Prayer in the Night
SEPTEMBER 11, 2021
by Tish Harrison
In 2017, after months of talk about grief and loss, about my parents and my marriage, about body trauma and depression, about nighttime and “comfort activities,” my counselor (the amazing one) looked at me and asked, “Where is God in all of this?”
Could I believe that God cares about me when he won’t stop bad things from happening to us? Could I trust God when I’m terrified that he will let me or those I love hurt? When I look across the immense collective sadness of the world, can I know God as remotely kind or loving? Is anyone looking out for us? Is anyone guarding the door? Is anyone keeping watch?
The theological struggle I was facing has a long history and a name: theodicy.
Theodicy names the abstract “problem of pain”—the logical dilemma of how God can be good and all-powerful and yet horrible things regularly happen in the world. And it also names the gritty and personal “crisis of faith” that comes from an encounter with suffering.
This wasn’t the first time that I’d wrestled with questions of theodicy. But our difficult year and perhaps simply growing older, made past, unresolved questions return with a vengeance and howl through the long, dark night.
Theodicy is not merely a philosophical conundrum. It is the engine of our darkest doubts. It can sometimes wither belief altogether. A recent survey showed that the most commonly stated reason for unbelief among Millennials and Gen Z-ers was that they “have a hard time believing that a good God would allow so much evil or suffering in the world.” This seems to be an increasingly common struggle. More young people voice frustration and confusion about theodicy than in the last several generations. Many of those who walk into vague agnosticism or atheism do so not out of any reasoned proof (since of course there is not irrefutable proof for or against God’s existence) but out of a deep sense that, if there is a God, he (or she or it) cannot be trusted—this is unbelief as protest. In the Samuel Beckett play Endgame, his character Hamm rejects the existence of God with the quip: “The bastard! He doesn’t exist!”
If there is no God, the “problem of pain” vanishes. In his book Unapologetic, Francis Spufford points out that “in the absence of God, of course, there’s still pain. But there’s no problem. It’s just what happens.” But, he says,
Once the God of everything is there in the picture, and the physics and biology and history of the world become in some ultimate sense His responsibility, the lack of love and protection in the order of things begins to shriek out. . . . The only easy way out of the problem is to discard the expectation that causes the problem, by ditching the author Himself.
If we do so, we are, inevitably, left with other problems. If there is no God of love, the problem of pain evaporates, but so does any redemptive meaning to pain, any transcendent story we might tell in which we situate our suffering and our broader lives. More importantly, when we dispose of the problem of pain in this way, we then face the “problem of goodness.” Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre wrote that when we reject God to ease the tension that pain creates, goodness goes with it. To call something good without any overarching meaning is merely to say, ‘Hurrah for this!” or “I like this!,” which is well enough to do, but it disregards our deep intuition that true beauty, kindness, gentleness, and wonder participate in and point to a real and ultimate foundation.
If there is no one to keep watch with us, no one we can trust to look out for us in the night, then anything that happens, however good or bad, is sheer chaos, chance, and biological accident. To believe in a transcendent God means we are therefore stuck with the problem of pain. So there are libraries of books seeking to answer the question of theodicy—responses and solutions offered by the hundreds, many of them very good and wise.
Yet, despite all the ink spilled, we are not satisfied. Our questions persist.
Because, in the end, the question of theodicy is not a cosmic algebra equation where we can simply solve for x. It is almost primordial. A scream. An ache. A protest from the depths of the human heart.
Where, Oh God, are you? Is anyone watching out for us? Does anyone see? And tell us why! Why this evil, this heartbreak, this suffering?
I have come to see theodicy as an existential knife-fight, a wrestling match, between the reality of our own quaking vulnerability and our hope for a God who can be trusted.
At the end of the day—in my case, literally, in the darkness of the night—theodicy is not something that can be answered. It is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be endured.