“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” – Jesus in John 10:10
Every day, the news churns out stories that we soon forget. Then, a tragic story hits that sticks with us through the day because it was so troubling. Sometimes, even years later, we remember where we were when we first heard that horrible news, as the moment becomes frozen in time.
Today feels like one of those days. Like many, I turned on the news early this morning to be horrified by the report of the worst mass shooting in American history. At first, it seemed surreal, and it took a few minutes to wrap my mind around the evil and suffering that was unfolding.
The world has always been filled with suffering and evil, but advances in technology have increased the ability of human beings to cause suffering by doing evil. In days past, a rock would be thrown, whereas today bullets are fired. Technology also gives us the closest thing to a God’s-eye view of the world. In the past we might hear of evil and suffering, but it is an entirely different thing to see it moments later online. Can you even fathom how awful it must be for God? Can you imagine seeing not only the evil and suffering that we see, but everything that we do not see?
Horrific days like today raise a host of questions as people search to find meaning amidst madness. To be sure, as the Bible says, we now see “dimly” as if through a fog on a dark night and understand only “in part”. However, as a Bible teaching pastor it is important to try and provide some help for people from God’s Word.
What is wrong with the world?
Regardless of where you fall on the political or spiritual spectrum, one thing we can all perhaps agree upon is that something has gone terribly wrong. The world is not the way it ought to be, and no matter how many wars we wage, dollars we spend, or elections we hold it seems as if the world is sliding down a hill toward a cliff, and gaining momentum toward death daily. Uniquely, the Bible actually explains the painful path to this precarious place.
- Shalom:The Bible reveals that God, who is only good, created this world in a good state and upon the creation of the man and woman, God declared his entire creation “very good.”1 This intended state of beauty and harmony in all things is described in the Old Testament as “shalom.”2 Even those who do not believe in the Bible persist in longing for a shalom on the earth, because deep down in God’s image bearers there is a faint echo of Eden and how things are supposed to be. Everyone who has even shook their head, shed a tear, gotten angry, or wondered why is ultimately longing for shalom which is supposed to be our home. Ever since we sinned and ran away from shalom, we have been restless and regretful orphans longing for a path back to God’s presence. Lost, we are frustrated, agitated, and alienated.
- Sin:What happened?We ask that question a lot when sin and suffering come like a torpedo into the hull of life. Often, we are seeking a cause for pains and problems. In order to find the root of all the trouble we have to go back, way back, to the beginning of the breaking of shalom.Genesis 3 is one of the most important chapters in the entire Bible because it explains the source of and solution for sin and death. In painful brevity, with each word dripping horror, we read how the human rebellion against God that began with the first sin is altogether foolish, tragic, and mad.The scene is the beautifully good garden made by God for our first parents to live in together in shalom with God and one another. Tragically, in utter madness, humanity chose Satan over God, lies over truth, independence from God over loving relationship with God, and death over life. When sin entered shalom, the suffering started.
Suffering in the Scriptures, like our own suffering, isn’t neat, tidy, or systematic. Life is often more complex than clear. In massive tragedies, multiple kinds of suffering are occurring at the same time affecting countless people in numerous ways. On days like today, there is victim suffering for those who lost their lives or were injured. There is empathetic suffering for the friends and family of those who were wounded, killed, or serving amidst the tragedy. And, there is collective suffering as the pain of the evil extends to millions more people who sense that the attack was not just on some humans but all of humanity.
How does God feel?
How is your heart today?
The heart is a mega theme of the Bible. It appears around 1000 times, depending upon which English translation you prefer. Sometimes, the Bible refers to the heart as the organ that sustains our physical life, but most of the time the meaning is not the physical organ, but rather a complex concept about our emotional center. In the Bible, the heart includes the totality of a person at their deepest level. In the heart we make our decisions, feel our emotions, think our thoughts, choose our words, envision our future, process our experiences, determine right and wrong, nurture worship and idolatry, drift toward wisdom or folly, taste brokenness and healing, and stoke the fires of both courage and fear.
If you do a simple Bible study looking at the verses which mention the “heart”, the first occurrence is God’s heart. Genesis 6:5-6 says, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.”
God is good. People do evil and cause suffering. This breaks God’s heart. This grieves God’s heart. On days where evil is unmasked and death is unleashed, it is good and right to be heart broken with grief since this is the heart of God. Something has gone terribly wrong and God is not to blame.
Why do people do evil?
When evil is unleashed, we are prone to seek a clear cause-effect correlation between the “what” that happened and the “why” it happened. Sometimes, there is a fairly clear causation. At other times it just makes no sense. This is the nature of sin.
The Bible uses a constellation of images to explain sin as everything from rebellion to folly, self-abuse, madness, treason, death, hatred, spiritual adultery, missing the mark, wandering from the path, idolatry, insanity, irrationality, pride, selfishness, blindness, deafness, a hard heart, a stiff neck, delusion, unreasonableness, and self-worship. Sin and evil are not rational or reasonable.
