God Can't Singlehandedly Prevent Evil

It’s Just Chocolate Chip Cookies.  My parents are good people who did what they thought best in raising their four children.  We were solidly Middle Class, living in a suburban home in Overland Park, Kansas in the 1970’s.  Our basement floor was covered in carpet samples my dad got super cheap.  The orange shag was my favorite – an allusion to my future love of the San Francisco Giants, perhaps?  We grew up with good boundaries and were taught by example, mostly, what being a good person looked like.  We all turned out to be pretty decent people trying to do some good in the world.  And we all love food.  Especially sweets. Probably because we didn’t get sweets very often in the Overland Park years. 

Usually we got to have ice cream on special occasions like birthdays or if grandpa and grandma were in town and we got some vanilla to make our apple pie a la mode – a double treat.  On July 4th we would make home-made ice cream.  What better way to celebrate our nation’s independence than make the creamy stuff of the gods independent of Zarda’s Dairy.  Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day also brought with it some delicious tooth-decaying creations.  Beyond special occasions, we didn’t eat sweets.  My parents didn’t have us eating sweets often for a handful of reasons which included cost, health, tooth decay, weight, and that my mom had a tendency to hide the sweets and forget where she hid them, or eat the sweets before they made it to the table!  We did have a cookie jar which was rarely filled.  When it was, we knew it was essentially off limits.  Mom patrolled the jar and also performed quality control as needed – somebody had to!

I was taught from an early age to respect sweets.  To cherish them. To not over-indulge.  To not take other people’s sweets.  To even share sweets with others.  Good, wholesome Kansas sensibilities, all born out of my parents’ love for their children, wanting them to become healthy, wise, responsible adults.  When we were young, mom was there to determine how many sweets were appropriate.  She put the cookies or pie on our plate, scooped the ice cream, and also took things off if we took too much.  If we got sick on sweets as young kids, she would share the blame since she was right there to do something about it.  Mom could not be everywhere, of course, so there were times when things went awry.  One day not long after Halloween, I was left alone in our basement for a period of time.  Alone with my thoughts, my Halloween candy haul, and my brother’s bag of future dental bills as well. I always knew my brother to be generous, so I knew he wouldn’t mind sharing his candy with me.  Boy, was he generous!  He gave be two pieces of candy for every one of his!  Very Jesus like.  Except that he wasn’t around, which made it a clear case of theft.  I literally got caught holding the bag and had to give him back all the candy that I did not Trick-or-Treat for, plus some sort of punishment that I do not recall.  Had my mom been there, she would have prevented me from stealing in the first place and would have used physical action to wrest the bag from my death grip.  Even more, if she were present and I took candy from my brother’s bag, she would then be an accomplice, and in some way responsible for my brother’s candy deficit.  But she wasn’t there physically, so she wasn’t complicit in any way – this was all on me.  She reportedly loves my brother just as much as me (somehow), and wasn’t there to protect him, either.  He was hemorrhaging calories unawares.

I am now a grown man, and my mother is no longer in close enough proximity to monitor my sugar intake.  She still loves me and is in the Top Five list of people who care about my health the most.  She can only hope that I will remember the good lessons I learned growing up, and that I will grow in wisdom as I reflect on who I am and who I want to be as I face the choices that come my way.  The wisdom she gave resides in me, and she loves to hear from me.  And, I might add, she knows that now and then it is right and good to eat sweets in abundance for the simple pleasure of eating sweets!  Anyone who knows her knows she’s no cookie Nazi…

In his book, God Can’t, Tom Oord makes the case that God can’t prevent evil singlehandedly.  He notes that the word “can’t” is not the same as “won’t”, which assumes that God could if God wanted to thwart evil.  “Won’t” means God would then choose to allow evil to take place that God could keep from happening.  Our small human brains have collectively determined that such behavior makes a person an accomplice on some level to the evil performed.  “Can’t”, however, means that God is not able to prevent evil for some reason.  This is much more than semantics.  This is a very substantive difference he is noting. Oord notes, “Because God’s love self-gives and others-empowers, and because God loves all creatures from the most complex to the least, God cannot control. God loves everyone and everything, so God cannot control anyone or anything. This means a God of uncontrolling love cannot control evildoers to prevent their dastardly deeds” (God Can’t, 24).   “Can’t” means God’s hands are tied in some way. 

