God’s Attributes and Poverty in Ethiopia

Pastor,
Why do we see starving people in countries like Ethiopia? More or less; why does God allow things like this if he is love?

Dear [redacted],
Those are great questions. And difficult ones. I think the place to start is to remember God’s sovereignty over all things as Creator and Sustainer. He is sovereign over the sparrows (Matthew 10:29), the rolling of dice (Proverbs 16:33), the decisions of kings (Proverbs 21:1), the rise and fall of governments and kingdoms (Daniel 4:34-37) and traveling and business plans (James 4:15).

But God is also sovereign over things we would consider calamities or evil. He is sovereign over the slaughter of His people (Psalm 44:11), the sickness of children (2 Samuel 12:15), the suffering of saints (1 Peter 4:19), the persecution of Christians (Hebrews 12:4-7), the loss (and gain!) of money (1 Samuel 2:7), the giving and taking of life (1 Samuel 2:6), and the crucifixion of Christ (Acts 4:27-28). Everything that happens occurs because God governs them according to His wise counsel (Isaiah 46:10). The prophet Amos exclaims, “If calamity occurs in a city, has not the Lord done it?” (Amos 3:6). Paul rejoices that though even seemingly evil things are from God’s hand, they are beyond our wisdom (Romans 11:33, 36).

This is how Job understood the evil that befell him. When he lost his wealth, health, and family, he ascribed it to the Lord – “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). Later, close to death, he acknowledges, “Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept evil?” (Job 2:10).

This does not mean that Satan and sin don’t have any role to play in evil and suffering. For example, in Job’s case it says explicitly that it was Satan who struck Job (Job 2:7). But Satan is only a “secondary cause.” Satan is only allowed to strike Job because it was God’s plan. Job suffered these things not ultimately under Satan’s design, but because of “all the adversities the Lord had brought upon him” (Job 42:11). This is how James in the New Testament understood the book of Job – “You have heard of the endurance of Job and have seen the outcome of the Lord’s dealings, that the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful” (James 5:11).

So this the mental framework I have in mind when I approach questions like, “What about the poverty of Ethiopia?” First of all, God is sovereign over it. He is sovereign over Ethiopia (Daniel 4:34) and He is sovereign over wealth (1 Samuel 2:7). He is in control. We can also talk about secondary causes that God uses to bring about affairs on the earth. For example, wealth often comes about by blessing, wise planning, and frugality and faithfulness, but poverty often comes through disobedience, foolishness, and cursing (Job 27:19; Psalm 112:3; Proverbs 3:9-10; 10:15; 12:27). However, we cannot strictly equate wealth with obedience and poverty with disobedience, since Job, Jesus, Paul, and many other faithful men and women have experienced poverty. We live in a broken and sin-cursed world, we do not always receive that for which we have worked.

This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the many other questions we could consider: Ethiopia’s government and infrastructures, the history of the nation and its foreign relations, the natural resources some countries have vs. others, etc.

But perhaps the more burning question is how a God of love could allow this situation to remain in Ethiopia. First, we mustn’t allow our definition of God to be altered. Yes, in only one place Scripture makes clear that “God is love” (I John 4:8). There are several verses in Scripture that say that God is holy (Isaiah 6:3; 1 Peter 1:16), God hates (Psalm 5:5-6; Romans 9:13) God takes vengeance, etc. etc. So God is love, but he also holy, just, wrathful, light, and good, as well. Secondly, we mustn’t say that “God is love,” but use the world’s definition of love. “Evil” and God’s love are not incompatible, since it was God’s love that sent Christ to the cross (Isaiah 53:10; John 3:16). In fact, it is the Cross where God’s justice and hatred for sin meets His love and mercy for sinners: at the Cross, mercy and justice “kiss.”

So it is not at all impossible for God to love Ethiopia through their poverty. Perhaps in God’s infinite wisdom, financial crisis is exactly what that country needs. Certainly, no sinful person “deserves” wealth; we all deserve poverty. It is only by God’s loving grace that any of us experience prosperity. We haven’t even begun to discuss how God may have designed Ethiopia’s poverty as an opportunity for the Church and individual Christians to demonstrate mercy and benevolence. God’s ways of demonstrating His love to us are often a mystery to us. He saved us by Christ’s death on the cross, Jesus descended into “hell” so that we wouldn’t have to, and we often grow and are refined in our faith by suffering, pain, and hardship. Nevertheless, all of these come to us from God’s design of love! Romans 8:28 is helpful here: “All things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose.” In God’s love, absolutely anything can work out for good. For those who are against God, even what the rest of us might call “blessings” serve as condemnation for those who don’t trust in Him. While we might not yet understand how God’s love is being shown in Ethiopia’s poverty, Scripture challenges us to recognize that it is so even when we cannot fully explain it.

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