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Why Does God Allow Evil and Suffering?

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As we watch the scenes of city of Texas and Florida submerged in the deluge of hurricanes and Mexico digging out from a ferocious earthquake (and all in the same month!), at some point we can hardly help wondering “Why?” Why does God allow events like this to occur?

This is a hard question because it has many layers, both emotional and intellectual. In order to ground our faith and to respond in a fully appropriate way, we not only need good theological reflection but also personal comfort from God and the people of God. Thus, I only offer these reflections below as a beginning of some answers to the intellectual side of our distress. A full and proper response requires bringing these questions, doubts, and pain directly to God in prayers of lament, just as God invites and teaches us to do in the psalms. And we also need to bring our questions, doubts, and pain into our relationships with one another for conversation, counsel, comfort, and encouragement.

From a theological perspective, there is no clear answer why God allows particular evil acts and events to occur in the age in which we now live. Since we are not God, we can only know God’s perspective, purposes, and actions on the basis of what he has revealed to us about himself. When we search God’s revelation, we do not find specific answers to questions like, “Why did God allow this hurricane at this time in this place?” or “Why did this disease or this accident or this terrible event happen to a particular person at a particular time and place?” 

This is why it is folly to read specific theological lessons or warnings into specific disasters. In the aftermath of nearly every major disaster, it seems that various religious leaders confidently declare that the catastrophe was divine judgment on the nation, the church, or some specific group of people, for a particular sin or offense. These attempts are spiritually presumptuous and rash because they claim knowledge of God’s will and purpose that we cannot possibly know. Prophets in the Bible were able to declare the theological meaning of disasters in some circumstances because they received revelation that provided a divine perspective and interpretation. But today we have no such revelation about particular evils; rather, we have God’s final and ultimate word to us in the person of Jesus Christ, who reveals God’s intent and power to overcome evil and rid his creation of evil and its cursed effects. In light of God’s ultimate word in Jesus, we face events of great suffering with humility about our limits in knowing their meaning but also with confidence in what God has revealed to us.

God’s revelation does give us some general truths to help us understand some aspects of evil and suffering. We know that some suffering exists because human beings make terrible choices to rebel against God, and human sin has unleashed chaos, pain, and suffering into the world that compounds and multiplies in unexpected and horrible ways. Beyond the sphere of human decisions, we also know that there are demonic spiritual forces at work in our world to create chaos and distress. Moreover, in a fallen world, God sometimes chooses to use the occasion of evil and suffering as a context to bring about great good in making our desperate need for God very clear and for moving his people to care and serve in ways that display God’s self-sacrificial love and compassion with great clarity. (I am not saying that God is the direct cause of evil in a way that makes him morally culpable; rather, I am only claiming that God sometimes brings good out of evil and painful circumstances).

But none of these general truths explains every instance of kind of evil (by far), still less why God allows a particular evil to befall a particular person at a particular moment in history. We just don’t know. It seems that this is one of the major lessons of the book of Job. Job demanded an audience with God and an opportunity to pose questions about his great suffering and to lament his anguish to God, and God gave him that opportunity. In response to Job, God did not offer specific explanations. Rather, he reminded Job that there was much about the world that he did not understand, and yet he was nevertheless able to accept those limitations and continue trusting God on the basis of what he did know about God.

We need to apply the same principle in responding to the evil and suffering that we experience. God does not give us specific answers or explanations, but he does give us what we need to endure in knowing, loving, and trusting him in the midst of our suffering. God gives us three gifts to ground us:

  1. He shows us how he has dealt with evil and suffering in the past, which can comfort us by assuring us of God’s good character and power. The supreme historical events that show us God’s response to evil and suffering are Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus’ death shows us that God is not aloof or coldly distant; on the contrary, God has taken the full consequences of human evil upon himself. He has entered fully into our suffering and broken world, and he therefore can sympathize with us with complete understanding and full compassion (Hebrews 4:14-16). In addition, Jesus’ resurrection shows us that God is not conquered by evil but rather that he has the power and the set plan and purpose to conquer all that opposes his good plan for creation, even death itself.
  2. In the present, God gives us himself. He gives us the comfort and strength of his own presence, dwelling in us personally by his Holy Spirit and working in us through others in the church. If we entrust ourselves into God’s hands by trusting Jesus Christ, we have what David describes in Psalm 23: a Good Shepherd who walks with us in the midst of the valley of the shadow of death and in the midst of enemies. This is not an intellectual answer about specific evil events; rather, it is the assurance of God’s active, personal presence and relationship with us. God promises that he will truly carry us, comfort us, and strengthen us to love and serve him, even in the midst of great pain and suffering.
  3. God points us toward the future with well-grounded hope that he will bring a final judgment and end to all sin and its curse throughout the whole creation (see Isaiah 25 and Revelation 21). God will conquer evil and cleanse his whole creation from its effects and its very presence, and we know this because this future victory has already started in the historical event of Jesus’ resurrection.

I know of no other religious or philosophical worldview that can provide greater truth and better resources in understanding and responding to evil in our world. God has not given us answers to every specific question about every specific evil, but he does give us knowledge and strong personal assurance that he has entered our suffering fully, that he is personally present with us in the midst of it, and that he will one day conquer evil completely.

So what does a Christian response to evil and suffering look like? It looks like turning to God and his word for truth to remember, for prayers to cry out in lament, for promises to trust, and for the experience of knowing God’s personal presence by his Spirit. It looks like turning to one another to offer and receive patient listening, dialogue about doubt, empathy and comfort in pain, and persevering prayer that holds each other up before the Lord. It looks like joining our crucified and risen Lord in working together to push back against the effects of evil in our own lives and the lives of others.

