Today I read a news story about a four month old baby who died from ebola. I prayed for that child and his or her parents; there wasn’t much else I could do, aside from feel sick to my stomach from grief.
Dostoevsky, in one of the more famous passages from The Brothers Karamazov, identified the suffering of children as the emotional center of the problem of evil. Children are the closest people to innocent victims that humanity can offer. Why would God let a four month old baby die at all, especially from such a horrible disease?
I’m not going to answer that question. I’m not trying to be secretive or funny; I think that there’s a more immediate question to answer first: “How should we respond?” Clearly I already told you my response to the news story–I’m not saying it was perfect–but I want to talk about a more general question. How should we respond to evil?
It seems to be pretty common, at least in my relatively peaceful and affluent part of the world, to assume a sort of triumphalist attitude, as though the evils in the world are stepping stones to greatness, as though evil is an opportunity to be heroic. To quote my favorite atheist, Friedrich Nietzsche: “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” In fact, a lot of people do quote him. There’s even a popular song on the radio that uses that quote as its refrain.
Christians aren’t immune to this temptation. It’s even pretty easy to find Biblical passages that sound similar. After all, didn’t Christ say he had overcome the world (John 16:33)? Paul seems to capture the same sentiment in his epistle to the Romans: “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance (Romans 5:3).” Just to be clear, I’m not disagreeing with these passages in the Bible, merely suggesting that it’s wrong to interpret them as though they agree with what Nietzsche said.
The problem is that such triumphalism doesn’t comport with the facts. Sometimes, what doesn’t kill us simply doesn’t kill us. Crime victims can have deep emotional scars; veterans can suffer flashbacks for the rest of their lives; even little things like the rocky end of a dating relationship can leave those involved with the sort of emotional baggage that makes future relationships difficult. Even worse, as the poor parents of that four month old baby know too well, sometimes what doesn’t kill us kills our loved ones.
Nietzsche’s idea is nice, but ultimately an empty lie.
Of course, it’s exactly the sort of thing that Nietzsche needed to believe. He was a lonely man, constantly in pain, and generally unappreciated. He wanted to be the superman that he preached: he wanted to be important and powerful. If he didn’t believe that his sufferings helped him, then he would have to admit that he was impotent to stop them and that they felt horribly unfair. He would have to admit that his life hurt, that he didn’t have any hope of it getting better, and that no one seemed to care.
I can sympathize with that. I don’t like hurting and feeling like I can’t stop it. I don’t like looking at the future and being scared about how I’m going to manage in it. I don’t like feeling insignificant, irrelevant even, as though the world might grind me under and never notice. Trying to embrace a belief in my own strength can seem comforting. If I believe that I’m strong enough to take care of myself, that I can learn from every bad situation and win in the future, that I can be bigger and better and greater; it’s comforting.
But not very comforting. Also it isn’t true.
I’ve already said that I don’t think Christians ought to think this way, so what’s the Christian alternative? I think a better interpretation of the Biblical passages above can be helpful.
If we look at the following verses in Romans 5, we get a better glimpse of what he’s talking about: suffering helps us mature in character, but character isn’t based on our strength. Instead he describes character as having hope in something that won’t disappoint us. When he mentions endurance in verse 3, he doesn’t mean physical or mental resolve, a personal power that we can use to triumph. Endurance is practice relying on a power outside of ourselves, having hope in spite of everything, having hope that our current troubles aren’t the end of the story. If we talk about becoming stronger at all, we should talk about becoming stronger in this: our reliance on someone else.
In John 16 we find the object of that hope. It’s interesting that Jesus, after promising his disciples that they’d experience troubles in life, doesn’t reassure them by saying they’ll overcome the world. He doesn’t say, “You’ll have troubles, but don’t worry. You’re going to win in the end.” That’s probably the sort of message I would have chosen, had I been there at the time. (Fortunately, God follows his own council rather than mine.) Jesus reassures them with an altogether different reality though: they shouldn’t worry because he is going to win.
It may not seem comforting until we remember who he is: he’s the God who longs to be with us, to bless us, to love us. I talked about feeling insignificant, but nothing could be further from the truth: God created me, knows me, and pursues a relationship with me because he values me. I talked about being afraid of the future, but Jesus tells us the ending: he has overcome the world. I talked about hurting; Jesus offers hope: every tear will be dried and those who hurt will be comforted by God himself.
I don’t need to convince myself that evil in my life somehow benefits me. I don’t need the shallow comfort that it might make me a stronger person. Christianity offers a better comfort: evil is hated by God, and God wins.