The problem of suffering and evil
Exposure to too much COVID-19 stuff can induce compassion fatigue. Too many people dying, unevenly distributed here in the UK in terms of class and ethnicity. And too many deaths among people working in the NHS. The stories raise once again the age-long question of how we square our belief in a God who is all loving and all powerful with the existence around us of so much pain and suffering. The classic formulation of the problem is by the philosopher David Hume: “Is God willing to prevent evil but not able ? … Is he able but not willing ? … Is he both able and willing ?” This is the argument against God from evil. And for many people it is a compelling argument.
So, I’ve been using part of this locked-down period to look again at Tim Keller’s 2013 book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. Keller is a New York pastor and church planter, who moved to Manhattan two decades ago to found Redeemer Presbyterian Church. [I’d like to say that I make a point of hearing him preach whenever we are in New York. But the truth is that I’ve only once been in New York once on a Sunday, and we were fortunate enough to hear him preach at Redeemer Upper West Side, not far from our hotel. He was very good. He spoke about the importance of reconciliation and forgiveness, in a practical and challenging way.] Tim Keller has written a number of books, writing as a practising pastor rather than as a theologian, and I think he has recently stood down from church leadership to concentrate on training pastors and on the City to City programme.
Keller insists on the reality of unavoidable suffering. In ministry he found that pain and suffering were the main reason for people to turn away from God. He points us to CS Lewis: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain.” Peter Berger says all peoples long to “bestow meaning on the experience of suffering and evil”. Every religion and every society must provide a discourse through which people can make sense of suffering. But modern secular culture provides no such tools. In our contemporary secular culture the meaning of life is to be happy; and suffering has no meaningful part. Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Susan Jacoby claim that a secular view of life eliminates the ‘problem of evil’, and frees people to concentrate on making the world a better place. But Keller demonstrates that in the face of tragedy our society turns instinctively to God and to faith. Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist who survived the Nazi death camps, observed that many secular people turned to religion in the camps. And he adds: “when we have no meaning beyond personal happiness, suffering can lead very swiftly to suicide”
Many objections to God’s existence are not philosophical, but visceral. We don’t want to believe in a God – who allows such dreadful things to happen. We object to God because of things that offend against our strong moral and ethical instincts. But where do these instincts come from ? CS Lewis is the most famous example of what Keller calls ‘the boomerang effect’. “He came to realise that evil and suffering were a bigger problem for him as an atheist than as a believer in God.” Similarly, Andrea Palpant Dilley wrote in her 2012 book, Faith and Other Flat Tyres: Searching for God on the Rough Road of Doubt: “I left the church in part because I was mad at God about human suffering and injustice … And I came back to church because of the same struggle … To talk about justice, you have to talk about objective morality; and to talk about objective morality, you have to talk about God.”
In the second part of his book Keller embarks on a long survey of what the Bible teaches us about suffering. He points us to some key aspects of Christian teaching: the doctrine of creation and the fall; our expectation of final judgement and renewal; and, crucially, the incarnation. Peter Berger comments: the essential Christian solution is that “the incarnate God is a God who suffers”. Keller is at pains to emphasise that, while Genesis 1-3 teaches us that suffering is the result of sin, the original sin of turning away from God; individual suffering is not the result of a particular sin. Bad people do not have worse lives than good people. Which brings us back again to Job, a good and upright man who suffered grievously. Many people have a desire to believe that ‘people deserve what they get and get what they deserve’. But the Bible totally rejects this view. Paradoxically we believe that God is sovereign, but that he exercises his sovereignty in such a way that human beings are responsible for their own actions and for the consequences of those actions. Don Carson comments: “It must be the case that God stands behind good and evil in different ways, that is, he stands behind … them asymmetrically”.
Keller is critical of many churches today who teach that God will make you happy, healthy, and prosperous. Contemporary secular culture is resistant to the idea that suffering can be useful. But Keller enlists contemporary psychologists Jonathan Haidt and James Davies who have evidence to show that suffering produces character, endurance and hope. Which is something that the Bible assumes. Where many therapists today encourage us to meet problems by turning away [and concentrating on e.g. popcorn and pina colada], Haidt and Davies both encourage us to confront suffering by walking steadily through the experience. The Bible teaches us that God uses suffering to build us up: to humble us and remove excessive pride; to change our relation to the good things in our lives [that is, to change our priorities]; and, thirdly, to strengthen our relationship with God. Again we hear that dictum from CS Lewis: ‘God whispers to us in prosperity, but he shouts to us in adversity’. Suffering encourages us to pray. And Keller insists that the best preparation for suffering is a rich prayer life.
There is of course a gap between the theory and the practice. John Feinberg [now a distinguished Professor of Theology] was a theological student who had written his thesis on the book of Job. But when his wife developed Huntington’s Chorea he wrote: “I had all these intellectual answers, but none of them made any difference as to how I felt.” Don Carson writes how Christians may have some theoretical idea of suffering, but when something jolts them to the core, it is not that those beliefs are irrelevant, but “the Christian must now learn how to use them”.
Practical steps for facing affliction
In the third part of the book, Keller provides some practical steps for facing affliction. We are all aware of [and sometimes sceptical about] the American fondness for Self-Help manuals. And in fairness Keller is anxious to underline that this is not that kind of book. I don’t want to explore this part of the book here.These are not discrete steps to be followed in the prescribed order. They are more some practical suggestions as to how we walk with God in our lives, particularly in the difficult times. Some suggestions as to how we try to orient ourselves so that suffering changes us for the better rather than the worse.
Reading this book reminds me that thirty-plus years ago, as a student at Wycliffe Hall, I was attached for a year to Michael Sobell House, a hospice attached to the Churchill Hospital in Oxford. It was an instructive time for me, as I am always a bit scared of hospitals and blood [especially my own]. During my time at Sobell House I met Simon, a man of 53, who was dying of Motor Neurone Disease. He was a photographer, not a Christian, with his mental faculties all intact. But his body was giving up on him; and he got severe burns on his chest when lighted cigarettes fell from his mouth. He was anxious to engage in conversation with me about my faith. At the same time I was writing an Old Testament essay: ‘When God answers Job out of the whirlwind, is his answer satisfactory ?’ Sadly Simon died before we had our promised conversation. But at the time I was aware that it might be difficult to find an answer that would satisfy Simon.
As deaths from COVID-19 in the UK push above 27,000, and as many commentators move towards discussion of the easing of the lock-down and start allocating blame for the political mishandling of the pandemic, I sense the absence of Christian voices in the public arena. Local church congregations have been doing great things with zoomed services and delegated pastoral care, but there seems to have been no public expression of faith. Nor of lament.
I’m not wanting Christians to have neat explanations for what is happening. Job’s three friends make long speeches in which they explain [justify] what had happened to him. Job knows that they are wrong; but he refuses to curse God and reject him as unjust. And when God does appear, he tells Job’s friends that their legalistic, self-justifying, retributive theology is simply wrong.
Pastoral care can be better expressed through sympathetic silence than by theological explanations. Something that I was pleased to learn.
Close to the end of his book, Keller says this is the most important thing: that the Bible tells us that God is “near to the broken-hearted” [Psalm 34:18]. God’s silence about Job’s sin is a wonderful declaration of love. Francis Anderson says: “This is the final answer to Job, and to all the Jobs of humanity. As an innocent sufferer, Job is the companion of God”. As Simon Ponsonby told the ICS [Intercontinental Church Society] Conference last week, our primary task at this time is to know the love of God. And to share our knowledge and experience of that love with those around us.