Every day for weeks we have been bombarded with horror stories. Orlando and then various cities in the USA, Baghdad, Syria (of course), then Nice – a place where Ivy has mission partners that I have visited so it feels a lot closer to home. It really wasn’t that long since Zoe and I sat on the Promenade des Anglais, looking out at the sea and praying together. A beautiful place – and then irrational, unfathomable evil is unleashed and the innocent suffer again.
How are we supposed to deal with it?
And whether you believe in God or hate the idea of God, you have to deal with it. Sociologist Peter Berger said we all have to come up with a solution to this for ourselves in some way, or we’ll find the world unbearable. We’ll crack up. That’s one reason the world is so hopeless and fearful right now. People are still trying to figure it all out, and they can’t…
Last night at Ivy I addressed the issues in a talk entitled How can God be good, when the world is so bad? It will be available as a podcast later in the week, but here’s an excerpt:
When my kids were small, in 1996 – the Dunblane Massacre took place. An evil man called Thomas Hamilton, shot and killed 16 children and a teacher with two Brownings and two Magnums, then he killed himself. I was new to ministry and due to speak that Sunday. The nation was shocked, and to just carry on as if nothing had happened and not at least try to address the pain and the questions people felt seemed to me impossible.
Dunblane exuded something of the same kind of unbelievable senseless hatred against innocents, and a massive outcry of public grief. The only positive one can salvage from it that I thank God for is that here in the UK we live in a country where we were sensible enough to back governmental change which led to enforcing strict gun laws as a result of school shootings like that, rather than just wringing our hands, holding days of mourning, or buying more guns.
I was in charge of the church. I was new to all this. I was supposed to preach that Sunday about a God who is good. But I knew from ten years in the Police that the world is often so very, very bad. How do I make sense of this?!
The next day I was just reading through my daily Bible readings… and I came to Matthew 13. (This is why it’s good to read your Bible every day not just inform your life by the internet or the newspaper). I found in that crisis moment words from the One who made it all good in the first place then came back to die to save it when it all went bad, a parable of Jesus.
A parable, because sometimes a story, picture, explains better. Not a philosophical argument, not an attempt to defend the existence or goodness of God. A story and a metaphor that helps me, especially with the issue of moral evil , though the problem of natural evil can also be addressed by it because you can imagine from this what happens to a planet when what happens in it goes bad.
Jesus tells us a, ‘it’s kind of like this’ example, and he says there’s a mystery to it, as well. He says the disciples might get this, but not everyone will. I wonder if you will?
You know Jesus lived in an agrarian society, so he speaks their language and takes us to the farm to tell us a story about the world. What’s wrong with it. How that wrongness happened. And what’s going to happen to put it right one day…
Matthew 13:24-30 He told another story. “God’s kingdom is like a farmer who planted good seed in his field. That night, while his hired men were asleep, his enemy sowed thistles all through the wheat and slipped away before dawn.
(Now when Jesus talks about weeds here, he’s not talking about nice little dandelions. He’s talking about poisonous darnel. It looks a lot like wheat, but if you give this to your family it would make them sick. If it gets mixed in with the wheat, that flour will be ruined. The whole crop’s in danger here… because of this nefarious act of deliberate sabotage).
When the first green shoots appeared and the grain began to form, the thistles showed up, too. The farmhands came to the farmer and said, ‘Master, that was clean seed you planted, wasn’t it? Where did these thistles come from?’ “He answered, ‘An enemy did this.’
The farmhands asked, ‘Should we weed out the thistles?’
He said, ‘No, if you weed the thistles, you’ll pull up the wheat, too. Let them grow together until harvest time. Then I’ll instruct the harvesters to pull up the thistles and tie them in bundles for the fire, then gather the wheat and put it in the barn.’”
Unlike so many of the other parables, we don’t have to try to work out what this means, or who anyone is in the story, or our part, because the disciples had questions just like you and me. So they went and asked him. So he tells us…
36-43 His disciples came in and said, “Explain to us that story of the thistles in the field.”
So he explained. “The farmer who sows the pure seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, the pure seeds are subjects of the kingdom, the thistles are subjects of the Devil, and the enemy who sows them is the Devil. The harvest is the end of the age, the curtain of history. The harvest hands are angels.
The picture of thistles pulled up and burned is a scene from the final act. The Son of Man will send his angels, weed out the thistles from his kingdom, pitch them in the trash, and be done with them. They are going to complain to high heaven, but nobody is going to listen. At the same time, ripe, holy lives will mature and adorn the kingdom of their Father. Are you listening to this? Really listening?”
Now some people have misinterpreted this and I don’t know how because it’s very plain. Some have said this is about the church having some true believers and false believers in. That’s just wrong because Jesus says what the field is. What’s the field?
The WORLD. This big rock, titled at precisely 66 degrees. Made just the right size for an atmosphere to exist, located just the right distance from the Sun for life to exist so we don’t either freeze or frazzle, rotating at 67,000 mph but we don’t feel dizzy, with a moon the perfect distance away to create tides for the oceans not to stagnate, or spill over onto the continents. God made the world, and there’s one field.
