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If it turns out that there is a God—the worst that you can say about him is that basically, he’s an underachiever.” – Woody Allen
How are we supposed to process God’s good intentions toward us when bad things happen to us? For many people, they choose to do their thing rather than follow a God who does not bring an end to evil in their lives. It makes sense, in a way.
I asked a rebellious teen why he was so, and he told me that he prayed to God for his little brother not to die. His little brother died. God did not have his back, so he decided as a youth to engage in life according to his desires because the Lord was not going to protect him from evil.
He became a survivalist at an early age. From his perspective, he had no choice but to carve out a life on his terms, according to his abilities. Added to his “make it up as you go along” philosophy was an angry chip on his shoulder.
A combination of living life without God and anger will lead you down a long path of increasing sinfulness. This result is what happened to my teen friend. People do not “just choose to sin.” A sinful lifestyle and sinful choices are always motivated and fed by things that have happened to us.
Ultimately, the sinful things we do are choices we make, but long before they became choices we made, there was a running narrative in our lives that led us to those sinful choices. Nobody merely commits (fill in the blank); there is always a trail.
It is essential for us to know this because if we do not, we will be too easily tempted to jump on the sinning person for the sin they committed while missing the storyline. It is essential to understand the running narrative in a person’s life that has led to their current sinful choices.
In the case of my rebellious teen, the parents were jumping all over his business, demanding he cease his sinning without carefully examining the narrative that led to his sinfulness. Their method for change did not bring change. It only exacerbated an already volatile situation.
Without an accurate and insightful understanding and unpacking of why a person does what he does, you will be tempted to do two things that will always complicate the problem:
Without Biblically understanding a person, you may be able to stop them from sinning behaviorally, but you will not see them transformed from the inside out. At best, you will push them into legalism, which is behavioral modification without a heart change.
“I am sitting down on the outside, but I am standing up on the inside.” – Angry, Defiant, Hurting Child
A wise friend will begin walking down the path of a person’s past, trying to understand the developmental reasons for the lousy outcome they are currently seeing in their friend. We blow these God-ordained opportunities too often. Someone sins, and our knee-jerk response is to fly off the handle at them. There could be several reasons we do this.
Any of these reasons could motivate us to implement a quick, decisive, and powerful but wrong response to a person’s sinfulness by making angry mandates to bring about our desired righteous behavior from them.
This pragmatic sanctification approach does not transform. The wise, humble, and intentional friend will see how the person has been inching his way toward sinful choices over the years.
Rather than blowing up at them, they seek to unpack the person’s desires, fears, and disappointments—their narrative. There are things under the hood of all of our lives, and if we don’t bring those things to biblical solutions, there cannot be real transformation.
When you are working with a person who has made sinful choices, there are a few things for you to consider as you move deeper into what they did. As you delve into the “why question,” you will find a twisted theology as they have tried to juxtapose and assimilate a good God who has allowed evil into their world.
No Satisfying Answer
Here is tip number one: There is no satisfying answer to the problem of evil that will convince or help someone stuck in sin. What could I tell my teenage friend who was struggling with the death of his brother? He was raised to know God and to love Him with his whole heart. They went to church and did church things.
He believed God was good. Was it wrong for him to think that God would do good things for him? Was it wrong for him to pray the one option prayer: Dear Lord, please heal my brother?
I could give him the “God is good” response or, even worse, the “all things work together for good” offering or “it will be okay because there are no more tears in heaven.” All of those biblical responses fall flat when life breaks your heart.
There is an element of mystery to the evil in our world, and that truth needs to be part of how we engage “the problem of evil” with those who have experienced it (Deuteronomy 29:29). It is okay not to know all of the answers. When Billy Graham addressed Oklahoma City after the terrible bombing, he humbly acknowledged this element of mystery when he said,
I pray that you will not let bitterness and poison creep into your soul, but that you will turn in faith and trust in God, even if we cannot understand. It is better to face something like this with God than without Him.
Identify with Them
When someone has experienced the evil in our world, as much as possible, try to identify with the person. The parents of my teenage friend stopped working to identify. They went from trying to understand to demanding he stop his behavior, or he would suffer the consequences.
There are a place and time to implement consequences for actions, but our first call is to seek to understand the struggler that is having a hard time with the evil that has come to them. A person’s sin should first draw out a gentle response from us (Galatians 6:1-2).
You want to carefully and kindly seek to understand what is going on in the heart that is behind the person who is struggling. Listen to their story with the hope of understanding their pain, their fear, their anger, and their desires.
I regularly encounter this in marriage counseling. One spouse is exasperated with the other spouse because of some bad habituations. Rather than pitying the person, the other spouse uses anger or condemnation as their method to “get them to change.” This approach never works.
The manipulating spouse does not take into consideration that they married damaged goods. We are all damaged goods. Nobody comes into any relationship perfected. We all have a former manner of life that we drag into all of our relationships.
Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires (Ephesians 4:22).
If you do not have the patience or the grace to persevere with a person’s former manner of life (the only kind of relationships there are), you will complicate that relationship by your sinfulness.
There is a lot of pain that goes with a person who is struggling with the evil that has happened to them. One of the ways you can identify with them is by sharing your own story of pain and how the Lord has helped you through it.
Lead Them to Discovery
Ask the person to answer their questions about God and evil when they are struggling. Many times the best first answer to a challenging issue is to answer their question with a question. When you do this, it will give you insight into where they are and where you need to go with them.
From our hearts come our words (Luke 6:45), and if you ask them a question, they will reveal their hearts, which will unpack their theology—how they think about and respond to God.
Everybody has a theology, even the atheist. And nobody has perfect theology, though we all have one, including the devil. When a person is struggling, one of the essential pieces of information you can draw out of them is how they think about and respond to God.
Many times you will hear a story about something that happened in their lives that hurt or ruined their faith in God. You learn how they were unhooked or shaken from sound biblical moorings. Bad things in people’s lives can damage or destroy whatever “faith” they may possess.
I have heard hundreds of stories of people who did not have a sound theology and was unable to process big life problems well, so they walked away from God. He did not “come through for them” in their time of need.
When disappointment and evil collide in the heart of a person who is not equipped to process it, or no one has the insight and intentionality to walk them through what has happened in their lives, they may “quit God.” Why not? “If the Lord does not have my back, I might as well do my own thing, right?”
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).