A few weeks ago, at the end of our bedtime routine, I put an arm around Katie’s shoulders and pulled her close.
“Want to talk about anything, kiddo?”
It had been a tough day. We’d intended to leave for a much-anticipated camping trip that morning but had needed to make a sudden change in plans the night before. The girls knew and understood the reason we were staying home. A canceled weekend away is trivial, really, in the grand scheme of things. Still, the disappointment was real.
She thought for a moment. “Mom, does Jesus really hear our prayers?”
“Hmm. Why do you ask?”
“When I was little, I used to pray every night that there would be $1000 on my dresser when I woke up in the morning, and of course it never happened. But now I pray for more sensible things. Like, last night, I prayed and prayed and prayed that [the situation would change] and then we would get to go on our trip.” She paused. “It seems like God would have wanted to answer that prayer. But He didn’t.”
There are days when the world feels too heavy to bear. It’s easy to read the news and get sucked into a cycle of grief and despair, to imagine that the darkness will always overwhelm the light.
Atrocities abroad and at home. Disasters, both natural and those caused by human hands. Looming crises of all kinds: economic, geopolitical, social, environmental. So-called leaders more interested in scoring political points than in exacting real change.
I read reports from Buffalo, from Mariupol, from Uvalde, from Xinjiang, and I know I can’t be the only one praying for God to make things right, begging Him to take this broken world and make it new.
It seems like God would want to answer those prayers.
And yet, the headlines keep coming.
Katie’s prayer–the first part of it, anyway–was eventually answered. We didn’t go on our trip, no, but last Wednesday, her initial request was granted.
Earlier that week, it was not at all clear that this would be the case.
I asked her about this, wondering if it made her more confident that God had heard her.
She thought about it for a moment, then shrugged.
“Maybe,” she said. “I mean, that was the more important part of the prayer, and I’m really glad it was answered. But it took a lot longer than I wanted. And we still didn’t get to go on our trip.”
There’s an entire branch of Christian thought and theology dedicated to the question of evil. How can a good, omnipotent God permit the horrors we see all around us? How can He stand by in the midst of such pain?
And if that’s the question you’re asking right now, here’s my answer: I don’t know.
Oh, I’ve read the arguments. I’ve studied the different ways of approaching the problem. I’ve listened to sermons and podcasts and lectures. I have a (human) understanding of free will, of divine self-limitation.
If you want to have a logical, reasoned conversation on theodicy, I can engage in one with you. I can describe a cohesive and clear worldview that accounts for both the goodness of God and the reality of evil, one that does a better job of explaining the human experience than any other I’ve encountered.
But if you’re asking that question right now, I don’t think you’re looking for a logical and reasoned conversation.
I know that I’m not.
I might have a good grasp of the broad theological concepts that explain the presence of evil, but when I ask where God is in the midst of tragedy, when I ask why He didn’t intervene in this specific situation, it’s a cry of pain. It’s rage against evil. It’s a lament.
The world is not how it’s supposed to be, and maybe we aren’t meant to be satisfied with the explanation as to why it’s not. Maybe we’re meant to grieve and rage and lament, to be devastated by the darkness and brokenness around us, to long for something different, something better.
When Katie asked me about unanswered prayer last week, we talked about how answers might not always be what we want them to be, how they might not always come when we want them to come, about how Jesus is with us and hears us and loves us even when it seems like He’s silent.
Mostly, though, I hugged her, and I told her I was sorry things had happened the way they did. That I knew it was sad, and hard, and confusing when God doesn’t do what we hope He will do. That I didn’t know why God didn’t answer that particular prayer in the way she wanted.
She left our conversation understanding a bit more, perhaps, and I hope she grew in her faith as a result. But I don’t think she was fully satisfied by the answers (or lack thereof) to her questions.
And maybe that’s ok.