Tuesday, May 28, 2013

God's Will and Suffering

This is the second CNN article which grabbed my attention this past week--especially in light of the suffering endured by parents and children in Moore, OK.  Is suffering God's will?

This is a most difficult question...for believers.

For atheists, there is no difficulty in wrestling with the question, because there is no question.   How can a non-existent God cause suffering?  Suffering just happens.  Period.

But the atheist has to then answer a very important question--at least a very important question to a whole host of people: where then is hope?  In the atheistic world view, there is no hope to be offered anyone who loses a child to a tornado, a school shooter, cancer, a tsunami, or what have you.  Essentially, one is left with "You know what Happens.", with no ifs, ands or buts.  One is out of luck.  For those of us who believe hope is essential to the viability of the human species, atheism is not an acceptable route.

Which brings us to belief.  And suffering.  And the place of God in it.

Joshua Prager's article struggles with meaning in this regard.  He offers two options:

And it occurs to me that whenever any of us wish to assimilate why we suffer (or prosper), we must choose between these same two narratives. We can attribute our lots to God and his writings, his unknowable ways. Or we can root them in the natural world and chronicle them ourselves -- on paper or simply in our minds. We can take comfort in ultimate if inscrutable justice. Or we can take comfort in observable reason and responsibility.

Pragner confesses later in the article, he falls squarely in the second camp.  He professes to be agnostic toward God--which is fine for him.  He comes to a place where he has come to grips with why he suffered by getting rid of God.

Suffering as God's Will

Interestingly enough, he also found others who suffered who found comfort and solace in his first narrative: that God ordains suffering.  Again, a relevant, long quote:

Surrounded by seven shelves of holy books, Yaakov, the family patriarch, told me that God had caused the crash and spared our lives. He said we had to follow the example of Job and serve God though we did not understand him.

Next, I found the widow of the bus driver. She was a secular Jew of Yemeni descent and lived in the industrial town of Petach Tikvah. (She wished to keep her name private.) She told me that her husband had feared nothing but God. And, she said, it was God who had ordained the crash. "It is written," she told me. "If you don't believe that, you will go crazy."

Finally, in the Arab town of Kfar Qara, I found the driver whose truck had crashed into the left rear of the bus where I sat. Abed told me that he had become religious after the crash and that the crash was an act of God. He then paused from his coffee and his Hebrew to speak an Arabic word: Maktoob. "It is written."

I left Abed, mindful as I drove south toward Jerusalem that, in this land of competing narratives, Arab and Jew were for once in perfect agreement.

Three different sets of people found comfort and understanding by believing God had ordained the bus crash which caused their suffering. 

Theologically, this gives people like myself the heebie-jeebies.  There are a good number of theologians who do not believe God intentionally causes suffering in the manner understood above--and for good reasons which I will outline below.

However, before I do that, please allow me to relay why I believe this understanding of God's will is held onto by many.  Much of it has to do with the understanding of God's power.  If indeed God is all-powerful and God is all-knowing, then God has ultimate control over everything--every event--every occurrence both with natural disasters and human inclination. 

This is the logical conclusion of believing in a God that is all-powerful and all-knowing.  The hope that people have is that since God is all-powerful and all-knowing, there is a reason God caused the suffering even though that reason is not known.  Emphasize the word hope.  Not content to deal with the way things are, there must exist a deeper, more meaningful reason for suffering.

Problems with this Approach

The biggest problem with this approach to suffering has to do with the theological assertion: God is all-powerful.  Does God have such power that He controls each and every formulation of the human mind and will AND each and every act of nature?  If one concedes that God indeed is this powerful, then there is no free will (which is one of the reasons I believe Pragner uses the word responsibility only from the agnostic, second perspective). 

If there is no free will; however, then we are left with another significant problem.  If we as humans have no free will, we are simply puppets being used at the mercy of the divine persona.  One could easily get the perception of a kid playing with his toys.  He's got some favored toys which he cares for and keeps in pristine condition, but there are others which he cares less about.  Why not have some fun with them?  Make car crashes.  Have them play army against one another.  See what happens when they get caught in massive amounts of water, and fire, and rain, and wind, and falling earth--just as a child does with toys he doesn't mind getting broken.

