Category Archives: Evil & Suffering

ESSAY: A Theology of Suffering (2001)

This essay was my first attempt in college at grappling with the issues related to Theodicy, that is, the problem of reconciling the existence of an all-powerful, all-good God with the presence of evil and suffering in the world.  Like many, my first exposure to this issue led me to the more traditional view influenced by St. Augustine.  

I have since altered my views a bit — influenced by such writers as Gregory Boyd and Roger Olson. But there’s still much of value in this old essay, notably many great quotes from the likes of C. S. Lewis, Mother Teresa, Philip Yancey, Billy Graham, Peter Kreeft and more.


Defining Suffering

Suffering—a basic human experience transcending race, age, gender, class, and religion—has been defined and understood by poets, musicians, theologians, mothers, and fathers alike.  No attempt fails to accurately express its essence, and yet no single attempt can be said to have exhaustively described the universal horrors of suffering.  Suffering takes a new shape and form with each new person and circumstance in which it shows its ugly head.

Thus, defining suffering is no easy task and necessitates a highly arbitrary process.  Putting suffering in a biblical context, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary defines it as “agony, affliction, or distress; intense pain or sorrow” and divides suffering into two types:

1) suffering that is “a result of evil actions and sin in the world as a consequence of the past fall in the Garden of Eden”, and

2) “suffering that is not related to past, but is forward-looking in that it serves to shape and refine God’s people” (Youngblood, 1995, p. 1207).

In other words, certainly much of the suffering in the world is perpetrated by humans themselves.  C.S. Lewis makes this clear in The Problem of Pain:

When souls become wicked they will certainly use this possibility to hurt one another; and this, perhaps, accounts for four-fifths of the sufferings of men.  It is men, not God, who have produced racks, whips, prisons, slavery, guns, bayonets, and bombs; it is by human avarice or human stupidity, not by the churlishness of nature, that we have poverty and overwork (Lewis, 1996, p. 79).

This essay is concerned with the second type listed above and attempts to understand the suffering of the innocent.  However, the first type will be inevitably dealt with shortly when discussing the origins of suffering.

Peter Kreeft in Making Sense Out of Suffering, defines suffering as Christ’s invitation to us to follow him to the cross and share his cross.  “Christ goes to the cross, and we are invited to follow to the same cross.  Not because it is the cross, but because it is his” (Kreeft, 1986, p. 137).

Mother Teresa also sees at the core of suffering an opportunity to share in Christ’s work.  When asked how a merciful God can allow the suffering of the innocent, Mother Teresa responded:

All that suffering—where would the world be without it?  Innocent suffering is the same as the suffering of Jesus.  He suffered for us, and all the innocent suffering is joined to his in the redemption.  It is co-redemption.  That is helping to save the world from worse things (Egan, 1994, p. 56). Continue reading ESSAY: A Theology of Suffering (2001)

Mourning Story

I want to share an incredibly powerful and innovative new ministry vision. Meet my friend and former colleague, Mike Lotzer, and his thoughtful new ministry venture Mourning Story.

I encourage especially pastors who are ministering to people nearing the end of life to consider this powerful way to share the gospel at your next funeral. Can you imagine the potential impact?

Watch this video and let Mike explain Mourning Story:

Going Green 5: Thorns and Thistles

Keri and I were out in the yard doing some spring raking a while back. Keri had made some piles of leaves and weeds, and I was coming around behind her to bag them up. I was in for a painful surprise when I grabbed a pile of leaves with my bare hands only to discover she had pruned a rose bush and left the thorny briers buried beneath.

“Ouch!” I exclaimed. Well, I’m afraid my language was a bit more coarse than that. I literally cursed the ground, and found myself suddenly transported back to the very beginning of history in the story of the Fall in Genesis 3. I was experiencing the result of a creation under the curse. Because of Sin, God told Adam and Eve:

“Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food” (Gen. 3:17-18).

Ever since that moment most good things come only through painful toil and sweat. Thorns and thistles are everywhere! The ugly fact of the matter is this: The natural environment is cursed.

This profound truth about nature is lost on our world today. We live in an age that is ignorant of or denying the fact that the natural order of things is fundamentally flawed. Things as they currently exist are often not as God had originally intended. Tsunamis, earthquakes, disease, famine, drought, and the disturbing violence we see in the animal kingdom — these are all evidence of the curse.

Likewise, human beings are certainly not exempt. Human beings are fundamentally fallen and prone to all kinds of perverse inclinations.

Yet, this is not what we’re taught at university. In fact, we are bombarded with the opposite worldview — the conviction that for the most part people are basically good and we must never question or condemn an individual for acting in a way that comes most natural for them.

“Be true to yourself.”

“I was born this way.”

“I didn’t choose this orientation.”

“Every person should do what feels right to them.”

“If God didn’t want me to have these urges, then he wouldn’t have made me this way.”

