Every time a hear a song by Keane I get transported back in time to Doernbecher Children’s hospital. It is amazing how music can do that. I was spending a lot of time there, sitting at my daughter’s bedside. She was there due to an issue with her kidneys that had turned into a fungus infection, and the doctors did not know how to stop it. In situations like that, there is a lot of sitting and waiting, thinking and praying… and listening to Keane. The melodies are so beautiful and expressive. They seem to long for something more, something to make everything right.
I have been thinking a lot lately about how we should respond as Jesus followers to tragedy and evil in our world. What should our attitude be? Should it be one of resignation or revolt? Do we fight or surrender? Looking around at the world, we see unthinkable tragedy, unthinkable evil. We see it in our own lives as well. It is so important that we have this question clear in our minds, and that we don’t settle for answers that sidestep the issue. This seems like a basic question, but it is actually one that few of us have settled in our minds. Until tragedy hits us directly, we aren’t forced to deal with it.
It is clear that we shouldn’t respond the way the world does to evil. We should not be afraid of it, and we should not submit to it. But we are to overcome evil with good, not with retribution. We are commanded to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us.
Tragically, many American Christians are very quick to respond with revenge and punishment against the evil that others inflict on us, which is the one way we are actually told not to respond. We are ready to fight against those we see as the enemy, but we want to do it our way, not God’s way. What is really crazy is that once a tragedy happens, we immediately switch from fighting against this evil to trying to rationalize it and explain how this was “all part of God’s plan”. I submit to you that this is a crazy, screwed up way to think that isn’t healthy or biblical.
In a situation like I was in with my daughter, you mostly pray for healing of course. You pray that your daughter would be spared, that she would be healthy, that there would be less pain. But sitting in the hospital you realize that there are a lot of stories that do not turn out well. If you are like me, you start to ask the hard questions. Why is the world like this? If God is all-powerful, why doesn’t He fix it? He clearly wants us to ask for help…you can see that in the Psalms and in Job, that God really does want us to pour our hearts out to Him, and ask Him to help us. But the reality is that we really have no reason to think that he will do anything. Thousands of tragic stories happen every day, and many of them to people just like us, praying and asking for help. So why does God want us to ask? If he already has all this planned out and every molecule is placed exactly where it is by his perfect plan, then what is the point? Are we really only praying to make ourselves feel better? Because if that is the case, it wasn’t working for me. I remember saying that I can believe that God will get his way; that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that I was not at all sure that I would like His way. It might be the case that God wants my daughter to get more sick. It might be the case that God wants her to die. In the moment that seems unthinkable, and no one would say that. But after a tragedy strikes, people do say things like that. They say that God “took her home”, or “His timing is always the right timing” or “His ways are higher than our ways”….things like that. But seriously? How is that an answer? His ways are higher than our ways, yes. But doesn’t higher mean better? How is it a “higher way” for a child to die in agony without understanding why?
The only way out of this puzzle is to think about eternity. To think that this life is infinitely short, and therefore eternity cancels all this out. The problem with this view is that it leaves you feeling like nothing really matters in this life. It is all about getting through this life and on to the next. So be sure you pray the sinner’s prayer, be sure you do whatever it is you have to do or believe whatever it is that you have to believe in order to be sure that you are one of the fortunate ones that get to go to heaven, that you are one of God’s elect. Is that really the answer? Is that the heart of God? And then what about my daughter? Being too young to understand the plan of salvation, most people assume she would “make it in” if she died….and if I really truly believed that, then wouldn’t it be better for her to die before she has a chance to grow up? Why risk it?
I found all this very disconcerting. It honestly feels like God is playing games with you, and you are waiting, begging him to be nice to you, but waiting for the next bomb to fall, the next piece of bad news to come in. Since everything happens exactly according to God’s plan, isn’t He the one that planned all this for my daughter? Isn’t He the one that could easily stop it but simply doesn’t? But we trust anyway, knowing that “somehow” everything is going according to plan. This leads to an attitude of resignation. Like the Stoics, we try to learn to accept everything that comes our way with dignity and grace, and we try to believe that all this crazy chaos is God’s “perfect plan”. This view from the stoics has it’s merits to be sure. It has value. But it doesn’t fit with the picture of God given to us in the Bible.
