What about Suffering and Evil?

Posted: October 10, 2014 / Written by: Pastor Bruce Garner

Yesterday I listened to some horrible accounts of the evil that people do to each other and was reminded of the awful suffering that plagues life on earth. We all know people suffering from some illness, we know the effects of war on our own, and we can only imagine the horrors that people caught in the middle of the current conflicts experience. How do we make sense of these things when we have also experienced God’s goodness? Thomas Oden wrote a book for pastors to help them speak of God to suffering people. He writes: “Theodicy means to speak justly of God amid the awesome fact of suffering. Its task is to vindicate the divine attributes, especially justice, mercy, and love, in relation to the continuing existence of evil.” When we suffer, we want to know why. What purpose does it serve? I heard someone say recently, “I wonder what God is trying to teach my son? I wish he would learn it and be done with this.” She understands suffering as a tool that God uses to teach us necessary lessons about life. Marie Fortune puts it this way, “We are looking for some meaning because we earnestly believe that the only thing worse than suffering is meaningless suffering.” People naturally want an explanation for the pain and suffering they experience, and Christians especially want to know how God’s goodness can allow the misery that they and others experience. Typical explanations start with God’s attributes such as omniscience and omnipotence and man’s sin in an attempt to provide a rational basis for understanding evil and suffering. Unfortunately, these answers are usually not wholly satisfactory. The problem with rational explanations is that evil just does not make sense and evil’s effects cause real mind-numbing pain.

what-about1Part of the problem is the mistaken way that we usually approach life. We live in the western world in which rational answers are king. We make business plans based upon best practices. We develop technology on the latest scientific research. Policy decisions are made based on studies. We assume that there is a rational answer for every problem. This is the way we read scripture, too. Our Christian bookstores are filled with “how to” books because we look to the Bible to provide answers to life’s problems, as well we should. But the question we must ask is “What sort of answers does the Bible give?” Did God give us the scripture to provide a rational base for society? Is it primarily a “how to” book on life?

Paul Coban is a noted apologist for Christian life. (Apologist being the term used for someone who defends the faith or gives answers for difficult questions. The apologist does not apologize, she defends against false ideas and explains the truth.) Coban explains in His book, That’s Just Your Interpretation, the need to deal with the emotional effects of evil and the everyday consequences that disrupt human life. He recognizes that dealing with the personal effects of evil will require personal relationships, yet in his book his eleven statements are focused upon producing rational arguments for why the existence of both God and evil is not a logical contradiction. He recognizes that the explanations will not help the sufferer, but he does not explain how personal relationships can relieve suffering or deal with evil’s effects. Dealing with evil itself is a side issue; the goal of his approach is rational understanding.

For Coban and others, truth is defined as a proposition, a statement. Frustrated that Jesus would tell them that He was going to prepare a place for them and would receive them there, but without giving directions, Thomas complained to Jesus that they did not know where he was going, so how could they know the way. He was thinking that he needed a physical location to put in his GPS equipped phone. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6 ESV) Jesus Himself is the way! The way is not a set of directions, or a checklist of things to do. In a very real and practical way, knowing Jesus is the set of directions we need. He becomes our guide through life. If truth is the person of Jesus, then the communication of truth must come through an encounter with Him, not some disconnected rational proposition, and dealing with the problem of evil must involve a relationship with Him and not just a scripturally accurate and rationally coherent answer.

Jesus’ encounter with Pilate may give us some insight into this. Pilate asks for the charges and finds that they involve supposed violations of Jewish law. He tries to turn Jesus back over to them until he learns that they are demanding the death penalty.

what-about2Pilate asks Him if He is the King of the Jews. Jesus asks if he thinks He is. Pilate answers that he is not a Jew so how would he know! Jesus replies that His kingdom is not of the earthly realm and that everyone who is of the truth will bear witness to Him. Pilate responds, “What is truth?” For Pilate, truth is a “what.” For Jesus, truth is a “Who.”

