Category Archives: Poverty

Swiftocracy!: How Well Has the Church Provided?

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For the next two weeks each of my posts will be based off requests. For more information about how that happened, look here.

“Where is the church with respect to the balance between feeding people emotionally, mentally, and physically–and what should be done about it?”

I’d like to begin by saying that I don’t think I’m qualified to answer this question. I’m not a pastor, minister, deacon, elder, priest, etc. I’m a layman, and I can only give a layman’s perspective on this question.

This question is a thorny one because it depends on what definition of “church” we are using. There are two general meanings involved in the word church. On the one hand is the Church, capital c (if you like), that represents all Christians everywhere. The bridegroom of Christ, his kingdom on this earth, the body of which Christ is the head, etc. The other general meaning is your local church or faith community, ie where you go to worship. This might be expanded to include an entire denomination or section of Christianity. Some of these denominations, or individuals within them, have different ideas about what the capital c Church looks like. Some extremely fundamentalist churches might hold that only members of their denomination are “true Christians.” Some extremely unorthodox churches might teach that all humans are part of the Church. Most denominations fall somewhere in the middle. I myself (and I don’t think I’m far from what traditional Christian orthodoxy teaches) believe that all who hold their hope in Christ are members of the church, whether they’re Baptists, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Coptic, Episcopalian, non-denominational, or come from a Stone-Campbell church like myself. I’ll leave it to God to decide which individuals are true Christians and which are not. It’s not up for me to judge a man’s heart (and thank goodness for that!).

This leaves me with a sticky problem in attempting to answer the question above. It would be foolish to talk about how my own church (the one I go to on Sundays, or even the broader denomination) feeds people emotionally, mentally, and physically. The focus there is very narrow, and only helpful to people who go to the same church I do. On the other hand, if I try to talk about how the Church performs in these respects I’m faced with the fact that not all parts of the Church do the same things in the same ways with the same effectiveness. There are good churches and bad churches but they’re all part of the Church, if you get what I’m saying. I’m forced to answer with either extreme narrowness (my own church) or extreme generalities (all churches everywhere).

Still, I can make a stab at it.

I’ve never found an atheist or even an anti-theist who didn’t concede that the Church provides emotional fulfillment and meets emotional needs. The emotional relevance of Christianity is so obvious and potent that it often takes the form of a criticism: that is, people only believe in God because the concept makes people feel better. My own church tradition is heavy with the power of personal testimonies. As such I grew up hearing over and over how people had come from places of deep depression, confusion, and self-absorption and professed to be saved by Christ. Though not all churches put such emphasis on personal experiences or testimonies I’d argue it’s hard to find churches that don’t feed people’s emotional needs. Perhaps some very harsh fundamentalist churches, or some particularly tired and dusty liturgical traditions. The Holy Spirit speaks to the heart.

Mentally is a different matter. I find that the Church has a long and storied tradition of scholarship, philosophy, and contemplation. The Church has much intellectual meat for a hungry mind to chew on. You need look no further than C.S. Lewis to see that, though I would encourage you to look much further and wider than that. G.K. Chesterton, Thomas Aquinas, Anselm, Augustine, Francis Shaeffer, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and many others make up a grand tradition of Christian intellectualism. However much of their work does seem closed off to the average churchgoer, though not by any policy or particular anti-intellectual movement. The simple fact is that these people must be sought out. Most churches do not ask that their members read much more than the Bible. I would like to see more individual churches introducing people to Christian philosophers and theologians. Few things make me sadder when I hear stories of people who left the Church because they had questions that others couldn’t, or wouldn’t, answer when there are answers to be had. Or, if not answers, then a long history of discussion and debate.  Complicating all of this is the fact that people have very different temperaments and needs. Some people find their mental needs are fulfilled by the average church service. Others are hungry for more. If one of the latter seeks out answers from one of the former it can lead to trouble. Sometimes I imagine that it would be useful if every church had a member who specialized in such matters. A person who anyone could go to with hard mental questions who could either answer them or give them the names of the authors who can. In most churches this is expected of the pastor (or priest, or minister, etc), but most pastors have a lot on their plate already, and not all are as intellectual as some might like. Really what needs to happen is that the Church (capital c) needs more intellectuals within it. We need more people everywhere who seek out answers and learn to use their minds, so that everyone may be benefitted by their knowledge. The Church has great storehouses of mental meat, but first we must choose to open up the pantry.

