By Rev. John Zehring
“Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil…” (Psalm 23:4)
I am haunted by a question a church member asked me: “Why would a loving God allow my husband to be taken from me?” I was her pastor, and I had no satisfactory answer that could ease her grief. Hers was the age-old question: Why do bad things happen to good people?
I am having some of the same feelings as I see news of the Ukrainian people experiencing a living hell, suffering every kind of loss and pain imaginable, by the hundreds of thousands. If the war suddenly ended today, misery would continue for generations. O God, do you not hear their cries? You, O God, are all powerful and all good. Your son Jesus likened you to a loving father. What kind of loving parent allows his or her children to suffer such agony without raising a hand to intercede? Where is the Shepherd’s rod of protection? Why, loving and compassionate God, did you allow your own son to suffer and die a horrible death? Perhaps the resurrection muffles our curiosity, but it doesn’t do much for a widow in the prime of life who lost her true love.
Such are the age-old questions. All religions and philosophies have attempted an answer. But where, O where, is the comfort? If the world is good, why is there evil? On the other hand, if the world is evil, why is there good? Martin Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” reminds us of the reality that evil seeks our worst case… “For still our ancient foe, does seek to work us woe; his craft and power are great, and armed with cruel hate, on earth is not his equal.”
Evil happening to good people who do not deserve it has caused some folks to leave Christianity altogether. Perhaps members of other faiths do the same. They simply cannot accept a faith that speaks of a loving God but results in God doing nothing to stop injustice, unfairness, pain, misery, or suffering. Where was God during the hangings of many a black person in the South… hung by members of congregations singing the great hymns on Sunday morning?
In his book “Night,” Elie Wiesel tells of a young boy led to be hung on the gallows. Those watching had machine guns aimed at them. The prisoner was led in chains to his instrument of execution. The noose was placed around his neck. One witness, so stunned by the cruelty and inhumanity that would execute a child, asked “Where is God?” Wiesel writes, “And from within me, I heard a voice answer: ‘Where He is? This is where—hanging here from this gallows…’”[i]
I have known some who consider that being a Christian provides some sort of an insurance policy against awful things happening to them – and confess sharing some of these same inclinations. Yes, the back-of-the-mind tempts, bad things happen, but mostly to other people. When experience contradicts that fallacy, the insurance policy seems worthless. How could it happen? Why? If we preach a God of love, compassion, grace, care, and even protection, where is God when these bad things happen?
Perhaps no text in the Bible answers this so clearly as Psalm 23 – for many, the most beloved Psalm: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil…” (Psalm 23:4). The Bible here affirms that evil happens. It never says there will not be evil. It never promises to anyone, including people of faith, that there will not be dark valleys of shadows. It never hints that there will not be injustice, unfairness, lynchings, or war by a Goliath against a seemingly helpless David. What it does assure, is that God will be with them as it happens. That is what we want to know, that we are not alone. God is with us. “For Thou art with me,” Psalm 23 continues. That is why people of faith can endure and triumph against evil… because they trust that God is with them. With you. Those may be the most important words in the Bible. With you. Those are the words God spoke to the beleaguered people of Israel in Isaiah 43:2: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.” With you. Those were Jesus’ very last words at his Ascension: “… remember, I am with you always…” (Matthew 28:20).
I could not provide much comfort to the widow who asked me how a loving God could allow her husband to be taken from her, although I suspected her grieving had to run its course. Yet I could tell future generations the Bible’s truth that there are dark valleys, and that evil exists, even against good people. But as people of faith, we cling to our trust that God is with us in every valley and with each pain, suffering, and even death.
Rev. John Zehring has served United Church of Christ congregations for 22 years as a pastor in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine. He is the author of more than 30 books and e-books. His most recent book from Judson Press is “Get Your Church Ready to Grow: A Guide to Building Attendance and Participation.”
Photo by Pat Whelen on Unsplash
[i] Wiesel, Elie. Night. Translated from the French by Marion Wiesel. New York: Hill and Wang, 2006, p. 65.