Terrorism, Mass Shootings, Rampant Poverty, Global Warming: Do You Have an Adequate Theology of Evil & Suffering?


 

             In response to yesterday’s California bloodbath and many like it, the Daily News wrote the provocative headline, ‘God isn’t fixing this’. The cover goes on to read, “As latest batch of innocent Americans are left lying in pools of blood, cowards who could truly end gun scourge continue to hide behind meaningless platitudes.” The Daily News is referring to the prayerful tweets offered to the victims and their families by GOP presidential candidates such as Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz and others.

            There is certainly something to be wrestled with concerning Christians who nonchalantly throw out platitudes in the midst of horrific acts, especially if they are negligent in their practical care toward those who are hurting. I personally don’t know whether those people the Daily News called out are guilty of having, “faith without works”. I don’t know their hearts, and I am not up-to-date as to what they have or have not done in regards to gun control. I think there is another important question that lurks in the midst of the headline, “God isn’t fixing this.’ The question: Is God really in control?

 

God Is Not in Control (at least not like we think)

            In my opinion, the sovereignty of God, as commonly mis/understood by many Christians as, “God is in control of everything,” is one of the most detrimental and devilish doctrines and deterrents to human flourishing that I know. I realize I am using rather strong language. Let me share two reasons why it is such harmful theology.

            The first potential harmful effect, is that it lulls Christians to become passive observers and siren-induced sleep-walkers. Spouting “God is in control” while Christians lackadaisically go about their day, while throwing up an occasional prayer, as greed, sexual violations, genocide, murder, oppression, poverty and other systemic injustices flourish, is theology gone wrong. We are in need of Holy-Discontented, heart-broken, Kin(g)dom minded/hearted people who hear/heed the call to radically bring Love to the world and become the literal hands and feet of God. We don’t need Christians who hide behind inaccurate theology to cover up their existential anxiety concerning both the power of free will, and the harsh reality that God is not completely running the show.

            So many times we cry out to God to move mightily in our loved one’s lives or to move mightily in the midst of catastrophes. And we say, “God, Where are You!!” And ironically, God is saying, “Where are you?” I wonder how many times the answer to our prayers for friends, neighbors, nations and loved ones is not found in a move of God alone, but in a move of God in and through us as His hands and feet.  

            The second harmful effect is that it makes God out to be a sadist, someone who causes or orchestrates others pain and suffering. Do you really think God has a gold-plated, blood-stained daily planner? I am sorry, but I can’t believe God had anything to do with women being raped, the bombing of innocent children, the Paris attacks, etc. I don’t think that is how God plans His days. God is not in control of everything. Even the common phrase “God allowed,” rubs me the wrong way. As if God is saying to himself, “Hmm, I will allow this murder to take place but not this one.” “I will allow this group to kill these people but only thirty-five of them.” “I will tweak this murderers heart, so he only kills the one on the left and rapes the woman dressed in red.” Ugh, it is just maddening. But I don’t just want to deconstruct, I want to offer some thoughts that will help us construct a theology of suffering.

            I believe we “see through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12) when it comes to truth, but when it comes to understanding the mysteries of free will, suffering, and God’s sovereignty, we have even more panes of tinted glass to peer through. Despite the complexities of these issues, I believe Christians are going to need an adequate (not perfect) “theology of suffering,” if we are going to survive the barrage of questions and accusations that arise from our hearts, and others, in the midst of senseless tragedies. I want to offer some imperfect, very brief, and tinted ponderings that I hope will help you start building your personalized theology of suffering.

            Evil, loss, and suffering are common to all people, places, regions, and socioeconomic statuses. No one can escape their effects, no matter how rich or poor they are or where on earth they live. If you don’t have an adequate way to understand them, their weight can crush you. Your theology can either deepen your suffering or bring deeper consolation during tragedies. Let’s glean a few insights from the, “The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares”.

