During a trip to Breckenridge, a beautiful ski town in the mountains of Colorado, a friend and I decided to get our hair cut at one of the little shops downtown. As we waited our turn, I read another chapter of the book I had brought along with me, a book whose title clearly indicated my interest in spiritual things.
When my turn came and I settled into the chair, the young hairstylist noted that I was reading a Christian book and wondered if it would be okay for her to ask me a question about God that had been on her mind. Of course I said yes, relishing the opportunity to talk about theology. After all, I had been studying apologetics and was ready with all the right answers. Bring it on, I thought, smiling to myself.
“Well,” she started, with just a hint of hesitation, “why does God allow so much evil and suffering in the world?”
Really, that’s all you got? raced through my mind. Why is this such a big problem? It’s one of the most oft-asked questions in apologetics, and I was ready with the classical free-will defense—emphasizing that God desires a relationship with us, which is possible only if we have free will. I made the point that evil can exist only if there is first a standard of objective good and there can be good only if there is a God. In other words, her very question, I pointed out, presupposes the existence of God.
This led to more questions, and I found I could answer each one pretty easily. She’d ask a question, and I had an answer ready at hand.
Things were going extraordinarily well, I thought, until she paused for a long moment, lifted the scissors away from my head, and then began to cry. She stepped back from cutting my hair and said in a quavering voice, “This is a bunch of bs! You’ve got an answer for everything. It can’t be that easy. You just don’t understand.”
I was speechless (and a bit nervous, since she was clearly upset and had very sharp scissors poised not far from my head).
What had just happened? It seemed like we were having a great conversation...and now this. Well, I quickly changed the topic and made sure to give her a big tip on the way out. Outside the shop, I turned to my friend and asked him why he thought she had been so defensive. He took a deep breath and looked me in the eyes, probably trying to determine if I was ready to hear the truth.
“Well,” he said, as gently as he could manage, “do you have any idea how arrogant you were toward her?”
I was taken aback. But as we walked along the streets of Breckenridge, I thought about the encounter and realized he was absolutely right. Rather than really listening to her, asking questions, and trying to learn from her, I was more interested in scoring points and winning the argument. My replies had come across as prepackaged sound bites rather than compassionate and respectful responses. What I saw, maybe for the first time, is that truth must be wedded to grace, and that what we say is important...but how we say it is equally critical.
If we have the best arguments but not love, our arguments will often fall on deaf ears (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). As I write in my newest book A New Kind of Apologist, Christians today must have both truth and love. This is why the apostle Paul said,
“And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:24-26).
Whenever the problem of suffering and evil come up, I try to avoid simple answers. I typically respond with a question: “Of all the things you can ask about God, why that one?” Occasionally people have a genuine intellectual issue they want to wrestle with, and I am more than happy to help. But more often than not, the intellectual question masks a deep personal wound. When I ask this question, I often hear painful stories of sickness, broken relationships, and abuse. The Christian response is not to simply give a reason, although there may come a time for that, but to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15) and to show comfort and care to the afflicted (Psalm 82:3).
Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author of over 15 books, an internationally recognized speaker, and a part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org.