Archives For Evil

Seneca

Yesterday, I introduced the topic of suffering. Specifically, I raised the age old question, “Why does God allow his children to suffer?” And although I have spent a lot of time looking into the Bible’s answer to this question, in yesterday’s post I explored one of three similes that Seneca, a first-century philosopher, gave in order to explain why the godly suffer. Yesterday’s simile was of the godly as “disciplined children.” Today I will continue by looking at two other similes: “proven soldiers” and “victorious athletes.”

 

Proven Soldiers

Seneca compares the godly who suffer to proven soldiers. Whereas the raw recruit turns pale at even the thought of a wound, the veteran warrior looks undaunted upon his own gore, for he knows that his blood has often been the price of his victory. “In like manner, God hardens, reviews, and disciplines those whom he approves, those whom he loves.” For this reason, the philosopher argues, God actually afflicts the greatest of all people with illness, sorrows and misfortune. These situations are compliments rather than curses, evidence that this child has been deemed worthy of God’s purpose. Furthermore, through suffering, God makes his children to be a pattern for others: in fact, they are even born in order to teach others how to endure hardships.

When good people suffer, then, their hardships serve as affirmation of their character and as an opportunity for growth. In a phrase that echoes Romans 5:3-4 and James 1:2-4, Seneca states “Fire tests gold, misfortune brave men.” So also, returning to the military metaphor, Seneca says that Fortune chooses to confront the courageous rather than to waste time by contesting the weak. Lady Fortune cries out:

Why should I choose that cowardly fellow as my adversary? He will straightway drop his weapons; against him I have no need of all my power—he will be routed by a paltry threat; he cannot bear even the sight of my face…I am ashamed to meet a man who is so ready to be beaten.

Therefore, while Fortune disdainfully passes these people by, she seeks worthy opponents—the brave, the stubborn, the unbending—those against whom she can flex all her might.[1]

 

Victorious Athletes

Having used the similes of disciplined children and proven soldiers, Seneca appeals to the experience of athletes.[2] He claims that the great person cannot be approved without an encounter with suffering. Those who are truly misfortunate, then, are those who have never been misfortunate. Without hardship “no one will know what you can do—not even yourself.” He continues by likening untested character to a runner who races in the Olympic Games without any other contestant. How absurd! This person may gain the prize, but he did not win the race; he may have the crown, but he does not posses the victory (coronam habes, victoriam non habes).

 

Conclusion

Finally, like a good teacher, Seneca answers his student’s questions with more questions:

How can I know with what spirit you will face poverty, if you always wallow in wealth? How can I know with what firmness you will face disgrace and ill fame…if you attain to old age amidst rounds of applause rather than through pain?

Of course, Seneca’s teaching does not serve as a substitute for the Holy Scriptures. But his examples can complement them. And without “ruining the question with an answer,” perhaps Seneca’s similes can encourage my students and even you in the midst of divine fatherly discipline, battles with hardships and marathons through suffering.



[1] Cf. Robert Service’s “The Law of the Yukon”: This is the law of the Yukon, and ever she makes it plain: “Send not your foolish and feeble, send me your strong and sane—Strong for the red rage of battle; sane for I harry them sore; Send me men girt for the combat, men who are grit to the core; Swift as the panther in triumph, fierce as the bear in defeat. Sired of a bulldog parent, steeled in the furnace heat. Send me the best of your breeding, lend me your chosen ones; Them will I take to my bosom, them will I call my sons…”

[2] Cf. Heb 12:1-3; 1 Cor 9:24-27,

A student once asked his Rabbi, “Teacher, why does the Lord allow evil in the world?” The Rabbi responded, “With such a good question, my son, why would you want to ruin it with an answer?” Despite the Rabbi’s clever response, the question “Why does God allow his children to suffer,” remains an apt one—especially in light of current blows such as crashing economies, threatening epidemics, surrounding wars and rumors of wars. My students also ask me this question in various forms. Their pain behind the question drives me to search for answers—answers not to ruin the theological question or to solve a theoretical paradox but ones to encourage them through real hardships.

Seneca

I have studied the Scriptures to see how certain passages handle problems of suffering. But I also became curious as to how those who did not know Job’s God or Paul’s Christ answered such questions.  One of my favorite extra-biblical responses to the problem of suffering comes from a first-century philosopher by the name of Seneca.[1] One of Seneca’s students put the question like this, “If Providence truly reigns supreme, then why does evil befall the good?”[2] Seneca responds to his student by employing three similes: godly people who suffer are like (1) disciplined children, (2) proven soldiers and (3) victorious athletes.

