Updated: Feb 20, 2022
I host a weekly small group at my house. We recently started Alpha, an 11-week video course that covers the basics of Christian faith in a welcoming way. As a safe place to ask tough questions, the very first night, a few people asked a fine question, one that many people ask often: "Why does an all-powerful, loving God allow suffering?" I think the better question might be, "Why do we?" We all suffer the consequences of free will--A free will seemingly bent on defying the law of gravity, but for grace.
The Law of Gravity
I had to Google the proper definition of the law of gravity because you know how much I love proper definitions. Brittanica.com says this:
"Newton’s law of gravitation states that any particle of matter in the universe attracts any other with a force varying directly as the product of the masses and inversely as the square of the distance between them."
Expressed as a formula:
R:F = G(m1m2)/R2
Folks, my dad was a college physics professor, but I didn't inherit that particular gene. Other genes by the bucketful, but not that one. I honestly don't understand this definition at all.
What I do understand is Sir Isaac Newton made this discovery when he observed an apple fall from a tree. I also understand that due to this law, if I jump off a tall building, I will fall to the ground.
That's not personal or punishment, that's the real-life consequences of the law of gravity.
Moreover, I don't have to fully understand the law of gravity to respect it. I'm not leaping off of any tall buildings to check if it's true.
I would love to unpack some of the wonders of physics and how they reveal God's exquisite immensity, but I'm not qualified to do that.
The Law is good.
Sir Isaac was also a respected Christian theologian (with really good hair and eerily reminiscent of Peter Frampton in his hay day), whose passionate scientific inquiry was fueled by a belief that God is "the masterful creator whose existence could not be denied in the face of the grandeur of all creation."(1.) Newton and others, including Albert Einstein, were able to glimpse creation in a way us more creative types cannot.
This same God, who spoke the universe into being including the physical laws that awed Newton and Einstein, also imparted laws for us humans. The earliest and most fundamental of these laws are the 10 Commandments:
You shall have no other gods before Me. Pretty straight forward. Note little "g."
You shall make no idols. This includes anything we honor above God, which could be money, kids, beaus, booze, etc.
You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. You know that.
Keep the Sabbath day holy. Resting on Sunday? Well...
Honor your father and your mother. Can be quite a challenge, depending on the decade and the parent.
You shall not murder. Most of us can pass this one.
You shall not commit adultery. I'm good with this. Whew.
You shall not steal. This surely includes Instagram on the timeclock.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. Some say perjury, others say lying about people or fibbing in any way.
You shall not covet. Pining for stuff. Whoopsie.
Whether you're a Christian, Jew, or otherwise, these seem like sensible guidelines for good living. In fact, according to Cambridge University Press' Journal of Law & Religion's "The Fount of Everything Just and Right?" (Published online 15 October 2015) "the Ten Commandments are fundamental to the Western legal tradition."
Yet history testifies we've all had quite a hard time observing these very basic laws as individuals or society as a whole. Grading myself honestly, I have failed to keep all but two of these perfectly. Twenty percent is a failing grade in any classroom.
I'm so thankful that in Christ, I cannot flunk out of God's loving embrace.
No point values.
From a religious standpoint, please also note that this list, here or in The Book itself, does not assign point values or rank sins (aka shortcomings, defects, or even more obliquely, issues) by severity. Adultery is on the same list as murder. Stealing and statuary are equal no-nos.
While I'd like to plot myself on some continuum of goodness and maintain a checklist charting my progress to perfection, The Book doesn't support it. The benefit of this truth is that it's a great equalizer, and hopefully, keeps us humbly and gratefully yoked to our Savior on an ongoing basis! You'd think that would make us a little less judgy, (or not ;-). We humans really struggle with this all around.
For instance, I know a few clergy who are caught in one sin or another. Some nabbed in flagrante delicto of various types and dealing with consequences. Others are bound in the more subtle and secret snares, in some variation of uneasy denial, even while they self-justify and condemn their colleagues.
