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BRAVE IN THE NEW WORLD: The Problem of Evil and Suffering

Fear stopped me in my steps this week.   I know we shouldn’t fear, but what do we do when we do?  I wrote my message on Monday.  Tuesday, I was in a meeting with Aaron and we were planning a future worship service, and our phones started to blow up, like yours probably did too.  Got the news that there was an active shooter situation at STEM.  Gathered our staff together to start to pray.  Tried our best to contact people we knew that had kids involved to tell them we’re praying, we love them, is there anything we can do?  It just didn’t seem fitting to give the message I had already written.   I think that in moments like these, especially in a series called “Brave in a New World,” to not talk about the actual world we live in would probably be a misstep.

As weird and awkward as it is to try to tackle the problem of suffering and evil on Mother’s Day, forgive me if that offends you, but I’m going to do my best to try to step into this moment, please hear me, not as somebody who has all the answers.  I stand up here with more questions than I do answers right now, to be quite honest with you.  I stand up here with questions like you probably have—-God, why?  God, are you involved?  God, is so, how?  I stand up here, along with many of you, who had to try to answer questions for your kids about… it safe?  All those questions, right?  We had to cancel school a few weeks ago because of a scare.  On THAT day, I was up early studying, and one kid came down, right after the other, dressed for school, and I had to explain to them why they weren’t going to school that day.  One of them asked me, “Dad, why would somebody want to do something like that?”  Another said to me, “Dad, they must be a really, really bad person.”  Another one asked me, “Dad, can we have a pajama day?”  It hits all of us differently.  I think that’s just a microcosm of the way that we probably all feel in this room, to some degree.  That tragedy hit us all differently, but my guess is, we’re all, at least on some level, asking this question, “Where. Was. God?”  Where was God?  Does he care?  Is he involved at all?

Somebody commissioned a national study, a few years ago, and said, “If you can ask God just one question, what would you ask Him?”  The winning question by an absolute landslide was, “Why is there so much suffering and evil in our world?”  I’m with them!  I would love to know that too.  On some level, isn’t there something inside of each one of us that sits in this room, where we see something that happened like on Tuesday, or we read about another tragedy and there’s something in us that just aches, isn’t there?  And something that goes, “This isn’t the way this should be.”  There’s something transcendent in human beings where we go, we were created for a world that was free from suffering and free from evil and free from death, and that’s the world that we long for.  We get glimmers of it in this world, don’t we?  Our world is beautiful, but it’s broken.

That question of suffering and that question of evil are attempted to be answered by all the different philosophies and religions of the world.  In fear of being maybe just a little bit too philosophical this morning, I think we just need to address how do people explain what goes on?  What are the answers out there?  I hope I don’t create straw men here to burn to the ground, because I’m going to focus most of the time on what the Scriptures’ answer is to this question.  Here’s the way other philosophies and other religions will address this question. Here’s what the atheist might say.  You’ve probably heard this this week.  If evil exists, God cannot.  I think the argument is best summarized by the 18th century enlightenment philosopher, David Hume.  Here’s what he wrote:  “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?  Then he is impotent.  Is he able, but not willing?  Then he is malevolent.  Is he both able and willing?  Why then is there evil?”  Here’s the argument:  If God is all-powerful, if God is all good, and if God is all-loving, then why in the world is there evil in the world?  That’s the argument.  So, because there is evil, there is no God.  That’s the atheist’s argument.

As an aside—this is an aside that there’s volumes written on, so it’s a little bit unfair—if there is no God, how do we actually define anything as evil?  If there’s no standard of right and wrong, you define evil your way, I’ll define evil my way.  I think the whole argument starts to break down.  C.S. Lewis said it like this:  “As an atheist my argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust.  But how had I gotten this idea of just and unjust?  A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line.  What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?”  That’s a great question.  Will you lean in for a moment?  I’m just going to give my answer to this.  Evil, the existence of evil and suffering, does not mean there is no God.  It simply means that there is no god who prevents all evil and suffering.  That god doesn’t exist…..because we have evil and suffering.

