A Theodicy of Evil – Lenten Season 2023
“This, then, is how you should pray: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one” (Matthew 6:9-13 NIV).
“Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it.
I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals” (Revelations 5:1-5 NIV).
Revelations – Day 20 “Prayer Behind Enemy Lines”
The problem with prayer is getting the answers you want.
After all, when we pray, we are asking God for something. It’s called Petitionary Prayer. Even C.S. Lewis wrote a treatise on the subject. Other types of prayer are much easier to deal with. If your prayer is worship, then you aren’t expecting necessarily an answer. If your prayer is intercessory, you may be looking for God’s intervention but we all know that he works “in mysterious ways.”
Petitionary prayer is where the problem is found. It is specific and usually detailed and there is not much room for misunderstanding. The problem is that God often simply doesn’t give us what we want. Perhaps we fall into the trap of trying to appease God in order to get what we want by going to church, making promises, tithing or the like. That isn’t going to work. God hates it when people try to manipulate him (my wife feels the same way).
Perhaps we are truly believers and are working for the furtherance of God’s Kingdom and he still doesn’t answer our prayers. Maybe we think that we know what he wants better than he does. We pray for the “simple good” but trust God for the “complex good.”
Still, the claim is made that those who are actively seeking his kingdom and his righteousness experience more answered prayers than anyone else. And that is true. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7 NIV). And there are other verses in the Bible where God tells us that He is more than willing to answer our prayers. So what gives?
Here we are behind enemy lines without a support system or supply line. We are expected to make things work with what we have at hand, tentmaking, jobs, side income, whatever. We don’t have the resources to do what we think needs to be done and we wonder why God is silent. But here’s the thing.
We have everything we need to get the job done. It isn’t about worldly resources but about heavenly ones. It is about our effective ministry and witness which is more powerful in dire straights. Yes, we still need to pay the bills and fufill our worldly responsibilities and God will certainly help us with our needs. But it is a major fallacy to believe that more money or more resources are truly what we need. God knows better.
But that doesn’t change the fact that God wants to answer prayer and often does for those dedicated to furthering his kingdom and seeking his righteousness. No doubt. It is a joint venture after all. We are working together with God in this great rescue operation. Without his intervention no one would be saved. All of our efforts are in vain if they aren’t empowered by the anointing of the Holy Spirit.
And God is also teaching us how to pray. He wants us to make decisions within his general guidance. Paul had a vision of the man from Macedonia asking him to come and preach the gospel to them and Paul went. That was obviously clear direction from God. But what about all the other times when Paul simply went where he thought it was best. He prayed but he also trusted that God would guide him through his own intelligence and common sense. He had God’s general vision for his work but the specifics are often left up to him. The same is true for us.
So, there you have three principles of prayer that you can start with. The first is that worldly resources are not the most important (even if often necessary). The second is that we are working with God in a joint venture for this great rescue operation and he tells us to ask, seek and knock. Thirdly, God is teaching us how to pray, how to ask, seek and knock on the doors of heaven. There are lots of decisions that we can make and others that God will make. Learning how to hear the voice of the Master is an important part of the process.
But let’s talk about prayer for a moment.
The disciples came to Jesus and asked him to teach them to pray. We call it the Lord’s Prayer. The problem is that many people use it as a magic wand to get them the providence and protection they want in this life. It doesn’t work that way. This was a prayer for people who desire an effective ministry above all. Nothing less.
Jesus talked about prayer in the Sermon on the Mount, and it is important to remember the context for prayer. It is private. It is sincere. And it doesn’t need a lot of fancy words. In fact, it is quite simple.
“Our father in heaven, hallowed be your name,
Your kingdom come; your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one”
(Matthew 6:9-13 NIV).
Some people add what is often called the “minor doxology” which says, “for yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever, amen.”
The problem is that we have spoken this prayer so many times that we have it memorized and yet we don’t understand it at all because we rip it out of its context. This was a prayer for his disciples, his followers, not for just anyone who called themselves a Christian or found themselves in a difficult situation. This is not a prayer of repetition with rosary beads to fend off the devil’s attack. This is a practical prayer for effective ministry.
It starts, as it should, with worship. It addresses God, himself, not Jesus. We pray to God in the name of Jesus. He is our provider and protector but in this age of grace, his providence and protection are subject to the plans and purposes of Christ who sits on the throne. That is why we say that “Jesus is the Providence and Protection of God.”