But there are TWO sowers. This is what we have to grab hold of.
One sower sows good seed. The other sows weeds. (Darnel, tares which looks like wheat all the time it’s growing alongside it)
The servants wonder. Like you and me – “What the heck happened? How can this happen?!”
An enemy did this.
An enemy did this.
An enemy did this.
At that moment when I was trying to make sense of the kind of a world where a man could shoot children, and at various times since when I have been met at home with terrible pastoral disasters, or opened my paper and read of national emergencies, international conflicts, I have heard those four words whispered into my spirit by way of explanation.
If you have a Phd in Theodicy and you know all about Augustine vs Ireneaus and this just sounds simplistic to you, fine – but I’ll trade Jesus’ simple answer for your complicated explanation any day of the week. The field is messed up, an enemy did it.
Who’s the farmer sowing the good seed? ‘The Son of Man.’ Not just GOD generally, Jesus SPECIFICALLY. He’s saying ‘This is what I’m here for, this is what I have come to do. From the day the universe was created, Jesus is good and is doing good and his field is the world we live on.
What’s the seed? (Sometimes in the Bible the seed is the Word of God itself, the Bible, the gospel. What is it here?) .
It’s YOU and ME, if you say you’re a Christ follower today, if you’ve bowed your knee and submitted to Jesus and asked him to be your Kind then you’re a ‘subject of the King’ and his kingdom.
But not everyone is. Some people are not wheat, they are weeds.
We’re nicer than Jesus. We don’t like to think anyone’s bad. Someone has to be really bad and do something really bad like drive at people deliberately in our culture before we’d ever get comfortable giving them the label Jesus does here.. ‘those who belong to the evil one.’ Or ‘subjects of the evil one.’
How do you deal with a world that at times is so good, but can also host such horror? What’s your explanation?
Ever since that Dunblaine moment, when God dropped this word as a REVELATION into my heart, now whenever I open my paper and read about a bomber or some terrible cruelty, I hear what those servants heard from their Master.
“An ENEMY did this.’
An enemy did what?
‘Everything that causes evil’ Jesus says.
And ‘All who cause sin.’
How much is everything? How much is all?
So how much evil and sin does God cause?
Christianity does not have Yin and Yang. My Bible says God is love and God is light – in him there is no darkness at all. James 1:13 says, ‘Let no man say when he is tempted, I am being tempted by God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither does he tempt anyone.’
So the big problem, the major question you need to resolve now, every time you hear someone dies or someone kills, is not, ‘If God is good, why is the world so bad…’
The bigger question you have to address here, is one word, not one sentence. IF.
IF. That’s what the enemy wants you to ask. He’s happy to sow that IF seed in the night and run off and let it grow and play havoc with your faith and your life and destroy everything God wants to do. His tactics never change, this is just a variation on the old lie he first sowed into Adam and Eve in another field called Eden.
“IF – God is good…”
Listen. We know bad things happen – and they will happen, that’s not in question. Here’s the real question:
IS GOD GOOD?
Do you believe God is good?
Do you KNOW God is good? At times we’ll all have our doubts and that’s fine – as long as you don’t let your doubts have you!
Is God good?
How big is your IF? Does the world getting bad make your God less good? When the news and the fears come crowding in, is your IF getting bigger these days, or is your faith getting stronger? Faith that God IS GOOD. All the time. And all the time, God is GOOD.
One day, “the righteous will shine like the sun in their Father’s Kingdom.” One day, Jesus tells us, God will remove all evil from this world – it’s still his field and always will be. He will deal with all pain and injustice fully and finally. Jesus hates everything that causes evil and the suffering it causes, and he’s going to stop it. God is good. Settle that. He wants justice to be done and people to be blessed and the innocent to live in safety, peace and joy.
Till then, we live in a messy, messy field.
There are times like this week when I revert back to being a Policeman rather than a Pastor and in those moments I want to judge and deal with and punish those who are evil now! But it’s not that easy. If I take my ham-fisted scythe to the world sooner than HE is going to, it’ll just create more mayhem and mess. I’d do a terrible job of it. It’s very hard to tell the difference between wheat and weeds sometimes isn’t it? That’s the point of the story. Does anyone reading this think the world got a lot more complicated in the last few weeks? Anyone think you have all the right answers? It’s very hard to separate out, to uproot, in this messy field we’re all growing in. There’s so much that’s intertwined.
The truth is, and I’m not proud of this — but if you looked at me at various points in my life, too many times I was a lot more like weeds than wheat. And I’d plead in those moments, ‘Please – I don’t want judgement, I need grace, I need time, I need help, to change.’ And thank God, that’s what Jesus gives me at the cross of Calvary.
When I start crying out for God to come with judgement TODAY, he says I should never forget this; With God, one day is as good as a thousand years, a thousand years as a day…. He is restraining himself on account of you, holding back the End because he doesn’t want anyone lost. He’s giving everyone space and time to change. 2 Peter 3:9