Just recently in Cleveland, my hometown, the Facebook Murder garnered national attention for his despicable crime. Steve Stephens was a local man who killed 74-year-old Robert Godwin at random, filmed it, and then posted it on Facebook.
The moral outrage spread across much of the country, but the anger and disgust was palpable here in Northeast Ohio. The very tool Stephens used to promote his violence was now being used against him as pictures of his face and car spread across nearly every Facebook feed in Ohio and our surrounding states. It was a social media manhunt. A McDonald’s worker in Pennsylvania noticed him in the drive-through, called the police, and a chase ensued. Before being captured, Stephens shot and killed himself.
While those of us who watched this saga unfold over social media felt sadness for the victim’s family and disgust for the murderer, the Godwin family used this opportunity to glorify God. In an interview with CCN, the daughter of Robert Godwin spoke on behalf of the family:
The thing I would take away most from my father is he taught us about God, how to fear God, how to love God and how to forgive. Each one of us (family members) forgive the killer, the murderer, we want to wrap our arms around him…
I promise you I could not do that (forgive) if I didn’t know God, if I didn’t know him as my God and my Savior. I could not forgive that man. And I feel no animosity against him at all. I actually feel sadness in my heart for this man.”
As I read over these words, it astonished me how different my first response is when I witness evil from afar, let alone if it ever touched my life as closely as it did this family.
While a murder being captured on Facebook is certainly rare, seeing evil on a regular basis sadly is not. With constant news streams in the palm of our hands, we are now exposed to wickedness in detail like never before. This constant information stream about innocent people being attacked by evil individuals can have a guttural reaction in us, but most times it ends there.
Where does that sickening feeling in our stomach go? How should we think about and love people like the Facebook Murder and others who have done horrible things to innocent people even when we are not the ones directly affected by these tragedies? What should be the response of a Christian heart when we witness evil from afar but can’t really do anything practical to help because of distance, a lack of training, or personal safety?
Our Response to Evil Is a Reflection of Our Relationship with God
I believe the first step is to decide why our internal reactions matter at all when we see evil in the world that we cannot tangibly combat. In Luke 6:32-37, Jesus gives us a radical perspective:
If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. . . But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. 36 Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.
In other words, our response to evil says more about our relationship with God than it does about anything else. When we look at a murderer or some other “moral monster,” of course there should be a desire for holy justice. But if we hope to be “sons of the Most High,” we must act like God, “for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.”
Seeing Evil Is an Opportunity to Remember Our Savior
God grieves over both microscopic sins and cosmic evil, and in response he sent his Son. God responded to evil through the gospel, and now every time we see evil, at minimum we have the opportunity to remember God’s scandalous grace for the world – the whole world, including those we humans cannot love without the power of God working through us. As the daughter of Robert Godwin expressed, “I promise you I could not do that (forgive) if I didn’t know God, if I didn’t know him as my God and my Savior. I could not forgive that man.”
God loves not because of what we do but because of who he is. Because God is love we can love. Although new evils arise every day, God will never change. Thus we can have responses of compassion (which is different than removing the rightful penalty our laws demand) for criminals because our love is rooted in God and not our ever changing world.
Whatever You Do, Lead With Prayer
Maybe you are a police investigator and you can directly glorify God as you search for murderers. Maybe you want to go to seminary and become a prison chaplain so you can witness to hardened felons. Or maybe you have a heart for the victims of violent crimes and you want to start a foundation to assist them after the tragedies take place.
For all of us, however, we will see far more evil in our lives than we are capable of directly addressing in practical ways. So what should we do? Besides having a Christ-centered response that helps protect our own souls, prayer is the first and primary answer.
Whether we feel led to impact a situation personally or we simply see evil from afar, we can always lead with prayer. Philippians 4:6 instructs us to pray about everything. What better motivator to come into the presence of God than seeing appalling evils in our world?
Additionally, prayer really works. Prayer really helps protect Christians being persecuted in other countries. Prayer really helps to soften the heart of a murderer in prison. Prayer can really help bring comfort and healing to the family members of attackers and victims. Prayer is the Christians most powerful tool when preparing to offer practical help and when no such help is able to be given. Prayer is the overflow of a heart ready to despise evil but also just as ready to have compassion for evil people like our unconditionally loving God does (Luke 6:32-37).
While it’s true that Philippians 4:6 instructs us to pray about everything, verse 7 does not promise us that all our prayers will be answered the way we want. Rather, the promise is in regards to the personal benefit of prayer, “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
God does use prayer to really combat evil, but sometimes in God’s sovereignty he allows certain evils to continue for a time. God has not promised that prayer will always change the circumstances, but he has promised that prayer will always change and protect the heart of the person praying.
So next time we see a terrible example of evil in our social media feeds, perhaps we can try to remember the response offered by the Godwin family. Perhaps we can view tragedy as an opportunity to glorify God for the healing offered in the gospel. With our eyes on Christ, each report of evil can be an invitation to reconnect with our Savior, hope in God more deeply, and to remember the beauty of Jesus’ death and resurrection.