The secularists—the person that believes our lives are just some cosmic, biological accident—would say that evil is just a part of the process of natural selection.  I know it’s hard to hear, but it’s just a part of our DNA working itself out.  Eastern philosophy might say evil does not exist; it’s just an illusion.  If you ignore it, it might go away.  You’ll read books from an Eastern philosophical standpoint that says even if you’re diagnosed with cancer, don’t say it, don’t name it, ignore it, it’ll hopefully go away.  It’s an illusion.  So, the atheist says if evil exists, God does not.  The Eastern philosophy says evil doesn’t exist.  Hindu and Buddhism might say evil done to us is a result of past mistakes.  Punishment.  There’s even this idea in John 9 that people back in Jesus’s day had this question: Why was this man born blind?  Who sinned?  He or his parents.  He must have done something wrong, right?  This is an idea that’s been around for millennia.

All that to say that dealing with the problem of evil is not a Christian problem, it’s a human problem.  Here’s the reality.  If you’re a skeptic here this morning; if you’re here because your mom drug you because it’s Mother’s Day…..ha! You have to wrestle with this question.  How do you explain it?  What’s the best explanation for this world that we live in?  I would encourage you that if that’s you and you’re maybe more skeptical this morning, would you lean in a little bit to see which explanation of the world that we live in actually makes sense.  Resonates most deeply with your soul, because, this just in, this is not the way followers of Jesus or the Scriptures describe the problem of evil in our world.  But the challenging part is that the Bible doesn’t give one succinct sort of you can turn to this passage and find a theological answer to the problem of evil.  It doesn’t.  Because people, back when the Scriptures were being written, weren’t wrestling with that question the way we do.  They sort of took the problem of evil and suffering as a reality of their world.  They didn’t question it a whole lot.  The truth of the matter is if suffering and Christianity were incompatible….if suffering and Christianity could not mix and could not meet, Christianity would never have survived the first two centuries.  Every single early follower of Jesus saw people who were tortured and killed for their faith.  They saw people who were put into arenas and destroyed by wild animals.  While they certainly wrestled and they certainly lamented, they didn’t approach this with the same lens that we do.  Our lens is God, are you even real?  They had a different question. They had a different process that they went through.  I think that their foundation was maybe a little bit more grounded in the metanarrative of the Scriptures.

If you have a Bible, will you open to Genesis 1.  The rest of this message is my attempt to answer the question: Where was God?  The Scriptures are really clear that God creates everything, Genesis 1, and he steps back, high fives himself and says, “I do good work.”  He looks at his creation and says, “It is very, very good.”  Humanity is created for four things.  They’re created for loving union for God.  They’re created to know themselves well.  They’re created to walk with each other and intimate close relationship.  They’re created to walk in this world, in God’s creation, in a way that brings about life out of the dirt.  To be in relationship with God, self, each other, and creation.  That’s his design.  And God looks at his design and goes, “I do good work.”

But Adam and Eve were not robots.  They were not programmed to just execute God’s commands.  In the very beginning, Adam and Eve were given a choice.  Genesis 2:15-17 — The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.  And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”  Anybody wonder why the choice?  Could we have avoided so much of this mess if there were just one tree?  Why the choice?  The choice is Adam and Eve, will you trust me?  Adam and Eve, will you become disciples?  Will you learn to live in my way, will you eat my life or will you try to define what’s right and wrong based on your own thoughts, your own desires, the things that stir in you?  Are you going to trust you or are you going to trust Me?  That’s the fundamental question we have to wrestle with here.

So why not just one tree?  Because God’s highest value is love; where there is no genuine choice, there is no real love.  From the beginning, Adam and Eve were given choice.  You know how long their choice to be in relationship with God lasts…..two chapters.  At which point there’s an evil force, a serpent, the Devil, Satan, who’s introduced into the story as well.  He tempts them.  They decide to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil instead of the tree of life.  They make a decision that we still feel the ripple effects of today, and that four-fold design is then fractured.  They’re out of relationship with God.  They’re out of relationship with themselves.  They’re out of relationship with each other, and they’re out of relationship with creation.  You and I live in the soil of that decision.

