Princeton Presbyterian Church (EPC) Sermon # 1326
Dr. Ed Pettus November 12, 2017 Deuteronomy 30:15-20
(This is an extended outline, not a verbatim transcript.)
“Why Do Bad Things Happen?”
The Problem of Evil
Why do bad things happen? Perhaps more poignantly, why do bad things happen to good people? It is the kind of question where we struggle with answers and with lack of sufficient answers. But, we are not alone. This has been an unanswered question since Genesis 2 & 3. In the garden of Eden there was this tree. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve were told they could eat of every tree in the garden. Trees full of fruit. Trees full of nuts and berries and everything they would need. But, we know how the story goes. The serpent, the devil, tells Eve that this one tree is better than all the other trees. The question is posed, “did God really say not to eat?” The temptation was great, to become like God and know the difference between good and evil. But the consequence of disobedience brought with it all the problems of evil in the world.
Evil is real. We see it everyday. We see it to extremes from time to time. We know its cruelty and senselessness. We’ve recently seen eight people killed with a rental truck in New York and 26 killed in a church by a gunman. We’ve seen in history millions killed in gas chambers or in what were called the killing fields in Cambodia. We’ve seen or heard about other evils that may not include killing – assaults of all kinds, arson, theft, political corruption, and on and on and on.
This is the problem of evil, the problem of sin, the problem of suffering. The technical term is “theodicy”. This word comes from two Greek words, one for God and one for justice. The problem of evil is often couched in the problem of a just God in an unjust world. Why do such bad things happen if God is just, good, and powerful? The problem of evil is easy to see in the world, but much more difficult to understand in relationship with God.
Some philosophers and theologians have characterized the issue this way: They say that we can say that God is powerful, God is good, and evil is real. What we cannot do is say all three with any sense of coherence. If God is powerful and evil is real, then God must not be good. If God is good and evil is real, then God must not be powerful. If God is powerful and good, then evil would not exist. One other person added to those three that “God exists” and you can’t hold all four of those statements together. However we might choose to frame it, the problem of evil brings us lots of questions about God and the world and justice and evil. Some atheists argue there is no God precisely because of this problem. Since there is so much evil in the world, and this so-called God has done nothing about it, therefore, no God.
But we would argue that we only know about evil because God is good! We would not know that evil is evil without goodness. We also confess that God has done something about evil by sending his one and only Son to die on the cross and be raised from the dead, that sin, death, and evil might be destroyed. Jesus is indeed victorious over all the problems in this world. One day we will know that redemption in its fullness, but for now we only see in part.
The Problem of Coherence
One of the problems is the problem of coherence. By that I mean trying to understand what the Bible affirms about life and what we experience in the world. Traditionally the biblical understanding of the world is that the good get blessed and the wicked get cursed. A classic example of this is from Deuteronomy 30:15-20 – 15 “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. 17 But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.”
Psalm 1 also proclaims this notion of coherence.
Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers; 2 but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. 3 He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. 4 The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. 5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; 6 for the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.
There is a blessing in obedience. There is prosperity in delighting in the Torah. The wicked will be driven away and perish. This is exactly what we would expect in a just world with a just God. But we also know that the world has also suffered the consequences of sin and evil. The Bible will occasionally cry out against the injustices of our world. It will protest the apparent incoherence between the faithful affirmation that the good get blessed and the evil get whacked.
Jeremiah 12.1 is one such protest, “Righteous are you, O Lord, when I complain to you; yet I would plead my case before you. Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive?”
Psalm 73 also shows the struggle that God’s people have had when the wicked seem to prosper and the righteous suffer. The Psalmist is envious of the arrogant, they have no pain, they prosper, they even curse heaven yet they have no troubles. Now, the Psalm does not end there, but comes to affirm that God will give them justice in the end. Perhaps that is all we can hope for is some justice in the end, beyond this life.
One of the strongest laments about evil in the world is from Psalm 44. It ends in this way, 23 Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever! 24 Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? 25 For our soul is bowed down to the dust; our belly clings to the ground. 26 Rise up; come to our help! Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!
