Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A Perspective on the Problem of Suffering

What follows is a letter I wrote to a friend regarding the reality of suffering in our world. It was published in the Truett Journal of Church and Mission a couple years ago. I thought that in light of the second anniversary of hurricane Katrina, this pastoral theological reflection would be of some benefit. I know its long, but you'll just have to forgive my verbosity.

I admit that my perspective is not in keeping with many of my monergist/Calvinist/Augustinian friends. Please remember that what I have written is pastoral theology, not systematic theology; meaning, my aim was not to make a fool-proof case for a theological position, but offer a thoughtful, biblical, lay-level view on the problem of evil. Feel free to disagree with me, but please do so with kindness.

Dear Friend,

Why does God allow innocents to suffer in His world? As I’m sure you know, you have asked an immensely difficult question. In fact, it is considered by most to be the question of Christian apologetics and perhaps of theism in general.

The theological problem of the suffering of innocents, which is usually simplified and generalized as “the problem of evil” (for the suffering of the innocent is ultimately a thing of great evil), is at the same time universal in scope and intensely personal in application. It is universal because as far as we can tell, all peoples of all religious convictions at all times and in all places have struggled with this problem. The experience of suffering and evil is shared by all, though differing in degree for each person, and is therefore a common part of human existence. Yet, it is also intensely personal because each of us experiences the victimization of evil in a unique way. Although others can mourn with us and we can receive comfort from them in the midst of our pain, no one else can bear the total burden of our misery for us. For each person, the experience of suffering, in whatever form it comes, ultimately takes place within a solitary encounter with the deepest anguish.

But, that is where God enters the picture, isn’t it? Even for the unreligious or unbelieving, the experience of suffering causes the scalding question, “Why?” to boil up from within. And, since human finitude prevents us from accounting for the many complexities of the world, our question is ultimately laid at the feet of the supreme governor of the world. Thus, we ask, where is God in my encounter with suffering? What responsibility does God have in the universal experience of evil throughout human history? And, ultimately, why would a supposedly good, loving, and all-powerful God allow the rampage of suffering and pain to continue, seemingly unabated, throughout his creation?

Many Christians simply avoid these questions because of their complexity and seeming impenetrability. Yet, as representatives of Christ on earth, I feel that we have an obligation to do more than simply shrug our shoulders and sigh, “It’s a mystery…” In the struggle with the problem of evil, we are faced with a tremendous task. Yet, it seems to me that, with Jesus Christ as our north star, the canon of scripture as our compass, reason as our steering wheel, and the eyes of faith as our guide, we must explore the murky depths of the problem of evil and do our best to find our way out.

So, where should we begin? We should probably start with the way that most Christians respond to the problem of evil. The question, “Why does God allow the innocent to suffer?” is commonly answered with the claim that God has a good and perfect plan, one that somehow includes the experience of suffering. In this mindset, it is common for people to say something like, “Well, I know that God is totally in control, so even though I don’t understand, I’m going to trust that there is a good reason why God is putting me through this. Maybe God is trying to teach me something.”

This view assumes that God is not only in control of everything, but that God is also the cause of everything; this includes suffering, pain, and every manifestation of evil. It may be possible to justify some apparently evil events, as within the plan of God, particularly when they appear to lead to a greater good (e.g., the death of a loved one reunites a family that has been estranged for many years). Yet, how shall we justify events of gratuitous evil? Are we really supposed to conclude that God willed the recent tsunami in East Asia in order to bring about some greater good? Was the death of over 300,000 people fulfilling some perfect, predestined plan of God?

Although this view is popular, I think that it does unnecessary violence to the character of God. Is it necessary to assume that in order for God to be all-powerful, he must also be in complete control of everything? Is it necessary for God to control every detail of the world in order to be sovereign over it? Is it necessary for God administrate his will in the world with meticulous micro-management in order to achieve his ultimate purpose? Is it necessary for God to be the ultimate cause of evil in order to ensure his triumph over it in the end? I think that the only way to get out of blaming God for the evils of the world is to answer “No” to each of these questions. In my opinion, unless we are satisfied with a God of moral ambiguity, who actually wills and plans for evil and suffering to occur, we should seriously reconsider our understanding of the way God governs his creation.

