As we watch the scenes of city of Texas and Florida submerged in the deluge of hurricanes and Mexico digging out from a ferocious earthquake (and all in the same month!), at some point we can hardly help wondering “Why?” Why does God allow events like this to occur?
This is a hard question because it has many layers, both emotional and intellectual. In order to ground our faith and to respond in a fully appropriate way, we not only need good theological reflection but also personal comfort from God and the people of God. Thus, I only offer these reflections below as a beginning of some answers to the intellectual side of our distress. A full and proper response requires bringing these questions, doubts, and pain directly to God in prayers of lament, just as God invites and teaches us to do in the psalms. And we also need to bring our questions, doubts, and pain into our relationships with one another for conversation, counsel, comfort, and encouragement.
From a theological perspective, there is no clear answer why God allows particular evil acts and events to occur in the age in which we now live. Since we are not God, we can only know God’s perspective, purposes, and actions on the basis of what he has revealed to us about himself. When we search God’s revelation, we do not find specific answers to questions like, “Why did God allow this hurricane at this time in this place?” or “Why did this disease or this accident or this terrible event happen to a particular person at a particular time and place?”
This is why it is folly to read specific theological lessons or warnings into specific disasters. In the aftermath of nearly every major disaster, it seems that various religious leaders confidently declare that the catastrophe was divine judgment on the nation, the church, or some specific group of people, for a particular sin or offense. These attempts are spiritually presumptuous and rash because they claim knowledge of God’s will and purpose that we cannot possibly know. Prophets in the Bible were able to declare the theological meaning of disasters in some circumstances because they received revelation that provided a divine perspective and interpretation. But today we have no such revelation about particular evils; rather, we have God’s final and ultimate word to us in the person of Jesus Christ, who reveals God’s intent and power to overcome evil and rid his creation of evil and its cursed effects. In light of God’s ultimate word in Jesus, we face events of great suffering with humility about our limits in knowing their meaning but also with confidence in what God has revealed to us.
God’s revelation does give us some general truths to help us understand some aspects of evil and suffering. We know that some suffering exists because human beings make terrible choices to rebel against God, and human sin has unleashed chaos, pain, and suffering into the world that compounds and multiplies in unexpected and horrible ways. Beyond the sphere of human decisions, we also know that there are demonic spiritual forces at work in our world to create chaos and distress. Moreover, in a fallen world, God sometimes chooses to use the occasion of evil and suffering as a context to bring about great good in making our desperate need for God very clear and for moving his people to care and serve in ways that display God’s self-sacrificial love and compassion with great clarity. (I am not saying that God is the direct cause of evil in a way that makes him morally culpable; rather, I am only claiming that God sometimes brings good out of evil and painful circumstances).
But none of these general truths explains every instance of kind of evil (by far), still less why God allows a particular evil to befall a particular person at a particular moment in history. We just don’t know. It seems that this is one of the major lessons of the book of Job. Job demanded an audience with God and an opportunity to pose questions about his great suffering and to lament his anguish to God, and God gave him that opportunity. In response to Job, God did not offer specific explanations. Rather, he reminded Job that there was much about the world that he did not understand, and yet he was nevertheless able to accept those limitations and continue trusting God on the basis of what he did know about God.
We need to apply the same principle in responding to the evil and suffering that we experience. God does not give us specific answers or explanations, but he does give us what we need to endure in knowing, loving, and trusting him in the midst of our suffering. God gives us three gifts to ground us:
- He shows us how he has dealt with evil and suffering in the past, which can comfort us by assuring us of God’s good character and power. The supreme historical events that show us God’s response to evil and suffering are Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus’ death shows us that God is not aloof or coldly distant; on the contrary, God has taken the full consequences of human evil upon himself. He has entered fully into our suffering and broken world, and he therefore can sympathize with us with complete understanding and full compassion (Hebrews 4:14-16). In addition, Jesus’ resurrection shows us that God is not conquered by evil but rather that he has the power and the set plan and purpose to conquer all that opposes his good plan for creation, even death itself.
- In the present, God gives us himself. He gives us the comfort and strength of his own presence, dwelling in us personally by his Holy Spirit and working in us through others in the church. If we entrust ourselves into God’s hands by trusting Jesus Christ, we have what David describes in Psalm 23: a Good Shepherd who walks with us in the midst of the valley of the shadow of death and in the midst of enemies. This is not an intellectual answer about specific evil events; rather, it is the assurance of God’s active, personal presence and relationship with us. God promises that he will truly carry us, comfort us, and strengthen us to love and serve him, even in the midst of great pain and suffering.
- God points us toward the future with well-grounded hope that he will bring a final judgment and end to all sin and its curse throughout the whole creation (see Isaiah 25 and Revelation 21). God will conquer evil and cleanse his whole creation from its effects and its very presence, and we know this because this future victory has already started in the historical event of Jesus’ resurrection.
I know of no other religious or philosophical worldview that can provide greater truth and better resources in understanding and responding to evil in our world. God has not given us answers to every specific question about every specific evil, but he does give us knowledge and strong personal assurance that he has entered our suffering fully, that he is personally present with us in the midst of it, and that he will one day conquer evil completely.
So what does a Christian response to evil and suffering look like? It looks like turning to God and his word for truth to remember, for prayers to cry out in lament, for promises to trust, and for the experience of knowing God’s personal presence by his Spirit. It looks like turning to one another to offer and receive patient listening, dialogue about doubt, empathy and comfort in pain, and persevering prayer that holds each other up before the Lord. It looks like joining our crucified and risen Lord in working together to push back against the effects of evil in our own lives and the lives of others.
For further reflections on a Christian response to evil and suffering, I would highly recommend The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis, Evil and the Justice of God by N. T. Wright, and Walking with God through Pain and Suffering by Tim Keller. For resources on grieving through loss and death, Invitation to Tears: A Guide to Grieving Well by Jonalyn Fincher and Aubrie Hills, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Loss by Jerry Sittser, and What Grieving People Wish You Knew about What Really Helps (and What Really Hurts) by Nancy Guthrie. (Most of these books are available to examine at the Book Central display in the Fellowship Hall.)