My View of Theodicy: Balancing My Faith in God with the Reality of Evil and Suffering
Rev. Keith A Evans, D.C., D.Min.
In 2001, a young chiropractic doctor had been in private practice for twelve years and then his life took a dramatic turn. He had sped through his education process and post-graduate work in order to reduce the large amount of school loans required. He desperately wanted to begin living out his dreams. After graduation, he moved to a new town with his new wife of ten months, borrowed even more money, and dealt with contractors for several months as they built out a clinic space. He finally opened up his private practice in December 1989 built upon his faith in God’s direction for his life, earnest prayer and a promissory note to the bank. His back was up against the wall and life was stressful. But he was driven to succeed and not fail. He made $100 in 1989. But one patient at a time, his practice grew and grew and his hard determination was blessed and he developed one the larger and well-respected chiropractic clinics in Southeast Texas.
At the peak of his practice success, God began speaking to the young chiropractor and he yielded full control of his life over to God, to truly be his Lord and Master. How would this affect his life and career? He did not know, but he had a deep sense that things would drastically change. But the young doctor was determined to follow God’s leading despite how his future life may differ.
In the summer of 2001, the young doctor suffered a freakish but significant injury that resulted in multilevel cervical disc herniations. The herniations produced prominent left sided arm and leg weakness and cardiac arrhythmias due to the resultant spinal cord irritation and central canal stenosis. Life changed for him. Former dreams were shattered. This is my story.
“We may not always understand what God is doing, why He leads us down a certain path,
or why He allows things to happen. But we can be certain that He is not making
any mistakes. His wisdom will not allow it.” – Roy Lessin
The following is my applied theology of pain and suffering, of evil and loss, of death and dying. This theodicy was forged in the furnace of my own physical and emotional suffering. Ground up and formulated in the crucible of my own pain. I had never really emotionally dealt with the concept of God’s sovereignty and providence over His creation. Sure, I had heard the intellectual Sunday School and sermon line and I agreed with it. But now in the realness and rawness of physical pain and even more by the emotional pain of career loss and shattered personal dreams, I was literally forced to discover the true and real meaning of suffering.
Due to the strong Christian upbringing and influences in my life, I knew that I did not want to re-define my understanding of God and His mysterious ways from my own distorted thinking. I was in crisis and didn’t even know where to begin searching for answers to the age old question, “Why God? Why?” So I began reading the Bible. I had always been told by teachers and preachers that God’s Word was His message to me; a manual for life which included answers to all of life’s difficult questions. I knew in the mind that that was true, but I needed to own it and know it in my heart. I wanted to base all my discoveries and understanding upon the firm anchor and unalterable truth of God’s Word. So I kept reading and praying, reading and praying. Reading and praying.
“God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains;
it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” —C.S. Lewis
I have come to learn that the real test of human character comes when the bottom falls out of our lives. It is in those moments and how I respond and react that reveals what I truly believe and place my trust upon. While in my selfish humanness, I would never desire for a problem or struggle to come into my life, but they do come and will continue to come in the future. Some have been huge and overwhelming to me in the moment. But as time passes I have noticed that I tend to forget the pain but begin to see the residual scars of the revealed life lessons left to better equip me and guide me through the next challenge of life.
We are like flowers that grow, bloom and then fade. For most of us, we will live a life that will exist between two hospitals. One for birth and one for death. Between our birth and death we all will live a life full of experiences, good and bad. Why do some struggle, overcome, and flourish while others struggle, become overwhelmed and lose their faith? For me, how we each handle those experiences is based upon our attitude and views of God, evil, and the issue of death.
I absolutely know evil exists. All I have to do is to look internally at my endless selfishness and pride that I fight against. We all have the free will to make right or wrong choices. Consequences to those choices may lead to intense suffering of ourselves and may involve others as well. We all can choose evil over good.
“Satan is on the prowl, but God is on the throne.” – Brad Bigney
I believe that Satan is real and full of hate. Satan can be wickedly scary or he can approach with all the deceitful beauty and allure that can confuse the most righteous person. I believe that the triune God does allow and has unleashed Satan to have power in this world. Looking at the evening news each day validates that Satan has been allowed to kill, steal and destroy. His resources and handiwork seems endless. But according to the biblical record of Job, Satan and his demons cannot do what God forbids them to do.
