Why Suffering and Evil?

 This past Sunday, after worship services and coffee hour had ended, I received a phone call about the death of a church member. As I regularly do, I spent a good part of my week with a family preparing and leading a memorial service, pondering the challenges of chronic illness, dying, and grieving. While these events were front and center, in the background I was hastily pulling together an order for this worship service, and penciling in the lectionary texts from the gospel and the epistle. I thought about how our experience of life seems to contradict the promise of James. Are the prayers of the righteous really powerful and effective? Why, despite our prayers, do we experience suffering and evil?

Coincidentally, I also was reading a book by my former preaching professor Tom  Long about evil, suffering, and the crisis of faith.[1] When Thursday came, and there was no sermon outline, I kept reading. And when Saturday arrived, still with no clear message, my notes became this sermon, really more an extended book summary. If any part of it is helpful, then the credit goes to Long. If any part of it is unhelpful, the blame belongs to me.

Early in the book, Long paints the picture of what happened in Lisbon, Portugal on November 1 in the year 1755. At about 9:30 in the morning, while the Christians of the city were gathered for All Saints Day worship services, a massive earthquake struck. Thousands were killed instantly, and many more injured. For those who escaped the broken buildings, there was little time to rest, because howling winds whipped the flames from fallen candles and lamps into an inferno. Dazed survivors made their way toward the seemingly safe havens of the river and the harbor, first confused by the way the water was mysteriously sucked away from shore, and then terrified as a tsunami rushed in to sweep thousands more away. Long summarizes the way this awful event shaped society, coming as it did on the cusp of Europe’s intellectual Enlightenment. For some, the events of Lisbon swept away belief in God, and ushered in a new rational and decidedly atheistic way of understanding the world. For if thousands of Christians gathered for worship and prayer could be destroyed in this manner, then how could there be a God?

Through the telling of this history, Long pushes us face-to-face with the thorniest problem in all theology, the one that has come to be labeled “theodicy.” In its classic form, theodicy struggles with the relationship between four philosophical statements, each claiming to be true: 1.) There is a God, 2.) God is all-powerful, 3.) God is loving and good, and 4.) There is innocent suffering.

If you think about it a while, then you will realize there are many ways of reconciling the four truth claims, often by challenging the truth or definition of one of the statements. Theologians, some of them not very graceful, have challenged number four, the notion that anyone is really innocent, that there is an all-powerful, all-loving God, and that humans, though often recipients of divine favor, sometimes get what they deserve. Atheists have conceded that it is fine to imagine a God who is all-powerful, and that a God worthy of the name certainly would be loving and good, but since there is in fact innocent suffering, it must be the case that number one is false, that there is no God. Today, perhaps one of the most common ways that people solve the theodicy problem is by believing that 1.) there is a God 2.) who is loving and good, acknowledging that 4.) there is vast human suffering, and therefore implicitly believing that 2.) is false, that God simply isn’t powerful enough to do anything about it. This way of thinking is what I call “Star Wars” theology, a system of belief like ancient Manichaeism that sees the universe locked in an eternal struggle between the light side and the dark side of “The Force,” neither able to win a decisive victory.

Long points out that philosophizing about theodicy is a relatively recent way of reacting to pain and suffering. In biblical times, when a person experienced this sort of injustice, it would drive him or her to prayerful lament, to ever greater cries to God to come and save. In our time, pain and suffering often drive people to frame evil and suffering as a rational problem that requires a logical solution. Long calls this latter response “the impossible chess match,” a game in which the outcome always seems rigged against faith in favor of no faith.

What, then, shall we say to the problems of evil and suffering?

First, Long argues, a compassionate Christian response accepts people who are suffering where they are. There is a time simply to acknowledge suffering, and listen to the voices of pain and outrage. There is life-giving and redemptive purpose in the loving interactions between caring people, and you and I are doing something of vital spiritual significance when we conduct a ministry of presence with grieving families.

Long lifts up the example of a Sri Lankan father, a man of great physical strength, who survived the Indian Ocean tsunami. Despite desperate efforts swimming through the seas, he was unable prevent his four children or his wife from being swept to their deaths by surging waters. As he told a reporter the names of his lost children, in descending order by age, ending with the name of his four-year-old son, the father was utterly overcome with deep sobbing and grief. “My wife and children must have thought, ‘Father is here … he will save us’, he said, crying. ‘I couldn’t do it.’” Long asks, if one had opportunity to speak to the man at that moment, what should be said? Only a monstrously insensitive person would approach the father at that moment with some abstract theological explanation: “Sir, your children’s deaths are part of God’s eternal but mysterious counsels,” or “Your children’s deaths, as tragic as they may seem, in the larger sense serve God’s complex design for creation.” Most of us would have the good sense to be ashamed of such advice at such a moment.

But, Long says, there does come a time when people of faith try to make sense of their experiences of evil and suffering. When that time comes, we must realize – and this is Long’s second point – that the Bible does not operate in the same way as contemporary philosophical discourse. It is less a record of philosophy and more a story of relationship.

To shed more light on how the story of relationship with God is different from a record of philosophy, Long poses the case of a fictional man who confides to a friend that he is experiencing, for the first time, a crisis in his marriage. His marriage has been a happy one, and he and his wife have delighted in joyful relationship. But, lately, suddenly and inexplicably, his wife has begun to occasionally speak bitterly toward him and act in antagonistic ways. The man confesses to his friend that he is puzzled and troubled by this new behavior, and has been trying to figure out why it’s happening. He says, “If my wife is good and loving, she must be powerless to stop this behavior. But if my wife is powerful enough to control her behavior, she must not really be good and loving. And since she cannot be both powerful and good, I have decided that my wife must not exist.” The example is ridiculous, of course, because the question of the wife’s existence isn’t even on the table. Just so, in the Bible, God’s existence is never up for grabs, but always an undeniable reality. For the authors of the Bible, and the faith community shaped by the Bible, the conversation about evil and suffering is not a debate about God’s existence, but rather a lover’s quarrel: “Why do the wicked prosper?” “Where are you in this mess, God?” “When will your justice come?”

To put my punctuation at the end of this unusual sermon, let me remind you that The Bible ends with a brief prayer. At the tail of end of Revelation is the plea: “Come, Lord Jesus!” It is the plea of all who live through pain and suffering, the plea that God bring us quickly through dark valleys to a promised future that reshapes our present and past. It’s the prayer: “Come, Lord Jesus!” Come and wipe away every tear. Take away every tear, and night shall be no more. “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. AMEN.”


[1] Thomas G. Long, What Shall We Say? Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2011.

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~ by JohnH1962 on September 30, 2012.

One Response to “Why Suffering and Evil?”

  1. You’ve renewed my faith a bit just by bringing up a theodicy question. I would love to know more of your personal theodicy rather than Long’s though. Look forward to reading more from you, may the Lord bless you.

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