Category Archives: The Fall

The Enigma of Evil

AR-AE960_LEGO_P_20140130112656It is the age old problem – “How can a good God allow evil?” It is answered normally in two ways – either he is loving but unable to do anything to stop it (making him a benevolent but impotent being), or he is able to do something, but is unwilling to act (making him a malevolent dictator). This conundrum is not easily solved…if God really is as loving as he claims to be, then surely he would do more to stop the evil we see everywhere. If he is really as powerful as he claims to be then he could stop so much suffering instantly. We put ourselves in his shoes and see things so differently – we imagine what we would do if we were him.

Imagine for a moment you are the CEO of a large company. There are things in your company that are not good – people fighting, people getting emotionally hurt, people leaving in frustration. The situation really hurts the CEO because he or she cares about people and about their company. So what does he do? Does he have the power to sort things out? Obviously, he’s the boss. But is getting stuck in the best course of action? If he does nothing people will question whether he really cares about the hurt and pain they are experiencing. But if he intervenes in every case his employees will treat him as the police enforcement or judge to arbitrate even the smallest disagreements. They may also resent the fact that he is always interfering in things that are not his responsibility. Surely this is not the wisest thing for him to do either?

So, he comes up with a compromise – he decides to constantly lead by example and be the kind of leader he is looking for; he teaches his most senior leaders what it takes to be a good leader; he makes an example of some of the more serious grievances and he coaches people in private about how they should act in a given situation. There are some things that were set by his predecessor and he cannot change them easily (think of long term rental agreements) that are causing institutional pain, but eventually he will deal with these too.

Through these methods he slowly sees the company change, people becoming more what they could be, less what they shouldn’t be. All the time he has patiently waited and instructed, but not dictated the behaviours he expects from his staff. This is a good analogy of how God deals with the problem of evil….

1) He experiences our pain – rather than being a distant God, untouched by evil, he comes to earth to face it head on and feel the full force of corruption, jealousy, betrayal, greed, hatred, contempt and murder. In the life of Jesus God shows us how we should overcome evil with good, and learn how to not retaliate when we are reviled. Jesus was heartbroken by the death that took away his friend Lazarus, he is not immune to the pain caused by evil in this world.

2) He gives examples of a better way – the lives of the apostles and prophets give us ample examples of how to live in the midst of suffering and evil without succumbing to it. In the life of Job we learn how to suffer patiently and accept trial from God as well as blessing; in the life of Joseph we learn that what our brothers meant for evil God uses for good.

3) He shows us how seriously he takes evil – in the punishment dealt out to the rebellious Israelites in the Old Testament we have a vivid picture of how seriously God takes evil. Interestingly, these are the passages that people today use to try and argue that God is not loving – and yet it is his loving judgement on evil that shows us that he really does care enough about evil to do something about it.

4) He allows us room to learn – he does not intervene to stop every mistake we make. We do things that hurt ourselves and each other, we act selfishly and destructively, and he allows us to do it. Why? Because he wants us to grow in godliness through making our own choices, rather than restraining our freedom to act independently. We might wish he would stop people doing bad things, but would that apply to us as well when we act selfishly or self-centered or are proud?

5) He gives us his Spirit to teach us – if we are willing we can learn how to change the only evil we can control, the evil within our own hearts. We look at the world outside as the problem, but this problem is really inside of us. It is in our hearts where the darkness lies, and as we allow him into our lives he extinguishes the darkness with his light.

6) He is active to restrain it now and will ultimately remove it – just like the CEO, there are some things that are more structural than social. Unfortunately evil is a fundamental part of a corrupt and fallen world. While we may wish he would act now against evil, we should not take his patience for complacency. One day he will purge the world of evil, but if we would not be part of the problem on that day, we must come and submit to his rule in our lives in today. However, it is a mistake to think that he is distant from his creation and just waiting for the end, he acts in multitude of unseen ways to restrain evil everyday in the lives of his creation.

Maybe being a CEO isn’t that easy after all!

Free to do what you love

Book II Chapter II Section 1-27

After looking at original sin (or as Calvin calls it, hereditary sin) in Chapter 1 of Book 2, Calvin moves on to consider whether as a result of the fall man really has the freedom to choose to do good or evil. Does man really have a free will?

In order to answer this question Calvin first outlines how the mind works, how we make decisions. He identifies various elements within the soul, including the intellect, sense and appetite or will. He outlines the view of the philosophers who saw reason as illuminating the mind and informing the will to make decisions. However, they acknowledged that the will could be diverted from following reason by sense (pleasure and passion) that distort the appetite and turn will towards lust. But they believed that if man could rise above the influence of such carnal desires then he would be able to act justly and live an upright life. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is an excellent example of stoic philosophy that taught distancing ourselves from pleasure and pain in order to live a just life. Thus, the philosophers saw our innate reason as essentially pure and perceived the problem to be in trying to follow its inner light.

Discarding this view as not fully appreciating the impact of the Fall, Calvin then assesses the view of the church fathers on the topic of free will. He concludes that all of them, with the exception of Augustine, see man as corrupted at the sensual level only. They, like the philosophers, see our innate sense of reason as largely unaffected. He thinks this was driven by a misguided attempt to prevent people from feeling impotent to change their behaviour. Augustine defines free will in this way “it is a power of reason and will to choose the good, grace assisting, – to choose the bad, grace desisting”, emphasising man’s reliance on God’s grace for every good act. Calvin agrees with Augustine that without the transforming effect of grace man is completely powerless to live uprightly. He admits that mankind is not without the occasional spark of insight into the right path to follow, but our love for sin is such that we continue to decide to do that which we love – our sin.

Calvin goes on to describe three types of freedoms – the freedom from necessity (or compulsion), the freedom from sin, and the freedom from misery. He argues that the first freedom – the freedom from being forced how to act – is inherent to man and could not be removed, but the other two freedoms have been lost through the Fall. So, man has the free will to act however he so chooses, but he cannot act free from the power of sin. Calvin sums it up this way: “man is said to have free will, not because he has a free choice of good and evil, but because he acts voluntarily and not by compulsion”. But is this any type of freedom? “that man is not forced to be the servant of sin, while he is, however, a voluntary slave, his will being bound by the fetters of sin”.

Response

The issue of free will is contentious, we feel like we act freely and make up our minds over how to act. Indeed, it is true that even after the Fall, reason is able to act as a guide. But it is also in some measure corrupted, our conscience is not always reliable and even when it points us in the right direction we do not have the moral power to carry out our good intentions. Even when we recognise that we are caught in a trap, our will is not free to step out of the net.

We need help from outside to change. Just like the English rugby player who after he was caught for doing cocaine was actually pleased that he had been found out before his addiction completely ruined his life, we need someone to step in and save us. Someone who has the power to overcome our weak will and set it in a new direction.

The case for the Saviour is being steadily built as each chapter unfolds. He is able to take us from being voluntary slaves to sin and make us willing love slaves to Him, so that we desire to do what’s right and have the power to carry it out. Then and only then are we willing and able to do what pleases Him. The struggle with sensual desires still wages but we have a new power within to will and to do what we now love – live a godly life.

“I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin…So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed”. John 8.34

Father, if we are completely honest we recognise that there is nothing in us that desires you. It is only by your Spirit working in us that we desire to draw near to you and begin to love and serve you. Thank you that you have taken away our heart of stone and given us a heart of flesh. Fan into flame this desire and give us a steadfast heart to seek Your face, for your name’s sake, Amen.