Four Circles of Evil

For 12 weeks, I “co-led” a Sunday school class with Steve Whigham. I put co-led in quotes since Steve did 95% of the work and presenting. The class was entitled Man’s Chief End which comes from the Westminster Catechism stating that man’s chief end is to love God and enjoy Him always.

Each week had its own topic with the final week being on natural evil, meaning evil from without rather than that which proceeds from people. Natural evils are those seemingly random events which we would likely categorize as bad things happening to good people. Cancer would be a simple example, as would any sickness including plagues. It also may be a tornado, an earthquake or a tsunami – natural disasters that wipes out the innocents. How do we make sense of these things?

Maybe the right answer is that some things do not make sense, at least they are not simple to explain. Steve, who is the award-winning author of Eclipse of Faith and Throw Open the Floodgates is a masterful researcher and presenter. If anyone could offer helpful explanation for natural evils, he could, and did so during yesterday’s class. I am not sure I would do justice were I to attempt to repeat the full content of what was shared, nor is that the intention of this message. However, I would like to offer a few thoughts as a reflection of what was shared that perhaps, you will find relevant as a leader of your life.

I have always wondered about my own response to setbacks, maladies, unforeseen negative occurrences, unexpected losses, disasters, and natural evils. Steve was sharing about Charles Darwin who lost his beloved 10-year-old daughter, Anne, to typhoid fever in 1851 and subsequently lost his faith. As he spoke about Darwin, I also remembered Horatio Spafford who lost his four-year-old son to scarlet fever in 1871, then lost his four daughters two years later in a shipwreck and subsequently penned the hymn, It is Well With My Soul. Both suffered the unimaginable tragedy of losing a child(ren). But their responses were drastically different.

It causes me to question,

“Would I be like Darwin or like Spafford?”

When tragedy strikes, when loss occurs, when life goes the opposite of what I expect, if I suffered a major financial loss, or my health were to fail, which would I be?

The worst thing I could do is pretend natural evil does not exist or that my life is somehow magically insulated from it. You and I know better. Don’t we, Friend?

Learning about natural evil yesterday, I thought of a quote I saw at the National Holocaust Memorial in Washington D.C. It was from Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) a prominent Protestant pastor who emerged as an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps. Niemöller is perhaps best remembered for the quotation:

First, they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Of course, Niemöller was talking about the specific evil that emerged from within people. But, I had these thoughts and word pictures about natural evil that I will share. It seems to me that we experience four circles of natural evil. They all come with one central question.

“Is God good?”

But, each circle requires (or allows for) a different response. I put this together to show what I was thinking, see if it makes sense.

The idea being that natural evil has an encroaching manner similar to an approaching storm whose arrival is eminent. When natural evil hits the distant world, like the tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004, I might experience compassion but I can dismiss it. My dismissal does not dictate its severity or tragic effect on those in that “distant world”, I simply may feel no compulsion for a tangible response.

When natural evil reaches my community, I need theology, as a person of faith, to wrestle with its impact. When it gets to my neighborhood, perhaps the couple down the street who miscarried their second pregnancy, or the gentleman from church who lost his wife to cancer, it interrupts my thinking and I need logic. But when it hits my home and family, like my sister who can’t win for losing in the area of health and has suffered, MS, Parkinson’s Disease, years of sleepless nights as a side effect from medication and recently an excruciatingly painful hip replacement surgery, I can’t dismiss it. Theology becomes ineffective. Logic doesn’t soothe. I need love. She needs love. Why would I ever try to ease the pain of someone who lost a child with a theological platitude? I might as well spit right into the wind.

If, like Horatio (and his wife Anna), we are going to transcend the encroaching Darkness and keep moving forward as people who still believe in the Light, we must be prepared. We need to be prepared theologically. We need to be prepared intellectually. We need to be prepared emotionally. Fear doesn’t help, it only makes us run away or freeze. I will argue, that transcendent preparation must happen spiritually.

We need the view from the top of the mountain to know evil is on its way.

It reminds me of when I was a Senior in high school. I was at my friend, Brad Hugg’s house. It was just the two of us at home when the tornado sirens began to sound. When you grow up on the plains of Kansas, you get accustomed to seeing storms coming from far off. At the first sound of the sirens, we followed the prescribed method of heading to his basement. After a few minutes, we could no longer bear knowing danger was approaching that we could not see. We left the basement and climbed on top of his roof. (We were 18. Our brains weren’t fully developed.) From the rooftop, we could see the debris fly as the funnel cloud touched down on the West side of our town. What happened next has NOTHING to do with this message. I share it because it was so bizarre. Before reaching the city limits, the tornado went back up into the clouds in a horizontal fashion. The storm moved from West to East over the town before the funnel dropped down on the East side of town damaging only a few barns.

Like climbing on the roof to see the coming storm, the Spirit helps us go up the mountain to prepare for the encroaching Darkness. I suspect it is what prompted the psalms writer to say,

“Ye, though I walk through the valley in the Shadow of Death, I will fear no Evil, for You are with me…”

If we have ears to listen, the Spirit prepares us for what may come relationally, in our business, in our health, etc. and we can emerge as those who share the Light with others.

The privilege of the Believer is in knowing that Darkness has an expiration date and only the Light is eternal.

Warmly (and hopefully Brightly),


Rick Burris



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