Sometimes, there is an external contributing factor to human evil and sin. But, ultimately the deepest problem is internal. Jesus’ own brother speaks of the source of sin within us saying:
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.3
Men are not gentle, friendly creatures wishing for love, who simply defend themselves if they are attacked, but that a powerful measure of desire for aggression has to be reckoned as part of their instinctual endowment. The result is that their neighbor is to them not only a possible helper or sexual object, but also a temptation to them to gratify their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without recompense, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus [man is a wolf]; who has the courage to dispute it in the face of all the evidence in his own life and in history?4
Once we realize that at the root human beings are the problem, it is easy to see that we cannot also be the solution. Since the problem is in us internally, we need help externally which is why God is needed. Mere behavioral change is not sufficient to remedy the human condition. Instead, we need a new heart and nature, what the Bible calls regeneration or new birth. Following that, we need the ongoing help of God to change us at the deepest levels of our being so that our external life starts to reflect profound change in our internal life.
Where is there hope amidst evil?
Despite all the bad news, there is good news in the good Book.
The Bible repeatedly declares that God is always, perfectly, and solely sovereign, powerful, and good. It is completely clear that God is angry because of sin and evil because creatures, not the Creator, are responsible for it. Sin never destroys His plan, never limits His power to act, and never stops him from doing good in the worst evil. From the appearance of Satan in the garden onward, sin and evil are not dealt with in a systematic fashion but in such a way as to compel us to continued faith in God, trusting in His ultimate providence that one day the presence and power of sin will be no more.
To assume that God cannot (making him not sovereign and/or not powerful) or will not (making him not good) is to judge God before He judges evil, rendering the verdict prematurely. Since we are in the middle of history, until God is done with all of His work, we must not judge him but rather trust, and mourn with him, while serving others in love until He is finished with sin and history as we know it.
Evil is never outside the providential control of God. He is at work to do his good purposes in the context of evil. We see this in the story of Joseph in the final dozen chapters of Genesis. We read of Joseph’s betrayal at the hands of his brothers, his unjust suffering, and his eventual rise to power because the Lord was with him, whereby many lives were saved. When he confronted his brothers, the providence of God at work in the life of Joseph crescendos: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”5
Many years later, a descendant of Joseph named Jesus Christ suffered similarly. He too was betrayed by his “brothers,” suffered the worst injustice in history, and suffered and died in shame on a Roman cross. At that moment, it would have been tempting to ponder if God was not sovereign and had lost, was not good and had sinned against Jesus, or was not powerful enough to stop the injustice. When the worst evil is done to the greatest Person we have to wonder if there is any hope for the hurting. However, three days later Jesus arose from His grave, atoning for the sins of the world, and God was vindicated as fully sovereign, good, and powerful. Therein lies our hope, evil and death do not get the final word, the risen Jesus does as He stands as the overcomer of evil and defeater of death.
God used the freely chosen evil of Judas, Herod, Pilate, Gentiles, and religious leaders to accomplish His perfect purpose6 in the same way he used the Chaldeans, a horribly evil nation, to punish the persistent sin of Judah and Jerusalem.7 This does not mean that their evil is His responsibility. They freely desire to kill and destroy. In a cosmic irony, the God of all providence uses evil to judge evil. Even as His hand brings punishment to Israel and death to Jesus, he also brings redemption and resurrection into the context of judgment and death.
A day is coming when we will also rise with and to Jesus. On that day, our faith will be sight and we will see God fully vindicated, as we enter the best possible world after passing through this world that prepares us for it. On that day, we are told twice in Revelation that Jesus with nail-scarred hands will wipe every tear from our eyes. Until that day, many tears will be shed by God and His people.
Until that day, our answer to the question of how God’s sovereignty relates to sin is ultimately a prayerful, worshipful, humble, and continual meditation on Romans 8:28, which promises, “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” In addition to food, water, air, and shelter to live we also need hope. God alone is big enough to give us any hope for this world.
One day, there will be resolution from God to all the pain and problems of the world. Until the resolution comes, God invites us into a relationship through Jesus Christ. In Jesus, we have a God who entered this world, experienced the greatest evil and worst suffering, and responded with only forgiveness and love. In tragic times, it is a great gift to have a Savior who suffered. Talk to him in prayer about your suffering. Walk with him by serving those who are suffering. Jesus, who both suffered and wept when other suffered, keenly understands days like today.
2Isa. 2:2–4; 11:1–9; 32:14–20; 43:1–12; 60:1–22; 65:17–25; Joel 2:24–29; 3:17–18.
3James 1:13–15; see also Prov. 27:19; Jer. 17:9; Mark 7:21–23; Luke 6:45.
4Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. Joan Riviere (London: Hogarth, 1963), 58.
6Acts 2:23; 4:27–28.