Why is there Evil in the World?
The Message Translation:
I can anticipate the response that is coming: “I know that all God’s commands are spiritual, but I’m not. Isn’t this also your experience?” Yes. I’m full of myself—after all, I’ve spent a long time in sin’s prison. What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise. So if I can’t be trusted to figure out what is best for myself and then do it, it becomes obvious that God’s command is necessary.
But I need something more! For if I know the law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time.
It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge.
I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question?
The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different.
“How can people treat each other so badly?’
It’s a question we have all asked. As we look at the news and see terrible acts of violence and hate. As we ourselves are hurt by friends and those close to us. As we hear stories of those who were supposed to be trustworthy and abuse their power and others. We all can look at the actions of other people and wonder, “How can people treat each other so badly? How can we be so evil to one another?”
In our reading for today, Paul flips that. And instead of looking out there for the answer, Paul invites us to look in here, as he asks not how can others treat each other so badly, but how can I do such a thing? How can I act in ways I know are harmful, know are destructive, know separate me from God and my neighbor? How can I do all the things I do not want to do?
I can relate all too well to those questions. I remember as a youth being at a camp in upstate New York one summer. I didn’t know anyone so I tried as best as I could to fit in. I wasn’t very good at it, as this was a whole new group of people I was with. But there was one other youth, from the first time we met who I was comfortable around. His name was Brian, and he was two grades younger than me. We both weren’t that popular, but we could talk books, and sports, and movies, and tv shows with each other, and he treated me with great friendship. But about halfway through the week, I was trying to get in with another group of people, the cooler group of kids. And as we were playing a game, one of them asked me, “You know Brian, right? What do you think of him?” I thought this was a test, and so I responded with some terribly lame joke that made fun of Brian, calling him weird and strange. And right as I did, Brian was there standing behind me.
I stood in horror, horror at my own actions, horror at myself, and could only ask, “How could I do such a thing? Why would I do such a thing?”
That’s the question that Paul asks today in our scripture passage. He knows evil. He knows wrongdoing. He knows pain and hurt and mistreatment that make no sense. And he knows it not just out there, done by other people, but he knows it is in here, at work in his own heart, his own mind, his own spirit. In The Message translation he says,
“What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise.”
In the NRSV translation, he says, “I do the very thing I hate.”
I know that feeling. And not just as a youth. But even as an adult, even as your pastor. I know moments when anger has gotten the best of me and I have lashed out and acted in a way I can’t believe is me. I know moments when I have left out a friend, when I have made a joke I knew was harmful and even prejudiced. I know moments when I have said something to my wife that I immediately wish I could take back, words that were intended to harm. As Paul says,
“I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway.”
I decide not to do bad but then I do it anyway. Is there anyone who can’t relate to those words? And not just in the past, but in the present too.
Sometimes, when we read Paul, we think he is just speaking about the past. We think he is just talking about when he was Saul of Tarsus, when he stoned Christians to death, when he killed people for having a different faith than himself, when he was full of prejudice and judgment. And it is true that he is remembering those big evil moments of his past.
But he is also thinking of the present. And he is also aware of the evil that is still at work in him, in much more subtle and easily hidden ways. And he knows that even as Paul, even as the great missionary, speaker, and writer of Christ’s grace and love for all people, even as that, he still does things he can’t believe. He still says things he wishes he could take back, judges people in ways he knows are hurtful. He still knows greed and lust, envy, and pride. He still has demons to battle. And so he asks God in this letter to the Romans, Why? Why does he do that which he hates?
His eyes are open. He has learned from mistakes. Why does he still do hurtful things? Why are there still so many people in the world hurting each other, treating each other out of hate and greed and bigotry? How does this happen?
For Paul, the answer is not just in looking into his own life but throughout scripture and throughout human history. And he shares this answer:
Sin is at work in the world. And sin is a strong, strong power. It doesn’t just act on the surface. It takes hold of our very core of our being, our hearts and minds, our spirits and relationships. It turns us into what we don’t want to be and who God doesn’t want us to be. As Paul puts it,
“I have been in sin’s prison for a long time.”
For us living in a world of tangible items, it may sound hard to believe in a spiritual power like sin. But we all know times that we have been like Paul. We all know that even when we know the right thing, decide the right thing, want to do the right thing, we still act in hurtful, bad, and even evil ways.
There are some who believe that people are born either good or bad. There’s a good group over here and a bad group over here. And you are forever either one or another. But that’s not the gospel. And that’s not real life.
In seminary when I did prison chaplaincy one summer, I was impressed with so many of the men in I met. They supported each other. They welcomed me with open arms. They prayed for each other. Many knew scripture passages better than I did. They wrote incredible poetry and stories, and had great gifts of music and art to share. For most of them I assumed they were there for something small. But about halfway through the summer, they began telling me what they were serving time for. And a lot of them were violent. They had committed armed robbery, and assault. I looked at these men and thought no way. They couldn’t do such a thing.
But there is a power in this world. And it is stronger than our will power. It is stronger than our strength by ourselves. I have to be honest. When I went into the prison each day I was a little scared. Not because I would be attacked. But because I know that one day I could be there, that I am not immune from the power of sin. That I too could do really evil and hurtful acts. That if I was in the same situation, surrounded by the same temptations and forces and evil, there’s a high chance I would be in those same cells. These were loving, caring, faithful people who, like all of us, faced the great power of sin. And it is stronger than our own will power.
But Paul doesn’t leave it at that. While we can’t defeat sin on our own strength, Paul does believe it will be overcome. Because there is one who is stronger than sin who has come into the world.
So Paul tells us to do two things in this passage:
- Face the power of sin.
When we don’t face it, sin continues to work and grow in each of us. It’s happy to hide, and soon we are calling evil good. It is how racists have begun claiming that all they are doing is claiming it’s okay to be white. They have completely hidden their sin and refuse to face it.
We are called to step into the light and look not just at sin in others, but in ourselves. Because when we see the power of sin, we don’t carry it alone. We can respond.
- Bring it to God.
God has come into the world, take on our flesh, lived and healed, breathed, and touched, died and rose again, so that all the powers of evil, sin, and death would be conquered. We may not be strong enough to overcome sin on our own, but Christ is. That’s why every week we share in a prayer of confession. That’s why every month we come to this table to receive Christ’s sacrament of grace. That’s why we meet in community and pray and hear God’s word, and know we are not alone.
Sin loses power when we face it boldly, together in Christ. Sin loses power when we confess it and say that we need help, we need healing.
Sin is powerful, but Christ’s grace and the transformative moving of the Holy Spirit are more powerful.
I don’t know anyone who is perfect. But I know many people who have changed. Who have known better lives, who treat the people around them better, who have become free of bigotry and hate, who don’t live out of greed or addiction any longer. And it’s through trusting that they can’t do it by themselves, but that they are not alone. The grace of Christ is strong enough.
So today friends we gather at this table, facing our sins boldly, and trusting that God meets us here, giving us strength, giving us courage, and being at work not just out there, but in here, in our hearts, in our minds, in our very core, bringing us back to love and life. Amen.