I think a lot of followers of Jesus get the story just a little bit wrong.  Let me summarize it for you, and see if your answer to Tuesday has this as part of its lens.   (1) God is responsible for creating and his creation is good, through and through.  God did not create evil.  He says it’s good.  (2) God is sovereign, but that does not mean that God actively controls everything.  It doesn’t mean that God makes your decisions for you.  It doesn’t mean that God stops you from making bad decisions.  Just by show of hands, how many of you made a bad decision that God did not stop you from making?  Look around… we all agree with point two.  God is good and he’s sovereign, but his sovereignty does not mean that he steps in and stops every bad decision that we are about to make.  Just as a side note, when people ask the question where was God when this happened, and why didn’t God step in and stop that, we have absolutely no way of answering the question how many of these things DID God stop.   But within his sovereignty, God has chosen to allow you and I and others to make decisions.  Your decisions matter.  They matter deeply.  (3) From the beginning, humanity was created with the freedom to choose.  God, will I live in your way or will I eat of my own tree?  As an aside, we’ve all chosen to eat from our own tree. We’ve all chosen that tree.  We can talk about evil out there, but as followers of Jesus, we can’t just talk about evil somewhere else, we got to start addressing evil in here. {Touches chest.}  We can talk about evil in our community, but we also have to address the evil in our own hearts.  Jesus came in order to set us free cosmically, and he came to set us free in the community, and he came to set us free personally.  We have to look at the multi-faceted, multi-dimensional problem of evil.  Someone, in a debate, asked a great apologist, Dr. Frank Turek……he stood up and raised his hand and asked, “Why doesn’t God just stop all evil?  Frank responded and said, “If God stopped all evil, he might just begin with you.”  Right?  Which one of us would stand up here and say, “No, not me.”  Not me.

Don’t miss this. From the very beginning, (4) there is an enemy of humanity that’s bent on destroying humanity.  And that enemy—look up at me—is not God.  You hear some people who talk about what happened on Tuesday, you hear some people that talk about evil and suffering in the world, and their answer is something like this, “Well, God has his reasons.”  Who can understand the mind of God?    They back themselves into a theological corner by defining sovereignty as God is in control of everything, and humanity doesn’t really have choice, and there is no real enemy.  Essentially, in some people’s theology, God is the enemy.  God is the one causing suffering.  God is the one causing evil.  God is the one causing destruction.  You essentially have to ask, “What part does the Devil play in that?”  As gently as I can, if your theology doesn’t have a place for the devil or evil, it’s not biblical.  If you blame everything on God, just know the Bible doesn’t.  You have to make a decision….is God responsible for evil?  Or is God healing our evils?  He’s not both.  Which one is he?

When my mom passed away, well-intentioned people said things like, “Well, God just took her.”  I would, as gently as I could, respond, “Actually, no, paraneoplastic syndrome took her.  God received her.”  God healed her.  God didn’t make her sick. God didn’t give her cancer.  God actually healed her cancer.  Think of the logical fallacy that you have to embrace if God is both the giver of cancer and the healer of cancer.  It’s a logical fallacy big enough to drive a dump truck through.  Right?  God is the one killing us and then we’re suppose to run into his loving arms.  Embrace a life of cognitive dissonance, right, where we go I’m not sure what to expect in this moment, at this time.  No, no, no, no, no.  The Scriptures explain where this evil comes from in Ephesians 2:1-3.  Paul will write this, because his answer is not it came from God.  God creates good things….every good and perfect gift comes from God.  And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.  See, according to the Scriptures, they don’t give a simplistic answer to the problem of evil and suffering, they actually say it’s three-fold.  We live in a broken world, with broken systems.  Sometimes those systems oppress people.  We have something inside of us—-Paul calls it the flesh, desires.  Sometimes our desires are off base, aren’t they?  We also have a cosmic enemy he calls the devil.  Then he says we were by nature children of wrath.  He’s not talking about God’s wrath.  He’s talking about the wrath of the world, the flesh, and the devil.  He’s talking about the fire that we create that consumes us, not the fire that God creates.  He’s not talking about God getting off course here, he’s talking about humanity getting off course here and creating things that eventually destroy us.

As Peter recounts the ministry of Jesus, here’s the way he describes it (Acts 10:38) — he (Jesus) went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil….  That’s Jesus’s mission according to Peter.  They weren’t under the power of God.  When people got sick, Jesus didn’t come and say, “Let me heal you from what my Father’s afflicted upon you.”  No, they have an enemy and it’s not God.  It’s the devil.  And everything that comes along with him…..fear, guilt, shame, death, sickness.  All of these things.

