Busted Halo
feature: religion & spirituality
September 18th, 2012

The Problem of Evil


In my late 20s, I began manifesting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I had been attacked twice at knifepoint as a child and was able to keep the memories pretty well tucked into my unconscious, but at a certain point my unconscious won. As I began sifting through the memories and the pain, I also began experiencing tremendous anger toward God. How could he ever let something like that happen to me?

‘God, where were you?’

Many people have confronted this same dilemma. We call it the problem of evil. How can an all-loving, completely good God allow evil to happen to his children? The response that I had heard repeatedly was, unfortunately, only a portion of St. Thomas Aquinas’ treatment of the problem of evil: God permits evil in order to bring good out of it. I had always accepted this answer, until I had to confront the reality of evil head-on in my own life. And so, I admitted to my spiritual director that I could not agree with that explanation because of my own experience.

His response: If you can’t accept that, what can you accept?

That wasn’t what I expected to hear, but it turned out to be exactly what I needed to hear. I started a journey that included many hours of prayer, tears and questioning to figure out a response that satisfied me. I asked God (many times), “Where were you when I was being attacked?” The answer came in a Scripture passage: “Why do you seek the living one among the dead?” (Luke 24:5) My problem was that I was looking for God in the actual event; and God could not possibly be there. Now I knew where God wasn’t, so I stopped looking there.

I began identifying more and more with Jesus since I experienced some of what he went through — being attacked, left completely alone, and helpless before the aggression of others. I rewrote one of the Songs of the Suffering Servant found in the book of Isaiah with the pronoun “she” — “like a lamb led to the slaughter-house, like a sheep dumb before its shearers she never opened her mouth” (Isaiah 53:7). So closely did I identify with this passage, which is a prophecy of Christ’s Passion.

I asked God (many times), “Where were you when I was being attacked?” The answer came in a Scripture passage: “Why do you seek the living one among the dead?” (Luke 24:5) My problem was that I was looking for God in the actual event; and God could not possibly be there.

Eventually, this extended search for meaning brought me to a new understanding of the gift of free will. Someone else had abused that gift when they attacked me. That’s what hurt the most — why didn’t God stop that person from hurting me? I began to realize that when God gives a gift, He never takes it away, even if it means that we choose to abuse that gift to harm others. He didn’t even stop the people who killed his own Son. God chose to experience the ultimate, painful, crushing consequences of the gift of free will that He had given to us.

Then it occurred to me that if I really believed that with the Sacrament of Baptism God truly lives within me in a mysterious but real way, then God must also experience everything that I experience. There was something in me that desperately wanted another person to know exactly what I had gone through so that I wouldn’t be alone with the evil and terror that I had experienced and continued experiencing in countless ways. There is someone who experienced what I experienced — not only in Jesus’ violent suffering and death 2,000 years ago but up close and personal with me through the divine life living within me. This is the answer that I found I could live with — that in giving us the gift of freedom God also participates in the consequences of that gift.

Comfort in Scripture

Through this long, arduous and tremendously painful journey, my relationship with God took a huge leap forward. My life became the foundation of my relationship with God; I became prayer rather than saying prayers. It was inside my own story that I sought for a Father, and there that I found my Father. I discovered that I could express myself and the way I truly felt: anger, pain, grief, doubt, you name it.

Many times I found the exact same things being expressed in the Psalms:

My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
Why so far from my call for help, from my cries of anguish?
My God, I call by day, but you do not answer; by night, but I have no relief. (Psalm 22:1-2)

I felt so comforted knowing that others have been down the same road with God, have asked similar questions. Other parts of Scripture, especially the book of Isaiah, provided me with reassuring messages about God’s love that I desperately needed in the darkness and the pain that I often touched during that time:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
   I have called you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through waters, I will be with you;
   through rivers, you will not be swept away.
When you walk through fire,
   you shall not be burned …
Because you are precious in my eyes,
   and honored, and I love you.” (Isaiah 43: 1-2, 4)

Every question that I asked received an answer in some form — either through something I read in Scripture, a personal insight, or a lived experience. By engaging in this dialogue with God, I was able to discover how God was actually intimately involved in what had happened to me. I learned that God’s gifts and promises are truly trustworthy. And the promise that sustains me is that God is always with me. God says over and over again in Scripture (some 350+ times), “Do not be afraid, I am with you.” Nowhere in the Bible did God promise to take away suffering — but God did promise to be with us through it all.

This post was originally published on July 9, 2012.

The Author : Sr. Bernadette Reis, fsp
Sr. Bernadette M. Reis, fsp holds a Bachelors Degree in Spanish and English Literature and has spent several years researching various women’s issues. She lives in Rome and works in the English department of Paoline Multimedia, an international bookstore near the Vatican.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • mary madden

    In my own “agony in the garden” experience, I realized some of your same insights and it meant everything to me. The personal suffering of Jesus drew me closer to Jesus and it also helped me to see the great wisdom of God.
    I read this article in July and my reread today gave me even more insight. God bless you.

  • S. Andrea Westkamp OSB

    Thanks, Sr. Bernadette. You capture the experience of God living and breathing inside of us. If we are threatened or violated, God is too within us. It is the mystery of God’s presence and love. We cannot ever lose God’s love.

  • Ann Turner

    Thank you, Sr. Bernadette, for being so open about what happened to you and about your journey in confronting evil and seeking healing. I’m sure you’re familiar with Fr. Francis MacNutt’s work on healing–his book, “Healing” presents a wonderful way to go back in time accompanied by Jesus (in a meditative state with a trained professional)who is “Lord of Time” and can heal your wounds at the time you experienced them. I experienced this and found it amazing in addressing and healing the wounds of my own very early sexual abuse.

  • Kristina

    You are a blessing to all of us who read this article. By God’s grace and your strength, you have used your terrible suffering for the good of the community. Thank you, Sister.

  • Mike

    This was so incredible reading. I really needed this. Thank you so much.

  • Brian

    My sister is terminally I’ll, and as I write this I am sitting by her hospice bedside. Thank you for your comforting column. God bless on your journey as well.

  • Ann Turner

    Dear Sr. Bernadette, your reflection touched me and reminded me of my own abuse, short-lived, as a child. In later years I came to believe what William Sloane Coffin said (I think!), “God’s is the first heart to break.” I think He was with you–he was with me–in our suffering, although we didn’t know it at the time. But looking backwards to those times of trauma, we can see the seeds of healing even in the midst of evil. But it is not an easy answer.

  • Autumn

    Thank you for writing and sharing this. I’d love to know more about “being the prayer.”

  • Suzanne

    Thanks for the insights, Sister, particularly the one about God not being present in the violent act, although He’s in both the criminal and the victim. I also have survived several violent attacks and believe God brought lots of good out of them. I reacted to these experiences by summoning self-defense chops I didn’t know I possessed, without unduly harming the other people involved. This boosted my courage and my confidence that one can be compassionate even when fending off an attacker.

  • Pat

    such a thought-provoking column…thank you…
    I will keep you in my prayers.

  • Jane k

    A beautiful essay that offers people a wonderful perspective on suffering. Thank you Sister…may God bless and continue to guide you to help others draw closer to Him.



  • James Leo Oliver

    God bless you and your work.

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