Moral evil is the immorality and pain and suffering and tragedy that come because we choose to be selfish, arrogant, uncaring, hateful and abusive. Romans 3:23 says "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."
So much of the world's suffering results from the sinful action or inaction of ourselves and others. For example, people look at a famine and wonder where God is, but the world produces enough food for each person to have 3,000 calories a day. It's our own irresponsibility and self-centeredness that prevents people from getting fed.
In other words: look at your hand. You can choose to use that hand to hold a gun and shoot someone, or you can use it to feed hungry people. It's your choice. But it's unfair to shoot someone and then blame God for the existence of evil and suffering. Like that old cartoon said: "We have seen the enemy, and he is us."
The second kind of evil is called natural evil. These are things like wildfires, earthquakes, tornadoes and hurricanes that cause suffering. But these, too, are the indirect result of sin being allowed into the world. As one author explained: "When we humans told God to shove off, He partially honored our request. Nature began to revolt. The earth was cursed. Genetic breakdown and disease began. Pain and death became part of the human experience."
The Bible says it's because of sin that nature was corrupted and "thorns and thistles" entered the world. Romans 8:22 says, "We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time." In other words, nature longs for redemption to come and for things to be set right. That's the source of disorder and chaos.
Let's make this crystal clear once more: God did not create evil and suffering. Now, it's true that he did create the potential for evil to enter the world, because that was the only way to create the potential for genuine goodness and love. But it was human beings, in our free will, who brought that potential evil into reality.
Some people ask, "Couldn't God have foreseen all of this?" And no doubt he did. But look at it this way: many of you are parents. Even before you had children, couldn't you foresee that there was the very real possibility they may suffer disappointment or pain or heartache in life, or that they might even hurt you and walk away from you? Of course - but you still had kids. Why? Because you knew there was also the potential for tremendous joy and deep love and great meaning.
Now, the analogy is far from perfect, but think about God. He undoubtedly knew we'd rebel against Him, but He also knew many people would choose to follow Him and have a relationship with Him and spend eternity in heaven with Him - and it was all worth it for that, even though it would cost His own Son great pain and suffering to achieve their redemption.
So, first, it helps me to remember, as I ponder the mystery of pain and evil, that God did not create them. The second point of light is this: Though suffering isn't good, God can use it to accomplish good.
He does this by fulfilling His promise in Romans 8:28: "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose."
Notice that the verse doesn't say God causes evil and suffering, just that he promises to cause good to emerge. And notice that the verse doesn't say we all will see immediately or even in this life how God has caused good to emerge from a bad circumstance. Remember, we only see things dimly in this world. And notice that God doesn't make this promise to everyone. He makes the solemn pledge that he will take the bad circumstances that befall us and cause good to emerge if we're committed to following Him.
The Old Testament gives us a great example in the story of Joseph, who went through terrible suffering, being sold into slavery by his brothers, unfairly accused of a crime and falsely imprisoned. Finally, after a dozen years, he was put in a role of great authority where he could save the lives of his family and many others.
This is what he said to his brothers in Genesis 50:20: "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives." And if you're committed to God, He promises that He can and will take whatever pain you're experiencing and draw something good from it.
You might say, "No, he can't in my circumstance. The harm was too great, the damage was too extreme, the depth of my suffering has been too much. No, in my case there's no way God can cause any good to emerge."
But if you doubt God's promise, listen to what a wise man said to me when I was researching my book The Case for Faith: God took the very worst thing that has ever happened in the history of the universe - deicide, or the death of God on the cross - and turned it into the very best thing that has happened in history of universe: the opening up of heaven to all who follow Him. So if God can take the very worst circumstance imaginable and turn it into the very best situation possible, can he not take the negative circumstances of your life and create something good from them?
He can and He will. God can use our suffering to draw us to Himself, to mold and sharpen our character, to influence others for Him – He can draw something good from our pain in a myriad of ways…if we trust and follow Him.
Now, the third point of light: The day is coming when suffering will cease and God will judge evil.
A lot of times you'll hear people say: "If God has the power to eradicate evil and suffering, then why doesn't He do it?" And the answer is that because He hasn't done it yet doesn't mean He won't do it. You know, I wrote my first novel last year. What if someone read only half of it and then slammed it down and said, "Well, Lee did a terrible job with that book. There are too many loose ends with the plot. He didn't resolve all the issues with the characters." I'd say, "Hey – you only read half the book!"
And the Bible says that the story of this world isn't over yet. It says the day will come when sickness and pain will be eradicated and people will be held accountable for the evil they've committed. Justice will be served in a perfect way. That day will come, but not yet.
So what's holding God up? One answer is that some of you may be. He's actually delaying the consummation of history in anticipation that some of you will still put your trust in Him and spend eternity in heaven. He's delaying everything out of His love for you. Second Peter 3:9 says: "The Lord is not slow in keeping His promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance." To me, that's evidence of a loving God, that He would care that much for you.
Point of Light #4: Our suffering will pale in comparison to what God has in store for his followers.
I certainly don't want to minimize pain and suffering, but it helps if we take a long-term perspective. Look at this verse, and remember they were written by the apostle Paul, who suffered through beatings and stonings and shipwrecks and imprisonments and rejection and hunger and thirst and homelessness and far more pain that most of us will ever have to endure. These are his words:
Second Corinthians 4:17: "For our light and momentary troubles" - wait a second: light and momentary troubles? Five different times his back was shredded when he was flogged 39 lashes with a whip; three times he was beaten to a bloody pulp by rods. But he says, "For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all."
Paul also wrote Romans 8:18: "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us."
Think of it this way. Let's say that on the first day of 2012, you had an awful, terrible day. You had an emergency root canal at the dentist and the ran out of pain-killers. You crashed your car and had no insurance. Your stock portfolio took a nosedive. Your spouse got sick. A friend betrayed you. From start to finish, it was like the title of that children's book: Alexander & the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.
But then every other day of the year was just incredibly terrific. Your relationship with God is close and real and intimate. A friend wins the lottery and gives you $100 million. You get promoted at work to your dream job. Time magazine puts your photo on its cover as "The Person of the Year." You have your first child and he's healthy and strong. Your marriage is idyllic, your health is fabulous, you have a six-month vacation in Tahiti.
Then next New Year's Day someone asks, "So, how was your 2012?" You'd say, "It was great; it was wonderful!" And they'd say, "But didn't it start out bad? Didn't you go through a lot of trouble that first day?"
You'd think back and say, "You're right. That was a bad day, no denying it. It was difficult at the time. It was hard. It was painful. But when I look at the totality of the year, when I put everything in context, it's been a great year. The 364 terrific days far outweigh the one bad day. That day just sort of fades away."
And maybe that's a good analogy for heaven. Listen to me – that is not to deny the reality of your pain in this life. It might be terrible. It might be chronic. My wife Leslie has a medical condition that puts her in pain every single day. Maybe you're suffering from a physical ailment or heartache at this very moment. But in heaven, after 354,484,545 days of pure bliss - and with an infinite more to come - if someone asked, "So, how has your existence been?", you'd instantly react by saying, "It has been absolutely wonderful! Words can't describe the joy and the delight and the fulfillment!"