Finally there is the matter of the physical. In this theatre I believe that the Church has simultaneously done extraordinarily well and not nearly enough. According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics the top international relief organizations in the United States is World Vision, followed by Food for the Poor, both Christian nonprofits. Out of the top 5 international relief charities 3 are Christian. All over the world the Church has opened soup kitchens for the hungry, has sent food to those who are starving, has clothed those who are freezing, and has generally tried to help those in need. The Church has built thousands of hospitals, orphanages, schools, and asylums. Members of the Church have devoted their lives to helping those in need. I would argue that the Church has done more to help those in need than any other group on Earth.

On the other hand so much money is wasted and hoarded that is desperately needed elsewhere. Some megachurches spend millions on new buildings while sending mere thousands to starving refugees. Followers of the prosperity gospel believe that God would rather have them spend their excess cash on a luxury car then to help people who are dying of curable diseases because they can’t afford medicine. I will speak to American Christians in particular here. American Christians have access to an incredible amount of money. We have access to more wealth than any Christian group in the history of the world. Yet most American Christians give less than 10% of their income to help those in need. Some estimate that if American Christians who report that religion is very important to their lives gave 10% of their after tax income an additional $46 billion per year would be raised. Do you know how much good can be done with $46 billion? According to Richard Stearns, CEO of World Vision (who would be a position to know, considering the extent of their work) estimated that it would take about $70 billion to raise the lowest third of humanity out of extreme poverty. American Christians could bring two billion people who live on less than $2 a day into financial security in only two years if we wanted to. But American Christians don’t give that much. And when they do give much of it goes to better buildings, fancier programs, and the newest A/V equipment for the local church. The Church has done immense good in this world: but we have been, and still are, capable of doing so much more.

In the end the only recommendation I can make is on the individual level. The Church is made up of individual Christians trying to live out their faith. If the Church is to become better it must start with ourselves. We must learn to feed our brothers and sisters emotionally. We must educate ourselves and those around us in the great intellectual tradition of Christianity. We must use our own resources, our money, time, and effort, to meet the physical needs of all humanity. The change must begin and end with yourself.

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The Power of Money in the Right Hands

I found an incredible story while surfing the web today. I thought I’d share it with you. You can find the full story here, but I’ll summarize it for you.

Fomba Trawally is a Liberian businessman. For some context you need to know that Liberia is a small West African country that was ravaged by two civil wars, starting in 1980 and only becoming truely peacefull within the last ten years or so. The war killed hundreds of thousands of people and destroyed the Liberian economy. Today Liberia is one of the worlds poorest countires, with an employment rate of only 15%.

Fomba Trawally’s mother made her living as a street vendor selling food, and after her death Trawally continued her business. However the civil war drove him out of the country. He lived for three years as a refugee in Gambia before returning in 1991. At that point he decided that he might be able to make some money selling flip flops. So many refugees had lost everything they had, including their footwear. Cheap flip flops would be in high demand. He borrowed some money and with seed capital of only $200 he bought flip flops in nearby Gambia and brought them back to Liberia to sell at a profit. He took those profits and invested in more flip flops. His business did well and he branched out into other products, importing and selling whatever people needed. By 2005 he had opened three retail stores selling paper products and cosmetics. In 2010 he opened the only paper product factory in Liberia. Instead of buying from foriegn merchants he’s bolstering the local economy. His factory provides jobs and affordable products for the people of Liberia. He sells toilet paper, disposable diapers, paper towels, napkins, and the like. Business has done so well that he’s planning on doubling production. He’s hoping to someday export products to the countries he used to import from. In the process he’s become a millionare.

