1 The problem of evil and suffering
The problem of evil and suffering in our world is an old one and for sure certainly not an easy one to analyse and understand. As we consider this, we must acknowledge that there is a huge difference between the person who analyses this problem intellectually and the person who experiences it firsthand. The doctor perceives the problem from a different place to his or her patient who is advised that only 6 months of life remain. This calls for both sensitivity and humility – there is no easy answer to the problem of evil and suffering.
Mankind has grappled with this problem down through the ages, the Scottish philosopher of the enlightenment, David Hume cited Epicurus when he said, “Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?”
Many people reject the idea of a God because of the evil in the world. The problem is seen in two aspects: first the problem of what is referred to as moral evil, the act of flying an aeroplane into a building, murder, rape and so on. Second is the problem of natural evil. Natural evil involves earthquakes, disease and events that bring suffering and distress without human agency. Sometimes both natural and moral evil are linked. The greed of one generation that results in the loss of rainforests, may cause starvation and suffering for the next generation.
Most atheists claim that there is neither good nor evil, the world just is. As Richard Dawkins put it, “DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.” This seems both a plausible and attractive explanation for evil, but it soon runs into the sand. Were those who fly aeroplanes into the world trade tower just dancing to their DNA? Did Hitler just dance to his DNA? The atheistic explanation is undermined by the very inconsistency of its proponents when they complain that God is unjust and unfair. We are moral beings, created in the image of God, and the very presence of evil in the world offends the moral dimension of our character. Stephen Fry who places his faith in atheism. was asked, given the chance, what he would say to God, here’s what he said: “How dare you? How dare you create a world to which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain. That’s what I would say.” The problem Stephen Fry and others create for themselves is that they have no answer to the pain and suffering, they are left without hope, but at the same time they are offended by evil, the existence of which they deny.
Evil and suffering present huge problems for atheists, but the problem of evil and suffering is not an easy one for Christians either. For sure, there is some explanation in the fact that God did not create human robots – we each have free will to love God or to reject him. This is of huge importance as we discuss pain, evil and suffering. There would be absolutely no joy in attempting to love a robot! Imagine your relationship with a loved one who was merely a pre-programmed machine, with no capacity for free will and love? God took an enormous risk in creating mankind in his image, people with the ability to choose. The story of the world is one of the exercise of freewill and rejection of God’s love, it is the story of that rebellion and its consequences. This for sure helps us understand the origin of evil and partly helps us understand why there is evil in the world. Does this explanation however bring an end to our questions about evil and suffering? It seems to me that it helps, but it does not bring the matter to a close.
There’s a story in the bible of a man who suffered beyond normal expectations. His name was Job. He lost his wealth, he lost his family, he lost his health and he lost the support of his family and friends. The book of Job seems to be mainly one very long debate about suffering, a debate that seems to head towards no satisfactory conclusion. Towards the end of the book, God reveals himself to Job. He reveals his greatness and creative power in a way that Job had previously not understood.
Job’s account, seems to move the framework for the question of pain and suffering. The question is no longer why pain, why suffering why evil, but becomes about the possibility of, handing over the problem to one in whom we can have sufficient trust to bring about a solution. It seems to me that Job did not fully understand the pain and suffering he experienced, but he did discover that there is one who is of eternal power and knowledge, one in whom he could entrust his question, in the knowledge that in that person a solution is possible. As we think about this problem, perhaps with Job, we change the question, from seeking an explanation for pain, to a question of to whom we can entrust this problem. Since in God’s character we see the great creator, who took the risk of making creatures with free-will, who moreover was prepared to become part of the suffering that Adam’s rebellion brought about, perhaps we can navigate at least a temporary solution to this problem in the knowledge that there will come a day when suffering will be no more and all tears will be dried.
2 David’s pain and suffering
We’ve seen that general pain and suffering has its origins in mankind’s rebellion against God. This is our common lot, albeit unevenly distributed. I believe that there is in addition to this there is also a potential, perhaps somewhat indirect (and not necessarily consistent) association between wrong moral choice and suffering and pain.
