January 20

Response to Evil

In my previous post, I looked at the problem with evil, namely that the Bible doesn’t support many of our assumptions about it. To quote a wise man, “Nothing, absolutely nothing happens in God’s world by mistake.” That’s not an easy truth to accept. When I see children maimed in war, good people killed in horrible ways, and unborn babies dying before they come into the world, I want to believe God has nothing to do with this. I need to believe it!

But that’s not the truth. I have (generally) come to accept that God’s wisdom is beyond my understanding. I don’t like many of the things he allows to happen in the world. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t him. I trust that he has a purpose, even when I can’t imagine what that purpose is.

As I wrote previously, my wife miscarried what would have been my first child. And it happened as we went to the doctor expecting to hear a heartbeat, but there was no heartbeat. It wasn’t just the loss, it was the cruelty of the dashed hopes that angered me. I raged. Yet that experience forced me to acknowledge that God, whom I had rejected, was indeed active in the world. It was the beginning of my coming to faith.

I do not believe that God killed our baby so that I would become Christian. That’s far too small a way of looking at it. Similarly, when I had the vision in the war zone that included the realization that “If there was no war, there would be no peacemakers; blessed are the peacemakers,” I could not conclude that God allowed war for the purpose of calling us to be peacemakers. His plan is far greater than that.

But there is some truth in those assessments, limited as they are.

I’ve written about the paradox of free will. Yes, we have to believe we have it. Yet if God wants us to go to Ninevah, we’re probably going to end up in Ninevah.

But if God has that kind of power, why does he use catastrophes to get our attention? Why doesn;t he implement social justice throughput the world?

The answer is remarkably simple: God wants us to love. Love is a choice. Love forced is not love at all. He doesn’t force us to love him, but he sometimes does use some forceful convincing. And he doesn’t force us to love each other, but he does push us in that direction.

The metaphor of God the Father is important. Sooner or later, a father helps his children learn to do for themselves. You made a mess? You clean it up. You’re old enough that I’m not going to do it for you.

Yes, God could change the world. But he wants us to learn to do it.

Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these… (John 14:12)

We have a sinful nature (Romans 3:19-20). We also long for God (Psalm 62:1). Which will we choose?

Left to our own devices, we too often choose the former. We see and act for our own gain, not God’s. We meet disagreement with scorn and hatred. We meet perceived injustice with retribution and violence. And those whom we meet in these ways react in the same way, perpetuating the cycle.

When I saw the horrors war had inflicted on innocent civilians, I wanted to kill someone. When my wife lost our baby, I needed to blame someone, and I raged at God.

But I didn’t kill anyone. Instead, I worked for peace, and helped bring about a cease-fire. And instead of rejecting God, I wound up affirming him. But I can’t take credit for either of those results. That was God’s work.

This, then, is our choice: when faced with events that trigger our sinful nature, do we give in to that nature? Do we seek vengeance? Do we nurture hatred? Do we seek to rely on ourselves for our well-being? Or do we let God convince us to turn to him? Do we choose love?

That is where the real battle between good and evil lies: in our own hearts. The war between good and evil is not fought on some celestial plane, but inside ourselves.

Jesus challenges us to choose his way over our own. And so does God. Every event, every blessing, every perceived evil has but one purpose: to turn our hearts to God.

January 14

The Problem of Evil

Who can command and have it done,
    if the Lord has not ordained it?
Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
    that good and bad come? (Lamentations 3:37-38)

I was raised in a culture that believes that the universe is a battleground for good and evil. Satan, a fallen angel, rules this world, until the coming of Jesus when Satan will be vanquished. And we need to be certain we’re on the right side.

The problem is, that’s not what the Bible says. On the contrary, in Genesis, God declares his creation “good,” and he says it more than once. The sin of Adam and Eve has specific consequences for Adam, Eve, and the serpent. Humans get cast out of the garden to experience suffering and hard work. But nowhere does God declare that his world has become anything less than good. Even when he sends the flood, his reason is because of “the wickedness of humankind” (Genesis 6:5).

Then there’s the question of Satan, who supposedly rebelled against God and rules this earth. But again, that’s not what the Bible says. In fact, the Book of Job makes clear that Satan does what God allows him to do and no more (Job 1:11-12).

Satan next appears in Zechariah’s fourth vision (Zechariah 3:2). Here, God rebukes Satan. But the context is important. Satan is the Accuser, and Jerusalem has been sent into exile for her crimes. Now the exiled people of Jerusalem confess their guilt (Zech 1:6), and God revokes the sentence (Zech 3:4). God’s rebuke represents a rejection of Satan’s accusations– accusations of which, as the previous prophets made clear, Jerusalem was entirely guilty. But because of her repentance, God now sets aside those accusations. She is forgiven.