Parker Palmer beautifully expresses this in his book To Know As We Are Known:

The story suggests that in Christian understanding truth is neither an object out “there” nor a proposition about such objects. Instead, truth is personal, and all truth is known in personal relationships. Jesus is a paradigm, a model of this personal truth. In him, truth, once understood as abstract, principled, propositional, suddenly takes on a human face and a human frame. In Jesus, the disembodied “word” takes flesh and walks among us. Jesus calls us to truth, but not in the form of creeds and theologies or world-views. His call to truth is a call to community—with him, with each other, with creation and its Creator. If what we know is abstract, impersonal, apart from us, it cannot be truth, for truth involves a vulnerable, faithful, risk-filled interpenetration of the knower and the known. Jesus calls Pilate out from behind his objectivism into a living relationship of troth. [faithfulness] Pilate, taking refuge behind the impersonal objectivist “what,” is unable to respond.

Richard Bauckham explains that the biblical story is not one of reason or of the “how to” of life, but of the freedom and purpose of God and of the human freedom to obey or to resist God’s purpose. The purpose of God is mostly told in story, not declared with rational statements. But the Bible also does not read like a history text or a novel. The biblical books are quite diverse, written over 1500 years by various authors in different styles and kinds of writing, yet there is a unity in the overall story despite their diversity. This unity comes from the contribution that each story and each author makes to the larger story.

The story of Job is a significant example of how one story contributes to the whole, especially concerning our experience of suffering and evil. He is suffering for no obvious reason and noisily claims that he has done nothing to deserve it. His friends, though showing great compassion for his loss, cannot accept that what has happened to Job is an exception to their carefully constructed vision of reality: bad things happen to people who have done something wrong; good people do not suffer without a discernable reason. They have embraced a rationalistic approach to understanding life that admits no exceptions. They are convinced that Job has messed up and he should deal with it. They are stuck trying to fit Job and his trauma into their box of understanding, and he will not go along. The problem is that evil is not rational; it does not make sense. Evil will never fit into a box of understanding. Jesus did not come to give us understanding of evil. He came to destroy it.

Job does not understand what has happened to him, but he still trusts that God will justify him and destroy evil in the end. God commends Job’s faith in the midst of his lack of understanding, frustration, and suffering, while condemning the rigid dogmatism of his friends. They want control where no control is possible. Their neat and tidy explanations did not please the Lord. The Lord rebukes them and tells them to ask Job to offer sacrifices on their behalf and pray for them to be forgiven! In effect, he refuses to endorse their rigid, rationalistic understanding of life.

God’s rebuke and Job’s sacrifices and prayer does not end the story, however. Job’s fortunes are restored, and he has ten more children. Why would a man who experienced everything that he did, risk having ten more children? And why would he give daughters a full inheritance knowing full well that that property would be going to their husbands’ families? That would be like a father today giving away his retirement account to his daughters’ in-laws. Is the man a little unhinged, or has his encounter with God changed him? Life has not changed, but Job has because he now knows more about Who God is, not just what He does. He now knows God as lavishly generous and free, Who grows grass where there are no people and creates creatures for the sheer joy of it.

Ellen F. Davis in her book Getting Involved With God: Rediscovering the Old Testament comments that the book of Job is not about justifying God but of Job’s transformation to a man who can “open himself again to the terrible vulnerability of loving those whom he cannot protect against suffering and untimely death.” This transformation comes not because of the explanations of his friends, but from his encounter with God.

The fact that the story of Job is part of the canon must mean that the biblical story is not a full and complete revelation of reality even though it is a story revealed by God. There are things beyond our explanations. The story of Job demonstrates that biblical revelation does not provide a neat, rational explanation for everything in life. Bible teacher and counselor Mark Glenn, reflecting on God’s goodness and the reality of evil, says, “The constancy of the divine identity does not make God predictable.” Roger Olson agrees, writing that people should not make blanket statements about what God will or will not do (referring to natural disasters) because He has used them and He may well do so in the future. When Job does receive the audience with God that he has demanded, God does not offer an explanation for the tragic events in Job’s life. He does, however, reveal something of Himself to him. Job’s consolation comes not from rational understanding, but from a deeper personal relationship with God through this encounter.

what-about3So what does this mean for us who are suffering or trying to deal with the effects of evil? Simply that the truth we seek comes as a ‘who’ not a ‘what.’ Our encounter with the person of Jesus holds the promise of the answers we seek, but they may not be explanations.

And the person of Jesus often is manifested through the others around us. Life is dangerous. Evil is a reality, but the God who created the world has come to be with us in it until He puts away evil once and for all.