I knew the question was coming.
Even before we welcomed our soon-to-be-adopted daughter into our home, I knew it was coming. I was ready I thought. I had read so many books on the subject from some of the brightest theologians over the past 2000 years, listened to so many lectures and sermons, and have had many conversations about it. It was on my mind as soon as my wife and I decided to begin the process of adopting an older child (in our case, a 12-year-old) out of foster care. These older kids in foster care have suffered so much and no matter who our child would be, they would come to us from a broken past and would have suffered trauma we could not fully understand.
One afternoon in our garage, while I was working out and our daughter was riding her bike, she took a break and asked it. We were talking about books she likes to read, and she declared that she never wants to read any books that have to do with God. Please note that she had only been with us for a few weeks and was never asked to read any “God books,” so I was a bit surprised by her voluntary comment. I asked her why that is and she responded with something like this:
Because God doesn’t exist. If there is a God, why did he let me suffer like I did and allowed so many bad things to happen to me as a child?
A bit to my surprise, I was at a loss for words. I felt so comfortable with the topic and have had in the past what I thought were challenging conversations about it. It was different this time because through receiving this precious child into our life, we had entered the suffering with her. When a child you now call “daughter” has suffered a life you would have protected her from, her question seemed eerily unfamiliar as did all my answers running through my mind. I paused and just prayed.
This is not to say all my time spent reading and thinking about suffering, evil, and God was of waste. Certainly not. Not even in this situation. First, if you’ve thought through the subject well you can better listen to the other person and feel comfortable asking them more questions. Your mind isn’t racing in the moment in panic mode; it is listening. Second, having many jumping off points to discuss the topic, after hearing the other person’s question and maybe peeling it back a few layers, you can speak to their specific concern more effectively.
Christian apologetics is far from just having all the answers because that is impossible with God. We cannot have all the answers, but we can have clear thinking to reason with the questions. Also, even though people are asking questions about God, they are not always looking for a direct answer. In my experience, most people want to be heard and understood first. Yes, in time they usually do not mind having an answer, but there is not always a need for one immediately.
I listened a little more to her and asked her a few questions. These questions included ones about who she thought God was, if we could trust what the Bible tells us about God, and more. Then, instead of laying out some philosophical arguments for the existence of evil, I just explained Jesus and His suffering and the reason for it. His pain gives purpose for ours, both now and for eternity. God is just, and while evil has its temporary place in our world it is just that, temporary. Christ’s suffering has sealed the ultimate victory over sin. And by following Christ, we are invited into not only His healing but also into being part of restoring His Kingdom. Hence, He takes our suffering working it for our good and His glory. I told her I wished I could have been there all her life to have stopped the bad things that happened to her. I would have sacrificed my life to have prevented it. But, someone much more powerful did sacrifice His life not to stop everything wrong from happening, but to bring healing, and to redeem. To take something the world would think there is no hope for and bring forth a new life, new hope, and a new purpose; something far more significant than we can imagine or wish for. That is what Jesus does.
No matter how we feel about suffering at the moment, God is never absent from it. I reminded our daughter that even if you feel God doesn’t exist because of your experiences, it does not mean He does not exist. If God is real, then our feelings about Him do not change His existence or the fact that Christ rose from the grave (and I briefly touched upon the strong evidence for the resurrection). While our feelings about God may change, God does not. And it is because He doesn’t change that we can have confidence also in His ultimate defeat of evil. Sometimes, the most comforting words we can hear while in distress is simply “I know” from a close friend or family member who has gone through a similar experience. And this is Jesus. Weeping with us through our suffering saying “I know.”
I also shared my testimony with her and let her know that while I did not suffer the way she did, I did know what suffering is like. And it was that suffering that brought me to Christ. I did not hold anything back with her either. I was honest and transparent with my story. Finally, I asked her if she believed that her suffering was without purpose. Because if there is no God, then ultimately our pain is for nothing. I explained the fact that no other religion makes the claims of Christianity; that Jesus both has conquered evil and heals us from it. I told her that her suffering was for something and maybe we will know one day or not. I did know that for now, all our suffering brought her a mom and dad that loved her and us a beautiful daughter. Her response only came by way of tears and after a very long hug and declaring “My brain is mush”, she was back on her bike riding away.
