In the last post on Iain Provan’s new book Seriously Dangerous Religion we looked at Genesis 3, a story that Provan sees as relating the embrace of evil by humans created in the image of God. This embrace of evil had consequences for Adam and Eve and for their descendants. But this raises an important question – what are we to do about human evil and suffering? About poverty and want? What is the biblical response in the pages of the Old Testament. The answer isn’t a resignation to a predetermined lot in life. The command in the Old Testament is quite clear – and Deuteronomy 35 lays it out.
See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. …Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him.
Humans are called to choose to follow the way of God. There is no fatalism about this issue, although there is at times a resignation to the fact that evil will always be present, and that the wicked person will often prosper for a time.
In the Old Testament view the events of Genesis 3 did not significantly affect the nature of God’s good creation. It is still good as the Psalmists often reflect. Nor did the events of Genesis 3 lead to inevitable “ongoing relational problems between God and human beings.” (p. 136) Abel, Enoch, and Noah had good relationships with God. Cain was presented with a choice and he made a choice (Gen 4:6-7). Sacred space in communion with God is preserved in temple and tabernacle.
Here, sacred space is preserved—the sacred space that the whole world ought to represent. These are the places from which the command is issued, “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2)—the places that foreshadow a world that will once again be completely holy. Beyond the tabernacle and temple, the garden in Eden can also be recovered to some extent in human experience more generally—when there is humility before God rather than godlike pride (Ezekiel 28; Isaiah 51:3). (p. 136)
God calls on entire peoples and on each individual to choose life, “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) The ability to choose runs through the Old Testament story. Provan points out that even King Ahab got to choose – and when he humbled himself, tore his clothes, wore sackcloth and fasted God didn’t bring disaster in his day. Provan asks – what would have happened if Ahab’s son Joram had humbled himself? Would God have responded with mercy here as well? The answer we get from the Bible appears to be yes.
So what are we to do? Provan lays out what he sees as the commanded response of God’s people:
1. We are to resist evil and instead pursue what is right. This will not necessarily defeat the wicked, but that doesn’t matter. We are still to resist evil and pursue what is right.
2. We are to be patient, enduring suffering, while pursuing what is right. The Psalms have much to say on this topic as the writers experienced times of trouble poured out their hearts to God. “We should resist evil, but the way is difficult. Therefore, patience in doing good is required—patience even while enduring the suffering that evil creates.” (p. 149)
3. We are to pray. The right path is walked in conversation with God through prayer. The Psalms provide examples, but others are found throughout the Old Testament.
The fourth affirmation of biblical faith in response to evil and suffering is this: that I am to show compassion to those who bear their brunt. At present, I may not be able to defeat the evil forces ranged against me and others; the best I might be able to manage, as I walk with God and seek what is right, is patient endurance in the midst of prayer. Yet I can offer friendship and help to those who suffer. I can alleviate their suffering to the best of my abilities, even as I am unable to change their circumstances. (p. 151)
This is an important, and sometimes under appreciated point. Read the Old Testament some time, beginning to end, and highlight the mercy and generosity passages in purple (or some other color). The way this command to love one another permeates the text is overwhelming. I’ve been listening to the Bible regularly on my commute for a couple of years now and this was the first and most powerful truth that hit me. It is absolutely inescapable. Following the way of God requires a compassionate approach to life and to the troubles and sufferings of others.
5. Finally, we are called to hope. There is hope for relief, hope for the future. We are to hope for a world described by the new creation of Isaiah or Micah.
The biblical response to the presence of evil in the world as portrayed in the Old Testament is an active response.
What am I to do about evil and suffering in the world? I am to resist evil and pursue what is right. Where I cannot overcome evil, I am to endure it patiently in hope, while still pursuing what is right. In any event I am to pray that my fellow creatures and I will be rescued from it and to show compassion to others who find themselves the victims of it.
None of these responses, it should be noted, is a passive response. It is a common complaint in post-Christian Western culture … that at least the Christian adherents of biblical faith (leaving the Jews aside) are fundamentally escapist in their approach to the world. … Although this is indeed true of some Bible readers, the Bible itself does not advocate such a stance. (p. 152)
I did a long series of posts on the book of Job awhile back. This is a fascinating book – with the layers of meaning one generally finds in good literature. One feature that stood out was that Job was righteous – as emphasized in the beginning and end of the book through the words of God himself. The two major errors his friends accused him of were rebellion against God and failure to act fairly and care for the poor. He denied both. Job pursued what was right. This didn’t (and doesn’t) forestall all suffering. God’s people are called to remain faithful and called to action.
In the last part of the chapter Provan compares this biblical call to action with the response taught in a representative swathe of other world religions. The response, a biblical call to action caring for the poor, the widow, the stranger, is, Provan claims, substantially different from somewhat more fatalistic views in most other religions.
What do you think of Provan’s analysis?
What role does human choice play in the biblical world?
How does God respond to human choice?
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