My last post was a confession that I fear chaos, I fear the brokenness of this world that seems to threaten at every term. Coupled with this is the repeated biblical cry, “How long, O Lord!” How long will you forget me? How long will the wicked prosper? How long will evil and suffering continue? How long before you will judge and avenge?
The problem of evil is a heart-breaking reality that, for many, disproves Christianity. It isn’t so much that the Christian tradition lacks explanations for the problem of evil but that, at an existential level, no answer seems good enough to justify children starving to death, planes disappearing into the watery depths, or families suffocated in a moment by a mudslide. The problem of evil troubles me deeply—but it isn’t really that I need an intellectual answer beyond those on offer. The problem of evil troubles me because, while my own life is good, I feel obligated to cry out on behalf of those suffering. It is as if, in accepting answers about a suffering God and a long journey toward a world set right, I am somehow failing in a moral duty to empathize with others. It is as if, in accepting answers about the problem of evil, I am re-inscribing appalling doctrines telling the poor, the sick, and the starving to disregard their suffering because all will be well in heaven.
Over Christmas, I shared this sense of impropriety around the problem of evil with my quasi-brother, Josué. Josué grew up in Burkina Faso and his father, mother, and sister still live in Ouagadougou. He laughed in his generous way and turned the situation completely around for me. “No, Jessica,” he said. “The arrogance isn’t that you accept answers about suffering when you aren’t suffering. It’s that, in insisting that those answers aren’t good enough you belittle the intellects and the experiences of those who find comfort in God and his mercy in the face of suffering. By continuing to focus on their suffering rather than their God, you take away their faith. And that is often the only thing they have left.”
Needless to say, I had never viewed my middle-class, American, academic struggles with the problem of evil as effectively robbing people of their hope and their God. But Josué is right. When actually faced with tragedy, the answer to the problem of evil isn’t a theological narrative understood abstractly but the real experience of God’s presence and mercy amid chaos. And it is those who suffer who often testify, from the eye of the storm, to God’s very present help in a time of need. They proclaim his mercy even in tragedy and look forward to the final restoration of the world, when the dead will be raised up bodily and all things shall be made new. Accepting answers to the problem of evil and suffering is not an act of intellectual arrogance but of humility because it requires us to take seriously the stories of others. It doesn’t mean we stop crying out, “how long.” Instead, we cry out in the sure and certain hope that God’s grace—which has proven sufficient time and again—will continue to be sufficient, his strength will be made perfect, even amid the chaos.