“The world divides us into camps based on what we’re most afraid of – and all too often we join in, ignoring or villainizing the voices that challenge our preferred vision of reality.” – Monica Brands
First Things First: Defining good and evil
Did you know that coffee was once banned in certain cultures? Take Italy, for example. When coffee arrived in Europe in the 16th century, clergymen throughout pressed for it to be banned and labelled “Satanic”. But Pope Clement VIII tasted it, declared it delicious, and even quipped that it should be baptized. On the strength of this papal blessing, coffeehouses rapidly sprang up throughout Europe.
In 1746, Sweden was next to give coffee the axe. The government also banned “Coffee Paraphernalia” — with cops confiscating cups and dishes. King Gustav III even ordered convicted murderers to drink coffee while doctors monitored how long the cups of Joe took to kill them. Seems great for convicts but boring for the doctors.
On a completely different note, there were many ancient cultures who used to adhere to the belief that the earth was flat, including Greece until the classical period, the Bronze and Iron Age civilizations of the Near East until the Hellenistic period, India until the Gupta period (early centuries AD), and China until the 17th century!
What does today’s discussion have to do with banned coffee and flat earth? It’s my way of getting us to laugh at the seemingly outlandish beliefs different cultures and societies have held on a numerous variety of things that today, because of the increase of knowledge and science, we no longer hold and/or know to be different.
In Isaiah 55:8 the Lord tells us “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways”. Seeing history through the lens of knowledge and science shows us how easy it is for man to be persuaded by perspective. The Lord is essentially telling us in this verse that even though we have come a long way, His perspective is still higher yet!
Why Two Trees?
Keeping that in mind… When you think of the Garden of Eden, what is the first tree that comes to mind? For me and many others it is the tree of knowledge of good and evil. I wonder though how many of us ever stop to give much thought about a second tree named in the Garden of Eden, the tree of life?
Before we tackle the big question on why bad things happen to good people, you might be wondering why it’s important to realize *there were two trees in the garden? Before I go there, I want to ask another question: Why did God call the first one the “tree of knowledge of good and evil”? We’ll explore both of those questions.
When Adam and Eve were being tempted, the seed of doubt about the tree of knowledge planted by Satan was simple: “You can be like God, knowing good and evil”, placing a purposeful distinction in our mind between the two. What happened in the garden as a result is that life became all about us being good and shunning evil, and all the while we so casually forgot about the other tree!
Because we have all eaten of this tree, we forsook what God called good and learned instead to define good in other ways, from within, but because we can’t measure our thoughts, we measured our actions. Those actions of identifying what is good versus what is bad are no longer based on the word of God but instead are now based on behavior. We think a person can be good by simply eliminating evil, and we assume God loves us more if we measure more for good on the scale than we do bad.
But here is something critical that we don’t often think about: The root for both good and evil are part of the same tree! If you personally work towards removing all that is evil in your life, in the end, when all is said and done to remove or cut off all offending parts until you are at the very root, you still through behavior have not eliminated evil!
So how is it then that Jesus in His humanness can step outside of this trap of believing that good and evil within us are separate? Because Jesus’ birth was immaculate, and the life He lived was without sin. This means He never ate from that tree!
Now is the time to remember there are two trees in the garden, and that Jesus represents the tree of LIFE, not the tree of knowledge of good and evil! Everything that is truly good comes from above, from the Father of lights (James 1:17), not from within. Good is who He is and what He gives, not what we do. As Ravi Zacharias once put it, “goodness has no reference point apart from God”.
Now that we have laid the foundation for what is truly good, what happens when we define good from within instead of above? We are using a faulty measuring stick – one that comes from the tree of knowledge, and so fall into a trap of Satan by believing that “bad things” happen to “good people” based on how we have defined good (which we have clearly seen how this can change from age to age, culture to culture, and from one society to another).
What happens when we define good from above? It is here in this secret place that we gain wisdom and understanding by eating from the second tree, the tree of life. Through this tree, we are lifted to a new realm where we are allowed to see from a heavenly, eternal perspective that fills us with peace and gives us insight with understanding of God’s immense love for us. Eventually we learn to recognize that what we used to define as bad is something God may be calling good.
