O LORD, how long shall I cry for help,(Habakkuk 1:2-4)
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you ‘Violence!’
and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrongdoing
and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous—
therefore judgement comes forth perverted.
The question has plagued us throughout the ages. Those words, from the book of Habakkuk were written two and a half thousand years ago, and yet, you can imagine them being spoken – you can almost hear the words echo – any night of the week on the news, by people all over the world being interviewed at the scene of the latest tragedy – be it caused by humankind, or an ‘act of God’ that has wreaked its destruction on the local population.
Why did it happen? Why did God not intervene to stop it? Where is God now?
In the good times, of course, we’re happy to view God as creator. In the beginning, He created the heavens and the earth. We state each week that God is the maker of all ‘that is, seen and unseen… through Him all things were made.’ And though we sing it much less these days, we are happy in the knowledge that God crafted and formed all things – bright and beautiful, and all creatures – great and small. We’re also happy to see God guiding our footsteps, and intervening in our circumstances to steer us away from danger, or towards a certain path.
There are other times, though; times in which we are forced to examine this theology somewhat deeper; times when we must either place our faith to one side, or try to grasp for answers to the questions our faith prompts within us – if God is the maker of all, does that mean he made erupting-volcanoes and tsunamis and cancers? If God steers us away from dangers or towards certain paths, was he paying no attention during the Holocaust or in the current refugee crisis and the situation in Syria and the Middle East? Was he looking the other way last Sunday when Orlando was ripped apart by the most deadly homophobic attack since the Holocaust? Or on Thursday afternoon, when Jo Cox, the Labour MP for Batley & Spen was brutally murdered on a Yorkshire village street in broad daylight?
There is, as I’m sure you’re well aware, too much here to cover in a single sermon. There is too much to cover in many, many years of sermons, or lectures. There are a multitude of theories and theologies covering the subject, and, it will not surprise you to learn, few of those who propose those theories agree.
With that in mind, then, I’d like to talk about one way of thinking about these things that I hope you might find helpful. As I’ve said, it’s not the only way to view the issue; indeed, it’s not even the only way I view the issue, but it’s one I sometimes find useful, and I hope you do too.
The issue comes down to a simple question – why does an all-good, all-powerful God allow the existence of evil?
Traditionally, there are three responses: God must not be all-good, or God must not be all-powerful, or evil must have a ‘good’ purpose (and so, evil must not be ‘all’-evil).
For now, I’m going to dismiss the first one outright. There are, of course, some who believe that God is not a good God, but that is not a view compatible with Christianity. Whilst the view that God allows evil because he is, at best, amoral neatly solves the logical problem, it does not help any of us in our faith, or those for whom this is not a theoretical question, but a soul-wrenching cry born out of anguish and despair. No – I want to assure you that we can be certain of God’s goodness, for God is Love, and God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life. Whatever we may be going through, I promise you, we can hold onto the truth that our God is a good God.
Our third scenario, we can dismiss too. It is a naïve fool, unfortunately, who believes there is no such thing as evil. I’m not talking about the devil, or some malevolent supernatural force, but actions or events which cause harm or unnecessary suffering. Now, there are some situations that are part of the experience of being a living being; and so ‘death’, ‘struggle’ and ‘loss’ should not be seen as evil in and of themselves. These are all part of life, and form us in our humanity, causing us to grow and mature; there is no conflict with an all-good, all-powerful God allowing these things. It is clear, however, that there are forms of these life-experiences that are not meant to be. Murder and genocide; terrible, life-ending accidents; terminal, painful disease – I feel safe in proclaiming that these things are not part of God’s plan for his creation and should be thought of as evil.
|The scene of the Pulse Nightclub shooting. The devil probably doesn't exist, but evil does.|
It is in our second scenario, then, that we might find some answers to the question – God’s omnipotence, his all-powerfulness. Does God allow evil in his creation not because he will not prevent it, but because he cannot prevent it?
Our faith is often one of contrast. It is astounding to think that the almighty, all-powerful God takes notice, as Christ says, when a single sparrow falls to the ground. This almighty, all-powerful God, time and time again, throughout the Bible, associates himself with the weak and the powerless; with the widow and the orphan and the refugee. He states the last will be first, the first will be last, and that the meek will inherit the earth.
Our all-powerful God knows what it means to be powerless. He lived it, as a poor labourer, a subjugated Jew, living in the regime of the Roman empire. Turning the other cheek, and facing the death of a slave, oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth. He emptied himself, and humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.
This emptying of his power occurred in his incarnation. Some Christians believe it also occurred as part of the creation. In order that his creation might have life, and life to the full, God relinquished power to his creation –in the famous words of Teresa of Avila, Christ has no hands on earth now… but yours. In order for his creation, for you and I, and all things bright and beautiful, great and small, to be creatures of thought, and experimentation and creativity, and love, God decided not to control us, but to let us go, to freedom. To work with us, and through us, in partnership, rather than using us as tools.
I like the thought. It fits with the image of God as a gardener and an artist, allowing his creation to flourish and grow of its own volition. Allowing his creation the freedom to grow into becoming his companions and family, and not stagnate as automatons or dolls made out of clay. Within that freedom to grow, however, must be freedom for things to go wrong; for weeds to grow, for tsunamis to form, for cells to mutate, for human-will to turn to hatred and selfishness.
Without that freedom though, I do not believe we could attain the heights to which humanity is capable of reaching, to which humanity is called. The heights of love that people all around the world have shown in displays of unity and solidarity with the gay community in Orlando, the tireless work that Jo Cox put in during her career as an MP and, before that, a charity worker, doing what was in her power to make this a better world, not only for her constituents, but for children, refugees and victims of war around the world. That freedom has been referred to as ‘the vale of soul-making’; the vale in which we can grow morally, artistically, spiritually, into the likeness of God.
And so, I leave you with that thought – it is for freedom that Christ has set us free, and, it is for freedom for us, and for the world, that things can go wrong. Most of the time, I think that’s a price worth paying. And the times, like the low points of this week, when I don’t think that payoff is worth it, I try to remember that Christ, taking the form of a slave, thought that freedom for his creation was worth the price of death, even death on a cross.