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 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).
“Therefore, I tellyou, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?” (Matthew 6:25 NIV).
“For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6: 32,33 NIV).
Revelations – Day 19 “The Providence and Protection of God”
I have been watching a series on TV called FBI, which is all about the New York field office of the Federal Bureau of Investigations. Of course, it isn’t entirely accurate, but it is fun to watch how they deal with crime and evil. I don’t normally just watch for entertainment but rather to get a handle on the way the writers are dealing with topics such as justice, revenge, discrimination, and the overall existence of evil with all of its many faces.
And, of course, they make it personal to each of the agents and that’s where it really gets interesting. How do you react to evil and suffering and death when it touches your own personal life? I remember one recent episode where one of the female agents is in the hospital fighting for her life. Her partner is sitting in the interfaith chapel with his head bowed and his friend finds him there, praying.
“I’ve never thought of you as a praying man,” his friend says.
“Well, I haven’t had much reason to pray until now.”
“I know what you mean,” his friend says. He was a devout Muslim himself, but prayer doesn’t always seem to get the results you want. “Do you think it will help?”
“Who knows? It certainly can’t hurt.”
They were both silent thinking about that. Finally, his friend asks, “Mind if I pray with you?”
“The more the better I would think.” The two of them bowed their heads to pray to their various gods, hoping that he would be merciful to their friend who was fighting for her life in surgery.
It is a poignant moment and one we all understand instinctively.
We’ve all been there – wanting something so bad that we were willing to humble ourselves and ask a god we aren’t even sure exists to do something we aren’t even sure he will do. Many people abandon that “false” hope and simply accept the randomness of life and hope for the best. But everyone knows that prayer isn’t a magic wand. Sometimes it works, most times it doesn’t.
What I like to point out to people is that a magic wand without the “magic” is just a stick.
What in the world does that mean?
Is there a “magic” ingredient to prayer? Are there certain prayers that work better than others? Is there a posture or an attitude that is necessary to get God’s attention? Do you have to be a “good” person to have your prayers answered? Do you have to be a churchgoer or a tither or a soup kitchen Christian to get God to hear and answer your prayers? Do you have to make promises, take an oath, or do something heroic for him to hear you?
No. None of that.
In fact, the word “magic” is misleading. Using the word “magic” makes it sound automatic if you have the right words or incantation. Nothing could be further from the truth. All I wanted to point out is that there is something “essential” that you need to have to get your prayers answered.
A relationship with God. And not just any God but the God of the Bible and not just any relationship but rather one that is rooted in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. And not just any relationship with God through Christ but one in which you are truly a disciple, a follower, one who seeks first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33 NIV).
Wow, that seems like a lot. It isn’t. It is actually one thing. A relationship with God.
All the rest of the clarifications are necessary because people like to interpret that one thing in a variety of ways in this world.
The first clarification is that not all religions are the same and not all gods are the God of the Bible. We are talking here about Christianity, not Islam, not Buddhism, or anything else.
The second clarification is that we don’t have a relationship with God just because we are humans or just because we call ourselves “Christians.” We don’t define what a relationship with God means. He does. Because of the sin and evil within, we are actually “godless” meaning that we are without a relationship with God in this world and the only way to reestablish that relationship is by doing so the way that He requires us to.
And that is the third clarification. God will only accept a new relationship with us through the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. He calls it “substitutionary atonement” meaning that we receive the righteousness of Christ, and he received our sin and died for that sin on the cross and went to hell on our behalf. That is the essential requirement God places on a new relationship with us. That “substitution” allows Him to put the Holy Spirit into our hearts even though we continue to sin and even though the pollution of evil is still there.
But there is still one final clarification that even most Christians miss and that is that we are true disciples, seeking first the kingdom of heaven and his righteousness as our life ministry. That clarification is key since there are a lot of “cultural Christians” in the churches today who would claim to have a new relationship with God through Christ but don’t follow him in any significant way other than to be good, moral people who support the church with their donations. That’s not going to work for God.
That last clarification actually includes all of the previous clarifications and focuses on what God understands (not what we understand) by the concept of a “new relationship with God through Christ.” We don’t define how to restore our relationship with God. He does. We don’t even want to until God invades our hearts and seduces us into a new relationship with Him.
Paul makes it clear that “you are not your own; you were bought at a price” (1 Corinthians 6:19 NIV). The point of having a “new relationship with God through Christ” is that now God is in charge of our lives once again and we are disciples, followers, and servants dedicated to doing what he wants us to do. Without that attitude, that kind of relationship, our prayers are ineffective and powerless.
That is the essential issue in prayer – the nature of the relationship we have with God through Christ. The same is true for my wife and family. If I ask her for something, she will generally agree and give it to me almost without question. Why? Because I love her and my family and I am dedicated to doing what is in their best interest, not just mine.
