An Absentee God

In this second-to-last part of our series, Reasons to Believe, we tackled what is perhaps the stiffest challenge to the Christian faith ever recorded: The problem of evil.  How do we who confess our belief in a God who is good account for all the evil in the world?  That’s perhaps a bigger question than we could answer over the course of a single sermon.  What we can do is talk about how to respond to those who are struggling with it personally.  That is exactly what we wrestled with in this message.  Keep reading to see what we discovered.

An Absentee God

I read a story a couple of weeks ago about a serial killer in Russia.  The man was convicted in 2015 and sentenced to life in prison for raping and murdering 22 women.  Recently he confessed to additional murders for which he had not been previously convicted.  Fifty-nine additional murders to be precise.  If you’re into math, that makes 81 people—mostly women—whom this monster raped, likely tortured, and murdered.  He was a police officer the whole time.  When he was off-duty, he would offer to give young women walking on the side of the road a lift home.  Over a span of more than twenty years, eighty-one times somebody’s daughter disappeared without any apparent trace.  Let’s just go ahead and ask the hard question: How, in a world presided over by a God whose goodness is affirmed over and over again by billions of His followers, is something like this allowed to go on for so long without recourse?

Or how about this: Up until the whole #MeToo movement exploded into existence last fall, men like Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer used their position and influence to assault and abuse dozens of women.  Dr. Larry Nassar will rightly go to prison for multiple hundreds of years because he sexually assaulted more than 260 young women.  Or maybe this: I saw a story the other day about a manhunt for a woman and her boyfriend who had tortured and killed her four-year-old son.  Or perhaps this: This past fall California was lit up by some of the worst fires to hit the state in recent memory.  I heard a story of one couple who could do nothing but jump into their swimming pool as the fires roared through their property and watched from the water as their home burned to the ground.  Then, a couple of weeks ago, badly needed rains finally began to fall.  But, instead of a gentle soaking of the ground, the torrential downpours took the fire-ravaged hillsides and set off devastating mudslides that took the lives of almost twenty people and injured many more.

Better yet, have you seen the movie The End of the Spear or otherwise heard the story of Nate Saint?  Saint and his partner, Jim Elliot, were missionaries in South America in the 1950s.  They were attempting to make what was some of the first outside-world contact with an obscure Amazonian tribe known to be hostile toward outsiders and even cannibalistic.  After dropping several baskets of goodies into a clearing near the tribe’s home, the missionaries finally landed their plane and made contact.  At first, it seemed like everything was going great.  But when they came back the next day, they were greeted with a war party that speared them to death before they had a chance to even know what was happening.

Perhaps we can understand something evil happening to someone who is evil.  Bad things happen to bad people, right?  But, how are we supposed to reconcile awful things happening to people who haven’t done anything apparently wrong?  Worse yet, what are we supposed to do with something like what happened to Nate Saint and Jim Elliot?  They were actively serving God; trying to advance His kingdom.  Why wouldn’t He protect them from something like what happened to them?  An even harder question is this: Why couldn’t He protect them?  What do we do with the times when it seems God is either impotent or apathetic?  How shall we handle the obvious evil in the world if our God is as good as so many of us claim He is?

Well, this morning finds us in the second-to-last part of our series, Reasons to Believe.  We have spent four of the previous five weeks looking at various common objections to the Christian faith in order to see if by looking at them in a bit more detail than we perhaps normally would these reasons not to believe can be turned on their head and instead give us good reasons to believe.  We started out by establishing a foundation of truth.  Contrary to the claims of our culture, truth is something that can be known and we are not arrogant to claim that we do.  Truth can be known because truth is first and foremost a person.  It is the person of Jesus Christ.  Once we know Him, we can use that lens to better understand everything about how the world around us works.  In the second week we made the case that our primary source for knowing the truth—the Scriptures—can be trusted as reliable in their message.

From there we tackled the difficult doctrine of Hell.  The idea that anyone could be left to spend eternity agonizingly separated from God is a tough one to swallow.  But, the tough truth is that simply giving everyone a free pass to heaven would be not only unjust, but in fact unloving of God.  Hell is hard, yes, but it’s also a testament to God’s character of love and justice.  Finally, last week, we turned to a more external objection: the supposed dark past of the church.  What we discovered is that while we haven’t always done everything right, the church has done way more good than harm over the course of the past 2,000 years, and we are still following in that pattern today.

In this penultimate installment, I have saved the toughest for last.  This morning we are going to tackle what is perhaps the single most difficult objection to the Christian faith that has ever been registered: The problem of evil.  It is so difficult because it is not one for which there are any easy answers.  Hear that well.  I’m telling you out of the gate this morning that by the time we finish this conversation in a few minutes I will very likely have not answered this question in a way that totally satisfies you or anyone else who happens to be asking it.  And this just points to what makes this area of objection so difficult for us to overcome: It’s personal.  Everyone has their own story of experiencing the world’s evil, and none of those stories is general.  When you get hurt, it’s you who’s hurt, not someone else.