Thus, as I see it, the main issue behind the problem of evil is the character of God and, subsequently, the nature of the world God created. Let us briefly examine the character of God and what that tells us about his creation.

As Christians, we profess that Jesus Christ is God incarnate (John 1:14) and the fullest revelation of God to us (Col 1:15-20; Heb 1:1-4). In Jesus, “the entire fullness of God’s nature dwells in bodily form,” (Col 2:9, HCSB). But, does that mean that Jesus reveals everything there is to know about God? No, of course not. But, in Jesus we see all the things that make God who he is—what makes God God. Through knowledge of Jesus, we gain knowledge of God himself, who God is in his eternal essence. When we see Jesus, we also see the very heart of God. The incarnate son of God doesn’t reveal all of God, but he does reveal all that we need to know about God. Therefore, to really know what God our creator is like, we need to focus on what Jesus is like.

In the life of Jesus, three themes present themselves as intimately related to the nature of God and his creation: (1) the relationship between love and freedom, (2) the real conflict between God and the forces of evil, and (3) the paradox of God’s victorious victimization on the cross. All three of these themes work together to reveal the best way that I am able to understand the way God has chosen to govern his creation.

The focus of Jesus’ earthly ministry was the announcement of the present-but-still-coming kingdom of God. He did this primarily through authoritative teaching and miraculous healing. The teachings and healings of Jesus speak volumes about the love of God for human beings. Rather than pandering to the rich and powerful elite, Jesus humbled himself to associate with lowly sinners and social outcasts. Tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, the poor, and the lame, all received the attention and blessing of Jesus. He dispensed forgiveness of sins to the humble and brought physical healing to all that he could. In all these things, the goodwill and gracious love of God toward humanity is made manifest. Jesus embodies the desire of God that all human beings are to be made whole, spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and physically.

Jesus reminds us that God’s plan for human beings from the very beginning was to have creatures formed in his image (Gen 1:27) that would reflect God’s character of love. Human beings were to love God and to share love with one another. Yet, in order for love to be experienced, freedom also had to be experienced. It is widely understood that a healthy, loving relationship is one that is freely chosen. One cannot be forced or coerced into loving another. So, a freely made decision is a necessary part of the experience of love. Even the love of God is characterized by a free decision: “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his one and only Son into the world so that we might live through him. Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:9-10). The freely chosen nature of love is evoked in Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem. He truly desires for them to choose love and obedience over their rebellion, but as he says, “You were not willing!” (Matt 23:37-39).

So, in order for real love to be given from God’s creatures back to him, God knew that freedom must also be granted. Human beings must choose to love God, not be forced or coerced into it. By granting human beings choice, however, God freely took upon himself some measure of limitation—that is, self-limitation.

Christians are often uncomfortable with the thought of God having limitations, but let us put aside the initial “knee-jerk reaction” to limitation and really consider this prospect. Any relationship inherently entails limitation of some kind. In our friendship, your actions affect mine, either advancing my desires or hindering them. I also respect your boundaries in that I do not force my will upon you or manipulate you in order to get my way (even if my way is truly best for you). These things are a natural part of the healthy “give-and-take” that is necessary when two people relate to each other.

Now, I would say, why can the same not be true of God? How shall we imagine God being in genuine relationship with human beings without some kind of limitations that these relationships entail? I would submit that there is nothing inherently wrong with an all-powerful God choosing to limit the extent of his power (and control) in order to create a world where freely chosen love is a possibility. In fact, it would seem to me to be that only a holy and perfectly self-sacrificing being would have the capability to condescend in such a way.

