This Vale of Tears
When the jury found O. J. Simpson not guilty of murdering his ex-wife and her friend, the nation was stunned. The families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were disconsolate with grief. Who can forget the sight of Kim Goldman weeping in her father’s arms while O.J. clenched his fists in victory?
Even more haunting was the reaction of Nicole’s mother, Juditha Brown, when the jury’s verdict was read. Upon hearing that the jury was freeing the man who viciously slew her daughter, Mrs. Brown whispered, “God, where are you?”
“God, where are you?” is a question that enters most minds, even those of believers. Where is God when we are suffering unspeakable pain? More importantly, why would a God who is all-good and all-powerful allow evil to happen? Why does God permit evil to strike indiscriminately, afflicting not those who, in our opinion, deserve it, but those who are innocent and vulnerable?
Many have undertaken to solve this difficult problem. All fall short to the extent it is seen as a problem solvable by human ingenuity. But the problem of evil is a transcendent mystery that is not fully comprehensible to the human mind. We can glean clues that will shed light and point to an answer that will satisfy us if we trust in the love and mercy of God, but we cannot “solve” this mystery. Only God can; only God has.
The apologist, nevertheless, must be ready to discuss this mystery because the only “good” argument the atheist has in trying to disprove God’s existence is the mystery of suffering. Vincent Bugliosi, author of Outrage, a book on the Simpson trial, and himself an agnostic, uses Juditha Brown’s tortured question to preface his condemnation of God for permitting the savage murders and for thwarting the justice the victims and their families deserved. I sent him a copy of Peter Kreeft’s book Making Sense Out of Suffering.
Kreeft succeeds in shedding light on the mystery of suffering in his book precisely because he does not pretend to solve the mystery. He gathers clues from philosophers, artists, and prophets and shows us to Whom the clues point. He follows the trail and, like “a voice crying out in the desert” (Mark 1:3), implores us to follow him to the only answer possible.
Aristotle taught, in the words of Kreeft, that happiness “is not a warm puppy.” Aristotle believed that happiness is not good feelings but is the state of being good. Kreeft explains, “By this definition, Job on his dung heap is happy. Socrates, unjustly condemned to die, is happy. Hitler, exulting over the conquest of France, is not happy. Happiness is not a warm puppy. Happiness is goodness.”
Kreeft finds clues to the problem of suffering even in children’s stories such as The Velveteen Rabbit and The Little Prince. The velveteen rabbit is told that it will become “real” to its owner when it suffers through love. Anyone who still has a treasured childhood toy understands this. The little prince is taught by a fox that, in order for the fox to be his friend, the fox must be tamed. Kreeft explains, “[W]hen we take responsibility for a thing, we give it a new second life, a realer life, a life as part of our own. . . . Perhaps we suffer so inordinately because God loves us so inordinately and is taming us. Perhaps the reason why we are sharing in a suffering we do not understand is because we are the objects of a love we do not understand.”
Kreeft amasses a treasure trove of clues from prophets such as Jeremiah, who teaches that there are no good people; Joel. who speaks of the day of the Lord; and Isaiah, who eloquently prophesies about the expected Messiah who will conquer suffering by suffering. But Kreeft does not neglect “the greatest of all the prophets” (Luke 7:28), who left us no writing but only a word: “Repent.” John the Baptist’s message, summarized by Kreeft, is: “Repent; that is, turn. Turn around, face God instead of running away from him. Face the light, so that when the light comes to you with a face, the face of Jesus, you can meet him face-to-face.”
Now turns from the clues to the One to whom they point. He retells the greatest story ever told in such moving and eloquent prose that it reads almost like poetry. Christ suffered for us, he died for us, then he rose again. “Dying, he paid the price for sin and opened heaven to us; rising, he transformed death from a hole into a door, from an end into a beginning. . . . There is, as we saw, one good reason for not believing in God: evil. And God himself has answered this objection not in words but in deeds and in tears. Jesus is the tears of God.”
If we put our faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, will he see us through? Is the greatest story ever told just that, a story unlivable by frail human beings? The saints of the Church—saints precisely because they knew just how frail they were—have shown us otherwise by their example.