Another reason this objection is so difficult to overcome is that is strikes right at the character of God; and not peripheral characteristics either.  Consider a somewhat formal statement of the logical problem of evil: If God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving, then He should know how, be able, and want to put a stop to all the evil in the world.  Because there is still evil in the world, then God is either not all-knowing, not all-powerful, or not all-loving.  Well think about it: If God isn’t any of those things, then the person to whom we have given our lives as followers of Jesus is not at all who we thought He was.  The guy we profess to follow doesn’t even exist.  And the God who apparently does exist—if indeed He does exist—isn’t worth following at all.  How do we deal with this?  How do we respond to this?  How could something like the problem of evil when examined more closely possibly give us a reason to believe?

Let’s see what we can figure out together.  Part of the thorniness of the problem of evil is that it exists in two different forms.  There is the logical problem of evil, and there is the personal problem of evil.  The logical problem of evil simply examines why there is generic evil in the world.  It is expressed in propositions and formalized constructions which used to be thought to indisputably show that it is not logically sound for Christians to claim to follow a God who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving as long as there is evil in the world.  Today, though, it really isn’t considered a problem at all.  The reason for this is that the logical statement of the problem which I read to you just a minute ago rests on the idea that God couldn’t possibly have any morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil to exist.  Think about that: In order for it to work, you have to be able to prove that God could not possibly have even a single, morally sufficient reason for allowing the existence of evil in His purportedly good world.  If there is even one good reason, then the whole philosophical objection falls apart.  And, a great, Christian philosopher named, Alvin Plantinga, has proposed a reason that most philosophers whether Christian or secular consider sufficient to render the logical problem solved.

So…does this solve the problem?  Not even close.  You see, while the logical problem of evil can be (and indeed has been) responded to with good arguments and sound logic, the personal problem of evil is not nearly so easily dispatched.  The personal problem of evil takes things a step further than the logical problem and asks why there is specific evil in the world.  Specifically, why is there evil in the world that has happened to me or to someone I love or to some group of people who otherwise seem totally innocent of any crimes that would warrant this awful thing happening to them?  When I have experienced something evil, I don’t want to know generally why evil happens.  I want to know why evil has happened to me.  I don’t want to know why God might possibly have morally sufficient reasons to permit the existence of evil in His world generally, I want to know why He permitted it to happen to me.

When thinking about how to respond to the problem of evil, then, knowing the logical response is important.  But more important, I think, is being able to respond personally and pastorally to someone who is hurting themselves or else struggling mightily with the hurt of others.  I want to spend the rest of our time together this morning looking at just how to do that.

The first level of response we might call triage.  This is for those folks who are so overcome by their experience of the evil in the world that they are seriously considering abandoning their faith in God altogether.  For these folks we need to remind them that without God and His character providing us an objective standard for determining what’s good and what’s evil, we wouldn’t even recognize evil as such.  To put that another way, without God, we wouldn’t be able to call evil, evil at all.  The reason for this is simple: Without God we wouldn’t have any objective basis for evaluating the moral merits of anything.  Morality itself would be an entirely subjective affair, dependent upon a million different contingencies for which we could not possibly account sufficiently.  Moral expectations would shift from culture to culture, and even then, the moral expectations of one culture, or even one person, could not be pronounced as superior in any way to those of another culture.  They may be the custom there, but something else could easily have developed and then that would be the custom.  Absent God, all morality becomes little more than an exercise in relativity.

What this means is that the person struggling with the existence of evil and what impact that has on the existence of the good God they are reaching out to almost by instinct can take great comfort and courage in the fact that if He did not exist, they would not be struggling with these things at all.  The very fact of our personal struggle with this challenge points insistently to the existence of the one who can help us through it.  In other words, just because there is evil in the world, does not at all mean God doesn’t exist.  The truth is that it means just the opposite.  Our awareness of the evil means there is a God who is good and whose goodness helps us see the evil and recognize it as such.

This brings us to a second level of response.  This goes beyond triage to the point of beginning to treat the wounds caused by evil.  You see, even when someone does not abandon their belief in God altogether because of an experience with the evil of the world, she may be sorely tempted to take up a distorted picture of His character.  He may be willing to accept the skeptical charge that the God of the Bible is not who we have claimed Him to be.  He may exist, but He is not all good.  To folks in this kind of a place, we offer the reassurance that God’s goodness is not at all impacted by the presence of evil in this world.

