To live is to suffer; to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering. - Friedrich Nietzsche
My journey, through suffering and seeing evil up close and personal, has lead me to encounter various philosophies and world-views. When I was young, if you had asked me if I was a Christian, I would have said “yes.“ But this was a culturally held view and in reality I flirted with more of a pantheism or Eastern world view. In this framework, there is really no such thing ultimately as good and evil. Everything is one (monism) and the appearance of individual persons and objects is an illusion. And God is beyond all descriptions and categories such as good and evil.
After attending a youth meeting though when I was 17, I was drawn to the love and acceptance of the group and decided to come regularly to their Friday night rallies. Being a slow learner, it took several months for me to truly understand that it wasn't enough for me to intellectually agree that Jesus died for my sins; I needed to willfully humble myself , acknowledging the evil and brokenness that resided in my heart and accept His sacrificial payment as my own. As I grew in my new relationship with God, I saw two things more clearly: first, I truly am evil in many ways and secondly, His plan includes rooting out the evil in my heart and making everything, the entire broken universe, eventually new again.
I desperately needed to hang me hat on this hope as soon after I would be deeply impacted by two painful things. First, a week before I was to report to football camp at Miami University (Ohio) for my freshman year, one of my best friends, Kent, was killed in a freak accident. The youth group I had become part of decided to go on a hay ride; a Midwesterner's idea of a fun Saturday night. So, we load up a flat trailer bed with hay, hooked it to a tractor and headed out along some country roads. In the course of the evening, Kent was sitting next to me and lean forward to get a comb out of his back pocket. At just that moment, the trailer went over a bump and Kent fell off the trailer bed, somehow falling back under its wheel. The driver, hearing us scream for him to stop, pulled over after another 50 yards. Running to Kent's side, I knelt down and saw blood running from ears and nose and I knew that my friend had entered into God's presence.
About the same time, my oldest brother, Whit, was descending into alcoholism and drug use. He had begun some destructive practices when he was 17, but through four years in the navy after high school and a couple of years at Miami, Whit had completely embraced a party hard lifestyle; and he was a "mean" drunk who enjoyed taunting me and physically threatening me. These two things caused me to cry out to God to give me peace and to make things "right."
Just after becoming a Christian, I was enrolled in a World Lit class for my senior year of high school. The teacher, learning I had embraced Christianity, decided to expose me to other points of view (this should be read as "convert me to atheism"). And so, she assigned me various existential novels to delve into, including The Stranger by Albert Camus and No Exit by Jean Paul Sartre. And there I was confronted with the argument that God did not exist, therefore evil and good were arbitrary categories humans create to try and give meaning to an otherwise meaningless world. Camus wrote, "Basically, at the very bottom of life, which seduces us all, there is only absurdity, and more absurdity." The only answer for an existentialist is to bravely face the absurdity of life and create your own meaning and identity. This journey into meaninglessness somewhat confused me and made me long for satisfying answers as to why suffering and evil are such a part of our lives.
Skipping ahead a few years, now married, I headed to Europe on short-term projects and finally moved to Croatia. Being fascinated with history, we visited sites like Auschwitz and Dachau. Over 1,000,000 were sent to Auschwitz, most to die in the ovens there. And more than 31,000 died at Dachau, many through medical experiments. These sites are testaments to the evil that lies within the human heart.
William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies, wrote,
If you had met me before World War II, you would have found me to be an idealist with a simple and naive belief which many others of my generation shared...this naive belief was that man was perfectible. We thought all you had to do was to remove certain inequities and provide practical sociological solutions, and man would have a perfect paradise on earth. From World War II we learned something...It taught us not fighting, politics, or the follies of nationalism, but about the given nature of man.
He also described Lord of the Flies as "an attempt to trace the defects of society back to the defects of the human nature." (In the post novel information in Lord of the Flies.) In 1993, we moved into the newly-formed country of Croatia. This was in the middle of the Yugoslav civil war (1991-1995). Over 1,000,000 fled their homes to become refugees and around 100,000 died. There we came face-to-face with evil, pain, unforgiveness and hate.
Finally, a few years ago, because of a very difficult family situation, I felt struck to the core and asked myself, what do I really know and believe about God in reference to suffering, pain and evil? I came to the following conclusion; a three-fold affirmation. 1) God exists; the fact that the universe exists, instead of nothing, and seems too well designed points to a supernatural creator. 2) God is good; if He was evil, then everything could be a trick, an illusion. And I have experienced His goodness in many ways that cannot be explained by coincidence or chance. And 3) God is in control; nothing happens He does not know about and either cause or allow.
For your world-view to be satisfactory and sufficient to help you handle the hard things in life, it must account for the origin and existence of evil. And it must have some means to help us weather suffering in meaningful ways. Even though I do not know all the answers, I find only the Christian world-view to have this three-fold approach. All other philosophies and religions either deny the very existence of evil or offer wholly inadequate solutions and assistance.
One more thing that has deeply moved and sustained me is the incarnation. Our God has entered into humankind to experience what we experience; all the joy, pain and suffering. And He has suffered with and for us. In Matthew 27:45, 46, while Jesus hangs dying on a cross, He cries out “Eli, Eli lama sabachthani?“ I find comfort in the fact God Himself has suffered for and with me. And His death and suffering tells us that here is meaning in suffering. Not only does God turn the tables and makes use of evil and suffering to accomplish that which brings healing and life, but He uses the hard things in our lives like a chisel and hammer. In this, He shapes us and makes us into what He intends us to be.
Paul writes, “…we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.“ (Romans 5:3-5).