Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 10/24/99
Today we come to Eph. 5:20. Being filled with the Spirit issues in a string of participles--Speaking to one another is psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, Singing and making melody in our hearts to the Lord, always being Thankful for all things, Submitting to one another in the fear of Christ. As we move through these participles, the difficulty of understanding and applying them increases exponentially. Such is the case with Thanking. The propriety and benefits of such an attitude toward God are obvious, but then Paul complicates it by saying we are to be thankful for All Things. Does he mean we are to thank God for cancer? For Alzheimer's? What about somebody else's Alzheimer's? For famine? For rape? For the holocaust? To answer this we must face some serious theological questions.
The first is the relationship between God and Evil. The Bible presents us with a very strong view of God's providence. His sovereignty is absolute--he does what he pleases (Ps. 33:9-11, 115:3, Is. 14:27). And this sovereignty extends even to the details--from the names of all the stars (Is. 40:26) to the sparrow on the branch and the hairs on the head (Mat. 10:29-30). It even extends to Evil. If a calamity befalls a city, have not I the Lord done it? (Is. 45:6-7, Lam. 3:37-38, Amos 3:6). Yet the Bible presents just as strong a picture of God's goodness and benevolence (Ps. 5:4, etc.) How do we reconcile this? We cannot. If we could understand Him, He would not be God. But what the Bible does is to set up parameters, lines that we must not cross. We must never speak as if God is not in control of everything, as if He could be surprised, as if anything can happen without his decree--his active consent, not just passive acquiescence. We must also never make Him responsible for Evil. These two principles are like twin handrails on either side of the path. When we begin to compromise either, we know we are getting off track.
The closest we can come to a synthesis is Rom. 8:28--all things work together for good to those who love Him. It does not say that all things are good. It says that God works all things--even real evils--toward an end that will be good for those who love Him. Therefore we must say that God permits evil; further that He chooses every evil that is allowed to touch His children. The evil that comes into my life is really evil, it hurts me and therefore grieves God, but it is evil that has been filtered through His sovereignty so that it will not be something that God cannot turn to my good.
Why does God permit evil? We cannot answer this question exhaustively either, but we do know at least some pieces of the puzzle. God permits--yea, ordains--evil in my life because without it I would not grow. If everything went well all the time I would become complacent and stop depending on Him. Also, it is impossible to grow unless one works against resistance. That is why I do my presses and curls with weights. Otherwise my triceps and biceps would receive very little benefit. So it is with the spirit.
Another reason God permits evil is that we live in a fallen world, and Christians are not exempt from the consequences of that. Imagine what it would be like if they were. The moment you accept Christ God erects a force field around you that repels every weapon, every oncoming vehicle, every germ or virus, every conceivable misfortune. This would make faith impossible--everybody would want to become a Christian for the wrong reasons, and faith would be reduced to utilitarianism. It would not--could not--be a personal trust in a personal God. So God lets us share in the misfortunes that befall our unsaved neighbors because this is a good thing--how else would we have credibility with them? We lose that credibility not by suffering, but by suffering like they do rather than with a different spirit.
Another reason God allows evil into our lives is to give us the opportunity to identify with Jesus. When I lost my job in '87, I got a new level of insight into the sufferings of Christ, who was also rejected by the people he tried to love and serve. "Now I understand," I said. "You went through THIS for me!" I am not anxious to repeat that experience, but neither would I trade it for anything. We can debate philosophically about whether God could have made a world in which such goods could come without suffering; I only know that is the only way it could have come to me.
How then do we thank God for evil? Like Jesus did. We do not pretend that evil is not evil. Jesus wept with Mary and Martha first, before he raised Lazarus. He did not show up and glibly say, "Well, Lazarus is dead, thanks be to God!" As we identify with Jesus in his sufferings, so we join Him in identifying with others in theirs. Then we can thank God that He is in control, that He can bring good out of this horrible thing, that He is sufficient to get us through it, that He can use it to bring us closer to Him.
We have said most about thanking God for evil because that is the hardest and takes the most thought. But most of the time we are simply surrounded by unproblematic good things from Him that we ignore. Donne said, "Learn to see God in everything, and you then need not take off your eyes from anything." He also said, "If every gnat that flies were an archangel, that could be tell me that there is a God; and the meanest worm that creeps tells me that." Let us thank God for the meanest worm that creeps, and for everything else--and then we will truly be walking worthily, fulfilling our purpose of bringing glory to Christ in the Church.
Here endeth the lesson.