Romans 12:1-2, 9-21
A history lesson: In the late second century, a lawyer in North Africa named Tertullian was converted to Christianity. For him, it was a radical break with his past self. His comment: “Christians are made, not born” (Apologies, xviii, cited in Wikipedia). While there was this radical change in his life, he did not cease to be skilled in argument. Public opinion at that time ran very much against Christianity, not simply as seditious and possibly illegal, but to inflated rumor and slander. Christians were accused of, among other things, orgies and human sacrifice. Tertullian was largely effective at changing minds and telling the truth about what Christians did. He is also the one who remarked, regarding the persecutions of his time, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
He also published a series of books Against Marcion, a dualistic teaching and an early heresy. Marcion found the violence of the Old Testament to reflect a god that he could not worship, so he rejected the entire Old Testament and accepted only a small portion of Luke’s gospel along with the writings of Paul. One of the allegations Marcion made against God, as he read the stories of the Old Testament, was that a God who is good, a God who knows the future, a God who is powerful to prevent evil nevertheless permitted human beings to sin. If so, Marcion argued, then God was not good, not knowledgeable of the future, and not powerful against evil. This argument cuts to the question before us today, the question of the Will of God and Evil. So, having heard the story from Genesis, let’s hear the remarks of Tertullian the lawyer. And, fair warning, Tertullian is milking the moment and the metaphor:
Now then, ye dogs, whom the apostle puts outside, and who yelp at the God of truth, let us come to your various questions. These are the bones of contention, which you are perpetually gnawing! If God is good, and prescient of the future, and able to avert evil, why did He permit man, the very image and likeness of Himself, and, by the origin of his soul, His own substance too, to be deceived by the devil, and fall from obedience of the law into death? For if He had been good, and so unwilling that such a catastrophe should happen, and prescient, so as not to be ignorant of what was to come to pass, and powerful enough to hinder its occurrence, that issue would never have come about . . . . Since, however, it has occurred, the contrary proposition is most certainly true, that God must be deemed neither good, nor prescient, nor powerful (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3 [Tertullian I,II,III], Against Marcion, book II, chapt V, p 300; 1995 reprint edition of Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA).You have to give Tertullian some credit. He clearly describes the practical difficulty many of us experience, and the argument of Marcion, around the goodness, power, and foresight of God in a world that is fraught with evil of many kinds. Not being Marcion, I can chuckle at his metaphor – ye dogs, the bones of contention, perpetually gnawing. But it makes me squirm too. Because all the well-intentioned talk of Christian people has made me uncomfortable when I have had to face evil and the all-too-common question, “Why?” Why did my grandfather have to die of Parkinson’s? Why did we lose children to miscarriage? And, beyond personal grief, the questions extend to the meanness of friends, the loss of jobs, debilitating illness, broken homes, and – to the global level – to 9/11, the Holocaust, HIV/AIDS. Why? A good God, who knows the future, who has power against evil?
None of Marcion’s writings have survived, but we have no indication that his rejection of the Old Testament and embracing of dualism was rooted in any personal trauma. So, Tertullian may be addressing only the theological, but not the personal and emotional dimension. The Scripture is a bit more understanding of pain than Tertullian’s “dog” metaphor:
My God, my God, why have your forsaken me? (Psalm 22, and Jesus)So much of our conversation around pain and suffering is focused on blame. Is it my fault that this happened to me? Is it all my parent’s fault? Is it God’s fault? And, we use the Bible to validate our conclusion, rather than reading it to meet God. A former pastor of mine, Dick Woodward, collected a variety of biblical reasons for suffering, and had a list (as I recall) of over 50 texts, with as many different possible reasons. His point? Don’t presume to know, and don’t presume to judge – yourself or someone else – on the basis of experiencing suffering.
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? 2 How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? (Psalm 13:1-2)
There are three basic things that are important for us to understand regarding the will of God and suffering. They are big picture items, great theological themes that move throughout Scripture, and they all start in this story in Genesis 3, the story of the original sin. This is where we return to Tertullian and his masterful description of the first theme:
. . . man was by God constituted free, master of his own will and power; indicating the presence of God’s image and likeness in him . . . . Man is free, with a will either for obedience or resistance (ANF, vol 3, p 301).It wasn’t by God’s will that evil entered the world, but by our will, our choice, our sin. Sure, we can blame our parents, that first man and woman. But we’ve repeated that choice over and over ourselves. Paul calls it “sin that dwells within me” and describes it this way: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7.19). We aren’t content with the knowledge of good. We crave “the knowledge of good AND evil”. Like our forebears, we have no idea the way evil infects the world, and each succeeding generation, because of that first choice, because of our most recent choice to resist the love and goodness of God. In that original story, we are told that death entered the world by means of sin. Humans were made for immortality, not for decay. And all the other evils we endure? Job loss, broken homes, HIV/AIDS, acid rain, natural disasters, war, genocide, betrayal? Do we hear the curse? Death entered, and is described:
“I was naked, and I hid myself.” For the first time, shame has entered the equation.
“The man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God.” Instead of intimacy and connection with God, our guilt and shame drive a wedge in that relationship.
“Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” The original ideal of equal partners is now corrupted by power.
“Cursed is the ground because of you.” The entire creation is affected; nothing is untouched by sin.
And, there’s more in the story, more documentation of this first theme: SIN. It’s evil, and all evils in the world trace their origin to sin. But whose will is it? It is not God’s will, but human will, that is at the root of evil. God’s will, in the words of Romans 12, is “good, acceptable, and perfect.” That does not mean that we blame ourselves for whatever evil happens to us. Note how sin infects everything from the marriage relationship to the ecosystem. There are, surely, clear cause and effect situations: Don’t pay your taxes, meet an auditor! But for so much of the evil we encounter, we can’t trace it back to any sin in particular, or any person in particular. It seems so random. But it does go back to that original sin, and to the billions of sinful choices we’ve made since.
First theme, SIN. Second theme, SUFFERING. But this is not the suffering we expect. Genesis 3 gives us a cryptic promise of salvation. To the serpent the LORD says, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel” (Genesis 3:15 ). The church has always read this as a prophecy of Jesus, destroying the devil but wounded in the process. “You will strike [bruise] his heel.” This second theme of SUFFERING is about God suffering, about God crucified, about “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). Isaiah prophesied, “But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).
God’s role in the story is not just to show up and hand out punishments, curses to the serpent, the woman, the man, and the earth. Those weren’t punishments designed to make us miserable. Those were the natural consequences of the choice. God’s role in the story is to suffer with us, and for us, under the burden of our sin and curse. That’s why Augustine could pray, “In all such things and in like perils and hardships, you behold my trembling heart. Over and over, I feel my wounds, not so much as inflicted upon me, but rather as healed by you” (Augustine, The Confessions).
SIN, SUFFERING, and, finally, SOVEREIGNTY. It is captured in that hymn line, “Though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet” (“This Is My Father’s World”). It is the foundation to the often-quoted Romans 8:28, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God.” It is not that all things are good – because many things assuredly are NOT good but evil. But God is still sovereign, God still “rules the world with truth and grace” (“Joy to the World”). And it is reflected in that Genesis 3:15 promise “he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel”. There’s a big difference between the crushed head and the bruised heel, and that difference is the movement from the cross to the resurrection.
Romans 12:9-21 (excerpts)
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good;
12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, . . .
21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.