My sister-in-law recently visited Poland where she took a tour of Auschwitz, seeing those words above the camp translated- “Work Will Set You Free,” knowing full well the work within the walls was anything but freedom. She said it was the most solemn and silent setting she had ever been.
Almost 50 years ago Elie Wiesel, a fifteen-year old prisoner in the Nazi death camp at Buna, could relate to that feeling. A cache of arms belonging to a Dutchman had been discovered at the camp. The man was promptly shipped to Auschwitz. But he had a young servant boy, a pipel as they were called, a child with a refined and beautiful face, unheard of in the camps. He had the face of a sad angel. The little servant, like his Dutch master, was cruelly tortured, but would not reveal any information. So the SS sentenced the child to death, along with two other prisoners who had been discovered with arms. Wiesel tells the story: One day when we came back from work, we saw three gallows rearing up in the assembly place, three black crows. Roll call. SS all around us; machine guns trained: the traditional ceremony. Three victims in chains–and one of them, the little servant, the sad- eyed angel. The SS seemed more preoccupied, more disturbed than usual. To hang a young boy in front of thousands of spectators was no light matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was lividly pale, almost calm, biting his lips. The gallows threw its shadow over him. This time the Lagercapo refused to act as executioner. Three SS replaced him. The three victims mounted together onto the chairs. The three necks were placed at the same moment within the nooses. “Long live liberty!” cried the two adults. But the child was silent. “Where is God? Where is He?” someone behind me asked. Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting. “Bare your heads!” yelled the head of the camp. His voice was raucous. We were weeping. “Cover your heads!” Then the march past began. The two adults were no longer alive. Their tongues hung swollen, blue-tinged but the third rope was still moving; being so light, the child was still alive…For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red; his eyes were not yet glazed. Behind me, I heard the same man asking: “Where is God now?”In our sermon series “Don’t Ask Me That” we come to one of the most challenging questions, one that strikes when life it at its worst: How could a good God allow such evil and suffering in the world? Philosopher Thomas Hobbes described the “state of nature” calling the life of man “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Maybe you have even yelled out in one of those states, “Where are you God?” as you reeled with loss, death, and pain. It doesn’t seem fair. It doesn’t seem right. How are we supposed to understand what is going on around us? So today we begin preparing to have an answer when the state of nature seems to overtake the kingdom of God.
As we try to understand why evil and suffering occur we have to start near the beginning, we get a chance to see the nature and plan of God—that instead of “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” God begin with hope of True Freedom (Gen 2:16-17) 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”
God’s first statement is not one of control, but of abundance. He gives Adam and Eve the ability to eat from the endless number of flourishing fruit from the trees in the Garden of Eden, and he gives them one tree to avoid! Overwhelming abundance and minuscule avoidance, but we find that God reveals something about his creation in this explanation of how the garden works. He created mankind, Adam and Eve, you and I, with the capacity to make choices. God takes an unbelievable risk here, he forms a creation that has the power to reject its creator. He does it for a simple reason, he knows that relationship–real love requires choice.
Let me show you what this looks like. Between 2002 and 2004, Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry, and Gina DeJesus disappeared near Cleveland, OH. At the time, they were simply 3 unrelated missing persons, 3 more statistics to add to a growing pile of unsolved missing person cases. Some of the family members feared their daughter was dead, others thought maybe their child had run away, but for a decade there was no trace. Until, May 6, 2013, when Amanda Berry suddenly called police. She revealed to authorities that she had lived through a decade of forced imprisonment with Michelle Knight and Gina DeJesus, living in the basement of their kidnapper, Ariel Castro. The 52 year old bus driver was arrested a few hours after the call, but what was truly astounding, besides the atrocious actions, was his comments during the trial. Over and over again, while going through the court proceedings, facing some 977 charges of rape, kidnapping, and a series of other charges, he kept declaring that “they were a family,” that there was a lot of “harmony in that house,” and the response from one of the survivors was deafening: You took 11 years of my life away. I spent 11 years in hell.
In order for there to be true love, there has to be an authentic choice. God always pursues, loves, sacrifices, endures, hoping you’ll choose him like he has chosen you. Professor Norman Geisler put it like this, “Since God is love, he cannot force himself on anyone against their will. Forced love is not love, it is rape. God is not a divine rapist. Love must work persuasively but not coercively.” There are times where we just look up to heaven and wish God would just put his foot down, stop what is occurring, once and for all…and yet to stop evil forcefully would entail stopping human liberty entirely.
Think about it in a dating scenario, you go out on a blind date, you really seem to hit it off, and then you find out that the other person is only there because they lost a bet. How are you going to feel?