“I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity,
I am the LORD, who does all these things.” – Isaiah 45:7
Some theologians state that God is not all-powerful and therefore He is not in control. If God is not in control, then who is? If God is not in control, then the truths and promises of His Word are made worthless. If God is not in control, then the death, burial and resurrection of Christ is but a mockery and was all in vain. If the Gospel message is meaningless, then my faith is placed upon sinking sand and my life will eventually be in shambles. If God is not in control of yesterday, today and tomorrow, how can anyone really have any lasting hope at all?
I may not understand why or for what reason God allows things to occur, but I hold on to the truth that He is actively holding everything together (Hebrews 1:3) and is working out everything according to His will (Ephesians 1:11). To me, this view is personally freeing to know that I do not have to make sense of it or even try to control matters. All I need to do is simply trust Him, worship Him, and attempt to live a life that is pleasing to Him by the power of Christ in my life.
Many people just can not fathom that God can let unthinkable things happen to decent people. People struggle with the issue of pain and suffering from both an emotional and intellectual level. Some are emotionally repelled by evil and suffering that seems so contrary to the nature of a loving and caring God. Some cannot intellectually wrap their mind around the contrast of their God who also allows the evil and suffering that is occurring all about them. If God really does allow such awful things to happen, then they are repelled by God himself. If a person is repelled by God, then how can they relate to or trust a God like that? (Hicks, 148) If this is the case then they may actually begin to re-define their concept of God. A revised definition in one’s mind that helps them settle their confusion about God, does that change the reality of who is the great ‘I AM?’ When this occurs, I believe the reverence and awe of the one and holy God is minimized.
To the chagrin of many, the Holy Word of God teaches that evil is a part of His plan (Ephesians 1:11; Romans 8:28; Acts 4:27-28) but this does not mean that God is the author or cause of sin. God even permits evil in order to accomplish His purposes (Genesis 2:16-17; 3:6; Job 1:12-22; Matthew 23:37; Acts 14:16). God prevents evil on some occasions, but restrains it at other times (Genesis 20:3, 4, 17, 18; Romans 13:1-5; 2 Thessalonians 2:6-8). The world and all that is in it is constantly under the watchful eye and rule of God, who controls all things in such a way as to bring about His own eternal purpose and plan without failure. But it is also God as the Holy Spirit that controls and throttles the intensity of Satan’s evil. And fortunately of me it was God the Son who died for ultimate victory over evil. This is God’s providence.
As a football coach, my grandfather would stand on the sideline and order the next series of plays which would lead the team to victory. But God is active and not simply on the sideline like my grandfather. God has already made the winning call offering redemption to all of mankind. The game of life and mankind on this earth just has not ended yet. The day of ultimate reckoning is approaching. If one believes in the Gospel and are spiritually maturing as Christ followers, then I believe that their belief and faith will help them endure and persevere the cruelest of evil and suffering in this world.
“Pain is inevitable – misery is an option.” – Tim Hansel
God’s providence is evident in the lives of His people (Genesis 37:26, 27; 39:15-18; 40: 9-23; 45:5). Jacob thought the evils that had occurred were against him alone, and not to help save the nation of Israel from famine. This is evident in the rise and fall of nations (Isaiah 14:24-27; 45:1; Zechariah l:18-21; Proverbs 21:l). This is evident in His use of natural evil when nature is harmful (Deuteronomy 28:17 Numbers 14:36, 37; Acts 5:5,70/7 Corinthians 11:30; Isaiah 5:6). This is evident in His control over Satan who is an agent of moral and natural evil (Job 1:12-19; 2:5-8; I Chronicles 21:1; 2 Samuel 24:1; Luke 13:10-17; 2 Corinthians 12:9-10; 2 Thessalonians 2:6-7, 10-12). God is sovereign and provident and I have fully submitted to His Lordship.
Is God all powerful? Is God holy and pure? Does evil and suffering exist? I believe the answer is yes to all three questions and the personal journey is to discover within oneself how to strike a balanced theological position between each. In all the moments of my life, I have learned that God has been there right there beside me. The truth of God’s love is not that bad things won’t happen. But it is His promise that He will be right there with me when they do.
“And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” – Romans 8:28
I believe that suffering is relative. It is based upon one’s attitude toward it. How can one patient with pancreatic cancer be thunderstruck with fear and depression, while another patient with the same diagnosis be coping relatively well? An illness experience is shaped and strongly influenced by culture. Disease is a medical paradigm, but illness may be more about the bio-psycho-social-spiritual interactions. I have become much more aware this summer that a patient’s culture (their traditions, religious beliefs and emotional behaviors, etc.) has an incredible impact on how an ill person mentally approaches their sickness.
