Let’s start out by asking a fair question: if God is good, then why does He allow bad things to happen? We (humans) have been asking that question for a long time. Philosophers and welders both have wrestled with questions like this, rarely landing on a satisfactory answer that is complete yet compact enough to fit in a fortune cookie.
As I write this, the city of Paris is in chaos, the kind of distressing chaos that demonstrates the power of darkness and effect of evil upon humanity. When human beings are at their worst, the resulting desolation is overwhelming. We still have no words for this. Searching for context and answers, we tend to look outside of ourselves, which is a natural result of how we’re made. We look to the One who created us, the One who is distant yet close, mysterious yet approachable, holy yet willing, and ask, with hearts broken, “why?” To put an even finer point on it, we who are foolish enough to be courageous before the Holy yet wise enough to know that God can handle our complaint ask it like this:
“Why did You let this happen?”
“Why didn’t you stop the terrorists?”
“Why did you let innocent people die while the bad guys run free?”
“Are you even paying attention?”
First premise: God is not a problem to be fixed. He’s an unsolvable mystery whose ways are not our ways.
We in the 21st century are fixers. We fix disease and pollution. We fix economies and societies. We fix the people around us and, sometimes, ourselves. The strategy pours into our current chaos: we need to fix this terrorism threat. Now. Christians and atheists both bring God into the mix: God is viewed as either the solution or part of the problem. If He’s the solution, why wasn’t He the preemptive solution? If He’s the problem, how do we fix this false belief in an all powerful God who, if He is who He says He is, wasn’t quite good enough to stop tragedy?
Fix, fix, fix. We’ve been trying to fix stuff for a long time now.
Job suffers and ends up in an unfair position. Job’s friends try to fix it. Then the Mystery appears and starts countering the questions with better questions. If you’re threatened, you give answers fueled by anxiety. If you’re God, all you need are a few question marks and the point will be made. God is not threatened by questions. He’s compassionately calm and thunderously confident all at the same time. Mysterious, right?
Second premise: God is powerful enough to stop bad things from happening.
For God to have stopped this from happening, He would’ve had to take away multiple elements of free will. No, you can’t train at this camp. No, you can’t get your hands on these weapons. No, you can’t have this phone conversation. No, you can’t have access to this building. No, no, no…
God has not made animatronics that He controls. He has made humans in His image who, in their freedom, choose sin. The brokenness runs rampant. There are many things I could choose to do right now, like, say, rob a bank. I don’t think God would stop me. He’d let it happen, and I know He’d be with me as I did prison ministry from the inside. What stops me? I don’t rob a bank because I know God, I want to love and live like Jesus, and I know stealing is in direct disobedience to the Holy Spirit inside of me. I freely choose this path, though both are options.
Ah: Now we’re on to something. A cork. A stopper. A limiter. Why are people good? It is the presence of God in a person. The only time it doesn’t work is when, even knowing better, I choose darkness over light. The world is a little less dark, not because of me, but because of His light.
Is this how God stops evil? Yes. For every one time that God in His power and sovereignty personally intervenes, there are about a billion little examples of how the Holy Spirit has influenced someone away from darkness and toward the light, which has a rippling effect on the world.
God hates evil. He hates sin. He hates what a terrorist group has accomplished in Paris. Why didn’t He stop it? He has given us free will. How does God stop bad things from happening? He acts in history primarily through those who are listening to Him.
Am I saying that this happened because people weren’t praying enough? No and yes. No, because God doesn’t have a giant thermometer in heaven that rises and falls based on how people are praying, saying “well… Adam didn’t pray enough today, so I’m giving him the flu.” But then again, if prayer is conversation with God and God changes the world through His personal work in each of us, I might have to say that yes, if more people had been praying — specifically the ones who committed this act — maybe it would’ve turned out differently. Maybe. But not because they hit God’s target for prayer quantity. Rather, it’d be because through prayer God had the invitation to steer a free will human being away from evil and toward good.
Our question remains: if God is good, why does He allow bad things to happen? Answer: we’ve been given free will. In that freedom, humans chose the path of sin. Sin has fractured everything about our creation, including our own hearts. The world is broken, but God has come to unbreak it through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Though the world is still a mess, God is slowly making it right through the spreading of a new Kingdom headed up by Jesus. The Holy Spirit, the personal presence of God, lives in those who believe and are part of this Kingdom. These individuals make up the church, which is the lighthouse in our dark world. The church is on mission to tell others about Jesus. The church expects the return of Jesus to bring a new heavens and a new earth, which will cancel out the world we live in now. Terrorists and every other darkness from outside and within will not exist, because this is a Kingdom of Light. Until then, the church continues on, using its most powerful weapon of all: prayer. And, after asking God “why did you let this happen”, we remember that sin is made powerless by the cross of Jesus, and that we do have an eternal hope. God didn’t sleep through this, and neither will we. We mourn and pray… and hope.
All that can’t really fit that on a fortune cookie. Those little papers!
By the way: if we’re going to ask God why He didn’t stop it this time, we must balance the question by asking why He did stop it every other time. We will never know how much terror God has rescued us from. We’re like little toddlers who would’ve hit our heads on the coffee table had our parents not been paying attention. We amble on, oblivious and happy.
The path to joy is marked by the practice of peace. Peace is disrupted by this murderous chaos in the world. Now is the time to put Philippians 4:4-6 to work in our lives as we bring prayer support for the people of Paris and nation of France:
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”