Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Evil, suffering, and all that fun stuff

My friend and ministry partner Mike asked me a few weeks ago to do a post on the "problem of evil", one of the most common objections raised to Christianity. It goes something along the lines of, "How can a Good, all-powerful, all-knowing God allow such evil and suffering to happen in the world? It's a question raised by sincere believers, wavering doubters, and hardened skeptics alike, a question with which every theistic belief system since time immemorial has had to wrestle with. In the wake of the recent Boston Marathon bombing, I thought to myself, "Now is the perfect time to get working on this post, to try in my own way to make some sense of this tragedy". Then I soberly reminded myself: in this fallen world, it's always the "perfect time" to think about the problem of evil.

In this post I will, unsurprisingly, be looking at evil from a Christian standpoint. A bit more rigorously, the objection can be stated as the impossibility of reconciling the following three seemingly paradoxical premises:
  1. God is good and loves/cares for people.
  2. God is all-powerful, able to stop evil and suffering.
  3. Evil and suffering exist.

Wrong Ways

Before starting my investigation, I'm going to start with some examples of how not to answer the problem of evil.
  • Deny the first premise; God is not really good or doesn't really love/care for us. If you do this, you have thrown anything recognizable as Christianity out with the bathwater. This may seem obvious, but the classically Calvinistic response that "We all justly deserve eternal torment in Hell anyway, so anything better that we receive is really an expression mercy" flirts with this possibility. Or, alternately, the extreme voluntaristic view that anything God does (including inflicting suffering) is automatically good and praiseworthy because He's God. Anyone who espouses this view has probably never tried to tell someone who is truly in grief that their situation is really proof of God's love. If we try to look at suffering as mercy because it's "better than we deserve", the term "mercy" becomes meaningless to us.
  • Deny the second premise; God is not really able to stop evil and suffering. This option is not as popular and, like the first, if accepted it does not point to a God worthy of our worship. The philosophical "free will defense" espoused by Plantinga and others is related to this, arguing that it is possible that God logically could not have created creatures with free will who never sin. Not only does this argument offer no comfort for anyone who is actually suffering, it also dangerously implies that we will either continue sinning or forfeit our free will in the paradise promised us in Revelation.
  • Deny the third premise and assert that evil and suffering don't really exist. For obvious reasons, this option is untenable for anyone not living under a rock.
  • Sidestep the question altogether by parrying it into an argument for the existence of God by arguing that the existence of evil points to the existence of a perfectly Good standard of morality. Notice how this doesn't answer the question at all.
There are two "right" ways to answer the problem of evil--the philosophical way, and the pastoral way. Answering the problem of evil on philosophical terms is (relatively) easy; the pastoral answer I can only blindly guess at here.

Philosophical Answer

The productive ways I have seen of answering the problem of evil all generally take aim at its implicit assumption that God being "good" or "loving" means that He must prevent evil or suffering--or more generally, that He exists for the sake of our comfort and our interests. (Which is really selfish when you look at it closely) In other words, people smuggle into the first premise an external or preexisting definition of "good" or "loving" and then expect God to conform to it. Seeing that He does not, they conclude that it's illogical to believe in a good or loving God.

But being a faithful Christian means believing that God is love and that no one is good except God alone. It means laying aside our preconceived notions of "good" or "loving" and looking to God, and especially to Christ, for their definitions. Instead of expecting God to conform to our standard of goodness, it means earnestly seeking to conform to His standard of goodness. It means accepting that God is good and then asking the critical question, "How is God good in the midst of suffering?" People have spent their entire lives trying to answer this question. But the first step is believing that an answer exists.

