“It really doesn’t make sense and feels like it can’t be true.” Another suicide.
The friend that texted me had a good friend, a Christian whose faith by all appearances was authentic and vibrant, who succumbed to an incomprehensible darkness and incommunicable despair — a despair that, at least at the moment of final decision, he didn’t believe he could live with. My friend was reeling, blindsided by a tragedy that defies explanation.
We call it “the problem of evil,” trying to reconcile how evil and suffering exists in a world ruled by an almighty, all-good, all-knowing God. But calling it a “problem” hardly begins to describe our experiences of it in this fallen world.
Hand Back the Fruit
A buoyant friend suddenly ends his life. A beloved child dies of disease. We witness torture. The spouse we trusted with everything abandons us. The plane-ruined towers collapse upon three thousand souls. The horrific abuse we suffered leaves us soiled with shame for decades. Such tragedies and sins almost never make sense to us. And the closer we are to the destruction evil wreaks, the more chaotic and senseless it appears.
In these experiences, we glimpse the real nature of evil — and it’s worse than we had conceived. The evil events themselves, and God’s good providence in choosing not to prevent them (especially when we know he has chosen to deliver others), exceed the bounds of our rational capacities. We’re left with anguished, perplexing questions only God can answer. Most of the time he doesn’t, not specifically. He rarely reveals his specific purposes for allowing our specific tragedies and the resulting wreckage.
What we find is that we simply aren’t suited to bear the weight of the full knowledge of good and evil. It’s knowledge too complex for us to manage. It’s beyond us on both sides. And the merciful truth is that God does not ask us to bear it. He asks us to trust him with it. He asks us to hand him back the fruit.
There are mysteries that are great mercies. Great, great mercies.
The fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil contained a secret — one that God said should remain a mystery. God warned the man and woman that it would be better for them not to eat it. It would be the death of them if they did. Rather, he wanted them to trust him with the mystery of this knowledge and his administration of it (Genesis 2:17).
However, Satan told them this fruit would not kill them, but would open their eyes to the heights and depths and lengths and breadths of God’s knowledge, making them wise like God (Genesis 3:4–5). They believed him, and so they ate. Then the eyes of both were indeed opened to good and evil in ways they had not yet known — ways they were not at all equipped to deal with. And we have been languishing under this knowledge ever since.
Beyond Our Understanding
As a result of that first sin, God subjected the world to futility (Romans 8:20), and the evil one was granted a kind of governing power (1 John 5:19). Sin infected us profoundly. Not only were our eyes opened to more knowledge than we have the capacity to comprehend, but we also became very susceptible to evil deception.
Our indwelling sin nature also has adversely affected our ability to comprehend and appreciate good. That’s one reason we need “strength to comprehend . . . the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (Ephesians 3:18–19). It’s why we must pursue through intentional prayer “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” when we’re anxious (Philippians 4:7). It’s why we need “the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation” to enlighten “the eyes of [our] hearts . . . that [we] may know what is the hope to which he has called [us]” (Ephesians 1:17–18). The goodness of God would be far beyond our imagination even if we were sinless, but it is all the more so in our fallenness (1 Corinthians 2:9).
We forfeited a great mercy when we believed we could be wise like God and opened the Pandora’s box of the mystery of the knowledge of good and evil.
Mysteries in Job’s Suffering
Mystery refers to what exists in the dimensions of reality beyond the edges of our perception (things we can’t see) or comprehension (things we can’t grasp). Some things are mysteries because we are unaware of them until God chooses to reveal them to us. Other mysteries we might be aware of, but they just exceed our ability to comprehend them, at least in this age.
The book of Job is the great piece of ancient literature that God inspired to illustrate how we experience these mysteries and how the restoring of our souls begins as we hand God back the fruit. The purposes behind Job’s tragedies were mysterious to him and his friends because of what they could not see and could not know.
Job’s friends thought they had sufficient grasp on the knowledge of good and evil to diagnose Job’s suffering. They were wrong (Job 42:7). And in the end, God did not explain himself to Job, but challenged Job’s assumption that he could comprehend the wisdom of God. Job responded by putting his hand over his mouth and saying, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. . . . Therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:3, 6), effectively handing the fruit back to God.
The message of the book of Job is not that God hates when people pour out their bewilderment in their pain and tragedies. Indeed, God the Son, when he became flesh and dwelt among us, cried out in the depth of his agony, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Rather, God’s message — which is a core message of the whole Bible — is “trust me.” Where God does not grant us to see or to know, he has merciful reasons for it.
When you think about it, God has designed the gospel and the Christian life to require us to hand back, and keep handing back, the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil — to render back to God what is God’s, what was never meant to be man’s.
Trust Him in the Darkness
When the realities of good and evil exceed our limited perceptions, overwhelm our limited comprehension, and threaten to override our psychological and emotional circuitry, there is a reason for this. We may be “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14), but we are also fearfully finite. There are many things too wonderful for us to know. The peace that surpasses our understanding (Philippians 4:7), which we need so much, is available to us if we are willing to trust in the Lord with all our heart and not lean on our own understanding (Proverbs 3:5).
When I texted my friend back, as he was grieving the tragic suicide of his friend, I sought to capture the essence of these truths in a few sentences. He asked me to write more on it, and I’ve attempted it here. In the face of devastating tragedy, we find that we simply aren’t suited to bear the full weight of the knowledge of good and evil. The merciful truth is that God does not ask us to bear it. He asks us to trust him with it. He asks us to hand him back the fruit.