Ep.298: Famine, Crucifixion, and Cancer.

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray With Me”.

This is our fourth episode on the problem of evil, as we ask, “Why does a loving and powerful God permit so much evil in the world?” 

Today we look at Joseph in the Old Testament. His father Jacob had 12 sons by two wives and two slaves, creating a complicated family dynamic. Joseph, son number 11, was his father’s favorite, and his brothers’ least favorite.

Once, when the ten older brothers were herding sheep, Jacob sent Joseph to see how they were doing. They were doing just fine without Joseph, so they sold him into slavery in Egypt, dipped his coat in goat’s blood, and took it to their father, saying, “Is this your son’s coat?” Father Jacob was devastated.

In Egypt, Joseph suffered through slavery, trumped up criminal charges, and prison, until he was vindicated and promoted to ruler of Egypt, second in command to Pharaoh. He helped his big boss prepare Egypt for seven years of famine. 

During the famine, Joseph’s 10 older brothers came from their starving home in Canaan to buy food in Egypt. Joseph recognized them, but they didn’t recognize him. Joseph tested them until he was confident they regretted treating him badly. Then he held a lost-brother reveal party, and invited them to emigrate to Egypt so he could look after them.  

Years later, when father Jacob died, the ten were afraid Joseph would finally execute revenge on them for selling him into slavery. But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God meant it for good, to save many lives” (Gen. 50:24). God was at work in the brother’s evil plans, using them as part of his good plan.

In the Book of Acts, Peter addresses a similar theme. He says to the Israelites, “Jesus was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge, and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to a cross” (Acts 2:23). It’s like Joseph told his brothers: “You executed evil on your victim, but God incorporated even your evil actions in his good plan.” 

When Kate Bowler, a Duke University professor, was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer, she wrote the book, Everything Happens for a Reason: and Other Lies I’ve Loved (United States: Random House, 2019). The title reminds me of the version of Romans 8:28 I memorized as a child: “All things work together for good to those who love God.”  A better translation is: “In all things, God works for the good of those who love him.” It’s not “everything” that is working together for good. Rather, God is the active agent, he is working in everything–in Joseph’s slavery, in Kate Bowler’s cancer, even in Jesus’ crucifixion. 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, we have said many words we wish we could unsay. We have done many deeds we wish we could undo. We have seen pictures we would unsee and read books we would unread. 

But you are a God who works in everything. You worked through the death threats of Joseph’s brothers, through the trumped up charges and execution of Jesus, through Kate Bowler’s battle with cancer. 

Help us believe that you are at work in our lives and our world. Work through the violence of war. Work through the untimely deaths of children. Work through the machinations of politicians and the consumerism of society and the lies of conspiracy theories. O God, bring about your own conspiracy, a conspiracy of love and justice and salvation. 

Amen. 

I’m Daniel, on the channel “Pray with Me”.  

YouTube channel: Pray with Me – YouTube

Ep.297: How Small Is Your God?

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray With Me”.

This is our third episode on the problem of evil. If God is powerful and loving, why is there so much evil? Isn’t he powerful enough to stop evil? Is he not loving enough to care?

American author, apologist, and theologian Timothy Keller suggests these questions are a poor place to begin (Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, chapter 4). In our modern, rational, skeptical way of thinking, he says, , the questions play to preconceived biases rather than open inquiry. 

During coffee hour at church a while back, a man told me he didn’t believe in God. Why, I asked. Because a loving and powerful God would never permit the evil we see all around us. I simply said: “So if you were God, you’d run things differently. You’d stop the evil and spread some love around.” 

I continued,“It’s clear that God’s program sure isn’t the one you’d run. Have you read the Bible to see if God tells us what his program is? And why it might be different than yours?” 

Timothy Keller suggests that the question of God’s love and power plays better with a more rounded view of God. Certainly, God is powerful and loving, but he is also glorious, majestic, wise, without beginning or end, creator and sustainer of all things. He is a much more active and complex character than the abstract and philosophical being posited in the question, “If God is loving and powerful . . .” 

A blogger I read recently provided a list of ways to think (Lewis, Bob. “Thinking about Thinking.” Web blog post. IS Survivor Publishing. 21 March 2022. Accessed 23 March 2022 at https://issurvivor.com/2022/03/21/thinking-about-thinking/). One of his methods is “Plausibility Testing” which he describes as “Assessing whether an explanation passes the don’t-be-ridiculous test, keeping in mind that quantum physics doesn’t pass the test.” To a modern way of thinking and feeling, neither quantum physics nor God passes the don’t-be-ridiculous test, but perhaps both exist. And perhaps neither is easily explained. 

