This past Sunday I (Coleman) preached what will probably be my last sermon at New Church Westville. I’d planned to use someone else’s sermon but ended up reworking one I wrote a few years ago for a different congregation. When I delivered it then, there were two people in that congregation battling cancer, and others mourning the loss of a young man. Now it’s closer to home, but I wanted to say the same things:
I wanted to say these things boldly now, when it matters. Anne and I both are at a place where in the past we’ve wrestled with God over the fact that good people suffer immeasurably, and our faith has withstood that; and as hard as the news is now, I don’t feel abandoned by God.
That’s a blessing. I know that during this journey there might be times when I do feel abandoned. And I know that for some of our friends, this event will raise big questions about God’s goodness. For some it could even be the last straw that brings about a crisis of faith. But all that can be toward the good. Right now there are millions of people suffering far worse than we are who do not deserve it any more than we do. Where is God? It’s a question that must be asked in our broken, fallen world. Even the Lord Himself came to moments of despair, crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He knows what that is like.
And yet – right now, I am not despairing. I am hopeful for successful treatment and the power of the Lord to answer prayer. And I am confident that even if we did not find a successful treatment – the Lord would still be there, would still be good, would still be God.
“This morning we’re going to read the end of the story of Joseph. As a boy, Joseph had been his father’s favourite son, and his ten older brothers resented him. They sold him into slavery, and he was taken to serve at the house of a man named Potiphar in Egypt. Joseph did well there, and the Lord blessed him. But Potiphar’s wife falsely accused Joseph, and he was thrown into prison. Even in prison, Joseph trusted the Lord, and was put in charge of the prison’s affairs. While there, he interpreted a dream for the Pharaoh’s butler, who promised to mention Joseph to Pharaoh if he was returned to his post. He was set free, but forgot his promise until two years later, when Pharaoh had two dreams that he did not understand. Then the butler remembered, and Joseph was called out of prison. The Lord showed him the meaning of the dream: that there would be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Pharaoh saw that Joseph was wise, and put him as second-in-command over all of Egypt. For the next seven years, the Egyptians stored grain. When the famine came, people came from all over to ask for food in Egypt. And Joseph’s brothers came too – but they did not recognise Joseph. Joseph tested them to see if they had changed – and when they offered to give up their freedom in exchange for the freedom of their younger brother Benjamin, he knew that they had repented. And so we read in Genesis 45:
Genesis 45:1-7. 1 And Joseph could not hold himself back before all that were standing over him; and he cried, “Cause every man to go out from from me.” And no one stood with Joseph while he made himself known to his brothers. 2 And he gave forth his voice in weeping; and the Egyptians heard, and the house of Pharaoh heard. 3 And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph; does my father still live? And his brothers could not answer him; for they were troubled before him.” 4 And Joseph said to his brothers, “Come near to me I pray.” And they approached. And he said, “I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold into Egypt. 5 And now do not grieve, neither be angry in your eyes, that you sold me here; for God sent me before you for keeping alive. 6 For this, two years the famine is in the midst of the land; and there are still five years in which there is no plowing and harvest. 7 And God sent me before you to put for you a remnant in the land, and to make you live for a great deliverance. 8 And now it is not you who have sent me here, but God; and He set me for a father to Pharaoh, and for lord to all his house, and I rule in all the land of Egypt.
Joseph had their father brought to live with him in Egypt. After some time, their father died – and the brothers were worried that now Joseph would take his revenge. But again he reassured them:
Genesis 50:14-21. 14 And Joseph returned into Egypt, he and his brothers, and all that went up with him to bury his father, after he had buried his father. 15 And Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, and they said, “Perhaps Joseph will hate us, and returning will return to us all the evil with which we paid him.” 16 And they commanded Joseph, saying, “Your father did command before he died, saying, 17 ‘Thus you shall say to Joseph: “I pray bear, I pray, the transgression of your brothers, and their sin, for they paid evil to you; and now bear, I pray, the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.’” And Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18 And his brothers also went and fell down before him; and they said, “Behold we are your servants.” 19 And Joseph said to them, “Do not fear; for am I in God’s stead? 20 And you thought evil against me, but God thought it for good, in order to do as it is this day, to cause a great people to live. 21 And now do not fear; I will sustain you, and your infants.” And he comforted them, and spoke upon their heart.
