Thursday, August 28, 2008

Evil in the World

In Adult Sunday School, we are going through some curriculum on "Living the Questions." The theme for this month is the question, "If God is all-powerful, all-loving, and all-good, how can evil exist?" There are a number of prompts for discussion in the material and I'll be responding to some of them here. I'll start with a discussion of the question itself.

I think the question starts from the wrong place. It assumes that God is in complete control of everything that happens. If this is the case, then we are simply automatons who behave in a deterministic manner. But God didn't make us that way. We were given free will and can act any way we choose. One explanation that I have heard is that God gave us free will so that He could be loved by creations who choose to, rather than being programmed to. It is far less meaningful to hear a trained parrot say "I love you" on cue, than it is to hear a person say "I love you" with joy in his eyes.

Because God gave us free will, He doesn't control absolutely everything. But this does not diminish his power, love, goodness, or presence in our lives. Because we have free will, we can choose good or evil. Adam and Eve were given the choice whether or not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Jesus was tempted by power and by the opportunity to turn away from ministry.

Evil is not a dark menace out in the world. Evil is a possibility in each one of us. Evil is an act that diminishes us as individuals or diminishes humanity as a whole. By using this definition, evil can be both small and big. It can be the resentment that we harbor against a fellow driver. It can be the atrocities committed by a warlord. The challenge for us as humans is to confront evil possibilities in the minutiae of daily life and turn away from it.


Why is there suffering in the world? And where is God during suffering?

To build on what I have written above, there is suffering because an individual makes a choice to act in a manner that diminishes themselves, others, or the collective. God is present in the world, as He always is. We can turn to him for strength or we can turn away in anger. Author and Auschwitz survivor, Elie Weisel, was angry at good for a long time after World War II. But in order to be angry at God, one must a) believe that He exists and b) have a relationship with him. I am reminded of the poem Footprints in the Sand in which the protagonist sees her/his life flash before him as a series of footprints in the sand along the shore. The protagonist notices that most of the time there are two sets of footprints, but during difficult times, there is only one set. She/he confronts God about this disparity, and He replies:

The Lord replied, "My precious, precious child,
I love you and I would never, never leave you
during your times of trial and suffering.
"When you saw only one set of footprints,
it was then that I carried you."

If God is present in the world, does He intervene and take direct action? Sometimes. We really like it when God's actions are undeniable and obvious. For example, Moses and the burning bush, Joshua and the walls of Jericho, and Noah. But it's not always the way we think He does or should. For example, the maltreatment of Job. A friend suggested the idea of "severe mercy." God's mercy can sometimes be severe in the sense that He can use negative events in our lives to bring us closer to Him. I'm a bit uncomfortable with this idea, but it does make one wonder. Sometimes bad things just happen. Sometimes bad things are part of God's plan. It's hard to know.

Does Satan get a bum rap?

Definitely. Satan is a personification of evil and distracts us from the insidiousness of the evil within. It suggests that we look outward for the cause of evil (and the solutions to it). It suggests that Satan is out there in the world and leads to counterproductive ideas like demonic possession and devil worshiping. These phenomena can be explained through much simpler mechanisms, such as our own human foibles.

Satan as a personification of evil is an oversimplification. It's an attempt to explain the world in black and white terms, with God on the side of good and Satan on the side of evil. Things are actually much more complex. There are shades of gray and marginally better or worse choices. The personification turns Satan into a fetish, like a monkey wrench thrown into the great order of things. This concept is misleading, because it causes us to not look for the evil in ourselves.

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