On November 21 2002 Bonnie Witherall was up early. She was going to work at the prenatal clinic that offered medical services to the Muslim women from a nearby refugee camp. Bonnie and her husband Gary had come to Lebanon with a burden to share Christ in the Muslim world. Bonnie answered a knock at the clinic door. A man hit her in the face and chest then shot her 3 times in the head, killing her instantly. The next day the London Times carried a report on the murder - quoted Gary Witherall as saying that he had forgiven his wife’s killers: “God led us to Lebanon and we knew that we might die. … It’s a costly forgiveness. … It cost my wife.” On the long flight home while accompanying his wife’s body to America, he came to a simple conclusion: “God said there’s a seed that’s been planted in your heart. You either hate and be angry or you forgive. I said I have to forgive.”
When tragedy strikes, 2 questions loom before us: “Why did this happen?” and “Where is God in all of this?” The 2nd question is harder than the 1st. We don’t ever fully know why things happen the way they do. The answer to that question remains in the heart and mind of God. But we can know something about the 2nd question: Where is God in all of this? Understanding who God is, who we are and how God works in the world gives us a framework for responding to life’s darkest moments.
No matter how much we think we understand, there is much more we don’t understand because our vision is so limited. When we are going through the ordeal of being unfairly attacked - being lied about - reputation is being smeared - friends betray us - a husband or wife abandons us - it may appear impossible that such things could accomplish anything good, but they do. What we see is far less than what God sees. The good that may come from the evil of others is not planned by the hand of man, is not seen in advance and is not seen at all except by faith.
God gets involved even when we think nothing is happening. No better example than the story of Joseph. Joseph has a dream that he will be exalted above his brothers. His brothers aren’t thrilled to hear this and their hearts burn with envy. They throw Joseph into a pit, intending to leave him for dead. They end up selling him into slavery. They go home, tell their father Jacob that Joseph is dead and forget all about him. Meanwhile, Joseph is purchased by Potiphar (Pharaoh’s head of security) who makes him head over his household and is the victim of an attempted seduction by Potiphar’s wife who falsely accuses him of rape. After being thrown in jail, he meets the baker and the cupbearer and correctly predicts that the former will die but the latter will be released. He asks the cupbearer to remember him upon his release, but the cupbearer forgets until Pharaoh has a dream he can’t interpret. Joseph correctly interprets the dream and is elevated by Pharaoh to the number 2 position in Egypt. When a famine strikes the Middle East, Jacob sends his sons to Egypt looking for food. They meet Joseph but don’t know it’s him. Eventually the moment comes when Joseph will reveal his true identity.
Joseph reveals himself to his brothers who are terrified to meet the brother they sold into slavery 22 years earlier. Now he has them firmly in his grasp. He can order them killed, or tortured, or thrown into jail, or anything else he desires to have done to them.
If anyone had a “right” to be bitter, it was Joseph. He has “lost” 22 years of his life. The temptation to get even must have been great. But this is how he sees the whole affair: 45: 4 – 9.
The very thing used against him (their betrayal) results in his exaltation so that he can now save the brothers who betrayed him. Central truth - v. 8: “It was not you who sent me here, but God.” “I know what you did. I haven’t forgotten your treachery, but that’s not the issue. You did what you did because you wanted to hurt me, but God allowed it to happen so that I would end up a ruler in Egypt so that at the exact moment when you needed me, I would be here to save you and your descendants.” His vision of God was so great that it dwarfed the sin of his brothers.
1. How God Involves Himself with Evildoers
What did Joseph mean, “It wasn’t you who sent me here but God?” If not for their betrayal, he never would have come to Egypt. How does a holy God accomplish his plan for us through the deeds of evil people? It’s easier to answer that question in the negative. God is not the author of evil nor does he tempt us to do evil. What the brothers did to Joseph was evil but he does not dwell on that. We must say that God is not the cause of evil or a partner in evil, but in some way that is hard to put into words, He is involved in the evil deeds of evildoers. He does not cause sinners to sin but what they do fits into His ultimate plan.
