WHERE IS GOD…WHEN BAD PEOPLE ARE DOING BAD THINGS TO GOOD PEOPLE?
March 17, 2019
13 Now after the Wise Men had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
He sat smirking and rocking on the back two legs of his chair directly across from me, the only thing separating us a beat-up metal desk, in a tiny cubicle just outside the cellblock in the basement of the county jail. He seemed quite proud, quite satisfied of the crime he had just been convicted of. He described quite glibly, quite gladly, quite graphically how he had raped and inflicted cigarette burns upon and nearly killed a 2-year-old little girl.
I was a 21-year-old probation and parole officer intern, preparing the pre-sentence report on this monster. The more he talked, the more a seething rage welled up inside me. I found myself grabbing instinctively for my pocket knife…but it wasn’t there…having been confiscated by the metal detector. I literally sat on my hands to prevent myself from strangling him.
I scratched a few more notes on my legal pad. The correctional officer removed him from the room. I buried my head in a trashcan, violently heaving and hurling my breakfast.
As I recall, that was my first real, stark, face-to-face encounter with evil. I have never forgotten it.
Nor have I ever quite come to terms with the disturbing question that encounter ignited in my soul- Where was God when that little child was being tortured?
Yes, “Where is God when bad people are doing bad things to good people?” It is a question I have revisited many, many times as a pastor and as a Christian.
What I share with you this morning is my random wrestling for answers…
SOME INITIAL THOUGHTS…
It’s the part of the Christmas story we never get around to telling: Yes, the Wise Men from the East follow a brilliant star. They eventually reach King Herod, inquiring the whereabouts of a newborn king this brilliant star has heralded the birth of. They eventually locate the baby Jesus, drop off their gifts, drink the eggnog and eat the fruitcake, and then depart. End of story.
But it’s not. Herod is an evil man. An angel warns Joseph and Mary to take their son and escape to Egypt. But 20 or so other children under the age of two living in and around Bethlehem are not so fortunate. Herod has them slaughtered, thinking he has ended any future threat to his throne. And there is unrelenting grief throughout the village.
We’ve heard the same refrain over and over again in our own generation. On December 14, 2012 a lonely 20-year-old young man retrieves two pistols and a semi-automatic rifle from his mother’s gun collection. He kills her as she sleeps. And then he heads to his former elementary school, Sandy Hook, and begins a rampage that will shock the world.
Twenty children under the age of seven and six educators will be murdered. The gunman will take his own life.
In an interview released in the New Yorker magazine, Adam Lanza’s father used the term “evil” to describe his son. He said he wished his son had never been born.
In response to the shootings at Sandy Hook, Archbishop Charles Chaput commented, “Why does God allow wickedness? He allows it because we – or others like us – choose it.” [“God is good”: Charles Chaput, “Advent, Suffering and the Promise of Joy,” CatholicPhilly.com (December 19, 2012).]
From the time of Adam and Eve, God has created humanity to be free, and as such we have in our DNA the capacity to choose evil as well as good. We have the capacity to be bad people who do bad things to good people.
At the very heart of our faith is the claim we worship a suffering God whose own Son was constantly hounded and eventually murdered by evil perpetrators. God himself did not intervene on that hill faraway. He did not violate our freedom to crucify his only Son.
So given that evil is a reality of living in a fallen world, what can we do about it? Well, we do know this:
-Wherever community is perforated
Yes, evil gets a foothold and spreads wherever we have lost that sense of knowing and caring for each other and holding each other accountable- wherever that safety net is poked full of holes.
In the town I grew up in, people knew you, and they knew when you were getting out of line. I literally could not throw a rock through an abandoned warehouse window without my parents knowing about it by the time I got home. It was like living with the Southside Va. chapter of the KGB.
It took an entire village to help my parents raise me, and not only me but my friends as well. And that was okay.
There was a sense of community in those days…folks helping each other keep an eye on what was going on with each other’s kids…a genuine sense that you had a responsibility for one another.
And you didn’t wait on the school guidance counselor to help you. You looked up and spoke up and made a difference. It’s what Jesus was talking about when he spoke of a Samaritan being a neighbor.
I wonder if Adam Lanza or his parents were ever surrounded by any sense of community, of people who knew their issues and could have somehow made a difference?
