God is at work in this age to bring about good things; that God is working all things out for an ultimate good—including final justice as well as eternal blessing of those who trust in Christ. But the Bible does not teach that this is absolutely the best of all possible worlds. It does not present a rational ‘theodicy’ which completely explains and justifies the origin of evil and the full extent of suffering throughout time. In its exploration of the problems of evil and suffering in books like Job and Ecclesiastes, the Bible recognises a degree of mystery and disorder in our experience of pain, suffering, evil and injustice.
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. (Romans 8:28–29)
A semi-regular editorial note I make on submissions to TGCA is related to pastoral application of the sovereignty of God. It is comforting to know that our lives are not ultimately in chaotic flux. Our loving heavenly Father is in control of all things, perfectly able to bring about all of his good purposes. This gives believers peace in uncertainty, contentment in suffering and great confidence in preaching and prayer.
But even great writers and preachers can claim too much of this truth, over-applying it in ways that go beyond the Scriptures. For example, in his Morning and Evening, Charles Spurgeon writes:
Remember this, had any condition been better for you than the one in which you are, divine love would have put you there.
And in Trusting God, Jerry Bridges writes:
He has a purpose in every pain He brings or allows in our lives. We can be sure that in some way He intends it for our profit and His glory.
At first glance, these seem like heart-warming applications of Romans 8:28–29. The difference lies in the additional rhetorical flourishes and theological claims they are making. Spurgeon explicitly claims that the circumstances a believer finds themselves in are the optimal circumstances for them. This is saying much more than Romans 8 or Ephesians 1: not simply that God is working through all things for good to bring about his purposes, but that each individual circumstance throughout time and space is the very best for each individual believer. And Bridges seems to be ascribing particular purpose for each individual pain: a kind of customised, bespoke program of education and sanctification.
“The Best of All Possible Worlds”
Such good-intentioned pastoral and devotional application has more in common with Voltaire’s Professor Pangloss than the biblical presentation of the sovereignty of God. In his book Candide, Voltaire mocks inadequate explanations of the presence of evil. The character of Pangloss is his mouthpiece of rationalist philosophy:
Pangloss taught metaphysico-theologico-cosmo-codology. He could prove wonderfully that there is no effect without a cause and that, in this best of all possible worlds, His Lordship the Baron’s castle was the most beautiful of castles and Madam the best of all baronesses.