Choice

It Happens

This week we’re getting back to answering questions from people on Facebook. I’m going to attempt to answer a question that I’ve kind of been avoiding. There were a lot of versions of the question but the basic idea is: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” I haven’t been avoiding it because I don’t feel like I know how to answer it. I’ve been avoiding it because no answer is satisfying when you or someone you love is experiencing those “bad things.” In spite of my trepidation, let’s dive in.

When things seem to be difficult and it feels like we’re running around in circles, a friend of mine is fond of saying, “How did we get to this swamp in the first place?” To answer that we have to go back to the very beginning. Not only the beginning of this blog series posted on August 16th, but the beginning of everything.

In the post from August 16th, I talked extensively about how through human choice evil (or sin) entered into our experience. When the first humans sinned, evil entered and affected every part of God’s good creation. So because we choose evil, evil affects our existence. In short, bad things happen to good people because there is evil in the world.

Now, there are a couple of major objections that could be raised to that last paragraph. First, I included everyone in that statement “we choose evil.” I don’t know you. How can I say that you choose evil? That’s a very fair question. I don’t know you. I don’t know what you’re like. I come to that conclusion through a couple fundamental beliefs to which I hold. (1) I’m a theist. I believe there is a God that created everything. As the creator of everything, he defines the nature of things; including defining what is good and what is evil. (2) I believe that there are two primary ways in which that God communicates with us; the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and the Bible. The Bible clearly teaches that all people have inherited a sin nature from our first parents. We, therefore, all sin. A definition of sin is choosing evil, as God defines evil. Now if you do not agree with me on one or both of those points, then you will not agree with my explanation. That’s cool. I’m not presenting myself as an expert on the topic. I’m offering my biblically, theologically, philosophically, and experientially informed opinion. I would love to read yours. Please feel free to share it in the comments below and we can talk about it together.

On to objection number two: If God is really good, as we Christians claim he is, why doesn’t he prevent evil things from happening to good people? I believe there are two reasons. First, if God were to prevent all evil from happening to good people he would have to limit the freedom of choice. He would have to prevent evil people from making evil choices. He would also have to prevent good people from making choices that appear good but have potentially evil consequences. The freedom to choose is important to God. With that said, there is a doctrine known as prevenient grace. There is a lot of nuance in that concept. For our purposes here, prevenient grace means that God does prevent people from being as evil as they can be. If it weren’t for God’s grace, things would be much worse than they are. Even so, there is a line that God won’t cross. He will not totally supersede our freedom to choose. Second, the question “Why doesn’t God prevent evil from happening to good people?” begs the question, “Who is good?” Jesus said that only God is good. If that is true, then anything that does not line up with the character of God is evil. In which case, anyone who has ever willfully done something that violates Gods character is not good. That makes it very difficult to identify a good person. If anyone has lied, cheated, or willfully hurt someone physically or emotionally, they are ontologically not good. If that definition is true, then I’ve never met a good person. In that sense, it could be argued that bad things don’t happen to good people.

Let me be clear about something, I don’t believe that everyone deserves the bad things they experience. Jesus was very clear about that when his disciples asked him on that question. You can read the story for yourself in the Gospel of John chapters 9 – 10. Some people truly deserve the bad things they have to endure. Many people experience evil they don’t deserve.

For many, this post might seem incredibly depressing. Why in the world would anyone believe this or follow a God like this? Here’s why I do. I have experienced some bad things in my life that, in my opinion, can only be explained by the existence of evil in the world. Yet, I have experienced many more good things in my life that can only be explained by the existence of an entity that is powerful and good and loves me. I call this entity God. As I read the Bible, the description of God I find describes remarkably well the God that I’ve experienced. The Bible also says that in spite of all the bad things in the world, this good God who loves me will ultimately conquer sin and evil and those that love him will live with him for eternity. This gives me hope that this life means something and there is value in enduring the evil that will come today because there is a better tomorrow.

What about you? How would you respond to my friends’ questions? Why do bad things happen to good people?

I Respect Your Choice

A few weeks ago, I sent a message to many of my Facebook friends asking them, to share one question they would like a pastor to answer about faith or Jesus. I received several great responses. Over the next several weeks I’m going to attempt to answer those questions. I will be as honest and thorough as I can. Due the fact, however, that this is a blog, I’m going to be brief. I want this to be as readable as possible. I will have to leave a lot out. The advantage to this being a blog, though, is that you can interact with us right here. If you want to engage more regarding any of these questions, please jump in. We’d love to talk to you. Also if you have a question you’d like us to address, post it here or contact us through this website. With that said let’s dive in.

One of the most intriguing questions I was asked had to do with why Christians don’t seem to respect the faith choices of others. It made me very sad to read the stories of rejection experienced from people calling themselves Christ-followers. That is completely antithetical to the teachings and actions of Jesus.

