I’m sure you’ve heard of the NFL theological conundrum: if prayer works, and two opposing teams pray for victory, who will win?
Here is a variation of the question: In a game against the Steelers, Green Bay Packer’s receiver Jordy Nelson tore his ACL. After the game he made headlines when he told a reporter that in a regular season game he would have just rubbed dirt on it, but since it was pre-season he left the game, and now is likely out for much of the season.
Enter the theological dilemma: Green Bay’s division rivals, the Detroit Lions, have a safety who unsafely commented on Nelson’s injury. Glover Quin said that in any injury God is at work, and that all things that happen, happen for a reason.
With that statement Quin basically captured a form of broad American sentiment about God. “All things happen for a reason” is practically Hallmark Card theology, in that it is pithy and widely believed. Quin even followed it with “What is meant to be will be, regardless.”
But then Quin left the palatable generalities of sympathy cards and ascribed personality to the will of God. He said, “God had meant for Jordy to be hurt.” What followed was a social media brouhaha of pre-season proportions. The gist of which was that Quin, along with any self-respecting NFL player, should never say God wanted anything bad to happen to anyone ever.
So here is the new NFL Theological Dilemma: does the Bible teach that if someone gets hurt, God wanted it to happen?
Well, certainly pain is providential, and some pain more providential than others. God created a world where there is such common grace as sports, and part of sports is the reality of injuries. Sports provide the opportunity for people to test the limits of their physical abilities, and to do things with their bodies that others cannot do. Torn ACLs are inherent to that.
God does not need to have anything more specific in mind with a player’s injury other than the reality that sports often hurt people, and that is an element of what makes them fun to watch and challenging to play.
In other words, people have limits, sports push those limits, and thus people get hurt.
But let’s leave the grid-iron for a moment, and ask the question this way: if physical pain comes to someone in the world, is it right to say God “wanted” it to happen?
God (in a sense) didn’t want anyone to get hurt, ever.
The world was made perfect, and the garden was a place of paradise. God specifically forbid Adam and Eve from eating the fruit that would lead to death. Sin was forced to enter the world not through God’s invitation or God’s revealed will, but rather it had to force its way in through one man’s disobedience.
It is impossible to say God “wanted” something that he specifically forbid.
God (in a sense) allowed hurt to enter the world through sin
Nevertheless, God didn’t stop the devil in the garden. He didn’t intervene before Adam and Eve sinned. He let it play out. He could have stopped it, but he didn’t. In that sense, all pain and suffering come from Adam’s sin, but through God’s permission.
At this point it is helpful to distinguish between “want” and “permit.” This may sound like simply semantics, but they are important semantics. God forbid Adam from sinning, so you can’t say he “wanted” it to happen. But God allowed Adam to sin, so you have to say that at the very least he permitted it.
This tension is not only true for Satan and Adam, but for all pain at all times. Some pain is caused by sin, which God specifically forbids, but then allows anyway. God is never to blame, as he said “don’t do it,” but God is always sovereign, and it always happens on his watch.
God always wants something greater than pain
So how do these two truths mix? Why would God allow Satan into the garden after he had already told Adam and Eve not to sin?
Because God was going to use their sin for something greater. God was going to crush Satan through a child of the now sinful Adam. He was going to bring Jesus into the world to provide forgiveness for sinners, and this forgiveness glorifies God more than a world without pain.
In other words, God wants something greater than pain.
Sometimes he uses pain to point us to our own limitations, and to remind us of our own mortality. Sometimes it alerts us to danger. Sometimes it is the result of sin. Often it is simply the result of living in a fallen world, where sin reigns, but where Jesus saves.
Oh yeah, God is also sovereign over all things.
It is obvious from reading Quin’s full statement that he wasn’t even talking so much about theodicy but about sovereignty. God is sovereign over all things, and for a person going through pain this has to be more comforting than the alternative: God didn’t know you were going to suffer.
So would I ever tell someone, “God wanted you to get hurt”?
No, because the word “wanted” has connotations that don’t match how Scripture describes God’s attitude toward human suffering.
But would I ever tell someone who was suffering, “God didn’t want this to happen”?
Also no, because that undercuts the truth that God is doing something greater through pain than we understand. He is indeed sovereign over our suffering, and he is using to advance his glory and his good. And if given the choice between advancing the glory of the Packers or the glory of God, I choose God every time.
[Full Disclosure: Quin is a graduate of the University of New Mexico. This author is a likewise a former Lobo, and as they say, once a Lobo always a Lobo].