I will explore the first simile today and the other two tomorrow. Seneca’s approach to this question can help us think through the suffering we encounter. His words aren’t to be taken as Scripture, of course, but he can give us some perspective on what the biblical authors are saying.

 

Disciplined Children

According to Seneca, if Providence (i.e., God) governs the world and cares for humanity, then “evil” should be reinterpreted as divine discipline. This is not discipline in the sense of punishment for human sins, but of training for divine service. God disciplines good people because they are God’s pupils, his legitimate children who seek to imitate their all-glorious Father. Like any good parent, then, God rears his offspring for virtue and fosters character in his sons through suffering.

Therefore, the philosopher continues, rather than God spoiling his children, God parents them with severity so that they may become useful to him. Therefore, one should realize that when good people painfully struggle up a difficult path—while at the same time the wicked coast with pleasure—it is because God “does not make a spoiled pet of a good person.”[3] Rather, “he tests them, hardens them, and fits them for his own service.”

When I read this I was surprised at how similar the argument is to the one in Hebrews 12:

Have you forgotten the exhortation addressed to you as sons? “My son, do not scorn the Lord’s discipline or give up when he corrects you.” For the Lord disciplines the one he loves and chastises every son he accepts. Endure your suffering as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is there that a father does not discipline? But if you do not experience discipline, something all sons have shared in, then you are illegitimate and are not sons. Besides, we have experienced discipline from our earthly fathers and we respected them, shall we not submit ourselves to the Father of spirits and receive life? For they disciplined us for a little while, as seemed good to them, but he does so for our benefit, that we may share in his holiness. Now all discipline seems painful at the time, not joyful. But later it produces the fruit of peace and righteousness for those trained by it. (vv. 5-10, NET Bible)

Tomorrow, I will explore Seneca’s two other similes for godly people enduring suffering: (2) proven soldiers, and (3) victorious athletes.


[1] Seneca was a contemporary of the apostle Paul. He lived in Rome and, like Paul, died by the hand of Nero. Seneca wrote a number of moral essays and epistles that have some striking similarities to statements in the New Testament. So much was this the case, that years later, someone penned letters as written from Paul and Seneca to invent correspondence between the two writers.

[2] See Seneca’s  essay On Providence.

[3] The quotations of Seneca in this article are from John W. Basore’s translation in Seneca: Moral Essays, Vol. 1 (London: Harvard University Press, reprint 2003).

“The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16).

“If we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him” (1 John 5:15).

If you pray for something, you’ll get it. Isn’t that what these verses are telling us? Well, we all know that it doesn’t work like this in real life. We have all prayed for things and then not received what we were asking for. So either these verses are wrong, or we are wrong to interpret them as blank checks from God to be filled however we desire.

God makes clear that there are some types of prayer that won’t be answered. On the one hand, James tells us: “You do not have, because you do not ask” (4:2). So there are some things that we don’t have simply because we have to ask for them first. But in the next verse he goes on to say: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (v. 3). So it is possible for us to ask for the wrong things or with the wrong motives, and in those situations God will not grant what we ask for.

Even 1 John 5:15 does not appear to be a blank check when we take it in context. The preceding verse says: “This is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.” So it’s not the asking itself that guarantees a favorable response, it’s asking according to God’s will. We should also keep in mind that sin in our lives can hinder our prayers (see 1 Peter 3:7).

All that this means is that God is not a genie. And prayer is not a formulaic transaction. It’s a relationship.

But what about those times when we ask for something good and it goes unanswered? What about the times when we pray that our cancer-ridden Christian friend who spends her life witnessing to Jesus will be healed so she can keep ministering? What about the prayers we make on her behalf that go unanswered? What do we do when that godly woman dies and our godly prayers go unanswered?

The theological answer is that God’s will is still being done. He has a good purpose even for evil events. Joseph knew his brothers betrayed and sold him with evil intent, but he acknowledged that God meant those circumstances for good (Gen. 50:20). Peter knew that the most evil event in history—the corrupt conspiracy against and murder of the only innocent Person ever—was carried out with evil intent by evil people but still fell under the plan and purpose of God (Acts 2:23, 4:27-28). So we have to acknowledge that sometimes God’s will includes evil things, and we need to be okay with God choosing to forego our good requests for the greater good that only he can see.

