“The statistics on death are quite impressive. One out of one people die.”
– George Bernard Shaw 1
In 2001, there was a total eclipse of my birthday. It used to be that a very modest and ordinary date, September 11, came before my birthday. Now I know of my birthday as the day after 9/11.
Maybe each generation can point to a defining day, a day that brought them face to face with evil, a day that’s seared in the collective memory. For my parents, it was no doubt the day Pearl Harbor was attacked, the day that will forever “live in infamy,” the day the world took a detour and never came back.
Then there was the assasination of President Kennedy which, because of the tv cameras, happened before our very eyes. The fallout of that event was not as globally tragic as Pearl Harbor, but for our nation, it was a major speed bump. None of my generation will ever for- get exactly where we were when we were stunned with the news.
Nor will we ever forget the shock of 9/11, when the whole world witnessed in a hemispheric head-on collision. Of course, all along, each of us has taken hits that left us reeling while our neighbors went merrily on their way. My beloved grandmother died of cancer when I was 12, and my personal world was never the same. When I was in junior high, a classmate was killed in a car crash. She was only an acquaintance, but I still remember the shock. Then the year after my younger son was born, my one-year-old nephew died during a surgery meant to correct a heart problem. At the funeral, I held my own healthy baby in my arms, grieving that my sister’s arms were empty. Last year, a dear friend was killed in a freak free- way accident. He left a pregnant wife and four children. You, too, carry your own pain and griefs, different from mine, but just as deep.
Then there’s media-induced pain. News clips and magazine articles show us the plights of people we don’t even know. At the least, we cringe. Or we’re appalled. Occasionally we’re outraged enough to do something to right the wrong, to try to alleviate the suffering. The media shows us disaster after disaster, most of which we might never have known about if we had lived before the information-saturated, global age.
I guess we can’t totally blame the media, though. Suffering and disaster draw viewers. Something in us wants to hear about other people’s pain. Novelists know they have to write about characters working their way through situations that go from bad to worse to how-will- they-ever-get-out-of-this. Otherwise, no one will want to read their books. It’s the same with non-fiction. We’re interested in people’s dilemmas, their problems, their tragedies. We want to know how they handled the hard stuff. Or maybe we feel better knowing someone else is worse off than we are. Maybe we find comfort in the fact that we’re not alone in suffering, that if someone else slogged through the Swamp of Despair, we can too.
But sometimes I find that I’ve collected other people’s fear and grief and pain, and I’ve carried it around as part of my own baggage. That’s part of the insidiousness of evil. It can terrify us, stop us in our tracks, torment us, even if it’s not touching us directly. Either way – whether it’s an evil that has rocked the planet or simply the pain of my small individual world – it haunts my mind with one question:
Why, God, why?
N.T. Wright says we ignore evil “when it doesn’t hit us in the face, and so we are shocked and puzzled when it does.” 2 If you’re like me, you’d like to ignore evil. Maybe we think if we ignore it, it will go away. Maybe we feel totally helpless to do anything about it. Maybe one reason we don’t often ask the Why is because if we ask such a question, people might think we’re doubting God. Well, count me in as one of the shocked and puzzled. I can’t ignore the question anymore. It roars in my brain. Deafens my thoughts. Shakes its fist in the face of my old pat answers.
School shootings, child molesting, suicide bombings – why, God, why? Devastating tornadoes, tsunamis, hurricanes – why, God, why? Inoperable cancer, Alzheimer’s, a child’s terminal illness – why, God, why? Didn’t you know this was coming, God? If you did, couldn’t you have stopped it? If you could have stopped it, why didn’t you?
Why pain? Why suffering? Why evil? People who don’t believe in God don’t ask this question, of course. What’s more, if you don’t believe in one loving, caring God, the question doesn’t bother you, because you see evil as simply our human condition. We’re born, grow up, grow old, get sick, and die. That’s how we escape. We die.
But for people who believe in a personal, loving, caring God, the Why question is very real. And it has niggled at the hearts of believers for centuries. No – make that millenia. The Why question has been around since before the time of Job. Scholars have chewed it up and spit it out over and over again to the point of turning the Why into a branch of study called, in scholarly verbiage, “theodicy.” In Greek, “theos” means God, and “dike” means judgment or justice. So theodicy means “justice of God.” Theodicy deals with reconciling two seemingly disparate concepts: a good, loving, powerful God and a world of suffering and evil.
Now if the Why question has been around for millenia, it doesn’t take much of a brain to see that no one’s discovered the big BECAUSE to answer the big WHY. We’re no closer now to pinpointing a definite answer than we were when we carried clubs and wore lionskin. So you might ask another Why: Why muck through this swamp again? Why ponder the undefinable? Why ask the unanswerable?
