In America, we are heartbroken over the tragic and unspeakable death of George Floyd, and we watch in horror as violence and looting ravage our towns and neighborhoods. Add all of this to the coronavirus pandemic and a record-setting unemployment rate, and there’s only one conclusion: We need prayer.
Even when the pandemic was new and its economic consequences were yet to be felt, our nation was turning to prayer. The chief rabbis of Israel, Rabbis Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau, for example, led more than half a million Jewish people in online prayer. Meanwhile, Pope Francis live-streamed the Lord’s Prayer from the Vatican, inviting the world to join him in praying for all of those suffering from the pandemic.
It is not unusual in times of tragedy for people to turn to God. Nor is it unusual for skeptics to suggest prayer is meaningless. You may recall Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s controversial tweet in response to the tragic mosque shooting in New Zealand. “What good are your thoughts & prayers when they don’t even keep the pews safe?” the freshman congresswoman asked the nation.
A few months ago, my youngest son answered in part the real question behind sentiments like AOC’s. He had awoken from a bad dream. “Momma, I need you,” he cried. When I went in to comfort him, saying, “I’m right here with you,” he instantly fell fast asleep. In this short, middle-of-the-night conversation, my son highlighted the importance of presence — the importance of walking through suffering with someone.
Behind the sarcasm and skepticism of AOC’s tweet lies an age-old philosophical question. For many, it is the question: Why would a good and sovereign God permit such evil? Why would a powerful and loving God fail to intervene and prohibit pandemics or mass shootings? This question highlights the difference between two philosophical responses that Christians can have to evil and suffering. In the face of the riots rocking our nation and the coronavirus pandemic, it is worth considering them both.
The Problem of Evil
Theodicy is a familiar response to suffering and tragedy. It is the intellectual practice of reconciling one’s belief in a good and powerful God with the reality of the sometimes intense suffering and evil we see in the world around us.
AOC’s tweet reveals her own wrestling with questions of theodicy. She questions the value of praying to a God who would allow something evil to happen. Under such a view, God is either powerless or else willing to turn a blind eye to the world’s brokenness. He cannot be both all sovereign and all good. As the 18th-century philosopher David Hume put it, “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then God is impotent. Is God able to prevent evil, but not willing? Then God is malevolent.”
Christian theologians have good answers to these charges. They point us to Scripture, which tells us God is opposed to evil in every form and is a redeeming God who can and does bring good out of even evil.
Most importantly, they answer the charge that God is not doing anything. They remind us God has entered into the fray against evil on our behalf. In fact, he sent his own Son to die a ghastly death on a Roman instrument of torture in order to pay the penalty for sin — sin that infects, corrupts, and destroys so much of our world.
God’s response to evil in sending Jesus is not “abstract condolences but costly solidarity,” as John Swinton reminds us in “Raging with Compassion.” God did something about evil and suffering when he sent Jesus to break the power of sin and to reconcile our broken world to him. Further, God is still working and promises that one day all will be set right and every tear will be wiped away.
The Shortcomings of Theodicy
While the wrestling answers of the theodical theologians are good and true, theodical head knowledge can leave us longing for something more when we personally experience suffering and evil. This was especially true for me when, as a teenager, I lost my dad to addiction and depression. The intellectual exercise of theodicy can fail to respond fully to our experiences of suffering.
This quest for something more than intellectual knowledge is displayed in my then-4-year-old’s response to his bad dream. It may have been helpful for me to tell him his dreams were not real and explain to him that the monsters existed not under his bed but only in his head. But what my son really needed in that moment was my presence. For my son, the very real terror of the night was overcome by the presence of a loving parent.
When God Shows Up
This brings us to a second response Christians can have to evil and suffering, a response called theophany, an ancient way of walking through evil and suffering.
For the early Christians, suffering did not have to be explained. Rather, they just needed the means to press forward. As Alasdair MacIntyre explains, only after the Enlightenment, after the elevation of science and reason, did the problem of evil became the primary challenge to the Christian faith. In fact, as a historical matter, Christians have not offered a “solution” to the problem of evil, but instead sought to live through suffering in the context of community.
The Israelites give us a picture of what theophany means in the context of suffering. Famine, military defeats, infant mortality, and slavery are all part of Israel’s story. Swinton argues the Israelite response was not to excuse or rationalize suffering, but instead to ask, how can I walk through this with God?
A theophany literally means “when God shows up.” Theophany recognizes that God enters into and is with us in our suffering. Jesus is the revelation of God, and we see in Jesus’ heart-wrenching responses to evil a God who is deeply grieved by human suffering.
The original Greek word for compassion, “splagchnizomai,” means to be moved in one’s bowels. It is a gut-wrenching sort of empathy and understanding. The Gospels show us a Jesus often moved by this sort of compassion. When a leper approached, Jesus did not back away, but was moved with compassion, put forth his hand, touched him, and healed him. When two blind beggars cried out to Jesus as he passed by on the road, Jesus had compassion on them, stopped, touched their eyes, and healed them immediately. When Jesus sought a moment of quiet and the crowds followed, he had compassion on them and healed the sick people among them.
The Power of Prayer
Theophany does not excuse Christians from doing something about evil — much the reverse. The Bible commands us to use our every faculty to stand up for the poor and oppressed. As 1 John 3:18 puts it, “Dear children, let us not love with word or speech but with actions and in truth.”
While we are never excused from taking action, the truth is that sometimes the most powerful thing we can do is pray, addressing a living God who enters into our suffering and does something about it. Prayer is a way of interceding for others and asking as a community for God to show up and be with us in the midst of suffering and evil.
When we are faced with the tragedy of lost life, the fear of violence or a pandemic, or a lost job and economic hardship, we can take comfort knowing God not only redeems the brokenness of the world but also enters into our pain. Theophany invites those suffering to walk through that suffering with a good God, a God who never forsakes us, who shows up in the darkest hours, who comforts the needy, and who promises to set all things right one day.
This is why we pray through evil and suffering, even if it doesn’t always change our visible circumstances.