His pain became excruciating toward the end of his life, and one day, after getting off the phone with my mother-in-law, I remember praying, How can anything be worth this? How can You let a good man with a young family die in ever-growing pain?
Two weeks before he died, with very little remaining strength, he spent several hours at his computer, writing. He had degrees from Brown, Princeton, and the University of Chicago Law School. He had worked for a large, prestigious law firm and had left it to follow his dream to do environmental protection for a non-profit organization. He had lived in France and Kenya and had climbed mountains around the world. But his "Final Jottings"—right before the cancer attacked his brain—were : "Do not fail to seize the love of God, which is available to you in the all-embracing sacrifice of Christ."
I have for a while talked about writing a post on the problem of evil, but theodicy is a daunting subject because the Bible is never philosophical about suffering and evil. The shortest, and, in my opinion, the most powerful verse in the Bible is John 11:35, which follows the death of Lazarus: "Jesus wept." Jesus knew that He would raise Lazarus from the dead and increase the faith of those present, but He was "deeply moved in spirit and was troubled" when He saw their grief (John 11:33).
The Book of Job is all about the problem of evil, and yet Job, with his raw and authentic complaint to God, is applauded by God, while his friends, with their judgmental platitudes, are sharply rebuked (Job 42:7). God rejects their simplistic theodicy and answers Job by asking if he really is in a position to judge God. Does he have the wisdom of God?
The problem of evil is complex because, on the one hand, God has permitted evil and suffering, but on the other hand, we are called to overcome evil and alleviate suffering wherever we see it. Acts 10:38 says that Jesus "went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him." So the devil is responsible for oppression and suffering, and God's will is healing and well-being. But God created Satan and all the fallen angels, and He could put an end to all suffering and evil right now.
Why doesn't He?
In order to do justice to the problem of evil, we have to put it in its proper context. Although it is a practical problem for anyone, philosophically it is a Christian problem, since Christianity, more than any religion, speaks of a God of love. But the Apostle Paul, who was called to his ministry with the words, "I will show him how much he must suffer for My name's sake" (Acts 9:16), says in 2 Corinthians 4:17-18: "For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal."
Paul says that suffering is producing for us an eternal weight of glory. And since God is preparing us for the eternal Paradise that will someday replace this temporary order, it is no wonder that if we belong to Christ we will become familiar with the dizzying spin on the potter's wheel.
Only a particular kind of universe can produce certain moral qualities in us. If we never encountered danger, how could we practice courage? If we never experienced opposition, how could we learn fortitude? If nobody ever wronged us, we would not learn forgiveness. If poverty did not exist, we would have no opportunity to practice charity or learn contentment. Failure and suffering can teach us humility and empathy. If we were self-sufficient and never wanted for anything, we would not seek God.
The new Paradise will, unlike the innocent Eden, consist of redeemed sinners who will have known the deepest lows of human existence and its greatest heights, like a symphony of high and low notes, dramatic fortissimos and tender pianissimos. That is how God uses evil for His own good purposes, and Romans 8:18 says: "For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us." This life, for better or for worse, is like a mist that appears for a short while and then disappears (James 4:14). But our share in the kingdom of God will last forever.
To be sure, hardship can bring bitterness and hopelessness, but that is a choice we make. We can also choose to overcome evil with good and let the fire of affliction purify us. As Augustine says:
For, in the same fire, gold gleams and straw smokes; under the same flail the stalk is crushed and the grain threshed; the lees are not mistaken for oil because they have issued from the same press. So, too, the tide of trouble will test, purify, and improve the good, but beat, crush, and wash away the wicked. So it is that, under the weight of the same affliction, the wicked deny and blaspheme God, and the good pray to Him and praise Him. The difference is not in what people suffer but in the way they suffer. The same shaking that makes fetid water stink makes perfume issue a more pleasant odor.It is to the one who overcomes that God will "grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God" (Revelation 2:7). And in order to overcome, there has to be something to overcome. Romans 12:21 says, "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." We are not to take what life throws at us sitting down. We are called to fight! And we overcome the world by our faith (1 John 5:4), which is the power of God within us.
My brother-in-law passed into eternity on a high note. He overcame the ravages of cancer that threaten to dehumanize and became increasingly conscious of the love of God through it all. His Final Jottings may, from an eternal vantage point, have been his greatest accomplishment of all.
But in no way am I downplaying his tragic and untimely death. Death is an enemy that will someday be destroyed (1 Corinthians 15:26), because evil and suffering are not God's will.
And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, "Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away (Revelation 21:2-4).