“Why do these things keep happening?” my parishioners ask me whenever a great evil happens, be it a mass shooting, a riot, whatever it may be. After the Highland Park shooting on the 4th of July this year, the question comes up again, “Is this the new status quo we should be willing to accept or change?”
Rev. Paul Koch puts it well, “The gun control crowd will fight against the fierce defenders of the 2nd Amendment. The politicians will back whichever side proves to be most advantageous to their base to gain momentum for the next election cycle. We’ll hear emotional pleas from those whose lives have been permanently and suddenly altered by this senseless act of violence… Once again, we’ll wonder about the mental health crisis in our country and once again we will wring our hands with no idea what to do about it” (source). And Rev. Koch continues to discuss how the church can raise boys to be men and embrace virtues of masculinity, which Rev. Jeffrey Hemmer covers in depth in Man Up!, and which I recommend all men to read.
Sadly, our responses to these senseless acts of violence are rather predictable.
I want to address the deeper question, “Why?” Why do these things keep happening? Political pundits, social media influencers, and others will point to poor gun regulation, mental illness, and other factours, but these are only symptoms of the main disease. I can’t tell you why that particular individual did what he did; only he can tell you that (which wouldn’t justify his actions). Short of the fact that we are post-Fall creatures, that we live in a world completely and utterly broken in sin, that “the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21; cf. 6:5), I don’t know why. Maybe it is the status quo of human beings all over the earth, not that we should ever find this acceptable.
We not only wonder why these things keep happening, but it also begs the question, “Why does God permit suffering?” I don’t know, because I’m not God, so I cannot presume to know His mind. But what I do know is this: He is the God who is present in suffering. This does not mean He immediately removes it at the moment of prayer as if this gift to us were a magical incantation like the pagans did to manipulate the will of their gods. God never promised us a life without suffering in this world; it’s nowhere in the Bible. So, I don’t know where people have gotten this idea that God will or must prohibit any kind of suffering just because He’s good. It’s certainly not from God.
But this I know: God’s goodness is present in suffering. I find the words of St. Paul comforting, “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5).
Suffering produces endurance, which builds our character; basic human experience knows this. (Whenever I didn’t want to do something, my dad would always quip, “It builds character!” I always joke with him that we should put this on his tombstone.) We all grow from our mistakes and even our tragedies; they do not define us. But that last thing is key: hope.
For a fuller understanding of what this hope is, we must turn to St. Peter, because Scripture interprets Scripture: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! [Why?] According to His great mercy, He has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:3-5).
Our suffering produces hope because Christ lives, who Himself suffered and died for you. If I can dare to conjecture why God permits suffering, I would dare only to look to the cross: that perhaps He permits our suffering because His only-begotten Son suffered and died for you and me, that we may have hope in His resurrection—that just as He suffered and died and rose again, so we shall suffer, die, and rise again “in the last time,” that is, the Last Day when Christ returns to raise His people from the dead to the eternal glory that awaits us, which is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.” Our hope in the resurrection isn’t going anywhere.
This is granted to us in our Baptism wherein we are born again to this living hope, which, Paul says, unites us not just to Christ’s death (and therefore His suffering), but also His resurrection (Romans 6:3-5). Until then, He makes Himself present in Word and prayer, which we must return to as our heavenly bread more than we daily turn to our physical bread because man does not live by bread alone “but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4); and He also makes Himself present in His people who love one another, that the world may know we are His disciples (John 13:34-35).
This is only one reason why we weekly attend the Divine Service, that we not only be fed the forgiveness of our sins in Word & Sacrament, but also that these might give us rest in our suffering until that “last time” when Christ returns in glory to behead the evil one, the devil, who is the author of all evil.
One of God’s final words in Revelation is to let the evildoer continue to do evil and the righteous continue to do right in order to fulfil the prophecy of that book (Revelation 22:11), and it is a book of Good News for Christians because it tells us of Christ’s glorious return. So, why does God permit evil and suffering? According to His own words, to fulfil the words of His prophecy that will lead the world to the return of Christ—in other words, to give Jesus cause to come again and usher in the new creation. Suffering and evil, then, only serve the will of God that will bring the return of Christ. They are in service to the salvation He will bring us. Until then, the evildoers continue to commit their iniquities and the righteous continue to do right by those who suffer such injustice by loving one another, as Christ has commanded us.