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Understanding Evil

on . Posted in Perspective

evilEvil exists. We’re reminded of this each time another tragic—avoidable—incident hits the news.

“Mass killings” come to mind, a phrase now part of our national consciousness and the cultural lexicon. All we need do is say certain words and it all comes rushing back: Columbine, 9/11, Nickel Mines Amish school, Virginia Tech, Norway’s Utoya Island, Clackamas, Sandy Hook. And mass killings are only one form of evil. There are many more.

Evil also exists worldwide, of course. Killing, pain and suffering, grief and tears occur everyday in the Syrian civil war, Mexican drug war, Burma internal disputes, Pakistan and Afghanistan wars, to name only a few.

Evil triumphs. It makes its lasting mark upon those directly affected by loss of life, loved ones, or liberty.

Watching Evil

“Watching evil” is now a pastime available to us all via news networks and the Internet, each of which can bring trauma-drama right into our homes and hearts. Like the Devil himself, evil is ubiquitous and inescapable. There is a sickening sadness to all of this.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed, saturated really. “Theologically,” we know victims of evil are each loved by God. But with so much tragedy it’s difficult at times to think of the pictures and vast numbers paraded before us as people with personalities and potential, now snuffed out forever.
And what does all this evil mean? How can it go on, one wrenching story after another? Must we live in fear, in armed preparedness, in defeat?

And the rub: does God care? Is he surprised, detached, powerless?

It seems to me that if God allows evil to triumph, than there must be something we need to know about him and about us, about good and evil. Otherwise, God is not the God we thought.

Processing Evil

When I hear and see evil, through media if not my own experience, I want to understand. I try to “process” it, place evil in some context that allows me to grasp meaning in it. More than that: truth-be-told I want, depending upon the situation, vindication, justice, healing, and peace. And I want to know God is, despite the evidence of evil, still in charge.

Frankly, the media doesn’t help me with this, not much anyway. They try. Most journalists aren’t cold-hearted. They aren’t emotionally unscathed by images of evil any more than we are. So give them credit for the attempt. But in the secularized bent of our culture media responds to evil by interviewing a parade of mental health professionals (who are also trying). But they generally don’t have, or don’t feel they can share, the spiritual vocabulary or tools to deal with evil.

If you “Look inside yourself,” as so many celebrity psychologists suggest, or if we “Have faith” (In what?) as so many celebrities recommend, we don’t find much help there either. What good does it do to go to the well when there’s nothing in the well?

As a culture, we’ve moved away from Christian or even religious interpretations of life and replaced them with not much, which is to say mish-mash beliefs of our own concoction. So our well is empty. When media look for something to comfort us in the face of evil, they don’t have anything to fall back on. There’s no backstop, no spiritual moral resonance rooted in a deeper understanding of God or a Christian theology of life that gets us through.

The same is true, actually more so, for the perpetrators of evil. I’m weary of people so twisted they commit suicide by first murdering others, like the young killers at Clackamas and Newtown. And I hold them responsible, though I recognize that many influences can steer people toward irrational acts of violence.

More difficult to accept is that not just the victims but the victimizer is loved by God. This evildoer who has become “senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless,” who has a penchant to “invent ways of doing evil,” and who has gone over to the dark side, is still important (Romans 1:28-32; 3:23-26). This morally bereft person, though evil and though accountable, is also a tragedy, one lost in sin and lost to sin.

Understanding Evil

Scripture says, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). God cares. In his Word, God is revealed as great, good, loving, and just. He is sovereign, so he’s not surprised by evil. Though he hates evil, God gives human beings the freedom to choose to do good or to do evil. Ultimately, his goal is to reconcile us to him, despite evil and even through tragedies caused by it.

David the shepherd, psalmist, and king, lived a life filled with travail. Evil often beset him on all sides and, like us, from within his own heart. David despaired in his circumstances. He said, “He who is pregnant with evil and conceives trouble gives birth to disillusionment” (Psalm 7:14).
Because of this, David continually sang, “O my righteous God, give me relief from my distresses; be merciful to me and hear my prayer” (Psalm 4:1). In the face of sin, evil, trial, and tragedy, David spoke repeatedly of God’s unfailing love and his strong right arm. David called upon God to “bring an end to the violence of the wicked” (7:9), but then said, “Do not fret yourself because of evil men…for like the grass they will soon wither…trust in the Lord and do good” (Psalm 37:1-3).

In the end, David recognized that his security and his hope were based not on “winning” a battle with evil—only God can do this—but in placing his faith in God’s character and promises. David sang aloud, “But my eyes are fixed on you, O Sovereign Lord; in you I take refuge” (141:8).
God’s Word is replete with help on how to respond to the impact of evil in this world and in our own lives:
  • God is sovereign and he has a plan (Esther 4:14; Acts 3:13-15; Romans 8:28).
  • “If God is for us, who can be against us?” Nothing can separate us from God (Romans 8:31-39).
  • Do not be afraid of those who can kill the body but not the soul (Psalm 56:3-4; 139:15-16; Matthew 10:28-31).
  • Never seek revenge but express love, and work toward forgiveness and reconciliation (Romans 12:17-21; 2 Corinthians 5:18-19).
  • Comfort others with the comfort with which we’ve been blessed (2 Corinthians 1:3-6).
  • Maintain trust and hope, not in yourself, not in circumstances, not in religion, not in others, but in God (Psalm 42:5; 62:5, 8).

Evil only seems to triumph. Its reign of terror is always circumscribed and will end with God’s justice and peace.

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