Where else does Satan appear in the Old Testament? Nowhere. (In some translations, the Hebrew word satan, or accuser, is rendered as a proper name, Satan, but without a definite article, al-Satan, it does not refer to Satan the being.)

Which leads us to the New Testament. Interestingly, in the first reference (Matthew 12:24ff), Satan is also identified with YHWH’s ancient archenemy, Ba’al, the Canaanite fertility god. The name “Beelzebul” literally means “The Great Lord Ba’al.” (The common variation “Beelzebub” is actually a Hebrew pun meaning “Lord of the Flies,” which insulted those who worshiped Ba’al.) In this passage, Jesus describes Satan as having a kingdom and being a lord of demons. But he does not say that Satan’s kingdom includes, or even exists on, the earth. Indeed, in verse 28 Jesus tells us that because he casts out demons by the Spirit of God, “the kingdom of God has come to you”– right here on Earth, right now.

There are many references to Satan prowling for souls. As the Accuser in Job, he prowled the Earth in a similar fashion. Paul, in 2 Corinthians 4:4, even refers to the “god of this world [who] has blinded the minds of unbelievers…” But the question remains: Does Satan do this with or without God’s permission?

The most graphic description of Satan and his works appears in Revelation. He first appears in 12:3 as a “portent” or sign in heaven in the form of a dragon. He’s identified as Satan in 12:9, after we are told in 12:7 that “A war broke out in heaven…” We are not told how or why the war broke out, but again, the context of this passage is essential. The second woe has just passed (11:14). And we are told that the third woe is coming very soon. Then the seventh angel blows his trumpet and announces the Kingdom of God, and the ark is revealed. But note well: these woes are warned and created by God, not by Satan.

What does this mean for us? It means that nothing that happens is outside the purview of God. His whole intention for us is for us to turn to him and love him (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). Sometimes he uses kind words. Sometimes he uses more forceful measures. Sometimes I wonder what he’s thinking. I often wonder why the innocent suffer. But eventually I have to surrender to the truth: he is God and I’m not. I will never be able to understand his thinking.

Christian mystic Julian of Norwich, writing in 1413, described this very well:

For a man beholds some deeds well done and some deeds evil. But our Lord beholds them not so. For as all that has being in nature is of God’s making, so are all things that are done in property of God’s doing. For it is easy to understand that the best deed is well done, and the highest, so well as the best deed is done, and the highest, so well is the least deed done, and all in property, and in the order that our Lord has ordained to it from without beginning. For there is no doer but he. (Revelations of Divine Love, 13)

(To be continued.)

January 13

God on Love

This Word was given to me:

Oh, my people! I gave you one commandment – one! – and you did not follow it. “Love.” That is all. Where is the love in your hearts? The sheep say, “We should love,” but they love only other sheep. The goats say, “Look! We have appointed these to love for us,” and they do not love.

This I told you: The Lord is one, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you in your heart. Teach them to your children, that they may never forget. But you did not love, and you did not remember. When Pharaoh sent his armies against my people, the finest chariots could not stand before me. The wealth of the world is but food for locusts. Still you put your faith in strength and wealth, and not in me.

Cursed be your leaders who lie and plot in secret, who reward the wealthy while the poor suffer. Cursed be those who make war against enemies they created, and who cause your young men to trample on those made in my image. And now this arrogant little horn—I name him Agnoeo, for he does not know me. Did I not warn you?

The voices of my prophets you ignore. My words you quote to justify your pride. You point to me with one hand while with the other you accuse your neighbor. You praise me with your mouth, and with that same mouth you say vile things about your family. Do I not hear each of you blaming your brothers and sisters? “He did this.” “She did that.” Selfish children! You are siblings, make peace with one another! Do you hold your hand out in love for your brother who disagrees with you? Do not dare to lie to me, for I know the answer.

Look at your hearts! You build yourselves up, like a tower to the heavens. Humility is not in you. Therefore, says the Lord, like petulant children, I will chastise you until you listen and obey. A child who responds quickly receives little correction, but a stubborn child must face consequences. I called you, says the Lord, but you did not come. When the word fails, will not any father turn to the rod?

In that day, you will ask, “What does God want?” but I will not answer, for it has not changed. Then you will blame the sinners and the outcasts and the unbelievers among you. But this I tell you: My discipline comes not because of the unrighteous, but because of those who claim to be righteous.

When those who worship me with their mouths worship also with their hearts and hands and feet, and when you hold out your hand in love to those you hate and welcome those you despise, and when you see my image in very person, as I created them, only then will you have learned.