Long offers insights on problem of evil, suffering

Spirited Thinking | March 1, 2013

When Tom Long, now Bandy Professor of Preaching at Emory's Candler School of Theology, was in his first year as a parish minister in Ohio, he came face to face with the ever-present problem of evil and senseless suffering.

The enemy sowing weeds

The enemy sowing weeds, c. 1540. Source: Wikipedia.

In his book, "What Shall We Say? Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith," Long recounts how a neighboring congregation had to deal with the aftermath of a boiler explosion in their church one Sunday morning and the deaths of a Sunday School teacher and four teenagers, all killed in the blast.

The next Sunday at Long's church, a group of his parishioners and he "were talking about this incident, how inexplicable it was that innocent children and their Sunday School teacher had their lives extinguished in a moment of pain." Long said to the group, "'Well, I'll tell you one thing; I'd hate to have to make sense out of that. I'm glad I'm not the pastor of that church.'

"One of the group looked straight at me. 'You are the pastor of that church,' she said. 'And so are we all.'"

Long tells the anecdote as both a cautionary and revelatory tale for those in the nation's pews--and those preaching in its pulpits. "Innocent suffering causes a crisis for people of faith," says Long.

"Young ministers know there is no slam-dunk answer to that question," he says, "so they have retreated into what's called in ministerial circles as a ministry of presence, meaning 'I stand with people when they suffer,' which is no small thing.

"But I think a ministry of presence has become for many young pastors especially, a ministry of silence," says Long. And while no one can be expected to explain inexplicable evil and suffering, "there are opportunities to bring the resources of the Christian faith to bear in the question of innocent suffering. "

One of the biblical references Long turns to in his book is the parable of the tares in the Gospel of Matthew, in which a landowner sows good wheat seed in a field, but wakes the next morning to find that an enemy has sown weeds in the same field during the night.

"Taken in the abstract the parable is demonic," because it says 'the world has good and evil in it, let it go,'" Long observes. "But that's not really consistent with Matthew's other ethical positions. He's not an ethical quietist.

"What I argue in the book is that this is actually our overhearing a theodicy conversation in the early church where they're puzzled about evil mixed in with good in the world," Long says, adding that the questions raised in the parable can be instructive for people today.

Long discusses his book and reads an excerpt on this week's Emory Report Book|Report podcast.