As a friend said, “If I can understand God’s thinking and his ways, he’s not much bigger than me. That’s not much of a God at all!” 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, we have studied scripture and contemplated nature and analyzed history and  scrutinized people. We have found that only faith sees beyond the narrow rationalism of our culture. Only faith leads us out of out narrow prejudices to a wide appreciation of your world. Only faith questions a skeptical, despairing response to evil, and leads to hope and peace. 

Teach us the way of faith. Teach us to think and feel and live our faith, even when doubts assail and questions go unanswered. As the  apostle Paul said, “Where there are prophecies, they will cease. Where there tongues, they will be stilled. Where there is knowledge, it will pass away. And now remain these three: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:8, 13).

Amen. 

I’m Daniel, on the channel “Pray with Me”.  

YouTube channel: Pray with Me – YouTube

Ep.296: Free to do Evil.

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray With Me”.

Today we continue our series on the problem of evil, asking: If God is powerful and loving, why is there so much evil? Is he too weak to stop it? Or not loving enough to care? 

One popular answer is that God wanted to create people who would love him, and that love is only possible when people have free will. So when God gave Adam and Eve the world as their playground, he imposed a prohibition, a tree with forbidden fruit, to test their love and obedience.

Think about that.

The whole world? Now there’s a generous gift! But, as many of us have discovered, love is not measured in gifts given and received, but in relationship. Surely God didn’t think such a gift would make Adam and Eve love him fully and automatically. The story hints that God was working toward a relationship, like when he walked with them in the Garden. But it doesn’t read like a love story, with God wooing Adam and Eve into a  relationship of love.

And think about that prohibition. If I see a child running between parked cars into traffic, I don’t question whether I should violate her free will. I’ll grab her arm and pull her back. And then talk with her about safety. Her love may grow as she matures–if I create room for her to grow, by restraining her foolish childish impulses.

When Adam and Eve contemplated the forbidden fruit, couldn’t God have initiated a helpful conversation, saying: “Hey, if you meet a talking snake, watch out for bad advice. Let me show you a bit of the snake’s plan for a world of evil and death. That might not be the way you want to go.”

Do you think unrestrained freedom is necessary for love? Scripture says God is love. It also says he’s not free to lie, to break promises, or even be tempted by evil. Could he not have made humans in his image, free to learn and grow in love, without the long threat of evil hanging over the human race? 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, as we look at the horrors in our world, as Russia destroys Ukrainian cities, as thousands die and millions seek refuge, we ask, “Is human freedom worth that price? A few of us use our freedom to give you a small amount of love, while others use their freedom to kill and maim and destroy. 

Our father, perhaps we know less than we thought about freedom and slavery. Why did you give Adam and Eve a capability even you do not have–the capacity to be tempted by sin? Did they understand the consequences of their choice, or did they stumble inadvertently, as we so often do, into a labyrinth of evil? 

Our father, it’s a long way back home from where the world and its people have come. Be to us father and savior and God. Lead us and our world on that journey home, we pray.   

Amen. 

I’m Daniel, on the channel “Pray with Me”.  

YouTube channel: Pray with Me – YouTube

Ep.295: Two Great Evils.

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray With Me”.

Today, as we begin a short series on the problem of evil, consider two great evils that stalk our world: the forces of nature and human choice. 

We know the forces of nature randomly kill thousands in so-called “acts of God”–hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes. The insurance industry doesn’t like God’s name cluttering up their policies, so they call natural disasters “force majeure”–grand forces beyond human control, against which there is no insurance.

Other natural evils include starvation, pandemics, cancer, drought. Nature can be a hard master. 

What about the second great evil?  Human choice. Murders, wars, genocide, and accidents are everywhere. Illegal drugs rob people of health and hope. The threat of nuclear war casts a shadow on the world. Today the Doomsday Clock reads one-minute-and-forty-seconds to midnight for the human race.

Useful inventions create evil outcomes. The Wright brothers had a wonderful idea. Which inspired the military to create new forms of violence and destruction. Three years ago, that semi truck broadsided a Saskatchewan hockey bus, killing 16 and injuring 13. 

This is “The Problem of Evil”. If God is loving and powerful, why doesn’t he stop the damage? Is our world his idea of reality TV? Doesn’t he care who gets injured or voted off the island? 

But suppose you don’t believe in God. Does that make things better? If all that exists is the universe as we know it, if only the fit survive, then there is no good or evil. It’s just the way things are. We are stuck with the fate nature assigns us. Complaining gets us nowhere. 

If there is no God and nature sends storms and earthquakes, how would you know it’s bad when they kill people? 

If wolves eat lambs and humans are genocidal, what’s the evil when the fit survive and the weak are removed from the gene pool?

