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January 21, 2010

No, Seriously, Why Does God Allow Suffering?

Thanks for all your comments over the last two days, and I could well imagine we'll get back to the monogamy subject shortly.  Very thoughtful comments!

A couple of you pushed back on my Haiti post that merely saying that "why" God allows suffering is the wrong question doesn't get us far enough.  Wrong question or no, it is a question that begs an answer, you said.  And it's a question that Greg Boyd, whom I championed in the previous post, does in fact try to answer.  So perhaps we can hazard a few more words there.

A couple of thoughts.  For reasons I'll detail below, I'm still sold that the best thing to be said is that it's the wrong question, that comfort and God are not to be found in the question.  And I remain sold that that's by and large the position the scriptures I mentioned (Job and Jesus on the Tower of Siloam) take.  But, as you point out, this is not the only thing that can be said.

Why is there suffering in the world?  If you'll forgive the small-scale crudity, in my world the most-compelling answer is "because shit happens."  That is clearly a reality of our world, and an important one.  Every time something hard happens to us or someone we love, it can be helpful to remind ourselves that we were well aware for most of our lives that truly hideous things were happening in the world to other people, and we still seemed to be able to function.  Now that that bad stuff has happened to us, perhaps it's not time to reopen the question, but to move forward with God as helpfully as possible.


Now is saying that shit happens the same thing as, in theological terms, saying that (a) the Fall pretty much spoiled things forever by letting sin and suffering into the world and that, until the new heaven and new earth, those things are realities that aren't going anywhere? or (b) that, as Jesus says, the devil is "the god of this world?"  Yes and yes, it seems to me.  Yes.  Absolutely.  That does describe the world we live in.  Now, for some people, this is no comfort on any number of levels.  Isn't God more powerful than the devil?  And how then can we praise God in all circumstances, when we've now established that pain, suffering, sin, evil and brokenness don't come from God, but from the devil? 


To my mind, the way we get around those things is by recognizing that understanding the deepest realities in the universe is very helpful, but not the bottom line in faith.  "Doubting" Thomas is a hero to our modern sensibilities, but Jesus assesses him by saying, "Blessed are those who believe without seeing."  I think there's profound wisdom here.  We praise God, in this world-view, because whatever is happening to us, God is alive, present to us, and loves us.  And maybe he'll offer us some concrete help.

Naked Now Book Cover I've been reading some more on mysticism and contemplation (thanks to our old friend Richard Rohr and his new book The Naked Now) and one of the big pitches there is that mysticism embraces paradox and mystery while our either/or selves lean towards a sort of cut-and-dried approach to life that limits our ability to connect with God or even truly enjoy our day as a gift from God.  I'm sold, but I recognize that not everyone will happily go there with me.

Here's more from our friend GK Chesterton on this perspective:

Chesterton2 Imagination does not breed insanity.  Exactly what does breed insanity is reason.  Poets do not go mad; but chess players do.  …To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything is a strain.  The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in.  The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens.  It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head.  And it is his head that splits. 

I'm with Chesterton on that perspective, but, again, maybe it's an acquired taste.

(Boyd, by the way, continues his argument by pitching a position that's gotten him a whole lot of pushback, called "open theism."  His take, if I can represent it from memory, is, first, that the world is characterized by spiritual battle, hence his call for us to fight evil and suffering rather than work especially hard to understand it.  So, for him, yes, it's the devil who's to blame for these things.  He goes on to argue (again, if memory serves) that God has self-limited so that he's watching events unfold as are we all, that God has to adapt to changing circumstances every bit as much as we do.  It's that part that's gotten him the pushback, but I find it very easy to read his books, accepting that premise and seeing where Boyd wants to take us.)

How helpful do you find the "why is there suffering?" answers? 



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