Saturday, March 08, 2014

The Problem of Evil and Suffering

Ravi Zacharias International Ministries offers a daily devotional called A Slice of Infinity that you can receive in your email. On February 4, 2014, the following was published:

Blessed Sorrow

Just a few weeks ago the resounding chorus of “Happy New Year” rang out around the world. And as happens at the beginning of each New Year, feelings of hope and expectation are high. Yet before the month is over in my little corner of the world, I have learned of sorrows that would seek to overthrow any hope of a ‘happy’ new year. Someone has attempted suicide; someone’s bid to adopt a baby, thwarted. A young man is in jail because of his mental illness, and another couple lost their young dog in a freak accident. The temptation to despair swirls all around and seeks to drown even the faintest glimmer of hope.

And these are just a few examples. Our television screens and Internet news feeds broadcast images of chaos and destruction around the world. Famine, genocide, and political oppression mar the landscapes of Syria, the Sudan, Zimbabwe, and the Central African Republic. Malnourished children die by the thousands in rural areas of Afghanistan with no access to food or help. This is the kind of suffering that goes beyond the depths of sorrow, leaving the bereaved as exiles in the disconsolate realm of mourning.

In all of our lives, our ‘local worlds’ hold micro-tragedies and disasters that overwhelm us. There is also the mourning that comes from the consistent failings in our personal lives. We do not meet our own expectations for ourselves or for others. We recognize the ways in which we have let others down or caused them harm. Perhaps we despair at ever becoming who we thought we would be, beset as we are by so much brokenness.

In this mournful world comes an unlikely and ancient word of blessing: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”(1) How is it that those whose lives are marked by mourning are blessed? And what is the comfort that is promised?

Author Gerald Sittser believes that those who mourn are blessed “by living authentically in a world of misery.”(2) He continues, “[Sorrow]…expresses the emotional anguish of people who feel pain for themselves or for others.  Sorrow is noble and gracious. It enlarges the soul until the soul is capable of mourning and rejoicing simultaneously, of feeling the world’s pain and hoping for the world’s healing at the same time. However painful, sorrow is good for the soul.”(3) Sittser doesn’t speak as a detached observer, but as one who is intimately acquainted with mourning. He lost his mother, his wife, and his daughter all in one tragic accident.

Sometimes, there is the expectation that promised comfort to those who mourn will come when we “recover” from our losses and no longer dwell in the realm of mourning. The crowds that followed Jesus of Nazareth, the crowds who first heard these words of blessing in the midst of sorrow would remain poor, hungry, and maintain their position as the least and the last. But Jesus didn’t reserve blessing or comfort if they ceased mourning. Instead, the blessing is extended “to those who mourn” and not in spite of it.  The ancient prophet Isaiah described one who would be a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.  And in Jesus, Christians saw this sorrow personified. Consequently, those who put their hope in the God revealed in Jesus can still hope even as they mourn.

So what is the promise of blessing for those who mourn?  It is a mystery that is both available, and yet to come.  Blessing becomes available as the mourner allows her sorrow to enlarge her heart for a world that mourns. It may come as eyes are opened to see streams in the desert, or scout out the distant, dry land in the midst of the flood.  In Sittser’s words it is a kind of blessing that recognizes how “life can still be good—good in a different way than before, but nevertheless good.”(4)  This kind of blessing is not necessarily easy or quickly gained, but can be apprehended in the form of human touch and companionship, a gentle smile, through loving acts of service, or through the gift of a flower.

The grace that is available now offers us a glimpse of comfort that is promised by Jesus for the future. While there is a comfort that comes from being a part of the community of other mourners, a time is coming when God himself will be the Comforter for those who mourn. Behold, the dwelling of God is with human beings. God will dwell with them, and they shall be God’s people, and God himself will be with them; God will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.(5)

Margaret Manning is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Seattle, Washington. 

(1) Matthew 5:4.
(2) Gerald Sittser, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 63.
(3) Ibid., 63.
(4) Ibid., 68.
(5) Revelation 21:3-4.

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