Some people have argued that the most corrupting event in the history of the Church was becoming the official religion of the Roman empire in the fourth century. Christianity had once been principally the preserve of slaves and society's humble, but now it became attractive to opportunists and fellow travellers. Accumulating wealth, power and prestige, the Church took on the trappings of empire itself. Everyone wants to be on the winning side.
That view of Christianity as the winning side has been a bit battered in recent decades, but a residue remains in the so-called prosperity gospel. Join the church and let God bring you riches. Personal problems persevere only because you don't have enough faith – God doesn't want you to suffer or lack; just believe harder.
For many, suffering has seemed a good reason to doubt God's existence or goodness. I am not offering a defence to the problem of pain; my aim is to deny the shallow but common idea that God wants only the happiness of humans, as defined by ourselves.
God does bless us but not always in the way we seek or expect. A trouble-free existence is far from the examples in the Bible. Joseph is flung into a pit, sold to slavers and later unjustly jailed on his journey to Egypt's highest rank. Jesus warns his followers they will all suffer tribulations.
Many people have lost sight of the biblical teaching about providence, which says nothing happens by chance but that God directs or allows all that comes to pass through his sovereign power. Although he is not “the author of evil”, nevertheless blessing and adversity both come from God, who has numbered every hair on our heads.
Misfortunes or sufferings may come from our own failings, from accidents, or from the malice of others but they never take God by surprise. Jesus understood this very well. He was harmed successively by Judas, the Pharisees, the high priest Caiaphas, then Pilate and finally the Roman soldiers, but he responded: “The cup which the Father has given me, shall I not drink it?”
And the promise of God is that he will work everything together for good for his followers. Somehow, in the great tapestry that God weaves via providence, he draws all the strands together to our advantage. As Joseph tells his brothers who sold him into slavery, who now depend on him for their lives: “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good … to preserve many people alive.”
The teaching that no suffering is by accident, and that it will all eventually be redeemed, brings me great comfort.
This article first appeared at The Age.
Barney Zwartz is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity, and a former Fairfax journalist.