I know a man who is watching his wife die. Slowly. Dementia. It hurts to hear him tell the story of how she once was, how she is now, hurts to hear about how on “good” days she recognizes who he is and doesn’t ignore or get angry at him. It hurts to think about how what is looms large and menacing over what was, always lurking, always threatening to steal life and joy from the past, robbing even memories of their sustaining power. “She can’t speak anymore,” he says, “so we have to communicate without words. Sometimes she squeezes my hand.”
I know someone else who deals daily with chronic pain. Crippling pain, hopeless-making pain, confusing, misunderstood pain, apparently endless pain. Sometimes they can’t get out of bed. It hurts me to think of what this pain is doing to them, to think about how lively and vibrant and full of promise they once were, and how the pain they are now suffering relentlessly chips away at hope and optimism, motivation, desire. It hurts to look ahead and see no resolution, no answers, no promise.
I know a couple—several couples, actually—whose marriage is falling apart. It’s not so surprising, I suppose. One out of two end up this way, the people say, the people who use numbers and statistics to talk about real women and men who expected so very much more from their spouse and themselves, whose hopes were so much higher on that happy day when they said “I do,” who are now groping around in the dark trying to figure out what now? It hurts to see “I don’t” or “I can’t” or “I won’t” replace “I do” and “I will” and “I promise.” It hurts to see little children stumbling through the wreckage of hurt and misunderstanding and broken promises—children who always deserve so much better than adults are able to offer them.
When I was in university, I spent a lot of time reading and writing about “the problem of evil and suffering.” We rehearsed all kinds of “theodicies”—rational explanations of how a good and powerful God could exist alongside all of the pain our world has seen. We held up an abstraction called “evil” and scrutinized it, as we would an artifact. We turned it around, looking at all of its sides and colours and textures. We talked about the difference between “evil” and “gratuitous” evil or “horrendous” evil. As if there was a difference. We read books and wrote papers about how genuine freedom required the possibility of evil, about how maybe evil wasn’t real, just a lack of goodness, etc., etc. It felt like very important and interesting work.
But of course it wasn’t very important. Maybe not even very interesting, in hindsight. Evil isn’t a “problem” to solve rationally. It is, as Moltmann said, “the open wound of existence.” And none of our rational “defenses” would have meant a damn thing to any of the people described above. “Freedom?” I can imagine them asking. Who cares about freedom? Freedom isn’t worth all of this sadness, all of this misery, all of this pain. It’s not a good trade. God may have thought a lot of human freedom, but I’m afraid he’s miscalculated things pretty badly. Freedom is a gift we cannot bear, a gift we have never been able to bear. Just look at our world. Look at what we have done! Look at what we have produced! I would give God his freedom back for a life free from wasting disease and pain, a life immune to human sin, stupidity, apathy, abuse.” Yes, I can imagine them saying all this and more.
Evil is not the whole story, I know. And the problem of pain undoubtedly gets far more attention than the equally legitimate “problem” of good. Why do things like joy and love and faith and beauty and music and smiles and hugs and snowflakes and coffee and a stubborn hope that cannot be snuffed out exist? Are we owed these? No more than we are “owed” a life free of pain, certainly. But still, suffering seems to strike harder, faster, and with more existential force than good. Probably because we were made for good, and not for evil. Probably. Hopefully.
This morning I prayed for each of the stories above. I prayed, even though I don’t know how to pray for such things, even though I sometimes wonder what good it will do. What can prayer do in the face of such huge pain? If God hasn’t swooped in to magically fix things by this point, why would he start now? But still, I pray. I pray because I don’t know what else to do. And I pray because, as Pascal’s wager famously pointed out, even if God doesn’t exist, the life of faith and hope and prayer will still have been a life well spent. At the very least, it will have been a life that stubbornly clung to the conviction that we have not been orphaned in the cosmos, left alone to our own inadequate devices—that this pain, this sadness, doesn’t belong. That there is one who can make all things new and who has promised to do so. And to hold this one to his promise.