God and the Problem of Evil.

Stephen Fry

We seem to only reference the good things when speaking about things in the world that are “proof” of God’s existence. We see a beautiful sunset, the phenomenal natural processes around us, the stunning complexity of life on earth, and we say, “How can you believe there is no God?” Personally, I see all of those things, and I think that God must exist. I have also felt the awe that inevitably comes when we’re looking at these things. But I have also had Stephen Fry’s question when I look at all of the evil in the world, the natural things that exist that destroy life or make it miserable. Natural disasters, disease, parasites, the evil that humans bring into the world. And I have to wonder how a God who is good, and loving, and kind could allow such hurt and anguish to exist.

I think that I’m beginning to see answers, but they are not clear to me. I know that what is called the Problem of Evil has an argument, that it’s something discussed in depth by people on both sides of apologetic arguments. I know that logically, God and evil are not incompatible, that both can exist and God can allow evil to exist, and even use evil for his own purposes. I know that in our short lifetimes, we usually don’t see the outcomes of events that seem so awful to us. We are working within a limited framework, in the words of Dr. James Craig, and we see certain evils that seem pointless within our framework but that can be justified when viewed within God’s much wider (eternal) framework. Romans 8:28 says that God is working all things for the good of those who love him. What it doesn’t say is that we will definitely see that good come to pass during our time on earth. Chaos theory, also called the butterfly effect, gets its common name from the illustration of a butterfly flitting around on a tree-branch, and causes a hurricane somewhere across the world simply by existing and flapping its wings. But the person watching that butterfly could never predict the hurricane, because their frame of reference is too small (Dr. James Craig).

This makes sense to me. But it is difficult to accept when I see or hear about things like the current crisis (WARNING: graphic content) in the Middle East where Christian children are being beheaded by radical Islamists (ISIS), or when I read about diseases such as ALS and cancer and HIV and AIDS, or when I hear stories from people about traumatic childhood events, such as abuse and rape.

I have faith that God is good. And I have faith that he will use all of these things for good in his time. I know that having faith in God doesn’t mean never questioning. But looking at these things in and of themselves truly breaks my heart. And I can’t help but wonder what the ultimate good will be.

The saints and the sinners

When I was sixteen and pregnant, I continued to attend my youth group every Wednesday night at 6 despite the whole pregnancy thing. It was quite an awkward interesting experience to be the only pregnant person at youth group who was actually still young enough to be a member, let me tell you. The youth pastor was very kind, and would talk to me, ask me how I was doing, and so did many of the youth leaders. But some parents (some within the church, others outside) decided that their children couldn’t hang out with me because I was a bad influence. I don’t know which was worse, though. The “you’re going to contaminate my child with your preggo-germs” reaction, or the other one. Because there were some people who had the opposite reaction, where they seemed inevitably drawn to me, and wanted nothing more than to turn me into a good, upstanding, clean Christian girl who could quote the Bible backwards and had accepted Jesus as her Lord and Savior and attended church every single week without fail. Essentially, “Let’s go save the harlot!”

Both of these reactions made me feel judged. Both made me feel unwanted and unaccepted as I was (the way I’d been told I could come and be welcomed). Both made me not want to attend church. And both made me feel dehumanized, made into a two-dimensional stereotypical “sinner” who had no personal story, no personality, no likes or dislikes, no ideas, and was not in need of a friend but in need of Bible memory verses. I was either going to spread my sickness to their children, or I was a goal they were trying to reach. A number, a “soul.” Great, because everyone wants to be seen as some disembodied mystical thing that’s anything but human, am I right?

This was my first and, for a long time, only experience with Christians attempting to build relationships with me before I was a Christian. It made me skeptical of the value that the church claimed to put on community. It made me skeptical that Jesus could actually want me just as I was, right then and there, pregnant, unmarried, not even a legal adult, and seriously reconsidering whether or not He was even there, whether or not He was present in any of the people around me.

How Christians treat non-Christians matters. It matters so much, but quite often, people who grow up in church, or grow into the church, are not taught this. They are taught how to evangelize, not how to be a friend of sinners. They are taught how to tell their testimony in under sixty seconds, or to hand out tracts without being afraid of strangers. They are taught arguments and counter-arguments and they go over apologetics and scientific evidence for God, so that they can show their atheist acquaintances, coworkers, and classmates how logical and scientific the God of the Bible really is. (“No, really, if you just saw it logically…“)

But they are not shown how to be there when that same atheist friend loses a loved one, or loses their job, or when they break up with someone that they truly loved, or when their children just will not behave and their oldest is beginning to distance himself from his parents. These Christians are not shown how to just sit and have a conversation, how to just be a friend, and how to listen just to listen instead of to present a counter-argument or a Bible verse, or how to show Jesus to the people around them without explicitly mentioning His name in every sentence, without ceaselessly talking about church and fellowship and church groups and Sunday school. Which, by the way, only serves to alienate someone who doesn’t go to church and/or doesn’t believe in the Christian God (maybe even in any God).

And I think that the Christian community needs way more community with people outside of the church’s four walls. But instead, we’re busy showing kids how to share their testimony in sixty seconds to total strangers. And we miss the importance of relationships.