C.S. Lewis has a lot to say about this question. The apparent meaninglessness of life and the uncaring nature of the universe were the main reasons for his atheism before his conversion, and afterward he wrote The Problem of Pain about what he had learned. In this book he looks at what we mean by "good" or "loving" and how God can be these things even while allowing suffering. He says about the problem of evil (emphasis added):
The problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence of a God who loves, is only insoluble so long as we attach a trivial meaning to the word 'love', and look on things as if man were the centre of them. Man is not the centre. God does not exist for the sake of man. Man does not exist for his own sake. 'Thou hast created all things, and for they pleasure they were and are created.' [Revelation 4:11] We were made not primarily that we may love God (though we were made for that too) but that God may love us, that we may become objects in which the Divine love may rest 'well pleased'. To ask that God's love should be content with us as we are is to ask that God should cease to be God: because He is what He is, His love must, in the nature of things, be impeded and repelled by certain stains in our present character, and because He already loves us He must labour to make us lovable.
In other words, to state that God's love for us is incompatible with human suffering is to misunderstand the nature of God's love for us. God's love does not consist in simply leaving us as we are and making us as comfortable and free from pain as possible there. God wants us to be truly happy--and, being wiser than we, He knows that the only way that this can happen is by our loving Him, the source of everything good.

When a rich father dotes upon his child, giving him everything he asks for no matter how trivial or unhealthy and satisfying his every desire, do we think this is the greatest expression of love a father can have for his child? Of course not; the child is "spoiled", and unless he keeps getting spoiled he's going to have a rough time growing up and adjusting to life in the "real" world. What the spoiled child wants, or thinks he needs, is not what he actually needs. Given how often in scripture God's love for us is analogized as a father's love for his children, it's important to see how this truth has parallels with God. Is it possible that just as a responsible parent knows his child's needs better than the child, God knows our needs better than we do--well enough to know that they can't be met within a painless life?

The Christian doctrine is this: greater communion with God Himself is the greatest need of humans, but left to their own devices, no one will seek Him out but will instead reject Him; we call this tendency sin. So in order to truly love us, according to His definition of love, God needs to change our hearts and desires, to reorient them from innumerable lesser pleasures to Himself; it is the only way for us to be truly happy. He makes no guarantees that this process (called sanctification) will be pleasant. In fact, in my own experience pain is a necessary part of growing closer to God. I've found that I never care less about God than when everything in my life is running smoothly. Living a carefree life full of earthly comforts and no need for God is like eating a diet of candy; it feels good in the short run, but ultimately leaves us hungrier than before. In this metaphor, God is the wise parent who we're eventually glad made us eat our vegetables.

In a better-known quote, C.S. Lewis says that "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world."  Sometimes pain is the only way God has of getting through to apathetic or hostile souls and reshaping them into something lovable. He continues: "No doubt Pain as God's megaphone is a terrible instrument; it may lead to final and unrepented rebellion. But it gives the only opportunity the bad man can have for amendment. It removes the veil; it plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul."

The conclusion of my post series on the Fall, which I wrote while this post was on hold, turns out to be very relevant here. I concluded that "the road to glory in Christ is paved with suffering". In other words, just as Jesus achieved His greatest glory through suffering on the cross, so Christians should expect to come to know Christ and share in His glory by first sharing in His sufferings. You might object that this isn't fair to non-Christians, whose suffering would then seem to profit them nothing. But this isn't God's fault; from His perspective, pain is an invitation to be adopted as sons and daughters and begin the process of soul-refining that it makes possible. And be honest--if only Christians suffered, no one would ever want to be one and God's desire for humanity would be entirely frustrated. Suffering can be thought of as one way God knocks for us (Revelation 3:20), inviting us to an existence infinitely greater than the jealous pursuit of mere comfort.

Free Will

I will say something about the importance of free will here. Unlike Alvin Plantinga, I do believe that God "could" have made humans sinless, but with free will, but I know better than to question why He didn't, and instead set things up so that our greatest good is so often achieved through suffering. The whole "free will defense", the argument that in our present reality God couldn't stop evil without stepping on peoples' wills, is not comprehensive. Yes, it directly applies to acts of malicious evil like bombings or mass shootings, but not  to natural disasters, disease, animal attacks, or accidents.

