These are the chronicles of the esoteric . . .
suffering, part 1: reasons
Please note, this is the first post of a series.
There are so many universal human experiences it's a wonder we're not all more empathetic. We all feel joy, pleasure, love, and desire; and we all feel pain, loss, despair, and disdain. Such a wide range of emotions are an integral part of our human existence; the world is full of things that bring us to tears - positively or negatively - and things that lift our spirits or leave us in the pit.
But what seems more and more prevalent in our day and age is the experience of suffering - of disease, of war, of injustice, murder, poverty, injury, and death. We hear about hurricanes, tornadoes, bombings, shootings, beatings, famine, and more on our evening news alone - we're exposed to all sorts of depravities and violence when we read articles off the Internet. The (Western) world's obsession with self-gratification speaks to the dissatisfaction with the amount of good perceived. Moreover, the vast array of diversions serve to show the giant need for distraction from the pain and suffering we see and feel in our lives.
It's not hard to see that there's something wrong with the world.
Or is there?
Theodicy is the branch of theology that deals with the problem of evil - that is, it attempts to answer the question, 'Why does God allow evil in the world?' in as satisfactorily a manner as it possibly can. My issue however - and what I'd like to try to address here - is that traditional (pop-)theology essentially dismisses the seriousness of the deeply broken state the world is currently in as presented to us by Scripture. The old adage, 'Everything happens for a reason' only serves to compound the misdirection and can in fact lead to feelings of confusion and even bitterness, despite its seemingly comforting scope.
Does everything happen for a reason? Gregory A Boyd calls the worldview which answers Yes to that question 'blueprint theology,'1 and the sentiment, often offered with sincerity, in fact does a disservice. Granted, ostensibly it is comforting - it's nice to think that every single thing that happens is under Adonai's direction. But if you take the thought one step further you run into problems. If everything is divinely ordained then that means all manners of violence, murder, and rape are divinely ordained. That means parents can't bury their children because a divinely ordained man has locked them in their basement; it means churches around the globe live in divinely ordained fear of torture and persecution; it means war rages in the world where innocent lives are divinely taken every day.
Try telling a young wife with two children that Adonai has ordained her husband to be killed in a car crash. What do you think her response will be? Acceptance? Submission? After such a tragic event occurred to one of their close friends2 - and we call it tragic for a reason - the duo Matt & Toby wrote a song as though it was their wives who'd been killed, musing on what their reaction would be - and I think it serves to show a more accurate response.
I want you to know
what happened when I lost you.
I want you to feel
the aching that's replaced you.
Here among these gathered few -
with hardened hearts and empty pews -
I'm wishing that this too will pass and leave;
that I could be a man of faith
in this quiet home that we both made
and tell our son and daugther I believe in God.
The pain of loss isn't right - anybody will tell you. When Lazarus died, even Jesus wept.3 Still, it's not only loss of life that pains us. There is so much in our lives that doesn't seem fair - but that simultaneously can be seen as reasonably divinely sanctioned. Loss of job, severed friendships, torn families, abuse in any form, minor and major injuries, and the list can go on endlessly. We are all victims to some degree; we're all subjected to some kind of grievous harm - and our worship songs reflect the mentality that Adonai's to blame. Not only do the above quoted lyrics implicate Adonai (i.e., it's hard to believe in a God who would do this to me), but songs like Tree 63's 'Blessed Be Your Name' subscribe to and perpetuate this worldview by singing, 'You give and take away.' Even the above song ends with the lyrics, 'if Your hand could take her then take me too.'
A little while ago I listened to an Apologetics 315 interview in which philosopher and theologian Kenneth Samples touched on the overarching theme present throughout the Bible that Adonai 'brings good out of things that seem devastating to us.' He quickly moved on to assert that 'God has a purpose for evil,' quoting the well known saying that 'what people intend for evil, God intends for good' - a sentiment that directly echoes Joseph's assurance to his brothers during their reconciliation in Genesis 50:20Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. (more on this later). While Adonai can - and often does - bring about good from evil, there is a danger in blurring lines. The implications most people are making with their comfort is that Adonai is intending evil so that He can use it to bring about good - that He has deliberately brought upon some calamity specifically in order to build character. However, simply because Adonai can bring a positive outcome from an evil occurence doesn't mean He orchestrates it in the first place.
That Adonai might use a negative experience does not mean He is the source of it.
The reality is that there is in fact something wrong with the world - our deep-seated feelings that all is not well are justified. In this broken, 'fallen' world we live in, Adonai's will does not reign supreme - instead, the 'darkness of the heart's of men's plots'4 runs rampant. While the universe is spiraling at the hands of finite human beings, that doesn't mean the Mighty One has lost His might - nor does it mean He doesn't care or doesn't wish for things to be different. Adonai's purposes do get realised, but we live in a post-Edenic age where humanity seeks its own sovereignty and autonomy and Adonai grants us this free will - He has arranged the world in a particular way and chosen to limit His unlimitedness (more on this to come). We live in an age that is imperfect, that is fragile, that is impermanent - an age of frailty, of decay, of bondage. We live in a world where sometimes things happen because, well, that's just the way it is.
Sometimes people get sick because our current bodies are susceptible to disease. Sometimes people get injured because others are careless or cruel. Sometimes people lose their jobs because they made too many mistakes or their employer is down-sizing. Sometimes people die because, sadly, our current age is full of endings.
It won't last for ever of course, but in the mean time - as my cousin so succinctly put it after our uncle was given only weeks to live due to cancer - 'that s*** sucks.' Because when there are no satisfyingly profound reasons, well, it does just kind of suck.
1. Gregory A Boyd, Is God to Blame?: Beyond Pat Answers to the Problem of Suffering (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 17, 41-60.
2. Read a bit more about it here.
3. John 11:35.
4. GRITS, 'They All Fall Down,' Grammatical Revolution (Gotee Records, 1999).