How many of you remember the original Karate Kid movie? It is definitely on my list of top-20 films of all time. It was an absolute classic, fully deserving of the three sequels and reboot it received—all of which were pretty good in their own rights. It gave us at least two cultural icons. The first was the crane position Daniel used in the final battle to defeat his opponent. The second, and more popular, was the instructions Mr. Miyagi gave him for waxing his car. You know these. Say them with me: “Wax on. Wax off. Wax on. Wax off.” Do you remember the context of these, though? Daniel asked Mr. Miyagi to teach him karate in order to defend himself from some bullies. Mr. Miyagi reluctantly agrees and when Daniel shows up for his first lesson, Mr. Miyagi has him wash and wax all the cars in his lot, wax on, wax off. When he finishes he is asked to paint the fence, up and down. Then it’s sand the deck, around and around. Then it’s paint the house, side to side. By the fourth day of muscle-making, but spirit-killing work Daniel is upset. All he knows is that he has been made to suffer pointlessly and hasn’t advanced even a step in the direction he was hoping to go: to learn enough karate that he can defend himself.
Sometimes it feels like life does that to us, doesn’t it? Okay, let’s be more specific: Sometimes it feels like God does that to us, doesn’t it? We face one hard time after the next with no apparent end in sight and no apparent purpose to it all. Life sometimes seems like it’s a series of “one more things” with each one pushing us up to and beyond our spiritual and emotional breaking point. We get angry at life, at people, and especially at God. And finally we start to doubt. We doubt God’s character. We doubt God’s goodness. We even doubt God’s existence.
This morning we are in the third part of our series, I Doubt It. The whole idea for this journey is that we all experience doubt in our lives. We all experience moments when we’re less and less sure of the things we once took for granted as right and true. But far too often other Christians in our lives who we look to as leaders and teachers, far from affirming the doubts, tell us in one way or another to swallow them. “Don’t ask questions like that.” “Don’t worry about that now.” “Just believe more and you’ll move past it.” But the problem is: We can’t just swallow our doubts.
In college I had to take a variety of chemistry labs in pursuit of my degree. On occasion we worked with chemicals that had to stay under the vent hood. They were dangerous enough that to even breath in their vapors could be harmful to us. Swallowing them would have killed us. Painfully. Doubt is like that for our faith. Being near doubts can be poisonous for us. Swallowing them, though, is even worse. The only way to properly handle doubts—just like the only way to properly handle some of those chemicals—is to neutralize them. That’s the goal of this series: to neutralize doubt in our lives. Now, of course, we’re not going to deal with every single possible form of doubt we might encounter, but I am giving you some of the tools you’ll need in order to deal with them regardless of the form they take. We started there a couple of weeks ago. We talked about the fact that when we have doubts, we need to let them out. We need to express them, find answers for them, and grow through the answers. That’s the process for dealing with them. If we try and walk any other path we will more likely be defeated by them.
Last week, then, we took our process and put it into action by looking specifically at doubts we have about the Scriptures. What we saw was that while there are indeed some tough places in the Bible, on the whole the case for not just the reliability, but the usefulness of the Scriptures is much stronger than not. The Scriptures aren’t just true, they’re useful.
This morning we are going to take our process and apply it to another common area of doubt. In many ways this one is even bigger and more challenging than the last. Doubts about the Scriptures can leave us struggling to buy and apply what we read. But at least we’re in them. If we are at least in the Scriptures, there’s the opportunity for God’s Spirit to do His good work on our hearts. Doubts about the character and goodness of God in light of all the evil in the world, however, can leave us unwilling to go engage with them in the first place. And the fact remains that lots of folks struggle with this particular area of doubt. I want to be really honest about that with you this morning. If you find yourself there, I want for you to be really honest with yourself about it as well. I want you to know that while it’s not a good thing—having doubts never is—you’re not alone in it. People have been wrestling with how we can proclaim to worship a good and loving God in light of all the bad things that happen in the world for a long, long time. It’s a common place to be. In fact, it’s a tension that every single religion in the world has to figure out how to manage. And they all do so in different ways, but for Christianity the story contained in the Scriptures tells us something very different from any other approach. It is an answer that is hard enough to accept that people have been misunderstanding, intentionally twisting, and otherwise arguing against for as long as the faith has been around.
