Jan 30, 2022
Isaiah 24:1-6

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Preface: Whom Do I Speak to Today?

I need to begin this morning by stating something clearly and categorically at the outset: though this message has been laid on my heart, it will likely feel somewhat more clinical than compassionate, more philosophical than empathetic. And while that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth sharing, it very much means that some of us are currently so thoroughly lost in a wilderness of hurt and confusion that any attempt to understand or, worse yet, explain that hurt and confusion will only seem a slap in the face, as Job expressed to his friends: “I have heard many things like these before. What miserable comforters are you all!”

So my prayer is this: that, to quote Jesus, whoever has ears might hear what I believe the Lord has laid on my heart. But I don’t imply that those who do not have ears right now are spiritually deaf or hard of heart. The ones who may not have ears right now are those so caught up in the storm that the last thing they want is a meteorologist telling them why it’s raining. Those folks need a warm fire and a change of clothes. Instead, I hope to speak to those who, having survived tragedy and heartbreak, are still left groping in the dark for a reason they were tasked with enduring it.

What Is the Question?

At a very young age I learned the bit of Bible trivia so familiar to many of us raised in Sunday school or AWANA: that the shortest verse in the Bible is “Jesus wept.” I now submit to you my candidate for shortest prayer: “Why, God?” A clarification: the type of “Why, God” of which I speak is not the fable-weaving Why of just-so stories that early man wove to explain why tigers have stripes or why the moon waxes and wanes. 

No, I’m speaking of the shaken-to-my-foundations-long-dark-night-of-the-soul Why that we must all ask at least once in our lives, or—for some people, sometimes—once a week, once a day, or even several times a day. We ask it at the bedside of the accident victim or the terminally ill. Some folks ask it behind the wheel of a car on the way to or from work, eyes so full of tears that the taillights ahead seem to melt and swim together. For some, the question is the last thing to leave their lips as they drift off to sleep, musing on what a relief it might be if they just didn’t wake up again.

This “Why, God?” is the question we’ve been asking as long as we’ve been human, and it comprises such a fundamental part of our wrestling with God that it’s earned its own distinct, named branch of philosophy and theology called theodicy. Though the question is as old as we are, the term is relatively new, coined by German philosopher Gottfried Leibnitz in the early 1700s. Please permit this English teacher a moment of word-nerdity in deference to Wikipedia: “The word theodicy derives from the Greek words Θεός Τheos and δίκη dikē. Theos is translated "God" and dikē can be translated as either "trial" or "judgment." Thus, theodicy literally means "justifying God." In layman’s terms, it is the branch of thought that sets out to answer why a benevolent God permits evil. For this reason, theodicy is the field of philosophy corresponding to what is called the problem of evil.

A Distinction of Terms

Here we need to make a necessary distinction between the two kinds of evil normally addressed in the discussion of the problem of evil and theodicy: a) moral evil and b) natural evil.

Moral evil we will define as any negative event caused by human activity, such as murder, rape, genocide, etc. Natural evil can encompass quite a few things, but the term broadly refers to negative events occurring outside the scope of human agency: natural disasters, disease, and even animal suffering.

Moral Evil

For the Christian, I believe that moral evil poses less of a challenge in the abstract. By “in the abstract,” I mean as we wrestle with these questions from an emotional distance. To be sure, were a loved one of mine to be murdered, certainly the question of moral evil would, for me, be moved from the abstract to the urgent, and perhaps reach the status of crisis of faith.

The reason that moral evil tends to be less of a stumbling block for those seeking to square their idea of a loving god with the existence of pain is because most of us believe in, to one degree or another, the concept of free will. Now I’m not about to open another whole can of worms by discussing the arguments for free will versus predestination (the theology term) or what we might instead call determinism (the psychology term). I think that most of us—if not entirely intellectually, then at least practically—believe that humans have the ability to make a choice in a given scenario: patty melt, or All-Star Breakfast; mow the lawn, or watch the game; have another ill-advised drink, or go home; lie on the horn, or pop three rounds out of my driver-side window. You get the idea. Granted, when we really start to mull over any situation, great or small, we can begin to tease out other factors that might—nay, probably—come to bear on a person’s choice: genetic predisposition, early formative experience, a history of trauma, etc. 