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.”
The word “hallowed” simply means “holy” and refers to the character of God. To start your worship by claiming that it is your desire that “the character and name of God are seen as holy and set apart” in the context of this world of sin and evil and rebellion, is a major statement of faith.
And as we know, when we pray, we are asking God to use us in the fulfillment of our prayers. We are not asking him to do something independent of us but rather through us. May God’s character be seen as holy through my life and testimony. That is the focus of our prayers.
And the holiness of God refers to his “goodness” or “perfect love” expressed in both his justice and his mercy. The holiness of God is ultimately expressed in the life and ministry of Christ and especially his death on the cross and descent into hell. That is where the true character of God is seen when he is fulfilling in himself the divine justice and righteous wrath of God in his own body for our sake. Perfect love fulfilling perfect justice. That is the character of God.
Created for His Pleasure
The Joy of the Lord is my strength.
Getting rid of all my small ambitions
to make this one thing the hallmark of my life.
To please God.
Whether I get what I pray for or not,
whether my circumstances change or not,
whether I am healed or not.
To consider every sacrifice a small price to pay
to obtain the pearl of great price.
This is what life is all about. It isn’t about comfort or prosperity or building my own kingdom. It is about showing the holy character of God as demonstrated on the cross to as many people as I can through my own life and words as my life ministry and effective ministry. That’s where it starts and without that foundation, all the rest of the prayer is powerless and ineffective.
“Your kingdom come; your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Doesn’t this sound a lot like Jesus’ statement that we need to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness?” Exactly. This is a prayer for effective ministry. We live in a rebellious and sinful world where God’s will is NOT done on earth as it is in heaven. We want his kingdom to come into the hearts of everyone we meet, which is to say that they, too, will start to follow the will of God.
And what is the will of God for us? Just to be moral, upright people? Of course not. It is not less but more. We need to join with him in suffering for the gospel as we seek first his kingdom and his righteousness.
In that context, we can pray for his providence.
“Give us today our daily bread.”
And if you live in a culture where rice is your main staple, or corn, or something else, it doesn’t matter. This is a prayer for providence; however, it comes and in whatever form it takes. And it includes more than food, more than clothes, more than even fulfilling physical needs. The providence and protection of God is there to provide for all of our needs, physical, emotional, spiritual, that we need to have an effective ministry.
Obviously, being alive is a key ingredient for an effective ministry unless we have been chosen by God to give him glory through our death. But that isn’t up to us. C.S. Lewis made a distinction between the “simple good” and the “complex good.” What he meant by the “complex good” was God’s ability to turn evil into good (Genesis 50:20 NIV). That is not our job. We cannot sin “so that grace may abound” (Romans 6:1 NIV). Our job is to pray for and do whatever is considered a “simple good” meaning that in and of itself, it is good.
We do not let the ends justify the means. Our “means” are always good and we let God worry about the “ends.” He is more than capable of working out his will in complex situations. But that is not our job. That distinction is important. We can pray for the simple good of food and clothes and other things necessary for our daily needs. But as soon as we try to control that providence to make sure we have enough to provide for all our needs tomorrow as well, we start down the road of unbelief.
So long as we are focused on the kingdom of God and his righteousness, we can pray for God’s providence and protection (the simple good) and expect to get it. We always leave room for God’s will, which is why we pray “your will be done.” After all, we have agreed with God that he can use us as a “living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1 NIV) and if he decides to use our suffering and pain (a complex good) for effective ministry, that is fine by us.
Again, someone could claim that there isn’t much difference between a Christian and a non-Christian who goes through life, one praying and the other not praying to God. The Christian might have an accident, go bankrupt, get cancer or even die a horrible death while the non-Christian might get all the breaks and get through to his death bed relatively unscathed. It’s a crap shoot. Anything can happen. It isn’t apparent that the righteous are provided for and protected while the evil doers suffer. Not at all.
And that is true.
But we would encourage you to look a little deeper. It isn’t what happens to you that is the effective ministry of your life, but rather how you handle it with faith. Just like Job, you can curse God and die or you can acknowledge that he gives and he takes and you will trust his providence because there is something bigger and more important going on than your comfort or prosperity.