The proponents of the so-called ‘prosperity gospel’ advocate that God wants us all to be happy, prosperous and illness free. Interestingly, God did indeed link Israel’s obedience to blessing and disobedience to cursing. This however was a specific promise to Israel and attempts to claim such promises in this era of the church have been disappointing at best and more often exceedingly harmful. The church age, seems to be characterized by anything but prosperity and easy living! As one writer put it: For the church, this interim is a time of humiliation, testing, trouble and persecution, unceasing labour, agonizing conflict and unrelenting struggle toward a goal which lies beyond this age and world! (Alva J McClain, The greatness of the kingdom). Despite all this, there does indeed some to be some association of illness and sinful practices. We need only look at the epidemic of mental illness in our society that now exalts and champions lifestyles that are associated with depression, self-harm and even suicide.
For King David, it seems that in a very specific way, God visited David with significant illness and pain as a direct consequence of his willful sin. You will recall that David had committed adultery and had covered up his crime with murder. In the words of the book of Samuel, ‘the thing David had done displeased the Lord.’
In the midst of his suffering, David penned this Psalm, it is a cry of despair and repentance and a plea for help and restoration.
3 Sin, suffering, sorrow and supplication
David recognizes that his current situation directly results from his sinful acts and moreover accepts that God’s hand of judgment is upon him: 3 Because of your wrath there is no health in my body; there is no soundness in my bones because of my sin. Whilst, to re-iterate, in our era of God’s dealings with mankind, we cannot expect a similar response to our sin, we can certainly expect a natural consequence to sin in our lives. It is one of the great tragedies of our times, that in the name of diversity our schools, government, commercial companies and professional bodies promote lifestyles that are associated with ill health and metal illness. As Christians we should take note too that purity of living brings joy. David himself prayed for the creation of a pure heart within him and asked for restoration of joy. As we’ve noted previously, when we align our living with God’s ways we experience the fruit of the Spirit in our lives, fruits that include, joy and peace.
3.2 Suffering and sorrow
David’s sin did indeed result in suffering: 6 I am bowed down and brought very low; all day long I go about mourning. 7 My back is filled with searing pain; there is no health in my body. As noted above, we must tread with care, not all illness comes as a result of willful sinful acts, but at least in David’s case, first came sin, then followed suffering. David recounts his sorrow 13 I am like the deaf, who cannot hear, like the mute, who cannot speak; 14 I have become like one who does not hear, whose mouth can offer no reply.
Interestingly, in a study focused on mental health and based on 1200 research papers and 400 reviews (Handbook of religion and health. Harold G. Koenig, Michael E. McCullough, David B. Larson 2001), the authors found that religious involvement is correlated with (amongst others) ‘well-being, happiness and life satisfaction, less anxiety, lower rates of depression and faster recovery from depression, less psychosis and fewer psychotic tendances.’ This provides at least the suggestion that better health is associated with belief in God and perhaps some of the side effects of willful sin are mitigated by those who have faith in God. Perhaps at least some of the sorrow and pain we experience in our society could be alleviated by trust in God and seeking his forgiveness.
David had sinned, he had suffered and was sorrowful, but he actively sought God’s help: 18 I confess my iniquity; I am troubled by my sin. David did not normalise or justify his sin, he confessed it for what it was. What is confession? The dictionary definition is ‘a formal statement admitting that one is guilty of a crime.’ We are quite accustomed to the idea that a crime is something to be explained away, justified and generally mitigated for. David did no such thing, he confessed his iniquity: the path to freedom lies in David’s way. Having confessed his sin, David recognized God would work in his timing, but that did not stop him asking for speed! 15 Lord, I wait for you; you will answer, Lord my God, and 22 Come quickly to help me, my Lord and my Saviour.
Sometimes, despite our impatience, God will not respond instantly to our requests, we must wait! It seems to me that God is slower at some things than others. He is slow to anger, (Psalm 103: 8), and if he is slow to anger, surely the corollary of slowness to anger is speed to forgive! He is indeed compassionate and gracious (Psalm 103:8).
As David confessed his sin before God, he seemed to discover not only that God would forgive but that he would come close. David prayed that as a result of his confession (and by implication God’s forgiveness) that God would not be far from him. This is of great significance, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, whether our suffering is associated with sin or whether we struggle with the questions of suffering and pain, knowing that God is not far from us gives us hope and optimism.