I’ve recently had some conversations with younger Christian friends who have been reeling from experiences and observations of confounding evil. And as a man more than double the age of the friends I have in mind, I can vouch that comprehending what appears to be senseless evil doesn’t get easier the longer you live.
Perhaps that sounds discouraging, especially since I remember as a younger Christian hoping that I’d have greater wisdom in my golden years. After all, isn’t sagacity part of “the splendor of . . . gray hair” (Proverbs 20:29)?
I hope this is true of me to some extent. But as I grow older, I’m discovering that the greater part of wisdom isn’t accumulating a greater knowledge of good and evil so much as learning how to deal more faithfully with my deficit of such knowledge. So, if I have any wisdom worth imparting to Christians struggling with incomprehensible evil, it lies in cultivating the spiritual discipline of handing back the fruit.
Problem of Evil
Theologians and philosophers call it “the problem of evil” — how horrific evil and suffering can exist in a world created and providentially governed by an almighty, all-good, all-knowing God. But calling evil a “problem” hardly begins to describe our existential experiences of it in this fallen world.
An apparently buoyant friend unexpectedly takes his life. Every member of a missionary family on home assignment is killed in a car accident. A beloved young child dies of cancer. A trusted pastor’s adultery is suddenly exposed. A spouse who vowed lifelong faithfulness demands a divorce. Sexual abuse leaves a young girl soiled with shame and psychological damage for decades. Palestinian terrorists rape and murder more than 1,500 unsuspecting noncombatant Israeli citizens. The Israeli military then wipes out more than 15,000 noncombatant Palestinians. An oceanic earthquake near Sumatra, Indonesia, produces tsunamis that sweep away over two hundred thousand souls. Such traumatic suffering, tragedies, and sins almost never make sense to us. And the closer we are to the destruction, the more chaotic and senseless it often appears.
In such experiences and observations, we glimpse the real nature of evil. And it’s almost always worse than we could have imagined. The evil events themselves, and God’s good providence in choosing not to prevent them (especially when we know he has chosen to prevent others), exceed the bounds of our rational capacities, leaving us with anguished, perplexing questions only God can answer. And most of the time, he doesn’t — not specifically. God rarely reveals his specific purposes for allowing specific tragedies and their resulting wreckage.
We find that we simply aren’t able to bear the weight of the knowledge of good and evil. It exceeds our strength to comprehend on both sides: we cannot comprehend the full breadth and length and height and depth of the goodness of what is good (though we rarely perceive this a “problem”) or of the evilness of what is evil. And mercifully, 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.
Whence This Unbearable Weight?
Some mysteries are great mercies for finite creatures not to know. 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. He wanted them to trust him with the mystery of this knowledge and his administration of it (Genesis 2:17).
However, the ancient serpent 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). Our ancestral parents 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, their descendants, have been languishing under this knowledge ever since.
As a result of that first sin, God subjected the world to futility (Romans 8:20), and the evil one was granted 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 has also distorted 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). And it’s why we must pursue through intentional prayer “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (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 stretch far beyond our imagination even if we were sinless, but it does so all the more in our fallenness (1 Corinthians 2:9).
We forfeited a great mercy when we believed we could be wise like God — when we opened the Pandora’s box of the mystery of the knowledge of good and evil.
Case Study in Inexplicable Evil
Mystery refers to what exists 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 exceed our ability to comprehend, at least in this age.
This is one of the great revelations contained in the book of Job. God inspired this great piece of ancient literature 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 does not explain his providential purposes to Job, but challenges Job’s assumption that he could comprehend the wisdom of God. When Job understands this, he responds 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)
Job handed the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil back to God — things too wonderful for him to comprehend.
The point of Job’s story is not that God hates when his people cry out with anguished bewilderment over their incomprehensible suffering 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 in Job — a message woven throughout the Bible — is “trust me.” God has merciful reasons for whatever he does not grant his children to see or know. Our freedom — not from the pain evil causes us, but from the unbearable weight of our inability to comprehend it — comes not from God giving us the ability to comprehend evil, but from our giving back to God our demand for the wisdom he alone can bear.
That’s the crucial dimension of the gospel we glimpse in the book of Job. In fact, it’s one helpful way to understand what the gospel is about. 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. Approaching the throne of grace, regaining the mercy that leads to life, requires us to surrender back to God the desire for God’s wisdom — wisdom that was never meant to be ours.
Hand Back the Fruit
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 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).
In the face of devastating tragedy, we find that we simply aren’t suited to bear the weight of the knowledge of good and evil. And mercifully, 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.