But let’s keep going with the Lord’s prayer because the next petition is a good one. Remember that Jesus said that we should seek his kingdom and his righteousness. We already prayed that his kingdom would come and now we will pray for his righteousness to be evident in our lives.
“Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”
At the end of the prayer, Jesus clarifies what he means by this petition. He says, “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive yours sins” (Matthew 6:14,15 NIV).
Forgiveness is at the heart of the life and ministry of Jesus on earth. We talk about confession and repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation but the heart of it is the biblical concept of “forgiveness.” In fact, there is no forgiveness without the shedding of blood (Hebrews 9:22 NIV) which God made clear in the Old Testament. The only forgiveness that is possible is based on the life and death of Christ.
Sin is so terrible that Jesus had to become human, be tortured by his own creatures, die and go to hell and thereby experience all of the wrath of God against sin. So, forgiveness is no easy matter. When someone sins against you, so far as God is concerned, they deserve eternal hell.
The question God asks you is whether or not you will accept the suffering and death of Christ on the cross as a “substitution” for this person who has sinned against you. That is the only basis for forgiveness available. Either you accept that Jesus died for their sins (whether they are Christians or not) or you don’t.
If you do, then you must let it go and nail your anger and pain to the cross as well, your “wrath” as well, and free this person who has sinned against you of any and all responsibility for that sin.
That is what Jesus meant, in my opinion, when he said to his disciples, “if you forgive someone’s sins on earth, they will be forgiven in heaven” (John 20:23 NIV). That doesn’t mean that they will be saved. They still have to be forgiven by God (and others) but, in terms of their sin against you, they are forgiven, and they will not receive any punishment for that particular sin.
What power that gives us in our relationship with others to heal any hurt done to us. It isn’t just about the other person but about you and your walk with God. That is why we have the power to forgive and even reconcile with people that continue to sin against us, people who do not want to restore their relationship with us, people who do not forgive us.
But the second part to this petition for forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer also needs to be mentioned. The petition is actually for God to forgive our sins. But there is no forgiveness for our sins if we are not willing to forgive the sins of others. Why?
Because the basis for forgiveness is the same. The cross of Christ. If we don’t accept that the cross has the power to forgive other people’s sin, then why in the world would we think that it can forgive our sins before God. One thing is the mirror image of the other. They are both rooted in the cross of Christ.
And this is the “righteousness” that Jesus is talking about, the “righteousness that comes from faith” in the power of the cross to heal our relationship with God and others. It is what makes the ministry of reconciliation work. It is the result of our confession and repentance. It is all focused on the “forgiveness” provided by God through Christ to heal relationships that were broken by the fall and rebellion of mankind.
So, when we seek his kingdom and his righteousness, we are engaged in effective ministry and therefore our prayers are powerful and effective before God. We all know the story of the elders who visited someone in the hospital and healed him with their prayers in the Book of James.
Then we read, “the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:16 NIV). We know that the word “righteous” refers to the righteousness of Christ within us and so another way to read this is to say that “the prayer of a person walking in the spirit is powerful and effective.” Or even more specific, “the prayer of a person walking in the spirit in effective ministry is powerful and effective.” You get the idea.
The final petition is also important in our life ministry.
“And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the evil one.”
Don’t for a minute think that you won’t become a target for the evil one if you are involved in effective ministry. This is no joke. And the Book of Revelations is clear that suffering, pain and death will come but it is also clear that there is a battle going on and we can be tempted or hurt by evil in many ways.
Of course, the point is that we are protected eternally from the second death but not necessarily from the first death. We have indicated our willingness to be used by God for anything and everything but the “simple good” that we should pray for is that we would not be tempted and not fall into the hands of the evil one. We can rest assured that if God decides that we will face “the dark night of the soul,” then our responsibility is to follow in the footsteps of Christ and stay the course and allow evil to do its worst.
Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “do not resist an evil person” (Matthew 5:39 NIV) and “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44 NIV), so we know what we have to do. But that doesn’t change the fact that we are expected to pray for the “simple good” even while being prepared for God to grant us an effective ministry using “a complex good” by turning something that is inherently evil into something good.
During the latter part of the Roman persecution of Christians, there were some gung-ho believers who actively sought out an opportunity to have their faith tested and to die as martyrs. That is not God’s will for us. We seek for and pray for the simple good but acknowledge, like Jesus, that God may decide not to answer our prayers and we will remain faithful in any event. That is our true and faithful witness to the end.
