The apostle Paul employs a startling phrase in 2 Corinthians 6:10 — “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” It’s startling because he is talking about his own testimony of rejoicing in sorrow, and those two experiences run consecutively in his life. Sorrow and joy coexisted in his experience at the same time. It’s simply a truism of life that good things and bad things are always happening, all the time, simultaneously in our lives. That’s normal Christian living. Picking up from this point, here’s Pastor John, preaching in Vancouver in 2015.
We Christians are complicated people. We should not think of all these calamities as exceptional — as in occasional; occasionally there’s a calamity. Are you kidding me? Fifty million people die in the world every year; 5,707 people die every hour; 95 every minute. Breathe in, breathe out, and four people have died. Calamities are not exceptional. They’re just a breaking of the surface of the ocean of sorrow. We notice them a little more than what’s going on right now in Vancouver, as we speak, in hospitals, in nursing homes, in hospice care.
It is utterly naïve to think that there are good times and bad times sequentially. There are good times and there are bad times — always, all the time — simultaneously. And if you walk through the world with a heart ready to “weep with those who weep,” ready to “rejoice with those who rejoice,” you will be a very strange and wonderful person (Romans 12:15).
I want to ask, Why do we have a world like this? Why so much pain? Why so much conflict? Why so much suffering? Why so much gas? It is a horrible place. It is a conveyor belt of corpses. Millions of people right now are weeping their eyes out over the sorrows in their lives, as we speak. Why such a world?
Face-to-Face with Terror
Now, before I go to the Bible and try to give you pointers for you to think about, let me tell you something that I found very shocking when I realized it: God has ordained, in his mercy, that sometimes very unbelieving people wake up to his reality because of pain, not because of its absence.
“Sometimes very unbelieving people wake up to God’s reality because of pain, not because of its absence.”
For example, suppose you’re a professor in a university, and you’ve absorbed a postmodern mindset that playfully says, “What’s right for you is right for you, and what’s right for me is right for me, and what’s wrong for you is wrong for you, and what’s wrong for me is wrong for me, and we don’t impose our morality on each other. There is no absolute right and wrong, good and bad, beautiful and ugly that gets squashed down onto our own perceptions and preferences.” That’s just rampant, right? That’s just rampant, and it is playful, and it is going to come to an end when that professor walks into a real, living holocaust himself.
So, whatever the situation is, he walks into an experience of six million Jewish people murdered, or sixty million under the Stalinist regime starved and killed in the gulags. We are remembering that it has been a hundred years this year since the Armenian genocide — the Turkish people slaughtering a million and a half Armenians between Turkey and Syria in 1915. You walk into that, as a professor who’s been playing word games on tenure with students, fitting them to be destroyed by the world in which they live with this absolute nonsense that what’s right for you is right for you, what’s wrong for me is wrong for me, and suddenly he is so confronted by an evil, he finds welling up out of his heart a statement he thought would never come: “That is evil.”
Mercy Amid Evil
And suddenly he realizes what he just said. He does not mean, “Well, if you don’t think it’s evil, you don’t have to think it’s evil; you can think it’s good.” He has just woken up from a dreamworld, an academic dreamworld. And he knows he has made a pronouncement of absolute significance: “That’s evil. That’s evil.” He’s a professor, so he knows and he realizes, “I have just broken every rule in my philosophy, and I cannot deny what I am saying. That’s evil, and I don’t mean it’s the result of chemical synapses popping in my evolutionary primate brain. I mean it’s real. I mean it has significance. I mean it is a moral reality. It holds for everybody. This is not part of what I was thinking. This is evil.”
And he knows pronouncements like that are meaningless — unless there’s an absolute. And where do they come from? They come from God or nowhere. You live a life of meaninglessness. You’re a bag of chemicals and electrical impulses, just moving in a kind of evolutionary movement of time and chance, with no significance to your moral judgments whatsoever — unless God is. It happens. In other words, it happens that, in the midst of evil, evil becomes the very moment and means by which a person can awaken to the fact that we’re not playing games. We’re not just stuff. It is a wonderful thing that God has mercy like that in the midst of such great evils.
So, here we are at my question: Why such a world? And we are biting off the biggest problem in the world. And so, I don’t mean to claim to have the last answer with every strand neatly woven into a fabric of perfect knowledge. I don’t mean that. I want to offer you glimpses of answers that are really here, I believe. You can live by these. And I want to ask you to go home and consider whether these things are so, like good Bereans in Acts 17:11.
Here’s my first wrong answer: The reason this world exists with its calamities and conflicts and suffering and death is because God is not in control. I’ve already rejected the answer, “There’s no God.” Answer number two that’s wrong is “He’s not in control. He’s looking down, and it’s wheeling out of control, and there’s nothing he can do about it.”
That’s not a true answer. Some people opt for that answer. Biblically, it won’t hold. For reasons like this: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father” (Matthew 10:29). That’s a first-century way of looking for the most random and insignificant event in the world, and claiming that God governs it. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?” And not one of those sparrows in the darkest forests of Papua New Guinea falls dead without God deciding that that happen.