One of our Sunday morning class offerings is focusing on evil and suffering and the Christian story. The material is working from N.T. Wright’s Evil and the Justice of God. I appreciate Wright’s treatment on evil and God’s justice – highly recommend the book, and if you are local, check out the class. Here’s the link for more info.
What I’ve really appreciated about the class is the opportunity for conversation. From the class leaders to the church at large, Im grateful that there is space to dialogue about evil, not just discuss apologetical rebuttals on evil. Both are important but both have limits. Praying, thinking, talking, learning, living helps move us forward in this world of suffering and hope.
As I’ve been reflecting on the class, I’m struck that at any given moment, I can quickly create a list of grave atrocities. Charlie Hebdo, missing planes (again), the very brutal Boko Haram attacks (2000 civilian casualties in most recent wave of violence), all the conversations connected with Ferguson, and the personal things that only we know. It’s staggering to consider all the suffering that happens around us.
If it feels like I’m constantly thinking about evil and suffering, it’s because, yeah, I am. I imagine many of you feel this way too. It’s not our television consumption. You can cut your cable and still feel the evil. Nor cannot it be completely reduced to our guilt for living a privileged life by the world’s standards nor is it the absence of joy and love in life. I think about evil and suffering because I am a witness to it and I choose not to respond in apathy. Again, I imagine many of you reading feel similar.
I mentioned in a sermon last year that sometimes I feel my faith is one tragic situation away from falling apart. It’s an emotional statement as it feels true in the moment. “How can this be?” Why didn’t God see fit to stop this?” And an entire avalanche of more questions quickly follow. I am as certain as one can be that I will not abandon my faith. At this point for me to disbelieve entirely, I need God to appear to me and tell me to stop believing in His existence. Until then, I’m going to allow my doubts, questions, curiosity and hope to fuel my belief.
But one question that I may live the rest of my life wondering why seemingly God chooses to get involved in certain situations and, seemingly, not in others. Some call this a form of pre-destination, some file it under the work of providence, everyone needs to account for some form of human and divine agency and all those conversations have a place. My interest today is in God’s selective involvement until He ultimately puts all things in their place. Be warned, this post is about processing and grieving the question, I’m not able to provide the answer that I want.
I believe God is actively at work in our lives and throughout our world and beyond, but of course, it’s difficult to nail down the specifics. I do not say this merely as a pastor but as a witness of life really. But though I believe that God is at work, it feels fair to say where He is either uninvolved or absent in the moment of evil. I can see God grieiving with us in the Charlie attacks but Ii didn’t see God stop the bullets. We can apply this discussion in every tragedy and again, this is the free-will, human agency and God’s providence discussion. Further, no matter how much God does in our midst, it only takes one act, two, three acts or as many as I can identify to accuse God of not being involved enough. I can name quite a few and I’ll be the first to admit this is unfair of me but it’s part of the truth I/we feel.
Even more maddening is that I’m always “fortunate” to sit next to the person who says, “We don’t know how many terrorist attacks God may have stopped this week and how many planes He may have saved.” Ok, maybe. Make no mistake, I’m not interested in taking anything away from what God is actually doing (I find that to be potentially blasphemous). But on the faith side of life, the part that I can observe and feel and believe, we would be wise to be careful what we attribute God doing and not doing.
So on one side of me is the guy who sees God in everything, and on the other is the one who sees God in nothing. Everything is explained away. Everything amazing or delivering has a natural explanation. And both friends only describe half-true fragments of my observation and I imagine I fail them as much as they fail me.
This is where the Scriptures are so incredibly helpful. When God says He hardened Pharaoh’s heart and was responsible for the plagues of Egypt and for the children of Israel crossing of the Red Sea, I’m a believer. I believe in the testimony of Scripture and have no quarrel in God’s involvement in such specified situations. It’s outside the specific revelation and here in the world of general revelation that we run into the aforementioned confusion.
When my friend says, God must have sent an angel to miraculously provide them with that great parking space in front of Macy’s to protect them from the down pouring rain, I’m wishing God would have sent that angel to France or Nigeria or to anyone in need. If God releases a new book of Scripture taking credit for the parking spaces, hey, I’ll believe and might even take a pilgrimage to the heaven-sent spots outside of Macy’s; again, I’m no interested in taking anything away from God. When my other friend says God does not cure disease, and although no medicine was used, it was the body’s self-healng factor, I have to wonder about that too. I’m skeptical of the “always super-natural,” skeptical of the completely natural, somewhere in between is the arbitrary nature of evil, human agency, and God’s providence. And somewhere in there is faith.
So I remain squinting through my prayers trying to understand what’s what. In the big picture, I see this as part of my diligence as a believer, as contributing to the strength of my faith and as part the hope I share with others. In the smaller picture, I see the pain, confusion, questions, that is hopefully, leading to something redemptive and not further into tragedy and suffering. Though I believe that God will ultimately make all things right one day, these feel like the questions worth my time today. In the meantime, may He be near the broken-hearted, and may those that seek His strength receive it today.
Your thoughts are always welcomed, whether they be in the comments or in private dialogue. Thanks for journeying with me.
Grace and peace, Tim