Few obstacles keep people away from belief in God like the problem of evil. How can we claim that God is love when every day there are people dying in terrible accidents, children being abused, and every other kind of suffering imaginable?
To top it off, Christians have the audacity to ask God for help with the most trivial things—like finding their car keys or doing well in a job interview. Why would God care about your pathetic issues when there are kids dying somewhere else in the world?
If God is willing but not able, then he isn't all-powerful.
If God is able but not willing, then he isn't loving.
I will start with the second question first: why should God care about your problems?
The love of a Father
Imagine you have two children. They approach you at the same time. The first is upset because she can't put a shoe on her doll. The second is screaming bloody murder because his arm got chopped off. Who would you attend to first?
Well, obviously, you're going to help the child with the serious wound. Cinderella can wait because you are a limited human being with limited time, attention, and resources, and you can't possibly help both children at once.
But, imagine again that you could somehow help both your children at the same time—get Johnny to the hospital and fix Barbie's shoe problem—without sacrificing any of your attention to either. Would you not also help your daughter with all gentleness and care, despite how small her request is? If you are a parent, then you know the answer already because you probably do things like this a bazillion times a day. I can't count the number of times I've turned away from whatever adult task I was doing to help my toddler with some non-essential struggle that meant everything to her at that moment. Because I love her.
How much more does God, who is Love itself—with unlimited time, energy, and resources—care about you? When you ask him for help finding a parking spot, yeah, your request is unimaginably silly in comparison to the rest of the world's problems, but I assure you, you're not distracting God from something more important. If he really is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-present, then not only is he capable of helping you, he already knows about your issues and is right there waiting to get you through it.
But now we come back to the first question: why is there evil in the first place, and why does he allow it?
The Problem of Evil
Before I answer this question, it might be helpful to refresh what we know about who God is—and who he isn't.
When non-believers post this question to Christians, they are probably imagining a being who is nothing like God. In fact, Christians themselves often conceive him to be something he is not.
He is NOT an old man sitting in the sky, doling out wishes. Nor is he an invisible force that flows throughout the universe. In both these examples, he would be a little "b" being, or a creature—a super-powerful creature that claims to have made the rest of creation, sure, but a creature nonetheless.
One could expect either of these characters to be "loving", that is, to act caring from a certain vantage point. Therefore it is problematic when he doesn't always stop bad things from happening because if he can see it and is capable of doing something but doesn't, well, then he mustn't really care after all.
But what reflective religious people mean when they speak of God is not something within the universe, but rather the condition for the possibility of the universe as such, the non-contingent ground of contingency.1Bishop Robert Barron, Vibrant Paradoxes p. 72, emphasis added The act of Being itself. (I go into more detail in this post.)
Why is this important? Well, because God's power isn't arbitrary. The cliché of "God's Plan" isn't the whimsical imposition of a supreme being's demands upon the created world. Rather, he is the very condition for the laws that allow the universe to exist as it is—to exist at all, in fact. God in his infinite power imposed limitations upon his infinite potential, creating out of nothing specific conditions such as time, space, and matter, wherein a universe with planets and stars and humans could exist. Without these laws, there would be no habitable order.
All these laws come at a price. The existence of light means there can also be darkness; because of this, we can see the world in all its texture and contrast. The existence of heat means there can also be cold; because of this, we can feel the warmth of the sun or the chill of a breeze. The existence of space means that an object cannot be in two places simultaneously; because of this, we can exist as unique and individual beings. Following this reasoning, the same laws which allow the majesty of a waterfall also allow for the devastation of a mudslide. Mother Nature is beautiful, but she is also deadly.
But there is an important distinction to be made: mudslides and earthquakes and blizzards are not evil. A lion is not evil when it eats an antelope, nor the seed when it falls to the ground and dies. There is no malevolent intent behind them. These things are simply of the cogs of the universe turning and grinding their way through history, sculpting our landscapes and ecosystems.
The only evil in the world comes from Mankind. "Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned.” (Romans 5:12) We, like Adam, have been given the most terrible gift: free will. Unlike animals who run on instincts alone, humans have the capacity to perceive different options and consider how they will affect themselves and others in the future, and then actually choose. This freedom comes at a massive price—for the ability to will your good is the same ability by which I can will your hurt. Sin is our abuse of those choices.
Only in the knowledge of God's plan for man can we grasp that sin is an abuse of the freedom that God gives to created persons so that they are capable of loving him and loving one another.
—Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 386-387
But what did the world look like before sin? According to Biblical tradition, we believe that Man was created in an original state of holiness and justice, sustained by grace and ordered towards fruitfulness. So long as he remained in that divine intimacy, he would not have had to suffer or die. He was given the task of caring for the earth, but work to him was not a burden, but rather a collaboration between him and God in perfecting visible creation. This harmony with himself and Nature, foreseen for him in God's plan, was lost by the sin of our first parents. Thus death and suffering entered the world.2CCC 373-379
“Because you have . . . eaten of the tree
of which I had forbidden you to eat,
cursed is the ground because of you!
In toil you shall eat its yield
all the days of your life.
Thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you,
as you eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
shall you get bread to eat
until you return to the ground
from which you were taken.
You are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”
However paradisal the earth was when God first set all the laws of the universe in motion, we can look around now and see that us humans have sure made an awful mess of ourselves and our planet. But we cannot point to murderers and rapists and mudslides without first evaluating the role we ourselves have played in augmenting the suffering in the world through our own failure to choose love and live in harmony with creation.
I can honestly say I don't know why God thought it would be a good idea to give weak little humans this dreadful responsibility... except, I am rather glad that he did. That I can override those natural inclinations geared towards my own self-gratification and make choices that intentionally bless the people around me—what an incredible gift. That my husband is not with me out of pure animal instincts to procreate but has actually chosen to love and honour me for the rest of our lives—I wouldn't have it any other way. The words "I love you" actually mean something because of free will. Heroes and martyrs and saints are possible because of free will and the necessary resistance against evil. Somehow, despite all the awful choices that humans have ever made, despite pain and loss, the world is a better place because of the people who have lived and the good we have also been able to choose.
This is what we mean when we say that God's plan is a "mystery". It might sound like a cop-out but it is pointing to the reality that to us, in this particular point in space and time, the tragedy of a natural disaster or the malevolent harm from another person may make zero sense at the moment. Only when we enter into eternity and see all things—joy despite suffering, triumph amidst tribulation, love eclipsing hate—in the context of his perfect plan, will we understand why God sometimes allows terrible things to happen.
"I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us.”
— Romans 8:18
Ask and you shall receive
Now, God's power isn't arbitrary but neither is it indifferent. It's not like he set the world in motion and then forgot about it. We know that he sometimes suspends the laws of nature, which we call miracles. We also know that he helps his people make good choices—this we call grace.
Ask and it will be given to you
Seek and you will find
Knock and the door will be opened to you
It might not be how you planned, or what you think is "best", but God does listen to us and he will give us what we need to make it to Heaven. This is the promise he has made in Jesus. Just look to the cross... It is proof that our God is powerful enough that he can turn even the greatest evil into something good. Something glorious, even. Do not be afraid to raise your arms to the Father, even if you just need help with a shoe.
"We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him."
— Romans 8:28
Then through his Son Jesus Christ he will pronounce the final word on all history. We shall know the ultimate meaning of the whole work of creation and of the entire economy of salvation and understand the marvelous ways by which his Providence led everything towards its final end.
—Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1040