This is a postscript to a series of blog posts that, frankly, could go on. It follows what was to be the conclusion of a series on the problem of evil – Another Look at God in Light of the Evil in the World (Part 4). Why does evil occur and God doesn’t prevent it? If God is God, and He is all-powerful and all-loving, why does He allow evil, pain and suffering?
I do need to bring this to a conclusion, but I have some “final” thoughts. I also have some experiences to relate: not mine, but of someone who knows pain and suffering better than I.
But first, we have to admit that, if God is God, and if He cares, and assuming He could prevent the pain and suffering in the world, why doesn’t He? It’s a legitimate question!
If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, I believe we would not be talking about him still in the 21st Century. There would be no point in Christianity whatsoever. He would have fallen into obscurity as just another idealistic dreamer whose fate, like all the other ill-fated dreamers who ever lived, seals our doom as a people, as a species on this planet.
But if Jesus did rise from the dead, no over feat in the history of mankind is more important or more significant. We can’t just dismiss it.
Further, because I believe Jesus did rise from the dead, we have hope, real hope, that His promises are true. We have assurance that there is some end to the pain and suffering and (likely) some purpose we cannot see in it.
My own speculation is that, perhaps, a world in which God intervened to soften and eliminate the effects of evil and to cushion us against pain and suffering would be a world in which love could not be fully known, a world in which we could not reflect God’s love back to Him. Such a world might undermine the free will necessary for love to exist.
I go back to the statement: God is love (1 John 4:8,16), and I consider that love doesn’t coerce. Love doesn’t force itself on another person. Love doesn’t impose itself.
I also consider that God created us in His image. We have some of the attributes of God, including the ability to love, because we are made in His very image.
I believe God created us in His image for the purpose of love. We couldn’t love, however, if we didn’t have some choice in the matter. Choice requires a real ability to choose otherwise.
Evil is a parasite. God created everything good. But, love requires the freedom to reject what is good. And if creatures like us are going to have the capacity for love, then we must have the ability to choose to reject good (and reject God). This ability to reject good is an explanation of the evil in the world.
Love requires the possibility (not the actuality) of evil. In that sense, God did not create evil; evil was created (actualized) by creatures choosing their own ways contrary to God.
The possibility of evil is not a created thing, but it is intrinsic to the nature of the kind of freedom that love requires. Evil might have never been actualized, but for the decisions of God’s creatures to reject Him, to reject good (which is defined by who God is) and reject love. Therefore, God didn’t bring evil into the world, and He isn’t culpable for it.
Still, we have to conclude that God allows evil. If God really is God, we can’t escape it. He could have created a world in which evil wasn’t even possible, but that isn’t the world we live in. It also isn’t a world in which real love could exist between God and his created beings.
Who am I to say that God shouldn’t have created this world? That He shouldn’t have created a world in which love was possible? Albeit a world that necessarily required the possibility of evil.
But, I think, that is the key. Creatures that have the capacity for rejecting love also have the capacity to embrace it. And that is the ultimate purpose of God – that some people would choose Him, choose love, and choose the good.
These ideas, for me, help to explain the pain and suffering in the world, but they don’t offer the hope and the comfort that we personally need when we experience evil, pain and suffering ourselves. Only a personal God can offer hope and comfort in such a circumstance, only a God who knows, Himself, what we suffer can offer true comfort.
God is “personal”, and He is intimately acquainted with the kind of pain and suffering I experience. The pain and suffering He experienced was His choice. He chose to leave aside His privilege and become one of us. He willingly suffered all that He experienced for me and for you.
In God we see the ultimate manifestation of love. There is no greater love, Jesus said, than one laying down his life for another. (John 15:13). That is what God did for us. He took on our human form in all of its weakness and vulnerability, and He laid down the life He voluntarily took up for us.
This, and the hope that this world is not all there is, provides the emotional resolution for pain and suffering. It is a hope that isn’t just fanciful. It is a hope built on the actual, historical rising of Jesus from the jaws of death in triumph over pain and suffering and death – and ultimately a triumph over evil.
To bring this blog series to a close and to personalize it, I am reminded of Joni Eareckson Tada (or simply Joni). This year (2019) is the 50th anniversary of the accident that left her paralyzed, a quadriplegic. Recently, Joni has suffered with cancer, and the cancer has now returned at the time of this writing.
Joni has suffered more than most in her life. You can read her own account of the pain and suffering she experienced and how she dealt with it penned in her own words. (See Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of My Diving Accident.)
The summary version is that she turned to God, and she found solace, comfort and even joy in knowing God. A person like Joni, who has experienced more pain and suffering than most people, can speak to the problem of pain more legitimately and poignantly than most. She not only finds solace from a personal relationship with God, she finds purpose in the suffering. These are her words:
“[D]ecades of study, paralysis, pain, and cancer have taught me to say, ‘It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees’ (Ps. 119:71). I won’t rehearse all of suffering’s benefits here. Many of you know them by heart. Like the way God uses it to shape Christ’s character in us (Rom. 8:28–29). Or how it produces patience (Rom. 5:4). Or how it refines our faith like gold (1 Pet. 1:7). Or gives us a livelier hope of heaven (James 1:12)…. However, if I were to nail down suffering’s main purpose, I’d say it’s the textbook that teaches me who I really am, because I’m not the paragon of virtue I’d like to think I am. Suffering keeps knocking me off my pedestal of pride.”