 

The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares

            Matthew was writing to a community who was experiencing trauma. They were dealing with identity concerns, religious pluralism, infighting, the government’s abuse of power, social and economic injustice, marginalized subgroups, and many other difficult issues. Like ourselves, it too wrestled with how a great God could allow good and evil to exist simultaneously in and around the lives of believers. Jesus addressed the community’s inner ache, curiosity, and questions through His parable:

 

The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’ ‘An enemy did this,’ he replied. The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ ‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’” (Matthew 13:24-30).

 

It’s Okay to Cry Out

            Notice the honesty and congruence of the servant in verse 27: “Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?” The servant was confused about the weeds like we may be confused about innocent men, women, and children dying in horrific mass shootings. The weeds, which can be synonymous with evil or painful experiences, created confusion for the servant, just as it does for us today, causing us to suffer. It ruptures our sense of security and trust and causes a sting to our souls. It moves us to wonder what God is doing. That is a normal reaction. Even Jesus cried out in agony in Mark 15:34: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

            We cry out in protest to God because we have genuine faith. Questioning God in the aftermath of 9/11, the Paris Attacks, the California shootings, and other senseless acts of violence is not sinful. Asking God questions is a normal and holy act, precisely because we lack genuine understanding, and believe He knows the answer. I get more concerned about the people who stop questioning God and become cold and calloused toward Him.

 

The Real Origin of Evil

The Enemy

            The owner of the field knew clearly the origin of the evil weeds, for he said in verse 28, “An enemy did this.” He knew that the owner, depicted as God, was not the originator, creator, or cause of the evil that happened to him, just as God is not the originator, creator, or cause of the evil that happens to us. In fact, Thomas Long writes, “It should first be heard as the powerful good news that it is. Evil is God’s enemy. Not God’s instrument, not God’s counterpart, not something about which God is indifferent. Evil is God’s enemy, period.”

            The servants knew the character of the owner because they asked in verse 27, “Didn’t you sow good seed in your field?” God, who is portrayed as the owner, is good (all the time) and He sows only good seed. To use another metaphor, Luke 6:43 says, “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit.” It is reasonable to assume that since God, who is the ultimate, all-good Tree of Life, would not produce bad fruit. And finally, speaking in terms of water, James 3:11 says, “Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?” God only offers us “living” (John 4:10) and fresh water. There is no need to filter God’s water because it contains no impurities. He is good all the time, bears only good nutritious fruit, and is the purest and freshest water imaginable. God doesn’t cause evil.

            God isn’t working behind the scenes, orchestrating rapes, mass murders or terrorist attacks. God is not the Mastermind behind those events. The enemy is. According to 1 Peter 5:8, the enemy “prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” The enemy, the true mastermind of evil, is looking for people to manipulate to commit heinous acts, which devour not only their own lives but countless others. Some define the enemy as systems of tyranny and injustice and some define the enemy as literal demons. As much as unseen forces and systems of oppression are real, they are not the sole enemy that is guilty of the evil we see all around us.

 

 People 

            If Jesus can call the apostle Peter “Satan,” (Mark 8:33), than we can be called Satan as well. Satan can literally mean “adversary,” or one who opposes or gets in the way of what God really wants to do on the earth”. Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!”. “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”

            We need to stop blaming God or unseen forces on the horror that we see all around us. We need to be courageous enough to ask ourselves how our choices as individuals, and as a society, have contributed to the evil and suffering in the world we see all around us. The above is one of the most difficult questions to consider. It is much easier to point the finger at unseen entities, then at our selves.   

             We need to pray one of the most dangerous prayers one can pray, which is found in Psalm 139:23-24: “Search me (us), O God, and know my (our) heart; test (examine) me (us) and know my (our) anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me (us), and lead me (us) in the way everlasting”. Self-examination towards action is the key. Self-examination and meditation for its own sake, is just plain narcissism.

            The reality is that we have sin-filled crevices in our soul and because of that reality we don’t always do the things we ought to. Whether it is pockets of selfishness, pride, apathy or greed we can unwittingly contribute to systemic injustice. Behind most acts of evil, besides natural disasters, you will find not God, but human beings. We have been given the power of choice and free will, which is both beautiful and dangerous. Asking ourselves hard questions is not meant to condemn us, or make us feel shameful, but they are meant to stir us to become the change we so desperately pray for in the world.

 

God Is Good All the Time

            I tend to resonate with the owner in the parable. I lean on a theology of suffering that states God is not the master designer of evil or devastating events. I believe only good can come from God. Of course, God’s “good” can sometimes feel painful, much like a loving parent who takes his or her child to a stranger in a white coat, who then pulls out a scary drill to repair a child’s cavity, which is the result of tiny microscopic monsters called germs and bacteria. Although it can feel like a horrific and painful event, the parent only puts his or her child through this ordeal because he or she loves the child. While the above is true, I don’t believe that logic works in regards to the calculated and callous taking of life that we see every day on the news.         

           A theology of suffering must rely heavily on the goodness of God, and take seriously both the enemy working in the world, and the choices of human beings, who are prone to sin. This is why we pray Matthew 6:10: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” It doesn’t make sense to pray for God’s kingdom to come and will be done if God’s rule and reign is everywhere and His will is always done on earth. Yet, Jesus calls us to pray that way because both the enemy and humans have a will, and both can be contrary to God’s will.

 

Evil and Suffering Are Here to Stay

            Like all of us today, the servants in “The Parable of the Wheat and Tares” wondered what God was going to do about the evil that existed in the world, so they asked the owner this question in Matthew 13:28: “Do you want us to go pull them [weeds] up?” Verse 29 goes on to say, “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them.’” God doesn’t pull out all of the evil in the world at once. He has other plans.

            He may have wanted the servants to focus primarily on His goodness and His loving commands, rather than the weeds. The byproduct of doing so would inevitably root out some of the evil, keeping some of it at bay, leaving its ultimate obliteration to God, in God’s timing.

            For the time being, evil—the absence of good, or spaces and places where the kingdom of God is not yet ruling and reigning—is here to stay. And with evil comes suffering. Jesus said in John 16:33, “In this life, you will have thilipsis.” The Greek word thilipsis can mean trouble, distress, oppression, and tribulation. So even for those of us who love God, heartbreak and other tragedies will happen. It hurts, and it is unfair. But dearly beloved, God is not reveling in your pain or the evil events we see all around us. Although evil exists, and God is not the Grand Puppeteer of every detail of your life, that doesn’t mean He is idle.

 

God Has a Plan

            In verse 30, the owner of the field finally says to the servants, “Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.”

            There is hope. God has a plan. He is in control. Just not like you think.

            According to the Oxford dictionary, the word “control” can mean “the power to influence or direct people’s behavior or the course of events.” God controls human beings and the course of events, but not in the way one typically imagines. He is in control by inviting, empowering, inspiring, filling, convicting, leading, comforting, challenging, and loving us. His way demonstrates a profoundly different type of leadership and Kingship. It is contrary to the authoritarian control we might see and experience from powerful dictators like Joseph Stalin or Mao Zedong. Or the type of control a puppet master might have over his puppets. God’s Kingship respects our autonomy and sacred ability to make independent choices, while at the same time, God persistently and patiently influences us toward His vision of reality.

            God is very much alive and at work in profound and purposeful ways all around us. Our world is not an organic machine set in motion by a transcendent clock-making, doting God, who merely observes all our beautifully ugly lives from a casual distance. Rather, God is a deeply immanent and relational God who is constantly at work in the world, wooing us, calling us, and mending and bending us. As God does so, God heals us, and breaks mental glass ceilings. God is extraordinarily good and magnificently loving. God’s purposes, amidst human choices, will mysteriously and ultimately prevail, eventually leading all creation toward a “new heaven and a new earth,” where mass shootings, and the like, will become a thing of the past.

 

[1] Long, Thomas G. What Shall We Say?: Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2014, p.133.