I once had a friend in England who, in order to justify his habit of reading the admittedly gossip-laden newspapers each day, tried to pray for each catastrophe he read about. “It got too tiring,” he said, “there were too many sad things: murders, rapes, deaths, lies, and more”. One can understand the sentiment: sometimes it’s simply easier to keep the hardships of the world at arm’s length. One’s own personal problems are more than enough to shoulder after a certain age.
Nor is this pure selfishness. T.S. Eliot rightly noted that human kind cannot bear too much reality. To drink in all the world’s woes, to be sensitive to every ounce of suffering even in one’s family and friends, can overwhelm one’s basic psychological equilibrium. The psychologists themselves find that those most prone to depression are often also those most responsive to sufferings which are not their own; it pays off in happiness, psychologically at least, to restrict one’s own concern about the problem of evil to oneself. One can hardly bear more than one’s own burdens without real sanctity.
But people of faith do wonder why a good God would allow suffering – close or distant – and the philosophers and the theologians have much to say to us. Christians do want to address the intellectual problem of suffering since suffering invades all aspects of life, bodily, spiritual, and intellectual. Here are some admittedly academic distinctions I have found to be very helpful.
The problem at hand is the so-called “problem of evil”: the assertion that the type, degree, and extent of evil in this world makes God’s existence improbable. God may exist – but the extent of suffering in the world makes it less likely that He does. A “theodicy”, in response, attempt to give positive, factual, reasons to believe in God despite such abundant evils in the world. One here thinks of the famous “free will” theodicy which attempts to account for our world’s suffering as a result of misused free will – the very free will which a good God gave us and whose abuse neither negates His goodness nor jeopardizes His existence.
Theologians, unlike many philosophers, often find such terms off-track. They often deem it impious to try, as Milton famously put it, “to justify the ways of God to men”. The sheer ambition of a theodicy to show the logical compatibility of a loving God alongside suffering appears too great for finite, fallen, creatures such as we are. Is it not prideful to attempt to account for God’s ways or to create a calculus which could weigh the values of the goods and evils of the world? Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man articulates these misgivings as elegantly as any.
Nevertheless, theologians need not (nor ought to) shrink from the task of addressing the problem of evil. If full-scale theodicies seek to answer the problem of evil, what scholars call “defenses” are less ambitious. Defenses do not attempt to know God’s thoughts or know the universal picture from the Divine vantage point. Rather, defenses simply give models of why it might be that God’s existence is not implausible given human suffering. Defenses (unlike theodicies) do not try to give the knock-out blow to the problem of evil, but simply shore up the mind with reasons for the probability of a good God despite contrary data.
A classic “defense”, from a Christian perspective, is not to run away from suffering in terms of faith but towards it. In other words, it is through human suffering, though evils themselves, that God meets us in a distinct way. It is not only the good and beautiful things of the world which potentially mediate God’s goodness, but all things. Or, to use theological language, all things are ‘sacramental’ – God will use every tool – and the Cross itself witnesses powerfully to how God will take the evils of this world as the very means of communion and connection to Him. Evil and suffering are real: but God’s ability to take the worst the cosmos can throw at us and transform it is more real still.
Nevertheless, such theological language can obscure the fact that most of patients in the hospital I meet – and probably most normal Christians – are, understandably, not formulating either “theodicies” or “defenses”. Rather, they often ask why God allows this evil to happen to me. When it comes to the wider woes of the world, from earthquakes in China to greed on Wall Street, the threat of suffering to our souls is most acute when it is close to home. So, naturally, the questions are more like, ‘why did my daughter have that car accident, my grandfather that cancer, or my spouse that breakdown?’ People regularly show a desire for meaning in personal, particular suffering.
And quite rightly do we turn to God for answers. Surely meaning can be found from the Maker of meaning. The problem grows worse, however, when He (apparently) offers no answer. Divine silence in response to our own suffering makes that suffering only worse. Or does it? As Metropolitan Anthony Bloom astutely notes, meeting God is no light matter and hearing the Divine voice is a terrifying experience. Every meeting with God in Scripture, much less an angel, is a crisis. Remember Job. Do we really want the Divine answer as to why we or a loved one suffer? Would it “satisfy” us? If it does, and this is a perilous question, who is judging Whom? We risk placing God in the defendant’s position when we ask for answers, as if we were to judge the Judge of all.
The tempered humility in realizing our limitations to arrive at or assess an answer, and yet the persistent hope that meaning can arise from suffering create a peculiar situation. It forces us to wait. As with mothers who miscarry a child or spouses who lose their beloved, so often the process of grieving ends up after considerable time revealing a good which could not have been had in any other way. But it takes time. A certain communion with God is possible (if sought) which has a different tenor from communion with Him in sunnier circumstances. So often those answers take years and come upon us like an unexpected dawn. And that’s why one has to keep reading the news; the process of redemptive suffering is exactly that – a process. Even at the end of one’s life, when there are no more earthly chapters to be written, one trusts in Him who has the first and the last Word.