But the theological answer is not always easy to swallow, particularly when we or the people we love are going through intense suffering and God appears to be turning a deaf ear. In those cases, people don’t necessarily need to be convinced of a theological truth. They need to feel loved. They need us to mourn with them (Rom. 12:15). They need to know that evil deeply grieves God as well, and that he is at work in our world to heal that which is broken, to destroy that which is evil. They need to be reminded that the day is swiftly approaching in which sin will be no more, when every tear will be wiped away and justice will be perfectly fulfilled (see Rev. 21–22).

Unanswered prayer will only be a roadblock to faith if we assume that prayer is a blank check designed to make us happy in every moment. Prayer is powerful and effective, and God is constantly accomplishing mighty things through the prayers of his people. We will not always see the direct effect of those prayers, nor will we always receive the things we ask for. But if we trust that our God is good and that our God is powerful, then we can enjoy the fellowship of prayer. We can delight in the reality that God calls us to know him and to be involved in his workings in our world through prayer. And we can lean on him when things aren’t going the way we think they should.

I will end with the same passage that I closed with last week. It is so essential to know we are not always going to know what to pray for and to be okay with that. The Spirit himself is praying for us, and he knows what to pray for. God is on your side, and if all you can muster is a prayer of uncertainty and a request to God to guide you as he sees best, then you’re on the right track:

“The Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Rom. 8:26-28)

 

What could Thomas Kinkade possibly have in common with Quentin Tarantino? Both of these artists are famous for portraying only one side of reality. Which means that both give us a deficient view of the world. Of course, artists can’t present every aspect of reality in every work, nor should they try to do so. Nevertheless, both of these men consistently give us a distorted picture of reality. One overemphasizes the dark and terrifying, the other overemphasizes the bright and cuddly.

Both are equally dangerous.

Reservoir Dogs. 1992.

Grab your popcorn, dim the lights, and curl up on the couch with your date to watch Reservoir Dogs. Or Pulp Fiction. Or Kill Bill. Things aren’t going to stay romantic for long. These films are dark. They’re disturbing. They’re unsettling.

Tarantino is on to something. He sees something about the world truly. People are messed up. Things don’t go the way we want them to. All around the world, human beings are oppressed, tormented, washed up, burnt out. They crave relief. But just like a Tarantino film, no relief comes. The world has a dark side, and Tarantino captures the heart of it beautifully.

But if we only talk about evil, then we aren’t seeing life for what it really is. The shadows belong in the picture, yes, but the picture is more than shadows.

N. D. Wilson addresses the Tarantinos of the world with these hard words:

“Cute things exist, and they are objectively cute. The movie isn’t over. I’m sorry to tell you this, but the world will end happily. Sorrow goes down in a barrage of bullets, and Grief is executed after a fair trial.” (Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl, 157)

Sunset on Lamplight Ave. 2005.

Surely Kinkade’s painted worlds are better. Stroll through a Kinkade Gallery. Light erupts from every candle as though it were a splitting atom. Smoke artistically wafts from every stone chimney in every quaintly-crafted cottage, drawing our attention to the cozy, problem-free families within.

Kinkade, too, is on to something. He sees beauty in the world, and tries to capture it. He longs for an unstained world, and he finds it by putting oil to canvas. This world is a beautiful place. We read about light waves in science books, and yet there is still something about a sunset that can’t be communicated in an equation. Every day people experience comfort, acceptance, and warmth. We crave these things.

But if we only talk about the light and fluffy things in this world, then we aren’t seeing life for what it really is. The picture is full of light, yes, but light creates shadows.

Wilson warns the Kinkade lovers:

“The world is rated R, and no one is checking IDs. Do not try to make it G by imagining the shadows away. Do not try to hide your children from the world forever, but do not pretend there is no danger. Train them. Give them sharp eyes and bellies full of laughter. Make them dangerous. Make them yeast, and when they’ve grown, they will pollute the shadows.” (157)

Here’s the point. This world is an amazing place. But we don’t help things when we try to portray it as something other than it is. To be clear, we need to have hope, and the Bible does promise us a world where the lion lays down with the lamb. Equally so, evil is real, and we see the effects of darkness all around. Pretending that this world is all one or all the other is a mistake. Ultimately, the Light did not overcome the darkness by ignoring it, but by entering into it and taking it upon Himself. Our mission is to see this world as it truly is and to do something about it. The Light is working all around us, and He calls us into the work that He is doing.