As I sit here on the Pier at Garden City beach, safely overlooking the perpetual waves of the mighty Atlantic gently rolling in to meet the Carolina shores, I can sense the disparity between the calm beauty before my eyes and the restlessness of my heart. And as warmly as the morning air of the ocean breezes upon my face, in my spirit, there is the unmistakable chill of sadness and loss — and even of profound defeat. Yesterday, just before dinner time, as my wife and I were making plans for our last days of vacation here in South Carolina, I was looking forward to the fried oysters and scallops and the sound of her laughter as we celebrated the good life. But then the notification from Twitter suddenly flashed across my phone — and I instantly knew that we would have to cancel our plans for the evening. The headline made it clear that tonight there would be nothing to celebrate or laugh about: in Uvalde, Texas, two adults and nineteen children, most of whom were only about ten years old, had been gunned down and murdered in their elementary school.
At first, like most everyone else, I felt a hot flash of burning anger — but not of shock. To my own shame, I have become almost totally desensitized to the now daily headlines of horrific mass shootings in the Divided States of America. Still, this one seemed to hit differently. “They were only little kids” I thought to myself. The all too familiar feeling of helplessness and the suffocating sense of inescapable grief and disillusionment quickly began to set in. I sunk my face into the my palms of my hands and screamed in the frustration of my heart “HOW CAN THIS KEEP HAPPENING? WHY IN GOD’S NAME WON’T SOMEBODY DO SOMETHING?!” Just a couple of days ago a deranged racist had committed mass murder at a supermarket in Buffalo. “It. Just. Keeps. Happening.” I felt guilty for not remembering whether the mass shooting from just over a year ago in the city of Indianapolis — just twenty minutes away from my house — happened at the UPS or FedEx building. I couldn’t remember whether it had been nine or ten people who had been murdered in the worst mass shooting in the history of Indiana. I reasoned to myself, probably in a desperate and rather pathetic attempt to console myself: “There are too many mass shootings in our country to keep track of…” In my defense, there have already been more mass shootings in 2022 than there have been days in the year. And as I was considering the horror of it all, a surprising and perhaps even impious question arose in my heart: “God, how could You let this happen?”
A great and terrible question, to be sure. What makes the question infinitely more difficult for me is that I believe in the God of infinite and unconditional Love: a God Who is Goodness and Beauty Itself. I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God— the gentle King of kindness and goodness and peace — the One in Whom we have perfectly seen the Father. My favorite verse in the Bible may be from 1 John 1:5 — “This is the message that we have heard from Him [that is, from Jesus] and announce to you: that God is light and in him is no darkness whatsoever.” As far as I am concerned, this is the good news: there is absolutely nothing at all about God that is not infinitely Good. He is the Good Itself. And yet, I cannot deny that this haunting question still sometimes overflows out of the depths of my admittedly small and sinful heart: “God, how could You let this happen?”
I am certainly not the first person to ask the question. All of the religions flowing out of the Abrahamic tradition have always taught that God is omnipotent: “all-powerful.” And so, logically, although He could prevent evil things from happening, He obviously does not always do so. Though He does not directly will evil — and we could never imagine a more blasphemous thing about a good God Who truly loves mankind than the thought that He directly wills evil for His creatures — He nonetheless does allow it. So, despite the immense complexity and even audacity of the question, in the face of all the great evils of the world, we often ask it throughout our lives. Why? Because most of us desperately want to believe in God’s omnipotent goodness despite all the apparent evidence to the contrary. And when we do ask the question, we are in the very best of company. After all, this is the question that has troubled the greatest minds the world has ever known, from the Hebrew prophets, to the early Church fathers, up through history’s greatest philosophers and theologians, to the most brilliant artists, poets, musicians, and geniuses, all the way down to the most pure and innocent children, up to and including at least some of those survivors of Uvalde. In the horrific aftermath of what happened in Texas — and what will undoubtedly continue to happen if we don’t do something drastic soon to address this great evil of our time — this must be the question in the hearts of the masses of traumatized children and their parents all over the world: “God, how could You let this happen?” How do Christians answer it?
Again, it is a supremely difficult — and even scary — but honest question. Who possesses the wisdom to totally discern how a good and loving God can allow the most terrible things imaginable to happen every single day to His children? I certainly don’t. We can contemplate and venture our most orthodox and coherent and perhaps even daring theological speculations with all humility, but we should most definitely never offer any kind of “soul-making” theodicies to those who are suffering. In fact, the best thing we can probably do in such situations is to resist the temptation to speak at all and to instead just remain silent and tenderly weep with those who weep. When His good friend Lazarus died, our Lord Jesus did not preach a lengthy discourse on God’s goodness in the face of evil to those who were suffering. Instead, perhaps tellingly, in the shortest verse in the Bible, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). Still, in such terrible moments, most of us cannot help but to wonder in our secret hearts about where God is. “How could He let this happen?” How can we live in both such a profoundly beautiful and monstrously cruel world? And how is it possible for God to be totally innocent in all of this? I believe He is, by the way, but I do not know exactly how. Do you? Does anybody?