In dealing with the problem of evil and the problem of coherence, we must remember to whom we continue to pray. The Psalms of lament and protest are still prayers to the God in whom the pray-er has faith. If evil and sin and suffering were to drive the Psalmist away from God, we would not have prayers like this. But we have them because even when the wicked prospered and the righteous suffered, God is the one who is addressed in prayer. Faith is still practiced. Prayers are still offered.
What We Cannot Say
The Westminster Confession says that God is not the author of sin. We cannot say that God is the author of sin, based on James 1.13-17 13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. 14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. 16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. 17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
1 John 1.5 5 This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.
Our Confession says… “the will of created beings and the freedom and contingency of secondary causes are established by [God]” (WCF, Chapter 3). The confession recognizes that evil is a consequence of our free will, that evil does not come from God but is a result of our sinful desire and choices.
The Westminster Confession seeks to clear up the issue of the source of evil and sin in the world. The Bible sometimes seems to muddy the waters on who is to blame! Three claims are made in various places in the Bible. God causes/allows it. We decide for it. Satan did it.
(Us) James 1, read earlier, indicates it’s our poor choices.
(satan) 1 Peter 5.8 tells us to “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”
Presbyterians have tended to lean more toward the poor choices we make in our depravity. Other traditions talk a lot about the devil made me do it. And still some think in terms of God allowing evil to happen for one reason or another or for reasons we simply cannot understand. We might consider any of these three depending on the situation. But we really don’t know for sure at any time.
What We Can Say
What we can say is that we don’t know how to solve the problem of evil. Our best biblical effort is in the book of Job and Job 38-41 basically say that we are not God. We are not privy to the creation of all things or the inner workings of all that God has done and is doing and will do.
In the end what we can say is that God is with us through the evils and suffering of this world (Matt. 28:20).
What we can say is that Jesus died on the cross to redeem us from the evil of this world (Col. 1:20).
What we can say is that there will come a day when the fullness of redemption is realized with a new heaven and new earth (Rev. 21:1).
What we can say is that Jesus suffered for us that we might be forgiven (Eph. 1:7).
What we can say is that we will continue to trust in the mysterious God of the Bible (Heb. 2:13a).
What we can say is that we, like Job, don’t know all the answers (Job 38-41).
What we can say, in not knowing all the answers, is that we walk by faith and not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7).
What we can do is weep with those who weep (Rom. 12:15).
What we can say is that we hold on to hope in the midst of suffering (Rom. 5:1-6).
What we can say is that God uses all things for His purposes (Rom. 8:28).
A Peace That Surpasses Understanding
Yes, bad things happen. Yes, we affirm God is good. We affirm God is powerful. We affirm that we don’t know all the answers. But we know that God works in our hearts to bring forth faith, hope, love, and peace even in the midst of evil and suffering.
6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. Phil. 4.6-9
In the end we want to affirm that God gives us a peace deep within our hearts that surpasses our own understanding. In the end we want to affirm that the God of peace is with us through the evils and the sufferings and the hardships of this life. God’s peace will guard our hearts and minds! That is, the Bible keeps telling us, do not fear. Do not fear because God is with us, because God will give peace, and because God is God. So we settle our lives in God’s presence, with all our questions and all our complaints, we still maintain covenant with the One who sees it all as we see in part. And we weep with those who weep as God weeps with us.
We can give thanks that God is patient even in this broken world.
God is patient to give people time to repent...but at least one generation will not get as much time. 8 But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. 9 The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. 2 Peter 3:8-9
Is all this enough for us? Is it enough to say that God is with us through injustice? Is it enough to believe that God has set the wicked on slippery places? Is it enough to know that God is patient? Is it enough to know that justice will prevail, someday? Yes it is! Because we know that God who is God. We know God’s love, God’s redemption, God’s mercy, and all that the Bible reveals and promises.
We must be prepared to bring the peace of God into the lives of those who suffer, into the lives of those who have experienced evil. We can bring that peace by weeping with those who weep and being present as God is also present. We can bring a non-anxious presence to fearful situations and to the problem of evil, sin, and suffering. There is good news in Jesus Christ and therefore help for life in this world of darkness.