This is the kind of story that Africa needs more of. The problem of extreme poverty is a difficult one. There is no one solution that will help everyone. Still if the people at the bottom are ever going to be brought up we’ll need more individuals like Fomba Trawally. It’s amazing what an enterprizing man can do with only $200. Liberia needs more people just like him.

Trawally was fortunate enough to have a friend he could borrow his start up capital from. There are thousands of individuals just like him who have no access to financing of any kind. Fortunately, with a little help from people like you and me, things are starting to change. If you haven’t heard of micro-financing you should look it up. The basic idea is to create banks that are willing to loan small amounts ($20,$100,$500, etc.) to people in poverty who need some capital. These loans are too tiny for the big banks to bother with, but $100 can be just what someone needs to pull themselves out of poverty. A seamstress could spend her whole life sewing clothes by hand and just making enough to survive. With a small loan she can afford to buy a simple sewing machine and suddenly she can fix ten times as much in a day, and make ten times what she used to. There are lots of hardworking people out there who just need a little help to get going. If you’re interested check out Kiva, or another micro-finance organization. It’s a fantastic way to make a difference.

Some Good News

If you haven’t read Wednesday’s post, read it now. Of course if you also haven’t read Monday’s post you should read that first. The posts this week all kind of flowed out of each other. I’m going to finish the topic up today (for the time being at least). My first post was kind of dark, and my second one was very strong, though it needed to be said. They were also both directed more at Christians than others. This post is applicable to all. Today we move on to the good news.

The good news is there is a lot of good we can do out there. And there’s a lot of good that’s already been done.

Believe it or not, the world is actually in a lot better shape than it was forty years ago, primarily due to the efforts of nonprofit humanitarian organizations (and thus, indirectly, by ordinary people like us donating our time and money). We are slowly winning the war on global poverty. We’re a long way away from the finish line but we have gotten closer to it. Starvation, injustice, poverty, disease, and exploitation are all challenges that can be solved and are being solved. Here are some vital stats (taken from the excellent book A Hole in Our Gospel by World Vision president Richard Stearns):

-Life expectancy in developing nations increased from 46 years in 1960 to 66.1 years in 2005.

-The under-five child mortality rate has been cut in half since 1970.

-Preventable child deaths have fallen 50 percent since 1960

-The percentage of the world’s population classified as hungry has been reduced from 33% to 18% in the last forty years.

-The percentage of people with access to clean water in developing countries went from 35% in 1975 to 80% in 2007.

-Polio has been almost eradicated from the globe.

-Adult literacy has risen from 43% to 77% since 1970.

This is pretty encouraging, right? But it doesn’t feel that way usually. We live in the information age, where all the world’s problems are piled on top of us and we feel helpless to accomplish anything at all. When you’re already feeling helpless it can feel like a personal attack when people start talking about our responsibility to those in need. “What? How can you expect me to solve the world’s problems? I’m not a millionaire, what can I do?” The answer is that you can do a lot, even with a little. Just five dollars can save a life, in the right hands. Even if you don’t have much money, you do have time, energy, and talent that can be used to help. Find a worthy cause and then start your own personal fundraiser. Ask friends and family to donate, or people at your work (note: if you do something like this, keep careful track of all donations and try to keep everything as transparent as possible. You don’t want anyone accusing you of pocketing the money. A good way to avoid all that is to have people write checks to the charity you’re raising money for, instead of just giving you cash). Can you play an instrument? Hold a mini-concert and raise money for people in need. Do you have artistic talent? Draw people’s portraits in exchange for donations. There are a lot of great ideas out there, and you’d be surprised by how much money you can raise. I once raised around $150 for tsunami victims just by asking around at my school (I’m sure I could have done better if I’d thought creatively about it). Now $150 doesn’t sound like much in the face of World Poverty, but you have to remember that it’s not up to you to solve all the world’s problems. It’s just up to you to try your best and save the people you can. $150 won’t save a village, but it will save people; real, flesh and blood people with hopes, dreams, and fears just like you and me. And though $150 isn’t much it is a lot more than I could have given on my own.

