When it comes to making sense out of evil and suffering, my cognitive tools and moral categories are severely limited and my interpretive skills are wholly inadequate. True “we know in part” (1 Cor 13:9), but the pain of not knowing why God allows evil doubles down on me; it multiplies my suffering, or so it seems. Jesus himself cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46). Those thundering questions God levels against Job portray the gross limitations of knowledge and the sheer insufficiency of human ability to make sense of it all (Job 38-42).
If I refuse to accept nihilism or some kind of mindless denial that claims, “It’s all good!” then with what am I left to manage pain and suffering? What heuristic means do I have at my disposal to help me understand dark times? Seems to me what is clear and what stands in the gap is mystery.
It is because I don’t have the necessary means to grasp all that God is doing through hardship and affliction that his ways are not only cryptic but inscrutable. This does not mean, however, that they are gratuitous (Rom 11:33-36). It’s not as though God is playing hide and seek or trying to offer up a smoke screen to my circumstances. It very well could be that because I’m ill-prepared for the implications of suffering and evil that God covers them in a shroud of mystery. This covering is grace. Mystery, therefore, is God’s gift to me. Set alongside faith and trust (also God’s gifts), mystery joins the toolbox.
It is entirely unlikely that more information will be the elixir; the silver bullet or panacea that takes away all doubt. Knowing this, I can respect what others might be going through (Pr 14:10) and not try to be the strength that only faith provides or the comfort that only God gives. My abilities to help others, or even myself is, at best, imperfect and incomplete.
Still, it’s not inconceivable that a fuller explanation of God’s purposes may be withheld from me until such time that I’m able to receive it (compare Mk 8:31-33; Lk 9:44-45 with Acts 2:23 or Gen 22 with Rom 4). There may very well be more acts in the play before the finale unfolds to bring it all together in the end. It’s not over ’til it’s over, as they say.
The Christian answer to the mystery of suffering and evil, therefore, is not more knowledge, but the very presence of Christ himself; Immanuel, God with us (Mt 1:23). There’s a sense in which our claim “surely, goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life” follows only after we’ve embraced our “walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” Only then can we know “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt 28:20).
As I look into the eyes of evil and lean in on mystery, I find a larger vision of it all. I acknowledge the de facto, yet I set my eyes on the de jure. I experience the real, but my heart remains fixed on the ideal. In gaining heaven’s perspective, my earthly journey comes into sharper focus and, somehow, life makes more sense than it ever could otherwise. I find, in the end, that the glory and goodness of God eclipses all the darkness and is the one light that remains …. forever.