Let’s look at three of the most common misunderstandings for a minute. Perhaps the classic and most well-known argument against the Christian understanding of the problem of evil and in favor of essentially living with the doubts we’re talking about this morning was first formulated by Plato a few hundred years before Jesus and is known as the Euthyphro Dilemma. It goes something like this: Either God is strong enough to stop all the evil in the world and He just doesn’t want to which means He’s not really all-good; or God wants to stop all the evil in the world but He can’t which means He’s not really all-powerful. This is often presented as a devastating argument against God’s existence as Christians claim Him to be. But this so-called “Dilemma” presents us with a false choice. It insists that we have to choose from only one of two options. Yet what if there is a third choice? What if God is both all-good and all-powerful, but He has a morally sufficient reason to allow the evil things that He does? What if His purpose is to allow us to make meaningful and consequential choices including the choice to sin in order that we might also freely choose Him? What if He also intends to accomplish good things through the evil in order to demonstrate His total sovereignty over His world even when it is in rebellion against Him? Now, you may reject this as an option, but we have to confess that it is at least as valid an option as the other two. In fact, given what we read in the Scriptures—most notably in the crucifixion of Jesus—this third option actually seems to be the best of the three.
A second source of doubt about the character of God is somewhat of a response to this idea that God has a morally sufficient reason to allow the evil things He does. It exists in the form of a popular question: Why do bad things happen to good people? Well, why do they? Shouldn’t good people experience good outcomes? Bad things should happen only to people who deserve them. That sounds really good, doesn’t it? The problems with this line of thinking, though, are numerous. First, how do we define good? If bad things aren’t supposed to happen to good people, who qualifies as good? What’s the standard? How do we measure it? How many not good things can you do and still make the cut? Generally, what we mean by “good” in this case, is someone who is sociable and obeys the basic rules of common decency that we assume in our daily interactions. And they probably haven’t committed any truly serious crimes recently…unless they did, but it wasn’t their fault. In other words, “good” includes all the people who are like us. But what if these “good” folks are harboring horrible thoughts and desires inside where no one can see them? Are they still good in this case? Furthermore, what exactly do we mean by their not having bad things happen to them? I mean, would getting a splinter be on the “bad things” list? How about not being able to find a close parking spot at Target or Walmart? What about getting a speeding ticket? Most of us would consider that bad…but we don’t always consider speeding bad (below, you know, 10…okay 15…miles per hour over the posted limit), so there’s a bit of ambiguity here. Do we only mean catastrophically bad things? Well, how do you define even that? Trying to define “good” on our own gets pretty complicated pretty quickly.
But there’s one more problem here that’s even more devastating to this line of reasoning: According to Scriptures, there isn’t any such thing as a good person. Try this on for size from Psalm 14: “The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.” Let’s say for the sake of argument that bad things shouldn’t happen to good people. Well, according to guys like David and Paul, there aren’t any good people. So even if it were true, we’re all deserving of only bad things because according to the standard of the Scriptures we aren’t good people. The real shocker in this case would be that good things happen to anyone. Rather than being discontent and offended when something bad happens to someone we identify as good, we should instead be constantly grateful that we receive any good things at all. And then we should remember that God may very well have a morally sufficient reason for the evil things He does allow. Or perhaps to put that another way: God allows what He does for a reason.
