This article was originally published in The Harvard Ichthus, Volume 11 Issue 1, in 2015.
On December 14, 2012, a twenty-year-old man named Adam Lanza entered an elementary school in Sandy Hook, Connecticut and fatally shot twenty children and six adults before committing suicide. All of the children he murdered were under the age of eight. As news of this mass shooting quickly spread throughout the nation, most people were utterly distraught. How could any person do something so horrific? More distressingly, how could God allow these innocent children to suffer so egregiously?
When I think of the Sandy Hook shooting, I am reminded of Ivan, one of the brothers in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan found himself at odds with the idea of God, not because he didn’t like God’s rules, nor for a lack of faith, but because his heart was simply too big. When Ivan heard stories of children too young to know what evil was, let alone practice it, and yet who suffered more than he could even fathom, he could not reconcile their pain with the existence of a benevolent sovereign. In a moment of heartbreaking honesty, he told his brother, “It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.”1 He could not imagine himself entering heaven and living happily for all of eternity with a God who would allow an innocent child to experience such evil.
Ivan’s dilemma is desperately real, and it can often seem as though Christians do their very best to ignore it. When pressed, many times we will skirt the issue or redirect it, resorting to abstractions like “free will” or “the unknowable mind of God.” This is generally because we cannot find the answer ourselves. The best many of us can do is to humbly explain that we simply do not know. This is not a bad answer. When Job suffered horrible things and did not know why, humility seemed to be exactly the response God wanted from him. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding,” God tells the pious sufferer, before listing a plethora of his accomplishments that man could only wonder at. The crux of God’s interrogation was the famed question, “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty?”(Job 38-40:1, ESV). God certainly wanted to show Job that there was much that Job did not know.
But there is more for us to learn from Job than simply that we must acknowledge what we don’t know. After all, God commended Job to Job’s friends, telling them, “You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:8). Though He chastened Job, God considered him to have spoken truthfully. So what did Job understand about God that his friends did not? Why was Job unwilling to “curse God and die,” (Job 2:9) as his wife advised? The answer to these questions lies in Job 19:25, where Job proclaimed, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth.” God commended Job over his friends because Job spoke in faith, understanding that God’s work was not yet finished. The grand story of humanity was only just beginning, and there were questions yet to be answered. Our Redeemer had yet to stand upon the earth.
But though Job had to wait humbly in faith and believe that it would all make sense in the end, we no longer have to carry that burden. Our Redeemer has come, and he has redeemed us. Job received an incomplete answer because Christ had not yet entered the world. And blessed is Job, who believed though he did not see. But God has a much clearer answer for those of us who do see. We now have a solution to Ivan’s dilemma, and it rests in the infinite love of God, the life that is to come, and the incomparable sacrifice of our great Redeemer.
In an attempt to explain away the problem of suffering, many theologians have said that all of our pain and all of our suffering come from our free will, and if we would just stop doing bad things, we would no longer suffer. Though popular in modern Christianity, this argument is ultimately not sufficient. It has two main problems, the first of which is the issue of natural disasters. If suffering comes from evil, why does the earth, a presumably non-evil mass of dirt and chemicals, cause us so much pain and death? Some argue that nature is only harmful because humans sinned. When humanity fell, according to this viewpoint, we took nature down with us, because we have dominion over it. This idea is certainly creative, but it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
Despite what we would like to believe, there is nothing inherently wrong with tsunamis, tornadoes, or thunderstorms. These are natural occurrences which are no more abhorrent than the growth of a seed into a tree. A seed, when it grows, first destroys the shell that encompasses it, then shoves a large amount of dirt around, and finally, when it is grown, sucks water and nutrients out of the ground. But we do not consider a tree to be a bad thing. Why? Because it doesn’t hurt people. Similarly, a spring shower is not considered a natural disaster, though some poor bugs will certainly be drowned, because it is safe for humans. We do not cry out, “Why, God, why?” when we see a solar flare, because it is millions of miles away. But we would certainly think differently if the earth periodically emitted such explosions. The bottom line is that we tend to think nature is evil when we get in its way, and good when we do not. But it is not evil for tectonic plates to shift and shake the surface of the earth — it is simply a fact of life. The existence of earthquakes is an indication that the laws of physics are working, not that they are fallen. Nature is not an active agent out to get us, but the passive reality of cause and effect, which churns on dutifully whether or not humans are around to witness it. When a tsunami kills thousands of people, we cannot blame sin or free will, because they are unrelated to the problem.