If I were the kind of man who prioritized his own wants and needs at the expense of the family in terms of my time and our family resources, then it would be a whole other situation. Whether we are talking about addictions or hobbies, you understand what I mean.
The “nature” of the relationship is key.
But let’s take a step back and start with the big picture of God’s providence and protection in a world that is not always safe. Didn’t God make some promises that he would keep all of us safe? No. He didn’t. In fact, we should probably start with the fact that God “cursed” this world at the very beginning of our rebellion against Him.
Do you remember the story in the Book of Genesis?
We disobeyed God. We sided with the Devil. We were deceived but we are still responsible for our actions. God’s hands were tied. We would die because we no longer had access to the source of life, which is God Himself.
He had to intervene so the first thing he did was to establish this “uneasy truce” that would allow us to keep living as His enemies in this world that He made for us so that He would have time to implement His plan of redemption.
So, what about these “curses” that God placed on the world and all of mankind?
There were three curses and then banishment from the Garden of Eden. The first curse was on the serpent. Leave aside, for the moment, the question of whether or not we are talking about physical snakes and look at the deeper element here. Obviously, the snake (with feet at this point in time) was used by the Devil to talk to Eve (animals could talk?). The physical snake would become a symbol of evil, rebellion, and demonic activity.
But the key verse here is one that gives mankind hope.
“And I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Genesis 3:15 NIV).
What is that all about?
Although Adam and Eve had believed the Devil and taken his side against God, that partnership would be uneasy and there would be “enmity” between them. We can see that throughout history. Some people embrace evil and try to use it to their advantage while others fight against it but still, as someone famously put it, the dividing line between evil and good runs through the middle of every heart.
And what of this “offspring” that God is talking about?
The “he” that is talked about here is singular and refers to Christ. The snake (the Devil) would “strike his heel” (torture and kill him on the cross) but Christ would “crush” his head (ultimately defeat him and destroy him on the cross).
That interpretation is much clearer for us now that Christ has already come but pretty well everyone sees the connection. And don’t forget that God is speaking to the snake (or the Devil) meaning that the Devil has been warned from the beginning of time that his days are numbered and that ultimately, he would lose.
This is the first foundation for the providence of God. There is already a promise of deliverance in the first curse. That puts a new spin on things. Curses are generally considered bad things but in this case, they are “a severe mercy.” They are a necessary limit to our rebellion in order to contain our evil and allow God time to implement his rescue plan. These curses also act as symbols and reminders of our rebellion so that we don’t get too complacent in our sin and evil (which has happened far too often).
The second curse directed towards the woman is clearly a symbol and a reminder.
“I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (Genesis 3:16 NIV).
The first part seems to be fairly straightforward. The pain of childbirth is a reminder of our sin and rebellion against God. The good news was that God was going to allow them to have children and therefore allow the world to continue on even in rebellion against Him. The bad news is that the pain of childbirth would be a reminder that every person is born into a world in rebellion against God.
The second part of the curse brings up all kinds of issues.
It has to do with the relationship between the woman and her husband (and all women and their husbands). The fundamental concept is that the relationship is broken in a basic way. There seem to be two parts to this curse of a broken relationship between the woman and her husband. On the one hand “your desire will be for your husband” and on the other, “he will rule over you.”
Some people claim that this “desire” is sexual but that is doubtful since nothing is said of the man desiring the woman (which is usually the problem). I believe that this word can also be understood as a “need-based desire” for providence and protection from her husband in a dangerous and difficult world without the providence and protection of their Father.
Both of those things are wrong. Both the desire for the husband’s providence and protection (rather than God’s) and the result of him dominating her (instead of both being equal before God). They are both part of the curse of God which is God’s way of describing the consequence of the actions of the woman and the man in their rebellion against him.
If you remember the story of the temptation in the previous part of the chapter, the Devil actually deceived the woman first and she then “tempted” the man to join her in eating the forbidden fruit, which he did willingly. Apparently, the man was close by and listening to the discussion between the Devil and his woman and he would not have joined her in eating the forbidden fruit if he hadn’t also accepted the arguments of the Devil that they would “be like God.” So, he is not innocent. But the woman was the focus of the temptation while the man joined her in the decision.
The relationship between them was perfect. There was trust and love and mutual understanding. That relationship, after the Fall, would now be changed. In an evil and difficult world where hard work and protection would be necessary, she would become more vulnerable than he would, and she would “need” him in a way that she did not “need” him before the rebellion. In a difficult and dangerous world, the man would become dominant, and she would “desire” his protection and providence since she no longer had it from her Father. And, in exchange, he would “rule over” her.