The final bit of good news is that giving is one of the most fulfilling and awe inspiring things we can do on this world. A $5 app can be a lot of fun, but you don’t get much else out of the experience; just fun, eventually followed by boredom and moving on to a new game. Giving $5 (or even $1!) to build wells for a thirsty village or to help poor children pay for an education gives you so much more than that. As surprising as it may sound it feels good to give. To know that because of your small sacrifice someone’s life, maybe many people’s lives, will be saved. To know that you’re helping make this world a little less dark, that’s the fulfilling part. What’s awe inspiring is the impact saving a single life can have. Your $5/$1 might end up providing the food needed to save a starving child. That child might then grow up to do great things; he might become a doctor, or an engineer. Even if he just becomes a farmer or a construction worker he’ll still have a great impact on those around him. He might get married and have children, children who never would have existed if it wasn’t for you. His children might achieve even more than he did, whether that means developing a cure for a disease or simply helping out their neighbors. The person you save (or his kids) might end up saving other people’s lives, and those people will go on to touch others and have their own children…it never ends. It boggles the mind how saving a single life might have such an impact on the future. What a heritage! What a blessing to the world! That’s the impact saving a life can have.

To sum it all up the world is getting better every day because of the actions of simple people like you and me. We can all make a difference no matter how big our paychecks are. The pain and suffering around us can paralyze us, and make us feel hopeless, but it shouldn’t. Instead we should remember that though the race to end world poverty will be a long and hard one, it is one we can win. Thank God we get the opportunity to be a part of it.

Hands and Feet

On Monday I talked about my atheist friend’s challenge: how could a good and loving God allow children to suffer and die? For anyone familiar with real suffering this is an inevitable question, and I’m not going to try to answer it here. I am grossly under-qualified, and any answer that would do the question justice would fill a book. If you’re interested I’d recommend reading The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis, or If God is Good by Randy Alcorn. Instead of trying to answer that hard question I want to touch on something very specific.

My friend’s challenge reminded me of a story I heard my Freshman year of college. My school, Northwest Christian University is a small one. We don’t have a large campus, a large student body, or a lot of money. So we were all extremely excited when we heard that Tony Campolo was coming to speak at our school. People from all over Eugene came to hear him speak. We had to host the event in our gym just to seat everyone. I’d never heard him speak before or read anything of his, but his name was familiar. I was interested to see if he would be worth all the fuss.

In the opening of his speech Campolo discussed a trip he took to Haiti (you can listen to the entire speech here, it’s well worth hearing). He was there to dedicate a new orphanage and school that would be able to take in local homeless children. When the building was complete they spread word around the city that any orphan boy or girl living on the streets should come to the central plaza at noon to be taken to the orphanage.  They estimated that there were around 35 or 40 homeless children in the city. When Campolo arrived at the plaza, however, there were almost 300 children waiting. Campolo explains what happened next:

“You know what I had to do. You know what I had to do. We only had room for 40. So I had to pick, out of those 300, 40 kids, knowing that the ones I didn’t choose would die on the streets. Because they die before the age of 12 if nobody takes care of them. We loaded those 40 kids onto the bus and got to the dormitory and little school that we had built; and as these kids tumbled off the bus there was a church choir there. And they were singing a gospel song that you may know, ‘God is so Good’. ‘God is so good, God is so good, God is so good to me, He loves me so’. And I got to tell you, I was angry. I was angry with God. And I was saying ‘God, you’re not good, and you don’t care. Because if you were good and cared they wouldn’t be dying on the streets, they wouldn’t be dying like that.’ And I sensed the Spirit within me say ‘They will die. But not because I’m not good. Not because I don’t care. But because the people who I have entrusted with the mission of carrying out my love and will in the world have become indifferent to their plight’.”

That’s what I want to talk about today.

