As a Christian writer and speaker, I am often asked what the most frequent questions are regarding the Christian faith. Of course, I am frequently asked questions of an intellectual or historic nature: Did Jesus of Nazareth really exist? Is his resurrection from the dead a historical event? How is one to understand the Bible as the Word of God? For some, the questions never go beyond intellectual curiosity or pursuit. For others, these questions need to be answered for constructing a sound apologetic.
Probe a bit deeper, however, and it isn’t difficult to discover that many questions come from the deepest places of the heart. They come because of personal experience with suffering of one form or another. Is there a God? If so, does that God care about me, know me? If so, why does God seemingly allow so much suffering? When the fervent prayers of righteous men and women do not prevent the cancer from spreading, or the child from dying, or the plane from crashing, or the marriage from failing, these more existential questions come like water bursting through the dam.
The kinds of questions I receive are not unique to my contemporary context. They have been asked for millennia. The technical term for the theist’s response to the issue of suffering is called theodicy. Theodicy is the word given in the seventeenth century by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, one of the great intellectual thinkers of the Enlightenment period.(1) Theodicy attempts to explain how and why there can be suffering in the world if God is all-powerful and loving. In trying to solve this problem, some thinkers have denied the omnipotence of God; God is all-loving, but not able to do anything about suffering. Others dispense of the notion that God is all-loving, at least in any conventional understanding. But neither of these alternatives provides a satisfactory answer.
Intellectual wrangling over this problem, aside, the experience of suffering in light of both the goodness and power of God has caused many to doubt God, and others to walk away from faith altogether. If God does not prevent suffering, and if God does not care about the sufferer, then for some, the only alternative appears to be that God cannot exist in any meaningful way.
The writers of Scripture wrestled with these questions too. Often, they provided different ways of answering these questions. Some believed that suffering resulted from sin. Others believed that God causes suffering as a form of punishment. Still others asserted that suffering brings redemption.(2)
In Mark’s Gospel, a simple story about a boat caught in a terrible storm provides an altogether different answer framed around three profound questions. When evening had come, Jesus and his disciples got into a boat, most likely to cross the Sea of Galilee, in order to “go over to the other side.”(3) In the course of their travel, a fierce storm arose suddenly and violently. It was so intense that the waves were not only breaking over the boat, but the boat was filling with water and on the verge of sinking. The gospel writer tells us that Jesus was asleep in the stern of the boat and resting soundly when the disciples roused him with their fearful, first question: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Jesus seems to ignore their question and instead answers the wind and the waves, “Peace, be still.” His exhortation to the natural elements of wind and water was perhaps intended for the disciples as well, for he returns their question with a second question: “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” To which the disciples reply to one another with the ultimate question, “Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?”
It is not entirely unreasonable for those who want to be followers of Jesus to think that because he is in the boat suffering will not arise. But suffering does come, and the wind roars around and the sky turns black, and the storm of all storms appears to envelop all in darkness and terror. Jesus, don’t you care that we are perishing becomes an incredulous cry for all who would wish for immunity from the troubles of life. Indeed, as noted author Craig Barnes has written “Faith…has little to do with our doctrines or even with our belief that Jesus could come up with a miracle if he would only pay attention. Faith has everything to do with seeing that…the Savior [is] on board“(4)
In the midst of difficult and often unending questions about suffering, Jesus is there in the midst of the storm of doubt, in the tumultuous waves of despair, in the gale-force winds of defeat. He is there with the fearful, and the doubtful and those without faith. He illustrates the assurance of God’s care in the storm. His presence with the disciples in the storm tells us more about who he is—neither removed from suffering, nor always preventing suffering—then why we suffer. “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the writing and speaking team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) Bart Ehrman, God’s Problem (New York: HarperOne, 2008), page 8.
(2) See for examples Proverbs 3:33, “The Lord’s curse is on the house of the wicked, but he blesses the abode of the righteous”; Amos 4:1-3, “[Y]ou cows of Bashan who oppress the poor, who crush the needy…the Lord God has sworn in his holiness: the time is surely coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks”; and Isaiah 53, the redemption by the suffering Servant.
(3) Mark 4:35-41.
(4) M. Craig Barnes, When God Interrupts (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 138.