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Lord of my Suffering

September 6, 2010

Praise to the Lord of my suffering
God within my suffering
God beyond my suffering
God Who suffers with me

Lord of light, who meets me in the dark places.

I composed this short prayer last year while I was in the hospital. I can’t tell you exactly which time it was, since I was in and out of the hospital for almost six months, being treated for acute leukemia. The problem of evil – random, devastating evil without any clear link to a human perpetrator – is not in any way foreign to me. It is also one I think that we approach all wrong.

Huge volumes have been written on the problem of evil. I run across atheists who think that the problem of evil is the death-knell for religion quite frequently and I consider this complaint to be uniquely uninformed. After all, if this were a problem why would it not be a problem for the poor, the oppressed, and the broken? Why does it seem to come so frequently from whiny first-worlders, while the down-trodden embrace the gospel? But, rightly or wrongly, the problem remains one of the landmark issues in theology.

The problem with the problem with evil, or at least the first problem, is that the Bible does not address it. This is problematic for at least two reasons. First, it suggests that for a huge number of people the problem of evil wasn’t one that required solving. Many of us would be baffled by someone running about insisting that the most pressing issue in astronomy was why the sun doesn’t fall out of the sky and land on us, and our bafflement would not be significantly altered by our ability to answer the question. I can answer that question quite easily, and yet my first reaction would almost inevitably be, “Really? You worry about that?” We don’t have a worldview in which we find it terrifying to imagine giant balls of superheated plasma hanging over our heads at astronomical distances. If we are imaginative we can probably put ourselves into that worldview for a moment, but we don’t share it. The question is a non-issue for us and, I suggest, the problem of evil was similarly odd to the original audience of the Bible. We have no dialogues recorded in which people ask the prophets about the problem of evil. The problem isn’t entirely absent from Bible, but it’s quite possible that there exists a worldview in which the problem of evil is just as strange as the worry that the sun will fall out of the sky and squish you.

The second reason that Bible’s refusing to address the issue is a problem is that we’d like an answer. It’s not particularly useful or comforting to be told, as my paragraph above suggests, that maybe the problem is that you’re just kind of nuts to ask that. However, there is some hope here, as the Bible at least mentions the issue in several places.

The first of these is Habakkuk. I place it first because it is least useful. Habakkuk complains not about evil, per se, but about specific evils in Israel. God replies that He will punish Israel through the Babylonians. Habakkuk complains about the evil of the Babylonians. God replies that He’ll get the Babylonians, too. The book ends in poetic verse about the day of the Lord. It’s not easy to extract a philosophical answer about evil from that.

The second two long texts that mention the problem of evil are Job and Ecclesiastes. Job pretty explicitly doesn’t answer the problem. God’s response is, ultimately, “You wouldn’t get it.” Ecclesiastes (and I’ll probably draw some flack for my view of this book) also doesn’t answer the problem. Ecclesiastes appears to me to be a complex and eloquent description of the problem, but its solution looks remarkably like, “Learn to cope.” (For the record, I would also point out that Ecclesiastes does not explore any of the traditional religious ways of dealing with the problem of meaning in life, and so its ultimate failure to answer the question should not be surprising to a religious audience.) Again, neither one of these books provides an answer, at least in the way we want. We can’t extract a set of reasons to explain evil from these treatments.

There is, however, another group of discussions about the problem of evil. Ezekiel 18 is one, as are Luke 13:1-5 and John 9:1-6. All of these involve rejecting an answer to the problem of evil or a theory about evil. In Ezekiel 18 the theory appears to be that being a subject of evil acts is inheritable. God’s response is that He judges everyone on their own merits, not those of their ancestors. In Luke 13 Jesus is informed of a tragedy, and responds by telling the listeners (in part, he says several things) that neither this tragedy nor another recent one happened to punish those who suffered. John 9 is similar. The disciples ask Jesus a direct question about an answer to the problem of evil: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus rejects both choices. Ironically, these three passages are much closer to what we are looking for. They deal with large, overarching theories about why there is evil in the world and address them directly. Unfortunately, they address them only to reject them and they do not replace them with a replacement in kind.

This is not to say, however, that Ezekiel 18, Luke 13, and John 9 do not have responses to the problem of evil. In Ezekiel 18 God rejects the solution Israel has proposed and then explains what He is doing to address the evil under discussion (which is specifically the condemnation Israel supposes He assigns to those of unfortunate ancestry) . He’s judging each person individually, giving each person the chance and choice to be good or evil. In Luke 13 a theory is rejected and Jesus replaces it with a warning. Evil is coming – get out of its way. In John 9 the theory (much the same theory as in Luke 13) is rejected and Jesus replaces it with action. The question isn’t whether the man born blind inherited his condition from sinful parents or whether he earned it on his own, it’s what to do about it. The answer is clear: the works of God, which involve healing the man.

This is the problem of evil with which the Bible is actually concerned. It is not the problem of why evil exists, it is the problem of what God is doing about it. In some ways, though, these are not separable. Asking why evil exists presupposes that God is not doing enough, or should be doing more, and that if He did so evil would not exist. If God were addressing evil sufficiently already there would be no pressing need to answer the question of why evil still exists.

Part and parcel of the problem of evil is always the feeling that evil is inflicted on innocent parties. Some branches of theology answer this by claiming that no one is innocent. While this is technically true, it’s a very poor answer. We recognize that punishment should be related to the crime and arbitrary justice that hits some people and not others looks nothing like justice. In fact, what it looks like most is a dictatorial purge, where the dictator’s entire inner circle is guilty of heinous crimes but only those who have a falling out with the dictator are ever punished for them. More to the point, “innocent” can mean “uninvolved”. Aren’t we essentially all third parties thrust into a world where we are instantly entrapped by evil?

Most of the discussion of the problem of evil that I have seen attacks a God who would be more familiar to deists than Christians. For Christians the primary recipient of evil has never been a third party, but the very first. We worship a suffering Lord, a God Who, in an amazing and unique way, gave up otherness to suffer with and for us. Christians hang instruments of torture around their necks, nail them to church walls, and stick them on the top of church towers for a single, simple reason: one of the core doctrines of Christianity is that God Himself was tortured to death. What is God doing about evil? Well, He came down from heaven, walked on earth, and let us torture Him to death.

The first answer of God goes much further than this. After all, one will say, Jesus of Nazareth was one man, who died one death. When the Romans broke the Jewish rebellion of the AD 70s they crucified entire villages. When the Black Death rolled across Europe anywhere from a quarter to half the population died. When, in the twenty-first century’s nearly-cliché example of evil, Hitler came to power he killed somewhere around six million people in his campaign of systematic genocide alone. Despite this, the sum of human suffering is an abstraction. No human has ever felt a village die. No human has ever experienced the entirety of the Holocaust. Like Jesus of Nazareth one person dies one death. There is, in fact, only one sort of entity who would be able to experience the vast sum of human suffering, and that entity is God. A vast, all-encompassing, monotheistic deity could, if He so chose, empathize perfectly with every single human being ever. An incarnational God has chosen to do so.

This is the first answer of God: to suffer with us. The Lord of Light has met us in the dark places.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 6, 2010 10:24 am

    Awesome post. I have, on my mantle, a hand calligraphied quote from Flannery O’Connor (it was painted by one of FOC’s cousins, because I’m an FOC dork of the first order). It says: “Evil is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be endured.”

  2. September 7, 2010 10:09 am

    thanks for always reminding me of God’s provision even in dicey circumstances. i love you.


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