Suffering and Christmas

For the past year, almost, I've been somewhat immersed (insofar as one CAN be partially immersed...which I guess one can't...) in studying and reading about World War II. We studied the First World War last year, so I was all primed for it, but while it's fascinating, I find much of it quite…difficult. I know that seems like a fairly self-centered perspective, when you consider that all these many harrowing things actually HAPPENED to people, while I'm merely reading about them. But nevertheless, it has been hard for me, and there have been many nights I've lain awake with a heavy heart, thinking about hardship and evil.

Here's a small sampling of the books I've been reading:

  • An account of Hitler's rise to power, and the way even ordinary people excused, then assisted, him.
  • The diary of a doctor in Hiroshima during August and September of 1945, just after the atom bomb was dropped. 
  • The autobiography of a woman who was stolen from her Yugoslavian parents as a nine-month-old baby and raised in Hitler's "lebensborn" program to raise up "racially pure" youth for the Third Reich.
  • The memoir of an American POW tortured by his Japanese captors. 
  • First person accounts by the soldiers who liberated concentration camps across Europe and found death and suffering beyond anything the world had imagined.
You can't read about this stuff and DENY the existence of evil, and there were plenty of people I encountered in these books who did lose their faith; who said, "I just couldn't believe in any kind of loving God after what I experienced." And honestly—usually, when some pseudo-intellectual atheist brings up the problem of evil, I'm flatly unimpressed. They reveal their own ignorance when, with the self-satisfaction of a magician producing the hidden card, they produce those tired old arguments as if they are brilliant or devastating.  "But why do bad things happen to good people? What about the SUFFERING of CHILDREN?? AHA!" They appear not to have even engaged with the constant stream of Christian philosophers that have struggled with, written on, and illuminated this very problem. In fact, you could say that the Problem of Evil is the central question Christianity attempts to answer!
But. I do acknowledge that Evil, when it comes so baldly and blatantly into our awareness, often forces a startling and troubling examination of belief. I don't pretend to have experienced anything remotely as faith-shaking as many victims of war and atrocity, but even for someone like me—perhaps especially for someone like me, so blessedly removed from the immediacy of most of life's horrors—reflecting on what depths humanity can sink to is a sobering and difficult exercise.

Still, as I've pondered these things and struggled with them, my central feeling has been one of deep gratitude for our Savior. I want to grab those people who lost their faith by the hands and say, "Don't you realize? All this suffering and evil and sadness: THIS is humanity WITHOUT Christ! This is who we become when we turn our backs on God!" Sure, I know plenty of the atrocities of war involve someone who professes religion. But "this is not my doctrine, to stir up the hearts of men with anger, one against another; but this is my doctrine, that such things should be done away."

I'm not a philosopher, and I know for all my reading, I'm still ignorant in so many areas. And with such an enormous subject as evil and war, any statement is an oversimplification. But maybe there is just this: reading about all this suffering convinces me, more than ever, of the beauty of God's plan, and of the absolute need for a savior. In fact, I think the existence of a savior is very possibly the ONLY thing that makes sense of it all. The suffering, of course, does not disappear with knowledge of God. But it gains meaning: not only for all those troubled by it from afar as I am, but also, by many accounts, even for those experiencing it firsthand. 

For me, knowing about God's plan changes everything. Questions about "fairness" in this life suddenly disappear when I know that mortality is just one piece of a longer journey; that God is continually working for the salvation of His children and will always do so. To see that evil and the natural man exist in all of us—yes, it is frightening. We can become like animals, and worse. The laws of this world DO often favor the ruthless, the cruel, and the heartless. But through Christ's atonement, we can change our natures—and in this change lies our only hope. 

I've thought to myself several times this month, feeling my heart aching from something I've read, or even from some less-vast sadness I've encountered, "What does Christmas have to do with all this? Is all our happiness and joy in the season unseemly, next to the great suffering of so many of God's children?"

And every time, something whispers to me "NO. Christ's birth and life and death have everything to do with suffering, and everything to do with joy." And I've felt the wonder of this season like almost never before. Because without Him, the horrors of war, of hatred; the struggle for power; the gradual descent into chaos and destruction—that would be all we had to look forward to. But because of Him, it all makes sense. We can repent. We can change. We can learn to build and love and sacrifice, in our small ways. And we can hope for, someday, a world full of goodness and light.


  1. I've thought about this so much too -- how to make sense of it, but more, how to attempt and answer it in a way that doesn't sound glib to those who find it a reason to not believe in God, so I was thrilled to read your own thoughts on the matter!

    1. Yes, it's so hard to walk the line between being dismissive, and being confident in what you've learned. I doubt I would convince anyone who was adamantly on the other side, but at least writing about it helps me sort out my own thoughts! :)


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