This argument, described as the problem of pain by C.S. Lewis, and the problem of evil by others, is perhaps the most common argument raised against Christianity. The first time I heard the argument raised was shortly after my own “great awakening,” and, as an infant in the faith, I must admit, it caught me off guard.
I was working as intern with Norfolk Southern railroad in Roanoke, and every day I would take my lunch break in a corner booth in a little restaurant on Market Street. Five days a week I would sit there for about 45 minutes with my nose in a book. One particular lunch break stands out because another employee had joined me for the 10 floor descent on the Norfolk Southern elevator. He noticed the book in my hand and asked about it.
The book I was reading was, and still is, one of the most exciting biographies I have ever read. Through Gates of Splendor, is the story of Jim and Elisabeth Elliot, along with a team of several other families who were missionaries in Ecuador focused on reaching a tribal village known as the Auca indians. Jim Elliot, and four other men were famously and brutally murdered by this indian tribe in October 1957. These five men are probably still the most well known Christian martyrs of the modern era.
I told my co-worker this story, describing Jim Elliot as one of my heros, and his response caught me off guard. Rather than joining me in my admiration for the Elliot’s sacrifice, he asked me how I can believe in a God that would allow that to happen. He asked how I can believe in a God that would let anyone be savagely murdered by indians. Even worse, in his mind, was the idea that I followed a God who might require my health, wealth, family, and even my life, in service to him. How can I possibly believe in a God like this?
That conversation happened about 15 years ago. Since that time, the problem of suffering has left the pages of a book and has become more than a casual conversation on an elevator. I have watched many of the people I love and respect the most walk through intense suffering, and many of my friends and family are in the middle of inexpresible suffering as I am writing this post.
Because of all this suffering, we are faced with a great temptation. If we aren’t vigilant, we will begin to understand God in light of our suffering, rather than understanding our suffering in light of God. Our suffering will tempt us to deal with the problem, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, by believing that God lacks either goodness or power.
A Model of Faith
I intend, at some future time, to write about how we know that God neither lacks in goodness or power. But that is not my goal here. Certainly, knowing these truths and dwelling on the Bible’s presentation of them is an important part of walking through suffering. But before laying the foundation, I want to look at someone who has already walked upon this foundation. I want to look at Elisabeth Elliot, the woman whose husband was brutally killed in service to God, and see how her unswerving commitment to the goodness and power of God served her and steered her through this unspeakable suffering. My hope is that watching this saintly woman who has walked before us will stir our hearts to pursue God and to know Him as she has.
I will pick up Elliot’s thinking where she addresses the temptation to find justification for God in the circumstances rather than trusting that the circumstances are justified because of the nature of God.
We know that time and again in the history of the Christian church, the blood of martyrs has been its seed. We are tempted to assume a simple equation here. Five men died. This will mean x-number of Waorani Christians. Perhaps so. Perhaps not…. God is God. I dethrone Him in my heart if I demand that he act in ways that satisfy my idea of justice. It is the same spirit that taunted, “If Thou be the Son of God, come down from the Cross.” There is unbelief, there is even rebellion, in the attitude that says, “God has no right to do this to five men unless…”
Those men had long since given themselves without reservation to do the will of God… For us widows the question as to why the men who had trusted God to be both shield and defender should be allowed to be speared to death was not one that could be smoothly or finally answered in 1956, nor yet silenced in 1996. God did not answer Job’s questions either. Job was living in mystery — the mystery of the sovereign purpose of God — and the questions that arose out of the depths of that mystery were answered only by a deeper mystery, that of God Himself.
I believe with all my heart that God’s story has a happy ending. Julian of Norwich wrote, “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of the thing shall be well…” But not yet, not necessarily yet. It takes faith to hold on to that in the face of the great burden of experience, which seems to prove otherwise. What God means by happiness and goodness is a far higher thing than we can conceive…
Elisabeth Elliot models the type of faith that I long for. She doesn’t try to justify God. How could she? He is the just and the justifier (Romans 3:26). We are the ones who need to be justified, not Him. How arrogant must we be to ask God to step into our courts?
But this kind of faith is about something bigger than avoiding arrogance, it’s about finding joy. It is about knowing that regardless of the circumstances we find ourselves in, we can trust God. We can be confident that, when all is said and done, he has our best interest at heart. Beyond that, we believe that He is able to bring about the greatest good that He has intended.
In another book, Passion and Purity, Elisabeth Elliot again reflects on the years following the death of her husband. She says,
Years after the end of the Jim Elliot story, my mother said something to me about my “suffering” during those waiting years. It came as a surprise to me, for though I would never have denied that the trail was a bit rugged, I had not thought of it as suffering. Shipwrecks, floggings, physical pain, yes those I would call suffering, but not my aching heart. However, it is no use trying to measure suffering. What matters is making the right use of it, taking one’s thoughts to God. Trust is the lesson. Jesus loves me, this I know — not because he does just what I’d like, but because the Bible tells me so. Calvary proves it. He loved me and gave Himself for me.
This is the kind of faith I want. This is the way I want to deal with the problem of evil when I find it in my life. Jesus loves me this I know, not because my life is free from suffering, but because the Bible tells me so. I believe that this unswerving commitment to the goodness and the power of God is the very heart of what it means to be a Christian. More than that, it is the source from which we can do something that is uniquely Christian; find joy in all of our sufferings.
Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)
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)