One way in which God’s hands are tied is the fact that God doesn’t have hands to tie!  God cannot physically constrain anyone to do anything because God is Spirit, as Jesus himself noted (John 4:24). “A bodiless, universal spirit cannot do what embodied creatures sometimes can. Despite having no body, God is present and active in all situations. Divine power is direct but persuasive, widespread but wooing, causal but uncontrolling. God’s loving activity makes a difference without imposing control or using a divine body” (Oord, God Can’t, 27).  Another reason God cannot prevent evil singlehandedly has to do with God’s character of love.  The constraints on God’s capacity are not external, but internally derived.  Love does note demand its own way (1 Cor. 13:5), as seen in Jesus throughout his ministry – he honored people’s freedom to choose as an act of love.   And another reason God cannot prevent evil singlehandedly is because God created everyone and everything with true freedom in mind: free will for us and a version of it for every aspect of creation.  Like my mom not being in the basement when I was ravaging my brother’s Trick-or-Treat bag, she could not prevent what was happening, and we all became aware (soon enough) that I had the capacity to freely act according to my own sweet-tooth-driven, greedy, self-centered will.

Are we without help in a world where evil seems to run rampant?  Not at all.  God can’t prevent evil singlehandedly, which implies that cooperating with others might make a difference.  Like my mother who did her best to influence me, in effect, to become like her, so God desires that we grow into God’s image – our True Self and greatest potential.  I am sure my mother at times hopes that I remember the good things she taught me.  Paul noted that the law of God is written on all people’s hearts – the goodness of God is part of us whether or not we know it.  And, anytime I want to connect with my mom – for help on something or to simply stay connected, my mom is more than happy to be available.  This is true of God as well.  When we call out to God, I believe God woos us toward love at its depths.  God can’t prevent evil singlehandedly, but that does not mean that God is uncaring or inactive.  Quite the contrary.  God is the very source of love and care, and God’s activity as Spirit can influence us and others greatly if we’ll have it.  Oord puts it beautifully here: “When complex creatures cooperate with God, good things happen. Love flourishes. Peace blossoms. Astonishing miracles can occur. When complex creatures fail to cooperate with God, evil happens. Unnecessary pain and pointless suffering occur.  The demons dance. Because a loving God did not make us and others robots, good and bad are possible” (God Can’t, 28).

What is your relationship with sweets?  How do you determine how many sweets you might enjoy?  You are free to choose, of course, and you are free to steal others’ cookies (although there will be consequences). You can also choose to drill deeper into your being and wonder what is aligned with your True Self as God’s reflected image.  You can go further and ask God to give you insight and strength regarding your cookies.  All of these behaviors apply if you eat too many cookies that you bought or made honorably or even if you steal them – seeking your True Self and God’s Spirit to guide you makes a difference.  And if someone steals your cookies, God is with you to pick up your crumbs, remind you of who you are, helping you become your True Self and giving you strength and direction as Spirit. 

There is great freedom in this way of thinking.  Freedom to stop blaming God for what God can’t do.  Freedom to take responsibility for our actions.  Freedom to understand others’ actions as their own.  Freedom to draw near to God for insight, support, and strength to move forward in our becoming.  The Spirit of God is active and present with us all: “God acts like a loving suitor.  Nothing can stop God from inviting us, moment-by-moment, to a loving relationship. God’s uncontrolling love is uncontrollable! But we can choose not to cooperate. We can fail to say, “Yes!” When we do not respond appropriately, the mutual relationship of love God desired is thwarted. God’s will is not done on earth as it is in heaven. But “Yes!” leads to abundant life” (God Can’t, 33).

The invitation toward love and life is constant.  How are you hearing it?  What does “Yes!” mean to you beyond simple emotional assent? What does “Yes!” look like played out in your life?  What are you going to do with this now?