It seems that, for some strange reason, God wants to work through people. I don’t know why, but He does. When the Israelites were in captivity in Egypt and cried out to God for salvation He could have caused their chains to disappear and the Egyptians to be swallowed up by the Earth. Instead he used an old man, Moses, to set them free. What’s more, God worked through Moses to do His miracles. I believe God is all powerful: I know that he did not need Moses to place his staff in the Nile to turn it to blood. And when the Israelites wandered in the desert and needed water God could have caused rivers and springs to appear from the rocks as soon as they arrived. Instead He had Moses strike the rock, and then water flowed forth.  For some reason God, who can do anything, wants to work through us. We imperfect, stumbling, and weak Christians are the very tools that God chooses to work his will in this world. I don’t understand it completely myself, but it’s true. God has entrusted us to feed the hungry, to heal the sick, set the captive free, and teach the good news to all who haven’t heard it. These are all things God could do much more thoroughly and efficiently if he did them Himself, yet he leaves them in our hands. Why he does this is not my concern at the moment, just that we recognize that he has.

So when we see suffering in the world, when we see children starving to death by the thousands, when we hear about genocide and famine and poverty we must not ask first “Why has God allowed this to happen?” but instead “Why have I allowed this to happen?” And understand, you and I have indeed allowed this to happen. We did not cause these evils to occur but if we are capable of stopping them and do nothing then we are allowing evil to advance unchecked. And we are capable. Sixty years ago we did not know much about suffering overseas, and even if we did know there were few ways to really help. Today is different. Today organizations like World Vision, Samaritan’s Purse, Compassion International, and hundreds of others (both religious and secular) have the infrastructure, the experience, and the capability to help thousands if we’ll give them the resources to do so. You can’t claim today that there is nothing we can do to help: there are opportunities to help all around us.

There are many agnostics and atheists out there who get this, and give generously to those in need. Peter Singer is not a man I admire. I find many of his views (specifically on abortion and euthanasia) abhorrent, if not downright evil. And yet even he, an atheist, seems to understand this concept better than many Christians I know.  He writes:

“To challenge my students to think about the ethics of what we owe to people in need, I ask them to imagine that their route to the university takes them past a shallow pond. One morning, I say to them, you notice a child has fallen in and appears to be drowning. To wade in and pull the child out would be easy but it will mean that you get your clothes wet and muddy, and by the time you go home and change you will have missed your first class.

“I then ask the students: do you have any obligation to rescue the child? Unanimously, the students say they do. The importance of saving a child so far outweighs the cost of getting one’s clothes muddy and missing a class, that they refuse to consider it any kind of excuse for not saving the child. Does it make a difference, I ask, that there are other people walking past the pond who would equally be able to rescue the child but are not doing so? No, the students reply, the fact that others are not doing what they ought to do is no reason why I should not do what I ought to do.

“Once we are all clear about our obligations to rescue the drowning child in front of us, I ask: would it make any difference if the child were far away, in another country perhaps, but similarly in danger of death, and equally within your means to save, at no great cost – and absolutely no danger – to yourself? Virtually all agree that distance and nationality make no moral difference to the situation. I then point out that we are all in that situation of the person passing the shallow pond: we can all save lives of people, both children and adults, who would otherwise die, and we can do so at a very small cost to us: the cost of a new CD, a shirt or a night out at a restaurant or concert, can mean the difference between life and death to more than one person somewhere in the world – and overseas aid agencies like Oxfam overcome the problem of acting at a distance.”

All around this world there are millions of “drowning children”; people whose lives we could save at only small inconvenience to ourselves. We cannot blame God for the suffering around us if we’re not willing to do anything about it ourselves. Imagine if we found such a child drowning in a pond and instead of diving in to save him began to pray “Oh God, please save this child! I know you are good, and wise, and I know you have the power to save him. Please help!” Imagine if we kept praying until the child finally succumbed to the water and died, and when all hope for resuscitation was gone we then cried out to God “Why, oh why do you allow such suffering in this world?” Or worse yet, said “It must have been part of God’s plan for this child to die, otherwise he would have been saved.” What we should be saying is obvious; “Why did I do nothing? Why did I let this happen?” We are God’s representatives, His hands and His feet to do His good will on this Earth. If we fail at the tasks that He has given us then there will be real life consequences; it is literally a matter of life and death for thousands.