These are not trite words of empathy. They are spoken out of personal pain, suffering and experience. She surmises,
“The core of God’s plan is to rescue me from sin and self, and to keep rescuing me. The apostle Paul calls it “the gospel . . . by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you” (1 Cor. 15:1–2).”
These words from an old friend stick with her after all the years she has lived with her condition, and they still ring true for her:
“God permits what he hates to accomplish what he loves.”
Even in the midst of the pain and suffering, Joni has found that relationship with God provides comfort:
“Grace softens the edges of past pains, helping to highlight the eternal. What you are left with is peace that’s profound, joy that’s unshakable, faith that’s ironclad.”
I could relate my own experiences with pain and suffering, though they don’t hold a candle to what Joni has experienced. But I can say that I, too, have found instruction, wisdom and help to understand myself (and God) in the pain and suffering I have experienced.
Paul, the apostle, who learned to embrace pain and suffering in his life, said this:
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed”; and overarching all of these thoughts is the “knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence.” (2 Corinthians 4:7-9, 14)
Paul observes that we have this treasure (knowing God) in jars of clay to show that God has the power, not us, to save us from our plight. And not just to save us from our plight, but to transform us ultimately to be like God, to be with Him, to have the fullness of a loving, eternal relationship with Him.
It is God’s plan and purpose to plant in us in the possibility of being like Him and having relationship with Him, but the doorway to this ultimate transformation is through death. Jesus said, unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a seed only a possibility, merely a potentiality. (John 12:24-26)
The death that is transformative is not our physical death, but the “death” we experience when we choose to follow God, rather than our own way – to let go of present fulfillment to grasp for ultimate fulfillment in God.
Without pain and suffering, we would be strongly tempted never to let go, never to die to this world and this life. We might think this is all there is. We might be content in going our own way, never desiring or being willing to embrace what God intends for us.
In Ecclesiastes, we read that “all is vanity” a “chasing after the wind”, but God set eternity in our hearts. (Ecc. 3:11) Why did God make a world in which we would ultimately despair of meaning, and then set eternity in our hearts?
Because this world isn’t all there is! He didn’t want us thinking there is nothing else. He wanted us to long for something else so that we would let go – by our own choice – of this life and seek to take hold of that for which God ultimately made us.
Again Paul, in his great wisdom and insight, said:
“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.” (Romans 8:218-24)
This world is merely the seed for the next world. The pain and suffering that we experience is allowed by God who knows what He has prepared for us, not in this life, but in the next. Pain and suffering is allowed so that free creatures, such as ourselves, might desire and seek to know God and embrace what God desires for us, not because we must, not because we have no other choice, but precisely because we choose to embrace it.
God is there for the person who seeks Him and wants Him. If we draw near to God, He draws neat to us. (James 4:8) Those who seek God, find Him. (Jeremiah 29:12-14) The one who knocks on God’s door, or who opens the door when God knocks, has relationship with God. This is the ultimate purpose of our lives. The pain and suffering experienced in this life is comparatively “light and momentary” compared to the “weight of glory” that awaits us. (2 Corinthians 4:17-20)
Finally, one of the most thought-provoking opinion pieces I have read on the subject addresses these issues eloquently: What It Means to Worship a Man Crucified as a Criminal, by Peter Wehner, NY times, April 19, 2019. He writes:
“In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?” From the perspective of Christianity, one can question why God allows suffering, but one cannot say God doesn’t understand it. He is not remote, indifferent, untouched or unscarred.
“Scott Dudley, the senior pastor at Bellevue Presbyterian Church in Bellevue, Wash., and a lifelong friend, pointed out to me that on the cross God was reconciling the world to himself — but God was also, perhaps, reconciling himself to the world. The cross is not only God’s way of saying we are not alone in our suffering, but also that God has entered into our suffering through his own suffering.”
“Scott readily concedes that there’s no good answer to the question, ‘Why is there suffering?’ Jesus never answers that question, and even if we had the theological answer, it would not ease our burdens in any significant way. What God offers instead is the promise that he is with us in our suffering; that he can bring good out of it (life out of death, forgiveness out of sin); and that one day he will put a stop to it and redeem it. God, Revelation tells us, will make ‘all things new.’ For now, though, we are part of a drama unfolding in a broken world, one in which God chose to become a protagonist.”
“One other significant consequence the crucifixion had was to ‘introduce a new plot to history: The victim became a hero by offering himself as a willing victim,’ in the words of the Christian author Philip Yancey. Citing the works of the French philosopher René Girard and Mr. Girard’s student Gil Bailie, Mr. Yancey argues that a radiating effect of the cross was to undermine abusive power and injustice; that care for the disenfranchised and those living in the shadows of society came about as a direct result of Jesus’ crucifixion.”