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).
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.