James the brother of Jesus wrote about this. “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead (James 2:15-17).” How absurd such an example sounds! How could anyone turn a person in need away from their home and have the gall to tell them to “keep warm and well fed”? But that is exactly what we do when we pray for those who are suffering overseas and then expect God to take care of it. Out there are lives that will not be saved unless you act. Out there are people who you are meant to save. Your brothers and sisters are without clothes and food: will you wish them will, or will you take them in and help them?

I’d like to close with one final thought. It’s the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Luke records Jesus’s words:

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day.At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side.So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’

But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.’” (Luke 16:19-25)

How many of us have heard this parable before and thought “This is justice. The rich man lived in luxury all his life, and every day he had to pass by Lazarus at the gate. He never stopped to help him, even though he had more than he needed. What a callous man.” Well I have some bad news for you: you’re not Lazarus. If you have the capability to read this than I’m afraid you’re the rich man. We live in a society of wealth and luxury that most people on Earth never get to experience. Over a third of the world scrapes by on $2 or less a day: the average in America is more like $150 a day. The world average income is around $7,000 a year: in America it’s around $40,000. Do you own a computer, a car, a cell phone, or a television? Then you’re richer than most. Do you have a roof over your head, food on the table, a warm place to sleep, and have the ability to read? Then you’re living in more luxury than most. And there are over two billion beggars on lying at your gate. Most of us walk right past them without looking. Some occasionally toss them a quarter or two. As Christians, as adopted children of God, we are called to do more than that. We are called to take them in, feed them, clothe them, and tell them about the God who loves them more than anything.

Finally we must remember that this world is not the end. The Rich Man’s luxury only lasted as long as he lived, and his life is but an instant in comparison to the eternity that follows. When we die will we regret giving to the poor? Will we regret feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and healing the sick? I think instead we’ll regret all the chances we had to give that we ignored. What use are fast cars, beautiful houses, or the latest technology in heaven? We can’t take them with us; they will remain behind and turn to dust in the end. In the words of C.T. Studd. “Only one life, twill soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last.” Use the money God gives you for His everlasting purposes, ones that will outlast our life on Earth and shine for all eternity. Why do you think God has blessed us with so much money and resources in America? Why do you think we live in one of the wealthiest societies Earth has ever seen, while at the same time most of the world lives in abject poverty? Do you think it’s so we can live in comfort, or so we can be God’s hands and feet to satisfy the needs of others who have less?

This has been my longest post on this blog so far. It’s also the post that I think was most worth writing. I’m sorry if my words seem harsh, or if they leave you without hope. I’ll be talking about hope on Friday.

Hard Pictures and Burning Hearts

A few days ago one of my friends on Facebook shared a disturbing picture. I won’t post it here, because of it’s graphic nature, but I do believe it’s an important picture to see. I’ll link to it here for any who want to see it. The picture depicts a small, starving African child. He has almost no muscle left on him. He crouches, curled up in a fetal position with arms and legs like a skeleton’s, skin stretched over bones without anything in between. I shuddered when I saw it. It was horrifying. Children should never become like this. Human beings should never be allowed to waste away to nothing like this. I was reminded of the graphic pictures shown at the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. That was the only other place I’ve ever seen living humans in such an unnatural state.

At the bottom of the picture, in plain white letters, were the words “Smile, Jesus loves you.”

I should probably step back a bit and explain about my friend who posted the picture. In High School we knew each other fairly well. We made videos together in Video Tech, and we generally had fun when we were together. I haven’t seen him in years since graduation but I keep up with him somewhat through Facebook. He grew up in the Mormon Church, but a few years ago he became an atheist. I don’t think he’d be offended if I called him an “angry” atheist. He’s not the type who walks around quietly letting people know that “We’re all entitled to our own beliefs” or that “Religion has it’s place too, if you can believe in it.” He is the furious type, the kind who let people know bluntly that God is not real, and if he does exist he’s a monster. He posts pictures and status updates to that effect every now and then. I’ve never commented on them, but I’ve watched as others have. I think the internet is one of the worst places to have a civil discussion about religion (or just about anything, really). I try to stay out of it. Most of his “shocking” statuses are just bait to try and pull Christians into a fight, and I wasn’t going to take the bait. But this status made me pause.

