Why does God permit evil?

Genesis 45

25 June 2006

Blenheim Free Church, Maidenhead

Morning service


I imagine that there are a number of questions on our minds this morning in particular, like will Wayne Rooney be fit enough to last the whole match? Is Theo Walcott the next Pele, and when will he get his chance to prove it? And, Frank Lampard, why? Important questions, all of them. Well, for some of us anyway.

But the question I want to pose this morning has an importance of a different magnitude, so put all that aside for a little while and give this some thought. The question is, what kind of God permits evil to happen to his people?

It is evident to anyone who isn't completely brainwashed that Christians suffer at the hands of evil men in terrible ways. I receive Open Doors magazine, which highlights the plight of persecuted Christians worldwide. This month you can read about a church in Vietnam which the authorities demolished, arresting the pastor and beating ten others. You can read about a Muslim convert to Christianity in Iran, facing the death penalty for his conversion. You can read about a Christian woman in Eritrea whose six month old baby died two days after she was arrested under a charge of "actively witnessing about Christ" .

It's harrowing stuff, and it is going on all over the world all the time: God's people suffering at the hands of evil men. What kind of God permits this to happen to his people?

And we know too in our own lives that we are not immune from evil. Some of us will have terrible experiences of wrongs done against us. We pray "deliver us from evil" , yet still we suffer it. What kind of God permits this to happen to his people?

Traditional answers to this question have said that the existence of evil proves that God is either unable to stop evil, or that he is unwilling to stop evil. That is, he is either weak or bad, and in any case not worth our worship. This is shallow thinking. When we turn to the Bible we find that the truth is far richer and deeper.

The Bible doesn't dismiss this vast question with a quick one-line answer. There's nowhere you can turn to which says "The answer to the problem of evil is this..." . What the Bible does do is to give us perspectives on the problem of evil. It gives us worked examples from the lives of God's people, and encourages us to draw conclusions.

And this is what we have in the story of Joseph. In this story we don't find anything like a complete answer to the problem of evil, but we do find a perspective: a part of an answer, a way of looking at the problem.

Joseph has suffered a terrible evil - what kind of God permitted that to happen? Look with me please at Genesis chapter 45.


Here we have reached the climax of the Joseph story. The tension has been building since chapter 37, and the pace has accelerated since chapter 42. The story is not quite finished yet, but chapter 45 is the turning point, where the writer reveals what it is all about, where we discover the point of the story.

Years earlier Joseph's brothers had hated him as a boy and in a terrible act had thrown him into a pit and then sold him into slavery in Egypt. Whilst in Egypt Joseph had suffered more huge injustices and had ended up spending several years in prison, back in the pit as the Hebrew puts it. But due to his faithfulness, and God's grace in enabling him to predict the coming famine, Joseph has now been appointed the most powerful man in Egypt after the Pharaoh, dispensing grain to desperate people far and wide.

It is as desperate people that his brothers now come to him. Although he recognises them, they do not recognise him, until at last we reach this chapter when Joseph finally reveals himself to them, and in verse three we are told that they are terrified; so terrified they cannot speak. What will Joseph do with them? What kind of revenge will he exact for the terrible wrong that they did him? Judgement day had come early.

But Joseph's response is not at all what they expected. Instead he three times makes an extraordinary statement, and it is this that I want to focus upon. In verse 5 he says, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of youref. Again in verse 7 he says, God sent me ahead of youref, and in verse 8 he is explicit, it was not you who sent me here, but Godref.

Do you agree that these are extraordinary things for Joseph to say? Years earlier his brothers (who had hated him) had left him in hole in the ground and then sold him for 8 ounces of silver to a passing slave trader. Is Joseph really saying that it was God who did this? Was it actually somehow God who had committed this incredible injustice against him? What kind of God would do this?

I want to explore this under three headings: Joseph's pain is real; God's plan is revealed; and God's purpose is radical.

First, Joseph's pain was real. When he says these things, he is not in some kind of denial about what his brothers had done to him. There's no way he's saying, it's OK guys, what you did wasn't so bad after all.

No, Joseph is in anguish. We have seen it in the way that he has been testing his brothers over the previous three chapters: he has been wrestling with reconciliation.

And we can see his anguish in this chapter as well. In verses 1 and 2 we read, that Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants,ref and he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him, and Pharaoh's household heard about it.ref We see his pain too in his first question, is my father still living?ref: the pain of separation for all these years from the father he loved and who loved him, not even knowing if he was alive or dead.

The injustices done to Joseph were deep and real, and his pain was equally deep and real.

