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The Emotional Problem of Evil

In a poem called The Dark Night of the Soul, the Spanish Catholic mystic, St. John of the Cross, meditates on the soul's approach in communion with God. This phrase has since become part of Catholic and Christian culture and has come to express a moment of spiritual crisis. This crisis often shakes the foundation of one's faith, with one of two usual results. Either the person in the midst of this crisis will be beckoned into a far deeper relationship with the Lord, or he or she will walk away from the Lord.

The phrase, "the dark night of the soul," evokes in me a strong sense of foreboding and tension. It conjures images of intense prayer, darkness, and intimacy tinged with sadness and pain. These are the worst of times and call into question everything we thought we knew about ourselves, life, and God. Anyone who has gone through such an experience will know what I mean. In philosophy, terms such as "existential crisis" come to mind. For the one experiencing such a crisis, everything is at stake. Such experiences can be so difficult as to lead some to consider taking their own life.

For many, experiences of intense suffering cause just these sorts of crises. This year, 2020, has been difficult for pretty much every person on planet earth. At no time in recent memory has the entire world seen such widespread pain and uncertainty. In the United States, the most prosperous nation on earth, healthy economic growth and prosperity were shattered almost instantaneously by a virus that has killed 200,000 Americans and 1,000,000 people worldwide. Of all years, this one seems like a prime time to think long and hard about life. What's going on behind all this, and what's the point?

In the last two posts, I discussed the logical and evidential problems of evil and suffering. I gave what I believe to be good objections to both arguments, but this only addresses what is called the intellectual problem of evil. This describes the problem of evil stated as an argument, and my responses are for those who want to know if the existence of evil and suffering implies or suggests that God does not exist. Our response to the emotional problem of evil, however, is for those who are or have experienced real suffering and evil. Our responses to the intellectual problem of evil will sound cold and heartless to the one who has just lost a loved one. Dry intellectual answers won't dry someone's tears.

This means that, as apologists, we need to be discerning and careful when addressing the problem of evil and suffering. In my experience, I don't think that I've ever discussed the intellectual problem with an unbeliever without it eventually giving way to the emotional problem. In other words, we shouldn't assume that someone isn't struggling underneath if they try to make intellectual arguments. Often, intellectual arguments are a smoke screen covering up something underneath. William Lane Craig has often said that addressing the emotional problem of evil is the task of the pastor or Christian counselor. I agree in principle that addressing this problem is the type of thing people with those professions do, but it is just as much the task of the apologist and friend. As the title of this blog suggests, I support doing apologetics with an eye toward the whole person. While the emotional problem of evil is not an argument or attack upon Christian belief, it is often a stumbling block nonetheless and should be treated as such.

Because the emotional problem of evil is not an argument against Christian belief, however, we should not address it as such. Objections are retorted or defended against. But someone's tears are not the type of thing to retort. Again, this is often somewhat slippery. I have been in discussions with non-Christian friends about the intellectual problem of evil only to realize that the underlying issue is the emotional problem. We need to be very careful not to continue to address the problem as an intellectual problem once we realize that the underlying issue is emotional. Let me give an example from experience. As a disclaimer, I'm not quoting anyone near to me or giving a specific story, but this is the type of scenario that I've been in before. Let's imagine a dialogue between John and Chris, who are good friends. John is a Christian presenting the gospel to Chris, an atheist:

Chris: John, how can you believe in a loving God, with all of the evil in the world?

John: What do you mean? Are you saying that the two conflict with one another?

Chris: I'm just saying that it doesn't make sense. If there were a loving God, wouldn't He want to stop the evil from happening?

John: Well, let's look into that. Are you saying that God could stop all of the evil in the world from happening, even if He has created free creatures? If He's created free creatures, doesn't it make sense to think that there would be some possibility that they would choose to do evil things? He could refrain from creating free creatures, but then there would be no one for Him to be in loving relationship with. If God wants to be in loving relationships with His creatures, then those creatures must be free, and therefore evil is possible. So God and evil don't conflict.

Chris: (visibly irritated) I don't know... That all sounds fine, but it's like it diminishes it.

John: What do you mean?

Chris: It diminishes it! It's like saying to the person who's suffering, "You know, it was all worth it because God wanted to love people!"