But when it really comes down to it, most of us believe that the person deciding is, to some logical extent, a moral agent, reasonably free, within some of the possible constraints just mentioned, to make his or her own decision. It is this belief that permits most of us to say that God is himself not the author of evil, but rather that He created beings who have the capacity to choose good or evil. We might think to ourselves, “Okay, I may be in a very dark place, but I can conceptualize God allowing pain into my life, especially if that pain comes at the hands of someone choosing it. I mean, we’re not robots. At least I don’t believe that we’re mere puppets on strings. So I guess some people choose to do heinous, condemnable things.” Granted, I’ve sanitized this internal monologue, removing the very valid despondency and tears that accompany these tragedies, but I wanted to demonstrate one argument used to counter the question of moral evil.

Natural Evil

For most of us who struggle with these issues, though, the concept of what is called natural evil more often proves the greater challenge to faith. We value our own free will and therefore tend to wrestle less with evils originating in the will of others. 

Yet fires and floods, poxes and plane crashes have no moral agency. There is a reason that insurance policies often refer to such events as “Acts of God.” Here then is a valid and difficult question: 

Could not an omnipotent god, particularly the Christian God, whom we view as benevolent, keep His creatures from experiencing natural disasters and other such tragedies? Since they clearly occur, can we then still view Him as good?

Again: it’s a fair question, and a thorny one. And I don’t purport to stand here and offer glib, easy answers. To be sure, the problem of evil, particularly natural evil, is a rock on which the faith of many has been broken to pieces. 

God forbid it break yours or mine. 

I may adopt an academic tone up here, but I take these questions very seriously. I don’t love contemplating these things, but even from an early age I found myself asking hard questions, and through the years I have found that just trying to bury them makes for some unhealthy soil in the heart. For that reason, I try to heed the Apostle Paul’s words when he tells his readers to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” or, in the translation I most commonly read, “with awe and reverence.” So let us seek to wrestle with this question, as Jacob wrestled with the Angel of the Lord, in a spirit of awe and reverence.

Why Any Pain at All?

Before we begin combing through responses as to why God might permit natural evil, why not go for broke and ask, as many skeptics do, why God should permit any pain whatsoever? If the Creator delights in His creation, then why not keep us, well, delighted? While listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Reasonable Faith, founded and hosted by Christian philosopher William Lane Craig, I encountered a segment wherein a listener writes Dr. Craig with a question and then responds to it himself in an incredibly insightful way. I was intrigued, and I’d like to share it with you.

[AUDIO SEGMENT | 3 min. 30 sec.]

Isn’t that something? In all my wrangling with this issue, I’d never have thought to ask this. But Malcolm’s take makes sense in some fundamental way. It’s almost as though pain is somehow necessary. Listen again to this bit from the end of Dr. Craig’s response: “It would be very difficult for the atheist to prove that if a loving God exists that he would always ensure that his creatures are happy. That would be to treat the creatures not as serious moral agents but as spoiled immature brats.” Craig at one point mentions Richard Swinburne, professor of philosophy at Oxford and a noted Christian apologist. On the same topic, one thinker paraphrases Swinburne thus: “Without significant exercise of free will, we would live like God's pets, inhabiting a toy world in which God would reserve to himself all the important decisions.” For those of you old enough to remember, it brings to my mind the listless, vapid—not to mention creepy—Eloi of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, who “live a banal life of ease . . . with all their needs and desires perfectly fulfilled.”

Okay. So where does this put us? Moral evil: hideous, tragic, even debilitating. Natural evil: we can’t conceive of a life with no pain, and we have trouble avoiding a logical slippery slope where we ultimately would demand that God spare us even minor inconvenience! So if pain seems to be an essential part of our human existence, then how? Why?

Possible Responses to the Problem of Natural Evil

Original Sin

When faced with the question of fires and floods, storms and earthquakes, many Christians might point to the doctrine of Original Sin to find an answer. Man’s fall, they might say, perverted and twisted God’s perfect creation. Actually, there is biblical precedent for the earth demonstrating the effects of sin. The prophet Isaiah says: 

4 The earth dries up and withers,

    the world languishes and withers,

    the heavens languish with the earth.

5 The earth is defiled by its people;

    they have disobeyed the laws,

violated the statutes

    and broken the everlasting covenant.

6 Therefore a curse consumes the earth;

    its people must bear their guilt.

I want to be careful to point out that these verses do not appear to refer directly to the Fall; however, as I said, they do imply the sin of man negatively impacting the natural world.