The other issue with the free will argument is that it makes the very mistake it attempts to avoid. It makes God seem immoral. Free will does nothing to solve Ivan’s dilemma. It is not the fault of the children at Sandy Hook that Adam Lanza abused his free will. Couldn’t God have protected them? Is Adam Lanza’s freedom to commit atrocious acts worth more to God than the lives of those little children? Is the freedom of the 9/11 suicide bombers so important to God that He would not thwart their plans and save thousands of lives? He stopped the plane headed towards Washington D.C.; why would He not stop the others? These are hard questions, and no answer will erase the enormous amount of pain caused by the attacks. But the free will argument only exacerbates that pain. If we are honest with ourselves, invoking free will is not sufficient. It leaves a great deal of suffering unanswered for and trivializes the suffering that it attempts to explain.
The free will argument fails because it is not so much an attempt to explain suffering as an attempt to explain suffering away. It is easy to see how we have fallen into this error. We hope that, if we can just understand why we suffer, we might be able to lessen the pain. We consider suffering to be the ultimate evil, and we will not accept an explanation that makes our pain anything but an aberration, something that God is unequivocally against. And there is a deeper fear. We are afraid to let God take the blame. Because if God causes our suffering, then how can He love us? We blame our pain on sin in order to shield God from the responsibility. But God does not want our shielding; He wants our honesty. If we are to reconcile our immense pain with our belief in a loving God, we must seek an answer with integrity. We must acknowledge that suffering is real, and that it hurts. We must admit that suffering is not necessarily sinful, nor is it avoidable; it is a part of life. And we must be willing, if necessary, to allow God to take the blame. Only then can we come to an answer to Ivan’s dilemma.
The blame for our suffering does indeed rest on God, but that does not make Him evil. Far from it. We suffer because in order for God to show us His infinite and unconditional love, He had to first teach us what love meant. And that was necessarily going to hurt. Love can only be shown through suffering. It may be possible that we can love others and never suffer for them, but if we are not willing to suffer for them, we do not really love them. If we want to know whether a person is loving, we do not look at the easy things they have done for others, but the hard things. The things that hurt. We look at parents who work three jobs or go hungry so that their children can have a meal. We look at Victoria Soto, the teacher who died at Sandy Hook shielding students from Adam Lanza’s bullets.2 In fact, Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13). Without an understanding of what it means to suffer, we cannot know what it means to love.
It would certainly be nice to live in a world in which we could love each other without suffering. And we will, one day. But before we can get there, we have to experience the temporary pain of learning what love is. God is no more pleased with our sufferings than He is with our evil, but He has given them to us so that we can experience a greater pleasure than the mere absence of pain. In John 16:20-21, Jesus compares his disciples’ coming sufferings to a mother’s birth pains. As she gives birth, she is in great pain and sorrow, but when all is finished and her child is in her arms, she forgets her pain, because her sorrow has been turned into joy. We too must suffer if we are to give birth to the joy of love.
But it is hard to look at God, sitting cozy on His throne as we go through the agony of life, and not feel as if He is mocking us. That is why Job’s situation is so hard for us to reconcile with a loving God. But God knew and Job believed that there was an answer yet to come. And that night in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, when a hungry, squealing infant was miraculously born, God gave us our answer. He was not satisfied with simply teaching us how to love each other; He wanted to show us how much He loved us Himself. And just as His love is infinite, His sufferings were infinite. He who never had to feel any pain at all entered our world and felt more pain than any of us can even imagine. He was beaten until he was unrecognizable. He was mocked, spit upon, and provoked. He was betrayed by those he loved and denied by those closest to him. He hung, blood-soaked and dehydrated, nailed to a splintery cross for hours, and he died. And yet, these physical sufferings were insignificant in comparison to the spiritual suffering he went through for our sake. In his final moments, the God who hung on the cross cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46). In a moment of pain beyond human comprehension, the divine Trinity was split. The unbreakable bond between The Father and The Son was broken, and Christ, our Redeemer, bore the sins of mankind.