My answer is that of Hamlet–a deep human feeling that something is rotten in the State of Denmark. I want to be free to live my best life. I want my family protected from murderers and thieves, from floods and famine and disease. The world should be safe and friendly, not a fight for survival. 

That feeling leads me past nature’s cruelty and human evil to God. Why? Because in him I see a standard of right and wrong, a statement of good and evil. I don’t find them anywhere else. 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, we call it the problem of evil. But it’s really the problem of good and evil, because so much of the world you created is good. I rejoice when dawn colors the sky in pinks and purples; I am amazed at mountains, stark against the clouds; I am astonished by the moon and stars at night. 

Human goodness is wonderful too. Some people seek justice for the oppressed, homes for the homeless, food for the hungry. Human ingenuity and science have conquered plagues, smallpox, and polio.

Wherever we look good and evil are present together: in nature, in civilization, in culture and politics and people. Give us eyes to see and believe what is good, hearts to discern and resist what is evil. In our short lifetime may we come to know you, and to believe that you alone are good. 

Amen. 

I’m Daniel, on the channel “Pray with Me”.  

Ep.294: What Have We Learned from the Psalms?

Hello. I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray with Me”. 

Three years ago in January I prayed Psalm 1, the beginning of a project to pray each of the psalms. Last week I arrived at the end, Psalm 150. That makes three years praying a psalm a week, with time off for holidays, vacations, and other excuses. 

Now that I’m done, let’s reflect. What have we seen in the psalms? How have they impacted us?

The first thing I notice is that these ancient poems are as current as Google News.Three thousand years ago the poets were writing headlines for today, complete with chaos, violence, disaster, corrupt politicians, war, and pandemics. The genius of the psalms translates human experience into poetry rather than focusing on specific events. Google News supplies the details of today’s disasters, but the psalms describe the experiences and emotions that disasters and successes evoke whenever they occur. The names and faces change, but the news stays the same.

Another striking feature of the psalms is the backdrop of darkness and evil. When I started this project in 2019, I expected to find more praise, more optimism. But the psalms give as much attention to darkness as to light, to difficulty as to ease, to complaint as to praise. But they don’t paint a static picture of gloom. Usually, the poet pushes through the darkness to light. Perhaps then, as now, joy and hope are hard-won attitudes, rewards for struggling against doubt and despair. 

The Harper-Collins Book of Prayers is 400 pages of prayers by 200 authors spanning 3000 years. (Robert Van de Weyer, ed. Castle Books: Edison, New Jersey, 1997) One small section of prayers stands out to me above all the others. It is a selection of psalms. When I read Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I was taken aback by its rawness, its power, and eloquence. I thought, “That’s why the psalms are in the Bible. They speak more simply and powerfully than thousands of prayers from lifetimes of experience.” 

The psalms also tap into my emotions. I tend to live stoically, soldiering on through thick and thin, consulting my will, not my emotions. When I am tense and annoyed, my family knows it long before I do. The psalms teach me that emotions are crucial in my relationship with God and others. Love is not just behavior, it is a feeling. It is affection, it wishes others well, it informs our relationships, it desires the best for others. 

But the scary part of emotions is that I don’t get to choose what I want to feel. If I lift the trap door and peer into the root cellar of my feelings—the whole crowd of them come jostling to the light, threatening to overwhelm me. What can I do with all that anger and love, the sadness and gladness, the feeling that God has abandoned me or the feeling that he is present? The psalms teach me to receive and feel and express each emotion to God. Perhaps when the psalms have done their work in me, I will be transformed from a soldier trudging through endless twilight to a dancer and singer greeting dawn in the mountains, singing dirges in the valleys, awake to the full range of human emotion. 

And finally, I have been surprised at how often the psalms criticize God–he’s not listening, he’s not helping, he’s sleeping. He’s not living up to his reputation for love and faithfulness, he’s abandoning the righteous, he’s not punishing evil. The poets have many complaints and they deal with them by complaining–complaining to God! This is faith at work, bringing all of life to God, reminding him of our need, calling him to exercise his love and faithfulness, waiting to see what he will do.  

In Hebrew, the Book of Psalms is titled “Songs of Praise.” I have wondered about that title, since so much of the book is anything but praise. But now, I like it. The poems and prayers and songs lead me from darkness to light, through despair to hope, through doubt into joyous faith. They are songs of praise.

Let’s pray. 

Our father, in our need, in our pain and joy, you are there for us in the psalms. You shelter us under your wings. You lead us to green pastures. You walk with us through the valley of shadows. You are our king, bringing justice and righteousness. 

Thank you for the psalms, for the images they furnish our imagination and the words they teach us to pray. Thank you for the journey they take us on, from fear to courage, from isolation to community, from darkness to the light of your presence. Hallelujah.

Amen.

I’m Daniel on the channel “Pray with Me”.