The book Arcana Coelestia contains an explanation of these words:
Arcana Coelestia §6574. The words which Joseph here spoke to his brothers: “You thought evil against me, God thought it for good, in order to do as it is this day, to make alive a great people” are words which contain within them a secret of heaven, which secret is this. In the other life the Lord permits hellish spirits to lead the good into temptation, consequently to pour in evils and falsities; which also they do with all endeavour; for when they are doing this, they are in their life and its delight. But the Lord Himself is then present with those in temptation, both directly, and indirectly by angels, and resists by rebutting the falsities of the hellish spirits, and by dissipating their evil, thus giving refreshment, hope, and victory. Thus with those who are in the truths of good, the truths of faith and the goods of charity are more inwardly implanted and more strongly confirmed. This is the means by which spiritual life is given. From all this it is evident what is signified in the internal sense by the words in this verse, namely, that they who have been alienated from truth and good, as are the spirits who induce temptations, intend nothing but evil, but that the Divine turns it into good, and this according to order from eternity, whence comes life to those who are in the truths of good. For be it known that the hellish spirits who are permitted thus to trouble the good, intend nothing but evil; for they desire with all their might to drag them down from heaven and cast them into hell; because it is the very delight of their life to destroy anyone as to his soul; thus to eternity. But not one whit is permitted them by the Lord, except to the end that good may come of it, namely, that truth and good may be brought into shape and strengthened with those who are in temptation. In the universal spiritual world reigns the end which proceeds from the Lord, which is that nothing whatever, not even the least thing, shall arise, except that good may come from it. Hence the Lord’s kingdom is called a kingdom of ends and uses.
This story is a beautiful illustration of providence – the way the Lord governs the world, even through things that are hard to understand. The key phrase here is what Joseph says to His brothers: “You thought evil against me, but God thought it for good.”
Today we’re talking about those things that God permits – not because He wills them, but because in permitting them, good can be brought out of evil. Now it’s hard to understand this – passages from the teachings of the New Church say it’s very difficult to grasp how an omnipotent God permitting evil is different from Him causing it. But we affirm that this is the truth: God permits evil, but He does not will it. Evil is still evil. But He only permits evil if good can be brought out of it.
Now we can sometimes be afraid to look for the good in bad things that happen, because we’re worried that in doing that we’re condoning the evil. If we say that good came out of someone doing something wrong, it can feel like we are excusing that behaviour. But that doesn’t have to be the case. Joseph didn’t say to his brothers, “It was good that you sold me as a slave.” He said, “You intended evil against me.” It was still bad. But God meant it for good.
Jesus taught His disciples this very thing. Jesus said, “It is impossible that offences will not comes, but woe to him by whom they come.” And in His own life, the Lord did not want people to hate Him, to attack Him, to crucify Him. Jesus was put to death by evil men, in an evil event, the crucifixion. But He turned that most grievous event into the cause for the greatest celebration, the redemption of the human race. And still, the actions of those who crucified Him were evil; he said of Judas, “The Son of Man indeed goes, as it is written of Him; but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been good for him if that man had not been born’” (Matthew 26:24). He allowed it and brought good out of it, but that did not excuse the evil.
In the New Church, we have specific terminology for this. We affirm that God is sovereign over the entire universe, that nothing happens apart from His providence. But there is a distinction between the things that He allows – which we refer to as “permission,” – and the things that He actually wants to happen – which we call His will.
We find this distinction in Scripture, where again and again the Lord shows that He does not want people to suffer. We read in Lamentations, “For He does not afflict willingly [or “from the heart”] nor grieve the sons of men” (Lamentations 3:33). He does not want suffering. As we’ve said, if He allows something evil, it is only because He sees some good that can come of it.
Realising that there is this difference between God’s will and His permission can help us change our perspective on the bad things that happen to us in life. It is human nature to assume that if something bad happens to someone, it’s because of something they’ve done wrong. But the Lord explicitly denies this, as we read in children’s talk about the man born blind. Of him, Jesus said, “Neither has this man sinned, nor his parents; but that the works of God might be made manifest in him” (John 9:3). When a tragedy happens, it does not mean God is punishing us; it means God is allowing it for some good that will come of it.
God sees the eternal picture. But it is vital to realise that this does not mean He is cold and indifferent to our present suffering. God grieves at our suffering. The shortest verse in the Bible is, “Jesus wept” – and He wept over the suffering of the people He loved. The fact that good can come out of suffering does not mean that God wants us to suffer. And He understands if we need to wrestle with Him, to argue with Him, to plead with Him. And yet, for whatever reason, He sees that that suffering can lead to good, and so He allows it.
So we see that God permits evil if He can turn it to good. But why is that necessary? Why not just cause good things to happen and bring good out of those? There are a few answers to that question. First, as we discussed at length in our recent series on gratitude, God permits evil because he values freedom. And second, He permits evil people to act on their intentions that evil can be seen for what it is and repented of. We can see evidence of this second one by looking at the history of the world. To take an extreme example: there is no doubt that the holocaust was immensely evil. But it brought to light the horrors of racism taken to their logical extremes. And it forced people to reevaluate how they saw people of other races. The Lord brought good out of that evil, which he permitted people to choose in their freedom.