But free will applies in another way to these instances of suffering. We ask, say, "Why does God allow millions of children to starve in Africa?", while missing another question that begs to be asked: "Why do we?" America alone easily has enough money to end world hunger or many other common causes of suffering. This isn't meant to make anyone feel guilty--of course no one person should expect to be able to make such a difference, unless you're a billionaire--but it does speak to people who see things like world hunger simply as evidence that God is heartless.

As I argued in the ending of my series on God's providence, God seems to have (unwisely?) delegated some of His sovereignty and work in the world to us, the church. This is what I mean by it being a scary level of responsibility: on some lower, immediate level, it is up to us to decide whether God (or rather, His body the church) is loving or heartless. This should make us think twice before questioning whether God cares about human suffering, because often we condemn ourselves in the asking.

Pastoral Answer

If you have voiced the problem of evil not merely as a philosophical objection or reason not to believe but as a heartfelt cry to a God you worry doesn't really care, the material in the previous sections may have been interesting, but I don't expect it helped much. Believing the general principle that God can and does use suffering to bring lost souls to Himself is little comfort in specific instances of suffering. In fact, I'm not sure there is a blanket "pastoral answer" to all suffering that makes everyone who hears it automatically feel loved and comforted. Fortunately, the Bible is much, much more than a philosophical foundation for belief; it contains many examples of people enduring suffering before God and their reactions, which can and do still comfort people today.

Planful Suffering

One "right" way to respond to suffering is to try to personalize the philosophical answers about it or make them relevant to the sufferer; the classic response that "God has a plan" is an archetypal example of this. There is no "one size fits all" response that is guaranteed to speak to a specific situation. Some other possible ways this response may be phrased are:
  • "God is in control" (again appealing to the present situation being part of His plan in some hidden way, Romans 8:28)
  • "God never wastes pain" (expressing hope that God will make something positive out of the situation, as in 2 Corinthians 1:4)
Of course, true as these things may be, it's rarely a comfort to know God has a plan without some idea of how this plan may involve ____, and without this explanation these answers sound vague, trite, and platitudinous. So a constant appeal to a higher plan--typical of the "healthy souls" observed by William James--cannot be the only recourse for Christians in trying circumstances. In fact, I would say it shouldn't even be the default response.

In an effort to not sound uncaring or platitudinous, lots of Christians adopt pastoral responses to suffering and evil that focus on its origins and coming demise.
  • Appeals to spiritual warfare/blaming evil in the world on spiritual forces, citing Ephesians 6:12 (which begs the question of why God is letting them win battles and, if taken too far, can become a denial of premise 2 of the dilemma)
  • "It will all be over someday" (appealing to the promises in Revelation 22:3 of the end of sin and pain)
But these explanations don't always work. In recent news, I saw a much bigger response from Christians to the Boston marathon bombings that killed three than to the Texas fertilizer factory explosion that took more than ten times as many lives and caused much more damage. People are shocked by the senselessness of two brothers killing innocent people at a marathon and Christians, having the "easy" explanation of sin and the "fallen world" for this tragedy, swoop in and offer their witness. But even more senseless catastrophes like the factory explosion (being an accident) have no easy target for blame, so most Christians are silenced. Could this be a sign that the Fall narrative is insufficient as an explanation for suffering?

Planless Suffering

The alternative to trying to seek comfort in a vague knowledge of "God's plan for suffering" is simply not trying. This doesn't mean denying that God has a plan but simply being honest and admitting your inability to make any sense of your situation, your inability to rejoice or find comfort in God, or even your inability to feel Him at all. This sounds like it would be profoundly unsatisfying and bordering on a denial of faith--but this is the response of the "sick soul" observed by William James, which Richard Beck found was correlated with a less defensive, more healthy and honest Christian faith and which was characteristic of Mother Teresa's private spirituality.