This way of thinking assumes that the natural order of things is still good and that our natural inclinations are automatically in line with God’s design and will. But nothing could be further from the truth according to the Scriptures. Let’s look closer at the garden to see how dangerous and misguided “going natural” can be. Continue reading Going Green 5: Thorns and Thistles

Honest Reflections on Grief and Loss (by Sheryl Sandberg)

Dave Goldberg died tragically about a month ago on vacation with family. His wife, Sheryl Sandberg, is the COO of Facebook and a very thoughtful soul who bravely shared the following personally heart-wrenching thoughts on her grieving process. There is wisdom and humanity in these words. Read, reflect and hug your loved ones a little longer this week. Thanks for sharing Sheryl. –JB
From Sheryl Sandberg originally posted here:
Today is the end of sheloshim for my beloved husband—the first thirty days. Judaism calls for a period of intense mourning known as shiva that lasts seven days after a loved one is buried. After shiva, most normal activities can be resumed, but it is the end of sheloshim that marks the completion of religious mourning for a spouse.

A childhood friend of mine who is now a rabbi recently told me that the most powerful one-line prayer he has ever read is: “Let me not die while I am still alive.” I would have never understood that prayer before losing Dave. Now I do.

I think when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice. You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning. These past thirty days, I have spent many of my moments lost in that void. And I know that many future moments will be consumed by the vast emptiness as well.

But when I can, I want to choose life and meaning.

And this is why I am writing: to mark the end of sheloshim and to give back some of what others have given to me. While the experience of grief is profoundly personal, the bravery of those who have shared their own experiences has helped pull me through. Some who opened their hearts were my closest friends. Others were total strangers who have shared wisdom and advice publicly. So I am sharing what I have learned in the hope that it helps someone else. In the hope that there can be some meaning from this tragedy.

I have lived thirty years in these thirty days. I am thirty years sadder. I feel like I am thirty years wiser.

I have gained a more profound understanding of what it is to be a mother, both through the depth of the agony I feel when my children scream and cry and from the connection my mother has to my pain. She has tried to fill the empty space in my bed, holding me each night until I cry myself to sleep. She has fought to hold back her own tears to make room for mine. She has explained to me that the anguish I am feeling is both my own and my children’s, and I understood that she was right as I saw the pain in her own eyes.I have learned that I never really knew what to say to others in need. I think I got this all wrong before; I tried to assure people that it would be okay, thinking that hope was the most comforting thing I could offer. A friend of mine with late-stage cancer told me that the worst thing people could say to him was “It is going to be okay.” That voice in his head would scream, How do you know it is going to be okay? Do you not understand that I might die? I learned this past month what he was trying to teach me. Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not.

Continue reading Honest Reflections on Grief and Loss (by Sheryl Sandberg)

A Hymn for the Suffering by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of my heroes. He was a brilliant and gentle follower of Jesus. He formed an underground seminary in Nazi Germany and taught people the loving Way of Jesus. He stood fast and resisted the pressure to go along with the churches that were under the influence of Hitler’s regime.

(I tried to no avail to have on of my children’s middle name be Dietrich in his honor but it failed to meet Keri’s two criteria — biblical or Scandinavian. Haha.)

Well, he was martyred 70 years ago last month at the age of 39. But I just discovered that he wrote a hymn in the concentration camp shortly before his death. The lyrics and powerful and worthy of reflection.

By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered,
And confidently waiting come what may,
we know that God is with us night and morning,
and never fails to greet us each new day.

Yet is this heart by its old foe tormented,
Still evil days bring burdens hard to bear;
Oh, give our frightened souls the sure salvation
for which, O Lord, You taught us to prepare.

And when this cup You give is filled to brimming
With bitter suffering, hard to understand,
we take it thankfully and without trembling,
out of so good and so beloved a hand.

Yet when again in this same world You give us
The joy we had, the brightness of Your Sun,
we shall remember all the days we lived through,
and our whole life shall then be Yours alone.

EPHESIANS 16: Biker Gangs at the Cross (2:14-18)

This morning’s news headline reads:


WACO, Tex. — In the denim-and-leather world of Texas motorcycle gangs, the Bandidos and the Cossacks are warring tribes in an unforgiving landscape. Both originated in Texas in the 1960s. But the Bandidos were first, in 1966, with the Cossacks forming in 1969….The feud formed the backdrop of the shootout here on Sunday afternoon, when a gathering intended to discuss bikers’ rights and how to work on issues of mutual concern erupted into gunfire that left nine bikers dead and 18 others wounded.

On Monday, about 170 bikers were charged with engaging in organized crime linked to capital murder….The shootout provided a glimpse of the sometimes competing agendas — power and influence, a desire to avoid public confrontations and a code of never backing down in a fight — that turned the meeting of hundreds of bikers into a blood bath.

You would think the human race would eventually grow up and get beyond the toddler-like “I had it first” macho-macho turf war mentality. Sadly, many bearded men still act like little tikes fighting over toys in the sandbox — the sandboxes have just gotten bigger and they’ve traded plastic shovels for firearms and switchblades.

