I witnessed three major categories of “battles” affecting me personally in February 2022. One night, serving as a chaplain volunteer at a hospital, I came into a room and saw a young couple on their knees praying for the life of their baby girl who had been born prematurely. The battle for this girl’s life was so vivid: nurses and doctors were performing CPR on an 18-inch baby who weighed barely four pounds. We prayed together. I embraced them. Tears ran down our faces. The battle was real, but, sadly, the baby girl died.
On February 24 darkness covered Ukraine, and a senseless war began: homes were destroyed, and thousands of people lost their lives while others became refugees. As Ukrainian Americans, my wife and I traveled to Ukraine in April to support orphans affected by this war. After spending a day with the orphans in western Ukraine, we saw that the battle was real and recognized the brokenness of these children’s lives.
During a discussion in a course I teach, one of my students opened up and shared that exactly two years ago her husband and her brother were shot. Listening to her story, all students in the class felt that the battle in her life was real, as her husband and her brother later died.
These stories illustrate one essential truth about our complex and unique lives: we all experience suffering. Two fundamental questions haunt us when we face the inevitability of suffering: Why do we suffer? How can we avoid suffering?
A Cosmic Conflict
Scripture tells us that the free will that God grants to all of His creation allows evil not only to exist but also to find new ways of multiplying.1 The free will of one of the angels, later known as Satan, led to the beginning of this cosmic conflict. Lucifer, the “morning star,” who was in the presence of God (Eze. 28:12-15), allowed his pride to lead him to think that he might be equal to God Himself (Isa. 14:13, 14). Lucifer started a “polemic”2 (or “war”) against God and challenged His character. His campaign successfully deceived some of the angels to join him in this rebellion. Surprisingly, God did not immediately eradicate evil. Satan, with his angels, was cast down to earth (Rev. 12:7-9).
Adam and Eve hurt themselves and all of their offspring when they chose to leave God’s presence and questioned His righteous rule (Gen. 2:17). Satan aided in this deception as he spread the seeds of doubt by calling God a liar (Gen. 3:5). They allowed Satan’s attack on God’s character to bear fruit (verses 1-5).
We are faced with a free choice to do the will of God and bring forth the fruit of “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22, 23). This fruit of God heals, restores, and resurrects our lives and those around us. Alternately, when we choose “the desires of our sinful nature,” we bring forth the fruit of “sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like” (verses 19-21, NIV). This fruit destroys our lives and the lives of others and leads to suffering. Yet there is another side: we suffer because we live in a world where evil and death are not destroyed yet.
Evil Defeated but Not Yet Destroyed
Tragically, in the Garden of Eden, the first Adam gave away his right to rightfully represent God’s righteous rule. As a result, this earth became a battlefield where good competes with evil. Sin reigns and leads to death (Rom. 5:21). But on the cross, triumphantly, the Second Adam defeated evil and death so that “grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (verse 21). Jesus became the true king of this world because the Son of God came to destroy the works of the devil (cf. 1 John 3:8). Jesus already reigns, seated at the right hand of God (Heb. 1:3). Yet there is still work to be done before Jesus’ reign is fully realized.3
The apostle Paul exclaims in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” Christ is the victor, and He established a new world with a new creation. Yet humans still need to learn how to live in this new world. Paul encourages those who want to pledge their allegiance to Christ in Colossians 3:1: “If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God.”
Living in a Conflict Zone
It’s not easy to live in a conflict zone, where evil comes to steal, kill, and destroy. Yet God’s children are called to experience life abundantly in and through Christ (John 10:10). Let’s return to the three stories I started with. What helps parents to keep living despite the loss of their baby girl? What restores the broken lives of orphans who were robbed of their parents? How can a young widow continue to live life in spite of her brokenness after the killing of her husband and her brother?
Victor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor whose wife, parents, and brother were murdered in concentration camps, concluded that the quest for meaning helped him survive the atrocities of the Holocaust. He identified three sources of meaning that help one go through the most challenging times: (1) purposeful work or creativity; (2) relational experience or love; and (3) courage in facing difficulty or attitude.4 Fascinatingly, these three elements are also foundational values in Christianity that help us endure suffering.
First, we are created in God’s image, and are given the task to edify, not to destroy; to heal, not to kill; and to care compassionately for those around us. Second, we are a new creation in Christ, and we are called to imitate the loving relationships of the Trinity among us. Third, we are daughters and sons of the righteous King who defeated evil on the cross and will destroy it completely when He returns. We can face evil today with courage because we know we are on the victor’s side.
1 Perhaps one of the best treatment of these questions is presented in John Peckham, Theodicy of Love: Cosmic Conflict and the Problem of Evil (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2018).
2 The English word polemic comes from the Greek word polemos, meaning “war.”
3 Oscar Cullmann introduced the concept of “already but not yet,” stating, “It is already the time of the end and yet it is not the end.” In other words, Christ’s first coming became a mark of the beginning of the last days. But it will be Christ’s second coming that will be a mark of the end of the last days. Cf. Oscar Cullmann, Christ and Time: The Primitive Christian Conception of Time and History, trans. Floyd V. Filson (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1950), p. 145.
4 Victor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006).