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In all of these travels, I have been privileged and extremely grateful for the opportunity to see different parts of the country, explore various institutions of higher learning, meet many new people, and spend time with old friends. We are made richer by our wanderings.
Some of the people I met had tales of grief, pain, loss, and uncertainty. These were in stark contrast to the bounty of fullness and goodness I live in most of the time. The problem of evil seems to have a parallel in the problem of good. We may find inexplicable and undeserved suffering and tragedy in the world, but we also find inexplicable and undeserved goodness happening as well.
During these travels I was reading some thoughts by N.T. Wright on the problem of evil. Wright suggests that there are three problems with how we view evil:
1) We ignore evil if it doesn't hit us in the face. Basically, unless evil or suffering directly affect me, I don't make much of a fuss about it. In contrast to this, we see Jesus get up close and personal with suffering and evil. He comes into direct contact with it, willingly. He does not avoid or ignore evil, but confronts it.
2) The second problem Wright sees is that we are surprised by evil. When we hear of some crime in our neighbourhood, we are shocked. How could this happen? We live in a nice, safe place, don't we? I believe part of the problem is that we are unaware of the depth of evil in our own hearts. We have this idea that we are the good guys and others are the bad guys. Wright says that, "That fateful line between good and evil runs down the middle of each one of us. We are all infected." We are simultaneously God's good creation and a continuing source of chaos and terror. When we acknowledge this in humility, recognizing our poverty of goodness apart from God, we are no longer shocked by evil, but have compassion for those trapped in sin. Like Jesus, we seek to set people free from the power of the evil one, not to insulate ourselves from them.
3) We react in immature and dangerous ways to evil. Because we are shocked by evil, unwilling to recognize our own participation in it, we lash out, we resort to violence, we react with self-righteous attempts to enforce stricter laws which will clamp a lid on evil. None of these reactions make much room for redemption and restoration. God deals with evil from within creation. He does not fly in from the outside and magically fix everything; God chooses to walk with sinners and transform them from the inside out. The work of Jesus was to exhaust the power of evil by draining it of its power. He did not overcome evil by a show of might, but by submitting himself to punishment, to death. By swallowing up death and evil, he rendered it powerless in the face of divine goodness. Light banishes darkness when the two came into contact. Love is always stronger than death.
But what about the problem of good? For the cynics, those who doubt, those who see evil and decay lurking around every corner, those who are weighed down with suffering to the point of hopelessness, the problem of good is real. Why does good pop up in places that have nothing to do with their own efforts to be free of sin and its effects? Why do good things happen to bad people?
In the same way that we can ignore evil, we can ignore good. Similar to our blindness regarding the evil in our own hearts, we can be unaware of the goodness of God which resides in every creature on earth. We have a hard time believing God is with us because we define goodness by some other standard than "God is present with us." Instead of expressing wonder and gratitude at the glimmers of goodness in this world, we see only darkness, destruction, and hopeless situations. In truth, we can react to occasions of goodness in dismissive ways, effectively pouring cold water on barely glowing embers. What we see from Jesus is the ability to recognize the spark of goodness in even the most unlikely candidates, and then to fan that bit of goodness into flame (examples are Zacchaeus the tax collector and the woman of ill repute who poured expensive perfume on Jesus' feet).
Discernment is the ability to tell not only the difference between good and evil, but to identify the first signs of evil before they become full-blown. If we can do this, in our own lives and in the lives of others, we can change our ways before much damage is done. If we look for ways to bring restoration, redemption, and wholeness by being quick to respond, quick to repent, quick to rethink and adjust our attitudes, then we are practicing discernment.
Discernment is also the ability to see the good in all of God's creation, the beauty in the midst of the chaos, and to call it forth, to celebrate it, to give it space to grow, to water it, tend it, to fan a tiny spark into flame, By doing this, we participate in the work of Jesus which is to exhaust and drain evil of its power and hold on people. Jesus indicated that when we are struck on one cheek, we should turn the other cheek. This means absorbing the impact of evil and letting the goodness of God, the righteousness of God in us through the person of Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit, swallow up the evil. It means bearing the suffering of another, removing that bit of chaos and evil from the world by letting Jesus in us bear it and strip it of its power. This is not an easy thing to do, to go head to head with evil forces and not let them turn our hearts dark, but instead, to shine light on them. But greater is Jesus in us than all the evil in the world.
Let us overcome evil not by engaging in a power struggle, but by letting the goodness of God swallow it up. Let us celebrate beauty and goodness wherever we see it, no matter how small it is, and let us fan it into flame so that it burns brighter. This is the work of Jesus and we are invited to participate in it.
Quotations taken from N. T. Wright, "9/11, Tsunamis, and the New Problem of Evil," in Surprised by Scripture. HarperOne, 2014, 115.