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This Thing of Darkness I Acknowledge

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The story is told of a cynic, sitting under a nut tree, carrying on a jesting monologue directed toward God. His grounds for complaint lay in what he considered an obvious failure on the part of the Creator to go “by the book” on structural design. “Lord,” he said, “how is it that you made such a large and sturdy tree to hold such tiny, almost weightless nuts? And yet, you made small,tender plants to hold such large and heavy watermelons!”

As he chuckled at such folly, a nut suddenly fell on his head. After a stunned pause, he muttered, “Thank God that wasn’t a watermelon!” Interestingly, atheist Aldous Huxley acknowledged years ago, “Science has ‘explained’ nothing; the more we know, the more fantastic the world becomes, and the profounder the surrounding darkness.”

As Christians who affirm the existence of a loving, all-wise God, we long to push back the darkness in our world, in our nation and in our communities and to see the light of God’s Word soften cynic and atheist alike. Yet, if we are honest, we must admit that sometimes we, too, struggle to come to terms with God’s world and His sovereign design; this is especially true in seasons of suffering and confusion. Remember Job? He had become weary of his pain and sought a just answer for it. Confronting God, he built his argument on the fact that he needed to know what was going on, because only that knowledge could dissipate his confusion and suffering.

As the story unfolded, Job threw a flurry of questions at his philosopher friends, who valiantly tried to answer. But they could not have been more off the mark. Likewise, Job’s questions suggested that, though he already knew so much, he needed to know why he, an innocent man, was suffering. God then broke His silence, challenging Job’s assumptions. Notwithstanding the doubts of the proverbial cynic under a nut tree, the argument from design is the very approach God used with Job. As a first step (and only that), He reminded Job that there were a thousand and one things the man did not fully understand but had just taken for granted.

“Who is this that darkens my counsel
    with words without knowledge? . . .
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
    Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! . . .

“Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea
    or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been shown to you?
    Have you seen the gates of the shadow of death?
Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth?
    Tell me, if you know all this.
What is the way to the abode of light?
    And where does darkness reside?” ( Job 38:2, 4–5a, 16–19)

In the light of God’s presence, Job was dumbfounded and confessed, “I am unworthy—how can I reply to you? . . . Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know” ( Job 40:4; 42:3).

Light in a Dark World

The majesty and holiness of God is light in a dark world. The prophet Isaiah described his awe-stricken state when God revealed Himself to him. Isaiah, a morally good man, immediately sensed that he was unfit to be in God’s presence. He was not just in the presence of someone better than he was; he was in the presence of the One by whom and because of whom all purity finds its point of reference.

God is not merely good. God is holy. He is the transcendent source of goodness, not merely “better” in a hierarchy of choices but rather the very basis from which all differences are made. Moral categories, for us, often move in comparisons and hierarchies. We talk in terms of judging or feeling that one thing is better than another. Our culture is more advanced morally than someone else’s culture, or so we may think. God’s existence changes those categories and moves us to recognize the essence of what the word goodness is based upon.

This difference is what makes the argument almost impossible for a skeptic to grasp. Holiness is not merely goodness. “Why did God not create us to choose only good?” “Why do bad things happen to good people?” The reality is that the opposite of evil, in degree, may be goodness. But the opposite of absolute evil, in kind, is absolute holiness. In the biblical context, the idea of holiness is the tremendous “otherness” of God Himself. God does not just reveal Himself as good; He reveals Himself as holy.

As human beings we love the concept of holiness when we are in the right, but we are often reticent to apply it when we are wrong. I read about a truck driver in Italy who habitually visited brothels when he was on the road. On one occasion an associate shared the location of his favorite brothel and whom he should request there. He decided to follow up on the tip even though it was close to his home. When he arrived at the brothel he asked for the recommended prostitute. To his utter shock and anger, the woman who walked into the room was his wife! He was enraged, realizing that while he was on the road, his wife was making a living through prostitution. Totally out of control, he grabbed her and would have killed her had he not been restrained.

How incredulous! Here was a man completely untroubled by his own duplicitous and debauched lifestyle; yet when the tables were turned, he could not accept the horror of being a victim of his own philosophy. As reassuring as it may be to hide behind holiness when we bring others to task for their wrong-doings, it becomes a very terrifying concept when we ourselves are brought under the stark scrutiny of its light.

What’s Wrong with the World

I recall talking to a very successful businessman who throughout our conversation repeatedly asked, “But what about all the evil in this world?” Finally, the friend sitting next to me replied, “I hear you constantly expressing a desire to see a solution to the problem of evil around you. Are you as troubled by the problem of evil within you?” In the pin-drop silence that followed, the man’s face revealed his duplicity.

The longer I have encountered this question about evil, the more convinced I am of the disingenuousness of many a questioner. During one forum I was asked, “If you found out that God did not exist after all, what would you immediately do that, out of fear of Him, you are not doing now?”

That question, alone, reveals much: “If God would get off my back, I could do many more things.” One may as well ask, “If there were no criminal justice systems, what kind of crimes would you commit?” or, “If nobody would ever find out, what wickedness would you engage in?” The questioner failed to understand that the unguarded heart actually makes a prison for everyone—a prison where there are no rules.

Hence, the darkness of evil is more than an exterior reality that engenders suffering in our communities, nation and world; it is, at its core, an internal reality from which we all run. The problem of evil begins with me. As G. K. Chesterton observed, “Dear Sir: In response to your article, ‘What’s wrong with the world,’—I am. Yours truly, G. K. Chesterton.”

Jesus’ Answer

Yet here is where Jesus’ answer to the question about the blind man in John 9 (“‘. . . who sinned, this man or his parents . . . ?’”) comes through with extraordinary power and relevance. Jesus responded that the man’s blindness was due neither to the man’s sin nor that of his parents but so that the glory of God might be displayed. The lesson is drastic, the message profound. The restoration of the man’s spiritual sight was indispensable to his understanding of the horror of sin’s blindness. Darkness is devastating, and Jesus offers light and life. Moreover, the man’s cure helped those who challenged Jesus to acknowledge what they refused to see.

Likewise, only when we surrender to the light of God’s truth in our own lives are we enabled to be a beacon of hope and healing in our dark world. Truthfulness in the heart, said Jesus, precedes truth in the objective realm. The problem of evil has ultimately one source: the resistance to God’s holiness that blankets all of creation. And there is ultimately only one antidote: the glorious display of God at work within a human soul, bringing restoration. That transformation tenderizes the heart to become part of the solution and not part of the problem. Such a transformation begins at the cross.

When God restores our spiritual sight, we are enabled to see His work displayed within the framework of our most difficult questions. So, like Prospero in The Tempest, might we first confess, “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.” Then we may find hope that “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).

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