John: Not at all! That doesn't mean that the suffering itself isn't bad. What are you getting at?

Chris: How doesn't it? It's like you're telling me that it's okay that my sister died when I was seven because God wanted to love people and just had to let it happen!

John: Oh... I didn't know that that's what you were getting at. I'm really sorry to hear about that. Let's talk about that. I want to hear about her. I'm sorry that I misunderstood you.

There are four things to note from this dialogue. First, notice that in the beginning of the dialogue, it sounded like Chris was asking an intellectual question. That question has to do with whether the existence of God and the existence of evil and suffering are compatible, and John, noticing this, tries to give an answer based on the free will defense. Second, notice Chris's response to John's defense. Chris not only isn't satisfied with that explanation but gets irritated and says that John's answer diminishes the suffering of people. That may or may not be true, but it doesn't refute John's argument. If John hadn't been paying attention, he might have just said that and lost Chris. Instead, he asks Chris to explain what he means. This is crucial for us as Christian apologists! I cannot stress this enough. It is possible to be so immersed in a mode of argumentation that we fail to see the other person expressing his or her heart and whatever pain lay underneath his or her words. We have to be careful to listen and not to be so eager to get the argument out that we lose them. Third, notice that John successfully points out that Chris's response is inadequate. Nothing in what John said actually diminishes the reality of suffering, but John doesn't stop there. He continues to probe for Chris's meaning. At this point, John is noticing that the issue isn't purely intellectual. Finally, notice how John responds when Chris reveals that his sister died when he was young. At this point, John notices that the issue is much more personal and emotional, and he stops arguing altogether. Now it's time to listen and give emotional support.

I give this illustration to show one way in which an apparently intellectual discussion becomes much more personal and emotional. This is common in talking about the problem of evil and suffering. As apologists, never assume that a discussion about the intellectual problem of evil will stay that way. I'd say to expect the opposite. Expect that you'll get into a much more personal discussion as you talk with the non-Christian.

Is that the only reason to talk about the emotional problem of evil? Not at all, for the emotional problem of evil affects the Christian as well as the non-Christian. Let me use an illustration as an example. In his biography of the apostle Paul, New Testament scholar N.T. Wright points out that the style of Paul's second letter to the Corinthians suggests he had suffered very greatly prior to the letter's writing. He places the writing of 2 Corinthians after a previous and very difficult imprisonment, likely in Ephesus, which had left him scarred beyond comprehension. N.T. Wright notes (304, emphasis is mine):

"Imprisonment leaves a lasting scar; we today are sadly familiar with the techniques used to break the spirit of 'detainees,' and we should not imagine that they were all invented in the last hundred years. Paul was used by now to bodily suffering, but in Ephesus he had experienced torture at a deeper level. His emotions, his imagination, his innermost heart had been unbearably crushed. The fact that someone comes along one day, flings open the prison door, and tells you to be on your way doesn't mean you can take a deep breath, give yourself a shake, and emerge smiling into the sunlight. The memories are ever present; the voices, both outside and inside; the nightmares, ready to pounce the minute you close your eyes. The mental scars remain after the physical ones have healed."

So it seems that 2 Corinthians gives us the intimate, passionate, fitful meditations of a man crushed in ways that most of us could never comprehend. Paul, the great apostle of Christ, had dealt with the emotional problem of evil. And that is not only how it is, but how we should expect it to be. As 1 Peter 4:12-13 states (NASB):

"Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation."

So we should expect that followers of Christ will suffer and experience this problem, as the apostle Paul did. Since we expect to suffer, we should expect that we will have to comfort each other in our suffering. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, probably in the aftermath of persecution and much suffering (NASB):

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God."

Therefore, just as much as Christians ought to be prepared to comfort non-Christians in the midst of suffering, we ought to be prepared to comfort each other in the midst of suffering.

So how do we comfort others in their suffering, either Christians or non-Christians? I'd say that the approach in either case is essentially the same: point to Jesus. With non-Christians, I'd add this caveat: we need to show them that only Jesus provides the answer for human suffering. While we should be willing to make this claim, however, we should not give it in terms of an argument. We should offer it as comfort.

Let me begin with a few points of advice:

  1. Listen before you speak. Give the other person plenty of time and space to talk about his or her suffering and to elaborate on how it affects him or her. Be explicit about that. You want to hear what the person has to say and be receptive to it.