My daughter is living in the basement of the house where her in-laws are living. Her new husband is away for a number of weeks to get some work training. Although the in-laws had invited them to come and live in their basement, while her husband was gone, they came to talk to her. In “not so polite” terms, they told her that she was a lazy person who was taking advantage of their son. She didn’t know what to say. She couldn’t wait for her husband to come back and protect her from these vile accusations.
My wife and I talked about it and we were angry too. There wasn’t much we could do about it. In our experience, people were strange (including us). They say things they really didn’t mean. They are often more direct and hurtful than they had intended to be. At the same time, broken relationships are the norm rather than the exception for most of us. What can you do?
But then I remembered that Jesus was the Providence and Protection of God and I realized that when we act according to his righteousness by forgiving people based on the cross, we, in fact, release the providence of God into the situation. That doesn’t mean that the other person immediately apologizes, and reconciliation happens (although that does happen quite often) but rather what changes is you.
You are not so resentful. You are willing to forgive. There is peace in the house again. Even if they didn’t realize how hurt you were, it doesn’t matter. You left your hurt and anger at the foot of the cross. You are different and therefore the relationship is different, and people notice (most of the time).
When you release the righteousness of Christ into a situation, the providence and protection of God is automatically felt by you. Your mind changes. Your attitude changes. Your behavior changes. All because of the faith that comes from exercising the righteousness and forgiveness of Christ into every situation. It changes things. That’s why people say “prayer changes things” because it changes you. But it isn’t enough to pray. You also have to act. You have to forgive those people before God and then act towards them as people who have been forgiven.
In fact, there is a second question that God asks us as we go through this process. The first is whether or not we will accept the suffering and death of Christ as sufficient payment for this sin against us. The second is whether or not we will treat these people as they are in Christ, forgiven and pure and fully reconciled with us on that final day. Will we treat them as they will be rather than as they are presently.
Jesus promises to present each one of us “without spot or blemish” (Ephesians 5: 26,27 NIV) on that final day before God. That promise is so sure that you can take it to the bank. Even God depends on the truth of that promise – even though it is his promise to us.
Even God puts up with our sin and our continued rebellion because he treats us as we will be on the final day. In fact, he says that he will treat us as we are right now “in Christ.” Which is just another way to say the same thing.
And we can do the same.
We can treat others as they are “in Christ” which is to say how Jesus will present them on the final day without “spot or blemish” and fully reconciled with us.
But what if they aren’t Christians? They may not make it to heaven at all. True.
All the more reason to release the power of the righteous forgiveness and reconciliation of Christ into the situation. When you treat them as they may be on the final day, you are giving your testimony to them that the Holy Spirit within can heal relationships even when someone is “still a sinner” (Romans 5:8,9 NIV) just like Jesus did.
That doesn’t guarantee that they will become saved anymore that Jesus’ death on the cross guaranteed that every person would be saved but it is an effective witness. Who knows but that this whole thing happened precisely so that you could provide this testimony to them. Perhaps this very testimony will not only heal you but, ultimately, could heal them as well for all eternity.
And this is where the “rubber hits the road” so to speak. We have come full circle back to the priority and importance of our effective ministry. This is the message of the Book of Revelations. We follow in the footsteps of our Lord and Savior and therefore we participate with him in suffering for the gospel.
We are not naïve enough to believe that God is here to support us and help us to build our own kingdom, our own American Dream, our own home, career and lifestyle. Not at all. We are here to further the Kingdom of God and we do that by releasing the anointing power of the righteousness of Christ into every situation. Forgiveness is a powerful witness, and it empowers our prayers for providence and protection in this difficult and dangerous world.
Now we understand why the prophet was weeping. Now we also understand why the heavens were rejoicing at the revealing of the Lion of Judah who was also a lamb. Now we have the story straight and we understand God’s priorities. Now we know how important that scroll is and why it is necessary for someone to implement God’s Plan of Redemption.
We tend to think that God’s plan of redemption was accomplished on the cross and that is true to an extent. But it still needs to be implemented in time, the message still needs to go out, and we will play a significant role in the whole process.
“All authority has been given to me,” Jesus said.
True enough. What do you need us to do?
“Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:18,19 NIV).
We have work to do. And it will be a glorious business.
The Desert Warrior