Here’s what you don’t say when counseling someone who’s come face to face with evil and trauma: “God is in control” or “This was God’s will” or “God did this so you will learn something” or “We shouldn’t ask why ‘bad things happen to good people’ because there are no ‘good people’; we are all sinful, after all.”
The problem with these sorts of responses is that they are so vague that, I fear, they lack any meaningful content for someone trying to process trauma. What exactly does it mean to say that “God is in control”? Did God cause the child who was raped to be raped? Did the child do something to deserve it—since she was a sinner? Was God trying to teach the child something? Was God not smart enough to figure out how to teach moral lessons to children other than do so by making them suffer?
When coming to terms with the reality of evil, questions about God’s goodness inevitably rise to the surface. And we need to take great care not to misrepresent God when we counsel those who are in the midst of suffering. If we aren’t careful, we will end up distorting God’s image in the minds of those who desperately need to see that God is love, that he is good, and that there is no darkness in him (1 John 1:5; 4:8).
Part of the enemy’s tactic, I think, is to get us to think God’s character is deficient—to get those who are suffering to think God is a monster. And if we are not careful, even Christians can be used as evangelists of this sort of misinformation. I can’t help but think of the young girls rescued from the fundamentalist Mormon compound, having been enslaved and abused by a madman who indoctrinated them into false impressions of God. One wonders what would happen if, decades later, a group of sincere evangelicals go knocking on the door of one of these women to “share the gospel.” Would they be surprised and shocked that she would want nothing to do with God? If they didn’t know her story, probably so. In that case, her rejection of the gospel would perhaps get chalked up as the result of her willful obstinance and sin—a rejection of which (in their mind) would automatically doom her to hell.
I’m not a universalist, and you don’t have to be one to understand that it may be necessary to think deeper about the problem of evil and its impact upon real people. I recall Eugene Peterson cautioning Christians to think about more than just sin, but to also consider evil. He’s right. We tend to have a one-dimensional view about the human plight. In the case of the traumatized, the truth is that they may reject the “good” news because they were abused by a “good” man who did something diabolical while associating it with “the good news of Jesus.” In other words, for them, the whole concept of “goodness” may be a distorted one. And as a result, one wonders if they rejected Jesus or someone’s misrepresentation of him.
This thought experiment might lead us to reflect on how we ought to share the good news in light of the fact that our world is not only rebellious, but also broken. Perhaps the first step is to listen more. Our would-be converts, after all, might have chapters in their stories that we’ve never read. And for many, those chapters contain deep pain and inexplicable sorrow that defy the sort of platitudes that we are accustomed to offering. For many, our pat answers become nothing more than dull arrows that pierce a wounded heart.
One of the nonnegotiables of my Christian faith is the crucifixion and bodily resurrection of the Son of God. The life and ministry of Jesus is appropriately called gospel—the good news. It, of course, includes the announcement of forgiveness of our sins and rebelliousness. But it’s also the healing salve for our pain and brokenness. It is a gospel that tells the story of a good God whose own pain can be seen in the anxiety of Gethsemane and in the suffering of Golgotha.
There’s something about the cross that jolts our expectations about the Almighty. It’s a surprising picture about what God is truly like. Jesus shows us that, as God, he is powerful: He can tame storms with the breath of his mouth. But he also knows how to cry when his friend dies. He knows how to weep. And he can die. Even suffer. Throughout his ministry, Jesus made it a habit of ransacking the idea that God is a distant, cold, condemning deity. To the contrary, in Jesus of Nazareth we see God mingle with the poor, touch the leper, elevate the status of women, and value the very ones society tended to forget. The crucifixion reveals that God wants to identify with us—to bear up our brokenness and to carry our sorrows. In doing so, Jesus gives us the true portrait of the God who loves.
Jesus images God.
But the question is do our imaginations of God line up with Jesus? That’s where the battle is always fought—in our thoughts, our mindsets, on our ability to have a Christ-soaked imagination.
I just finished a book called This Beautiful Truth: How God’s Goodness Breaks into our Darkness by Sarah Clarkson. She shares her experience of personal trauma, something that has come in the form of a lifelong battle with OCD. Her struggle has been debilitating, a severe and unrelenting mental war that, for years, has held her captive to suffer through violent and terrorizing images that uncontrollably flash through her mind. Her illness, she says, led her to ask deep questions about God—specifically about his goodness. It led her on a journey to unravel the mystery of evil and human suffering. In the end, she found that the only satisfying answer was not ever going to be found in logical syllogisms (as helpful as those might be), but rather in the experience of beauty—the sort of which can only be found in experiencing God through attentive contemplation in the everydayness of life, including times when the vicissitudes of the human experience seem overwhelming.