Evil pervades wherever community is perforated…and also:
Wherever religion is perverted
Atheists maintain that much of the world’s wickedness comes from religion. Yet, that’s not totally true. The fact is that much evil arises from fanatical followers of religion who have developed cataracts over their vision of what God’s true nature actually is.
Revenge replaces redemption as the primary motive. And as Gandhi once said, “If you take the principle of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth to its logical conclusion, eventually the whole world will go blind and toothless.” [Philip Yancey, The Question that Never Goes Away, p. 79]
The Balkan War of the 1990’s was a prime example of this. After the breakup of communist Yugoslavia, the uneasy peace between three distinct religious groups came unraveled. Croatian Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Serbs and Bosniak Muslims brushed aside the basic beliefs of their respective religions and turned on each other like a pack of wolves. Ethnic cleansing was conducted in the name of God.
Neighbor turned on neighbor. Village turned on village. Thousands perished in genocide as unspeakable atrocities were committed on all sides.
And we have seen this same nauseating slide show repeated over and over in the daily headlines from Rwanda to Syria to Westboro Baptist Church.
Evil pervades wherever community is perforated and religion is perverted and…
Wherever faith is perfunctory
That is to say where persons give little but lip service to God, but rarely live out what they believe. It is said that evil is the absence of good. And where people have no notion of what good is, a huge vacuum is created. And the devil loves nothing more than to take up residence in that void.
My wife is a 2nd grade elementary schoolteacher. And she will tell you it is unimaginable how amoral many kids are today. They simply have no inward compass as to right and wrong. They live by the motto “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine” – and so they think nothing of stealing a fellow student’s pencil or a teacher’s cellphone.
One kid she had in her class enjoyed body slamming other children, just for the heck of it—no provocation. He idolized the “Undertaker”—the WWE wrestler he watched on TV and played on his Xbox till 2 am each night.
And it’s not hard to figure out why these kids do what they do—you only need to meet their parents to realize there is absolutely no godly influence in these children’s lives. No faith, no church, no good.
Is it any wonder evil is so pervasive in our world and neighborhood today…where community is perforated and religion is perverted and faith is perfunctory?
And God works alongside us to do something about it:
Wherever justice is rendered
Paul reminds us that an orderly society with boundaries is a God-thing. And certainly our law enforcement officers—while not perfect—are a God-thing as well.
I ran into my good friend, Augusta Co. Deputy Jeff Dietz a while ago. He was moving very slowly, grimacing with each step. He had scratches all over his face and hands.
I inquired as to what had happened. He had been out all day and part of the night in sub-freezing temperatures, slipping and occasionally falling along the steep, rocky slopes of an Afton Mountain trail, searching for a missing man. And, once found, Jeff and his colleagues had to break the sad news of the man’s suicide to his family. That’s who Jeff is…a dedicated police officer who feels a deep calling to helping persons and upholding justice in the community.
We have many such law enforcement personnel right here in our own congregation. They have given exemplary service to God and to us in spite of receiving subpar salaries little respect.
The great 18th century statesman Edmund Burke once said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Thank God for our law enforcement officers who do so very much. And yes, when we support their efforts, serving as their ears and eyes, we do push back the onslaught of evil influence around us.
Evil retreats wherever justice is rendered…. And also
Wherever goodness is resolute
We always talk about having faith in God…but did you ever consider that God has great faith in us? God respects us and trusts us to do the right thing. He gives us free choice, even when it put us at odds with his divine intentions. And so, when we seek his will unwaveringly, good can indeed overcome evil.
Let’s return to a fascinating incident following the Balkan War, that conflict that pitted followers of three major faiths in a brutal fight to the death: In one particular village there was a Franciscan monk named Ivan Markovic who suffered the murders of nine members of his family by Bosniak Muslims. After the war stopped, Father Markovic visited his home village. Listen to the Miroslav Volf’s account of what happened next:
Occupying the house in which Marcovic’s brother used to live was a fierce Muslim woman. Markovic was warned not to go there because she brandished a rifle to protect her new home. He went anyway.
As he approached the house she was waiting for him, cigarette in her mouth and rifle cocked. She barked, “Go away or I’ll shoot you.”
“No, you won’t shoot me,” said Father Markovic in a gentle but firm voice, “you’ll make me a cup of coffee for me.”
