moral earthquakes

At church this month we’ve been looking at earthquakes, disasters, and suffering from different angles. I’ve talked about living in unsteady times, and in the physical earthquakes we suffer. I talked about walking though the tsunami rubble in India, and about how God uses earthquakes in our lives.

Now let’s look at the smelly stuff on the bottom of the barrel: the disasters we people cause each other. Christian theology has always worked to explain why a good, all-powerful God (like we see in the Bible) would allow bad things to happen on earth to people he loves. One answer: God allows us to be morally free, and free people too often hurt each other.

Real Love Requires Freedom

The Bible says repeatedly that we are not the puppets of some all-powerful deity, but that men and women are given a great and powerful gift: free will. This is the ability to choose a course of action. While this may not be completely free (God built us, sets limits, remains sovereign, and is intimately involved in human affairs), we make choices and create consequences. Often, we do good things like build hospitals or help our neighbors move in.

But making good choices is NOT the mainstay of human behavior. Sadly, humans also have selfish desires. Therefore, we exercise our freedoms in ways that disadvantage, wound, and hurt others. If I get drunk and drive (free moral will) then an innocent person might die in the accident I cause. History tells the sad tale of free choice being used to cause wars, to buy slaves, to cheat others, to take something away from the weak, to establish evil, and to garner more and more power. Over and over again. Something is broken in us, it seems.

Pain and evil are real costs of real moral freedom.

Some of the suffering we face cannot be blamed on “acts of God” like earthquakes and tidal waves. These pains come, instead, from inside humanity, rolling in great shaking horror with the tanks and whips and overstuffed purses of human free will. They ripple and heave from our selfishness, and from the brokenness of wrong and sin. They carry to their victims the viral consequences of bad choices by others, flowing unbidden into our lives. Or maybe we ourselves drop the ‘bomb’ into the ocean, and in the explosion the tidal wave rises. Sin always gives birth to struggle, damage, and pain. It is not just from some deep ocean. It comes from inside us.

“Are you so dull?” Jesus asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them?…He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance, and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” (Mark 7:18-23)

The earthquakes which bring us the most pain and suffering flow from the sinful human heart.

Why would God allow this? Again, real love requires freedom. This corresponds to another truth: there is no real freedom if only predetermined good choices are allowed. Wrong options from from moral freedom.

2 men and woman standing on brown concrete floorLet me explain a bit. Like in the movies, what if some magic potion or pill could make someone love you totally. Would you give it to them? It might be nice for a while—to be someone’s center of attention and complete focus of love. Lots of foot rubs, fancy meals, and flowers. But would that be good in the long run? Wouldn’t it feel “less than real love” if it were medicated or forced? Wouldn’t they be reduced to less than they could be, since their actions would be limited by the frame of the drug? Don’t we want someone to choose to love us freely? Don’t we believe that real love is a choice? God does not need worshippers or children. But he desire those who will freely respond to his goodness and mercy to come and be blessed as his kids. The Bible uses the image of adoption: a Father who in deepest love chooses a child for his family, but wants the child to accept their adoption.

This is the truth of God’s love. His love comes to us undeserved, and we then have freedom to respond or not. He desires that we choose to love him, trust him, and serve him. But we are not forced to. This is called the doctrine of free will. It is a complex subject, and I cannot unfold it fully here. But the core is that although God always remains sovereign over the universe, Scripture portrays humans as having minds and wills of their own. We are, in a real (though limited) sense, creators of our own behavior and determiners of our own consequences. This fundamental assumption is demonstrated in a variety of ways throughout Scripture. Galatians 6:7 says, “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” Joshua lays it out clearly:

But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.  (Josh 24:15)

It is clearly expressed in Deuteronomy when Yahweh speaks to the children of Israel. Whether they are blessed or cursed depends on what they choose to do. God set before them the possibilities of life and death, but they decide which possibilities they shall actualize.

Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away…See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death, and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish…I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live…. (Deut. 30:11–19)

Genesis 1 tells us humanity is created in the image of God our Creator. Humans are free moral agents, and we can measure, reflect, create, love, hate, and influence our destinies. Unlike animals, which act mainly on instinct,  humans can reason morally—toward right or wrong, justice or self-gain, loving or oppressing—and we can act in the world on these moral reasons. This is free will. Dinesh D’Souza writes, “Theologians over the centuries have responded to questions about the existence of evil by pointing out that man, not God, is the author of moral evil. Evil in this view refers to the bad things that people do to each other. Moral evil is the necessary price that God pays for granting humans moral autonomy.”

Freedom allows us to make bad, selfish choices. To make anti-God and anti-good choices. The Psalmist writes a poem about how we too often use our free will poorly:

My companion attacks his friends;

he violates his covenant.

His talk is smooth as butter,

yet war is in his heart;

his words are more soothing than oil,

yet they are drawn swords. (Psalm 55:20-21)

The earthquakes which bring us the most pain and suffering flow from the sinful human heart.

And this, my friends, is why the Father sent Jesus to overcome our sin. Not a single person, in any country or age, could make enough good choices to overcome the magnetism of sin. The earthquake has left its mark on us all. Any honest person knows that they are not holy or pure enough to “earn” God’s perfect love. So–not unlike the medical team coming after the Indian tsunami–Jesus loves us first, and comes to us to clean our wounds, to renew our minds, and to redeem our souls. It is a new start–like a new birth–available through faith. Jesus comes ultimately to make all things new. “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.  Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:6-8).

girl playing heart balloon wall artwork

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