Is God Good? 10.11.2020
[2 Corinthians 4:6-12 and Psalm 136]
Last week was the start of our three part sermon series – argument with an atheist. Last week we asked – Does God Exist? and the sermon was just packed with arguments back and forth for the existence of God. But one thing I realized that I hadn’t expected is that this series is not really about arguing with atheists. It’s about loving them. It is easier to love when you try to understand where they are coming from. It’s not about being smarter, or making them look stupid. When I started putting together the pieces of this sermon – I realized, it’s almost all geared towards the heart of an Atheist. That moment when we look at our atheist friend and see, not an enemy, but someone who is truly struggling with these questions. Someone who is asking questions, and we haven’t given them any answers. The first step in engaging an atheist when they ask a question is to say – “Good question, I’m not 100% sure, let’s figure it out together. Today we are looking at the question of evil. Is God good?
Our scripture lesson for today begins, [read v.6-7] So what we see from the very beginning is that the bible tells us God IS good. God is the light in the darkness. Not only is God good, but that goodness exists inside each of us. There is a little bit of goodness, a little bit of God in each of you. You are created by God to be good, to house that light within you. But it also said we are like fragile clay jars. Verse 8 [read v.8-9] – there are two things I want you to remember from this sermon. Two very basic truths. First, bad things happen, and it’s okay to admit that. We are pressed, we are perplexed, hunted down – bad things happen. The bible doesn’t shy away from that, and neither should we. Bad things happen. Second, God endures bad things WITH us. Verse 9 says that yes, we are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. God is right there alongside us in every struggle, in every valley, in every moment of darkness. Verse 10 lays it out, [read it]. 2 Corinthians reminds us that Jesus came to this earth, he experienced pain and evil, even death. We share in his death, and we will share in his life. 1. Bad things do happen. 2. God endures those bad things WITH us. This is the foundation for the Christian response to the problem of evil.
You see, at the beginning of time, there is a story about the two first humans. We call them Adam and Eve. And they lived in a garden, and they were happy. And there were no rules, no evil, no shame – they didn’t even have to wear clothes. And God told them, you can eat from any tree except this one tree. You can eat whatever you want, except from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And they were happy. And then the serpent showed up, and he tricked the woman into eating from the tree. She ate, Adam ate, and it broke God’s heart, and the world was never the same. Some Christians call that the story the fall of humanity. They blame that one incident for everything bad that has happened ever since. The moment sin entered the world.
But a lot of us hear this story and wonder. If God was so smart, why create that tree in the first place? Why not just create a place where it was impossible to do something wrong? You know, dig up that tree and put it somewhere else. Why bother creating that tree, if it’s just going to cause problems? Why would God create a world where evil was even a possibility? And even if we can justify some of it – look around. We live in a pretty horrifying world. Parents abandoning children, murders, rapist, thieves, genocide, holocausts, infidelity, greed. I mean, it’s an election year for crying out loud. It’s overwhelming sometimes. The question switches between Where was God? How could God do this? and How could God allow this? There was a German philosopher Nietzche who once said – God is dead, and we killed him. And that quote comes from before either of the world wars. In the last 100 years alone, we have stretched the limit on the word “inhumane.” If God is real, and if God is Good – how can He allow evil in the world?
The Christian response may surprise you. The reason for evil is Love. God created the idea of love, and love is only real when it is a choice. We call it free will. You cannot truly love if it is the only option on the table. If it is the only option, we are no better than robots – empty. Every breath becomes a clock ticking until death. Life is pointless. But if there is a choice – then the possibility for true love is created. Adam and Eve were asked to show their love by obeying God, and that obedience means nothing if there was no other option. Without choice, without free will that God has given us – we wouldn’t be able to love. Evil is door number 2, evil is the other choice.