She stared at him for a while, then slowly put the rifle down and went into the kitchen. Taking the last bit of coffee she had, she mixed in some already used grounds to make enough coffee for two cups.
And they, deadly enemies, began to talk as they partook in the ancient ritual of hospitality: drinking coffee together.
She told him of her loneliness, of the home she had lost, of the son who never returned from the battlefield. When Father Markovic returned a month later she told him, “I rejoice at seeing you as much as if my son had returned home.”
Did they talk about forgiveness? I don’t know. And in a sense it doesn’t matter. He, the victim, came to her asking for her hospitality in his brother’s home, which she unrightfully possessed. And she responded.
Though she greeted him with a rifle, she gave him a gift and came to rejoice at his presence.
The humble, tenuous beginnings of a journey toward [good] were enacted through a simple ritual of coffee drinking. If the journey continues, it will lead through the difficult terrain of forgiveness.
[Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgivine in a Culture Stripped of Grace. Cited in Philip Yancey, The Question that Never Goes Away. Pp. 80-81]
Evil retreats wherever justice is rendered and goodness is resolute and…
Wherever hope is revealed
On June 6, 1944, the invasion of D-Day, the Battle of Normandy, began during World War II. The Allied Forces’ victory in that battle did not immediately end the war against Hitler’s evil tyranny, but it assured the outcome a year later.
In the same manner, the life, death and resurrection of Christ was the turning point, the spiritual D-Day, in the war against the presence and power of evil in this world. And that victory assures the ultimate outcome, when one day our Lord will return to reign forever and ever.
Yes, history has a redemptive end. God’s divine purposes, which had their origin in a humble stable out back of a Bethlehem inn, will one day vanquish the cosmic forces of evil forevermore. As Albert Terhum puts it, “God always completes his sentences.”
And so we don’t have to live with our heads hung low, wringing our hands in despair over the daily headlines. God is ultimately in control of our destiny and the destiny of this world. In the end, God’s purposes will win!
In the meanwhile, live into that hope…be the light of God’s good in the world around us, overcoming the darkness of evil.
Max Lucado shares the following: On a November evening in 2004, Victoria Ruvolo, a forty-four-year-old New Yorker, was driving to her home on Long Island. She’d just attended her niece’s recital and was ready for the couch, a warm fire, and relaxation.
She doesn’t remember seeing the silver Nissan approach from the east. She remembers nothing of the eighteen- year-old boy leaning out the window, holding, of all things, a frozen turkey. He threw it at her windshield.
The twenty-pound bird crashed through the glass, bent the steering wheel inward, and shattered her face like a dinner plate on concrete. The violent prank left her grappling for life in the ICU. She survived but only after doctors wired her jaw, affixed one eye by synthetic film, and bolted titanium plates to her cranium. She can’t look in the mirror without a reminder of her hurt.
Nine months after her disastrous November night, she stood face to titanium-bolted face with her offender in court. Ryan Cushing was no longer the cocky, turkey-tossing kid in the Nissan. He was trembling, tearful, and apologetic. For New York City, he had come to symbolize a generation of kids out of control. People packed the room to see him get his comeuppance. The judge’s sentence enraged them — only six months behind bars, five years’ probation, some counseling, and public service.
The courtroom erupted. Everyone objected. Everyone, that is, except Victoria Ruvolo. The reduced sentence was her idea.
The boy walked over, and she embraced him. In full view of the judge and the crowd, she held him tight, stroked his hair. He sobbed, and she spoke:
“I forgive you. I want your life to be the best it can be.”
She allowed grace to shape her response. “God gave me a second chance at life, and I passed it on,” she says of her largesse. “If I hadn’t let go of that anger, I’d be consumed by this need for revenge. Forgiving him helps me move on.”
Her mishap led to her mission: volunteering with the county probation department. “I’m trying to help others, but I know for the rest of my life I’ll be known as ‘The Turkey Lady.’ Could have been worse. He could have thrown a ham. I’d be Miss Piggy!” [http://www.faithgateway.com/grace-given-give-grace/#.UyNZUVyjGlI]
Where is God when bad people are doing bad things to good people? Victoria Ruvulo found that God was suffering right alongside her, healing her anger and lifting her to find the strength to do the good thing of forgiveness.
The Apostle Paul put it this way: Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
– Romans 12:21
May God give us the strength to do so…