How Long, O Lord?
Five Insights to Suffering and Evil
(This post will take you 4.5 minutes to read)
D.A. Carson’s book, How Long, O LORD?, has been on my bookshelf for nearly 24 years. I read first in 1995, when I was fighting for my spiritual survival . . . and then again ten years later as a vital reminder of important truths that a Christ-follower must hold onto for dear life. Like most books loaned to me, I marked it up so badly I had to buy the lender a new copy! It’s upon Carson’s compelling arguments, my personal trials by fire, but also the raw and sometimes illogical truths of Scripture—that much of my faith rests today. “Primarily, this is a book of preventative medicine,” says Carson in the preface, “C.S. Lewis, is Surprised by Joy but I must ruefully admit that the faith of many Christians is more surprised [or ambushed] by grief.”
Reflections on Suffering & Evil—that’s Carson’s jolting sub-title of his book! That theme continues to pop-up in our daily lives. I’m painfully reminded of a neighborhood family who brought their daughter home from college on a Wednesday to admit her to a drug treatment facility that Friday . . . but on Thursday she somehow secured a local dose of heroin which proved fatal. On my radar also are two families whose sons are both battling alcohol addiction. Sobriety is counted in days, not months, and frequent relapses keep both families on the precipice of the unknown. Still another family acquaintance witnessed their fifteen-year-old daughter battle—and ultimately succumb—to an aggressive cancer. In each case, these circumstances catapulted family members into a crisis of belief . . . a questioning of their faith and doubts that their faith could adequately address their conditions. I look, too, at the front page of the Atlanta Journal; it chronicles every day another chapter of hate playing out between Hamas & Israel, Boko Haram’s violent lunacy in Nigeria, the insane human toll from gun violence in Chicago, and thousands of terrified kids on our southern border. Ugh!! In every one of these situations, some very hard questions arise.
Why does this this level of suffering and evil exist in the world? Why doesn’t God fix this problem or restrain the absurdity, especially when it pounds the innocent? What should my expectations of God be in these circumstances? Why is this happening to me (or them)? Is God punishing me (or them)?
In the depths of crisis, these questions can creep like a menacing pit bull into every corner of our lives. There are also far bleaker questions whispered in silent despondency. Maybe you’re not a God of love after all? . . . or, Are you in any way the author of this evil? And then in hopelessness, Maybe you’re just not there at all?
Yes, it’s possible to move past these questions, in faith, but it’s not easy when faced with devastating loss and catastrophic circumstances. I know that firsthand, as I describe in Metamorphyx: Embracing Life Experience, Life Change and Life Purpose. A death wish in the pit of depression nearly consumed me in that chapter of life . . . and I discovered afterward, that I’m never far from a similar discussion at Starbucks, even with Christian friends.
Several years back, high over the North Atlantic, those questions came at me with a furious frenzy and vengeance. Returning from a business jaunt to Amsterdam, I was entrenched in How Long, O LORD? again. Laying the book down on my seat, I got up to stroll through the upper deck of that phenomenal flying machine they call a Boeing 747! The massive icebergs off the coast of Iceland captured my full attention. But when ambling back to my seat I immediately noticed my book was gone. Gazing toward the galley, a few steps to my rear, I noticed the flight attendant flipping through the pages.
In the awkward, “Ummm, that’s my book!” encounter that followed, the flight attendant’s composure quickly gave way to a flood of tears and anguish. A month earlier, she told me, her three-year old son had been kidnapped by her ex-husband. All she knew was they were somewhere in Europe! And then all those raw questions gushed out in a furious volley. (See Flight Attendant Epilogue)*
The phrase, “How Long, O LORD?” appears dozens of times in Scripture, Carson didn’t invent it. It’s been uttered by many of the giants of faith over biblical history. “My soul is in anguish. How long, O LORD, how long?” cries David under the relentless pursuit of Saul (Psalm 6:3). “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” he wails again in Psalm 13:1. Habakkuk’s desperation—Israel’s great prophet under the Babylonian oppression—is on display when he too cries out, “How long, O LORD must I call for help, but you do not listen?” (Habakkuk 1:2).
What do we do with those hard questions in a contemporary context? The short, but stiff answer is we persevere in faith . . . and trust in the Sovereignty of God and his character . . . and believe that ultimately, God is working all things for good (Romans 8:28) through a master script that we may never fully understand this side of eternity. Admittedly, that answer makes no sense to a non-Christian, but to a believer who is hanging onto their faith with their fingernails—this counsel and a boatload of prayer—can bring renewed hope and faith.
My journey in life has been liberally seasoned with tragedy, failure, and tough trials, but by no means am I alone. Here are a few biblical insights that have guided me through hard times.
1. Our journey of life is lived “outside the Garden.” In Genesis chapter 3, things go south in the Garden of Eden (God’s perfect creation) when Adam and Eve buy into the Evil One’s advice over God’s command. In his perfect judgment, God banishes Adam and Eve (think humankind!) from Eden . . . and that’s where we find ourselves today; i.e., the broken world outside the Garden. Yup, things continue to head downhill ever since, but God has always had a plan of restoration. He declares it in Genesis 3:15 and fulfills it in Revelation 21:4 where Scripture tells us, “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain for the old order of things has passed away.” This world is not our future home!
2. God unconditionally loves his children and is uncompromisingly good. Yet, evil and suffering exist under his sovereignty. These would seem to be incompatible truths, but even Jesus acknowledges them as reality. “I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). It’s good to remember that we worship a resurrected and living Christ! If not the case, we believers have nothing on which to base our hope!
3. Our faith must always persevere and seek steadfastness within our circumstances. Conversely, if your circumstances define your faith proposition, you are indeed in a dark place . . . and you may never emerge with future hope. God’s Sovereignty assures us that our circumstances are never beyond his control even when rational thought suggests they are. The hard truth is that “our creation has been groaning . . . right up to the present time” (Romans 8:22).
4. The scale of time within which God works out his purposes is not at all our time frame. Yes, even God’s people are relentlessly focused on the present. We are impatient “now” people, much to our faith impairment. Spend time in the Psalms; they’re a great antidote for spiritual impatience.
5. We worship a personal God who responds to prayer. We don’t pray because it’s psychologically soothing or because it functions as an “opiate” as Karl Marx once declared. Carson reminds us that we pray because we address a prayer-answering God. “Be joyful always; pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). Those twenty words will change your life and bolster your faith!
Hoping you can apply these truths in a personal and contemporary context.
*The Flight Attendant Epilogue: Anna (not her real name), was born in the Netherlands. My return flight that year was right before Thanksgiving and it seemed appropriate to invite Anna for the holiday meal. At dinner that evening, Jan (my wife) and I prayed with Anna for the safe return of her son . . . and continued to do so over many months. Providentially, Anna’s ex-husband was apprehended, and her son returned home. We enjoyed a long and warm relationship with Anna and watched her grow in her faith. Anna eventually joined NorthPoint Community Church here in Atlanta.