The Emotional Problem with Evil

The emotional problem of pain and suffering is a real aspect of human existence. Apologetic answers to the problem of evil in the world are not enough to assuage the concerns of people experiencing the disastrous side-effects of wickedness. It is necessary to view these issues through a pastoral lens when dealing with individuals struggling with theodicy in their life. This essay lines out several biblical perspectives of human suffering and God’s purpose for said suffering in the world.

To begin with, a Christian must have the correct understanding of what faith is, biblically. “Faith (πίστις, pistis). Reliance upon and trust in God.”[1] Faith is not a belief is something that cannot be proven, which is the standard definition of faith. To secularists, faith is hoping for something that might not happen or exist. This is the opposite of what biblical ought to be. “The centrality of faith in Christianity reflects the biblical significance of faith.”[2] That faith is rooted in trust in God’s divine sovereignty.

One of the best definitions of faith can be found in the book of Hebrews; “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 ESV)[3]. Most people view faith as from a western custom where faith is a belief in something uncertain or unknown. This is not the biblical view of faith. R. C. Sproul writes: “When the Bible speaks of hope, it is not referring to a desire for a future outcome that is uncertain, but rather a desire for a future outcome that is absolutely sure.”[4] The Christian faith is one of complete trust in God that He is capable and able to carry the believer through difficult situations that are wrought with pain and suffering. This is what Paul meant when he wrote: “for we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). Without a proper understanding of biblical faith, the emotional problem of evil falls apart.

One of the most difficult concepts of theodicy is the belief that God is in complete control while evil thrives. The Bible is completely clear about God’s divine dominion, He is in complete control of all things and at all times: Colossians 1:16-17; Isaiah 45:7-9; Proverbs 16:33; Ephesians 1:4; Acts 4:27-28; etc. God is sovereign in all instances and knows what is going to happen in all circumstances. Therefore, Christians are exhorted to put their trust in Him.  

This means God ordains evil in the world. He is not the creator of evil, but he does allow evil to persist. This is the overriding theme of the entire book of Job. Likewise in Genesis, Joseph speaks to this very motif; “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20). This sentiment is echoed by Paul in the book of Romans: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). Pain and suffering are not just a consequence of sin but can be used by God to execute His will in your life. God allows certain pain and suffering in this lifetime and it is incumbent upon the believer to seek Christ to see where or how God’s glory can be magnified in such anguish.

The conclusion that Christians should draw from theodicy in the world is that God has a divine purpose for the problem of evil in the world. No greater example does that sentiment shine than Christ on the cross. Jesus Christ was the perfect person (1 Peter 2:22) yet he underwent great pain and suffering for a direct purpose. If there ever was a person who did not deserve any pain or suffering it was Jesus of Nazareth, yet he suffered all the same. His death was at the hands of unspeakable evil, but that passion had a great purpose for humanity. This is the way God works His will and glory through human suffering by divine providence. “We occupy a tiny slice of time, a mere vapor, from a radically limited perspective located on a speck of a speck, relative to a massive universe of events through which God is working to accomplish His plans and purposes.”[5]

Christians find purpose in suffering by reading the word of God and seeking His guidance and purpose in life. Ravi Zacharias frames it like this: “God makes appointments with us in our disappointments. To see the pattern, we must take three steps involving the heart, the mind, and the cross.”[6] The idea is that God enriches our spiritual journey toward sanctification with interactions with evil and righteous reconciliation. This reconciliation is found in Jesus Christ; “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18-19). Jesus Christ, with the help of the Holy Spirit in believers, helps to heal the wounds of evil drawing the Christian closer to God.  

Finally, how Christian deal with these struggles is paradoxical to secular worldviews. For the Christian, the Bible guides the believer to give thanks in all situations (1 Thessalonians 5:18); to be thankful for tribulation (Romans 12:12). This is a very difficult notion to understand. A perfect example of this can be found in the epistle of James: Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4) This is a popular scripture that is misconstrued regularly in-that Christians are to be joyful and happy in the midst of great suffering and evil. The key here is not that Christians enjoy their trials buy they can count them as good elements of the testing of the faith. Throughout scripture, the Bible points to God testing the righteous. It is the trying of the faith and the sanctifying maturity that brings forth in such trials that are counted as joy in the life of a believer.

The emotional problem of evil may be more problematic than the logical one. It enjoins theological questions with pragmatic sensationalism that tends to grip people at their very core of being. To help moderate the suffering it helps to have a strong theological understanding of theodicy. When the correct concepts of faith, sovereignty, and purpose are framed within their biblical context it gives a wonderful motif of how someone can tackle hard situations where evil pervades with confidence and assurance.

 

Bibliography

Barry, John D., ed. The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.

Gould, Paul M., Travis Dickinson, and R. Keith Loftin. Stand Firm: Apologetics and the Brilliance of the Gospel. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2018.

Sproul, R. C. What Is Faith? Vol. 8. Crucial Questions. Lake Mary, Florida: Reformation Trust, 2010.

Zacharias, Ravi K. The Grand Weaver: How God Shapes Us through the Events of Our Lives. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010.

Footnotes:

[1] Nijay K. Gupta, “Faith,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Unless otherwise notes, all scripture is taken from English Standard Version.

[4] R. C. Sproul, What Is Faith?, vol. 8, The Crucial Questions Series (Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2010), 3.

[5] Paul M. Gould, Travis Dickinson, and R. Keith Loftin, Stand Firm: Apologetics and the Brilliance of the Gospel (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2018), 158.

[6] Ravi K. Zacharias, The Grand Weaver: How God Shapes Us through the Events of Our Lives (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), page not available.

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