So that’s the first question of evil: Why would God create a world where evil can exist – and the answer lies in free will, our capacity to love is matched by our capacity to go the other way. Hear it again, [read v.6]. But for most of us this is not some high and lofty philosophical question about the beginning of the world. For most of us the question screams at us in the moments of extreme pain that we find in this life. When something bad happens, we are hurt. And when we are hurt, we look for someone to blame. There’s this urge – it needs to be someone’s fault. Somehow we think having someone to blame will make it better. The argument of pain turns into a question of blame. And on this issue, Christians don’t have a unified response. You’ll get different answers from different churches, different denominations. The issue of blame bounces between the power of God, and the free will of humanity. God is all powerful, so it’s His fault. But, we have free will, so it’s our fault. But God gave us that free will – so it’s His fault. But God tells us to choose to be holy and good, so it’s our fault. Now, I would bet that in this room there are different opinions. Some of you like to rest everything on God. Some of you prefer to point at the brokenness of humanity. Wherever you’re coming from, at the end of the day – the question of blame doesn’t help. We’ve talked about this before – when a person is broken, pointing fingers won’t heal them. You get in a car accident and your leg snaps in half – knowing that it’s your fault or their fault or the brakes didn’t work – doesn’t change the pain in your leg. Blame doesn’t solve the real issue. Corinthians tells us [read v.9-10]. What were the two fundamental principles: bad things do happen, and God endures those bad things with us. So let’s look at the problem of pain.
Sometimes people say things like, “God has a plan for everything. Another way to say that is “Everything happens for a reason.” Have you heard that? We see it a lot at funerals for young people, things like that. God has a plan in everything. The problem with that idea is that sometimes it fails to satisfy us. People who are hurt say, “If this is God’s plan, well then I hate God’s plan.” Sometimes it hurts to much to hear that this terrible thing is part of God’s plan. Another problem is that there are events so horrible in history that it seems to us that no amount of good can make up for this great evil. For example, Hiroshima, the holocaust, genocide – things like that. If that level of evil fits into God’s plan – a lot of people walk away from God’s plan. It sounds like a terrible plan. But here’s the thing – this world? This is not God’s plan. Look around – think about the worst thing you can imagine. This is not God’s plan, this is our plan. This is what we have done while we, humans, were in charge of the world. Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that evil comes from God. But God is not evil, cannot be evil. God is the light, and evil fits in the darkness. This is not God’s plan.
God’s plan is what we call redemption. There’s actually this amazing thing that happens where God can take evil and transform it into good. By enduring with us, suffering next to us, God experiences our pain and actually – he can give purpose to your pain. There is evil in the world, and we should not try to cover that up. There are bad things out there, but the story of scripture is that God steps in, crushes evil and creates something better. God’s plan is redemption. Restoring all the brokenness. It’s this life – perfected. Christians have a promise in the bible – that this world is not what God wants. Right after our scripture lesson, in the next couple verses it says, [read v.16-18]. I think some of us try to deal with the problem of pain by pretending it’s not real. “Oh it’s just a little bad in God’s great big plan. It’s all a part of God’s plan.” But that’s not true. Sin? Evil? The suffering and pain of this world? God’s plan is to destroy those things forever, and spend eternity with those who love him. We don’t have to brush it under the rug or act like it’s not that bad – it IS bad, and that’s why God will destroy it.
We need to be careful when we throw around the phrase, “it’s all part of God’s plan.” Because God’s plan is not evil; God’s plan is getting rid of evil. The light that pushes back the darkness. That’s the plan that we can get excited about. A plan that is so great, even the worst pieces of humanities’ fallenness gets scrubbed away. So instead of trying to play down evil, or minimize pain, maybe what we need to say is “no, this hurts a lot. I’m going to be honest about that pain. Because God endures that pain with me, and he hates it just as much as I do, and this is not the end of the story.” We humans here on earth live life with a very limited perspective. Christians believe there is something more. Call it heaven, the afterlife, whatever. This life is not the final word. Our ideas of fairness and justice comes with an epilogue. It doesn’t all happen in this life. Verse 18 one more time, [read it].
So 2 Corinthians got us through the existence of evil and the problem of pain – but there is one more common response from atheists that I wanted to deal with today: What do we do when our “good” God does terrible things? I mean, how do we answer the atheist who says, “look at your bible and see that your God does bad things.” Case and point, Psalm 136. It’s a beautiful little scripture, right up until we get to the uncomfortable part. It starts off okay, [read 1-4]. And it goes on, and talks about how God created heaven and the stars. It’s all very upbeat, positive, encouraging K-Love. This is the kind of stuff that makes a good contemporary worship song, throw in a nice beat and an acoustic guitar – that’s solid. But then we get to verse 10. [read 10]. Oops. I don’t remember that reference in the Chris Tomlin version. And then we start to remember some of the stories we have read about the things God has done throughout history. Moses and the Israelites was a good example. Verse 10 is talking about the final plague on Egypt. Where God took the first-born of all the Egyptians. It’s a horrible moment. A lot of churches gloss over that because we don’t want to talk about it.