There’s just one more doubt hang up here. Some folks struggling with the presence of evil in the world seem to think that by eliminating God (who, they presume, is the source of this injustice against which they are railing), they will eliminate injustice from the world. Now, some of this kind of thinking is natural. Because we are created in the image of a just God, we naturally long for justice. We inherently recoil when we encounter injustice. (By the way, as Christians we have a logical explanation for that universal trait; our critics do not.) But what we sometimes forget in our passion for justice is that it demands an external, objective source. Otherwise it’s not justice at all. It’s only the right of the might. Getting rid of God does get rid of the problem of evil and injustice in the world, it’s true. We can agree with our critics on that point. But it only gets rid of them by removing the only means by which we can truly call anything evil or unjust. Without God as the objective source by which we understand what is just and what is not, there is no longer any such things as justice. There is only the exercise of the relativistic whims of the mighty. These may be to our benefit or they may not be, but they will only last as long as the person or people producing them can hold on to power. We may not always or even often understand why God allows things to happen the way He does, but we can be absolutely confident that were He not there we would lose the ability to objectively describe anything as good or bad. Those would cease to exist as meaningful categories. There would only be your preferences and my preferences. Right would be entirely determined by who was most capable of making their preferences a reality. Doesn’t having a God whose good character allows us to meaningfully think in terms of good and evil even if He occasionally allows the latter and even when we don’t understand His reasons for it seem like a much better system? God allows what He does for a reason.
Still, though, what is the reason? That question haunts us. It is brought back to the forefront of our minds every time something bad happens. We had our 9/11 Memorial Service a few weeks ago. Think about the reactions to that awful day. In the moment of tragedy, we instinctively cry out, “Oh my God!” As a nation we did that by packing out our churches in the weeks immediately following the disaster. But then what happened? Well, what happens in our own lives? After our initial cries to God come the questions: Where were You? Where are You? Maybe You’re nowhere… A quartet of voices from men who eventually started calling themselves the Four Horsemen rose from the bewildered questions our nation was asking and offered up a decisive answer: There is no God and all the evil in the world is the fault of people who claim to believe in one trying to force their beliefs on others. Now, on the whole their arguments were really bad, but their flash-in-the-pan popularity that eventually cooled to a kind of cult-like following mostly comprised of 18-35-year-old white men, suggests that they hit on a series of questions that everybody was already asking. People couldn’t understand how God could possibly have a reason for allowing a tragedy of such epic proportions and so in increasing numbers, rather than living with the tension they are simply throwing in the towel on the whole thing and walking away. But that doesn’t mean they’re right in their thinking. Thus we just talked about how to correct the misunderstandings.
You see, all three of those correctives we just talked about are really necessary for unbelievers who struggle with the problem of evil. They are tools you can use when the issue comes up with family and friends to help make sure you are always prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks a reason for the hope that you have. Now, they are useful for Christians as well, to be sure, but there is another answer to this doubting that is even more important for Christians to have. This answers calls us to a perspective shift on things. It calls us to a new way of thinking that, if adopted, won’t necessarily make the experiences themselves any easier for us, but it will significantly reduce the theological and emotional and even relational toll they otherwise have on us. It is found in the New Testament book of Hebrews.
Starting in chapter 11 and after making a detailed case for the full divinity and glory of Christ along with several interspersed warnings to not turn our back on this reality, the author sets about offering some examples of folks who committed themselves to the truth regardless of the cost. He talks about Abraham and Enoch and Sarah and Moses and Noah and David and Rahab and others. It’s a pretty impressive list with a powerful conclusion celebrating their faithfulness in the face of a variety of pretty awful-sounding persecutions. In chapter 12, though, he turns his attention back to his audience and speaks directly to them in light of what he just wrote about the people on this list. He writes to them especially in light of the question that may very well be forming on their minds: How could God have allowed His own people—even the most faithful of them—to experience such awful things—especially awful things that came at the hands of evil men?
Check this out in Hebrews 12:3. First some encouragement: “Consider him [Jesus] who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.” Next a bit of a reminder of the real extent of the challenges facing this particular audience: “In your struggle against sin [not necessarily a personal struggle, but rather against the effects of the sin of others] you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” And finally the new way to think about the bad things we face as followers of Jesus: “And have your forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.’”
