How Can God Permit Suffering?
A world of free creatures requires the possibility that they will freely choose evil.
When it hits home, we reel back. Thoughts explode in confusion: I trusted God, where is he? If he's all-powerful, why didn't he stop it? Maybe he doesn't love us. Maybe he is punishing us. Maybe he is weak. Are we really so alone and endangered? Can we not trust him? Are we so terrifyingly alone?
Suffering on this scale is new to us. But it is not new to the weary human race, and countless men and women before us have tried to understand God's presence in times of horror. Awhile back my son Stephen was assigned to read Psalm 38 in church. For some reason I really heard the words that morning, instead of just watching them go by in churchy routine. I heard the fresh teenaged voice of my dear son reciting words of abject pain: "My wounds stink and are corrupt...There is no soundness in my flesh. I am feeble and sore broken...My heart panteth, my strength faileth me."
Oh, not my son, Lord, please, let it never be my son, I prayed. But it was somebody's child who wrote this. It has to be somebody it happens to.
"As for the light of mine eyes, it is also gone from me. My lovers and friends stand aloof from my sore...I am ready to halt, and my sorrow is continually before me." Oh Lord, not my son, please. This is the pain of loving someone, knowing that your child, parent, or mate could be hurt someday, crying out words like these, and you would not be able to fix it.
It's the big stupid, stupid prize question of all spiritual life, how can bad things happen to good people, and no matter how many words are poured over it the problem remains, mocking us: good people still get clobbered by bad things. This, finally, is the problem. We don't want so much to know *why* it happens as to know how to stop it from happening, as if understanding what triggers such catastrophe might help us avoid it. Our quest is for prevention, yet the cruel centuries keep rolling and no one's yet found a way to prevent it.
The term for this, the "problem of evil," is "theodicy" and the alternatives have been cleverly summarized: "Either God is God and he is not good, or God is good and he is not God." That is, either God is not all-loving in the way we think, and tolerates our pain because his goals don't require our happiness--or God suffers with us helplessly but is unable to stop our suffering, is not all-powerful. Neither alternative works. A God who is not good would violate the definition, and violate what we know of his overwhelming goodness running through most of our lives. A God who is not all-powerful would likewise void the meaning of the word. The retired Episcopal bishop of South Carolina, Fitzsimmons Allison, explained that accepting this confounding mystery is the only way to resolve it: "I've got the I don't know' theodicy. God is God, and God is good, and I don't know."
A world of free creatures requires the possibility that they will freely choose evil. Since the flood of Noah, God has declined to fix things by wiping out all the troublemakers. The only solution that remains is for each of us to realize that we are ourselves junior troublemakers to one extent or another, and do our part to clean up our own corners.