If God is sovereignly in control of his own sovereignty, then he can choose how he desires to exercise it. So, as I see it, for the sake of the creative project God was beginning, God chose to work within certain boundaries. These include the respect of freedom in the individuals God created and the willingness to give and take with these individuals in order to bring about his purposes. This sounds like a real relationship, does it not?

With the self-limitation of God to the boundaries of real relationships, though, God was also putting himself in a position of tremendous vulnerability. By granting human freedom God was allowing for the possibility that he may not always get his perfect way. God is surely powerful and wise enough to work in all situations to bring good out of them (Rom 8:28), but free wills operating outside of his meticulous control indeed entail a degree of risk. In addition to this risk in God’s ultimate plan, God was also exposing himself to the possibility of personal pain and suffering.

We do not often think of God as suffering pain, but the Bible testifies extensively to God’s experiences of sadness, frustration, and pain. Furthermore, a true relationship also entails emotional connection and God’s relationship with humans should be no different. The possibility of human will thwarting God’s will means the possibility of God’s genuine experience of divine sorrow. All of these limitations and risks are inherent to relationships, particularly the relationship of a holy God with finite, created beings. Yet, because of the self-sacrificing love of God and his desire to create a world to reflect that love, God embraced the risk and took upon himself the necessary limitations.

As Genesis relates, however, the first humans exercised their free will in opposition to God’s plan. They chose that which was not God, falling for the lie of the serpent and becoming partakers of, and participants in evil (Gen 3:1-7). Was the fall of humankind into sin the plan of God for the world? Scripture and the character of God lead us to say, No. But, was God taken off guard or surprised at the outcome? I think we must say No, again. God was prepared for the freedom he gave humans to be used in the wrong way, but the goal of loving relationship had to be tested in order to be genuine.

The fall of humankind resulted in universal alienation from God. All humans are now born leaning into the wrong, choosing the ways of self over the ways of God, allowing for the propagation of further evils to continue. The volition of an individual, exercised in rebellion against the creator, is a dangerous and destructive thing, as the bloody and war-torn history of humankind clearly shows. Even the created world is marred by sin, with nature wreaking havoc on the earth, bringing destruction to the very creatures it was supposed to bless. Put simply: Things are not the way they are supposed to be.

So, where is God in all this? With sinful humans running amok in the world and the planet gone awry, is God wringing his hands wondering what he will do to get things back on track? No. Our all-wise God was prepared for the possibility of sin and suffering in the world, and from the fall of our first parents he has been working in and through all things in order to bring creation and his creatures back to where they belong. This “scarlet thread of redemption,” as W.A. Criswell put it, runs through the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic covenants of the Old Testament, leading to God’s ultimate providential act of loving reconciliation in Jesus Christ. In the freely chosen sacrifice of Jesus the God-man on the cross, the God of love provided the means by which human beings could have restored relationship with him. On the cross, God allowed himself to become a victim of evil. Yet, through his suffering, God also won victory over evil.

What does the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus say about God’s relationship to evil? First, it says that God neither wills nor causes evil. Not only did Jesus take a decided stand against the forces of darkness throughout his earthly ministry, but he also took the final stand against the prince of darkness, disarming Satan’s power through his sacrificial death and victorious resurrection (Col 2:15). The cross says that God can use the evil actions of men to bring about good, but God does not will those evil actions to occur.

Second, it says that despite the limitations God is working within, he is more than capable of triumphing over the powers of evil in the end. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the ultimate declaration of the victorious power of God’s love in the world. Despite all appearances to the contrary, sacrificial and winsome love is ultimately more powerful than overwhelming and dominating might.

Third, it says that God is able to identify with us in our suffering in the most intimate of ways. Through the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, God himself was a victim of evil. Jesus Christ certainly chose to submit to the suffering and pain, but he experienced it nonetheless. For our sake, Jesus took upon himself the suffering of the abandonment of God the Father and the damning effects of human sin. And now, as Hebrews says, “Since he himself was tested and has suffered, he is able to help those who are tested” (Heb 2:18).