You begin to see people as projects, and not as extremely complex humans beings who have their own hang-ups and questions that maybe aren’t so easy to answer. Someone that I know wonders why they were abused throughout their childhood. Someone else asks why their father left them at a young age. Another person wonders how God can allow evil in the world, and yet another can’t get over the fact that so many Christians are hypocrites, while yet another sees no logical reason to believe in a loving Creator God. These are not easily answerable questions that should be immediately followed with a cookie-cutter answer about “well, the Bible says that –” And maybe these questions don’t even need to be answered by you. At least not right away. Maybe this person just needs you to hear them, and not condemn them, not dismiss their beliefs because you clearly have your own. Not tell them that their concerns are silly, because all of the answers are in your Book, and if they’d just accept Jesus, then everything would be hunky-dory.

You cannot save anybody.

Just be a friend. Be there when they need you. Go above and beyond to show them how much you love them. Take them out for coffee, or dinner, or go hang out. Talk about life and love and family. Talk about work. Do it all in a God-glorifying way, of course. And maybe you will be the catalyst that God uses to work in their life. Maybe. But in the end, it’s all on Him. But I guarantee you it will be because you built a solid relationship with that person, not because a six-year-old spouted off his death-to-life testimony to them once in a grocery store (in 59 seconds, of course) and gave them a tract.

Could books be the cure for bullying?

We have an epidemic of rudeness and meanness in our culture. We lack empathy and compassion. Some people still have it, but it’s largely missing. We live in a place where people think that it’s okay to openly mock and ridicule other people in the cruelest ways possible. People point and make rude comments about overweight people, skinny people, gay people, short people, tall people, purple people, orange people, and blue people. Mothers, fathers, boyfriends, aunts, uncles, brothers, and sisters. We’ve all probably been on the receiving end of someone else’s cutting remark, stares, whispers, or rumors.

I’ve seen it. And I think that it’s completely wrong. After reading story after story, from one about a mother being laughed at and having sand kicked at her at the beach because she had stretch marks from her five pregnancies and chose to wear a bikini, to stories about overweight men and women being made fun of for eating, or being refused food, and being moo-ed at. I saw a picture of a model on Facebook that wasn’t quite Photoshopped the way her other pictures were, and you could see a small bulge on the woman’s upper abdomen, just under her bra, along with a small belly. Now, this woman was (is) absolutely gorgeous. Even Especially in that less-Photoshopped picture. But I read through the comments, and one in particular caught my attention. Amidst all of the “Wow, your photographer messed up” comments (those made me mad), there was one that just said “fat ass cow.” And that made me genuinely angry. Because it doesn’t only happen on Facebook and to public figures. But we’ve accepted it in social media, and we are accepting it in public too.

The point is, you have no right to mock people. Maybe someone is irritating. Maybe they’re fat. Maybe they’re skinny. It doesn’t matter. I’ve heard all kinds of stories. There were plenty of kids at my high school who suffered from issues due to bullying. Whether it was physical violence in an abusive relationship, abuse at home, or just other kids constantly, incessantly, mercilessly teasing them all the time, it was there. And it was bad. Sometimes the kids were teasing, mocking, and bullying another kid who was already in one of the abusive home situations.

You don’t know people’s stories just by looking at them. We’re all books, and we judge each other by our covers. And for a long time, I tried to figure out why we do that.

I’ve come to think that a large part of this issue comes down to literal books. Call me crazy, but I think that a lack of reading leads to a lack of understanding, which leads to a lack of empathy and compassion, which leads to meanness, ignorance, and bullying. I grew up on books. I grew up reading everything I could get my hands on. I grew up entertaining ideas that were not mine without actually believing those things. That’s what reading does. It puts you into another person’s head without you having to change everything you believe and are. And that translates into real life, allowing people who read to be more understanding.

But reading is on the decline. 45% of 17 year olds say that they only read by choice once or twice a year; 42% of college graduates will never read another book after college (seeking source); and 80% of American families did not buy or read a book in an entire year.

According to government studies, since 1984, the percent of 13-year-olds who are weekly readers went down from 70% to 53%, and the percent of 17-year-olds who are weekly readers went from 64% to 40%. The percent of 17-year-olds who never or hardly ever read tripled during this period, from 9% to 27%.

(source)

And I think there’s a connection between lower reading rates and the rate of bullying. There have been studies that show that school-age children who read fiction have a more highly developed ability to understand the emotions of others. This leads to their being more compassionate and more empathetic when dealing with the lives of others. Something shocked me about all of the aforementioned stories of bullying: most of the perpetrators were described as teenagers. I think that this is a trickle-down effect resulting from parents who don’t instill a love of reading and learning in their children (perhaps because the parents themselves do not like reading), and so you gradually end up with an entire generation who is insensitive and doesn’t understand the emotions of those around them and, as a result, the damage that they’re doing.

So as we lose readers, we also lose a precious part of society: the ability to care for and understand other people.

And I, for one, think that this is a horrific casualty. Books seem to be gaining more traction with young people with the releases of books like Harry PotterThe Hunger Games, and The Fault in Our Stars. But is it enough? Reading rates are still in decline, despite these huge sellers.

Ultimately, I think you do have to teach compassion, but books seem to be a great tool for increasing it, and we are losing them.

(An organization called Grammarly is offering to help bring literacy rates back up through this program. Click to find out more.)