Proponents of this idea should also consider Paul’s words in his letter to the church in Rome:

9 For the creation eagerly waits for the revelation of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility—not willingly but because of God who subjected it—in hope 21 that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers together until now.

These verses would seem to indicate that, when man sinned, God subjected the earth to “futility.” That is a hazy term. Does the meaning of this futility account for natural disasters? I struggle to believe this perspective, for I cannot conceptualize the creation of the heavens and the earth without imagining gouts of lava and ash, primeval seas roiling with plated beasts, and the inexorable grinding and folding of tectonic plates. These phenomena seem to be the very mechanics of creation, not merely the consequences of trespass. So without dismissing this idea outright as a possible justification for the pain we experience as a result of natural evil, perhaps we can continue to dig for other explanations.


A response to the problem of evil that I find intriguing and quite persuasive is the idea of soul-making. We can trace this branch of theodicy all the way back to the second century church father Irenaeus. In the twentieth century, author C.S. Lewis took up this line of reasoning in his book The Problem of Pain. John Hick, a later contemporary of Lewis, wrote extensively on the subject. I will once again rely on my very thorough perusal of Wikipedia and the internet at large to outline the basics of Irenaeus’ soul-making theodicy. In sum, it posits that:

God permitted evil to become a part of His creation to set the stage for the moral growth of man. Part of the process is God’s apparent hiddenness: for him to directly intervene would negate the opportunity for the exercise of faith and free will. The struggles humans encounter help to “grow” their souls, moving them beyond base instinct and transforming them into children of God. Our ultimate union with God in the new heaven and new earth will be free of struggle and evil, as we will then be complete.

This view has its detractors, as they all do. Yet it makes quite a bit of sense to me. 

Just this past week I met Nick for dinner. We were discussing Zach’s affliction, our church’s situation, the whole tangled mess. We each wound up coming back to the losses we faced earlier this year: my losing my mother in June, and his losing his grandfather in September. We began to reflect on how those tragedies prepared us, in some way, emotionally and spiritually for this current storm. I told him that I felt like this sort of demonstrated this idea of soul-making. 

Now that natural skeptic in me counters this, saying, “No, no, that’s circular reasoning! You can’t justify the necessity of tragedy merely by saying it prepares you for more tragedy!” But then I go back to Malcolm and his letter to Dr. Craig: if I demand a life free of tragedy, then why not bar disappointment as well? And while I eliminate disappointment, let me go ahead and throw out inconvenience while we’re at it—it is, after all, so very inconvenient!”

Maybe, just maybe, our Lord allows us to experience these wrenching events to knead and mold our hearts into something that more closely approximates flesh. And once having a heart of flesh, by the grace of God, perhaps we may then be guided to a heart of compassion, a heart of empathy, a heart for others, and finally, a heart like His. If this sounds a bit too naive, a bit too optimistic, then we must take up our quarrel with Paul, who was inspired to say to those hurting, 

We also rejoice in sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance, character, and character, hope. 5 And hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.

Purposes Beyond Our Knowledge

I can’t remember the first time I heard the term butterfly effect. It may have been around the time that the movie of the same title came out in the early 2000s. I don’t know. But I first paid attention to the term a few months ago when it was discussed in a podcast I was listening to. Again, this is from Dr. Craig:

One of the most recently developing fields of contemporary science is called “chaos theory.” There are certain macroscopic systems like weather systems or insect populations which are radically unstable. They are susceptible to the tiniest perturbation; the tiniest fluctuation will upset the system so that it will go off in an entirely unpredictable direction. These systems are said, therefore, to be chaotic in that sense. For example, a butterfly fluttering its wings on a twig in the jungle in West Africa can set in motion forces that will eventually issue in a hurricane over the Atlantic Ocean. Yet nobody looking at that little butterfly palpitating on that twig could even in principle predict such an outcome because weather systems are chaotic in that sense. In exactly the same way, the occurrence of a certain evil in our lives – say, the brutal murder and rape of an innocent girl, or your child’s dying of leukemia, or even your falling down the stairs and breaking your leg – could send a kind of ripple effect through history so that God’s morally sufficient reason for permitting that may not emerge until centuries later and maybe in another country so that you would have no idea of what God’s morally sufficient reason would be for permitting it.