Three days later, Christ rose from the dead, and the unbreakable Trinity was reunited. But that does not nullify the pain of loss God experienced. In order to show His infinite love for us, the only One who never needed to feel pain went through infinite pain. We can no longer look at God and honestly believe that He is indifferent about our sufferings, or that He just doesn’t understand. It is we who don’t understand. It is our pain which is insignificant in comparison to the pain our God felt. But He did not suffer so incomparably so that He could scoff at our pain and tell us that He’s had worse. Nor did He do it because He had to, as though there were some divine rule that forced Him to take on flesh and suffer for us. No, He did it to show us how much He loved us. The 14th century writer Julian of Norwich aptly described Christ’s suffering by noting that “though it were not needful, if he might suffer more, he would.”3 Our God did not have to die, but He wanted to, to teach us “that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39).
So why do we suffer? Because it is only through suffering that we can understand our Father’s love. Some suffer more than others. But these sufferers are not cursed, though it may seem so at the moment. They are blessed. The greater our sufferings are here on earth, the more we can understand the depth of Christ’s love. This is much like the experience a child has with her parents. While she is young, she knows what hardship her parents go through for her sake, but she does not truly understand it. It is only as she grows older and experiences her own hardship that she begins to understand the depth of her parents’ love for her. She only grows to appreciate her parents’ sacrifices when she feels the pain that they suffered. The growth of her appreciation for her parents culminates when she has children of her own and goes through the same sufferings on their behalf that her parents went through for her. In the same way, though we know what Christ suffered for us, we do not fully understand it. It is only as we learn to suffer ourselves that we begin to understand his love, and the more we suffer, the greater our understanding becomes. This is what led the apostle Paul to write in his letter to the Corinthian church that our “momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Cor 4:17). Our sufferings produce glory. In the end, those who have suffered the most will be the most appreciative of God’s love. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Mt 5:4).
But still, this feels incomplete. Because, for the most part, we do not feel more appreciative of God’s love when we suffer. Of course, some people do; Joni Eareckson-Tada, a quadriplegic who is paralyzed from the shoulders down, has reached millions of hearts because she sees God’s love through her suffering. But for most of us, pain is just pain. It is hard and it hurts and it is distressing, and we do not see through it to a loving God. But we have to separate our desire to understand our suffering from our desire to escape it. An understanding of why we suffer will not suddenly make it bearable. Because if pain were not painful, if we could shove it away by being “spiritual” enough, then we’d be right back where we started, ignorant of true suffering and thus ignorant of true love. Even Christ found pain to be unbearably hard, and he asked His Father to take it away from him in the Garden of Gethsemane. But God did not take away his pain. And Christ did not run from it, but he faced it, knowing that three days later he would take his place in glory at the right hand of God.
We too must face our pain and not run from it. And it will hurt. But we have more comfort available to us than Christ had, if we are willing to take it. If we trust in God and bring our concerns to Him, He promises us an all-surpassing peace (Phil 4:6-7). If we give Him our burdens and take on His yoke, He promises us rest (Mt 11:28-30). And if we remember that this life, though painful, stressful, and tainted with evil, is preparing us for an eternity of deepest communion with a God who loves, in which we shall never again feel hunger, thirst, or pain, He promises us an inexpressible and glorious joy (1 Pet 1:3-9). This joy is not the absence of pain, but a love and comfort that transcends all earthly cares.
I doubt any of the parents of the children who died at Sandy Hook felt comforted by the pain of their loss. But one day, they will, as their children do already. Because even if it does not make sense to us now, it will become clear to us when we see Him face to face (1 Cor 13:12). “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Ps 30:5). And though it sometimes seems that we can no longer bear it, and though we often get angry at God for allowing us to suffer, He is with us and will love us to the end. If we are willing, we can take comfort in the words of our Redeemer, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ: “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33).
Obasi Shaw ’17 lives in Pforzheimer House, concentrates in English, and is a staff writer for the Ichthus.
- Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov: A Novel in Four Parts and an Epilogue. Trans. Constance Garnett. (New York: Macmillan, 1922), p. 258.
- “Sandy Hook Shooting Heroes ‘Saved So Many Lives’” The Huffington Post. 16 Dec. 2012. Web.
- Julian of Norwich. Revelations of Divine Love. Ed. Roger Hudleston. (London: Courier Corporation, 2013), p. 42.