“We live,” an anonymous 50-something evangelical protestant wrote recently, “in an imperfect world where good and bad things happen to everyone no matter who they are.”
Not only that, he said, “we cannot control the decisions others make that may bring trouble to us; for instance, the drunk driver who causes a fatal accident or the employer who makes bad financial decisions and, to make up for his loss, some employees lose their jobs.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the German poet, author and statesman, is credited with saying that Christianity, although scattered abroad, “will in the end gather itself together at the foot of the cross.”
Americans, it seems, still know how to seek their way there. Even if they don’t identify as Christian, they seem to be humming similar tunes.
That may come as a surprise to those who, for a decade or so, have been equating a rise in religiously unaffiliated people with a decline in religious belief.
The Pew Research Center just released results of a survey that asked Americans what nonbelievers often see as a vexing question: If God is all powerful and living, why is there so much suffering and evil in the world?
Pew researchers considered this an interesting question in light of an ongoing pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people, as well as at the end of a year filled with floods, hurricanes and wildfires.
But Americans’ faith, apparently, remains undeterred.
First of all, 91% of those surveyed said they believe in God or a higher power — a clear signal the nation remains overwhelmingly religious. That figure is divided roughly among 58% who said they believe in the Biblical God and 32% who believe in some other sort of higher power or force in the universe.
When faced directly with the question of suffering, 80% said most of it comes from the decisions made by people, not God. About 70% noted that people are granted the freedom to act in ways that contradict divine direction, and 56% of believers said God chooses “not to stop the suffering in the world because it is part of a larger plan.”
The survey is timely. It indicates the spirit of the holiday season is alive and well.
The essence of Christmas is a celebration of the mortal birth of a God who voluntarily submitted to indescribable suffering in order to set the world free. Christianity doesn’t eliminate pain as a part of mortal experience but elevates it to triumphal heights. Death loses its finality, and the promise of eternal rewards tempers life’s injustices.
To believers, the question of why suffering exists is a misguided one. No one makes it out of life alive. The better question is how we can better see the divine through our experiences, and how we can be of personal assistance to those who need it. A God who notices every sparrow that falls and who numbers the hairs on your head surely understands your pain and is ready to help.
More good news from the survey: Only 3% of believers agreed with the statement that they often get angry with God “for allowing so much suffering.” When the statement was broadened to suggest only “sometimes” feeling this way, only 14% agreed.
These results were fairly consistent among age groups and political affiliations. Among younger adults, 18-36 years old, those who said they often get angry with God rose only to 6%. Similarly, only 3% of Americans said they view the suffering they see in the world as a sign that God doesn’t exist.
And Americans are hopeful: 65% said they believe people in heaven are reunited with loved ones, while 67% said they believe it’s possible to receive direct revelation right now. That figure jumps to 92% among members of historically Black churches.
The survey gave respondents a chance to express, in their own words, their views on suffering, which was the source of the quote from an anonymous 50-something above. Not all these comments are uplifting, but many make for good bedtime reading — like flickering signs of spiritual life and wisdom amid the darkness of a world swirling with deltas, omicrons and other miseries.
“I believe in the Bible and other spiritual elements,” one member of an historically Black Protestant church in the 18-49 age group said. “Some things happen in order for people to revert to inner rather than outer focus, change their carnal ways and revere the being that gives and preserves life. The world has been suffering well before my birth at the hand of an angry but just God.”
“It’s in God’s will to test our faith,” another over-50 member of a similar church said.
And a young member of a mainline Protestant church wrote, “There was only one ‘good’ person and the worst that could happen happened to Him. Everyone today is sinful, and this life is momentary, so bad things allow us to see eternity differently.”
That search for eternity seems to be key for many Americans, and why so many still look for the brightest light amid the darkest days of the year.