For further reflections on a Christian response to evil and suffering, I would highly recommend The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis, Evil and the Justice of God by N. T. Wright, and Walking with God through Pain and Suffering by Tim Keller. For resources on grieving through loss and death, Invitation to Tears: A Guide to Grieving Well by Jonalyn Fincher and Aubrie Hills, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Loss by Jerry Sittser, and What Grieving People Wish You Knew about What Really Helps (and What Really Hurts) by Nancy Guthrie. (Most of these books are available to examine at the Book Central display in the Fellowship Hall.)



Posted by Mike Farley

Run the Race

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In a previous life (while pastoring a church in Williamsburg, VA) I became a high school coach for girls varsity softball.  It was quite a three year experience, with our daughter Jessie being on the team and our young son Luke serving as the team mascot.  

For our home games it was necessary to line the field before each game, a responsibility that fell to the head coach.  Just before the first game, I dutifully prepared the white spray paint machine and meticulously began my task, starting at home plate and moving to first base.  My eye was very focused on the blurred remains of the previous line and, with head bowed and hand steady, off I stepped into the world of softball-game-line-painting.  When I reached first base I proudly turned back to home plate to see my work of art, only to be shocked to painfully discover a line that must have been painted by a drunken sailor posing as a head softball coach.

For the next game, I figured there simply must be a better way and, happily, there was.  Well beyond first and third bases, in the outfield, were outfield foul polls standing about 12 feet high.  I found that if I stood at home plate with my eye focused on that poll several hundred feet away, walked slowly and not breaking my gaze from  it, that my painted line to first base was straight and true.  Play ball!

The Christian life is something like that, and God tells us in Hebrews 12:1-2 that as we live the Christian life (running the race that is set before us) we are to fix our eyes on Jesus.  What does that mean?  We will be exploring that very question in a 12 week sermon series after Easter called, "Looking Unto Jesus."  I hope you will be blessed by these messages from God's Word, and invite a friend who perhaps has not yet placed their faith in our Lord.  May Jesus be lifted up, and hearts, minds, wills, and emotions be drawn to him.

3 Questions & Answers About Spiritual Formation

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Last summer, my title changed from “Pastor of Worship and Arts” to “Pastor of Spiritual Formation.”  Since that time, some people at Central have asked me some very good questions about the meaning of my new title, and I want to share what I hope are some good answers.

The first question is this: “What does spiritual formation mean?”  This is a shorthand phrase to describe the comprehensive work of God to make us the people that he created us to become.  As our Creator, God formed the first human being (Gen. 2:7), and he formed each of us with the same exquisite care (Ps. 139:13–16).  As our Savior, God is undoing all that is de-formed in us by sin and its cursed effects; he is re-forming us by con-forming or trans-forming us into the image of the Son (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18) by the power of his Spirit, not only in our souls but ultimately in our bodies as well (Phil. 3:21).

“Spiritual formation” is the ultimate purpose for everything that we do as a church.  The goal of our church is not simply to enjoy stirring worship services or to engage one another in classes or small groups or to serve people in need in our city and around the world.  God calls us to those practices of worship, community life, and outreach because they are the means by which we know and love God and through which God transforms us into a people who bear the image of the Son of God and manifest his likeness in our character and actions with increasing maturity and glory.

God’s work in spiritual formation is a lifelong process of growth.  Jesus is not only our sacrifice and priest but also our model, teacher, and guide, and he calls us to be disciples who follow him by submitting to his wise methods of training so that we can be like him (Luke 6:40).  As Pastor of Spiritual Formation, my calling is to help our church to see the full vision of God’s transformative plan for us and to pursue that vision by all the means and methods that God provides for our training in the way, the truth, and the life of God.

A second question often follows the first: “Isn’t this what the church has often called discipleship?”  Yes, it is.  Spiritual formation is simply another term for the process of becoming a full disciple of Jesus.  It describes the life and goal to which Jesus calls his followers and students (disciples). 

And that answer leads naturally to a third: “Why would I choose the phrase “spiritual formation” for my title rather than ‘Pastor of Discipleship’”?   One reason is that the term “discipleship” has become strongly associated inside the church not simply with the overall process of spiritual formation but also with a particular means of pursuing it.  For many people, the term “discipleship” brings to mind classrooms, curriculum, and structured mentoring relationships in which older, knowledgeable Christians teach the basics of the Christian faith to people who are younger or less experienced.  While those are forms that accomplish some aspects of discipleship, the process of becoming a mature disciple of Jesus—the process of spiritual formation—involves far more than that.  Indeed, the most focused forms of spiritual formation do not occur in classes but rather in coffee shops and around dinner tables, in phone calls and emails, in service projects and daily work, and in spiritual conversations saturated in the word of God and prayer shared by close Christian friends.  The revelation of Jesus’ life and ministry in the Gospels shows us clearly that his means of grace and his methods of training and forming us go far beyond anything we can experience in a classroom, a sermon, a lecture, or a workbook.

A second reason why I prefer the phrase “spiritual formation” is that it has the potential to connect with people outside the church.  The word “discipleship” is a very churchy word; one almost never hears the words “disciple” and “discipleship” used outside Christian circles.  While those terms are fine for communication between Christians, the terms “spiritual” and “spirituality” are widely used in American culture to talk about religious beliefs, longings, and practices.  Therefore, referring to the ministry of the church as “spiritual formation” establishes a common ground for communication by using language that many people already use to label their most ultimate concerns and commitments.  One of the fastest growing categories of religious life in America is the set of people who call themselves “spiritual, but not religious.”  Thus, naming the ministry of Jesus as “spiritual formation” presents Christ as the fulfillment of our deepest questions and longings in language that is already culturally familiar.

For some additional resources for understanding spiritual formation, see Dallas Willard, “Spiritual Formation as a Natural Part of Salvation,” and his books The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God and Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ.