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THE NUMB BLOW FALLEN IN THE STUMBLING NIGHT:
WHY DO WE SUFFER?
With these hands I lifted him from his cradle, tiny then, soft and warm, and squirming with life. Now at the end with these same hands I touched him in his coffin.
Nicolas Wolterstorff, Lament For A Son
If I knew! If I knew why!
What I can’t bear is . . . the blindness . . .
Meaninglessness . . . the numb blow
Fallen in the stumbling night.
Archibald MacLeish, J. B.
When I walked into her hospital room, the young woman was lying there in her hospital gown, her forehead damp from the physical ordeal of labor and delivery, her cheeks damp from the tears. She reached her hands toward me and called out a single desperate question: “Why?” The stark simplicity of her question made it huge, absolutely impossible. It haunts me now, a decade later. I said, “I don’t know.”
Months earlier the young couple announced they were expecting their first child. As their priest, I was looking forward to the baptism. But at the end of a full-term normal pregnancy, the baby was born dead. And her mother wanted to know why.
The pregnancy had gone smoothly. The baby girl had seemed healthy. There was no sign of any pathology at the birth. The baby was simply dead. In the absence of any other explanation for a stillbirth, doctors say, “It was a cord accident.” Maybe it was. But that answer is just something for doctors to say. When there is no other explanation for a stillbirth, “cord accident” is the default diagnosis, not a verifiable fact. It doesn’t really answer anything. If the doctors cannot give a reliable medical explanation, how is a pastor to decipher the mystery of death? Still, I would have given a fortune for something – anything -- to say. I had no theological equivalent of “a cord accident.” So I said, “I don’t know.”
Wanting Our Faith To Make Sense. When life disappoints us deeply in ways that make so little sense, we ask “why?” For those who believe in God, senseless sorrow shakes our faith. We lose not only a child, a lover, a hope, but also our sense that life is good and meaningful. We lose our faith. We want faith to make sense. We need our beliefs to be reasonable so we can trust them. Disasters don’t fit with our trust in God’s benevolent care. They make belief in an all-powerful loving God appear absurd.
Philosophers and theologians call the disconnect between faith in God and all the bad things that happen “the problem of evil.” Right off, we have trouble with the vocabulary because philosophers and theologians use the word “evil” with a special meaning. Most people today use “evil” to mean seriously immoral behavior. In ordinary speech, we would not use the word “evil” to describe a medical condition or a natural disaster. But traditionally, “evil” has meant anything that is not as it ought to be. It could mean any kind of “bad” – bad weather, bad health, bad luck. “Evil” is very much like “malignant.” In the law “malignant” means something akin to malice; but in medicine a cancerous tumor is called “malignant.” Just so, “evil” can be used both in moral and other ways. The term an “evil day” in times past meant a day with bad weather or a day on which our army was defeated.
That is how the philosophers and theologians use the word. So when we talk about “evil,” we mean sickness, natural disasters, and misfortune as well as people doing cruel things to each other. Rabbi Kushner used the phrase “bad things.” This book will use a variety of words to describe a variety of “bad things,” but it will also use “evil,” the way philosophers and theologians have been using it since the 1700’s, as an umbrella concept to include all of them.
“The problem of evil” challenges faith. The challenge goes like this: “If God is omnipotent and God is good, then why is there evil in the world?”[i] Logically, it would seem that one of the following must be true: 1. God is not all-powerful. 2. God is not all good. 3. There is not really any evil in the world.[ii] You see “the problem of evil” is a serious threat to the faith of those who believe in a loving God. The poet, Czeslaw Milosz put it better:
All my life I tried to answer the question, where does evil come from?
