When on a plane coming to the United States a few days ago, I sat next to a young man who was quite ill. He was about sixteen, or so, and alone. As the hours passed, his cough grew deeper. At one point I reached over and touched his forehead to see if he was feverish. He didn’t mind … and yes, he was hot to the touch.
Now, I’ve got whatever he had. I have a deep cough and very high fever.
I think it’s my duty as a Christian to put myself in harm’s way to help someone. I also think that God sometimes protects me, but not always. One of the many intellectual problems I have in my Christian faith is the idea of God’s sovereignty; He controls and monitors all things so that nothing that happens is outside his will. Theologians, particularly Calvinists, distinguish between God’s permissive and sovereign will. It’s a distinction that makes me uncomfortable but I’m going to explain it anyway.
God’s permissive will is much like looking away rather than confronting evil. When God does not intervene and lets evil happen, He permits that evil without sanctioning it. Natural disasters fall under this category. God did not choose to kill people in the horrible earthquake in Turkey and Syria, but He permitted their deaths. Thousands of people died on God’s watch there. (Yes, I have problems with this.)
Although this doesn’t compare to the suffering of those in Syria and Turkey, I’m sick after doing the right thing, caring for a boy whose parents were on another continent. My response was more maternal than Christian, admittedly, but I did it. But now, I’m sick. In a perfect universe, I would be rewarded for the few good deeds I do, and punished for all my bad deeds/thoughts — in this case, I was punished by becoming ill for doing good to a lonely, sick boy.
True, this is a rather mundane sort of evil particularly when compared to the victims of the earthquake but in both cases, an evil thing happened that was undeserved. In both cases we were Coram Deo = “In the presence of God.” God is very aware of what’s going on … yet they happen because, in some way, God permits them.
In the related concept of God’s passive versus active will, His passive will is like His permissive will — He chooses not to intervene. He lets evil be.
This reminds me of Joseph in the Old Testament, the biblical character who was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. Obviously, having your siblings sell you into slavery rather than kill you is a horribly evil thing to happen to you. Yet, God let this happen. In time, Joseph also ended up in prison after being wrongly accused of a crime. God let this happen, too. Finally, when good things happened to Joseph, well, God let those happen, too — he was sprung from prison and made the ruler of Egypt.
In Joseph’s case, God let both good and evil happen to him. God is never passive, but He didn’t intervene either. He let Joseph suffer. He let him be enslaved and imprisoned unjustly. It’s a horrible story, really, one that scares me. I’d much rather have a God who quickly rights wrongs and serves justice on the wicked. This sort of God would be much easier to understand. But the Christian God, the God of the Bible, is nuanced and complex, and frankly, it is difficult to square His goodness with the evil He permits.
When Joseph was reunited with his brothers years after they had sold him into slavery, his brothers didn’t recognize him at first. Then, when Joseph’s identity was revealed to them, their guilt overwhelmed them — the memory of what they had done was thrown back at them. Joseph, in response, said this to his brothers: “You meant it for evil; God meant it for good.”
I think of this verse when confronted with evil that could have been easily mitigated by God, but was not. Christian have to believe that somehow God transforms evil into good. I have HUGE problems with this, but still believe it … in faith. And, in hope. I hope that God weaves my little illness into good. I hope God weaves the horrific deaths of of the earthquake victims into good for those who remain, somehow. I hope God treats all of us as He treated Joseph, that in the end, we’ll be rewarded for the little good things we do both in this life as well as the next.
And, I hope God forgives the many bad things we do, in this life and in the next.