Since returning from my trip to South Sudan several weeks ago, a number of people have asked me how visiting one of the poorest, most violent countries in the world has affected my belief in God. The question usually comes around to the problem of evil: if God is wholly good and wholly powerful, how could he allow so much suffering among so many innocent people, the people of South Sudan?
That the people of South Sudan have suffered in ways unimaginable to most Westerners is undoubtably true. There are rampant diseases like malaria, typhoid, and cholera, and the South Sudanese have little access to affordable healthcare. Many of those living in villages in northern South Sudan have been raped, displaced, taken as child soldiers, or brutally murdered. There is not a South Sudanese person over the age of 30 who does not have a story to tell about the civil war that ravished their country in the 80s and 90s, forcing many of them to become refugees (for a look at the effects of this war, may I suggest Dave Eggers What is the What, which tells the story of one of the Lost Boys).
How can anyone possibly believe in a good and powerful God when evil like this happens? How can anyone believe in Providence, in God’s love and protection? How can anyone trust God for deliverance when He so clearly is not present in this place that needs Him most?
I don’t claim to be an expert on the problem of evil, by any means. Nor have I experienced the kind of suffering the South Sudanese have. Nevertheless, I’m not entirely ignorant on the subject. Like all of us, I have suffered; I know what it’s like. And since I have always found the problem of evil to be the most powerful objection to belief in God, I’ve read a bit about it for myself (in fact, my senior thesis was going to be on the problem of evil until I decided senior year would be a lot more fun if I dropped the whole writing thirty pages of philosophy thing).
I’ve found the most powerful answer in a slim book by the philosopher Peter Kreeft, Making Sense Out of Suffering (for another good book that I won’t talk about here, see C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain).
In it, Kreeft asks the essential question: how do we get God off the hook for all the evil in the world?
His answer: the only way for God to be off the hook is for him to hang on the hook. In other words, the answer is Christ’s death and ressurection.
I can’t address the entire problem of evil in a blog post, of course, but I think there are a few things that can be said here about Kreeft’s answer.
Say a child is suffering. The suffering child looks up with tears in her eyes and asks God, “Why? Why me? Why are you not helping me, even when I cry out to you, even when I am faithful and brave?”
Sometimes, God does intervene, he plucks the child up out of harm’s way, He saves her from suffering.
Other times, He does not.
But when He does not, He is not laughing down at her pain. He is not ignorant or indifferent to it. No. Instead, He knows intimately what it feels like to be in the suffering child’s position because He knows what it was like to die on the cross. He cries with her because He knows her pain. He cries for her because He knows what it is like to suffer. In fact, He died on the cross because He does not want her to suffer so.
He went to the cross to be able to enter into her suffering with her, to take her suffering onto Himself, to let her participate more fully in His divine life.
As Kreeft writes:
Henceforth, when we feel the hammers of life beating on our heads or on our hearts, we can know — we must know — that he is here with us, taking our blows. Every tear we shed becomes his tear. He may not yet wipe them away, but he makes them his. Would we rather have our own dry eyes, or his tear-filled ones? He came. He is here. That is the salient fact. If he does not heal all our broken bones and loves and lives now, he comes into them and is broken, like bread, and we are nourished.
I have come to think God does not merely give us what we want, He makes us holy, and suffering is one of the ways He works within us to make us more like Him, the holiest of all. When we suffer, we become more like Him, and when we are more like Him, we find joy.
Suffering often appears senseless. I can’t count the number of times I have cried out to God to relieve me from my suffering. That is one reason I have always loved the Psalms: they are real cries by real people for real help. Perhaps sometimes suffering is senseless. Perhaps the suffering of the South Sudanese is.
Yet Christ’s death on the cross is what redeems their suffering and ours, letting us cry out and cling to Him as our tears mingle. This gives those who suffer strength and comfort in this life, and hope of peace in the life to come.
In South Sudan, I have witnessed great faith in God, greater than I’ve ever seen in the U.S. I can’t help but wonder if it is in some part due to the suffering they endure. Their faith is a gift of grace from God in a place where gifts (at least from an outsider’s perspective) seem few and far, a gift we Westerners might take into account.
*Photos by fellow Seed Effect volunteers.