So, getting back to the original question, “Why does God allow innocents to suffer in his world?” My answer is that God does not want innocents to suffer in his world. In fact, God has done and is doing everything within the boundaries he has established and the complexities of creation in order to prevent and alleviate the suffering of innocents. Yet, the nature of the creation project God began entails the possibility of evil and suffering. Ultimately, God gave humans choice, but human beings are to blame for exercising their will in order to bring evil and suffering in the world.

Thus, we are living in a world that is the consequence of the choices made by humans throughout the history of God’s creative project. In all this, we look to Jesus. In light of the Son of God’s crucifixion, we can affirm that in the midst of human suffering, God suffers also. Yet, in light of the resurrection of Jesus, we can also affirm that in the midst of human suffering, hope remains.

You may ask, though, after all is said and done, am I completely satisfied with the answer I’ve presented here? I would like to say “Yes,” but that would be a lie. Many questions remain even within the model I’ve attempted to sketch for you. I think that ultimately, any answers we formulate for the problem of evil on this side of eternity will be like trying to catch a rock in a spider’s web. In the words of theologian Frank Tupper, “The questions are not larger than our answers, but our answers are more fragile.” Our human finitude prevents us from possessing the information and perspective necessary to form a perfectly solid answer to the problem of evil. We can do our best, but in the end humility must win out.

Right now, I believe that my answer is the best one, particularly compared to the alternative. Yet, my creaturely weaknesses remind me to yield to my Creator and Savior, who will, I trust, make things significantly clearer when his Kingdom finally comes. In the darkness of suffering and pain, I cling desperately to hope in the God who is love and await his ultimate triumph over the forces of evil.

Christian poet, singer, and songwriter Andrew Peterson has written a beautiful song that I think captures our desperate hope in the love of God that will remain once the sufferings of this world are over. The lyrics are stark, but poignant, and I think you will appreciate them:

After the last tear falls
After the last secret’s told
After the last bullet that tears through flesh and bone
After the last child starves
And the last girl walks the boulevard
After the last year that’s just too hard
There is love

After the last disgrace
After the last lie to save some face
After the last brutal jab from a poison tongue
After the last dirty politician
After the last meal down at the mission
After the last lonely night in prison
There is love

And in the end, the end is oceans and oceans
Of love and love again
We’ll see how the tears that have fallen
Were caught in the palms
Of the Giver of love and the Lover of all

‘Cause after the last plan fails
After the last siren wails
After the last young husband sails off to join the war
After the last “this marriage is over”
After the last young girl’s innocence is stolen
After the last years of silence that won’t let a heart open
There is love

‘Cause after the last tear falls
There is love

In conclusion, my friend, I will modify a phrase first offered by Frank Tupper: Life is hard. God is love. Hope.

Many blessings to you on your search for answers,


Joseph said...

Most eloquently stated, and, I think, along the right lines. I cannot grasp why determinists want to posit a God who, by their logic, would have to have decided, eons ago, that thousands would die on 9/11 or that Katrina would wipe away a city. It just is not necessary to protect the sovereignty of God in that way.

My late father-in-law, Eric Rust, who was the mentor of the Frank Tupper you quote, used to speak of the Cross as God's acknowledgement that the universe had a surd quantity in it, and that He accepted responsbility for its incompleteness by entering into the suffering that created.

But Easter! The first fruits, the promise of that which is to come!

Boyd Luter said...


After having had the opportunity to go down on three separate occasions this past year and survey the continuing devastation of Katrina, your letter, which I ahd read previously, had an even greater impact on my heart.

Well said!

CharlieMac said...

What a tragedy for those who do believe that God is orchestrating every thing, whether good or evil.
The same applies to those who believe women are forbidden from leading or teaching men.
I hope I can remember your words the next time I face someone who "blames" God.
Mac McFatter
Semmes, AL