But, second, in dealing with his pain, Joseph had come to the point of acknowledging God's plan. These events are not random; Joseph is not an arbitrary victim. No, throughout all of this God's plan has been in operation, and just as Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, so we find here God revealing his plan to us. At last we see clearly the hidden hand that we've only glimpsed up to now, shaping events, leading Joseph and his brothers to this place.

Twice in this chapter Joseph says those wonderful words "But God": verse 7, But God sent me ahead of youref and verse 8, it was not you who sent me here, but Godref. Again, seventeen years later in Genesis chapter 50 he says these words to his brothers, You intended to harm me, but God intended it for goodref.

At face value these statements are frankly bizarre, aren't they? His brothers had sent him to Egypt, as he even acknowledges in verse 4, I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt!ref But dig deeper and they are seriously mature theology. The words he uses, "But God" are some of my favourite words in the Bible, because they ooze the sovereignty of God. When I read the words "But God", I know that He is in control, no matter how bleak things look. Throughout the Bible it's a great mystery how God takes the evil deeds of sinful men and uses them as part of His plan to bring about good, but it happens time and time again.

But we should make sure to notice that this wasn't a situation where something terrible happened to Joseph, and God somehow rescued him and turned it round for the good. On the contrary, the injustice and pain were part of God's plan from the beginning, as Joseph says three times, it was God who sent me here. God had planned this from the start, injustice and all. Evil people did evil things, but somehow it was never out of God's control.

Third, God's purpose was radical. Not only was he ultimately reconciled with his family, but God was able to do through him a much greater work. In Joseph's words, it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of youref. And that's what we see worked out in the rest of the chapter and the rest of the book, and indeed the rest of the Bible.

So, here in the story of Joseph we have one perspective on the problem of evil. What kind of God allowed Joseph to suffer at the hands of evil men and women? The Bible's answer: a God who saves his people.

But a good question to ask is, is this just a one-off in the life of Joseph, or can we take people's pain, God's plan and God's purpose from this story and apply them more widely? In short, have we learnt something about the way God normally works?


Well, for a Christian all this should sound strangely familiar.

To see what I mean I want to turn to another "But God" passage written about 1,600 years later, in Acts chapter 2. That's on page 1093 of my Bible, please turn there with me. Acts 2 verse 22. This is what Peter declares to the crowd who gathered on the day of Pentecost.

Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.ref

Again we see a man's pain as part of God's plan to accomplish his purpose.

We know about Jesus' pain, don't we? Not just the physical pain spoken of here—the literally excruciating pain of being put to death by being nailed to a cross—, but the devastating, annihilating pain of having God's wrath over the sins of the world poured out on him in his innocence.

In this verse we see that all Jesus' pain and suffering was part of God's plan from the beginning. This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledgeref. Although the deed was done by evil men who had no excuse, God had long-before planned it and intended it. This is the mystery of God's sovereignty. The cross was no accident that somehow God turned around for the good. No, the agony of the cross was part of God's plan from the very beginning.

This is not an easy truth to understand. It's the truth that Jesus wrestled with in the Garden of Gethsemane as he prayed in anguish through the night, Isn't there another way?ref But in the end Jesus came to the point where he knew that the pain was part of God's plan, and then God's purpose could be accomplished.

And the purpose of the plan, of course, was, like Joseph, to save lives. But more than that, it was to overcome death once and for all. As it says, it was impossible for death to keep its hold on himref.

So again, we see how those words, "but God" reveal God's sovereignty. As Joseph said to his brothers, You intended to harm me, but God intended it for goodref so in Acts we read four times, you crucified him, but God raised him from the deadref. Once again we see that the pain is not defeat; evil people did evil things, but somehow it was never out of God's control. God is in no way responsible for the evil, but he is sovereign over that evil to use it to bring good to the world. Once again we see that the pain was part of God's plan for accomplishing His purpose.


So what about our pain? Joseph and Jesus show us that God sometimes uses his people's suffering at the hands of evil men to accomplish his purposes, but what can these examples tell us about other times when Christians suffer unjustly?

What can we say about the evil we suffer—and we all do; some of us terribly. Where is God in this? What kind of God permits it?

The Bible is clear that the way God worked in Joseph and Jesus is far from unusual. In fact, the New Testament teaches that for the Christian, this is the way God normally works.

To see this, turn with me to my final "but God" passage in Romans chapter 8. It's on page 1135 of my Bible. Actually, I misled you a little: it doesn't actually say "But God", but it nearly does, and it is there implicitly. The verse is Romans 8:28, and it's probably familiar to you.

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.ref

Once again I want to look at this truly astonishing statement under the pattern of pain, plan, and purpose.