Is it any wonder why some rebel against this notion of God?  Is it any wonder why they run screaming from this theological position?  I personally would too, but does this mean I am left with only one alternative?  Does this mean I have only one other option as Pragner suggests?  In a word: no.  (Let me stress here, that I have no animosity toward those who hold this particular theological position.  In it, they have found hope and comfort, and it is my last desire to remove that from them.)

A Christian Approach to Suffering

It is necessary to say that there are many approaches to the problem of suffering within the Christian tradition.

There are those who subscribe to the understanding that suffering is a part of God's will.

There are those who believe our suffering is a part of God's redemptive plan for the world--as Christ suffered, we also suffer for the sake of the world.

There are those who find meaning in the words of St. Paul in Romans 5:3-5: 3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

I believe a Christian approach to suffering begins with the understanding that God intended a creation which was perfect where suffering did not appear.  I believe God created such a creation only to have it ultimately rebel against Him.  I want to be very clear here: it was not just man that rebelled against God, it was the entirety of creation that did.  This is an important point.

It is well argued that God gave free will to human beings so they were not puppets on a string.  In order to fully live in a relationship, one must be free to have some choice in the matter.  God initiates every relationship and brings people to belief; however, He gives us the ability to walk away.  At this point, I am also conceding this ability to creation as well.

How can I do such a thing?  In the Judeo-Christian story of the Fall, man and woman desire to be like God, so they disobey God's instructions and eat the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil.  Yet, they were coaxed into eating by...a part of creation: the serpent.  Parts of the creation were already rebelling against God's command, and they knew the lynch pin was humankind since God had given humankind the job of tending the Garden.  If humans fell, the whole of creation would simply continue its rebellion unchecked, and that's exactly what happened.

God allowed humankind and creation to make it's choice, and God continues to allow it such freedom.  I do not believe that God ultimately has control over every action taken by humans or by nature.  I believe God gives freedom to each to act accordingly--humans to their thought processes or lack there of, and the world according to scientific laws (as best as we understand them). 

I believe sometimes God intervenes in the process in the form of the miraculous--I know scientifically this is possible--however, I have no idea God's reasons for intervening in some cases but not others.

Suffering, then, is a consequence of the brokenness of the world.  Humans bear responsibility for part of that suffering and it cannot be attributed to God.  Nature bears responsibility for part of that suffering that cannot be attributed to God.  Yet, I also believe that God bears responsibility for suffering in that He does not intervene at all times and in all places to prevent suffering.

Yes, you read that last statement correctly.  God is on the hook for suffering which takes place in our world since He theoretically has the power to abolish it.  However, we must note that God places Himself on that proverbial hook--not us.  He does so through HIS OWN SUFFERING AND DEATH.  This is something that is uniquely Christian--the belief that God took on human flesh, suffered, and died so that creation could be redeemed.

As Timothy Keller puts it in The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism:

Let's see where this has brought us.  If we again ask the question: "Why does God allow evil and suffering to continue?" and we look at the cross of Jesus, we still do not know what the answer is.  However, we now know what the answer isn't.  It can't be that He doesn't love us.  It can't be that He is indifferent or detached from our condition.  God takes our misery and suffering so seriously that He was willing to take it on Himself.  (pp. 30-31)
But it is not enough for the Christian to simply say, "God suffers with us." because there is more--resurrection.  Christianity proclaims a God who is not content to allow tragedy and death to be the final word, and so He offers resurrection.  This is the news of Jesus' rising from the dead.  Jesus is the "first fruit" of what is to come--the creation of a new heaven and a new earth.

A Third Way

And so, we have arrived at a third way from understanding God's will and suffering as opposed to Pragner's two.  Suffering is not caused by God's will.  He does not intentionally cause tornadoes or train wrecks or bus wrecks.  Nature causes suffering.  Humans cause suffering.  God does not stop such things from happening for reasons only known to Him.  In some cases, God intervenes for reasons known only to Him.

But God takes responsibility for all suffering by taking it upon Himself as He willingly suffers and dies to redeem the world so that at the end of time a new world will be brought into being where all the wrongs are made right.  This is the hope to which we subscribe.

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