  2. Don't rush the conversation. Allow for the person to talk about himself or herself for a long time. Be willing to reschedule the conversation for later.

  3. Be careful in correcting the other person. Notice that I said, "Be careful," not, "Don't do it." Many people in our culture believe that loving another person means allowing them to believe what they believe, no matter how false or damaging it is. This is not love from a biblical perspective. Love brings correction, but there are better or worse ways to go about it. For instance, I'd advise phrasing correction in terms of a question. This question can be inviting and prompt more discussion, rather than seeming combative.

  4. Be willing to share your own experiences of suffering. That does not mean that we should come off as if we want to talk about ourselves. Here's a way of putting it, "I'm glad that you're sharing this with me. Can I share with you what I've gone through and how I coped with it." This can invite more conversation in the sense that the person will be encouraged to share more.

  5. Be explicit about your Christian beliefs. This seems like it should go without saying, but I've seen plenty of Christians (and I've been guilty of this before) squirm at the idea that they're sharing their faith with someone who doesn't believe it. If someone is hurting emotionally, it is actually objectively true that Jesus is their sole ultimate source of comfort. We squander an amazing opportunity for the gospel by failing to share our source healing in love. Relate this to your own experience of suffering to give it practical importance.

  6. Reiterate that you love the person and that you want to be a friend in their hurting. Again, this should go without saying. We are not debating here. It is time to slow down and be present in that person's life.

  7. Be willing, if necessary, to be silent. Sometimes, the other person doesn't want you to elaborate or respond but just wants to talk and have someone near. Be that person for them.

Let's see this play out in our dialogue between John and Chris. I'll start with the last two lines from above for the sake of context:

Chris: How doesn't it? It's like you're telling me that it's okay that my sister died when I was seven because God wanted to love people and just had to let it happen!

John: Oh... I didn't know that that's what you were getting at. I'm really sorry to hear about that. Let's talk about that. I want to hear about her. I'm sorry that I misunderstood you.

Chris: It's okay. I really don't like talking about it.

John: I'm here if you want to talk. I'm willing to listen.

Chris: (silent for about a minute) She was three years old. A family friend was babysitting her and was in a car accident with her in the car. The paramedics said that she probably died instantly.

John: Oh my gosh... I can't imagine what that was like.

Chris: Yeah... (silent for another few seconds) I mean, I was really young, and it was confusing. I just kept asking where she was, which probably didn't help my parents. They went to church at the time, so they tried explaining to me that "she's with Jesus now" and that "she's an angel now," but I didn't get it. I kept asking why. I kept thinking, "If God has her now, why not give her back?" It was just so confusing and sad.

John: Did the fact that your parents went to church help them?

Chris: Ah, they stopped going soon after. My mom has kind of drifted in and out, but Dad just stopped believing it. He's always told me that if God existed, He would care. Both of my parents just kind of stopped talking after that or interacting with me very much.

John: How'd that make you feel?

Chris: (silent, considering the question for a couple of minutes) Really lonely...

This conversation could go on for a while. Again, note six things here. First, John doesn't pry. He just offers to listen. Even though Chris doesn't like talking about his sister's death, he takes the invitation. We should make that offer, even if it isn't received initially, since it might be received later. Second, notice how Chris is silent for a while at times before saying anything. When people are hurting or grieving, often their words will come out in short bursts between long bouts of silence. As the one offering comfort and an ear, be patient and try not to get restless. Just let the person think through what he or she wants to say before he or she says it. Third, notice that John doesn't correct Chris when he says something incorrect intellectually. His parents, unfortunately, tried to explain his sister's death by saying that she was an angel now. The fact that they went to church did not mean that they understood what happens to us when we die. But it's important, when we hear something like that, not to interject immediately to correct it. It isn't necessarily helpful in the moment. This is also true in the case of Chris's confusion as a child as to why God won't just give his sister back to him. Fourth, notice that John didn't pass judgement toward Chris's parents for responding to his sister's death the way they did. Again, it's not necessarily helpful in the moment. Fifth, notice how John is asking questions to prompt further discussion. This is key to indicating to Chris that he's inviting and wants to hear more. Finally, and possibly most importantly, notice how this initial tragedy, Chris's sister's death, has led to Chris's atheism. This is often, though not always, true of those who reject Christianity. Chris's sister's death resulted in his dad's rejection of Christianity and theism, and he seems to have influenced Chris to reject Christianity as well. Knowing this will be very helpful for John in navigating this discussion.