Over time, my thinking has evolved from this point.
First, I simply came to the point where I could recognize that my thinking on how this all works was wrong. This isn’t how we should look at it. No matter what your view is about God’s overall plan, you simply can’t think of it like that. It isn’t healthy, and it doesn’t line up with God’s character as revealed in the Bible.
Obviously, God is good, and being good means opposing all evil. But on the other hand, we know that God is all-powerful. What does it mean to be all-powerful if you don’t always get your way?
The second step in the process for me was to begin to understand that Jesus is what God looks like. He is God’s final revelation, the exact representation of his nature, the radiance of his glory. When God shines, it looks like Jesus. So even though I didn’t understand how this fits into the world as we know it, my view of who God is improved. If God’s character is shown most fully by the self-sacrificing love of the cross, that says something pretty amazing about the character of God. But it doesn’t answer the question as to why God doesn’t just fix everything.
As my view of God improved, my interest in scripture increased as well. I found that if you read the Bible after having locked in the idea that God looks like Jesus and that the scriptures are a story leading up to him, it breathes new life into the process. What I noticed is that instead of revealing a God that simply has everything planned out, the Bible reveals a God who reacts to events in time. We see God disappointed and angry, and even regretful. You see this clearly all through scripture. If that is the case, then why do we consistently attribute everything that happens to God’s will, God’s perfect plan? Is this how the Biblical authors thought of it?
Theologians have long thought about how a sovereign God would love, and they have theories on how that works. But isn’t that the wrong question? Perhaps we need to be asking instead how would a loving God show His sovereignty. Which attribute is the most emphasized? God is love. Love is the very essence of His nature. God is also sovereign, but God is not sovereignty. Sovereignty is not the essence of God’s nature.
God is love. Love requires true, authentic, actual choice. Just like God “can’t” create a round triangle, God “can’t” create a person with a choice and also not give them choice. You can try to say that God can do that, but you aren’t really saying anything at all about God…instead, you are saying something about yourself and your ability to speak nonsense and then add the words “God can” at the end of the sentence. It is also clear that God made more than just humans with choices. Angels were also created with true authentic choice. What can free will mean if it doesn’t mean the possibility to choose wrongly? So God created a world where love is possible. This also means evil is possible. CS Lewis says that the most amazing thing God did was to create beings that can say no to him. I agree. Far from making God less amazing or powerful, this makes him infinitely more beautiful, powerful, and awesome.
The final piece to the puzzle came to me when I started to look at how Jesus responded to affliction. If we are followers of Jesus, shouldn’t we follow His example? When Jesus healed people, not one time does it say that their afflictions were caused by God. It very clearly says they were caused by Satan. It says this repeatedly. We find this all throughout the gospels. Without exception, when Jesus confronted the crippled, deaf, blind, mute, diseased or demon possessed, he uniformly attributed their affliction as something that God did not will. Often Jesus or the gospel authors specify that it was evil forces (Satan or Demons), not God that were causing the afflictions. Not one time did Jesus suggest that these things were allowed by God as part of a “secret plan”. Peter even summarizes Jesus’ ministry by telling people that Jesus went about “healing all who were oppressed by the Devil” (Acts 10:38). The central reason that Jesus came to earth was to “destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). Of course, God does use evil for his purposes sometimes, but evil does not come from his will. Evil comes from evil humans and evil angels or “powers”. It comes from other Agents with choice, not from God.
Once I noticed, this, I was shocked. How could we be attributing these sorts of things to God when Jesus didn’t? Mixing up God and Satan is kind of a big deal! Let’s try to get this one right!
The fact is, we live in a war zone. Just look around you! Does it look like everything is going according to God’s perfect plan? Of course not! Does this mean that God is surprised and he might not be able to get his way after all? No! God is infinite. He has infinite intelligence and wisdom. God will have his way in the end, there is no doubt about that. We can rest assured that even the worst possible horrific tragedy can be redeemed through the amazing resurrecting power of God through Jesus. But we can also rest assured that God hates evil. Psalms 7 says God feels angry every day! I am so glad he does! If we had to believe that God was the one planning this all out, orchestrating a world in which a mother has to choose which of her kids will be sent to the gas chambers, how could we call God good and bring any meaning to the word?
