I have led Christian organizations for most of my adult life. In those settings, I’ve been stolen from, lied to, falsely accused, threatened, forced out of organizations and off boards, betrayed by those I trusted, abandoned by friends, blamed for the misdeeds of the ones doing the blaming, and . . . the list could go on.
I’ve also watched fear make friends run from their duty, jealousy make colleagues turn from their principles, lust destroy trusted leaders’ marriages, longing for significance turn godly allies into cheap slanderers, and ambition turn gentle shepherds into plotting wolves willing to sacrifice organizations, friends, and their own families for personal promotion.
As I make these lists and bring to mind the persons involved, two things occur to me.
First, I cannot think of a single instance in which the ones doing such evil were not professing Christians.
Second, I imagine that anyone reading the lists could reasonably conclude that I must be a terrible leader to head organizations so broken. After all, if I were doing everything right, wouldn’t people be inspired to live in God-honoring ways? Wouldn’t good management result in good outcomes? The simple answer is “not necessarily,” but we won’t be prepared to answer that way without a good theology of evil.
Here’s one key aspect of that theology: “No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18).
Evil in Me
What makes it possible to bear the evil of our world and the betrayal of others? Two things: confession of the commonness of evil and confidence in God’s faithfulness.
When we’ve suffered from evil, we can be tempted to many more evils. We may, of course, excuse ourselves of all wrongdoing and blame others for our hurts and failures. There may be sound reasons for this. But even if that’s so, nursing such perspectives and wallowing in our pain can lead to other temptations like isolation, doubt, despair, hardness of heart, and unwillingness to trust others or to serve God again.
When we’ve suffered from evil, we can be tempted to many more evils.
When we’ve been betrayed, wounded, and embarrassed by our losses, we naturally seek shelter. A time of healing may very well be needed, but permanently sealing our hearts away from deep relationships doesn’t allow us to employ the gifts and graces we steward for Christ’s sake. Even if we’re never able to work again with the income and prestige of the job that wounded us, there are hurting souls in the world that need our experience, care, and understanding of God’s grace. If all we do is descend into self-absorbed pain and perpetual licking of our wounds, then we will inevitably doubt God’s providence and distort our view of his care.
Human suffering never nullifies the goodness of God or the usefulness of his servants. The prophets, apostles, and people who did God’s will in Scripture often suffered great loss due to this world’s evil. Moses was betrayed by his people, David by his friends and family, Paul by his fellow travelers, and Jesus by his apostles. The most idealized father in Scripture (who represents God himself) was disrespected by both of his sons (Luke 15:11–32). Few of us would be so bold as to sidle up to any of these biblical figures and say, “Now, if you had just been a better leader, manager, or servant of God, then these terrible things wouldn’t have happened.”
Neither the experience of failure nor the duplicity of those we trusted proves that we failed to do what God desired or that the Lord has no further purpose for us (Psalm 41).
A. W. Tozer wrote, “It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until he has hurt him deeply.” Such hurt forces us from dependence upon our fallible strengths and unfounded pride to the holy acknowledgment that apart from Christ we can do nothing (see John 15:5). In that confession is the true source of spiritual strength for God’s calling upon our lives.
Antidote to Evil
God’s calling through the trials of evil cannot be fulfilled if our hearts are full of rage and bitterness or are cold and distrusting. While deep hurt may make us appropriately wise and wary about human relationships, if we cannot love and trust again, then we cannot rediscover joy or reflect Jesus.
Our trials and crises teach us to depend upon him alone through whom all things are yet possible (Phil. 4:13). The reason the Scriptures tell us not to put our “trust in princes” or in a “familiar friend” is that evil resides in every heart, and all are capable of betrayal, abandonment, and selfishness (Ps. 55:13; 146:3). We must not idolize any job, person, or position by making them the source of our joy or the guarantor of God’s love.
We must not idolize any job, person, or position by making them the source of our joy or the guarantor of God’s love.
This doesn’t mean we are never again to believe or cherish others. Despite the pain of our pasts, we remain called to appreciate and participate in the work that God is doing in others’ lives. Our children still need our tenderness, our neighbors still need to see Christ in us, and our enemies still need to see that we do not believe Christ has abandoned us—or we him.
Others may yet again abuse our trust and take advantage of our care; it’s almost certain that someone will. Yet those who are called to represent Jesus in an evil world extend the love that is in his heart even if doing so is certain to wound ours at some point. The apostle Peter explains, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Pet. 2:21).
We should be realistic enough about humanity’s flaws to refuse to base our happiness on others’ faithfulness. We should also be so focused on the cross as never to doubt our God’s providential and perpetual care.