I'm giving this advice quite generally simply because there are so many ways this conversation could go. As you interact with unbelievers, you will find that there are common and unique elements in each conversation, depending on the person. But I also believe that by keeping these things in mind, you will be better equipped to help someone, Christian or not, who is struggling with the emotional problem of evil.

All of that being said, what's the end goal? What (or who) is our comfort in the midst of suffering? Let me highlight three beliefs that we, as Christians, should cling to in the midst of suffering:

  1. Jesus shared in human suffering.

  2. God is near to every one of His children.

  3. God is good.

First, Jesus shared in human suffering. The wonderful and amazing thing about the incarnation (see my post on that doctrine) is that God has experienced the pain, toil, suffering, and hardship of human existence and suffering. Jesus suffered loss, through the loss of John the Baptist as well as His dear friend Lazarus. He suffered the normal limitations and toil of work, heat, hunger and thirst, aches and pains, and sorrow. More than all of this, however, He suffered the pain of the beatings and bloody crucifixion as well as the result of having our sins imputed to Him: lack of close fellowship with God. In other words, Jesus, as God, has suffered everything that we suffer. He knows what you're going through and cares and wants to comfort you through it. Look to Him in your pain and tears and call upon Him for comfort and grace. As Hebrews 4:16 says (NASB):

"Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need."

Second, remember that God is near to every one of His children. Though He may at times feel distant or silent when we're in the midst of deep suffering, remember that, in Christ, the Holy Spirit lives in us and gives us access to that "throne of grace." No matter how deep the pain, you are never too far from God in Christ. This glorious truth should encourage us to keep going and keep seeking Him.

Third, God is good. I don't simply mean "good" in the moral sense, although that is true. I mean "good" in the sense that everything He is and does is good and ultimately for the good of His children. As Romans 5:8 (NASB):

"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."

It was Paul, the same man who suffered beyond what most of us could ever imagine, who wrote these words. It speaks to the importance of truth. The immutable God is immutably good. So many people, unfortunately, ask of their circumstances, "How can God be good, given that this has happened to me?" Instead, I encourage you to say, "Given that God is good, I will praise Him in the midst of what has happened to me." Those who know me know that I've gone through a fair amount of suffering at a young age, having lost my beautiful fiancé less than a year ago very suddenly. In the midst of streams of tears and grief that shook my bones, I told myself that God is good. And if He is good and allowed her to die, I may not understand it, but I could follow Him through it. This is a hard lesson, but often suffering teaches us exactly what it's meant to. Again, as Paul writes in Romans 5:3-5 (NASB):

"And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us."

God works in the midst of suffering to produce these things in us. Trust in Him, even if you don't understand why it's happening, and you won't be disappointed. I can vouch for this from experience.

A last piece of advice: don't go through it alone. We are meant to live in community. If you are a follower of Christ, lean on brothers and sisters to weep with you and help you see the truth. If you're not suffering but know someone who is, be willing to do that for them. This is how we comfort others with the same comfort that we have received.

That's it for this post! I hope that it has been helpful, encouraging, and edifying. I don't often write about such heavy and personal topics, but it is important for each of us individually and in apologetics that we understand the emotional problem of evil and suffering and how to address it. I pray that if there is someone who is suffering, he or she could find this post and find in it healing and encouragement. In the wake of my fiancé's death, it was brothers and sisters in Christ, as well as my family and other friends, who were a constant source of love and edification for me. And in those moments of darkness, in those dark nights of the soul, I looked to my God and, at times, just wept before Him. He is there and will always be there, if you trust in His Son for salvation. If you want to hear more about my story one-on-one, feel free to reach out by email or Facebook Messenger.

If you find yourself continuing to come back to the blog, please consider subscribing to it, so that you will get notified of each new post. With a subscription, you can also comment below and start a discussion! Finally, if you have any questions or comments about the blog, then you can send me a message from the bottom of the homepage. I look forward to receiving messages from you. Thank you for reading!

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