Of course in our suffering, we want nothing less than the immediate alleviation of suffering. But God wants to give us so much more. He wants to give us things that will last all eternity. Has God rigged us to experience personal crises in order to get our attention? Through our suffering, God wants to give us a new obedience to His word (Psalm 119:67, 71), holiness which will lead to righteousness and peace (Hebrews 12:10, 11), perseverance, character and hope (Romans 5:3-5), and a knowledge of His presence in our lives by His Spirit (John 14-16). In short, He wants to give us His kingdom.
There is a sense that the American culture feels that some suffering is okay, but too much pain and suffering is not fair. Is there a difference between the level or intensity of suffering that makes it unpalatable to many? Are there unspoken rights or entitlements of human life that only a certain amount of suffering is alright, but if it crosses over some imaginary level of intensity the suffering becomes inhuman or improper? These are areas in which I still seek answers.
I have intellectually and emotionally chosen to believe in God’s Word as objective and absolute Truth. It is the true north that I set the journey of my life upon. If I acknowledge God as governing the flight of a sparrow (Matthew 10:29), then how can I not acknowledge that He also governs the flight of bullets, cancers, and spinal injuries? Is not this the basis of every Bible story about the victory of God? That everything and every action belongs to the Lord? God is my All and He is not small. This is the solid foundation of which I ground my spiritual comfort in the midst of any and all calamity, because it is mediated through the Truth of God.
A few years ago I listened to a sermon which included his poem by Martha Snell Nicholson:
I stood a mendicant (beggar) of God before His royal throne
And begged him for one priceless gift, which I could call my own.
I took the gift from out His hand, but as I would depart
I cried, “But Lord this is a thorn and it has pierced my heart.
This is a strange, a hurtful gift, which Thou hast given me.”
He said, “My child, I give good gifts and gave My best to thee.”
I took it home and though at first the cruel thorn hurt sore,
As long years passed I learned at last to love it more and more.
I learned He never gives a thorn without this added grace,
He takes the thorn to pin aside the veil which hides His face.
How we use our thorns are totally up to each of us. To me I want to try to find the richer meaning and purpose behind the circumstances of life. If it takes chronic back pain and surgeries for me to become closer and have a more intimate relationship with my Lord, then I say ‘bring it on.” Considering the alternative, I will gladly take that thorn in my side. And I do not have any regrets or bitterness about my present aches and pains. It might strike some that my theodicy has emerged as a bit “high in the sky”, or “holier than thou”, but I would like to see it as “being holier with Thou” as I believe the Christian life should progressively be.
“One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak.” – G.K. Chesterton
Using this theodicy has helped me well personally and in ministry to others. It has given me great confidence in a hope that can change the attitude toward any situation. As I make clinical rounds as a hospital chaplain, I have looked deep into the eyes and hurting souls of people in pain. Many are families who have lost a spouse or loved one, patients with horrible diseases that will take their lives, and I have seen them crying out for comfort and solace which is well beyond any human or medical capabilities. It is in these moments that I know that God hears their cries and He hurts with them in their torment. Whether it is in His will that their situation will change course or not, I do not know, nor do I have control. But I can relax in knowing that He has heard their prayers and understands their hurts. So many times as I have prayed with patients, I have truly felt the presence of Almighty God in the room with us. To that I am blessed to have experienced.
One may ask why would a loving God shatter a person’s dreams, career and create physical suffering? I hope this brief article helps to answer that question. I do not regret any of my pain and suffering as it has been God’s tool in reshaping and molding my life for His glory. But He also worked on me on His own timing. He used a physical thorn to replace my shattered dream of professional success with an enhanced avocation of my spiritual vision and hunger for righteousness. He then drew me to a ministry career that exists on the daily front lines of spiritual battle with souls of men and women who are struggling in their physical, emotional and spiritual pain. While I am aware that there will be more valley times in my life, I look forward to seeing the blessing and beauty of God’s hand on hurting souls.
“Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding,
for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold.
She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her…
She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed.
– Proverbs 3:13-15, 18
Hicks, Peter, “The Message of Evil and Suffering”, Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2006.
Lewis, C. S., The Problem of Pain, San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1949
Piper, John and Justin Taylor, eds., “Suffering and Sovereignty of God”, Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2006.
Piper, John, sermon address to Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis MN, “To be a mother is a call to suffer”, May 12, 2001, http://www.desiringgod.org.
Welch, Edward, “Exalting Pain? Ignoring Pain? What do we do with Suffering?” The Journal of Biblical Counseling, Volume XII Number 3, Spring 1994.