And hasn’t it exactly been that way for centuries?
We can talk about women’s rights all you want, and I would agree for the most part, but that isn’t the point. The very fact that we have to talk about women’s rights proves that the curse is still at work. The fact that the curse came from God does not justify this broken relationship of desiring protection and providence from the man and therefore being dominated by him. God is not saying that it “must” be this way but rather that this “curse” is a description of the consequences of their actions.
And I will say it clearly right now.
It is everyone’s responsibility (especially in the church) to try and mitigate these curses the best we can. There is no reason for pain in childbirth if it is not absolutely necessary. A woman who chooses a “cesarean section” is not being disobedient to God. When we talk about the next curse on the work the man has to do to gain a living “by the sweat of his brow,” it doesn’t mean that we can’t find easier and better ways to get things done. Enough said.
Let’s talk about that last curse directed against Adam.
“Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil, you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow, you will eat your food until you return to the ground since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:17b, 18,19 NIV).
The comparison here is with the Garden of Eden before the Fall where he could eat freely from any of the trees of the garden (except for the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil). Although he was the caretaker of the garden, it was not “painful toil.” Now things would get more difficult. Pain for the woman and pain for the man is now introduced into the equation. Protection is not automatic. Providence is not a given. If they want to be on their own, separate from God, then providence and protection would be their responsibility and they couldn’t count on it any longer from God (even though he might intervene on occasion).
God would continue to provide a world and a life where all of the general laws of nature would continue, but the specific protection and providence that they had as God’s children would no longer be available (at least not in an obvious way). And to top it all off, God made it clear that “death” and returning “to dust” would be the end of all their painful toil. Suffering, pain, and death are the natural consequences of turning their back on God in this “uneasy truce” that God was establishing with his creation and with his rebellious children.
In some ways, it was the creation that was cursed because of Adam.
He was the caretaker and now his efforts would become “painful” and difficult. The extent of that curse on creation is not always easy to determine but it is obvious that mankind has not always been a good caretaker either and many of our present environmental problems are due to the bad stewardship of humans rather than anything inherent in creation itself.
There is a lot more that can be said about the curses of God, but we must also talk about the banishment of mankind from the Garden of Eden. Again, this is not only physical but also symbolic. The idea was to keep mankind from eating the fruit of the Tree of Life and living forever as enemies of God.
Again, it was a severe mercy to limit our lifespan and keep us from becoming “vampires” who become more and more evil as time goes on because they never die. There needs to be an end to the suffering and pain.
“So, the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life” (Genesis 3:23,24 NIV).
As we well know, this wasn’t just about a physical garden or a physical Tree of Life. This was about their relationship with God. They rebelled against God and there would be consequences. In this case, they were banished from the presence of God as a sign of the broken relationship with Him.
It’s always about the relationships in the end.
They had become “allies” with the Devil, but God would put “enmity” between them and ultimately destroy the Devil. That relationship needs to be destroyed.
The relationship between the man and the woman would also change in negative ways as we discussed. And the relationship between the man and the woman and the rest of creation would also change as a consequence of their rebellion.
Finally, their relationship with God would change, had already changed, and they would be reminded of this fact by living like “spiritual zombies” who were dead but pretending to be alive.
So, the first thing to acknowledge is that our relationship with God has changed because of our sin and rebellion. The evil is now within. We thought we could decide for ourselves whether or not to choose evil as an option to get what we want. We demonstrated it originally by disobeying God and eating the forbidden fruit. We demonstrate it every day by choosing to do things that God tells us are wrong, but we do it anyway because we want what we want when we want it. We have been corrupted by evil and are now a slave to it on various levels and in various ways.
Sometimes we limit our wills (morality) but most times depending on whether or not we think we can get away with it, we continue to see evil as an option. We not only have knowledge of good and evil, we have the “experience” of being evil. Something that we do not share with God. In that sense, the Devil’s lie has become clear. We did not become “like God” but rather we became “like the Devil.” Even the Devil was corrupted by evil and therefore craves it even more.
In this new world East of Eden, the providence and protection of God is not so straightforward. The first lesson you must learn is that you cannot make claims on God just because you are human, and you think you are his child. God is under no obligation to protect you or provide for you. You are on your own. You have proclaimed yourself “godless” and even an “enemy of God.” That is by default whether you are aware of it or not.
Yes, he allows the sun to shine on the righteous and unrighteous alike (Matthew 5:45 NIV) and we all are subject to the laws of nature. But within that general providence, we can make no claim against God for anything.
Unless you “reverse” what happened in the Garden of Eden by establishing a new relationship with God through Christ. That changes everything. We are still subject to the “curses” of God just like everyone else, but we now have the Holy Spirit within us and that empowers our prayers. But it isn’t automatic. It is not a magic wand. It is a relationship.