At first, I was running the whole conversation through my mind; could I have said something better? Did I mess up? Did I push her away from God? I prayed and was quickly reminded that I am not responsible for her salvation and God is sovereign over her life.
Through more weeks of constant prayer and some more conversations, God reminded us of His sovereignty. At church one morning, during the worship time at the end of the service done by a guest pastor from the UK (talking about prayer and suffering, of course!), our daughter told my wife that it took almost an hour of “a guy from the UK” preaching for her to see Jesus. She then asked if she could talk to the guest pastor. Through tears we watched them talk, bow their heads, pray, and take communion. The guest pastor walked her back to us and told us our daughter is now a follower of Christ. She was sobbing and grabbed both of us squeezing so tight as her tears soaked our shirts and ours her head. She was then so excited to tell everyone she was a Christian now. To know of her suffering, to listen to her tell her story, to see how much she doubted God, and then day by day, see God soften her heart was unforgettable. She does not dismiss her suffering in the past; God does not require that. But, she is covered in a holy grace that was never known before. Her healing has begun and it is evident just in her joy and knowing that her past no longer defines her; she is a daughter of a King now.
What have I learned about suffering and what would I pass along to other believers, especially those who are walking with a non-believer in misery? First, continue to do just that; walk with them. Weep with those who weep. Forgo any Christianese platitudes. If you don’t know how to talk about evil and suffering concerning God, then learn! As I mentioned above, reading some good books about evil and suffering with your Bible in hand will help tremendously. Being able to ask insightful questions can be very impactful and that begins with having good knowledge.
Second, by doing the first, you will become a better listener. Inside the church, I’ve grown tired of most people who think apologetics is just giving answers and arguing. It is so far from that and in my 12 years of studying apologetics, now at the graduate level from some of the top Christian thinkers, I’ve never heard it presented as just arguing. The real apologist stress on top of knowledge learning to be a better listener, gaining character and wisdom, and being a better ambassador for Christ. The other big part of apologetics is studying the tough parts of the faith and challenging your doubts. And through that growth, you will become much more equipped to discuss your faith and clearly explain the truth of the Christian worldview to others. I believe the lack of interest in apologetics in the church is related to a lack of interest in evangelizing along with an increase in religious relativism views.
Third, be honest about your struggles and doubts with others. Again, apologetics helps with that because you won’t be scared or ashamed of your struggles and doubts. Don’t hesitate to share which of God’s promises you’ve relied on during suffering. And while my pain could not compare to what our daughter had been through, that doesn’t mean your suffering is not relevant because the point isn’t the degree of suffering; the end is understanding where God is in it and seeing Christ through it.
Finally, through all the above pray. When walking with someone through suffering, either another believer or a non-believer, let it drive you to your knees more than you thought possible. Since getting our daughter, my wife and I have never prayed so much in our life. I cannot count the nights of lost sleep just staying up and praying. Sometimes through specific verse praying over our daughter and sometimes just crying out to God over and over asking Him to make Himself known to her through the suffering.
I hope this story has encouraged you to study evil and suffering more. I continue to dive into this topic as the world does want to know why God allows such evil we see daily. I’ve now had too many personal encounters with it, but I have yet to encounter suffering without God’s sustaining mercy, even if I could not recognize it immediately. Maybe you’ve encountered more than you wish and you are saying you can’t see any grace or mercy. I pray you run toward God and not from him. Too often we just can’t see God because we are doing that; running away with our Bible’s closed, apart from the church, and refusing to get on our knees in prayer. It isn’t easy not to run away. But I’ve now seen a child with more courage than I thought possible, who the world would say has every right to run away and be angry at God for a lifetime, turn toward Jesus and say “I want to be healed. I trust you to do that.” I pray those suffering, maybe yourself, can say those words today and trade your pain for something greater that can never be taken away:
For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:38,39
If you want one of the most comprehensive books to read on the subject, please check out “Why Does God Allow Evil? Compelling Answers For Life’s Toughest Questions” by Clay Jones.