Impossible that people should suffer so much, if God is in Heaven
The problem of evil has been called “the rock of atheism.” Atheistic philosophers from David Hume in the 18th Century to John Mackie in our day have argued that this “problem of evil” makes belief in God irrational.[iv] Theologian Gordon Kaufman, summed it up: “In the face of death camps, hydrogen bombs, and napalm, of unbearably painful and destructive diseases, of impersonal calamities and unmerited suffering, how can one say that the Ruler of the world is good, loving, or merciful . . .? The particularly overwhelming evils of the twentieth century have brought home this dimension of the problem of God with renewed force.”[v] Bart Ehrman’s book, God’s Problem, is his account of how the horrible things that happen to people make it impossible for him to believe in God.
Our First Inner Conflict: Do We Want To Believe God Is In Charge? The “problem of evil” runs deeper in our hearts than a logical conundrum in our heads. It is a matter of our conflicted longing. Do we want to believe God is in charge of what is happening or not? The “problem of evil,” at the feeling level, lies in our conflicted desires. On the one hand, we want God to intervene – to part the Red Sea when it blocks our way, to heal our diseases, cast out our demons, and raise our dead. We need help finding our car keys, paying our bills, and keeping our tempers. We want a higher power to liberate us from alcohol. We want to turn it over, to let go and let God. All of that requires God to be both powerful and actively involved in our lives, even arranging occasional miracles to save our necks.
On the other hand, if God is powerful enough and involved enough to help us, then aren’t our problems his fault to begin with? Where was God when things went wrong? If God can help us, why hasn’t he already done it? What kind of a God would insist that we crawl and beg before he helps, and sometimes he won’t help even then. Better to think God is powerless or uninvolved. Such a God would be innocent and perhaps likeable, but not particularly important or even relevant to our lives.
Then to confuse things further, miracle, wonder, and serendipity come along. Grace happens just often enough that we can’t dismiss the notion that God may be lending us a hand on occasion. Why then does God act only on occasion? Believing God could deliver us from suffering actually implicates God in our suffering. A man trapped in the World Trade Center on September 11 prayed to be saved. He was saved, but his response wasn’t gratitude. This is his story:
“Lord help me please,” he prayed, the primal prayer. “Then,” he
said, “I feel like this strange force came over me, that I never felt
before. . . and I busted a little hole [and crawled out]. . . My Lord
upheld this building. Then we were in perfect safety, and the
building collapsed. And here I am. God delivered. And I’m angry.
Angry because all these good people who were there, all these
good people were left in this building. So I’m angry.”[vi]
If God can save but doesn’t, we have to blame him. But blaming God for suffering is problematic. If God is our ideal, our highest concept, what we strive to resemble, then blaming God for suffering actually corrupts our souls. Emulating the person we blame is a mind-twister, so we are inclined to say God cannot do anything about real world problems.
Despairing of God’s ability to do anything about our suffering is practical atheism. God may exist but he does not matter. I know two people who each lost a child to death. One of them dealt with his loss by trusting that God caused his daughter’s early death for a greater good. The other bereaved parent exonerated God of her child’s death, insisting God does not run the world. Their opposite answers each helped them cope for awhile, but neither answer was truly adequate. The first answer made God a killer. The second made God a helpless bystander. Which one deserves our worship?
We can escape this dilemma by simply rejecting God. Indeed, if we want to reject God, the persistence of misfortune can give us reason to do so. We can say there is no God or that God is not good. Those responses, however, are not particularly helpful when it comes to finding ways to survive, to find the meaning in our experiences, or to overcome the obstacles that hold us back in life.
Perhaps the “overwhelming evils of the twentieth century” may lead us to re-think who God is instead of giving up on faith and succumbing to despair. This book will present such an alternative. Instead of using life’s sorrow as an occasion to deny God, we will reconsider who God is. We will use this occasion to find a truer, more praiseworthy God, a God who will empower us to overcome hardship and affliction.
Our Second Inner Conflict: Do We Really Want An Answer To The Question “Why”? There is another matter of the heart that makes it exceedingly difficult to come to terms with tragedy. On the one hand, we desperately need to makes sense of what has happened; on the other hand, we refuse to make sense of it because that implies accepting things we know are unacceptable. We are torn. Let’s look at both sides of this inner conflict.
Finding meaning in tragedy is vital if we are to keep breathing and putting one foot in front of the other. Victor Frankl learned an important lesson as a death camp prisoner in World War II: the people most likely to survive were those who managed to find some meaning in their struggle. So Frankl developed new kind of psychotherapy that consisted of helping people find the positive value in their pain.[vii] People survive by making some kind of sense of even the most senseless things that happen to us. Christians look to God for an explanation. We look to God to redeem our loss with a plan that leads to a greater good. Countless Christians over the centuries have consoled themselves at gravesides with such phrases as “It’s God’s will” or “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.”
But there is the other side of this dilemma to deal with. Can we love a Lord who “giveth and taketh away” in arbitrary and sometimes cruel ways? Do such platitudes urge us to accept things we should not accept, things our hearts rebel against. Dostoevsky’s character, Ivan Karamazov, refused to accept religious justifications for the unspeakable suffering he saw. In an argument with his pious brother, Aloysha, Ivan rejected faith for this precise reason.
For the sake of argument, he conceded that maybe, in some mysterious way, God will someday make everything wonderful. He even conceded, for the sake of argument, that the sufferings people endure now are in some unknown way a necessary part of the plan that will lead to cosmic bliss for all. Even so, he found God immoral for using suffering to accomplish his ends. Ivan refused to be complicit in God’s immorality by accepting grace through faith. He recounted cases of children brutally tortured and murdered. Even if all will be set right and healed someday, and even if these atrocities were somehow necessary to an eternal harmony, Ivan insisted, that makes God no less monstrous.
“I challenge, you, let’s assume you were called upon to build the edifice of
human destiny so that men would finally be happy and find tranquility. If you
knew that, in order to attain this, you would have to torture just one single
creature, let’s say the little girl who beat her breast so desperately in the outhouse,
and that on her unavenged tears you could build that edifice, would you do it?
Tell me and do not lie!”
“No, I would not,” Aloysha said softly.
“And do you find acceptable the idea that those for whom you are building that edifice should gratefully receive a happiness that rests on the blood of a tortured child and, having received it, should continue to enjoy it eternally?”
Dostoevsky and Frankl represent the two sides of a basic dilemma. Frankl rightly says that we must find meaning in our affliction if we are to survive it. Dostoevsky protests that the horrors people too often face cannot be justified with any overarching meaning.
A clear example of this conflict is the difference among Jews over what to call the genocide their forebears suffered at the hands of Hitler. Some use the word holocaust, the word for a sacrifice or offering, a word that suggests there is some spiritual meaning to be found even in the depths of this atrocity. Others use the word shoah, which means disaster or catastrophe. The word shoah insists there is nothing good to be found in such evil. We will not stand for such horrors to be defended or justified by any transcendent meaning. . . .
I have written this book because the current conversation over the problem of evil is lopsided. The atheist voices, such as Bart Ehrman in God’s Problem, state their case with a simple logic supported by powerful examples of how horrible things can be while God does nothing, if there is a God at all. The Christian voice in reply often turns to psychology, reflects back feelings, offers a caring presence. In offering pastoral care, that is exactly what Christians should do. But when people are up against the existential question of whether life can be meaningful, whether life is worthwhile, they need more than a caring presence – they need some answers. When they are up against the religious questions, “Does God exist?” “Does God matter?” “Is God even good?” they need answers. . . .
There are explanations of evil and suffering in the Christian tradition. We will consider those answers because most of them contain some truth. They are, however, at best partial explanations. We can offer explanations that help a little, but ultimately do not solve the problem. As philosopher Marilyn McCord Adams notes:
. . . (T)he pressure to provide rationales (for evil) . . .
drives us to advance credible partial reasons . . . as total
explanations, thereby exacerbating the problem of evil by
attributing perverse motives to God.[viii]
We don’t want to “attribute perverse motives to God” because we cannot and should not worship and obey someone with perverse motives.