Let’s take a closer look.
Jesus talked about the providence of God for his people in the Sermon on the Mount.
“Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?” (Matthew 6:25 NIV).
The first thing to notice is that this is about “worrying”, and Jesus is suggesting that we would do better to have “faith” in God. He will take care of our needs in this life and the next. After all, “who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” (Matthew 6:27 NIV). God will determine when we die and all of our efforts to live another day won’t make any difference at all.
But here is the key to the whole question of the providence and protection of God. Jesus said,
“For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:32,33 NIV).
Don’t forget that Jesus is talking to his followers, to his people, to his disciples. The “pagans” focus on food and clothes and survival and riches but not the people of God. We don’t have to worry about survival. That isn’t our focus. Our focus is on the kingdom of God and on his righteousness.
Just a minute, you say. That isn’t true. We do have to worry about our survival, even as Christians, don’t we? Are you saying that there is no guarantee that God will provide for you or protect you in this life even if you are a Christian? Yes and no.
Normally I hate answers that are both “yes” and “no”, but they usually indicate that we haven’t gone deep enough into the topic to really understand God’s point of view. Yes, it is true that there is no guarantee of survival or prosperity on this side of the grave. That’s the whole point. Because Jesus rose from the dead, we no longer fear death. Jesus went to great lengths to point out that if you “love your life” and therefore focus on survival and prosperity, then you will “lose” your life (John 12:25 NIV). But if you focus on the things of God and trust him for “eternal life” then you will “gain life” and never lose it.
Wow. That’s a dangerous step to take.
It takes a lot of faith to believe that you will be protected and provided for in eternity when you are being persecuted, suffering, and dying in this life. Exactly.
Everything about providence and protection and even prayer now goes through Jesus and his plans and purposes for our lives as part of his rescue attempt to save people from the second death. Do you see how everything connects up in this theodicy of evil?
You cannot understand the providence and protection of God, much less how effective prayer works. without understanding the story and the plan of redemption. There is no point in talking about prosperity theology to the people in the early church who were reading the Book of Revelations. Jesus was promising them an opportunity for effective ministry, not a long life span. Jesus was asking them to join him in suffering for the gospel. He was asking them to rejoice when they were persecuted. He was encouraging them to embrace his eternal priorities and be willing to give up everything and anything in this life that would get in the way.
That is why it is important to keep this kingdom priority of Jesus clear in our minds. And it isn’t just about seeking his kingdom but also his righteousness. In fact, we seek his kingdom by seeking his righteousness. And whenever we seek his righteousness, we are bringing in his kingdom and His rule in our lives (and often encouraging that rule in the lives of others). They are interconnected. They are two sides of the same thing.
The righteousness of God is “in Christ,” of course, and includes confession, repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation to heal relationships. The ministry of reconciliation is the heart of every person’s life ministry (however they do it). It is also the heart of our team ministry in our local church.
Perhaps now you can start to see why people who are involved in ministry, who take their walk with Christ seriously and join him in suffering for the gospel, and are willing to give up anything and everything in this life to become effective and true witnesses of his transformation within, these people have stories to tell.
Do you want to hear about answered prayers? Wow, we could tell you some great stories.
Do you want to hear about Scotty, Rafa, and Alberto and what God has done in our church? We could tell you stories. Has it always worked out exactly the way we wanted it to? No, of course not. Prayer is not a magic wand. It is a relationship and God is in charge. We have the power to ask, but he will answer as he sees fit to accomplish the goal of saving people from their sins.
Do we expect that God will provide for us? Yes, of course. Even in this life, he will provide. But we know that it is always based on helping us to have an effective ministry. Sometimes our pain and suffering, with continued faith, is the best witness. Sometimes standing our ground before the authorities (even in the church) is our best witness.
God knows better than we do.
We do not expect perfect continuous providence and protection no matter what. We expect God to use our witness in good times and bad, in suffering and pain as well as joy and peace. We expect the providence and protection of God in this life to be subservient to the greater purpose of Christ who now sits on the throne.
And we agree. That is the “magic” ingredient in our prayers.
We pray for the “simple goods” and allow God to manage the “complex goods” always with an eye to effective ministry. We pray for healing but understand that our continued struggle with cancer done in faith may bring someone to Christ. We pray for miracles but understand that a negative answer together with our continued faith in God may be more powerful than “signs and wonders.”
That is what it means to be a prayer warrior, to be a desert warrior. We would rather be in the desert with God than in the promised land without him. That is how Caleb and Joshua felt and that is how we feel about it too. That is life behind enemy lines.
The Desert Warrior