This doesn’t mean that God is less sovereign or less powerful. It just means his power doesn’t look like the kind of power we lust after. True power is shown in the self-sacrificing love shown on the cross, not in coercive force. He is always working to make good come out of our evil choices. So we can still rest in the knowledge that God will bring meaning and purpose to even the worst things that happen, even though we should fight against them and consider them the works of the devil.
This isn’t to say there isn’t a mystery. We can’t possibly understand all the different variables and choices and forces that cause good and bad things to happen all around us. Read Daniel 10. Daniel prayed, and God responded. But because of a cosmic battle, the answer was delayed. There are other similar examples. But the point is the mystery isn’t with God. He has shown us his character in Jesus. Instead, the mystery is with the multitude of variables all added up to create a confusing, ambiguous world where crazy things happen for no apparent reason. But God is committed to redeeming his world through his Love.
So many times I have seen Christians desperately trying to say that some tragedy was really God’s good plan and it turned out for the best. They will rightly point out that this or that good came out of it, but so many times it seems so incredibly sad and even dishonest. I totally admire them for putting a good face on it and attempting to glorify God in their difficulty, but the fact is that something terrible happened, and even through that God is already bringing good out of it. God is able to resurrect good things out this messed up world in amazing ways. That is completely true. But we don’t have to try to say that every bad thing is part of his plan. It clearly isn’t! Why would God be angry all the time if everything was going according to his plan? Why would he be heartbroken over the pain and evil in His good world, if it was his plan to do this in the first place? Some say that God works on two levels, inside and outside of time. Inside of time, he is angry and sad over evil, but outside of time, it is His story. Personally, this seems like a made-up idea that doesn’t come from the Bible and isn’t shown in the character of Jesus. But he is the God of the resurrection. He knows how to bring good out of evil.
Because we live in a broken world and are broken ourselves, we can count on suffering. Jesus suffered during his life on earth as well, and we are commanded to take up our cross and follow Him. There are also times when God allows a difficulty into our lives specifically for our discipline. He uses the evil around us to sharpen us and shape us. When we suffer because we are following Jesus, we are actually called to rejoice that we were counted worthy to suffer as he did! This is part of how we fight. We conquer evil with good, just as Jesus did. This doesn’t mean that all evil is part of His plan. There are times when God does use evil in the world to wake us up and bring us to repentance, but this again is God responding to a broken situation in order to bring good out of evil. Some of the most difficult things we go through are things that we know are not His will, like a family member falling away or a friend’s marriage breaking up. We can learn from those things certainly, and God will be with us through even the hardest things in life. This does not mean we should tell the father of a murdered child that everything happens exactly according to God’s plan. If you try to say that this was actually God’s original plan, you quickly descend into fatalism.
This is exactly what God did on the cross. The worst crime in history was transformed into the greatest act of love and sacrifice. God conquered evil by letting it kill him, and rising from the dead. He made a mockery of the evil powers and destroyed death from the inside.
This is how we should deal with evil in the world as well. We are called to fight! Not as the world does, not a physical battle of retribution; but as Jesus did, through love and self-sacrifice. We are called to take up our cross and follow him. We are to conquer by loving our enemies. So when a tragedy happens, we don’t just sit back and act like it is fine, because we know that God hates this more than we do. We pray against it, we do what we can to stand up for the orphan and the widow and the immigrant. We stand up for God’s justice. But we do so by following Jesus with all our hearts.
So is our theology one of resignation or revolt? Should we fight or hunker down and try to make it to heaven? Guys, we are at war. We are in the middle of a battle zone. This is not the place to build a vacation home. There are people fighting and dying all around us. Let’s fight! Our battle is not against flesh and blood, but this doesn’t make the battle less real. It makes it more real. Fight to the last breath!