My guess is you’re saying to yourself, okay, Paulson, I find some solace in just assuming that God controls every little detail, even though I can’t explain why a good God would allow things like this to happen, I still want to believe that God is actively controlling every single detail.  So you might be asking yourself this question:  If the reality is that God doesn’t cause suffering and He doesn’t prevent all suffering, then how is God involved in it?  Or maybe to just summarize it succinctly, what good is God?  The Christian understanding to the answer to this question is unlike anything else you will find in any other religion or any other philosophy.  It’s completely different.  It’s completely other.  Here’s the answer that the Scriptures give—-How is God involved in suffering?  Jesus enters in and he suffers with us.  Ellie Weisel, the great author and Holocaust survivor, recounts a time when a young boy was taken and hung from the gallows.  Someone behind Weisel said, “For God’s sake, where is God?”  Weisel recounts that he sensed a voice rise up in him that answered, “Where is He? This is where He is—hanging here from these gallows.”

Only the gospel dares to proclaim that God is messy enough, that God is dirty enough, that God is loving enough to not watch our suffering from a distance, but to enter into it.  Enter into it with flesh and blood born in a dirty, dung-filled manger.  Goes on to live his life in relationship with tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners; and to eventually give his life on a Roman cross for your sake and for my sake.  Where is God?  Where is God when things like these happen?  He’s with us.  He’s here.  He enters in.  Because the cross is not the end of God’s suffering with us, it is the declaration that whenever we suffer He enters in.  Whenever we suffer He enters in.  The truth, friends, is that God understands our pain and our suffering first hand.  He’s the only God that can say, “I’ve been there.”    That Jesus did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Phil. 2:6-8)  This is your God.  In moments like these—will you lean in for a moment?—we want answers, but we NEED presence.  We want answers, but we need presence, and Jesus says, “I’m entering in.”

Here’s the other thing he says.  Followers of Jesus can have confidence that God hates suffering and death more than we do.  I’m reminded of Jesus having a conversation with Mary and Martha—you can read about it in John 11.  They’re frustrated that Jesus took his time getting to them, that their brother Lazarus had died.  As Jesus talks with them, here’s the way John records what’s going on with Jesus.  (John 11:33)  When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.”   He had compassion on the inside–deeply moved.  Then it says .  In the Greek it’s like a horse whinnying and shaking its head.  What’s he troubled at?  Death.  He hates it.  He’s going this isn’t my creation, this isn’t the way I designed this.  This isn’t what I wanted it to look like.  As much as we hate what happened on Tuesday, I want to assure you, Jesus hates it more.

The God who suffers with us—-here’s what we can know.  There’s a lot of things we can’t know.  We can’t know all of the answers as to why people make all the decisions they make.  What role the devil plays in that.  What role the world plays in that.  What role they play in that.  We can’t nuance that out.  There’s so many things we don’t have answers for, but here’s what we don’t have to question.  We can look at the cross that stands at the center point of history that the King of kings and the Lord of lords would come down, clothe himself in human flesh and blood, that he would come in and suffer and die, that it would be his declaration of love for you and me.  The cross stands at the center point of history to say to us, of all the questions you have, one you don’t have to ask is, “Does God love me?”  We know the answer to that one.  Yes.  Yes!  YES!  He does!  All of this says that we can take our pain, we can take our brokenness, we can take our lament, we can take it to his throne and say, “God, we freaking hate this!  We HATE this!”  We hate that we have to put our kids on a bus and be scared.  We HATE this!  We hate that we, as a society, have not stepped up to do more to stop it.  We hate it!  We feel like our hands are tied.  We don’t know what to do.  We know we need to do something, but we don’t have the answers.  We hate this!  God goes, “I hate it too! I hate it too! I weep with you! I love you!”  You do your research.  No other religion makes that claim.  Ask yourself what you really need in moments like this.  Is it answers?  Or is it presence?

