Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed. -Isaiah 53:4-5
As we approach the Easter season, my thoughts are directed towards the problem of evil in a new way. The issue of evil is humanity’s age-old problem, and even the greatest saints in Scripture and throughout history have wrestled over it.
The dilemma is this: If God is God, then he is all-loving, all-wise, and all-powerful. How do those three realities reconcile with the reality of evil? What do we do with the horrors we see unfolding in Ukraine, for example, this year? I just wrote an entirely new chapter on “The Problem of Evil” that I hadn’t planned to write for my third book due to release the end of 2022 with the working title as: Navigating Disappointment: Finding Healing in a Broken World.
But it’s not just Ukraine. As I am writing more fully about in this new chapter to my third book, my work around the world with ServeNow sees and faces evil head-on in many countries.
When the war started in Ukraine, I was in Nigeria meeting with former Muslim women who were divorced and threatened to be killed by their husbands due to coming to faith in Christ. When the war in Ukraine escalated to an actual nightmare reality, I was in Ethiopia discussing plans to serve those affected by the conflict, drought, and famine there.
And then what about the refugees we serve in Uganda from the Sudanese conflict, many of whom have lost family members, friends, colleagues, and homes in brutal ways there? How about immigrants at the US/Mexico border forced to flee due to crime, violence, corruption, and gangs threatening to kill them and their children if they don’t leave? They face a harrowing journey to the border only to endure an outdated immigration process. In many cases, they are often discriminated against by Americans and accused of things they are fleeing from themselves. Or what about the Yazidi people in Iraq whom ISIS terrorized and traumatized for years, only to now feel forgotten and forsaken by the world?
Friends, evil is real, and it affects us all. Yes, some more brutally than others. But it is at work even in more so-called civilized, advanced, progressive, prosperous, democratic, educated, and wealthy nations. We may read about terrible things happening around the world or in history. We may see images and videos on the news of evil causing suffering in other countries worldwide. But at least in much of the so-called civilized or Western world, it remains as something we see perhaps “out there” but not touching us as brutally personal as it does for many worldwide.
I am not trying to put fear in anyone’s hearts or lives in writing this, but evil takes many forms, some more subtle and insidious than others. And we are not nearly as sheltered as we might imagine ourselves to be. Evil is at work underneath the surface and appearance of civility of even the most advanced, prosperous, and educated nations.
Think of abortions performed privately inside modern health clinics. Think of dangerous disinformation, conspiracy theories, and fake news propagated throughout media outlets leading to broken relationships, division, and even violence. Or how about dangerous lies taught throughout various places of education leading young people astray into philosophies contrary to God’s truth and word? Then there are politicians stoking our most primitive fears and tribalistic identities for profit and power. There are those whose minds become so twisted that they go on shooting sprees in any context, from malls to schools, to churches.
I believe there are four things we must do when it comes to evil. Those four things are we must acknowledge the reality of evil, face the reality of evil head-on, process and pray through evil, and enter the suffering of others with silent presence. Allow me to elaborate further.
First, we cannot afford to ignore the reality that evil is ever-present, whether lurking in the shadows waiting to strike or out in the open in brutal and barbaric ways. We must acknowledge it is real. It is an infectious disease with no country, place, or person immune to its horrible ravages. Trying to ignore, downplay, dismiss, or deny the reality of pure evil is folly that goes against all human history and even modern reality. To confront evil, we must first acknowledge the existence of evil.
Second, we must face evil head-on. I am not talking about seeking out evil. Evil will find and touch us all in some way, shape, or form. This is where I find great comfort in the cross and Christ himself. Jesus did not shy away from evil. Jesus faced evil head-on.
Not only did Jesus face evil head-on, but prophecy stated he would crush the head of the serpent behind all evil. Though innocent of evil, he felt the full force of evil at his crucifixion. At the cross, evil pounded away at Jesus. From the flogging he endured before the cross, to the nails piercing his flesh, to the taunts and cruel hatred of sinful men, to the injustice and abuse he suffered, to the total weight of sin upon his shoulders, Jesus did not back down or away from evil. He faced evil’s whole brunt force trauma, and he gave his life doing so. In giving his life, we find life and freedom.
