Staring at the Stains of Evil
A Reflection on Kristin Hannah's The Nightingale
It’s easy to spot a black ink stain on a white shirt. Anyone who sees it immediately judges. “That shouldn’t be there. It so obviously shouldn’t be there. How could someone possibly deem that wearable?” This is often the response we have to evil in the world: we see black stains on a world of white. We see and experience things to which some deep and visceral voice cries, “That shouldn’t be! How could God allow it?”
As I read through my wife’s favorite book, The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, there were many of those black stain moments. The first that cut me to the core was the death of a young girl, struck by German machine gun bullets as she tried to flee a small French village. There with her mother, as her spirit faded and death closed her off from the living like a sun dropping behind a horizon, the main character says something many of us have been tempted to say when we witness evil: “What kind of benevolent God would allow such a thing?” (p. 338). When I read that line, I understood the sentiment, the feeling, perfectly well. It’s the horror of finding that things in the real world really do break in terrible ways, that tragedies don’t just haunt the pages of fiction; they haunt our own lives.
A Good God in an Evil World
Of course, given what I believe, I’m also drawn instinctively to a defense of the God I love. What’s implied in that character’s words is that God made a mistake, lost control, or perhaps isn’t really wholly good. How could a wholly good God let machine gun bullets draw the blood of a ten-year-old? When we think this way, we’re staring at the stain, at the black spot, at the darkness. And we should. Evil and suffering won’t step quietly off our path. They shout until we listen, until we weep, until we stare at them and present ourselves as truly affected by them.
But there are things we miss if we never stop staring at that stain, if we don’t look around it and beyond it. Here are a few things I reflected on once I put the book down.
1. Mystery is part of the fabric of humanity.
Being a human means being limited. And that limitation isn’t a bad thing. As Kelly Kapic wrote, “We must learn the value and truthfulness of our finitude, eventually even getting to the point where we might even praise God for our limits” (You’re Only Human, p. 11). But one of the necessary implications of this truth is that complete understanding always evades us. Comprehensive understanding requires that we relate every specific thing in our world to every other specific thing, both in the past and in the future. Of course, we can’t do that. And that frustrates us to no end. Our longing to know why evil occurs is often the voicing of a quiet but audacious dream that we could do better than God, that we could have found a way. “If this is the best God can do,” we say to ourselves, “maybe let someone else have a try.”
This really amounts to a rejection of mystery, a longing to be greater, stronger, more observant of the great evils developing behind closed doors. To accept mystery is to accept our dependence and limitation. And that means living by faith rather than by sight. And when we think about that, it sounds utterly foolish. “Walking with our eyes closed leads to twisted ankles, not sharpened vision.” That’s the voice of what theologians call autonomy, the self-centered longing to be truly self-centered, to have the whole world revolve around us. And as the center of all things, we can wipe away all the mystery. We can fix the horrors of the world and leave the ugly moral enigmas behind.
''To accept mystery is to accept our dependence and limitation. And that means living by faith rather than by sight.''
But it’s mystery that makes us, because only mystery calls us into dependence and relationship, and at the bottom of the world, at the bedrock of all things, is relationship, is love. “God is not a Robinson Crusoe deity,” Christopher Watkinswrites, “all alone on a recreation island, who only afterwards enters into relationships; his being is relational bfresm before the very beginning” (Biblical Critical Theory, p. 41). Therefore, “we live in a universe in which love . . . is fundamental and original” (p. 46). The mystery we confront is a call to relationship, a call to love and trust.
On this side of paradise, mystery often makes us cringe. But it’s always a door to trust, even in the most horrific situations. God is greater, wiser, more beautiful and more powerful than we could imagine in our wildest dreams, and sovereign over our wildest nightmares. We don’t know what he’s doing much of the time. But we’ll always have the invitation to trust him and the victory of light when darkness seems to cloak all we hold dear. That’s simply the reality of living as limited creatures in a broken world. That’s not, by the way, a call to do nothing in the face of injustice; it’s a call to sit with God in our pain and trust in his wisdom, power, and faithfulness.
