June 4th, 2012 by Sarah Jackson
On April 14th I watched my little brother, Aaron, marry his college sweetheart.
I loved watching him laugh when he said “I do” too early while repeating his vows.
I loved watching his bride beam when they were pronounced man and wife.
And I loved watching close friends and family interact over dinner at the reception celebration.
As I observed these people who have traversed the years with my family I thought about their life stories. And as I reflected on the ways our stories have intersected, I was struck that each of their stories were smeared with the bloody brushstrokes of suffering.
There was the mother whose son had estranged himself from her, the man whose father was murdered when he was just a boy, and the woman whose husband left her for another man.
I have a friend named Matt who hears stories like these and wants to know how an all-powerful and perfectly good God could permit such horrible evils. According to Matt, the evil in the world is proof that God doesn’t exist. Matt’s argument, called the problem of evil by philosophers, goes something like this:
1. There are horrible evils in the world that an all-powerful and perfectly good God would have no justifying reason to permit.
2. An all-powerful and perfectly good God wouldn’t permit evil without a justifying reason to permit it.
3. So, God does not exist.
Whenever friends like Matt want to discuss the problem of evil I have a couple of responses.
First, I explain that without God we can’t say evil is evil, or that it’s horrible. The fact that almost everyone everywhere thinks molesting children is objectively wrong is indicative of the existence of some standard of good and evil outside of us—a standard, I argue, that can only be explained by the existence of God. Without this standard our feeling that killing Jews or raping women is wrong is nothing more than a feeling of unpleasantness. Thus, without God the problem of evil becomes instead a problem of clashing personal preferences and ideals.
I also argue that God did have a justifying reason to create the world the way he did. God’s perfect love and goodness compelled him to bestow upon us the greatest dignity he could when he created us: he gave us free will.
Our ability to choose freely allows us to be relational—to love God and others genuinely because love, by nature, cannot be forced. It is our free will that opens us up to, what even many atheists will agree is, the best experience in the world—mutually loving relationships.
But our free will also gave us the choice to reject God, the source of all life and goodness. Humanity’s rejection of God in the Garden of Eden infected the world with death and badness. The problem of evil is not God’s fault; we are to blame.
My responses often give my friends something to think about, but they are never completely satisfying.
I think this is because when we hurt deeply we’re not shaking our fists at our friends, demanding they explain how God can be good and allow such pain.
We’re shaking our fists at God.
We want him to respond. He is, after all, the one who created this place.
The thing that sets Christianity apart from any other faith is that God did respond to our blaming, questioning, and fist-shaking.
The cross of Christ is God’s response to the problem of evil. On the cross, Jesus confronted suffering and death in the most intimate way possible: he experienced cosmically what our sin necessitated—what we deserved—far beyond the physical.
The biblical picture of God on the cross yelling to heaven “Why?!” assures us God isn’t watching us suffer from a distance, shaking his head and clicking his tongue at us when we question him about our pain. He has experienced its devastation beyond what we have ever experienced, and identifies with us in our suffering.
The cross also assures us God is fighting for us, even as we suffer. Fighting to rescue us from darkness, to resurrect us from death, and to redeem us from slavery to sin. Fighting to purify, beautify and glorify us, so that suffering will not have the last word in our lives.
And this why I can look around a room full of stories of suffering, and see eyes full of light and laughter instead of defeat and despair, and friends dancing into the night, their souls unfettered.
Because our stories, still smeared with the bloody brushstrokes of suffering, have been grafted into God’s sweeping story of redemption, and in this story he uses blood to make broken lives new.