Now is the time to focus on a theological conundrum

By John Wagner

If there is one theological issue that vexes people of faith, it is probably the question of undeserved suffering. As a pastor, I usually deal with it on the emotional level. In the midst of a crisis people may ask "why," but are more needful that I hear their anguished question rather than try to give them my own answer.

Yet there are other times when people want to work it through. A friend of mine has been giving some deep thought to this matter, and she recently shared her beliefs:

"Good and evil are in the world, though not in a literal 'God vs. the devil roaming the earth sense' ... good and evil are never of the same weight; people must choose, and hopefully they choose great good over great evil. But God is always stronger than the evil ... This is what I believe."


I admire her courage in declaring "God is always stronger than the evil" and "this is what I believe." She's a journalist, and like most people in her profession she isn't naive about the kind of world we live in. She knows that if God is really stronger than all the evil in the world, then one must ask how it is that evil seems to win so often. Why does evil even have a chance in God's universe?

Archibald MacLeish, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning play J.B., expresses the dilemma this way:

"I heard upon his dry dung heap

That man cry out who could not sleep:

'If God is God He is not good,

If God is good he is not God;

Take the even, take the odd,

I would not sleep here if I could ... '"


The man on his dung heap who wishes he could find someplace to sleep is J.B. himself, or as he is better known, Job. According to the Biblical story, God entered into a wager with the devil and permitted Job to suffer terribly. Would Job still love and trust God even after so much evil had been done him? MacLeish, in his re-telling of the ancient story, puts the matter into a succinct formula: "If God is God," that is, if he is all-powerful but does not prevent the evil in this world, then "He is not good." If, however, "God is good" then he must be unable to prevent evil occurrences, and therefore "he is not God" as we would normally define God.

Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and most other religions have long been aware of this theological conundrum, and recognize that it is never going to be solved to the satisfaction of the rational mind. Yet both professional theologians and the rest of us continue to ask these hard questions, to formulate answers we know won't satisfy entirely, to probe for the truth.

It's as if each of us has to work through this problem in our own way.

I recently became involved in a very sad story, but not an uncommon one. A retired woman who has suffered many losses in her life had been blessed in meeting a man who truly loved and cherished her. They were to be married next month, but he was killed a few days ago in a freak auto accident. Nobody to blame, no human error, nothing to do but grieve. It certainly isn't fair, and it makes me angry and frustrated to even think about it. What's God up to?

And yet according to those who know her best, this grieving woman has an uncommon faith. She has dealt with these hard questions for years and still believes in a loving God who is "always stronger then the evil," as my journalist friend puts it.

My advice is that people should deal with the tough questions right now. Don't put it off. Read some books, perhaps starting with Job. Ask questions of friends. Ask questions of God. Listen carefully, but develop your own response. Don't settle for just any old answer.

This is the hard work of faith. Nobody gets to skip the assignment.

The Rev. John Wagner is a United Methodist minister from Dayton, Ohio.

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