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Friday, March 21, 2014

What Was Meant for Evil

Did you ever experience something that you know has to be evil, but yet you cannot deny the good that came from it?

Think of Joseph, youngest of 11 sons of Israel, the favorite. His jealous brothers could not bear the favoritism nor Joseph's superior attitude. They did the unbrotherly thing--tossed him into a hole, sold him into slavery, told the father the boy was dead. I can pretty comfortably call that evil.

Joseph found himself in a foreign country, where he is seduced by a married woman. When he flees from her, she lies to save face for herself, claiming he didn't reject her--instead, he molested her! He gets thrown into prison. Deep, dark, dank prison, for YEARS. Years of his life evaporate in that darkness, foreshadowed, perhaps, by the dry well that held him at his brothers' hands. I can pretty comfortably call that evil.

But what was intended for evil, God worked for good. God brought good for Joseph and even for Joseph's brothers out of that sequence of evil events. Joseph became a leader--second in command of all of Egypt. And in that position, Joseph also was used to kind of do a number on the people of Egypt too. He knew severe famine was coming, so he had to plan ahead. He "taxed" the people's produce at outrageous rates to store up for the seven years of starvation. I wonder how they might have groaned over this foreigner--Pharaoh's Yes-Man--taking so much from them now to hold for later, when he would sell it back to them. And so he did. He sold it back to them until they had no money left. He then traded grain for livestock until they had no livestock left. He then traded grain for land until they had no land left. And finally, he traded grain for human service, until everyone except the priests in Egypt were bound to work Pharaoh's land for no pay; only the right to keep some of the produce again to feed themselves. Meanwhile, in Goshen, set apart from the Egyptians geographically, the sons of Israel and their families thrived and multiplied and had enough to eat.

What they had meant for evil, God had used for their own good.

I need to remember this. There is evil all around. It touches everything--even those areas of existence that we still hold up as good. That is what total depravity means: not that everything is completely rotten, but everything is altered by corruption. Evil is everywhere. God does not stop it the way I might want him to. But the testimony is that he uses it for good. All things work for 1) his own glory (Proverbs 16:4), and 2) the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28). All things? Even those that are so easy to call evil? That is the challenge to believe.

I had a great privilege this month to interview a bold Christian athlete who completed a grueling and extremely dangerous physical trial at the end of February. The ten-day event afforded him a lifetime's worth of spiritual lessons. Several have stuck with me, but one in particular keeps coming back: the blessing he now sees in darkness.

At one point on his journey, he had to pass through a treacherous Alaska gorge, hauling behind him a heavy sled with all his survival needs on it. Frigid, running glacier water--deep enough to submerge a man, especially one tethered to a sled bearing scores of pounds of weight--flowed below him as he had to creep along narrow, winding, rocky, uncharted, ice bridges and catwalks. And he did it at night, in the dark.

I do not like navigating in the dark. I do not like darkness, as a general rule. I am not talking about the quiet of the evening, under a starlit sky. I am talking about debilitating darkness. Darkness that hinders. Darkness that does not allow one to see the needed steps, the goals ahead. Darkness that oppresses and renders one helpless and even depressed. I want light. I want vision. I want knowledge. When met with darkness, most of us seek to change it. We turn on lights. We use flashlights, headlights, street lights, candles, torches, runway lights, lighthouses. Human history clearly depicts the need to push back against the darkness, to try to set it right. The very opening chapter of Genesis proclaims that this is good and necessary: In the beginning... God separated the light from the darkness. He contained the darkness even then. Let that which God has seen fit to separate, no man again put together.

And here, in that type of debilitating darkness, my new friend had to navigate for his very life in order to achieve the goal of finishing the race. He is on the other side now. The race is over. And looking back into it, he says he can be thankful for the darkness. If he had taken that route in the daylight, he believes he almost certainly would have been overwhelmed by all the deadly obstacles in his path. He would have turned back. He would have given up. The journey truly was too great for him. The darkness hid that truth. But one small, uncertain step at a time, he depended on his Jesus to take him through, without any vision for where he was going. And when daylight came, the terror of the darkness was in the past.

Daylight did come.

And darkness was used for good.

What else might we label blatantly evil, and reject outright in our own unwillingness to let God use it for good?

I have a new counselor. A human one. I think, finally, I have found a good fit. When I mentioned to him that something I have always labeled blatantly evil might, possibly, in God's hand, actually be a gift God uses for good, he did not disagree. He did not shove me backward into my former thinking. Instead, he said I might be on the verge of a liberating breakthrough that will not only be used for my good, but for others' good, and for letting the omnipotent and incorruptible God out of a tiny box I have held him in, so that his glory too may be seen. God is bigger than the evil that is in and around us. That is the point of the gospel. None of it is outside his ability to use for his purposes.