Like

    • Yes, and it gives God certain “permissions” to act in ways that might seem arbitrary, but which are simply Him going in to claim His own. Yet, I would hasten to add that God’s actions are not such that He would exercise power to physically destroy an enemy or control the will of anyone. God can override events and manipulate the material world to put a hedge of protection in place. This is not to say that God will automatically put up a hedge in answer to prayer. Sometimes, He calls His servant to suffer for His name’s sake and the servant considers it a privilege to do so. This might seem “random” but if we trust God, we will have the assurance that it is not. Nothing God does is arbitrary or random, for this is the sole domain of evil.

      Like

  7. Mark, you write: “I hope that after some reflection, you will come to believe in a freedom-giving, uncontrolling God. This loving God seeks only what is good for your life.” I am interested in how we humans actually experience God’s seeking. Earlier you speak of the God’s seeking as “inviting, empowering, inspiring, filling, convicting, leading, comforting, healing, and challenging us, toward ever-increasing experiences of shalom.” I appreciate these words.

    Process theologians like me believe that we experience these divine activities as indwelling lures within our minds and hearts, which we call ‘initial aims.’ We might also call them God’s feelings or God’s desire. Christians speak of them as God’s Spirit. They are often unconscious and usually preverbal – but nevertheless experienced. Often they are mediated by other people (friends and therapists, for example) and by the more than human world: hills and rivers, trees and stars. But given Mark’s own work as a musician, I wonder if you might add that the melodies, harmonies, and rhythms of music itself (apart from lyrics) might also be mediators of the Spirit in various modalities: inspiration, challenge, guidance, healing, etc.

    Care to speculate on how the uncontrolling Love of God might be felt through music, sacred and secular? I’d be interested.

    Like

  8. God does “allow” evil, but only to extent that if He disallowed evil He would have to disallow everything, which isn’t something he wants to do. Some love is worth much has, and God tolerates evil while giving and receiving the love He deserves.

    Like

  9. I am not too concerned about the use of the phrase “God allows….” The Bible uses it when it says “God sent…,” for the term has a wide variety of meanings, one of which is “let,” or “giving over” our “allow.” The Bible principle is stated in Deut. 31:16-18 when God informs Moses on the mechanics of destruction. When the free moral agent turns away from God, he is making a choice which God honors. The Hebrew expression is “hide My face.” God never arbitrarily turns away. It is a response to free choice.

    As for the author’s idea of “randomness,” I would approach this with caution. The fact of “random” evil is still the result of God giving over. God gave this world over to the choice of Adam to depart from Him and place himself under a new leader, Satan. The “curse” that came upon the world was the result, not an arbitrary decree of an offended God. Yet the offended God is the language we have to deal with in the Scriptures. Thankfully, we have enough clear keys to interpretation that we need not get hung up on this nasty picture of God that seems to be portrayed in many Bible accounts, especially in the Old Testament. What is more, we need not be confused any more because Jesus Christ is the perfect photograph of God and we have to approach all of what we read in the Bible through the lens of His life, teachings, and cross.

    So, God can and does “interfere” with randomness, insofar as it would not violate His character of non-controlling love. God can, in response to prayer and faith, without controlling anyone’s free will, interpose between disaster and child of God. God can protect. Yet we must remember that the true child of God will always seek to be in the center of God’s will and lives a life committed to witness to His goodness. Therefore, if God does NOT interpose and suffering comes, it is in fact because God allowed it for a higher good and the enlightened child of God will consider it a high calling and honor to be thus engaged in His service, for the overall purpose of achieving a victory for God in the great controversy that is taking place here in earth’s theater.

    Like

  10. We like a God who rescues the drowning soul and. Ri gs tem to
    Land safe and sound, but that does not save one from all the suffering that follows and the ultimate death that stalks us all bar none. The God I love and I believe the biblical God is one who dies with us and leaves a note saying “you are safe in my death” as we go on dying. Life will come out of our suffering/dying rather than from being rescued from it. It’s not that He allows it, He overcomes it entering it Himself with us and for us “Christ crucified”. Is the only good news there is. Death (His) will ultimate trump it all for all of us “I am the resurrection (death) and the life ” he told Mary can you believe this!

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s