Really? We’re to press on and endure the hard times we face as Christians because God is disciplining us? Yes, but we need to make sure we are thinking about discipline in the right terms. In this context we are accustomed to thinking about discipline in terms of something active and punitive like what you might do with your kids when they’ve misbehaved. If we think of discipline here in those terms, though, we’ll fall back into the trap of wondering how a good God can let bad things happen to good people. Or else we’ll drift toward the perverted view of God as a mean kid perched over an anthill with a magnifying glass. But, discipline can also be thought of as training. Many of you are or were athletes. You committed a fair amount of time to your sport. This was a discipline on your part. You put yourself through rigorous training that often hurt in the process with a higher goal in mind. You said no to many other good things because of your willful desire to grow in this particular set of skills. Perhaps you even went to the extent of hiring a trainer to help you in your progress. Think about what Todd Morgan does. Todd helps lots and lots of kids improve their baseball skills. But it comes at a cost and I don’t just mean the financial one. Todd pushes them hard. He asks them to do things that stretch their capacities and might even hurt at first. They certainly aren’t comfortable. If they really want to get the maximum benefit out of his wisdom they’ll have to be ready to do what he says even at the expense of doing other things. But, because of Todd’s wisdom and experience, the folks who sign up for his help trust that he does what he does for a reason.
Folks, the same thing is true here. This is the way to think about the hard things we face as Christians. God allows what He does for a reason. If we have signed up to be His followers, there are a few things we can say with absolute confidence because they are delivered to us as promises in the Scriptures. First, He will never leave us nor forsake us. Second, He who began a good work in us will carry it through to completion in the day of Christ Jesus. Third, no one can snatch us out of His hands. Well, if these things are true, then we can also trust with confidence that anything He allows to happen to us He allows with a clear reason in mind. We may not know what this reason is and to even guess at it here would ultimately be unhelpful. But what we can say is that God allows what He does for a reason.
Indeed: “It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons [and daughters]. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruits of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” If we learn to think in these terms, there is no hard time that can ultimately overcome us. We need only lean hard (and sometimes harder) into the truth that God allows what He does for a reason. Forget about the nonsense that God won’t let us face more than we can handle. That’s pop-theology that finds no support in the Scriptures. God allows us to face challenges that go beyond our immediate ability to handle them all the time. Rather, God allows what He does for a reason, namely, to see us become more fully who He designed us to be in Christ. If a few moments of suffering will result in our becoming more like Christ in the long-term that’s a worthwhile tradeoff just as sore muscles for a few days and missing a few activities that would be more immediately enjoyable in order to become a better athlete is a wise long-term investment that’s worth the tradeoff. God allows what He does for a reason. If we trust Him and stay on the path of righteousness we will eventually see, not necessarily the reason, but the wisdom.
This is all well and good, but what do we actually do with it? How do we put this all into practice? Here are four quick thoughts. First and again, rejecting God because of the presence of evil in the world is the exact wrongheaded approach. Getting rid of God won’t get rid of the evil. Getting mad at God won’t make it go away. It just takes away the best way we have of dealing with it. As Andy Stanley observed in a recent sermon on this same basic idea: If there is no God then we are left with your justice…and my justice…and Nazi justice…and ISIS justice. Second, when something bad happens—even something bad that appears to defy explanation—turn to God. Over and over again in the Scriptures we see affirmations of Him crying with the brokenhearted. He’ll do that with you too. He allows what He does for a reason, but that doesn’t mean His heart doesn’t still break that it is even a possibility in the first place. Third, in the midst of a broken situation (even one we cause by our own sinful choices), leaning into the character of God is always going to be the best way to get through it. That may mean wading further into it for a time, but it will always result in the quickest way out of it. Finally, and to reemphasize the point: the best way to handle hard times in our lives is to develop just the attitude the writer of Hebrews commends to us. Learn to look at the hard times as God giving you opportunities to grow more fully into the character of Christ. Think back for a minute to the movie The Karate Kid. After Daniel had spent four days killing himself he was confused and sore and angry. He finally lets Mr. Miyagi have it. But then this happens.
Come back tomorrow, and oh by the way, I’ve been teaching you karate the whole time. You just didn’t realize it. Or perhaps that could be: Come back tomorrow, and oh by the way, I’ve been growing you in the image of Christ the whole time. You just didn’t realize it. God allows what He does for a reason. If He is indeed the good God we claim Him to be—and the hard times we face pose no real challenge to this claim—then we can trust that His reasons are good…and that the ultimate outcome is going to be good…even if the getting there isn’t all that much fun. God allows what He does for a reason. Let us trust Him, pursue Him, and find out what it is.