How profoundly disillusioning for those whose sin is more visible and was found out, while others skate. Ouch.
We are so terribly blind!
No doubt I can spot it cuz I got it. How bothersome!
I wonder if this irritates and saddens God like it does me. Matthew 23 and Ephesians 4:30 suggest it really does.
Good thing Jesus covers our hypocrisy, too.
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just andwill forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9
It gets worse.
Thanks to those early Israelites and the Old Testament God, the list of dos and don'ts got longer and harder. The Book of Leviticus is famous for its cray-cray prohibitions and harsh consequences. It includes mysterious rules against mixing fabrics in clothes, cutting hair on the sides (what--no mullets?), and picking up grapes that have fallen in your orchard. It also contains rules we can all support like not sleeping with your mother, harming your neighbor, or lying. All told, the Old Testament contains more than 600 hard-to-observe-them-all rules.
Upping the ante exponentially.
The New Testament takes rule-following to a whole new level. The should and should nots climb to about 1050 sobering guidelines for right living. A group in Australia compiled a very thorough list, with references and subcategories. If you like checklists like I do, this is the way to go. However, even the most obedient goody-two-shoes (guilty as charged in some ways), could not possibly score a passing grade on this list.
Moreover, there are some rules that I really take issue with, but then, I'm not God,
Now, not all of these seem like "real" sins, but Jesus said anything less than perfect is sin aka missing the mark, which incidentally is a term used in archery for anything other than bullseye. That sure puts a different spin on things! By that measure, we're all in the same sinking boat and equally needy of Christ.
What's more, Jesus raised the bar exponentially, explaining:
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment..." (Matthew 5:21)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery. But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart." (Matthew 5:27)
Oh, boy, that's an impossibly high standard. Yet...
The Law is good. We ain't.
In Matthew 5 (and elsewhere), Jesus himself explains that the law is good. It is God's loving, life-giving direction for us, intended to help us all from going kersplat or shoving others off a cliff. Yet as fundamentally wayward humans, we cannot keep it perfectly as the standard requires and always has. Thus, we need help!
Even as Jesus reminded us in Matthew 5 that the law was to be kept perfectly in order to attain heaven, He announced He was the fulfilment of the law. He met all of the requirements of the law on our behalf, relieving us of the burden and eternal consequence of the righteous standard, eliminating enmity with God forever.
Still, we deal with the practical consequences of sin--our own and others'. Whether it's eating too much, talking trash, pride, violence, cheating, lying, or what have you.
Love, mercy, grace, and peace.
Yes, the law remains good. Wisdom and Love uphold it as a standard of holiness and harmony to which we can aspire by the power of the Spirit within us. By observing God's loving commands, we help reduce the risk of suffering for ourselves and others.
Yet this side of heaven, we fail, on our very best days, to meet the standard of perfection. Sometimes, we will experience painful consequences by our own hand and through the sins of others.
The immutable law of gravity.
Even so, God so loved the whole wide world that He mercifully provided His own Son as a free gift of grace, so that we can enjoy peace with Him and through Him. Because of His love, we enjoy the promise of eternity, and also the grace that can bring good out of all things here, even our failures.
Sometimes, He allows us a free pass and we don't even suffer natural consequences.
Mercy! Grace! Thank You!
Whatever our failings, in Christ, God sees us as perfect and beloved. I need that and want that so much, and I'm so very grateful for the truth of The Gospel.
Remember: God loves you no matter what.
Grace & peace,
Principia, Book III; cited in; Newton's Philosophy of Nature: Selections from his writings, p. 42, ed. H.S. Thayer, Hafner Library of Classics, NY, 1953.
^ A Short Scheme of the True Religion, manuscript quoted in Memoirs of the Life, Writings and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton by Sir David Brewster, Edinburgh, 1850; cited in; ibid, p. 65.