Let’s agree to dump the old measuring stick and learn to define good from above instead of within!
How do we learn to recognize good from above (or from God)?
The hard truth is that bad things happen to everyone – not just to Christians – and it is a result of the fallen world we live in. When we really stop to think about it, I believe we can all agree that it was far better to be offered free will by God, and risk the fallenness as a result, than to be created without the will to love and be loved. Let that sink in for a moment.
So the real question is not “Why do bad things happen to good people”, but rather becomes “Why would a sovereign God allow this thing to happen to me, or to my loved ones? Why did He choose not to move the mountain on my behalf”? He had the power to prevent that “evil” from touching our lives but instead has judged to allow it. Why?
This question is actually the first step in the healing process, which is to recognize that He is God and we are not. I truly believe it all goes back to how we define good and evil, and then realizing that within our fallen state, we have defined “good” from within, and not from above.
Author and Pastor Mike Bickle often says “God’s judgements remove everything that hinders His love”. It is while we are in the state of brokenness that God meets us in our pain (Psalms 34:18), and because of God’s grace working within us, He is able to take what Satan meant for evil and work it for our benefit (Romans 8:28). It is a matter of trust that God’s best for our lives and the lives of our loved ones is far above anything we or they are having to endure here and now.
Truth: Learning to recognize good from above allows us to see past the temporal things and touch the power and purpose of eternity.
Think about Peter when he prayed “God forbid” that Jesus should suffer and die. I’m sure hearing the Lord say “Get thee behind me satan” seemed harsh at the time, but it was followed with “for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s”. Can you imagine what would have happened if Father God would have answered Peter’s initial prayer of “God forbid” – where would we be now?
What about suffering, and how does it play a role in the life of a Christian?
“Suffering is often demonized in the current climate of ‘feel good’ religious dogma. In an effort to attract more followers, leaders tend to over-emphasize the idea of pleasure and comfort afforded those who believe while neglecting or even rejecting the role of suffering.” Dudley Hall
What is the consequence of thinking that, as a Christian, you would not suffer? 1 Peter 5:8 gives us the answer: “Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour”.
Truth: Those who are not aware of the strategic role of suffering in the Christian journey become easy prey for the prowling lion, because he is counting on us seeing his attack as a bad thing and therefore deny the very grace and power needed to overcome it.
Anyone who regularly browses through social media may have seen a popular meme floating around that says in effect “God doesn’t give me more than I can handle so He must think I’m pretty tough!” Let’s take a closer look at that. Does God give us more than we can handle? YES! All the time! Let’s look at 2 Corinthians 12:9:
“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”
How does this meme stack up with the idea that God does not give us more than we can handle? It doesn’t! This is a good example of why it is important to know God’s voice, so when the devil whispers to us a lie like this one telling us that we are sufficient on our own apart from Christ, we immediately know and recognize it!
The passage surrounding 2 Corinthians 12:9 tells us that Paul was asking God to remove a “thorn” from his side,
“The two big obstacles to usefulness in God’s kingdom are confronted in this mysterious use of the thorn. Self-righteousness and self-sufficiency will wreck any attempt to reflect the glorious image of God… Self-righteousness does not recognize the need for God. Self-sufficiency is the curse of believing that we can handle life without accessing the resources God has provided. We often mistake God’s grace as His willingness to get us back on our feet so we can go about our independent lives. But it is his all-sufficient glory that we are displaying, not our ability to handle things.” – Dudley Hall
Suffering is integral to our mission on earth and offers us the opportunity to display the glory of God in a way unique to the gospel. Christians are the only ones who can embrace suffering with the grace that only comes through sharing the very life of Jesus, and there is much to be said on the promises God makes to the overcomer!
1 Peter 1:6-8 – The proof (to others) of our faith is found in suffering.
1 Peter 5:5-10 NRSV – what can we do when we are experiencing trials, tribulation, or suffering?
- Humble yourself
- Cast all your anxiety/care on Him
- Discipline yourself
- Keep alert and vigilant
*Recommended reading: There Were Two Trees in the Garden, by Rick Joyner