Here’s my Because: It seems to me that if you believe in a good, loving God, you owe yourself an honest quest for some explanation of the presence of suffering and evil. But maybe you’re satisfied with where you are spiritually, and you don’t want to rock your boat. Then I say you owe an explanation to the people in your life who need and crave a loving God. Presumably you are going to assure them that God is good. God is love. God is all-powerful. But evil, suffering, and pain seem to stand as undeniable evidence against the existence of a good, loving, all-powerful God.
So how do you explain it to yourself? What’s more, how do you explain it to your children, your friend, your co-worker? What do you say to a believer teetering on the edge of disbelief? That may in fact describe you. Many people have reported going through a “dark night of the soul,” in which they asked themselves the Why, or at least the Why-Me.
Classic faith-growth studies show that people who have been raised to believe in a loving God take their belief for granted for awhile. Maybe for a long while. We start out imitating the signs of faith of the significant people in our lives. As we grow, we begin to identify with a faith community and its beliefs. Our community’s stories of faith become a part of our own faith.3 Here’s where some people stop. They live their whole lives at this stage. They don’t question what they’ve been taught, so they continue to take their beliefs for granted for the rest of their lives.
But it’s natural, even healthy, to question what we believe. This stage of questioning, when it occurs naturally, usually appears in early adolescence and lasts into young adulthood. But some young adults hang onto the taken-for-grantedness of their faith. They don’t question until their beliefs are challenged – maybe by the Why when it slaps them in the face.
Whether we question our faith naturally or because of a challenge, the very act of questioning indicates that we’ve dropped the taken-for-grantedness and we’re trying to personalize our faith. In essence, we’re asking, “Is this truly my personal faith, or is it my friend’s? Is this what I really believe, or just what I was taught to believe?”
A healthy faith continues to exercise its muscles. Some people are afraid that what they believe will melt under the heat of scrutiny, so they pack it in ice and stash it away and post a “Do Not Enter” sign. They’re right. That kind of faith will die if it’s even peeked at. Because it’s not really their faith. They’ve just co-opted it. That kind of faith is not healthy.
In order to personalize faith and maintain a healthy faith, we have to be able to ask questions and arrive at answers that make sense to us, even if the answers include, “I don’t think I’ll ever be certain about that issue.” It is, of course, possible to move forward toward maturity while living in uncertainty. People do it all the time. In fact, that’s part of what maturity is: being able to live with uncertainty. But there’s a difference between being uncertain with your eyes closed and being uncertain with your eyes wide open. At least with your eyes wide open, you can see a lot farther.
Faith-growth experts say we mature in faith by a process: We question what we believe, we wrestle with it, we come to a more confident stance in our beliefs, and we move ahead with that stance. Then we hit another question, and the process starts over again. To me, this process is like climbing up and around a mountain. Questions lead us along our path. We circle around the mountain again and again, and our faith matures. Every time we go around the mountain, we reach a higher elevation. Our horizons expand. Our view broadens.
Of course, at times the path leads into cloud cover, and we can’t see anything at all. Or we find ourselves in a sudden storm that threatens to pour us over the cliff in a ton of mud. Or we have to pick our way through a rockslide that has obliterated the way. Or we just grow weary and wonder why we ever started this climb in the first place. We may camp out for awhile. At any rate, questions continue to pop up. A healthy faith is honest enough to see the questions and ponder them and come up with an answer or two or ten.
I think the Why question is inevitable. It’s at the core of one of the most powerful arguments for atheists: If God were all-powerful, He could stop all this suffering. If He were good, loving, and caring, He would stop it. That means either He’s not all-powerful, or He’s not good, loving, and caring. Therefore, atheists reason, what you call “God” does not exist.
Good point. Very good point. But I question the validity of that verdict. Consider for a moment: In a court of law, as long as there’s a plausible explanation for the accused person’s innocence, the accused can’t be proved guilty. So if God is the accused – if God is the one on trial here – maybe the question to ask is whether there’s a plausible explanation for why a good, loving, all-powerful God would allow so much suffering in this world.
Christians believe and proclaim, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). “For God so loved the world, He gave His only Son” (John 3:16). “A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34). So can we explain, first of all to ourselves, this good-God/suffering-world dilemma? Is there a plausible explanation?
- Quoted in Billy Graham, Death and the Life After. (Dallas: Word, 1987, rev. 2001) 3.
2. N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God. (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006) 24.
3. James W. Fowler. Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. (San Francisco: Harper, 1981).
Adapted from If God is Good, Why Do We Suffer? © Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.