I’ve been praying this week and I’ve just sensed this spirit-driven frustration AND peace.  I’m going, “God, I don’t know how to make sense of this.”  But I sense Jesus reminding me that he’s way more creative than I am.  While I’m confident that God did not cause this, He also didn’t prevent it.  The Scriptures make these claims that man, are so hard to hear in moments like this. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)  I’m going, God, how would this….how would you ever work this together for good?  I imagine myself on a whiteboard trying to figure it out.  You could do this and you could do this and then…..  I just sensed this week God going, “Pause. Pray.”  One of the reasons I love this verse is because there are some things tucked right beneath that I think we need to hear.  One, if God needs to work things together FOR good, they are not good in and of themselves.  If he has to work it together for good, it didn’t come directly from his hand.  The things that come from His hand are good, pleasing and perfect.  Those are what come directly from God.  God is the Master Creator taking the mess that we make and somehow and some way weaving it together to say, not only do I enter in and suffer with you, but some how I’ll use this.  For every atheist that’s walked away from God saying, “I can’t believe in a God because there’s evil and suffering,” there are ten followers of Jesus who will raise their hand and say, “I can’t explain it to you, but somehow, some way that pain pushed me into his loving arms.”  I’ve heard people say to me in my office….at first, I did a double take as a young pastor, and now I’ve almost started to expect it on some level….they’ll say things like, “Cancer was the best thing that happened to me.”  And they’re not saying God gave me cancer.  They’re saying that God somehow took that sickness and that pain and twisted and turned it and what the enemy wanted to use for evil, somehow God is his creative, redemptive way used for good.  He’s at work even in our mess.

I’ll tell you what, friends, knowing that God is with us, and knowing that God is at work within this crappy situation, there’s still this ache.  There’s still something in our bones that cries out “this isn’t how it should be.”  There’s still something in our heart that longs for something more beautiful.  There’s still something in our heart that longs for the tension of the beauty and the broken to be resolved.  There’s still some sort of residue on every single soul that know we were created for something more.  I want to invite you today to not push that longing away.  Actually, reel it in.  Let it speak to you.  Let it speak a better word over your life.  Allow yourself to hope in the midst of pain.  Allow yourself to dream in the midst of the brokenness.  Allow yourself to say, “Jesus, we don’t get it. There’s something in our souls that long for so much more.”  Our ache, our longing is a holy ache, it’s a holy longing that reminds us of a holy God who created us for a good and beautiful world.  What He wants to say to us today is do not judge the story mid-way through, but behold I will make all things new.  Jesus doesn’t just suffer with us and he doesn’t just use our suffering, he suffers FOR us and ultimately IS our healing.  He is making all things new.  And this is his final word on the matter.  I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace.  In the world you will have tribulation. {It’s going to happen, because of the world, flesh, and the devil. That’s the world you live in.}  But take heart; I have overcome the world. (John 16:33)

Jesus does what every single mom in this room longs to do.  He comes up to us, brushes off our knees, puts his arm around us and says, “It’s going to be okay.”  Maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but it’s going to be okay.  And once it is, it will forever be.  I’m going to make it all new.

In closing, number one, there’s an evil out there, but there’s also evil in here.  When Jesus came, he taught, “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.”  Repent.  Because of my Spirit’s prompting, because of my Spirit’s power, you can let go of the dominion of sin and death, the reign of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and you can step out of the kingdom of darkness and into the kingdom of light.  If you have not made that decision today, friends, I invite you, just like Jesus did, “Repent.”  The kingdom of heaven is available for you today.  If you have made that decision, reaffirm your commitment to say, “Jesus, this world needs people who will live in the way of life, who will live in the way of love, who will reject the kingdom of darkness—both out there and in here, and carry your light.  Let’s be that church, friends.

Let me give you my summary on how we answer this question.  Where was God during this tragedy?  God didn’t cause it, but he also didn’t prevent it.  He entered into it.  He entered into it with nail pierced hands and a broken heart.  He entered into it pointing us to a better way—to the way of love.  And he entered into it with the whisper, “Behold, I am making ALL things new.”   Let’s pray.

Jesus, I’m just a broken man.  These questions just haunt us because there’s this beautiful residue of what you’ve created us to live in that remains, and today we want to look at that and say, Jesus, in the midst of fear, in the midst of pain, in the midst of hurt, we don’t want to solve the problem by ignoring design and your original intent.  We want to hold on to that hope, knowing that this world is both beautiful and broken.  So, Jesus, help us hold it well.  Help us know today, that regardless of where we are with all that’s gone on, that you’re present with us, that you enter in with us, that you love us in the midst of it.  That you are promising that somehow, as the Grand Weaver, you’re going to make something beautiful out of our mess.  God, please, please!  I pray that over my friends in this room who had students that were there on Tuesday.  Jesus, would you do a work in them, please.  May your peace cover their homes.  May your peace cover their children.  Will you give them back the ability to sleep and in time, would you somehow and in some way give us the ability to move forward without fear.  Please, Jesus, please.  Jesus, we look forward to that day, we long for that day, when you make all things new.   Help us hope well today.  It’s in your name we pray.  Amen.