A woman wrote to me recently expressing concern, and astonishment, that I could believe God sends adversity to people. It came up, ironically, because of a sermon I gave on God as our loving Father, which is usually the doctrine that people who object to God sending adversity—and there are more and more of them around these days—are eager to preserve. As I concluded my message, I encouraged the church to read Answer 26 of the Heidelberg Catechism:

I trust him so much that I do not doubt he will provide whatever I need for body and soul, and he will turn to my good whatever adversity he sends me in this sad world. He is able to do this because he is almighty God; he desires to do this because he is a faithful Father.

That, for me, is a stunning affirmation of the fatherly care of God in the midst of trials, and God’s sovereignty, even over suffering, has been an enormous comfort to me personally in the past. But this lady’s objection, quite simply, was: if you think Jesus is the exact representation of God, and if there are no examples in the Gospels of Jesus bringing adversity to people, then how can you believe God sends adversity to people?

Prevalent Objection 

This sort of objection is becoming increasingly prevalent in evangelical circles, in at least two quite different contexts: (1) the progressive, Red Letter, Jesus tea-strainer approach to ethics, and (2) the conservative, Pentecostal, the-problem-is-always-at-our-end view of divine healing. Logically framed, the objection is as follows:

1. God is exactly like Jesus.
2. The Jesus of the Gospels never said/did X.
3. Therefore God never says/does X.

Which looks virtually indisputable.

Obvious Problem Points

There are several obvious problems with this argument, though. The first is that, in being insufficiently Trinitarian, it unduly separates the Jesus of the Gospels from the God of the Old Testament, and thereby proves far too much. For instance:

1. God is exactly like Jesus.
2. The Jesus of the Gospels never prohibits idolatry.
3. Therefore God does not prohibit idolatry.

Or:

1. God is exactly like Jesus.
2. The Jesus of the Gospels never made covenant promises to Abraham.
3. Therefore God never made covenant promises to Abraham.

The second problem is that it needlessly rules out the New Testament words and actions of Jesus that don’t appear in the Gospels. This is where Red Letter Bibles actually help. They show that Jesus is the one who refused to take away Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:1–10), whatever that was. They show that Jesus is the one who condemns sexual immorality and idolatry, and threatens to fight against those who encourage it and throw them onto a bed of suffering (Rev. 2:12–29). They show that Jesus is the one who rebukes and disciplines those he loves, even to the point of threatening to spit people out of his mouth (Rev. 3:14–22).

The third problem is that it leads to the conclusion that the picture of Jesus in the Gospels not only differs from, but actively contradicts, the picture of the Father we find elsewhere in the New Testament, let alone the Old. Let’s imagine, for instance, that we granted the assumption that Jesus never brings adversity into the life of a believer in the Gospels (whatever Peter, James, or John, not to mention John the Baptist, might have to say about that). What are we going to do with the statement that, in subjecting us to “chastening,” “discipline,” and “hardship” that we find “painful,” the Father is treating us as sons and daughters (Heb. 12:7–11)? What are we going to do with Paul’s claim in 1 Corinthians 11:17–34 that many in the church are “weak or sick” and “some have died” as a result of divine judgment—but that this judgment should be understood as “discipline” as opposed to “condemnation along with the world”? What do we make of the fact that these things are specifically said to be true of believers?

And the fourth problem, to put it no more strongly, is that it overcooks the evidence from the Gospels anyway. The Jesus of the Gospels—in fact, the Jesus of Luke 17 alone—talks about millstones being put around people’s necks and then cast into the sea, and the world being flooded and destroying everybody, and fire and sulphur raining down from heaven on people, and people being turned into pillars of salt, and some being dragged from their beds in the middle of the night, and these sorts of things being examples of what will happen when the Son of Man comes. The Jesus of the Gospels specifically promises that his disciples will be troubled, hated, persecuted, flogged, betrayed, imprisoned, and killed if they follow him. He allows at least two people to die when he could’ve healed them beforehand, so that he can raise them from death. So no, as far as we know, the Jesus of the Gospels never makes anyone sick. But he does seem to bring a fair bit of adversity with him wherever he goes.

Irony of It All 

As I say, the irony of this particular objection is that the love of the Father, which (to be fair) is what the objection is trying to preserve, is often demonstrated most emphatically to us when we are suffering. It is suffering that produces perseverance, and character, and hope, which doesn’t disappoint because the love of God has been shed abroad in our hearts by the Spirit (Rom. 5:3–5). It is “in all these things”—persecution, danger, nakedness, sword—that we know nothing can separate us from the love of God (Rom. 8:35–39). It is through sufferings that our comfort abounds in Christ, and through discipline that we know we are legitimate children of God. And it is God’s ability to turn all things to good, in precisely this context of pain and difficulty, that the Heidelberg Catechism makes central to its statement about God’s loving care for us:

“He is able to do this because he is almighty God; he desires to do this because he is a faithful Father.”


Editors’ note: This article originally appeared at Think Theology.