But we can overemphasise God’s need to protect freedom. That tells us that God permits evil for the sake of the person doing the evil. But what about the victim? Does He care more about the perpetrator’s freedom than He does about the person being hurt? And here’s where we need to recognise that God does not just act out of a desire to keep people in freedom to do whatever they want. He works within people’s freedom to bend them away from the worst evils. He does not permit everything – there is plenty He does not allow to happen. If good won’t come of it, He stops it. God is not just working to protect the freedom of the evil-doer – he is also working in the interests of the person being harmed. We read in the book Secrets of Heaven,
“[Those who trust the Lord] know that for those who trust in the Divine all things advance toward a happy state to eternity, and that whatever happens to them in time is still leading toward this….Be it known that the Divine Providence is universal, that is, in things the most minute; and that they who are in the stream of Providence are all the time carried along toward everything that is happy, whatever may be the appearance of the means” (Secrets of Heaven §8478)
Even bad things, for those who trust in the Lord, are allowed for the sake of the victim, and not just the freedom of the perpetrator.
To look at specific examples: Scripture is clear that temptation does not come from God, but from the flesh, from hell. And yet God uses temptations to strengthen a person in believing and living the truth. Even death can be seen as leading to a greater good for the person who is dying.
Now, this can help us understand why people must be free to hurt one another. What can be harder to understand is things like diseases, and accidents, and natural disasters. Sometimes these are even called “acts of God.” Is God doing those things? Does God cause those things? The Word tells us no. But those things do not have merely physical causes, either. The Scripture and the teachings of the New Church concur that disease and harm are caused by the presence of sin in the world. It was not part of the original plan, and the hope for the future, the promise of the New Jerusalem, is that they are wiped away again. But we live in a world where hell has a foothold. Still, this does not mean God is not in charge. Even these natural evils are allowed only of the Lord sees that good can come out of them. This is true even on the most mundane level. Emanuel Swedenborg kept a diary of his spiritual experiences; listen to what he wrote in one of his entries:
“All evils, even those seeming to a person as accidental, are from evil spirits. I bumped my foot, almost to the point of stumbling and hurting myself, and I spoke with spirits, saying that they were the cause. So it is also with falls and other misfortunes that seem to be misfortunes, or accidents” (Spiritual Diary §2923).
It can seem incredible, and it can be hard to believe, because we don’t see the spiritual world and we feel like everything comes from a natural cause, to realise how much is caused by the presence of evil spirits. And yet, the Lord only allows that if He’s going to bring good out of it.
From every evil, good can come. But we often don’t see it right away. And sometimes we’re not going to see it till we’re in heaven. We look at the life of Joseph. For YEARS, his life seemed to be a series of disasters – sold into slavery by his brothers, falsely accused by his master’s wife, thrown into prison, forgotten by the man he helped. It was only after years of patiently following the Lord despite no evidence that it was doing him any good could he have looked back and seen that God that God was doing. And as a general rule, we can’t see the operation of Divine Providence as it’s acting; it’s only in retrospect that we realise the Lord was there. We read in the book Divine Providence,
“It is granted a person to see Divine providence from behind and not from in front, and in a spiritual state and not in the person’s natural state. To see Divine providence from behind and not from in front is to see it afterward and not beforehand. And to see it from the perspective of a spiritual state and not from that of a natural state is to see it from the perspective of heaven and not from the perspective of the world.” (Divine Providence §187)
God sees from the perspective of heaven. Again, this does not mean He doesn’t care about our sufferings in this world – but He cares more about our lives to eternity. And we often can’t see the eternal consequences of events as they happen – but even an awful event could be turning someone toward following God. We don’t see that until we’re in heaven. We don’t always see those eternal consequences. We do get glimpses of them though, and it is worth looking for the good in a bad situation, even though we recognise that this does not take away the pain of a painful experience.
In conclusion: it is important that we not mistake evil for good. We do not have to look at an evil – whether the evil of an individual, or the evidence of hell in our broken physical world – and call it good. We do not have to lie back and let it happen. We can and should take up arms and fight against evil. But we also must trust that even from evil, God will bring good. Jesus told His disciples, “In the world you shall have affliction; but have confidence, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). And Joseph said to [his brothers], “Do not fear; for am I in God’s stead? And you thought evil against me, but God thought it for good, in order to do as it is this day, to cause a great people to live.” Amen. (Genesis 50:19-20)”