Suffering and Evil: What should Christians do with it?

This past week, if you’ve even been remotely connected to the news or social media, you’ve heard about the tremendous act of evil that took place at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E) Church. A young white man, 21 years of age, walks into the church during a Bible study and prayer meeting, feigning participation, only later revealing a weapon and proceeding to slaughter nine people—six women and three men. Now this incident raises all sorts of concerns. What does this mean about race relations in America? Should we do something about guns? What about carry permits? However, since this happened in a house of worship, this raises what I believe to be the most important question: Why did this happen? There is a Biblical answer, though it is probably not what many people expect, or even like.1

It is no mystery—unless of course you are a prosperity preacher—that Christians are by no means excluded from the suffering and misery of this fallen world. Of course, we have something that the rest of mankind does not have: the hope of a future in glory. Though this does inform our perspective, it does not, however, dismiss the reality of suffering and the very real pain it causes. So, what do we as Christians do with it? Do we blame the devil? Do we blame God? After all, unless you are an Open Theist (a view that is becoming quite common, even in “evangelicalism” today), God is omnipresent and particularly omniscient and omnipotent. If he is truly everywhere and truly knows all things infallibly and truly possess all power and might as to put an end to evil forever, why wouldn’t we blame God? On earth, if someone is ignorantly walking toward their doom—say, for the sake of argument, the edge of a mile-high cliff—and you had knowledge of the impending incident as well as the time and power to stop it, yet you remain silent and still, allowing the person to fall to their subsequent death, the blame would rightly be placed on you; you knew about it and could have easily stopped it! Why don’t we do this with God when terrible things happen (like the massacring of nine of his children by a deranged, racist maniac)? We don’t because, of course, that would be wrong—indeed blasphemous. But, why is God excused? We have to give an answer; we cannot skate around or past this. Fortunately, Scripture gives us plenty to think about when it comes to this very issue.

As it turns out, many characters in the Bible suffered in much the same way we have and still do, many times to a greater degree. Adam and Eve suffer the loss of their son Abel. Joseph loses his family for years at the evil hands of his murderous brothers. Job loses his entire family and property at the hands of Satan. Jesus, the sinless man, loses his life at the hands of his own people. While many of these stories of suffering end well—sometimes leaving the victims in a better situation than they started—they are not there just to show us that God always comes through for his children or that the devil is a bully. Of course, these things are true and can validly be drawn from those texts. The truth, though, is that these stories of suffering have a bigger purpose. Now, many folks might turn to the book of Job when they want a good study in suffering, but that is rarely my first stop. I like to turn to the story of Joseph in Genesis, particularly the resolution of the story in 50:15-21.

If you are not familiar with the story of Joseph, I’ll give you a quick summary. Joseph was the youngest son of Jacob. He was highly favored by his father and received many gifts from him, making his brothers quite envious. On top of this, Joseph had many dreams in which he pictured himself ruling over his brothers. Enough was enough for Joseph’s brothers. They plot against him by throwing him in a pit, selling him to slave traders, dipping his beautiful coat (a gift from his father) in animal blood so that they can say a wild beast attacked him, absolving them of any blame or suspicion. Because of his brothers’ betrayal, Joseph is taken to Egypt, sold to a man named Potiphar, is accused of attempting to rape his wife, and is thrown in prison. There, Joseph is discovered to be an interpreter of dreams, for which he is summoned to interpret a series of disturbing dreams experienced by Pharaoh. Joseph is able, from Pharaoh’s dreams, predict a major famine coming to Egypt. Because of this they are able to prepare and save the nation and its people from disaster. For this, Joseph is promoted to Pharaoh’s second-in-command. Because of the famine, Joseph’s brothers are forced to come into Egypt to ask for food. Naturally, they encounter Joseph, but they do not recognize him. After a dramatic interplay between them, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. With their father, Jacob, now dead, they fear for their lives. Here is where our passage comes in:

15 When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.”  16 So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this command before he died: 17 ‘Say to Joseph, “Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.’” And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him.

18 His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.”

19 But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? 20 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. 21 So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.

—Genesis 50:15-212

Now, as I said, this story turns out well, but there are several pretty remarkable statements made by Joseph in this passage that directly related to the topic at hand. I will point them out below3:

  1. “Am I in the place of God?” First, Joseph, in his God-given wisdom, recognizes who he is not. While Joseph’s response is directly relates to his brothers’ fear of retaliation, his answer provides a good first response to evil and suffering in our lives. We are not God. When we experience suffering and respond in any way other than to say, “God is in complete control,” we are taking the place of God. When we seek to retaliate in any way, we usurp God’s rightful place as King over his creation. Now, from what I have seen in the news recently, this is exactly the response of the parishioners at Emanuel A.M.E Church in Charleston. Rather than seeking revenge, they sought forgiveness, and begged for repentance. They recognize that judgment is in the hands of God, and he will judge right (Gen. 18:25).
    • Now, this brings up an important point for us Christians. In light of Joseph’s response, is seeking justice therefore idolatry? Absolutely not! There are so many Christians right now who look at Charleston—and, for that matter, the riots in Baltimore and elsewhere—and say, “Why are they pushing so hard for justice? Leave it to God!” However, we should not make this passage say something which it does not say. This passage is not saying that all evil should simply be overlooked because God will one day take care of it. No; we are just not to take justice into our own hands out of passion. That is not our rightful place. If we look elsewhere in Scripture, though, we see that God has put governmental institutions in place to do this very thing. There is therefore nothing wrong with pursuing justice through the correct channels which God has instituted. Just vengeance is the governments job here on earth, not ours (Rom. 13:4).
  2. “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” This, to me, is the most important statement for this topic. Notice an important parallel in the wording: you meant evil…God meant…good. The exact same word is used (yes, both in English and the Hebrew) here. Notice, the text does not say, “you meant evil against me, but God turned it around it for good.” It does not say that! God had the exact same part in the brothers’ action as the brothers themselves did. Therefore, it is not correct to say that this evil happened outside of God’s control. Even more, it would be incorrect to even say that this evil happened outside of God’s very will and desire! God willed for this to happen. The difference between God and the brothers, though, is the intention. The brothers’ intention was for evil, but God’s intention was for the good of many people: “that many people should be kept alive.” Imagine what would have happened has Joseph not been enslaved in Egypt? His family would’ve perished in the famine. Now, what would that have done for the rest of the biblical narrative? Remember, Jesus came from this very family! Notice how God’s sovereignty works here: both God and the brothers were involved in the same action in the same way, yet the brothers are completely responsible for their evil and God is completely responsible for the saving of many lives. The entirety of this scenario was God’s will, including Joseph’s suffering.
    • Does this eliminate lament? If, after all, suffering and evil is willed by God for the good of his children, what right do we have as Christians to lament suffering? However, just because God, who lives outside of time and sees all of redemption as a completed action, wills the suffering of his children who live in time does not mean that our suffering is not real. Why all the philosophical jibber-jabber? What I mean is this: God, because he is eternal and does not live in time, has the accomplished redemption in view as if it were present. We, however, who live in time and therefore do not see God’s entire plan in completion, do not know when or where God is going to in finality intervene on our behalf. That is why we lament. We long for the Lord to come for us. That is why David and Jeremiah can lament without being accused of “speaking back” to God. In the case of what happened at Emanuel A.M.E. Church—and all other manifestations of depravity against our brothers and sisters—it is not wrong for us to lament.
  3. “I will provide for you and your children.” This is the result of Joseph’s reflection over the first two points, and should also be our response. Notice, Joseph’s choice to support his brothers rather than giving them vengeance does in no way negates the fact that they committed real and actual evil that caused Joseph real and actual suffering. Joseph (v. 20), his brothers (v. 15), and God (v. 20) know this fully. Joseph sees God’s purpose and chooses to act with it rather than against it.

Summary

In my estimation, we should not speak of evil as completely apart from God and completely apart from his will. Of course, it is not his desire that his children suffer and experience evil. At the same time, it is his will that he be glorified by his children becoming more conformed to the image of his Son. As in the case of Joseph, many times God ordains that this be accomplished through the means of suffering and evil. So, we shouldn’t praise God for all the pleasurable days and curse Satan for our calamities. Don’t forget, God is completely sovereign over Satan, as well (Job 1:6-12)! Even Job himself says, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10b). That is not to say that we should blame God for this evil, because, remember, God intentions are only good for his children (Rom. 8:28). But, we should also not strip God of his sovereignty by blaming all evil on Satan. God is sovereign, and everything happens only because he has willed it (Isa. 14:14 & 46:10, Ps. 33:11, Prov. 19:21). But, grasping this truth is only half the task. We must also have the God-given wisdom of Joseph. This wisdom is exactly what I have seen happening in Charleston. They have lost their family members; they cry, lament, sing, mourn, and shout out for justice. They are right to do that. However, they also recognize God’s purpose in this horrible evil and choose to act in accordance with their place as creatures, children of God.

In light of that is my last thought. What if the opposite were true? What if evil were under God’s sovereign will? What if what happened in Charleston caught God completely by surprise? What if that happened to Joseph had been out of God’s control? Well, in my estimation, evil would have no meaning. The universe would consist of two cosmic powers—good and evil—struggling over authority. That is not the picture in Scripture, though. Scripture portrays God as completely sovereign over evil; yes, he even wills it (Gen. 50:20). Contrary to what many believe, this truth does not cause me to struggle about whether I think God is good or just. Rather, it gives me great comfort because I know that God is good and just, and he is the one who is in control. That is what I believe the people of Emanuel A.M.E. Church believe. Their actions show it. It is a great witness of the wonder of our God and his goodness—even in light of evil and suffering.


Notes

  1. Disclaimer: Please understand that I realize the plethora of issues Charleston raises, especially when it comes to racial problems still very alive in America today. I will not take time to write about that specific problem here because 1) there are people out there—people I know personally and elsewhere on the web—who are far more equipped and are in a more authoritative position to address the issue of race in a much more effective way than I am, and 2) because I wish to address the broader question of evil and suffering in the Christian life. So, in speaking about suffering and evil, I in no way intend to diminish or distract from the incredibly weighty problem of race that is so tied up in this incident. I simply wish to look at one problem area—it itself being no small issue—which the incident raises. Again and in summary, please keep in mind that the racism that fueled the horrific act of terrorism and depravity in Charleston, though not the focal point of this post, is certainly taking a prominent place in my heart and mind.
  2. Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
  3. This outline was taken from a sermon I recently preached in preaching lab at my church.

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