When Bad Things Happen to Good Marriages (Pt. 1)
You would love Floyd and Dianna.
They have been married for 40+ years and have spoken to thousands of couples about God’s blueprint for marriage. One morning while on a much-needed vacation they rented bikes and went for a leisurely ride. No one heard or saw the car coming up behind them. Without touching the breaks the car slammed into Floyd. As if in slow motion, Dianna watched him be violently thrown into the air and crash—head first—into the windshield. All she could do was hold him—blood coming out of ears and eyes—as sirens grew closer. To make matters worse, the driver was intoxicated; three times over the legal limit. She sat in handcuffs unaware of the pain she’d caused.
Was God aware?
That thought haunted Dianna as she tirelessly helped Floyd go through years of painful physical rehabilitation that continues to this day. While recovering from most of his physical injuries he still struggles with brain trauma that causes wild and unpredictable mood swings. Speaking at marriage conferences is no longer feasible. “I’m so grateful Floyd lived,” states Dianna, “but he’s different. It’s a struggle with no end in sight.”
Can you relate?
You prayed that the test results would come back negative, but they didn’t. In fact, your spouse has the worst form of cancer. You rejoiced with the news of an unexpected pregnancy only to loose the baby in the second trimester. A friend just can’t catch a break and is still unemployed. It feels hollow to keep saying, “I’ll pray for you.” A family looses everything when wildfires consume their house; all possessions are lost.
With these scenarios come questions: Is God immune to our suffering? Why doesn’t he just put an end to pain? Why did he allow evil to enter our world in the first place? Questions like these foster responses ranging from puzzlement to despair to anger. “The only thing you can say about God,” quips comedian Woody Allen, “is that he’s an underachiever.”
While answers are hard to come by, one thing is clear—we live in a world filled with pain. Yet as Christians we believe that God is good, aware of our pain, and committed to us. How can these beliefs be reconciled?
Thinking about Evil
Perhaps more than any other issue, the problem of evil raises powerful emotions and unanswered questions in individuals. When people’s lives are touched by suffering they tend not to experience one emotion, but a rush of emotions such as sadness, bitterness, confusion, despair, and anger. Theologian Cornelius Plantinga Jr. describes the toll these emotions can take on a person:
A woman came out of a sickroom where a loved one was dying and asked in a tightly controlled voice, ‘Is there a room anywhere in the hospital where I can go and scream?’ A doctor directed her to a place and later mused over the idea that every hospital—maybe every office and home—ought to have a screaming room.[i]
He’s right isn’t he?
Anyone might want to scream in the face of tragedy. When discussing the problem of evil with spouses, children, or friends, it’s important to make clear that we all wrestle with this issue. Individuals become defensive when their personal thoughts, experiences and questions are met with a type of detached, distant neutrality. Rather than jumping into a quick reply to a person’s questions concerning God and evil, let them know that the questions and emotions they wrestle with were shared by one of Christianity’s greatest defenders—C.S. Lewis.
When Lewis’ wife, Joy Gresham, died of cancer he was devastated. In A Grief Observed Lewis lets us in on the anger and confusion he experienced after his loss:
Meanwhile, where is God? . . . Go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is in vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that silence. You may as well turn away.[ii]
Lewis is extremely candid that he could have used a screaming room of his own. In fact, after Joy’s much prayed for remission ends, he does yell at God. “Time after time,” Lewis wrote, “when He seemed most gracious, He was preparing the next torture . . . I wrote that last night. It was a yell rather than a thought.”[iii]
Acknowledging people’s feelings is not difficult. First, it means letting them know that you are attempting to understand the significance of their questions and emotions. Second, it means communicating that their feelings are important to you and that you yourself struggle with some of the same doubts and feelings. “It is in suffering,” suggests one theologian, “that the whole human question about God arises.”[iv] To be human is to wrestle with the reality of evil. The question isn’t what should we do if our marriage, family, or friends encounter pain, or sorrow? Rather, what should we do when pain occurs? A friend once said to me, “Life wouldn’t be so hard if we didn’t expect it to be so easy.” In a fallen world no one is exempt from hard times—Christian and non-Christian alike. Yet, it can be deeply discouraging to couples that while in the midst of following Christ God doesn’t seem to protect or provide. Why? Rather than running from difficult questions, we should face them.
In the following blogs we’ll consider poignant questions those touched by suffering ask: Why would God even allow the possibility of evil and suffering? Why doesn’t God always protect those I love? Is God immune to our suffering? Who’s to blame for hurricanes and cancer? What about the suffering of children? And most importantly, In the midst of suffering can I still trust God?
In the next blog we’ll consider a perplexing question often asked by adults and children alike: In God’s original perfect world, why would he even allow the slightest possibility of evil entering into it?
[i] Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. Beyond Doubt: Faith-Building Devotions on Questions Christians Ask (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), p. 28
[ii] C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: Bantam, 1976), p. 4.
[iii] Ibid., p. 4.
[iv] Jurgen Mottman, The Trinity and the Kingdom (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1981), p. 47
Tim Muehlhoff is a professor of communication at Biola University and author of several books, including I Beg to Differ and Marriage Forecasting. His most recent publication, Defending Your Marriage, speaks to spiritual warfare in marriage and how to equip yourself to defend your relationship. For the past 18 years, he and his wife, Noreen, have been frequent speakers at FamilyLife marriage conferences. Muehlhoff regularly writes and speaks for the Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships. Follow Dr. Muehlhoff on Twitter.