Years ago, during an intense stretch of spiritual searching, I bought a book with a title I disliked: The Insanity of God. I didn’t worry, as some complained, that the title bordered on the heretical; I just thought it sounded cheesy. Written by a missionary under the pseudonym Nik Ripken, it is an account of one pastor’s crisis of faith and his ensuing work in parts of the world where Christ’s church is experiencing intense persecution. The pastor’s and his family’s labor in these very dangerous places necessitated the use of a pen name. If I may, I’d like to read a somewhat lengthy excerpt to you. I’ll summarize where I can, but I’ve kept quite a bit because I find it both moving and relevant. At this phase in his journey Ripken is traveling from country to country gathering the firsthand accounts of persecuted believers. This is the “research” to which he refers. Let’s jump in.


Whew. That was a long read, wasn’t it? I really have no idea how many unwritten rules of effective preaching I’m breaking up here.

So, I wanted to share that whole bit for two reasons. 

One: when I first read it, years ago, in my spiritual desert, it gave me so much encouragement. Kevin Spacey’s Verbal from the film The Usual Suspects tells us that “the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” Many of us who claim to be believers actually live as functional atheists because we allow ourselves to be so caught up in the temporal that we remain blind to the workings of the eternal and supernatural. This story, from a man who’s given me no reason to disbelieve him, is like a bucket of ice water thrown on my spirit. To think that God still moves in this way! I’m gobsmacked. What movements of the Almighty have I, a sleepwalker, failed to see?

The second reason I wanted to share the whole thing is because there are some key bits buried early in the excerpt that are easy to forget by the time you reach the finale. I’d like to highlight these seemingly offhand statements from Ripken’s account, keeping in mind what I shared beforehand regarding the butterfly effect:

  • “I received a phone call informing me that all eighteen pastors that I had lined up for interviews there had been arrested and were currently in jail.”

  • Another “phone call informed me that some of the pastors who were planning to talk with me had been in an automobile accident. Several others were sick in the hospital, and several others were under tight surveillance.”

Hmm. Ripken’s story is about the supernatural working of God to arrange his meeting with a handful of believers in dire need of direction. Right? We get to see that satisfying payoff from a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet. 

But what does the same story look like from the perspective of the wives, children, and parents of those pastors beaten and rotting in jail, hooked up to machines in the ICU, or being abducted and bundled into unmarked vans? They get the ground-level view, and that’s almost no view at all; that’s confusion, unanswerable questions, darkness, tears, long nights, sackcloth, and ashes. If I were in that situation, and that were my wife or child in that bed, and some well-meaning friend tried to say, “God works in mysterious ways,” I’d have to try really hard not to make them eat their teeth. You?

But that is what this account tells us, isn’t it? That God works in mysterious ways? I’m pretty sure that’s the not-so-plain plain reading of Ripken’s account here: that the Creator needed a certain one of His people in an appointed place at an appointed time, and to accomplish this He permitted some apparently very, very ugly things happen to others of His fold who had no other part to play. I don’t like it. Not a bit. But it isn’t up to me.

Want to know the kicker? The incident that drove Ripken into crisis and eventually to the churches in Asia was the death of his son. They were serving in Nairobi when his sixteen-year-old boy died of an asthma attack. Asthma. On Easter.

We see stories like this one strewn across the constellation of Scripture, where ostensibly horrible things happen for reasons unbeknownst to those involved: Job, John the Baptizer, Jairus’ daughter, Lazarus, Eutychus of Troas, Jesus Himself. In some of these cases, we are told why. In others, we are not.

Christ, arriving in Jerusalem in preparation for His death, had some very hard words for a group of his disciples:

24 I tell you the solemn truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains by itself alone. But if it dies, it produces much grain. 25 The one who loves his life destroys it, and the one who hates his life in this world guards it for eternal life.

Friends, let me be honest: I don’t want to be that kernel of wheat. I don’t want Bethany to be that kernel; my sweet Tallulah; my little Judah. My friend Zach. There’s no amount of Christianese or enough Sunday smiles to sand down the rough corners of that statement or the weight of emotion behind it.

So What Do We Do?

I told you at the start that what I wasn’t going to do was stand up here and offer glib answers and platitudes. And I doubt I’ve experienced enough tragedy of my own to even pretend to have advice; I imagine that a truckload of philosophy wouldn’t outweigh a handful of pain. But I’ll still offer my thoughts.

