Some of you have either just finished final exams or are about to launch into that dangerous territory. Our students here at Bob Jones University just finished theirs, and tomorrow we will be rejoicing to see some of them march across the stage to receive their diplomas. Of particular interest are those math majors – how do they do it? How did they make it to this point? Math is far from the easiest major. How many math problems did they have to solve to get that diploma? How many late nights of numbers upon numbers occurred in their four (or more) years at the university?

Math problems are very interesting. Their basic existence is to challenge our minds and force us to solve them. They work according to prescribed rules, and they function in predictable ways.

For them, an answer is either right or wrong. They are predictable and prescribed. And they are solvable…most of the time. Students taking their algebra exam right now may disagree with me on that!

And there is usually one answer and one path to get there, and everyone should come up with the same answer.

God is not like this – He does not live in our pre-approved boxes. Though He is constant and consistent, He is far from predictable. God is not a problem to be solved or an equation or formula to be used to get a desired outcome.[1]

God is a person – an eternal person. An omniscient, all-wise, omnipotent, holy and just, good and loving person.

And this gets complicated, especially when we try to figure out why a person like God acts in certain ways or doesn’t act in certain ways. Like for example the problem of pain and suffering…

If we primarily think of God in a box that we can figure out and who must operate within the constraints and confines of our perspectives, perceptions, and expectations as to what is reasonable, we are going to come up against a huge problem when we consider the reality of pain and suffering in a world where God is as sovereign, wise, powerful, and good as the Scripture claims He is.

This problem is very real—and the inability to formulate an acceptable answer (in our mind) has shipwrecked more than one person’s faith. As we watch those graduates walk off that stage tomorrow, I can’t help but think some of them will launch into the area God has called them and be soon confronted by this reality. What will their response be? Will they continue in the faith? Or will they waver and doubt and eventually fall away, as too many have?

So given the personal impact of this question and the weight and nature of what is at stake (my faith in God), how might we go about framing an answer that is faithful to Scripture, accurate to God’s true nature, and reasonable to my human mind?

First, let’s summarize some facts:

  1. God is a person – not a formula.
  2. The Scriptures are accurate. They do not pretend to give us all the answers but they do promise to be a true and accurate record of God and His purpose in the Word.
  3. At the same time, the problem of pain is both real and perplexing, given who God claims to be and what He claims to be like.
  4. Believers live in a context that is marked by two morally opposite worldviews – biblical vs. secular.

So with these assumptions in mind, how do we frame an answer and how do we go about doing so?

  1. We have to understand and embrace how we know things. This is called epistemology. And we have to understand the implications of our epistemology.
  2. We have to argue that the goal must be possible. Finite creatures can never know in the same way and to the same extent that an infinite person can know. But we can know enough to be certain about some things. We can come to reasonable conclusions with an acceptable degree of certitude.
  3. At the same time, we must recognize the boundaries of our knowledge.
  4. We must understand what God is really intending to do with His communication. Is He trying to give us a full explanation of pain and suffering? Or does He have a different agenda?
  5. What does the whole counsel of God affirm about God and His character? God and His constant response to suffering? God and His presence and purpose in suffering?
  6. What are the root issues that surface in our examination and our objection to the problem of pain and suffering? What does my struggle with the problem of pain imply about me? And what does it imply about God?

So how do I live and navigate life when I am at the crossroad of where faith and mystery meet?

God has not chosen to explain everything fully. But He has chosen to engage deeply and personally with humanity. How? How can we know that in a world of such pain? How can we trust a God who we can’t fully understand?

We must remember – Jesus plumbed the depths of pain and suffering on that cross.

We cannot put God in a box. We cannot “solve” Him as we solve a math problem. But we can come to have a personal relationship with Him. We can know beyond a shadow of a doubt that He loves us. He proved it by sending His Son – the infinite God becoming a finite man and embracing the full depth of pain and suffering.

Jesus helps us reconcile an infinite God and our finite struggles.

[1] This post inspired by Truth Matters by Andreas J. Köstenberger, Darrell L. Bock, and Josh Chatraw.

Sam Horn

Posted by Sam Horn

Dr. Sam Horn is the EVP for enrollment and ministerial advancement at Bob Jones University in Greenville, SC. Prior to BJU, Sam served at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Northland International University, and various churches in Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Carolina, and Tennessee. Sam and Beth have two children – a son in college and a daughter in middle school.