But, we don’t merely offer reassurance, we also offer examples and evidence.  Consider: As a parent, have you ever allowed your kids to experience something you knew was likely to hurt them, but you allowed them to face it anyway because the experience was going to accomplish more good in them than the hurt would damage?  God is a good, good Father, as the Chris Tomlin song goes.  He hates it when we hurt just like you hate it when your kids hurt.  But, He is more committed to our righteousness (that is, to our being in a right relationship with Him and with other people) than He is to our having a pain-free life.  He would rather see us broken, but firmly committed to Him, than apparently whole and walking around without an apparent care in the world.  The reason should be obvious for anyone who has spent any amount of time in the Scriptures.  God can fix us when we’re broken.  Better yet, He can make our broken beautiful.  But if we’re separated from Him?  All the good feelings in the world can’t mend the wound sin is causing in our hearts apart from His direct intervention.

The writer of Hebrews makes this point explicit.  Listen to what he said in Hebrews 12:3: “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.  In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.  [Do you catch that, by the way?  Most of the time when we are hurt it is because of sin in the world and our embrace of it.  More to the point: It’s not due to our refusal to do so.  Jesus’ hurt was.]  And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons [and daughters]?  ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him.  For the Lord disciplines the one he loves; and chastises every son whom he receives.’  It is for discipline that you have to endure.  God is treating you as sons [and daughters].  For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?  If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons [and daughters].  Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them.  Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live?  For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.  For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

Now, part of the challenge of these words is that we are programmed to think of discipline primarily in terms of punishment.  But this is not the discipline of punishment the writer is talking about here, but rather the discipline of training.  It is like what an elite athlete subjects herself to in order to achieve the pinnacle of her craft.  The Winter Olympics started this past Thursday.  The athletes you will watch compete for the next 10 days have disciplined themselves relentlessly, often painfully, to reach the level of excellence they have achieved.  They may make it look easy, but you know as well as I do that it is not.

Or perhaps to you a more personal example.  I am not what you would call “in shape.”  I could make lots of excuses for it, but the simple truth is that I don’t exercise like I should.  The other night in an effort to convince the boys to eat their green beans I told them I would do five pushups for each bean they ate.  The total reached 90.  I can’t do 90 pushups at once.  I did 20 and had to stop…and then I hurt for three days.  Doing pushups every day would probably be really good for me.  But in order to be able to enjoy the benefits of that I’m going to have to get through the pain.  God wants us to enjoy the fruits of righteousness.  Because of the effects of sin in our spiritual bodies, though, in order to get to the point of enjoying such fruits we have to first get through the pain of discipline.  In this sense, any brushes with evil in this world we face can be considered our loving heavenly Father giving us the opportunity to do some spiritual pushups.  If we follow my bad fitness example of doing the first 20 and quitting, we’ll never get there.  And our good Father doesn’t want to see that happen.  So He gives us more opportunities.

Well, more opportunities to grow in righteousness very likely means more brushes with the world’s evil…and more pain.  And at this point a critic might charge us with not really answering the objection at all, but instead offering merely a shift in perspective.  To this charge, we can honestly say, “Yeah, you’re right.”  But then, most of life is about the perspective we bring to it.  The filters we use to see the world can easily become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.  In this case, if we pessimistically search out a diminished deity who is somehow insufficient to the challenge of evil in the world we will find him.  And he will be every bit as unworthy of our worship as we think him to be.  But that’s not the God who is revealed in the pages of Scripture and to whom many millions of people have given their lives precisely because of the hard they have faced in this life.  God is good even in the hard.

This brings us finally to the third response to the personal problem of evil: We can be honest about the hard.  You see, far too many worldviews try and deal with the existence of evil in the world by trying to deny it or euphemize it away.  Hinduism and Buddhism both respond to evil by announcing it is really all an illusion.  Islam with its truncated view of sin argues that whatever Allah does is good and you just need to get over yourself and take what he gives.  Judaism takes some important steps in the right direction, but absent a Messiah cannot ultimately bring the hope of a final answer to evil to the table.  Materialism in its various forms cannot even meaningfully call evil what it is.  But as Christians, as followers of the God revealed in the pages of the Scriptures, we can look evil in the face and boldly identify it as such.  We can be honest about evil.  We can be honest about the hard.  We can do this because it doesn’t present any threat to the character or identity of our God.  This is the case, because He’s already told us what He plans to do about it.  Not only has He told us His plans, but He’s already set them in motion.

They started with a cross, and a Savior hanging on it, crying out in anguish to proclaim against the evil that was actively taking His life.  Do you remember His cry?  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Often times when a rabbi in the first century wanted to make reference to a long passage of Scripture over the course of his teaching without taking time to quote the whole thing, he would recite only the first line.  The audience would know he intended to cite the whole thing and use the full passage as a kind of interpretive lens for the rest of what he had to say.  I think there’s a good case to be made that’s what Jesus was doing here.  This becomes all the more true when you look at the fuller text of Psalm 22 from which Jesus’ cry comes.

