Perhaps Jairus had taken his eye off of his little daughter for just a moment, never thinking she'd go near the edge of that roof. Maybe he'd warned her a dozen times to stay out of the road when she heard the sound of Roman chariots. Perhaps he'd never meant to hit her so hard when she talked back to him. We don't know what caused his daughter's malady, but we can hear the agony in Jairus' voice as he speaks to Jesus. "My little daughter is dying," Jairus says (Mark 5:23).
Consider one of the other people who came to Jesus that day. The Bible says that there was a woman who "had been subject to bleeding for twelve years" (Mark 5:25). Every day had to be a battle just to find the energy to handle the simple tasks of living. The horror of the woman's illness likely denied her the comfort of companionship and certainly branded her as ritually "unclean" and therefore unfit for religious fellowship. But, as if that weren't enough, the Bible says: "She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors, had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better, grew worse" (Mark 5:26).
What does a believer in an all-powerful, all-loving God say to that woman or that father? What does the believer say to families who now wail through the night because a loved one is not coming home? What does a Christian reply to the inevitable "Why?" that rises in the throat when innocents have been slaughtered, disease strikes, or the wicked seem to prosper? If as the Scriptures say creation is meant to mirror the character of God, then why are there so many cracks? It must be God's fault. God is to blame for creating evil and letting it keep happening. What do you think?
Writing about the ravages of war, H.G. Wells once said, "If I thought there was an omnipotent God who looked down on battles and deaths and all the waste and horror of this war—able to prevent these things—doing them to amuse himself, I would spit in his empty face." And so should we all, if that were an accurate description of God. But it's not. That description is one of evil's lies.
First, let's be clear: God does not cause evil in the sense of planning it for us. On the contrary, God grieves over evil the way Jesus wept over the corruption of Jerusalem or the death of Lazarus. God hates evil the way he abhors everything that robs his creatures and creation of its intended health. God fights evil to the point of sacrificing his life's blood on the cross. God enlists his followers in the fight against sin, death, injustice, and all other faces of evil.
That begs the question: If God is so seriously opposed to evil, why does he allow us to struggle and suffer the way we do in this life? Isn't that what we are really wondering when we ask if evil is God's fault? Let me try to offer a few possible reasons.
The legal nature of our physical world
In the first place, some of what we experience as evil or unwarranted suffering is because of the legal nature of a physical world. Because the world God has given us is physical not mystical, we are able to enjoy the touch of a hand, the taste of chocolate, the smell of perfume, the sound of music, and the sight of a sunset, all blessings most of us would be loathe to give up. Yet a necessary and wonderful part of the physical world is its law-abiding nature. You can count on a certain stability to life because the laws of physics, acoustics, chemistry, biology, and so forth don't change capriciously. This consistency is a gift of God's love.
Here's the catch: The same physical law by which a mother's hand stops a baby carriage from rolling into the street will also stop a car when it piles into another. The law of gravity by which Jairus' daughter could safely walk on her roof without fear of suddenly flying off into space could also send her plummeting to the ground if she stepped off of the edge. The same laws of radiation that popped the popcorn you enjoyed while watching Netflix last night can in other circumstances cause a gene to mutate and create the disease that pops the bubble of life. We can't have the good without the risk of the bad.
The volitional nature of our moral world
There are other times when what we experience as evil results from the risks inherent in the volitional nature of our moral world. C.S. Lewis expressed it this way, "The sin, both of men and of angels, was rendered possible by the fact that God gave them free will. Free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having."
Would we want God to give us a world in which we were not morally free to love and to serve whom and where we chose? Most of us would reply with a resounding "No." That means we must also accept a world where individuals may make choices that make the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer—at least for a season. The same moral freedom by which a physician may help a hemorrhaging woman also allows him to take the woman's money while giving her nothing but sugar pills. The same freedom that gave Jairus liberty to give his daughter an affectionate pat could be used to strike her abusively. By the same law of moral freedom, Lucifer, the prince of angels, could use his powers to extend God's flourishing to other creatures or to tempt them to try to have God's world on their own terms just as he had.
Lewis goes on to say, "[God] saw that from a world of free creatures, even if they fell, he could work out a deeper happiness and a fuller splendor than any world [of creatures that worked like machines] would permit." God took that risk and is at work for good, despite all the evil that tragic, selfish, and stupid choices bring upon us.
