Doubts plague our feelings and thoughts. Often these have to do with whether or not living is a good thing at all. Can we count our lives as good and worthwhile, given the deep and various kinds of suffering we endure?
It’s not just our own afflictions that generate doubts about the goodness of life and ultimately the goodness of God. We can’t escape the painful realities of friends who are dying, grieving relatives, animal suffering, and even the lamentable condition of people we only see online.
Struggling to believe
These all add up to suffocate beliefs about God, his goodness, and his trustworthiness.
In fact, widespread evil and seemingly senseless suffering seem to argue against the likelihood that there is a good God who is involved in our world. Superfluous suffering seems to justify religious atheism or agnosticism, with a fitting sense of spiritual malaise.
When we state these intuitions clearly, the argument that the existence of a good God is unlikely only seems stronger. A defense against its parts and cumulative force would have to provide strong counter-arguments against the following claims:
- God is distant from the lives of people who suffer.
- God is not willingly and actively involved in the life and experiences of people who suffer.
- God is not working towards, nor enabling, positive change and at least potential recovery from suffering and trauma.
- God neither restrains nor rehabilitates those who cause others to suffer.
- So God does not care about the long and ongoing evils, pain and suffering that his creatures endure.
- Or God is unable to provide his creatures with what they need to recover from the suffering of trauma.
These claims resonate with some of our most profound and unresolved experiences. They also seem to validate atheism, agnosticism, or—at the very least—spiritual apathy. I have struggled with these as I have tried to reconcile classical beliefs about the Christian God.
Reading Bible stories
I have found the best way to deal with the questions generated by horrors is by working through stories of God’s involvement in the world as it is. Matthew’s Gospel has helped me generate relevant responses to these claims.
My approach to Matthew explores the ways by which God the Trinity relates reparatively with people who have been traumatized by horrors in order to heal the relational, moral, and creative aspects of his own images. Because God is the Trinity, he is uniquely able to provide humans with a new life as Christlike people. These gifts help us to begin to recover from horrors and trauma in this life and expect full healing and profound renewal in heaven with God.
The blessed perspective on the story of God’s involvement in the world, as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, comes to light in the story of God’s work to enable Peter’s confession of who Jesus is (Matt 16:13–20). This is one of the most important stories in Matthew because it serves his aim of providing a powerful and life-changing answer to Jesus’ question “Who do you say that I am?” (16:15). It powerfully demonstrates a change in perspective.
Though we can’t argue that Peter has a trauma perspective in the same way we can about people today, his perspective would have been shaped by the difficulties involved in Roman occupation, a corrupt temple system, and the struggle for a livelihood. When Jesus asks this question, Peter answers by saying, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (16:16).
This response indicates that Peter did not interpret Jesus as his contemporaries did, as merely a wisdom teacher or a sage or a prophet. This answer is also surprising given Peter’s failures of perspective on a number of occasions throughout the Gospel.
Something has changed; Peter has been freed from his previous misperceptions and misconceptions of Jesus. A life-giving shift has occurred. But how did this change within Peter’s perception occur? Why does Peter have this perspective?
We may never know all the reasons why the shift occurred; however, a key part of this includes a gift from the “Father who is in heaven.” The invisible Father’s actions lie behind Peter’s new and accurate perspective. Jesus says to Peter, “Blessed are you, for flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in the heavens” (16:17).
Peter’s reoriented perspective on Jesus is the proof of God the Father being interested in Peter and able to secure an attentive relationship between himself and Peter. This is because Peter’s perspective is drawn into God’s focused attention and hence into a temporary yet deeper mind-to-mind communication with God. This is not to say that it was permanent before the indwelling of the Spirit. The Spirit gave Peter an insight rather than coming to dwell within Peter. Indeed, Peter reverts to his confused state throughout the story and even denies Jesus, so this episode is only a temporary suggestion of what may be a convincing and enduring shift of perspective for mature Christians. It is a goal toward which we can move and grow in grace.
This post is adapted from God of All Comfort: A Trinitarian Response to the Horrors of This World by Scott Harrower, available now through Lexham Press. The headings and title of this post are the additions of the editor.