What is the most difficult problem of faith?
I’m sure the answers will vary quite a bit. If you sat in a room and threw the question out, people might ask questions about God’s eternal nature, his foreknowledge, or his power. There would probably be all kinds of mind-bending queries put forth along the lines of, “Can God make a rock so big he can’t lift it?” People might laugh, or gaze pensively at the ceiling, or scrunch up their eyebrows when considering all of these so-called problems of the faith.
But the most difficult problem? The hardest one? That question isn’t just asked in a classroom setting; that’s the question that gets muttered in hospital rooms. Or late at night through tears. Or while waiting in anxiety for a phone call or while pounding your fist just after receiving one.
This is the question of evil. It’s the question of man’s responsibility and God’s sovereignty. It’s the question of how God can be all powerful and all loving and for there still to be evil in the world. That’s the really hard question, especially when it has real life implications.
And though the Bible speaks in a number of places about this issue, there is one, single verse that does so in, arguably, the most succinct and straightforward fashion. Here it is:
“You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen. 50:20).
This is not the statement of an ivory tower theologian; these aren’t the words of someone who only deals in hypothetical suffering for the sake of intellectual exercise. No, this is one of the summary statements of a man who, decades earlier, was betrayed by those closest to him, sold into slavery, and presumed to be dead. These are the words of someone who time and time again rose and fell and rose and fell until ultimately assuming, in God’s providence, a position of incredible power that brought him face to face with the very people who were the instruments of much suffering.
Joseph, when he had the chance to do a number of things, made this statement to his treacherous brothers. And notice what he does in a few, brief words:
He affirms the reality of evil in the world. He further affirms the culpability of those who do evil. He affirms the purposes of God for good.
In other words, Joseph did not feel compelled to choose between the sovereignty of God and the free will exercise of human beings. To him, both were real. Yes, his brothers made an evil choice. Yes, God was in the background orchestrating good. And both are equally true.
This is a mystery; it’s something anyone who has faced a measure of suffering has had to grapple with. But after that wrestling match, we come out on the other side with the same realization. Evil is real. Pain and suffering are real. And God’s goodness is real.
The sovereignty of God is not an excuse for evil; neither is it indicting to his goodness. A person of faith must be able to look at whether or not all these things are true, and then be able to answer, “Yes.”
So what is the overall point here for us? What is the takeaway for someone who has been treated unjustly? Or is watching a family member suffer under the thumb of a disease? Or is simply looking across the world and seeing the atrocities that abound? The point is not to look at these things and call them, “good,” because they’re not. At all. This single verse helps us instead to acknowledge the deep level of pain and injury and, yes, even evil in the world. To sit in it. To not explain it away. To validate just how bad it is.
And at the same time, to affirm the goodness and redeeming hand of the Lord. For only he can take that which is so flooded with evil intention, and somehow – eventually – bring good.