A. He allows them to reveal what is in their hearts.
Joseph’s brothers were motivated by envy. They couldn’t stand the thought that their little brother would one day rule over them. God simply gave them a chance to reveal the envy that was already there. As long as they were under Jacob’s direct control, Joseph was safe. But when they were out gathering the flocks and Joseph came to find them, their envy boiled to the surface. At first they planned to leave him to die in the pit, but God intervened and the Midianites came along. Then others enter - Potiphar, his wife, the baker and the cupbearer and later the Pharaoh. They all acted according to their own inclinations, but all in accordance with God’s plan. God didn’t cause the brothers to envy nor Potiphar’s wife to lust. The brothers and the wife did that on their own. God simply gave them a chance to act on their evil intentions. He allowed them to reveal the evil that was already in their hearts. Jesus said to Pilate: “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (John 19: 11).
B. He permits Satan to instigate them to evil.
Satan is a roaring lion who prowls the world, looking for those he can destroy (1 Peter 5: 8). He possesses great power but he can do nothing without God’s permission. God tells the devil to look at Job. Satan cannot afflict Job beyond the limits established by God. The devil is powerful, but he is not omnipotent. He has great knowledge but he is not omniscient. A few hours before his betrayal, Jesus told Peter that Satan had asked permission to sift him like wheat - Satan could not tempt him to evil without God’s permission (Luke 22: 31). Satan operates within limits imposed by God. This is a comfort and a warning. It is a comfort to know that our temptations do not happen by chance but are permitted by our Heavenly Father. The warning is that God still holds us accountable for how we respond. No one will ever be able to escape judgment by saying, “The devil made me do it.” No, he may have tempted you, but you did the sinning all by yourself.
C. He withdraws his restraining grace.
Restraining grace means that God doesn’t let things get as bad as they could be. But when God removes his hand of grace, things fall apart quickly – Romans 1. Sometimes God’s harshest judgment on sinners is to do nothing. He says, “If you want to destroy your life, go ahead. If you want to destroy your family, go ahead. I won’t stop you. You’ve already rejected me so I will now respect your decision. If you wish to plunge off the cliff, go ahead, but you’ll find out how sharp the rocks are at the bottom.” If men reject God’s mercy, they are left with nothing but his judgment.
D. He uses them to accomplish his own purposes.
Sometimes God uses the deeds of evildoers to further his own plans in the world. When Christ was born, the Father used the paranoia of Herod to guide the Wise Men to Bethlehem. Later he used Herod’s slaughter of the babies to lead Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus to Egypt. We see this even clearer in the death of Christ. Who killed Jesus? Did the Jews kill Jesus? Yes. Did the Jewish leaders kill Jesus? Clearly they plotted to make it happen. What about the Romans? They had the legal power to put him to death. In a larger sense, is not the whole sinful world guilty of his death? Our sins put him on the cross. There is plenty of guilt to go around in the death of Jesus Christ. What about God? Though he cannot be “guilty” of the death of Christ, was not the death of Jesus part of the Father’s plan from the beginning? Jesus was the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world (Revelation 13: 8). How do we reconcile the plan of God with human guilt in the death of Christ? Peter’s answer - “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23). Jesus’ death was not some afterthought with God, as if it happened because events suddenly spun out of control. He died according to the “definite plan and foreknowledge” of God - he could not have died otherwise. But his death took place at the hands of “lawless men” who stand guilty before the Lord. Even though we may not fully see it, there is perfect harmony between God’s predestination and the free choices of sinful men. In the case of Christ, God used the wicked deeds of wicked men in crucifying the Son of God to bring salvation to the world.
2. How Knowing This Helps Our Faith
I am not trying to make God responsible for the evil in the world. When trouble comes our way, we don’t want to buckle under the pressure and watch our faith suddenly disappear. Understanding that God is involved in even the worst things that happen relieves us from worry, doubt and fear. Does it justify sin? Not at all.