There is also an abundance of examples of the planless response to evil in the Bible, especially in the Psalms. Psalm 13 is a short and sweet example of this:
How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Look on me and answer, LORD my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the LORD’s praise,
for he has been good to me.
The big difference I see between Psalm 13 and the planful responses above is that David makes no claim to any special knowledge about God's doings or reasons--which is all too often the case with us as well. It is deeply personal, an honest cry for help to a God who he continues to trust and call on even though He seems to have forgotten the psalmist's plight. Obviously, calling for help to a God who seems to have forgotten you involves a certain amount of internal tension, but David's trust in his God goes deeper than his present situation. He realizes the importance of that word seems. It's exactly how I felt when I kept praying and waiting for God to resolve my hangups with the Bible, even though He had stopped making sense to me because of those hangups. So great is David's trust in God that he is able to continue rejoicing in Him even in the presence of his enemies. (See also Psalm 23)

An even rawer example is Psalm 88, which is filled with rays of sunshine like "I am overwhelmed with troubles and my life draws near to death", "You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths", and "darkness is my closest friend". But even this psalmist hasn't stopped hoping in God: "But I cry to you for help, LORD; in the morning my prayer comes before you"

Or consider the entire book of Job, possibly the best treatment the Bible has on suffering, the story of a righteous, wealthy, and happy man who loses everything he has except his very life. Though in the story Job's plight is revealed to be the result of a bet between God and Satan, Job has no knowledge of this and is left to ask God, "why"? As his friends keep insisting that he must have done something to deserve his fate, Job gets defensive and increasingly self-righteous (32:1), eventually demanding that God explain Himself to him. Finally, in chapter 38, God responds, not with a mindblowing, comprehensive explanation of His ultimate purpose in suffering but with a withering series of questions reminding Job of his smallness and ignorance of God's ways. This turns out to be just what Job needs to cure him of his self-righteousness (42:1-6). So Job's real problem wasn't his plight--it was his sinful attitude, and this is what God addresses. (This fits in very neatly with C.S. Lewis' answer above)

You'll notice (I did, at least) that all of my examples of "planless" suffering were from the Old Testament, and the verses backing up "planful" suffering were from the New. Does this mean that because Christ has come and we live in a different part of history than David and Job, that we should expect the crystal-clear picture of suffering that Paul seems to promise? Not necessarily. Sometimes we're like Paul in his letters, receiving marvelous visions and explanations for our hardships (see 2 Corinthians 12), but much more often we're like David in his Psalms.

I will attempt to put these two kinds of responses together into my best attempt at a pastoral response to the problem of evil. (If you want a better one, ask a pastor) Above all the most important response to suffering is to keep trusting God, as we see David do--not merely "believing" in Him in some ethereally vague sense, but actually trusting that He is real and interested in your welfare, enough to keep petitioning Him. If you get glimpses of a larger purpose behind your suffering (like my realization that my struggles with doubt were preparing me to help others with theirs), rejoice in them, but don't expect them as something God is supposed to show you or, even worse, try to manufacture them as a way to comfort yourself. This does mean living with existential tension rather than trying to minimize it with coffee-cup Bible verses quoted out of context. I'll close with this beautiful quote from a talk by Pope Francis I that I found today that I found relevant:
Being patient: that is the path that Jesus also teaches us Christians. Being patient ... This does not mean being sad. No, no, it's another thing! This means bearing, carrying the weight of difficulties, the weight of contradictions, the weight of tribulations on our shoulders. This Christian attitude of bearing up: of being patient. That which is described in the Bible by a Greek word, that is so complete, Hypomoné, in life bearing ever day tasks; contradictions; tribulations, all of this. These - Paul and Silas - bear their tribulations, endure the humiliation: Jesus bore them, he was patience. This is a process - allow me this word 'process' - a process of Christian maturity, through the path of patience. A process that takes some time, that you cannot undergo from one day to another: it evolves over a lifetime arriving at Christian maturity. It is like a good wine.

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