But hold on a second, let’s take this example and run through the things we’ve learned so far. First, this is not really about some abstract philosophical question. Most atheists, and others who ask questions are not actually concerned with what happened to a group of kids three thousand years ago. This question is not abstract. Most people turn real pain into a search for blame. It doesn’t matter if it’s the firstborn of Egypt thirteen hundred years before Jesus, or the little girl sitting in the cancer ward at Hurley right now. The first fundamental principle for dealing with the problem of evil is recognizing that bad things happen. I once had a Sunday School teacher who tried to tell me that the entire story was probably just an analogy. Just a metaphor, like it didn’t really happen. And I remember thinking, “well, what’s it a metaphor of?” What’s the analogy for first born children dying? Because if you’re having this conversation with someone, like a real person, even if you can convince them that the story in the bible is just a silly example and you don’t have to take it too seriously, and you successfully sweep it under the rug – that will not answer the underlying question in their heart that comes from the very real pain they are dealing with in their very real life. First, bad things do happen. Second, God endures those bad things WITH us. What was that line from Psalm 136? Repeated over and over – his faithful love endures forever. God’s love is faithful. It is steadfast and strong. It is always there. It says that God’s love endures. Endurance is brought on by suffering. Love endures because it suffers with us in the pain. God’s steadfast love endures forever. Not until your final breath, but far beyond that, stretching into eternity. It’s the same idea we got from 2 Corinthians, right? [read 2 Corinthians 4:10-12] This life is not the whole picture. What happened to those children – they went to be with God, and the rest is unknown. When we view death and suffering inside the limits of this world – it’s very hard to say that God is good. But when we remember that the Christian idea of love and justice, fairness – we have an epilogue, another chapter to life after death. [read v.18].
The good news this morning is that God shines in the darkness. What I want you to see this morning is not that we can take God’s actions and hold them up and decide whether they are good things or bad things. But that all of God’s actions led to redemption. Lead to destruction of the darkness in this world, because God shines in the darkness. Our world, our actions, our plan has led to a lot of darkness. God allowed it through free will, because of love. But the hope Christians hold on to is that the story is not over. This life is not the end, and so we respond by letting God’s light shine in our hearts. When we follow Jesus with our lives, we become fragile clay jars containing a great treasure.
So now we get to end. And again we’ve gone back and forth, back and forth in this sermon. Power of God, Free will, who’s fault, love, evil. So to close I always ask the same question – What do we do with all of this? There are two things I want you to take away from this sermon today. First, feel your feelings. Be honest with yourself. God asks us to trust him, that does not mean we will always like the plan. The entire book of psalms is full of poems and poetry about how much these people (mostly King David) are upset with God’s plan. They are hurting, and it’s real. Remember, when someone is upset – they can’t make God less God, they can’t make God less good. It seems over simple, but feel your feelings, and let others feel theirs. The power of God in a world full of evil is that we don’t have to ignore evil. The power of the light is that it pushes back the darkness. So don’t minimize pain with platitudes and cliches. God sits alongside us in our suffering, and so we should do the same with other people. Let them feel their feelings.
The second take away today is to remember that God is always with us. Evil breaks our heart. It is so hard to look at the underbelly of the world. Evil breaks God’s heart too. That’s what was so amazing about Jesus. He was human. He has felt our pain. He knows what loss and heartbreak and betrayal feels like. God experiences evil right alongside us. When we hurt, and say – this is not right – God is right there next to us, saying – you’re right, this is not good, but I have something better in mind. 2 Corinthians tells us [4:6-9]. Without God, pain is just pain, hell on earth. With God, pain can be redeemed, washed away, transformed into something better.
Is God good? Yes, yes, a thousand times Yes. But the reality is that evil is out there. Darkness starts at the edge of light. God is good, and someday we can feel that good, with evil scrubbed away. A light in the darkness. One of my goals for this sermon was to read the end of 2 Corinthians as many times as I could in one sermon. Hear this: [read v.16-18]. Amen.