A number of years ago I was called by the local funeral director and asked if I would be willing to officiate at a graveside service. He had asked me many times before to officiate at funerals, but this one was different. This was a service for a very young child. The service was held this time of year – in the midst of winter, but it was not in mild weather such as we are currently enjoying. It was very cold that day. There was snow and ice on the ground and the wind was blowing, which seemed to add to the bitterness of the occasion. I stood beside a tiny casket that was perched over a tiny hole in the ground and thought, what can I possibly say that would bring any sense of comfort to this young mom and dad?
As we continue our series Answering the Skeptics, this morning we come to what I consider the most difficult topic of all those we will consider in this series – how do we reconcile the belief in an all-powerful, loving God, with the presence of so much evil and suffering in the world? I have titled this message Suffering – The Achilles Heel of Faith? because it is the central accusation brought by those who are skeptics of faith. Skeptics will make their points about a lack of evidence for God’s existence, they will talk about what they see as the illogical nature of faith, they will claim that science makes belief in God nothing more than an outmoded superstition. And then, they pull out what they consider their trump card – the presence of evil and suffering, seeing this as the great argument that drives the final nail in faith’s coffin. This is the issue exploited by Richard Dawkins and others and is the most common reason why some people never embrace faith and is arguably the most common reason why people abandon faith.
The study of this question is called theodicy, which is a combination of the words for God and justice, meaning how do you justify God? There is no way this message will do more than barely touch the question of theodicy. Libraries are filled with books trying to understand this question; I have about twenty minutes this morning to try and do so.
Theodicy wrestles with the simultaneous existence of three competing realities:
1. God is all-powerful.
2. God is loving.
3. The reality of evil and suffering.
Skeptics will argue that given the reality of evil and suffering we must sacrifice either the idea that God is all powerful or the idea that he is loving and good, or better yet – in their minds – just abandon belief all together.
Let’s start with an important acknowledgement – Scripture never overlooks the realities of evil and suffering. Scripture never gives any promise that we will be spared the difficulties of these realities. Scripture actually raises the question of why we must suffer. As just one example, listen to some of the complaints of Habakkuk in the first chapter of his book –
How long, LORD, must I call for help,
but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me;
there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralyzed,
and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
so that justice is perverted.
Your eyes are too pure to look on evil;
you cannot tolerate wrongdoing.
Why then do you tolerate the treacherous?
Why are you silent while the wicked
swallow up those more righteous than themselves?
(Habakkuk 1:2-4, 13)
Those are some pretty good questions, aren’t they? This is the Bible itself questioning why God doesn’t do something about suffering and evil.
And then there is the book of Job, part of which we read this morning. The book of Job is a long treatise about evil and suffering, and the book of Job seems to raise far more questions than it provides answers. The Bible is very blunt about the tragedy of suffering and evil, and the pages of the Bible reflect the anguish of the human condition in trying to come to grips with this very difficult reality. And while I’m mentioning what is in the Bible, let me mention something that is not in the Bible. It is often said that the Bible says God will not give you more than you can bear. That is not in the Bible. The passage that comes closest to that is I Corinthians 10:13, which says God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.
You may remember the popular book that was released in the early 80’s – When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold Kushner. His solution was to accept the idea that God’s power was limited. This is a better solution than to abandon faith, but I would imagine most of us would find it to be an unsatisfactory answer.
Augustine, the great mind and most influential thinker in church history after Paul, said the problem lies not in the creator but in the creation, because mankind will too often choose what is lesser, resulting in sin. While this is certainly true, it still leaves the question of why God doesn’t just abolish sin so that people can only choose the good.
We can also talk about the most common solution – that of free will – but this view also has some holes in it, because it still leaves open this question – if God can prevent evil and suffering, even that which is brought on by poor choices, why would he not do so? This solution also fails to engage the question of natural evil – why do people suffer from natural disasters, and why must people suffer the consequences of terrible diseases, neither of which have anything to do with free will.