First, our pain. The context of this verse is our suffering. In verse 17 Paul has talked about us sharing in the sufferings of Christ, and we've just seen what those were: injustice, betrayal, pain and death. He continues to talk about the sufferings of the world in the intervening verses.

When Paul says in all things he is precisely talking about the things we suffer. We have to take him seriously: he speaks from personal experience. Few of us have shared in Christ's sufferings as much as the Apostle Paul did.

Paul knows that pain is the normal Christian experience, and the Apostle Peter agrees when he writes, Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to youref.

But this pain is part of God's plan. This verse in Romans convinces us that God is in control: We have been called according to his purpose. This and the next two verses overflow with God's sovereignty: we have been called; he foreknew us; he predestined us. Nothing is out of God's control, least of all the things we suffer.

There is comfort here, isn't there? The temptation when we suffer is to ask, "where is God?" , "Has He abandoned me?" . The sovereignty of God expressed in these verses tells us that we are never outside His plan. The Christian—the one who loves God—is never abandoned by Him to random chance, be it disease, injustice or the evils of this world.

God's purpose, as Paul puts it, is that we be conformed to the likeness of his Sonref. So, God might be forming us into people who can comfort others in their suffering. He might be calling us to a deeper relationship with Himself in prayer. He might be opening doors by our suffering into new worlds for us and His gospel. He is certainly teaching us to sort out what is important from what is unimportant in this world: to hold on less tightly to the things of this world, and to long more for the next. In all these ways God is making us more like Jesus, who himself suffered on our behalf. What is He doing in you to conform you to the likeness of His Son?


As we finish I want to return to the question we started with: "what kind of God allows his people to suffer at the hands of evil men?"

The Bible doesn't give us easy answers to questions like this, but we've looked at some of its perspectives: the life of Joseph; the death of Jesus; the experience of Christians.

What we've seen is that sometimes God allows his people to suffer pain because it is part of his plan, and it achieves his purpose: ultimately to save his people. Evil people do evil things, but they are never beyond God's foreknowledge and control: ultimately God transforms the evil to good, the saving of many people.

But I want to leave you with a different question, the question that an English preacher visiting America rather ill-advisedly asked his congregation, "how big is your "but"?"

How deeply is the phrase "but God" ingrained into your understanding of the world? As you see evil at work, as you face evil in your life, are you prepared to say "but God has a plan" , "but God will transform this" , "but God is in control" ?

This is mature theology. The theologically immature person faces suffering and tragedy and gives up on God. In the face of pain they conclude that God either does not care for them, or that he cannot help them, but they don't realise that giving up on God is the worst tragedy of all.

As we face evil and pain a "but God" theology will help us to grow in love and knowledge of God. It will help us to grow in Christ-likeness. We see it worked out in Joseph's life. In setback after setback, injustice after injustice, we can't help but be impressed at his growing maturity and faith in God.

When you face evil in your life you have a choice: are you going to trust God more, knowing that he has a plan—a plan to make you Christlike? A plan for glory, his and yours. Are you going to seek out his purposes and submit yourself to his will? Or are you going to turn away from him and reject him?

Although the words "but God" are some of my favourite words in the Bible, they are not confined to its pages. We can all know God better if we can work them out in our lives.

If we need encouragement to see how to do it, then reading Christian biographies is a great way to learn more about how God works in his people through the evils they face. In the lives of godly men and women, as in Joseph's life, we find worked examples of how God works in his people. One of the most powerful recent books is Brother Yun's The Heavenly Man, which I highly recommend if you haven't read it.

But I want to finish with the story of one of the people I read about in my Open Doors magazine a little while ago, Ayub Masih. He has now been released, but he spent six years in prison in Pakistan. He was initially imprisoned on false, but relatively minor, charges after he became a Christian. Two years later, though, he was charged with blasphemy and sentenced to death under Islamic law for daring to lead a Bible study among the other prisoners in his cell. Other Muslim inmates tried to kill him for his alleged crime. His parents and eleven brothers and sisters were hounded out of their village.

But over and over again in his letters Ayub wrote his favourite Bible verses: "love your enemies" , "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in everything." and the now familiar verse "God works all things together for good to those who love him."

This is a deep "but God" theology.

I imagine that this morning's topic has raised questions for a few of us. We've only looked at a perspective on the problem of evil; there's a lot more to be said, and these are deep and perplexing issues. If these are questions you are grappling with, then please talk to someone about them. I'll be around for a while after the service, or I'm sure any of your elders will be happy to speak to you. Don't feel you have to struggle on alone.