The relational nature of our social world
Let me touch on a third source of struggle or suffering and ask you to tell me whether you blame God for that source. I am talking about the relational nature of our social world. Put quite simply, God has made us beings who, like him, dwell in relationships. Relationships are, potentially, our greatest source of joy and meaning. If we are open to loving, then we must at the same time be open to losing. Children, for example, are really just internal organs placed on the outside of our bodies. If evil happens to to them, nothing devastates us more.
Would any Jairus among us trade in the relationship with our daughter or son in order to spare ourselves the pain of losing her or him? Would any of you who've ever hemorrhaged from the heart trade in your capacity to love in order to feel safe all the time? The ecstasy of love and the agony of loss are but different sides of the same coin of relational wealth. It is often because of this precious, vulnerable connection with others that we are willing to fight evil instead of surrendering to it.
Are you starting to see why God cannot easily spare us from the touch of evil, pain, or suffering? Unless you would prefer the capricious horror or the stagnant safety of a non-legal, non-volitional, and non-relational world, then you are stuck with a universe in which God cannot spare us from pain without removing the physical, moral, and social framework that brings us much joy and meaning. God is surely powerful enough to create that kind of cosmos, but he loves us too much to try.
The developmental nature of our spiritual lives
A story is told of a young man who went to a fortune teller; the man was told that he would be miserable until age 37. "Will I then have something happen that will relieve my pain?" the young man asked. "No," said the seer. "You'll still be miserable. It's just that by then you'll be used to it!" In the end, I'm not really sure anyone gets used to suffering, nor do I believe that what I've said thus far will stop us from being troubled by what the poet Keats called "the giant agony of our world."
Maybe that's why the Bible never really advances a formal "theodicy" or "defense of God's goodness" along the lines that I've just made. Scripture simply states that there's a snake in the grass, a crack in the creation with which we must cope until God makes all things new. In the meantime, Jesus says to us, and he says to Jairus: "Don't be afraid, just believe" (Mark 5:36). That challenge goes to one final thing about suffering it helps to remember; it's the developmental nature of our spiritual lives.
I recall a poignant conversation I had with my friend Barbara months after a tragic taxi cab accident left her brain-injured and crippled for life. I asked her if she did not feel like raging against the heavens for an explanation for the accident that had left her brain and body so badly scarred. Barbara said, "I ask God 'Why?' less and less now, not because I don't think there's an answer, but because I'm not sure I will be able to get it fully in this life. The important question now seems to be not 'Why?' but 'What next?' How can this be used to help others?" How like Jesus, I thought, this desire to somehow have her suffering serve others. Barbara's sacrifice would go on to forever change seat belt legislation in Nebraska, saving untold numbers of other lives.
My old Princeton professor, Diogenes Allen, explains it like this: "The suffering inflicted on a person is not a complete event …" God doesn't give evil that kind of power. "A complete or total event must include a person's response to the suffering." It is that response that determines whether the pain becomes merely another crack in the creation or instead a corridor through which one receives the grace and power of God.
It strikes me that both Jairus and the woman with the flow of blood came to Jesus as if they believed that their suffering was not a completed event but an open one, still full of possibilities for redemption or resurrection. They come not with the question: "Why is my daughter dying?" or "Why have I been given this illness?" They're not asking who is at fault but are posing Barbara's question instead, "What next, Lord?" What can you do with this circumstance?" Oh what a power that question seems to access.
It was when the man known as Bill W. came to the end of himself at the bottom of a bottle and found God waiting there to reveal the next step that the AA movement was born to transform the lives of millions. It was when Cassandra Ma took her own experience of injustice and asked, "What's Next?" that her suffering at the hand of evil was transformed into Reclaim13, a ministry that rescues victims of human trafficking. This is why the Coptic Christian Church in Egypt seems to be growing stronger the more it is attacked by terror. This is why while languishing in prison at the hands of evil, that Aung San Suu Kyi became a woman able to free the spirit of the Burmese nation.
Suffering can certainly leave behind shattered people, but history shows that a struggle with evil, surrendered to God, can shape saints. What's your story?
Paul Claudel explained it this way, "Christ did not come to do away with suffering. He did not come to explain it. He came to fill it with his presence." So don't get stuck so much on the "Why" of evil and the "Who to blame" of pain. Move on and ask, "What's next, Lord? What can you by your grace do with this?" Let the crack in creation that sin and evil have wrought become a corridor through which you receive Jesus who comes walking with wounds in his hands but with the light of life in his eyes; he is the one who says to you today, "Don't be afraid; just believe."
Dan Meyer is pastor of Christ Church.us, a nondenominational, multisite church with locations in Oak Brook and Lombard, Illinois.