Saturday, September 5, 2009

Reflection: The Problem of Evil

I must start and continue with honesty: I have little, if any, right to express my thoughts on the topic of evil and suffering, for truly the words of the Psalmist describe me well.

LORD, you have assigned me my portion and my cup;
you have made my lot secure.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
surely I have a delightful inheritance (Ps 16:5-6, NIV).

No great evil has ever befallen me and I have suffered only such losses as are the common, human lot. My family is whole and well. My employment is satisfying and as secure as is humanly possible. I am blessed beyond all reasonable expectations.

And yet the problem of evil and suffering will not go away and periodically demands our attention. My hometown is currently in the grips of great evil and suffering. In January 2007 a young couple was car-jacked, tortured, and brutally murdered here; the details of the savagery are almost beyond my comprehension. For two years community angst and anger have quietly smoldered. Now, the trials have begun and the rage – especially of the couple’s parents – is writ large in the newspapers and graphically portrayed in television news coverage. The first defendant recently was convicted of almost every felony on the law books in our state and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. This was not enough to satisfy the parents, however, who want the perpetrators not only executed but tortured as they tortured: eye for eye, tooth for tooth. I cannot understand the depth of these parents’ loss, the full measure of their hatred. I pray God I never will. What I can do to help them, I will do. I will pray for them: O God, make speed to save them; O Lord, make haste to help them.

So evil has come unbidden to our community – and to world and to our lives – and must be addressed. For this reason only – and not because I have particular wisdom on this or any topic– I will offer some reflections, praying that I reflect the faith of the Church.

Theodicy is the name of the dilemma evil poses the Christian: If God is both all-powerful and all-good/all-loving, then why does he allow evil and suffering to continue in the world? To this question I have no answer. Scripture, at most, only offers hints of possible answers, but offers us nothing concrete. Perhaps that is just as well, for Why? is not really the question we wish to ask at all. If the parents of the murder victims could in one instant perceive God’s grand design in which the question of evil is finally resolved, if they could understand the redemptive plan in which the persistence of evil plays its part, even then in their pain they would still cry out, Why? This is not a cry for explanation, but a cry of human anguish. If the parents of the murder victims could in one instant perceive that in some now unfathomable way ripples of grace would flow outward from that horrendous event and work for cosmic good, the price of their sorrow would still be too high. No explanation of evil and suffering is given – at least in part – because no explanation is sufficient. We do not want to understand the pain; we simply want it to stop. But stop, it doesn’t.

This, then, is the way our human dilemma is usually portrayed. We have been told in our faith that God is all powerful which means he could, I suppose, spare his creature from great suffering and we have been told that God is all-good/all-loving which means he should, most certainly, spare his creatures from great suffering. And yet this is clearly not the way God acts toward us.

Perhaps our confusion lies not so much in God’s behavior as in our statement of the problem. Perhaps we are asking the wrong question. Instead of asking why God allows evil to persist – which I think is without human answer – perhaps we should ask what God is doing to resolve the problem of evil, both within the human heart and in the world. That question has a clear answer and the answer is Jesus.

However you choose to understand the biblical stories of creation and fall, they tell of a world made good and very good and then ruined by sin, by the thoughts and actions of human beings. And this means, quite simply, that evil is not simply outside us and exerted on us, but also inside us and exerted by us. Why is there evil in the world? we ask. Because we are in the world, the stories answer. It is not possible to resolve the problem of evil without resolving the problem of man – which is precisely what God has done and is doing in and through Jesus.

The process of resolving the problem of evil in man is long and complicated. Why would we expect it to be otherwise? The process runs through a people, the descendants of Abraham, and through a nation, Israel. It runs through slavery and freedom, through Law and Prophets, through exile and deliverance. Through it all, God uses a people – who are themselves part of the problem – to resolve the problem, until ultimately God uses a Person, Jesus, who is not part of the problem, but is himself the solution. All the long process of millennia culminates in Jesus: God incarnate, fully God and fully man. Jesus resolves the problem of evil in the world by resolving the problem of sin in man, by uniting his divinity with our humanity, by accepting our sin, and by suffering the evil of the world to destroy sin and to defeat evil and the power of the evil one. However you choose to understand the cross – and Scripture uses many metaphors – it is God’s answer to sin in man and to evil in the world. In his death, Jesus put to death sin. In his acceptance of the evil done to him – rejection and crucifixion – Jesus destroyed the power of evil.

Of course, when confronted with the evil still among and within us, it is difficult sometimes to see exactly what the cross accomplished. God is the Alpha and the Omega – the A and the Z, the beginning and the end – but we live somewhere around L or M, somewhere in the middle. And while sin and evil have been defeated by Jesus, they have not yet been abolished. How then do we live in this middle time? There is but one path forward, through, and out of our problem: to walk the path of salvation blazed by Jesus and offered by the church – a path which confronts evil within and without, accepts suffering, commits one’s spirit to God, dies to sin, and is born again through water and word and Spirit, in newness and holiness of life. In the midst of evil and sin – and the very real pain and suffering they cause – we hold fast to the faith which proclaims that God is even now putting the world to rights through our Lord Jesus Christ and we look forward in faith to that day when all will be fully restored, when no evil will persist, when no sin will defile, when no tears will fall, when we will live forever with our God. In the midst of evil and sin – and the very real pain and suffering they cause – we strive to put on the whole armor of God that we “may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:11-12, NKJV). In the midst of evil and sin – and the very real pain and suffering they cause – we hold fast to the promise that Christ has overcome the world and that greater is he within us than he that is in the world.

And we pray. Pray for one another – as God’s beloved – that we may not fall into sin nor be overcome by adversity. Pray for those who suffer as the victims of evil and – with great difficulty – pray for those who suffer as the perpetrators of evil, for these, too, are God’s beloved. And pray for me, chief among sinners, as I pray for you.

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