Friday, October 14, 2011

The Problem of Evil

Beloved, do not imitate what is evil but imitate what is good.  Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God.      --  3 John 11

This passage captures my thoughts for the day perfectly.  All good things come from God.  Not one bad thing comes from God.  The bad things that happen in our lives are either the result of our own bad choices, the bad choices someone else makes, or simply, chance.

I know, however, that not everyone sees this the same way I do.  There are many people who look at the events that impact our lives, both positive and negative, as individuals and whole groups, and say that they are ALL the result of divine intervention.  Take Isaiah, for example.  Isaiah believed that God used King Nebuchadnezzar to punish Israel for their sins.  The king of Babylon destroyed Jerusalem, brutally killed men, women, and children, and exiled the leaders of Israel -- and this was seen as an act of God, by Isaiah.  Isaiah also believed that God used King Cyrus of Persia to punish the Babylonians and rescue Israel, sending them back to Jerusalem to rebuild their nation.  As we will read in this Sundays lectionary:  "I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe;  I the Lord do all these things." (45:7)

What is the end result of this way of thinking about God?  Well, we can see in the Bible that for the ancient Jews who thought like Isaiah, it meant trying to be perfect, restricting themselves to many hundreds of laws, in an effort to earn God's continual blessing.  Only by never committing a single sin, they believed, would they be able to count on God's protection from evil.  Unfortunately, this didn't always ring true.  Over and over again, bad things kept happening -- even when the people did everything they were supposed to.  Even when they led wholly holy lives, completely devoted to God, bad things still happened.

Now, if this way of interpreting evil doesn't turn you into a self-righteous jerk, it may cause you to lose hope in God altogether.  In "Invitation to Presence," Wendy Miller, describes how Jesus used the Parable of the Sower to teach us about all the things that "[rob] us of faith, hope, and a sense of God's loving presence," one of which is hardship -- Jesus' "rocky ground" (Matt. 13:5, 20).  Ms. Miller writes, "In our anxiety and panic, we may well forget to pray, or we may see God as unfair, allowing bad things to happen to good people.  And who wants to trust in a God like that?"  (pg. 32)  Exactly!

It is also true that seeing evil events as acts of God may make you blind to evil altogether -- your own, or that of others.  If it is an act of God, it must not be bad after all, or so the logic runs.  Such has been the "logic" behind far too many evil deeds.  One story, unfamiliar to me until recently, is the story of Charles Guiteau, who assassinated President Garfield in 1881, because he felt that God had chosen him especially for this task (heard this week on NPR, The Diane Rehms Show:  "The Destiny of the Republic," by Candice Mallard).  President Garfield was a wonderful, remarkable human being.  And shock and dismay over his death united the country for a time.  Now you can say that uniting the country by killing the president was God's original plan, or you can say that bringing the country together after the horrible death of the president was God's backup plan.

I prefer the latter interpretation.  I don't believe God brings wrath upon people for their sins.  Nor does God use people to commit evil deeds.  Sometimes bad things just happen:  you are the innocent victim of a crime; a child gets cancer; a hurricane strikes your town, etc.  And sometimes, people make bad choices that naturally have negative consequences:  sin wreaks its own natural havoc in our lives; God does not need to add his wrath on top of it.    That is not to say that God plays no part in the trials of our life.   I believe God is there, always, waiting to comfort and teach us.  David's interpretation is better in my opinion:  "Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff -- they comfort me." (Ps.23:4)  When hardship falls upon us, God is there to comfort us; when we bring hardship upon ourselves, God is there to teach us.  If we let him.

God doesn't hurt people.  People hurt people.  Believing that God hurts people by design, is one way we hurt people. 

Dear God, please help me to remember this, for there are far too many temptations to think otherwise, all of which put us into sin's territory.  Love always, Pam

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