I identify with this kind of Savior. I don’t know about you, but there is no single true hero I can think of, nor a person I respect, who hasn’t endured or stared down evil face to face. The most gripping stories, powerful movies, or inspiring people are those who face evil verse hiding from it. And if we are going to make any difference in this world, we can’t hide from it either.
I love this time of the year as we approach Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday. The cross, burial, and resurrection are the crux of our faith as followers of Jesus. They are also the only true balm of healing and salvation. The events of Easter are where love, mercy, grace, judgment, evil, suffering, sin, shame, victory, redemption, forgiveness, and reconciliation are seen most clearly. But all these great truths and problems require first acknowledging the reality of evil in the world and facing it head-on in our own lives and around the world.
Third, we must process and pray through evil. Acknowledging the reality of evil is one thing. Facing the existence of evil another. But processing and praying through evil is yet another level. I suppose we could stoically acknowledge and face evil straight on. And sometimes, that stoic stubbornness may be necessary to survive actual encounters with evil in the moment. But there also comes a time when the evil we see, experience, and endure must be processed and prayed through to find healing in this broken world.
Here again, I find great comfort in Scripture along these lines of processing and praying through the reality of evil. In Jesus, I see a Savior who is real and relatable. In Scripture, I find prayers and laments that are honest and raw. Take a moment and read Psalm 10 and Psalm 58.
These types of prayers have a fancy theological term for them. Scholars refer to these prayers as “Imprecatory prayers.” They are prayers invoking the Name of God to put an end to evil people and rulers, thus stopping the suffering of his people. They are found throughout Scripture, and I believe should be found on the lips of God’s people when they see evil at work in the world today. Yes, we need to guard our hearts against hatred, revenge, and unforgiveness. But I also believe if we care about others, we need to pray with passion and conviction for God to break the power of those who have become vessels of evil perpetrating violence upon the innocent.
Fourth, we must enter the suffering of others with a silent presence. What does this mean? When this war in Ukraine broke out, I felt at a total loss of words to share any meaning or comfort to our friends in Ukraine. What could one say that would ease their suffering? Every truth and promise of Scripture seemed insufficient, possibly even cruel if misheard or spoken at the wrong time. Remember Job’s friends? We give them a hard time for adding to Job’s suffering with their attempt to articulate a theological reason for Job’s calamity. Their theological assessment was off, but at first, they do what perhaps they should have just kept doing a bit longer. They enter Job’s suffering and sit silently with him in his grief for seven days. God himself waited longer before he broke his silence with Job.
I have a theory. The most comforting thing you can do for someone suffering is sit with them in their suffering and be silent for a time. Often, in a sincere desire to ease others’ suffering, we feel compelled to say something spiritual or scriptural to soon. But what if the most spiritual and scriptural thing we can do is say nothing but enter sharing in the grief of others suffering? What if people need our presence and not our preaching or reminders of God’s promises, at least for a time longer than we might think?
In my book Hope Rising: Finding Hope in a Turbulent World, I noted that we need to not mistake God’s silence for God’s absence. I genuinely believe God seems silent sometimes in suffering, not because he doesn’t care, but because he cares so much. He knows silence is better than sermons in those moments. It’s not words that are always or immediately required. It’s presence. And God’s silence is not evidence of his absence. God’s silence may indeed be the very proof of his presence with us.
I know it takes every ounce of energy to be silent and sit with someone in their suffering. It’s easier to say or try to do something. But perhaps the deepest form of engagement for those in the depths of suffering from the reality of evil is to restrain ourselves from speaking or doing something to ease our own or others discomfort. Perhaps the greatest gift we can give others is to be with and walk with those bearing the brunt of the evil. The problem of evil touches us all. However, the presence of God is also available to all as we face evil head-on.
As we approach this Easter Season, let’s acknowledge the reality of evil. Let’s face the reality of evil head-on. Let’s process and pray through the existence of evil. Let’s faithfully and silently walk with others touched by evil. But most of all, let’s remember we worship and serve a Savior who has done these four things perfectly and fully for all of us. He did not ignore evil. He faced it head-on. He processed and prayed through evil. And he faithfully, often silently, walks with us through a world impacted by the reality of evil.