There are two reasons we will not offer a solid answer to the question of why “bad things” happen. First, we don’t have one to offer. We have some insights -- but not a comprehensive answer. Let me be clear that taking God out of the equation doesn’t solve anything either. If we deny God’s existence, that changes the logical structure of the problem, but it does not give us an explanation of suffering. Evil is even more mysterious without God.
Second, we don’t want to offer such an answer because to fully and satisfactorily explain evil would be to justify it. We don’t want to do that. We want to preserve the human voice of rebellion that says “No. This will not do.” We honor the voice that remembers the holocaust. We do not want to justify the holocaust. We want to join the voices of those who say. “Never again!”
Will we offer a reasonable grounds for faith in the face of horror and tragedy? Yes. We will offer a way of thinking about God that is credible and helpful. But it will not be God as so many philosophers have defined “God” in “the problem of evil” literature. It will not be the understanding of God that many believers hold today. We will reach back to an older, truer, and better way of understanding God. We will discover images of God that console, sustain, and inspire. It will not be the patriarchal God, the God of omnipotent domination. That is the God who makes “the problem of evil” intractable. If we are to grapple with our affliction creatively, it will be necessary for us to break out of the mental box of the logical problem of evil. It is built on misconceptions about God—misconceptions we must cast aside if we are to examine how the Triune God of the Christian tradition responds to us in our hour of need. In this book, we will rediscover the Triune God espoused by Christians in the first centuries of their faith, a mystical cosmic dance of a God, who heals, restores, and redeems. . . .
This book is about God considered in light of a central question in life: why do we suffer? That question leads inexorably to God. It makes us think seriously about who God is. The fact of suffering makes many beliefs about God impossible, including some beliefs that are widely held. Suffering may also open the way for us to believe in God in better ways, to see God as better than we knew God to be, more worthy of our worship. Theologian Jurgen Moltmann expresses the connection between God and suffering this way,
God and suffering belong together . . . . The question about God
and the question about suffering are a joint, a common question.
And they only find a common answer. Either that, or neither of them
finds a satisfactory answer at all.[ix]
And philosopher Michael Peterson echoes, “(W)hat a religious system says about evil reveals a great deal about what it takes ultimate reality and humanity’s relationship to it to be.”[x] . . . .
[i] Philosophers of religion may present this problem in terms of God’s omniscience as much as God’s omnipotence. From that perspective, the question is If God knew this would happen, why did he create such a world? This is a profound question. It goes to the question of ultimate meaning that the philosopher must ask. But we will focus on omnipotence since it is the characteristic of God that affects our immediate relationship with God and our immediate relationship with suffering. We want to know whether God can do anything for us, and if so, why doesn’t he do it?
[ii] This is a simplified version of the problem. A full statement includes God’s existence and omniscience. The atheist argues that these propositions are logically inconsistent. There are also three version of the final element: (a) evil exists; (b) large amounts, extreme kinds, and perplexing distributions of evil exist; (c) gratuitous or pointless evil exists. Michael L. Peterson, God And Evil (Boulder: Westview Press, 1998) pp. 23-24.
Marilyn McCord Adams, Horrendous Evils And The Goodness Of God (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999) p. 9.
[iii] Czeslaw Milosz, “High Terraces,” in Second Space, trans. Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Haas (New York: Harper Collins, 2004) p. 22.
[iv] Michael L. Peterson, pp. 17-18. Anthony Flew has more recently changed his mind on these issues and converted to theism.
[v] Gordon Kaufman, God The Problem (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972) p. 13
[vi] Andrew Silver, “Prayer In A Minor Key,” unpublished manuscript. January 2006.
[vii] Victor Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning (New York, Beacon Press, 1959).
[viii]. Adams, pp. 155-156.
[ix]. Jurgen Moltmann, The Trinity And The Kingdom, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993) p. 49.
[x] Michael L. Peterson, God And Evil (Boulder: Westview Press, 1998) p. 7.