A. We know that our troubles did not happen by accident.
When we focus on immediate causes, we end up in despair, anger and bitterness. It’s easy to think only of those who have hurt us deeply—parents, children or friends we thought we could trust or church members who let us down or people at work who stabbed us in the back. But as long as we focus on the people who hurt us, we are doomed to dwell in the swamp of bitterness. Better to understand that our enemies (often our closest friends) are actually instruments in God’s hands. Our enemies mean to harm us, to drag us down, to hurt us deeply - discourage us that we give up. The Lord allows our enemies to taunt us and torment us but his purposes are higher and better. Ultimately he allows their unkindness to humble us, to break us of our pride and to cause us to cry out to him for mercy and deliverance. What they intend and what God intends are 2 different things. Never forget that fact.
God knows how to discipline his children - includes those believers who take unfair advantage of us or go out of their way to mistreat us. They will be brought low before the Lord. Those who misuse others will be called to account for it. The scales of justice will be balanced in the end.
In the end, our faith will be stronger and our reliance on the things of this world will be lessened. After Job had lost virtually everything, he declared, “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1: 21 ESV). This is true for all once we can view the hand of God in our trials.
B. We can see good where others can only see evil.
Secret of Joseph’s life: He saw God everywhere. Said to his brothers, “It was not you but God that sent me to Egypt.” Joseph means more than “God was there” when all the bad things happened. That is true, but Joseph says, “God was in charge of the whole process.” Joseph means that everything that happened—the good and the bad—was part of God’s ultimate plan for his life. He was sent to Egypt to save the lives of his own family—the very brothers who had betrayed him. This was God’s plan from the beginning, and that fact alone explains all that happened to him. What a profound view this is of the sovereignty of God.
C. We have a reason to forgive those who hurt us.
Sometimes those “much better” moments never come. Not every story has a happy ending. Sometimes there is no reconciliation and sometimes the mistreatment continues. But if we believe in the sovereignty of God, we have a reason to forgive those who hurt us deeply. I don’t say that we should forget what they did to us. We can’t really forget because the memories are with us forever. But we can forgive even when we can’t forget. To forgive means to choose not to remember. To pardon means to clear the record so that we no longer cling to the hurts of the past. This is only possible when we come to see that our enemies are allowed by God, for reasons that we may never fully understand. If this sounds impossible, recall the words of Jesus on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23: 34).
D. We have a new admiration for God’s wisdom in all things.
Life is like a giant jigsaw puzzle. We are like children trying to put the puzzle together with only a handful of pieces and someone took the box that has the picture. So we’re left trying to fit our little handful of pieces together and trying to work out the big picture at the same time. No wonder we struggle with what life is all about. As the years pass we pick up more pieces to the puzzle and things that once troubled us now seem to fit into place. We have a new appreciation for the wisdom of God because nothing is ever wasted. Everything “fits” somewhere.
How can we live like this in a world where tragedy is never far away? The answer is simple though not easy to put into practice. We live this way by faith. We choose to believe that God is at work in everything that happens to us. We choose to believe that even when we see nothing at all that makes sense to us. Faith like that is made strong when it is based on the Word of God.
The world says - “Seeing is believing.” If I see it, I will believe it. But that principle is reversed in the spiritual realm.
God says - “Believing is seeing.” We will see God’s hand once we believe it is truly there.
The Costly Act of Forgiveness
On Sunday November 24 2002 Gary Witherall spoke at a memorial service for his wife held at the church building that adjoined the clinic where she was murdered 3 days earlier. 400 mourners packed the chapel and others stood outside in the rain. Gary explained why they had come to Lebanon and how he felt about what had happened: “So many people think my wife’s death was a waste … but we believe that coming here with the message of Jesus would never be a waste. It is a message worth laying our lives down for.” Sobbing - “Whoever did this crime, I forgive them. It’s not easy. It took everything that I have but I can forgive these people because God has forgiven me.”
Forgiveness is never easy. Sometimes it seems impossible. The road of forgiveness will seem like weakness to those who don’t believe in God, but as hard it is, it is far better than giving in to bitterness that corrodes the heart and destroys the soul. Those who believe in God’s sovereignty can overcome bitterness through the costly act of forgiveness. This is the Word of the Lord. Amen.