Did I say pause? That’s not strong enough. The picture stopped me in my tracks. I stared it for almost a minute. The horror of such suffering isn’t easy to put away. Perhaps if I had only glanced at it I could have kept scrolling downwards until it disappeared; but once I started looking I couldn’t look away. It wouldn’t have been right.

Above the picture he had written his own little commentary: “Part of your ‘god’s’ plan?” They say a picture is worth a thousand words. In this case they’re right; he didn’t need to say anything else. His argument lay there, glowing on the monitor screen. It was plain as day. If God is good and has a plan for our lives, then why is this child dying a slow, agonizing death?

I wanted to say something. I wanted to explain what I knew, what I head read in my theological books. About how most suffering is caused by man and by sin, about free will and the consequences of it, about how we can’t see God’s plan from down here and we have to have faith…but as my cursor hovered over the comment button my mind went blank. I didn’t know what to say.

I want to note here that my faith in God was and is not shaken. I knew then what I still know now: that God is real, and that he is good. I did not feel doubt; but I did feel helpless. I don’t know the answer, and I knew what few answers I do have would not satisfy him.

Several people had commented already. Some just agreed, or joked around. But there were one or two who actually tried to answer his accusing question. One of them said that we can be at peace about suffering because we know that it is part of God’s plan, and will turn out for good. My friend didn’t take that garbage for a second, and fired back with a comment of his own.

“…why must such a being have a plan that would involve such terrible suffering? Where is the morality that the pious claim to love so much. Can anyone truly and honestly say that they think this is acceptable? Would anyone wish this upon another being? The answer should be a resounding “NO.” Yet it is okay when it is part of a plan set in motion by their diety? Why worship a being who requires such evil? I will never do it and I wish that the rest of humanity would see this way.”

Hard words, words that felt like lead weights on my heart. Again, I did not doubt; but I was burdened by the fact that I had no answer for him. I’m sure if I analyzed his words carefully I could come up with a logical and scripturally correct response that would satisfy myself. But I didn’t need to satisfy my own faith: I wanted to do something for his. Here is someone who, in his own way, is seeking after the truth. He sees the evil in the world around us and it burns in his heart. I didn’t want to win an argument; I wanted to speak to that burning heart.

A day later I realized how, perhaps, I could.

You see my friend betrayed himself in that comment. His argument is that if there was a good and loving God then he would not allow such evil, such injustice, to happen on this Earth. But the argument itself is meaningless unless there is in fact a God. If there is no God then why is this child’s suffering evil? If there is no God then why is it unjust? Why does this picture make my friend so angry? Why does this kind of suffering upset him? From a purely naturalistic standpoint this is life as normal on Earth. People suffer, people die. From a cold Darwinian standpoint you might even say that if that child was fit to survive he would have. As a Christian I know why this picture upsets me; it upsets me because it’s wrong for children, made in the image of God, to starve alone in the streets when there is food enough to save him. This is sin, this is evil, and this is an outrage! It would still be wrong even if I didn’t feel that it was. But why does this picture upset my friend? By what grounds does he stand in judgment and say that this is “unacceptable”? He obviously believes in right and wrong; otherwise his objection would be meaningless. But how can we say that this child’s suffering is wrong unless there is an objective Right and Wrong that is outside of and apart from ourselves?

Trying to explain how suffering is not really suffering is folly. It is suffering! It is wrong! Perhaps in God’s plan there is a reason for this child to die, but I cannot see that reason, and until I have one I must stand by my angry atheist friend and say “This is EVIL, pure and simple!” But after we have stood together and proclaimed this I have to turn to him and ask: “I know why I think this is wrong, but why do you?” Perhaps this will make him think. Perhaps it will only make him angry. But I will ask.

As for all here who call themselves believers I have a different question to ask: “What are we going to do about this evil?” I’ll talk more about that on Wednesday.