In fact, every attempt at a solution to this question seems to come up short in some way, and every explanation will still be mocked by skeptics who believe evil and suffering to be the Achilles heel of faith.
So this is my solution – to admit there is no answer that will adequately cover every objection because of our inability to understand the mind of God, but continue to struggle to understand this question, all the while realizing that people who are skeptical of faith will always seem to have an edge when it comes to this question, but that is because those who deny faith do not have the perspective necessary to trust that God knows what he is doing. So there you have it, and our Invitation Hymn is…
It is my prayer, though, that this message will give you some help in dealing with this question.
Let’s begin with –
1. According to the Bible, good is always the intent of God.
Genesis affirms at every step of creation that it is good. Even though things go wrong very quickly – Cain murders Abel, the Tower of Babel brings division to mankind, and the flood ends most of mankind – creation is instilled with a goodness that God always affirms and is always trying to restore.
There are two questions in this topic related to theodicy, and the second question is generally overlooked. The first question is why do evil and suffering exist, but the second question is why does good exist? I would say that if the existence of suffering and evil is the hardest question for believers to deal with, the existence of goodness is the greatest challenge for skeptics.
(Stories Jesus Still Tells: The Parables, John Claypool. 2nd edition. Cowley Publications: Boston, MA, 2000, p. 53)
If evil and suffering causes one to question God, where does one get the idea that goodness is how things should be? The very idea that a difference exists between good and evil supposes there is a notion of what ought to be. This presence of a knowledge of good and evil needs to be accounted for.
(The Case for Faith: A Journalist Investigates the Toughest Objections to Christianity, Lee Strobel. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI, 2000, p. 34).
Interestingly, this is a strong theme in books written by four authors – C. S. Lewis, Alister McGrath, Frances S. Collins, and Patrick Glynn – all of whom were atheists who came to faith largely because of coming to understand that good must come from somewhere.
This is why, throughout history, mankind has overwhelmingly believed in God, even though through most of history people have suffered very difficult lives. Why did they not abandon faith? It is because, I believe, that people have recognized that if there is a knowledge of good and evil that knowledge must come from somewhere, and it is recognized as coming from God.
It always amazes me that people want to say God cannot exist because of evil and suffering but fail to understand it is the existence of God that gives us the understanding of the difference between good and evil and that goodness is the preferred option.
2. Suffering proves the depth of our faith.
The test of Job was not if his faith was real, but would it stand once tested? Is faith real and valid if it has not been tested? And if suffering causes me to abandon my faith, was it ever really faith to begin with?
Augustine, in the City of God, writes this of our sufferings – For in the same fire, gold gleams and straw smokes; under the same flail the stalk is crushed and the grain threshed…so, too, the tide of trouble will test, purify…the difference is not in what people suffer but in the way they suffer.
(Augustine, City of God. Doubleday: New York, NY, 1958, p. 46).
I really like that line – in the same fire, gold gleams and straw smokes. It is very close to what Paul says in Romans 5:3-4 – And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope.
What happens to our faith once it is tested? I’m not saying I ever want to experience suffering and I never want to invite it into my life, but the truth is that until my faith has carried me through some measure of suffering that faith remains an untested commodity. How do I know it is real faith until it has been tested in the fires of life?
It also poses this question to each of us – are we only one disaster or crushing problem away from abandoning our own faith?
3. Suffering can open our heart to others.
One journalist wrote of a trip to Bombay, India that served to confirm his atheism. As he witnessed the terrible suffering of so many people he asked why they were lacking the most basic needs of life. Where was God in that horrible suffering, he wondered?
I can’t speak for God, but I wonder if he wouldn’t say to that journalist I have provided all that is needed. There is no problem with resources, only a problem of distribution.
I find it exceedingly hypocritical for someone sitting in the lap of luxury to question why some have so little. To accuse God of not doing enough when one sits on an abundance is a great hypocrisy. When someone accuses God of not doing all he can to end evil and suffering in the world that person, I hope, is doing all he or she can to eliminate suffering and evil in the world.