If you spend much time thinking about God (or life in general, for that matter), I’d highly recommend walking (slowly) through Clarkson’s book. It’s a treasure trove.
Here are a few quotes that caught my attention along the way:
“‘The only possible defence for God against the charge of making a world riddled with suffering and violence is that He didn’t,’ writes my Oxford tutor, Michael Lloyd. Our origin is love, and we were intended for blessing, not destruction. The point of our struggle is not to gain some sort of spiritual grit or prove endurance. We are not asked to become grim warriors in the face of pain; we are asked to be children who will not rest until they know themselves cradled in the arms of the Father who begot them for joy. The point of our wrestling [with God] is that God himself has arrived in the midst of our sorrow, a gracious Savior who gives himself into our desperate hands and teaches us what it means to grip the reality of our salvation, our restoration to glory. In God’s hands, we wrestle toward hope, we fight our way onward to fresh belief. The mystery of suffering may be great, but God’s location within our suffering isn’t. He is here, holding us as we suffer a broken world, tugging us forward toward the healing and surety we can find only in his gracious hands. The real risk to faith is not to wrestle, and I know this because, for a while, I stopped. And I stopped because of what people told me about God… I began to ask hard questions surrounding my illness. Shy, reluctant, I took them every now and then to a pastor or mentor. But the answers often bewildered me. ‘God’s will is mysterious, but it’s perfect and everything that happens is in his control,’ said one. ‘You need to figure out what he’s trying to teach you.’ (Well, Lord, I find R-rated mental images rather confusing, but tell me, what should I take from this?) One pastor I read wrote an article on a public disaster and said we should be thankful for grace because the people who perished only suffered the death we all deserve. “God will use this,’ said the very few I trusted with my story. ‘You need to figure out what you’re supposed to learn.’ But what did that mean? That God would demean himself to the level of horror to get me to do his will? Was I so difficult that OCD was necessary to humble and shape me?” (55-56)
Such advice had a negative effect on Clarkson’s theology and her view of God specifically. She laments,
“…I began to believe that the darkness around me was of God’s making. I began to think I saw a God who used suffering as a way of making people behave… I stepped back from his hands because he scared me. I stopped reading Scripture because my dread blinded me to God’s mercy… I wrestled, but it wasn’t with God: it was the ideas that obscured him. And God was enveloped in the shadow of my fear: a great hulk of menacing divinity that stared out at me from my imagination, a presence I did not want to face because the eyes would be angry, the mouth hard against me and my frailty.” (57)
Like I said above, it’s important that our imaginations line up with Christ, who is the image of God. But, like Clarkson experienced, sometimes our pain can distort our thinking about God. And, sadly, so can the theological advice from sincere—albeit misguided and unreflective—people in the church.
I can’t help but think that the enemy isn’t so much interested in getting us to quit believing in God as he is to get us to distort our view of the God we believe in. The strategy of darkness isn’t to get us to question God’s existence, but to doubt his goodness—to redefine it, distort it, and blur it into such a fog of confusion that what is good becomes to us a horrible evil. The enemy’s goal, simply put, is to misrepresent God.
Clarkson hits the nail on the head when she says,
“…one of the great battles fought in this battered and precious earth is the one waged by the human heart to reimagine God as good when pain and fear have hidden his face. Despair is the long and subtle work of evil. Satan triumphs within our suffering, not just in the bringing of pain but by wrecking God’s radiant image within our imagination. And his final work is that gallery in our inmost soul in which God’s image grows as a horror. I knew, in that moment, that God had been lost to me when I believed false things about him” (61).
After reading through Clarkson’s excellent book, I was reminded that we need to be careful not to buy into theologies that would distort the image of God into something monstrous. We should instead remember that, when we look to Jesus, we are beholding the final revelation of what God is truly like. When we look at Jesus, we see God.
And what do we see when we look to Jesus? We see someone who was willing to enter into our painful world (incarnation), to carry our sorrows (the cross), and to give us a preview of the pain-free, sorrow-free, tear-free New Creation that is to come (resurrection).
The longer I think about this topic, the more I am convinced that our greatest need is not so much to gain answers and knowledge about good and evil, but to experience the presence of God as he walks with us through life, in all of its twists and turns. We were created for friendship with God. And to experience that God is near, that his name is God-With-Us, is truly good news.
Jesus himself is the Good News; he is that beautiful truth in whom all broken souls—including your own—can find refuge.