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One of Life's Greatest Questions

During the Wednesday night "ARC" class that we offer at The Falls Church Episcopal,* my colleague Kelly asked me to jump into her presentation on "Prophets and Wisdom" in order to give a brief summary of the book of Job.

The book of Job wrestles with the great question,

"If God is a loving and powerful God, then how do we make sense of evil?"

As I told the class, this question - along with "why does the other line always move faster?, why are hot dogs sold in packs of 10 and buns sold in packs of 8?, and why can't Washington-D.C.-area teams succeed in the playoffs?" -- is one of Life's Greatest Questions.

For years, I wrestled with how best to think through - and then preach and teach on - the topic of evil.

Particularly challenging is finding ways to preach and teach about the "personification" of evil - whether we call that spiritual force "Satan," "the Devil," "the Tempter," the "Evil One," the "Adversary."

What's most helpful is to look at how Jesus deals with the problem of evil. Take a look at the way he seems to be referring to the problem of evil in this Sunday's Gospel:

as "the thief."

In Sunday's passage, Jesus compares himself to a good (caring, responsible, well-motivated) shepherd. He then contrasts that image or metaphor of himself to bad (uncaring, irresponsible, maliciously-motivated) religious leaders/shepherds.

Jesus says,

"The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly."

I've long found it fascinating that Jesus connects those two statements:

On the one hand is the promise of abundant life.

On the other hand is recognition that this abundant life is not automatic.

It's a realistic view of the world: the abundant life that God wishes for us -- our deep joy, rooted in faith and trust in God, which is rooted in our intimacy with God -- is not automatic.

Life is so damn hard sometimes not because we are screwing up, or because God is holding out on us, but because the good life -- the God-love life, the "God's kingdom come, God's will be done" life that God intends - is not only not automatic, it is actively opposed by a thief who comes only to "kill, steal, and destroy."

Abundant life, in other words, is ours, as gift, but we have to fight for it. Fight to get it, and fight to keep it.

So as I wrestle with the concept of evil, I find myself coming back to that concept: a theology that understands evil as thievery (or murder, or destruction) - the taking away of something: the robbing, killing, or destruction of something that was there (good, alive, and whole) previously.

(Our outrage, therefore -- the sense of outrage and violation we feel when liars lie, cheaters cheat, and thieves break in and steal -- can be good, and even holy. It is rooted in a sense that something that belongs to the world, and us, has been taken.)

Evil, understood that way, is not something that exists, in and of itself: it is better understood as the absence of Good -- much like a grocery store shelf that has been robbed is absent of the goods that were there previously, or a garden that has been destroyed by insects is absent of the vegetables that would have grown there otherwise.

Understood this way, God's love and power is made known in in our loving and empowering thoughts, words, and deeds.

I don't have an answer to life's other Great Questions. But to the question, "If God is a loving and powerful God, how do we make sense of evil?" I would say that our loving and powerful God empowers us to love God in return, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

For if evil is the absence of good in the same sense that darkness is the absence of light, our calling as Christians is be light - as candles in the darkness, confident that "the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." (John 1:5)

*the "ARC" class is a survey course - a quick (five week) run through the entire Bible. The class is intended for those who are curious about the Bible, but not necessarily very familiar with it. It's offered as an appetizer - a series of quick bites from Scripture intended not to satisfy hunger, but rather to stimulate it. We're making the case that while the Bible is a complex, nuanced, and diverse collection of  prose, poetry, history, genealogies, and other genres, we can still find within it a coherent, steady "arc" or consistent narrative -- a narrative of God's goodness and love being made known to us throughout human history.


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