C. S. Lewis writes this of suffering – God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.
(Strobel, p. 44)
You see, anyone can comment upon the suffering of the world, but how many of those people are nothing more than armchair quarterbacks, passing judgment on how God should be operating the universe while they are doing little or nothing to help?
Several years ago Time magazine featured the story of a book publishing the correspondence of Mother Theresa. Her letters revealed that she experienced a surprisingly long struggle with doubt while working with the poor of Calcutta, India.
As she relates her struggle to experience the presence of God among the terrible suffering she encountered in that city, she wrote the following – as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, — Listen and do not hear. That silence from God and the struggle of faith it triggered continued over decades, lasting the rest of her life and causing her at times to doubt the existence of heaven and even of God.
(August 24, 2007 edition of Time.)
Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Spoils Everything also authored a book critical of Mother Theresa had this to say about her doubts – She was no more exempt from the realization that religion is a human fabrication than any other person, and that her attempted cure was more and more professions of faith could only have deepened the pit that she had dug for herself. I am not aware that Christopher Hitchens ever stepped into the poverty of Calcutta to work with the poorest of the poor. While he was content to criticize Mother Theresa, she gave her life working to alleviate the sufferings of others while people like Hitchens are content to only comment on suffering.
The theologian James S. Stewart says it this way – It is the spectators, the people who are outside, looking at the tragedy, from whose ranks the skeptics come; it is not those who are actually in the arena and who know suffering from the inside. Indeed, the fact is that it is the world’s greatest sufferers who have produced the most shining examples of unconquerable faith.
(Strobel, p. 49)
To open our hearts to others then leads us to understand –
4. God enters into our suffering and is present with us.
If you are a parent, think for a moment about how you handled the hurts and disappointments of your children. Did you place a protective bubble around them? Did you save them from every hurt and every problem they faced? No, you didn’t. Why? Because we recognize that some difficulties are necessary in life to make us into the kind of people we need to be. Does that mean we create the hardship? No. Does that mean we prevent it, even when we can? Not always. But what happens to your heart when you witness your children experiencing difficulty? It breaks, doesn’t it? And what do you do for your child? You hold them; you enter into their suffering.
Consider the greatest evil of history – the crucifixion and death of God himself. Who at that moment could have foreseen the greatest evil could result in the greatest good?
C. S. Lewis, speaking of how God works in this way, wrote, There's always a card in His hand we didn't know about.
This is why, in the end, Job was satisfied, even though his questions were not answered. He was satisfied because God showed up. Job was satisfied even with all of his unanswered questions because God became present with him.
What is it that we want from people when we go through difficulty? Do we want a lot of words and explanations? No, we want someone to be with us, to put their arm around our shoulder and embrace us. When you stand in the funeral home after a loss, do you need or expect great words of wisdom from the people that greeted you? No, you were just glad to have their presence.
As I began with a story of a funeral, I’ll close with a story of another funeral. Back in the 80s I visited a funeral home to speak with a family. I was standing by the casket when a young boy about five or six years old came over and started tugging on my pant leg. He was holding a picture he had drawn with some crayons, so I stooped down to look at it. He handed me the picture and said will you put this in there (the casket) for me? That’s my grandfather and I want him to have this with him. I took the picture and said I’m very sorry about your grandfather. That little boy looked me right in the eye and asked why did he die? I didn’t want him to die. I think theological questions ought to be answered simply enough for five year olds to understand, so I told him I know you didn’t want him to die, and I know he didn’t want to be apart from you. But you won’t be apart from him forever. You will see your grandfather again, because God’s love promises this.
What is the answer to evil and suffering? The answer is not a wondrously worded theological treatise or a well-written sermon; the answer is a person, the person of Jesus. As Peter Kreeft put it, what we need is not a bunch of words, it’s the Word.
(Strobel, p. 51)
And that’s exactly what God has given us, and this, I believe, is the answer.