2. Stains are more than stains.
Staring at a moral stain makes our throat swell and our eyes leak. That’s what I felt when I finished reading the chapter in Hannah’s book. The sinking sense of loss, the irretrievable beauty of a young life slipping away like a stone falling to the bottom of a pond—it makes a tear in our soul. And yet that stain was only a small part of Hannah’s book. It served many purposes in developing the characters, igniting their sense of justice and their bravery in the face of evil. It laid the seedbed for gratitude in simple pleasures, for the heavy gift of parenthood, for the will to press forward through disease and torment. The moral stain, in other words, was much more than a stain. Just as Hannah used that stain to develop the narrative and the characters in context, God uses the stains in our world to do many good things, most of which we never see. That doesn’t mean the evil things are in some sense good, but it does mean that God is still cosmic King. He wields wonders with the wickedness of men. And if we protest that there must be another way, we’re back to the first point: mystery is part of the fabric of humanity.
''God is still cosmic King. He wields wonders with the wickedness of men.''
The beauty of the gospel is that God isn’t aloof from evil, as we sometimes imagine. He isn’t off in a white tower shaking his head in pity. God cares about evil and the pain it creates so deeply that he didn’t just send a solution; he sent himself. On the cross, Jesus Christ, Son of God, was God’s grand response to evil. And it wasn’t what we, in our limited knowledge, might have chosen. God didn’t wipe the slate of humanity clean and eradicate evil with the snap of his fingers. Instead, he showed us two things much more precious: his presence with us and his victory over evil in the resurrection. God suffered not only with us in Jesus Christ; he also suffered for us. He took every evil onto his Mediterranean shoulders, lugged them to cross, and burned them in the flames of holy love. And when evil did what it always does—dousing the candle of hope—God responded with a strong and unyielding “no.” The resurrection was a sovereign response to Satan and every evil of the world: You. Will. Lose.
3. There is more than what we see.
Lastly, I thought about how we live in a world that might be described as “pagan.” Not many people, I think, even know what that word means anymore. J. G. Machen writes that paganism is simply “that view of life which finds the highest goal of human existence in the healthy and harmonious and joyous development of existing human faculties” (Christianity and Liberalism: Legacy Edition, p. 66). In other words, what we have here and now is the best it’s going to get. Charles Taylor in A Secular Age said the same (though he refers to this sometimes as humanism). It’s a view of life “accepting no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing” (p. 18). All we’ve got is the life at our fingertips. And if that’s lost, we plunge into despair.
The thing is Christians believe that there’s a lot more than life at our fingertips. Death isn’t a period; it’s a comma. Heaven isn’t a hope; it’s a coming destination. There are, believe it or not, worse things than passing from this life to the next. But that concept seems so dreamlike to be people today because our culture in the West is so thoroughly pagan, so utterly convinced that this life is all we have. And because of that, it views loss as the ultimate devastation.
''Death isn't a period; it's a comma. Heaven isn't a hope; it's a coming destination.''
Make no mistake, death is hideous. I watched my father wither away from a brain tumor when I was a teenager. I hate death, and cancer, and violence. Anything that takes life isn’t “natural,” no matter what people say. Death is an invader. And Christ took death to the cross with him and wrote out its conclusion in crimson: “Expiring on my return.”
Remembering the Hope
The Nightingale is a beautifully engaging story about the terrors and trials of war. And reading it made me profoundly grateful that I didn’t have to endure those terrors. But it’s always important to filter literature through your system of belief, to not just feel it but to interpret it in light of the truth you hold. That truth, for Christians, is threaded with hope. It’s fine for us to hurt and grieve with a good story, but that’s never where we’re meant to live. There is a road beyond. And it’s always worth walking.
Like this post? Check out Finding Hope in Hard Things: A Positive Take on Suffering