At the moment, our world is on fire with social unrest, racial injustice, and an unrelenting pandemic that’s constantly wearing us out. We’ve just reached another grim milestone of 800,000 deaths in our country—so many that we risk becoming numb to it all.
It feels like this suffering is shaking all that can be shaken, right to the core (Heb. 12:25–29). Because of the global fragility we are all collectively experiencing, I would guess I am not alone in feeling a sense of God’s absence … or, worse, in sensing the presence of an uncaring God.
But my guess would be wrong.
The latest poll from Pew Research Center surveyed over 6,000 American adults—including 1,421 evangelicals—about why they think bad things happen to good people.
The most common answer? It is what it is—life just happens, says 35 percent of folks. The next highest response, coming from 13 percent, is that suffering is God’s will. The rest of the respondents believe that evil is the result of Satan, sinful human nature, free will, karma, societal systems, or opportunities for spiritual growth.
But here’s the kicker: Of the 9 in 10 Americans who believe in God or a higher power, over 80 percent say that suffering does not make them doubt God’s existence, God’s power, or God’s love. Not even sometimes.
So much suffering in the world, and yet most Americans are not doubting God.
That should be good news, right? … Or is it?
Perhaps this survey indicates a general ignorance about the classical tension between God and evil. Or maybe it shows a swing away from popular evangelical narratives that view suffering as a form of God’s punishment or judgment toward sinners, often with reference to natural disasters.
Some of these statistics may also reflect certain theological approaches to the problem of evil, known as “theodicies,” which have trickled down from seminaries into local churches over time.
A common one in evangelical circles is the “free-will defense,” which states that evil is the result of God giving humans a free will. This runs parallel with 71 percent of US adults who agreed with the statement that suffering is primarily a consequence of people’s own actions.
Another approach, called “felix culpa” (or “happy fall”), says that God is justified for allowing evil and suffering because it paved the way for Christ to redeem the world—and that this end ultimately justified the means.
Or it could be that these recent statistics indicate a general malaise and stoic apathy toward the age-old problem of evil—a suffering that is being lived out but not consciously thought through.
Either way, the complacent conclusion that evil and suffering exist “just because” has no basis in the Christian tradition. For believers, nature is not a blind force of random chance or bad luck. Creation is very good, and suffering exists because of Eden gone wrong. To believe in evil as a basic part of nature or luck of the draw might be Gnostic, Stoic, or Taoist, but it’s not Christian.
Why, then, is the most common answer among Americans for suffering pragmatically atheist—that evil just “is what it is” and has no correlation to our belief in a good and powerful God?
Scripture is chock-full of stories where God’s people are bold enough to wrestle with him and ask the hard questions: Why are you allowing all this evil? How long, oh Lord? When will you come and set all this right?
Job of the Old Testament, Epicurus, David Hume, C. S. Lewis, and Mother Teresa—along with countless others throughout history—all wrestled with the problem of evil and suffering. And they did so in a way that forged a crucible for their faith, ultimately strengthening their belief in a God who is both strong and loving, despite the apparent evidence to the contrary.
Time and time again, we see ordinary people approaching God with raw honesty about human suffering. And God responds to them, because they reflect his own lionheart that’s hell-bent against evil and death.
God wants our protest against the evil and pain in this world. So why aren’t we giving it to him?
As recent scholarship by theologians like Eleonore Stump and Paul Moser suggests, our honest struggle with evil invites a kind of pain that yields a powerful return on our investment, which can result in an even stronger faith—one that has been tested by fire.
Instead, it seems we may have lost our nerve. Many Christians today are trading a hard-won birthright of wrestling with God for an easy meal of safe answers. And in doing so, we are setting up a facile faith that the next generation will simply turn around and “deconstruct.”
But can we really be blamed?
With so much Zoom fatigue, a rising global death count, and disheartening news media, it makes sense that we would be too tired to feel, much less invite our faith to be tested by fire.
Still, we are called to more.
To be a Christian is never to be apathetic toward evil and suffering, nor to avoid protesting God.
Instead, we are told to work out our faith in “fear and trembling,” which includes unflinching lament at all the evil and death in this world. We are meant to hold our hands open in foolish faith, to watch and wait with hopeful expectation for God to show up in surprising ways—to remind us that he is good and powerful and that he will grant us his own steadfast courage.
We are called to the daring and bold love of God in Jesus Christ, who stopped at nothing—not even death on a cross—to fight and win back the glory and goodness of God’s original creation.
To be a Christian is to join Christ in his suffering for the life of the world. He sweat blood while surrendering his own will in the garden and was honest unto his dying breath—crying out, “Why have you forsaken me?” while inviting his Father to draw near by saying “My God, my God.”
Our relationship with God is all the richer when it is allowed to pass through the threshing floor of protest and honest questions, even when those questions are painful and have no answer.
And it is here that I believe trauma survivors and therapists can teach us an important lesson on the priceless value of suffering losses in this life.
I am reminded of a recent conversation with one of my students, a trauma therapist, in a course at Richmont Graduate University called Theodicy and Trauma Counseling. I had assigned two books by C. S. Lewis, and she told me how valuable they have been in her current work with clients.
In the introduction to A Grief Observed, Lewis is described as “a man emotionally naked in his own Gethsemane” while mourning the death of his beloved wife. Yet in all that grief, Lewis encountered God in the process—by keeping his heart open to the pain of it.
Lewis describes this openness to suffering in The Problem of Pain, saying that “pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
Those like myself and Lewis who have survived personal trauma and experienced recovery have learned to embrace a measure of suffering that we could not endure in the past. In fact, that is precisely what recovery is: facing our painful past by looking it square in the face—and realizing that it is not too much for God, or our close friends and family, to bless and redeem.
Recovery and healing mean learning to suffer well by facing the problem of evil directly and honestly, so that we can be roused by the pain enough to hear the kindness of God in the midst. And in a world that is experiencing so much collective pain, the call to be Christian is to follow the trauma survivor and their therapists and stop avoiding our own suffering.
We are meant to neither explain it away nor draw a stick-figure God with easy answers but to follow the Great Survivor, Jesus Christ, into God’s renewed future. For the only path to resurrection joy is through death and sorrow. The way to the garden is through the grave.
The world is hungry for believers to once again be honest about suffering, evil, and injustice. Some of us haven’t had the luxury to do anything else—and our lives are all the richer for it.
Perhaps if more Christians learn to wrestle honestly with the problem of evil and suffering, it will help thicken the church’s witness to the world. At the very least, we might help each other along in our own journeys by following Jesus into a faith that’s worth suffering for.
Preston Hill is assistant professor of integrative theology at Richmont Graduate University, an ordinand in the Anglican Church in North America, a clinical pastoral therapist, coauthor of the forthcoming book Dawn of Sunday: The Trinity and Trauma-Safe Church (Cascade), and editor of the forthcoming book Christ and Trauma: Theology East of Eden (Pickwick).