The Problem of Evil is Always Personal: How Lament Invites Us into Deeper Hope

By Emily Knight

When I began seminary, I hoped my classes would equip me, finally, with the right answers to long-held questions. Why do bad things happen to good people? How can a good God be sovereign over a world with so much suffering and pain? I was looking for theological ammunition to lob at these nagging intellectual questions that had plagued my mind and haunted conversations with fellow believers for most of my life. Perhaps in graduate theological education I would find the right answer to offer.

And then, in the middle of my seminary studies, a worldwide pandemic hit. A dear friend suffered a miscarriage. A death in our family reminded me that we lived hours away from home and loved ones. My husband and I both lost our jobs and wondered how we would pay for groceries, let alone our seminary tuitions.

Suddenly, for seminarians in their early 20s, theodicy had taken on the first-person. A professor of mine would say something similar a few years later: intellectual questions about the goodness of God are rarely abstract. The problem of evil as a philosophical conundrum may be the presenting issue, but doubt and hurt often run deeper, at the level of who we believe God to be toward us. We wonder, “Why did God allow this to happen to me?” or “Can I really trust this God?”

Consider C.S. Lewis’s own story. He had written his own treatise, The Problem of Pain, systematically addressing the problem of evil twenty years before his own wife Joy Davidman was diagnosed with an incurable cancer and shortly passed away. The Problem of Pain was an able and comprehensive consideration of theodicy. But in the wake of Joy’s death, Lewis faced the problem of pain in the first-person.

Pain asks with specificity, “who is God in the face of this loss?” Lewis writes in A Grief Observed: “Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is coming to believe such dangerous things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s not God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.”[1]

With Lewis, we often wonder if our grief is a sign of weak faith, untested by the cares of the world. “If I had really cared, as I thought I did, about the sorrows of the world, I should not have been so overwhelmed when my own sorrows came… I thought I trusted the rope until it mattered to me whether it would bear me. Now it matters, and I find it didn’t.”[2] When the stakes are high, can we believe in a good God?

As the cares of life overwhelmed me during seminary, it taught me to ask: as we minister amid people’s deepest pain, what resources do we have to offer real hope? As our church members (and I) doubt the goodness of God in the face of illness, death, and grief, how will we respond? I learned quickly in my own questions that intellectual proofs meant to resolve the problem of evil did not offer much on their own in the face of personal grief.

Yet as I pressed into Scripture, God’s own words, I began to see Him offer much more – and much deeper — resources than philosophical proofs for personal questions. The Bible offers no less than a resounding affirmation in the fundamental truths of historic Christianity, but it does offer more. The Holy Spirit offers us language that expresses our deepest pain and directs us into His presence. He offers us– the doubtful, hurting, and broken—the language of lament.

In lament, Scripture models for us a faithful way of shepherding existential questions and grief that does not pretend the pain away nor persuade us out of pain. The biblical witness of lament offers three resources for us:

  1. Lament invites us to bring our real pain and questions to God without censure.

The Psalms display a full range of complaint, protest, questioning, and grief—all directed toward God. They are a training ground in irreverent, honest speech that actually accounts for the experience of human suffering.

We wonder if we can actually talk to God this way. Is such grief, such frustration a sign of weak faith? The Psalms offer us shocking examples, from prayers so tame as asking God simply to hurry up with His answers (Ps. 143) to such graphic prayers as wishing that their enemies would see their own children die (Ps. 137). Job wishes he had never been born (Job 3:3).

The Bible does not shy away from the awful losses we face in this life. God’s Word does not pretend that we can sail through life unaffected by pain and death. Lament brings our full selves, our full experience as sinners and sufferers, before God, and it suggests that doing so is an act of faith, not unbelief.

  1. Lament affirms that injustice is evil and entrusts our world to the only One who can make all things right.

As we think about engaging the larger culture, lament can help us acknowledge the ways that our collective awareness of corporate evil and sin is correct. As conversations swirl around injustices like racism, or abuse, we do not have to shy away from grieving alongside the culture. We may disagree on the sources and solutions for such suffering, but Christians can—and must– mourn such evil. We say, “Yes – there is something wrong in this world, something wrong with us.”

By mourning alongside those in pain, by listening and acknowledging deeply felt hurt, Christians follow the example of our Lord Jesus Christ. Possessing all the resources for hope, Christ still wept for Mary and Martha at the tomb of Lazarus (John 11). Death still stung, even as He knew of the resurrection He would bring.

As a Christian practice, lament does not simply rehearse the complaints of the cultural moment. It penetrates further as a genuine acknowledgment of suffering, not as a cheap, tweetable outcry, but as the real groan of a world where all is not right. And it entrusts this suffering to God in the form of prayer – prayer that in its very articulation hopes, assumes, we will be heard and answered.

  1. Lament’s trajectory is always hope.

Many of the psalms of lament do eventually move toward some kind of hope. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” becomes “You who fear the LORD, praise him! …He has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him.”[3]

Other psalms do not wrap up so neatly. But as a form of prayer, lament is inherently hopeful. Its hope lies not necessarily in its language or content, but in the very act of articulation. As some theologians have put it, lament is directed “to none other than ‘My God.’”[4] Lament is the cry of faith.

So bring it all to God – the shocking, the fearful, and the frustrated words of lament. In doing so, we bring our pain to the person who has shouldered it already. We direct our prayers so that we may hear the answer. And hear it again.

Nicholas Wolterstorff writes, “God is not only the God of the sufferers but the God who suffers… Instead of explaining our suffering God shares it.”[5] This sharing is not simply solidarity, but God’s resounding answer. God answers lament not with proofs, but with a person: Jesus Christ, who wept, who suffered, who died. Jesus Christ, who lives. So we grieve – but as those who have hope (1 Thess. 4:13).

In this way, lament is a spiritual discipline. It forms us to move toward God in our pain and to anticipate the hope of glory. When the questions we ask simply don’t have answers in this life, lament’s trajectory is toward the hope of the person of Jesus Christ who offers himself.

So, when the kid in your youth group wrestles with the problem of evil, we must ask ourselves what makes the question personal. Where in his own life or encounters of the world does the gospel need to meet his deepest grief? How can church members show up to hear his pain and wrestle together?

When a church member receives a dreaded diagnosis and puts on a brave face Sunday morning, point her to the God who can handle her anger. Protect her from those who would rush to find the explanation or the divine purpose for her pain. Allow her the space to lament in a way that will, slowly but surely, limp toward hope.

Through the articulation of his own lament, C.S. Lewis did press in to meet God in the midst of pain. Or rather, God pressed in to meet him. Lewis did not find answers, but he saw God in the face of Jesus Christ –mysterious and compassionate— who hears, who suffered, and who lives.


[1] C.S. Lewis, “A Grief Observed” in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: Harper Collins, 2002), 658.

[2] Lewis, “A Grief Observed,” 672.

[3] Psalm 22:1, 24 (ESV).

[4] Kathleen D. Billman and Daniel L. Migliore, Rachel’s Cry: Prayer of Lament and the Rebirth of Hope (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1997), 30.

[5] Nicholas Wolterstoff, Lament for a Son (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), 81.

Published February 5, 2024

Emily Knight

Emily Knight (M.Div., Beeson Divinity School) works in admission and alumni relations at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama. She and her husband, Dallas, actively serve in ministry at their local church where Dallas is the director of youth ministries.