In these powerful words, David wrestles with something evil that has happened to him.  In the midst of his hard he cries out with gut-wrenching honesty: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groanings?  O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.”  He goes on from there to cry out with many more words of pain that were prophetic in their form.  He speaks of being mocked by people watching his misfortune unfold.  He tells of bones coming out of joint; of a dry tongue; of pierced hands and feet; and even of his clothes being divided by the casting of lots.

In the broken shambles of his life, though, David remembers something.  As he was crying out in honesty about the hard, his pursuit of truth led him to declare something else as well.  He declared the truth of God’s character.  Look at v. 3: “Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.  In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.  To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame.”  When we are staring evil in the face, if we approach it with anything other than a commitment to total honesty, we will be overwhelmed by it.  All evil stems from the lie that God is not Lord.  We cannot fight a lie with anything but the truth.  But when we pursue the truth, we must pursue the whole truth.  And the whole truth is that the God by whom we may feel abandoned in the moment has been there for His people in the past in the midst of their hard.  Better yet, He’s been there for us in the midst of our hard situations of the past.  In fact, a bit of reflection usually reveals fairly quickly how He was there even when we didn’t notice Him.  And if He was faithful then, He will be faithful now.  He is still good even in this.  The world may be broken, but God is still good.

As hard as it is to embrace in the moment, the best way to respond to the personal problem of evil is to reaffirm our commitment to the God who is good.  The world may be broken, but God is still good.  When we face that brokenness, if we will remind ourselves of His faithfulness and goodness in the past, we can have confidence in His faithfulness and goodness in the present.  Even more, we can leave a legacy of faithfulness that our children and others will follow in the future when they are facing their own hard.  This is where David landed.  Listen to the last two verses: “Posterity shall serve him; it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation; they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it.”  We can even be part of the positive, belief-affirming response to the problem of evil for someone else.  Indeed, that’s what Jesus most powerfully became.  He experienced the full weight of the world’s evil on the cross to the point that it took His life.  And yet three days later, He came walking back out of that tomb, forever cementing the path from the world’s brokenness to God’s goodness for those who care to walk it.

And when we walk it, there’s no telling just how much of God’s goodness we will find along the way.  Remember Nate Saint and Jim Elliot.  We could think their deaths were simply a waste.  But they weren’t.  Their families came back to the tribe who murdered them with the grace and forgiveness of the God who had forgiven their own sins.  Eventually, most of the tribe became followers of Jesus because of their witness.  There’s even more.  Years later, Nate’s son, Steve, became a missionary pilot like his dad.  One day he found himself in Africa, needing a ride to the next village to catch a plane.  The locals pointed him to the house of a nearby pastor.  Steve asked about how the man had become a pastor.  He shared of a time growing up when he was caught stealing food from the local missionary’s garden.  Rather than punishing him, the missionary invited him to help in the garden.  Eventually he taught the boy to read.  One of the books the boy read told the stories of brave missionaries from around the world.  One of these stories was about two friends who were attempting to make contact with an obscure jungle tribe in the Amazon, but were murdered by the tribesmen in the process.  If those two men could show such courage in the face of danger because of their unwavering belief in the goodness of God, then this man too would become a pastor dedicated to advancing the Gospel message no matter what obstacles lay in his path.  Are you with me?  God was accomplishing good through this evil thing that happened to Steve’s dad decades later all the way on the other side of the world.  There’s literally no telling how far the ripples of their faithfulness in the face of the world’s evil have spread.  The world may be broken, but God is still good.

What we can offer both the world and ourselves when the problem of evil has risen up to smack us in the face is not primarily an answer.  I told you this message wouldn’t give you that.  Rather, what we can offer that no other worldview can is hope.  The next time you encounter a friend struggling with his faith after a brush with evil, instead of offering explanations for why evil doesn’t pose any logical challenge to God’s existence just as the Scriptures describe (although you should be ready with that if it is desired), try something like this on for size instead: “I’m sorry you’re hurting.  I don’t have any good or easy answers for why God might possibly have allowed this to happen.  But, I will walk with you, and I can tell you from my own experience and from the Scriptures that God’s not going anywhere either.  His heart is just as broken as yours is and He is absolutely committed to making good out of all this bad when the time is right.  He can do that in ways that will surprise you even to the point of accomplishing good through the bad that might have otherwise not been possible.  We know this chiefly because He let Jesus die in order that His resurrection might open the doors to eternal life and good to all who would receive it.  I hope you will.”  Indeed, I hope you will.  The world may be broken, but God is still good.  This is one particularly powerful reason to believe.

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