Do you ever wonder about God and evil? The problem of evil?
How do we really know that God is good, and what does the Bible even mean, “God is good?”
Upstairs in a cozy corner of the church, my youth pastor put down his guitar and asked a question:
“What are you reading in the Bible? What’s hard to wrap your mind around?”
I thought I had a show-stopper:
“First Samuel 16,” I said. “What is God doing sending an evil spirit on King Saul?”
My youth pastor gave a decent answer: “It seems hard to understand, but God can send curses as well as blessings. Even the devil is God’s devil.”
I’ve thought back to this topic from time to time. A dozen years later, I still want to know what it means that God sends evil.
Some verses on the issue:
1. God sent evil on Saul:
But the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord troubled him (1 Sam 16:14).
2. God sent evil on Job:
Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil (Job 2:10)?
3. God sent evil on the nations:
I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; I, the Lord, do all these things (Is 45:7).
4. God sent evil on Israel, His beloved:
Out of the mouth of the Most High proceedeth not evil and good (Lam 3:38)?
5. God sent evil on cities:
Shall a trumpet be blown in the city, and the people not be afraid? Shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord hath not done it (Amos 3:6)?
Was I the only one baffled by this?
For me, an unsophisticated youth group kid, it was a lot to take in. After all, God’s work is perfect (Deut 32:4), evil doesn’t dwell with him (Ps 5:4), and he has purer eyes than to behold evil (Hab 1:13). There is no unrighteousness in him (Ps 92:15).
Does God do evil? And if so, what does that mean for how I think about God?
Then the solution came.
I decided to let go of unexamined ideas about what “good” means. I was getting lost in my own conceptions. I needed to attend to the facts of reality.
I needed to start without any unchecked conceptions about what “good” is, or about whether God meets that criteria. Knowledge starts with observation: what is God like?
Instead of asking, “Is God good?” I asked, “What has God done?”
1. God made the world for his own pleasure (Ps 115:3), and he called it very good (Gen 1:31).
2. God chose a people to be his, for his glory (Deut 7:6, Is 48:11).
3. He told them to follow his commands, “that ye may live, and that it may be well with you” (Deut 5:33).
4. He told them to do right and good in the sight of the Lord (Deut 6:18).
5. He told them to obey and to fear him, for their own good always, that he might preserve them alive (Deut 6:24).
6. He said, “For it is not a vain thing for you, because it is your life; and through this thing ye shall prolong your days (Deut 32:47).
What can we tell from these verses?
God is self-interested. Everything he does is for his own pleasure. And he has pleasure in choosing a people to be his own. He gives them directions for how to prosper—how to seek their own good by obeying him.
God speaks of what is “good for” the people. Good and evil are relational ideas. This doesn’t mean they are relative to a specific culture. It means “good and evil” are terms that have meaning in respect to the self-interest of individuals.
As a high school student, I didn’t think about “good and evil” that way. I tended to think of “good” as if it were an object or a force. But I learned to understand “good” as a status—a status describing the relationship between individual things or actions.
So “God does good to a person,” means he preserves that person’s life. And “God does evil to a person,” means he harms or destroys that person’s life.
That’s what “good and evil” mean.
So there is no difficulty in understanding how God could send evil, give evil, create evil, speak evil, or do evil (1 Sam 16:14, Job 2:10, Is 45:7, Lam 3:38, Amos 3:6).
“Good” is not a universal state or force. When we remember that good and evil are contextual to individuals and that God does everything for his own good, we realize there is no inconsistency in God doing evil to others.
Sometimes the Lord sends evil, and sometimes the Lord stays it.
And God sent an angel unto Jerusalem to destroy it; and as he was destroying, the LORD beheld, and He repented of the evil, and said to the angel who destroyed, “It is enough. Stay now thine hand.” And the angel of the LORD stood by the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite (1 Chron 21:15).
Always, it is for his own self-interest.
Why should the Egyptians speak and say, ‘For mischief did He bring them out, to slay them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from Thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against Thy people (Ex 32:12).
If you can’t love a God who is completely self-interested and who is willing to do evil to his enemies, can you say you love the God of the Bible?
In his kindness or in his judgment, this is a God who acts for his own sake.
For Mine own sake, even for Mine own sake, will I do it; for how should My name be polluted? And I will not give My glory unto another (Is 48:11).