But such stories are good reminders of just how stubborn, prideful and destructive our grudges and divisions can be. We need this level of hostility in view when we read Paul’s bold declaration today in Ephesians 2:14-18:

Jesus has made things up between us so that we’re now together on this, both non-Jewish outsiders and Jewish insiders. He tore down the wall we used to keep each other at a distance. He repealed the law code that had become so clogged with fine print and footnotes that it hindered more than it helped. Then he started over. Instead of continuing with two groups of people separated by centuries of animosity and suspicion, he created a new kind of human being, a fresh start for everybody. Christ brought us together through his death on the cross. The Cross got us to embrace, and that was the end of the hostility. Christ came and preached peace to you outsiders and peace to us insiders. He treated us as equals, and so made us equals. Through him we both share the same Spirit and have equal access to the Father” (2:14-18 The Message).

The cross has a way of disarming our misdirected animosity and unmasking the evil in our own mirrors. Jesus came to show Jew and non-Jew alike that the other gang was not their true enemy. Rather the sin in every human heart was the real enemy to be defeated. As its been rightly said, “The ground is level at the foot of the cross” and “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” Imagine Jesus coming to Waco on a Harley on the day of this brawl, and just before the first punch was thrown he stepped in between the gangs, pulled out a notepad and said: Continue reading EPHESIANS 16: Biker Gangs at the Cross (2:14-18)

Cracked Pot Confessions

This is an oldie but goodie from the old DI archives from 2007.  A good reminder that though we’re all broken people, we have a God who shines his grace through all the cracks of our lives.

“We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves” (2 Cor 4:7).

We’re all battered and bruised, broken and fragile people trying to endure the war-torn roads of life. If we strip off all the layers and masks we wear to cover and hide our particular wounds and scars we will find that we all bear similar cracks. Put simply: We are all cracked pots! The problem is that the very cracks we work so hard to hide and cover, or try to repair with cheap glue and other temporary fixes, God desires to use to shine his loving, healing power.

The Apostle Paul describes the amazing fact that God has chosen us fragile human vessels to carry and contain the glory of his powerful presence! But it gets crazier than that. It is actually our WEAKNESSES that can often display God’s loving, healing, redeeming power more than our human strengths.

Each of us have scars and wounds–or “cracks”–we would wish to avoid. No one welcomes the death of a loved one or getting their heart broken in a relationship. Yet, when we invite God’s presence into those dark, fractured areas, God brings comfort, healing and gradual restoration. Every scar has a story. The question is whether we have let God bring healing into those places or not. If not, our scars still tell stories of brokenness and pain, hopelessness and bitterness, tragedy and despair. Yet, if we have invited God’s loving, healing light into our cracked pot lives, then our scars will begin to tell stories of healing and grace, love and forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration.

If you take a candle tonight and place the light inside a cracked jar with a good lid, where does the light shine through? Answer: The cracks. We are all cracked pots. The question is: Are we letting God inside so that He can begin to shine the light of his love, grace and healing through our unique cracks?

Cruciform Justice 1: Introduction

CruciformJusticeHow long, O LORD,
must I call for help before you listen,
before you save us from violence?
(Habakkuk 1:2-4)

He came closer to the city,
and when he saw it, he wept over it, saying,
“If you only knew today what is needed for peace!
But now you cannot see it!
(Luke 19:41-42)

There is no place worldwide where Habakkuk’s cry is not heard; and Jesus’ tears still wet our cities’ streets today. The world’s pain and suffering cries out for justice and peace. Yet what does it look like when they finally prevail? And, more importantly, when and by what means will it actually come to pass?

So we ask, “What is needed for peace?” These perennial questions have had many proposed solutions. Yet, in a world where injustice still reigns supreme, it appears all human attempts to establish a global kingdom of peace and foster universal prosperity have so far ultimately failed.

Christians have taken different sides on this issue. Some quarters of “Christendom” have allied themselves with the political powers and socio-economic systems of the day, attempting to Christianize the worldly systems and use them as God’s instrument for peace and justice. Other Christians have separated themselves from society altogether, placing upon it the stamp of divine condemnation, and simply awaiting the rapture from this hopeless world.

Political and social activism is advocated by the former, while the latter focus solely on ‘soul-winning,’ shrugging off social involvement saying ‘it makes little sense rearranging the deck furniture on a sinking Titanic.’ Both of these approaches fail on biblical grounds. What then is the church’s appropriate response to the world’s injustice and suffering? And what ecclesial action (if any) is expected of us by God while we await the new creation — the kingdom “wherein justice dwells”?

Drawing significantly from the works of John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas and Jurgen Moltmann, the forthcoming series of posts will argue that the popular definitions of justice used in mainstream political and theological debate need to become more Jesus-shaped and our values more cruciform if the church is going to be faithful in its task of following the way of Jesus, i.e., the way of the cross, in the world today.  (Note: This is the unique call of the church, not the world, secular governments, etc.)

Join me on my search for a more Jesus-shaped, cruciform understanding of justice. Read full series HERE.

*This series is excerpts from a term paper I wrote back in 2004 at Bethel Seminary. -JB