First, please allow yourself these questions. I still struggle with this; I criticize it in myself as a lack of faith. If you are burdened with tragedy, don’t add to that burden by being ashamed to look into the darkness. Even our Lord, on the night before his murder, asked the Father to take that burden from him. And then in dying, He questioned: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I think if Jesus is allowed to question, we are too.

Second: friends, there is so much we don’t know. Every argument of theodicy that I’ve shared today has an entire reading list of its supporters and its detractors. And none of them know. I’ve shared with my wife many times how tortured I was when I was little, hearing my pastor ask from the pulpit, “Do you know, that you know, that you know?” Unh-unh. Nope. Nyet. That’s a lot to ask of a human, particularly a little one. Hamlet reminds his friend, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” C.S. Lewis writes, “The curtain has been rent at one point, and at one point only, to reveal our immediate practical necessities and not to satisfy our intellectual curiosity.” We want answers. We want to know. In my reading I encountered the words of one pastor, Dan Hans, who lost his three-year-old little girl. He imagined himself a prosecutor, cross-examining God on the witness stand in the matter of his baby girl’s death. He says, “I don’t understand [it]. And God replies,

Nor will you fully understand. . . . Your mind demands explanations and answers. Yet the greater need is of the heart. You need meaning in tragedy more than understanding of tragedy. You need love to fill the void. You need hope in a painfully depriving world. You ask my reasons. They are beyond you. Instead, I give you something useful. . . . I give you myself. I am at the center of all life. I can bring meaning to the most perplexing mysteries. I ask of you but one thing, that you trust me. No matter how confusing and painful . . . trust me. I could have given answers to your questions; but answers would not have made any difference. You do not need my answers. You need me.

That’s a hard bit. It’s hard for me because I won't know if I have that kind of faith until I get to the point that it’s required of me. Faith is so mysterious. In so many places, Scripture tells us that it’s a gift; then, in others, we are commanded to “have” it. 

Permit me to be the English teacher one last time and quote Flannery O’Connor, from a letter to a Christian college student struggling in his faith. She wrote:

Where you have absolute solutions, however, you have no need of faith.  Faith is what you have in the absence of knowledge. . . . You can't fit the Almighty into your intellectual categories. . . . If you want your faith, you have to work for it. It is a gift, but for very few is it a gift given without any demand for equal time devoted to its cultivation. . . . Even in the life of a Christian, faith rises and falls like the tides of an invisible sea.  It's there, even when he can't see it or feel it, if he wants it to be there.

Toward the beginning of this message, I posited that humanity’s shortest prayer was “Why, God?” Perhaps there is one even shorter: “Please.” Please save my child. Please heal my spouse. Please lead me through this trackless wilderness. Please give me faith.

By the stream of Jabbok, Jacob wrestled through the night with the angel of God. Limping and bruised, he left the next morning having named that place Peniel, meaning “the face of God.” May I take that to heart: that where I most wrestle with my Lord, it is there that I am most likely to see Him face to face.


Notes and Resources for Further Reading*

Brand, Paul and Philip Yancey. The Gift of Pain. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993.

Craig, William Lane. “Q&A on Meaning, Certainty, and the Problem of Pain.” Reasonable Faith, 03 May 2021, https://www.reasonablefaith.org/media/reasonable-faith-podcast/qa-on-meaning-certainty-and-the-problem-of-pain.

Craig, William Lane. “The Problem of Evil (Part 2).” Reasonable Faith, 09 December 2007, https://www.reasonablefaith.org/podcasts/defenders-podcast-series-1/s1-the-problem-of-evil/the-problem-of-evil-part-2.

Hans, Daniel T. God On the Witness Stand: Questions Christians Ask In Personal Tragedy. Baker Publishing Group, 1989.

Lewis, C S. The Problem of Pain. New York: Macmillan, 1962.

Ripken, Nik and Gregg Lewis. The Insanity of God: A True Story of Faith Resurrected. Nashville, B&H Publishing Group, 2013.

Stump, Eleonore. “The Problem of Evil.” Faith and Philosophy: Journal of the Society of Christian Philosophers, vol. 2, no. 4, 1985, pp. 392-423, https://place.asburyseminary.edu/faithandphilosophy/vol2/iss4/5/. Accessed 17 January 2022.

Stump, Eleonore. Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering. N.Y. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

*Please note: some of these I have read, and some not. Take what is useful and edifying; leave what is not.