Choice is one of the greatest gifts God gave us. It’s central to the story of the Bible and God’s relationship with us. At the very beginning God created humans. God provided everything they needed. He put them in a lush garden that provided all the food they needed. He created two people so that they would have companionship. He gave them meaningful work so that they would have a sense of purpose in life. At that time, in that environment, people had an amazing connection with God. The Bible describes it as that they walked with God in the cool of the day.

I love that imagery. It reminds me of the walks my wife and I used to take in the evening when our daughter was a baby; or walking with my daughter to and from school through the woods, now that she’s older. At those times we have the most amazing conversations. That’s what it was like for the first humans with God.

Now back to choice. Those first humans were given the amazing gift of choice. Most importantly, they had the choice to maintain that relationship with God or to go their own way. Essentially the choice was to let God be their god or choose to make themselves god.

This choice was symbolized by a tree in the center of the garden. It was called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (different, by the way, from a Tree of Knowledge which is not found anywhere in the Bible; all due respect to Steve Jobs). The only prohibition God placed on the first humans was not to eat the fruit from that tree.

They chose to disobey God. There’s a lot more to the story. But, the result is the same. They used the gift God gave them to choose and they chose themselves over God. One of the lessons of this story is that while the gift of choice is good, not all choices are good. And let’s face it, ever since then the human race has had a propensity to make bad choices haven’t we?

The result of that first bad choice was disconnection. The Bible says that the choice to disobey God caused us to be disconnected from God, from the earth, and each other. The results of that choice were devastating. I don’t think we fully appreciate the effects of that choice because we never experienced the world before that choice.

Anyway, here’s where the Christian perspective on choice comes in. Orthodox Christianity teaches us that God was distraught about the position in which we found ourselves. God loves us and wants a relationship with us like he had with the first people. But ever since then, we’ve rejected him in favor of ourselves.

This is where Jesus comes in. God sent Jesus to restore the relationships that were broken because of that first choice. Jesus came to teach us how to live lives where our relationships with God, the earth, and each other are restored. Then he willingly died on our behalf restoring those relationships and his resurrection is the evidence that he accomplished what he came to do.

Now for a moment, suppose the biblical story is true. Suppose that God really created people. Suppose God loves us and desperately wants a relationship with us. Suppose that the bad choices we make prevent that and all of our relationships. Suppose that Jesus came, lived, died, and rose again to restore those relationships. Suppose that following Jesus with your whole life would allow you to experience those restored relationships. Wouldn’t that be pretty cool? If that were true, wouldn’t you want to experience that? If that were true, wouldn’t you want everyone you know and love to experience that?

Those of us who call ourselves Christians, Christ-followers, Jesus-freaks, or whatever other Facebook moniker is in vogue today believe that this whole story is true. Speaking for myself; I’ve experienced it. I believe with all that I am that this story is true. Because I’ve experienced this, I want everyone to experience it. I think following Jesus (or choosing not to) is the most important choice in life.

Now back to the misguided judgmental Christians that prompted these questions and indirectly this blog post. It is wrong to look down on other people because they don’t choose to follow Jesus. It is wrong to look down on other people because the choose to follow Jesus differently. It is wrong to look down on people because of the choices they make. It’s even wrong to look down on people because they choose to be Buckeye fans. (That joke makes more sense if you live in Ann Arbor.) At the same time, it’s a very human act to look down on people who choose differently from us. We look down on people who choose different political parties than us. We look down on people who choose to drive different cars than us. We look down on people who support different sports teams than us. We look down on people who make different faith choices than us. It’s not OK. It’s not right. But it is true.

It is also very human to overcome our human limitations. I think that’s why I like the Olympics so much. I get to see people overcoming human limitations to do something extraordinary. Oscar Pistroius from South Africa is a perfect example of this. A double amputee overcame not just physical limitations but cultural limitations of bigotry and mistrust and ran in the Olympics. He is one of my heroes.

In a less spectacular way there are Christians overcoming our human limitations and learning not to look down on people who choose differently than us. Agape Ann Arbor is a community of people trying to do that. We are a group of people that are trying to truly live the way that Jesus lives and love the way that Jesus loves.

As I close this incredibly long-winded post, I’d like to say one more thing. Remember, Christians believe that choosing to follow Jesus is the best choice anyone can make. While many people do a poor job communicating this out, encouraging someone to follow Jesus is truly an act of love. If you believed Christianity were true, wouldn’t you want other people to experience it too?

I believe the story of Jesus is true. I believe that following Jesus is the best choice anyone can make. I would love for you to choose to follow Jesus. But ultimately, I respect your choice.