Let me close with the story of a Christian who lived out this trial of suffering and emerged triumphant because of her unswerving devotion to Jesus Christ. My great aunt Vera lived a difficult life. She was physically abused by her husband; she lost her only daughter to leukemia at the age of twenty-nine; she survived a near fatal car wreck with a drunk driver (her injuries were so bad that, when Aunt Vera was brought to the hospital where she worked, her coworkers didn’t recognize her); and she survived several bouts with cancer. She truly went through purgatory on earth, but she never lost her sense of humor. A few months before her death at age eighty-nine, while hospitalized yet again, she underwent one final trial.
She later told relatives that while she was unconscious she had a dream. Demons surrounded her, performing hideous acts and inviting her to join them. She said that she cried out, “No! With all my heart, I choose God. I choose God!” And the demons disappeared. May we in our sufferings echo Aunt Vera’s courageous and grace-filled reply to the forces of evil: “No! With all my heart, I choose God. I choose God!” This is the only true answer to suffering.
— M. L. Arnold
Making Sense Out of Suffering
By Peter Kreeft
Deceivers for Jesus
I got a little envelope in the mail today. No name on the return address. Just “P.O. Box 17453, Louisville, Kentucky 40217.” My name and address were dot-matrix printed on a label. The envelope had a regular 32-cent stamp on it.
Opening it, I found two postcard-sized cards. The first, on brown card stock, bore the legend “Treasures in Your Catholic Bible,” with an illustration of a big Bible sitting in a treasure chest. Below it was the offer “To receive a free copy of this Bible study, print your name and address on reverse and mail.” The other side of the card had a spot for your address as well as the same anonymous P.O. box that was on the envelope. If I hadn’t been paying attention, I would have assumed it was a Catholic Bible Study, just as the sender hoped I would.
The other card, on blue card stock, had an image of the Blessed Virgin displaying her heart wreathed in thorns. It read “MARY! A Study of Our Blessed Lord’s Mother in the Light of Holy Scripture.” Again, the advertising aimed to catch the average Catholic unawares and interest him in a nice little Marian devotional.
A closer perusal of the reverse side showed a list of points about her based on the scriptural record (i.e., “God chose her to play an important role in the Incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ (Luke 1:30–31)”), along with a few points about her based on Fundamentalist tradition (“She never expressed a desire for prayer or veneration from man”), as well as the remarkable claim that Acts 1:14 is the last time she is mentioned in Scripture.
Finally, my eye traveled to the bottom of the card: “Dr. Bill Jackson, P.O. Box 99141, Louisville, Kentucky 40269” and the logo “CEC” superimposed in a cross. No hint of what “CEC” stands for is given anywhere.
Ding! The little bell went off in my head. Jackson is the head of “Christians Evangelizing Catholics” an anti-Catholic group. Realizing this, I returned to the card with renewed interest and amusement at the cleverness of the ruse. I wondered what Jackson was proposing to have me study? Must not have been Luke 1:48 (where Mary says, “Henceforth all generations will call me blessed”), because Jackson has already told me that veneration of Mary is unbiblical. Must not be Revelation 12 either, because Jackson assures me that Acts 1:14 is the last mention of Mary in Scripture. Doubtless, Jackson will assure us that, in actuality, Revelation 12 has nothing to do with Mary, but is simply and solely about the Church. He may even, as countless Fundamentalists do, inform me that the book of Revelation is actually Church history forecast in symbols. Such reasoning reminds me of a paradox. Fundamentalist exegetes can see invading Muslim hordes, Soviet helicopters, European economic communities, Bill Clinton and Mikhail Gorbachev in the book of Revelation. It’s all crystal-clear, and it was certainly obvious to John. But when the text speaks of a woman closely linked to the Ark of the Covenant (Rev. 11:19), a woman who is pregnant and gives birth to a male child who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter (Rev. 12:5), it, of course, can’t possibly be connected in the writer’s mind with Mary. Nor can it mean that this same woman and mother is understood as an image of the Church. Nah. That’s an absurd meaning foisted on the text by Catholics.
So, I wondered, what then does Jackson mean? Why cloak his anti-Catholic propaganda in Catholic garb? Why not just come out and tell me who he is and what he is up to? Why all the pussyfooting and hesitancy to tell me the purpose of his Bible study and name of his organization? What Scripture does he propose to study anyway?
Finally it hit me: 1 Thessalonians 1:3! “For our appeal does not spring from error or uncleanness, nor is it made with guile.” I guess he wants to do a study in contrast between his approach and Paul’s.
—Mark P. Shea