Here is what I know — or at least believe: God, in order to be worthy of our love and even worship must be the Good Itself. If He is not the Good itself — if He is in any way evil or even has only the faintest hint of darkness in Him — then He is not worth a moment more of our time or consideration. And yet, as we all know, God does in fact allow the very worst things imaginable to happen. Again, just think: He even “allowed” His own Son — His very Own Heart — to become the most famous victim of injustice and betrayal that the world has ever known: to be mercilessly tortured, mocked, hung on a tree — lynched — and left for dead. God’s own Son was massacred by the hands of lawless and wicked men. Jesus’ disciples and closest friends must have also asked, with us, “God, how could You let this happen?” Christ Himself, quoting the broken-hearted prophet in Psalm 22:1, cried out from the very depths of His being, from His cross, “My God! My God! Why have You forsaken me? “God, how could You let this happen?” If even the Son of God can be crucified, then apparently anything can happen.
And, as we know all too well, “anything” has happened. For all its goodness and beauty, history is also filled with the absolute worst of horrors. I think of it and tremble: God allowed the utter outrages of the Holocaust. He could have stopped it — but He didn’t. This is a terrible thought, is it not? He allowed the death camps and the atomic bombs to fall on the precious children in Japan. He allowed African men, women, and children to be taken from their homeland so that they could make the white man rich on the backs of their forced and terrible labor. He allows the violence of the cartels and their drugs to find their way to our poorest neighborhoods where they kill our mothers and fathers and kids. He allows our children to be gunned down on the streets and in schools and even in His churches. We could go on and on about the outrages of wickedness perpetrated mostly against the most vulnerable and powerless and often innocent among us. And we all know the terrible things that He has allowed to happen in our own lives. As a hospice chaplain, I see it everyday in the lives of the terminally ill patients I visit with and in the faces of the addicts that I have worked with over the last fifteen years. I am sure that you see it too.
Yet, we still believe that God must be good, do we not? That He must be the wellspring and beginning and end of every good and beautiful and true thing. That He is the Good as such… Is not His goodness our very hope? Though we still sometimes sin against Him and against our brothers and sisters, do we not yet love Him still, with all our hearts and pray to Him and serve Him and sing to Him and even dance for Him? Is He not the love of our lives and the deepest desire of our hearts? Do we not long to be with Him, as a bride desires her bridegroom, to be with Him and with each other, where all pain, sorrow, and sighing have fled away (Isa. 51:11)? Of course we do. Though we do not understand His ways and are sometimes tempted to think less of Him and in our heart of hearts to question His goodness — especially when disaster strikes — we still love and put all our hope in Him to somehow make everything right. What other hope do we have in the face of all this suffering, violence, evil, and death?
Except, even in spite of all our hope, we still know that even “the restoration of all things” (Acts 3:21) cannot “undo” what has happened in our world. History, at least for now, has lost these precious children. I do not know why bad things happen to good and even innocent people. At the end of the day, the only thing I really have — is hope. I can only hope that God will somehow one day make all things right. And I believe He will. But in the midst of the madness, I can only hope and try to love and comfort those who are suffering. In the final analysis, when we are suffering through the terrors of life, we don’t need answers, we need love. Yes, I can hope with St. Paul that one day, “God will be all in all” (1 Cor. 15.28), that one day there will be no more sirens or guns or terror or funerals for little kids. I can and do hope in the eventual “restoration of all things” but even this powerful hope does not change or take away what has happened. We live on, in tears, and in the hope that things will somehow change and get better for us. But for those little children and teachers and for their families and loved ones, things can never be right again for them. At least not in this life.
And so, in the wake of the loss of life in Uvalde, Texas, along with (literally) about a million others we have lost to guns in this country alone over the last 40 years (as long as I have been alive), we again grieve together. We lament the societal, moral, heart, and gun problems of our nation and hope for change. Our Lord Jesus Christ said, “Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4). And, so that we too will be comforted, let us mourn with those who mourn. Let us weep with those who weep. Let us hope with those who hope. Let us love, with the love of God, with the love that St. Paul taught about that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:7). And when we are tempted to despair at the thought of how God could let all these things happen to us, St. Paul comforts us in the very next verse with the daring apostolic promise that “Love never fails.” God, Who is Love, never fails. If there is an “answer” then this must be it. Maybe, instead of asking “God, how could You let this happen?” there is a better and more important and infinitely more glorious question, asked by St. Paul on behalf of God’s children in Rome — and on behalf of ours too, here in America:
“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Affliction or anguish or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or the sword? As has been written: “For your sake we are being put to death all day long; we were reckoned as sheep for slaughter.” Rather, in all these things we more than conquer through the one who has loved us. For I have been persuaded that neither death nor life nor angels nor Archons nor things present nor things imminent nor Powers, nor height nor depth nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
 See especially “Rebellion” in Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov.