Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Suffering II

Awhile back I reflected on the age-old question of why God allows suffering in the world. The topic recently arose again as the pastor from my church shared a summer series on just such questions, which evoked another discussion with my brother.

I've always found it interesting how our experience colors our view of God--and it should, for how else could we know anything in this world--but how the same experience can have such a dramatically different impression upon different people.  We who live comfortably while watching the carnage in Haiti, Rwanda, Darfur, and Afghanistan are in an odd position because we have not experienced any of the things that we have seen on the media reports, yet we are tempted to cast judgment from our couches and computers.  I don't think that this is a matter of not patronizing the suffering or checking our anger so as not to exceed theirs, but rather to realize our fundamental inability to fully understand their situation, and to acknowledge the need to hear from their own voices how one might respond.  But of course we are all human, and they just as well as we will have inappropriate responses.  We can only do our best to assess the situation as objectively as possible and to consider the multiple valid interpretations.

The pictures of Haiti are undeniably gut-wrenching.  As anyone who has embarked on even a touristy excursion to foreign countries knows all too well, even the pictures are less resonating than what the eye can see in person.  The destruction is undeniable, and unfortunately it is not unique.  I remember how the media would report of the death tolls in Iraq during the height of the conflict, with counts reaching into the thousands, and protesters marching out in the thousands as well, and feeling a twang that--however horrible those deaths are indeed--we had but a twinge of emotion or evocation of sadness at memory of the battles during WWI, in which up to 100,000 would fall in a single battle.  And then that compared to the bubonic plague or the Holocaust, and what we have is a recurring cycle of maddening destruction.  Yet all of this has happened, and the world has marched on, some faithless, some faithful, and many in-between, regardless of depth of experience.

I agree that just because people respond in a positive way toward God does not necessarily justify him.  But I'm hard pressed to compare God to a physically or verbally abusing husband who elicits positive feelings simply by withholding abuse--as some have--simply because a husband is not a god to his wife.  He may act as if he were god--indeed he may think that he is--but he is human just as she is, and he will die one day and disappear just as she will.  I think that the assumption made is that God is an abuser, and no matter what the abused say, we should always condemn the abuser and free the abused.  We, in a sense, act as god to pronounce to the abused that we know better than they do about their situation and will intervene to restore our view of morality.  This works fine and well when we know what that morality is, but I would dare to say that we don't know what the morality is when it comes to judging God whether he has done right to let these things happen.  From the outset, one of the cruxes of this question is whether or not he has done these things or simply allowed them to happen, and the corollary, whether allowing them to happen is just as wrong as not allowing them to happen.  These are troubling to answer, and subject to much debate.

Let's consider the opposite scenario.  Suppose that God were to intervene whenever something bad happened.  That would have a ripple effect on potentially everything, threatening our freedom at every moment.  And where would it stop?  Surely if he staved off 99% of the earthquakes, we would chafe at the 1%.  In a sense, assuming that he does answer our prayers, we do know that he intervenes, and for all we know, he may in fact have staved off 99% of the natural disasters or even man-made terrors that would have happened.  If we believe in the spirit world, particularly the fallen spirit world, we should only expect to have infinitely deeper terrors than we could ever handle if God had not countlessly intervened.

We're bound to come back to the story of Job, which already sounds like a broken record because it's merely a "story."  But I think that God's response to him in that encounter has relevance.  I've always been appalled by it, to say the truth, because God's answer to him really doesn't answer anything directly.  He just says, I am God, so you don't understand what I have to do.  I think that as hand-waving an answer as that sounds, it has merit because it's like how we in the populace tell the President what he should do, as if we have all the answers and know how to run the country and patch everything up, when in reality if the vast majority of us, even the best and the brightest, took seat in the White House, national chaos would ensue.  Most of us are simply not as smart as we think we are.  Similarly, God manages competing interests far deeper than we realize, including perhaps one of the deepest conflicts of all, that of freedom both to love and to do evil.  But I think that God may have another message embedded in his response.  One lesson I've learned is that sometimes we are simply never satisfied with something.  There are moments and there are people where nothing, absolutely nothing, that one could ever do would bring fulfillment.  I think that the same is true in many scenarios of life, in which no matter what answer we are given, we are never convinced, we are never satisfied.  I think that God may have responded the way that he did because he realized that Job--and the humanity who would read his account--would be unsatisfied no matter the answer that God gave.  He says, Being God is simply too complicated to explain, so what you need to do is to let me be God, while you perform your duties as a human being.  Even that answer might not satisfy everyone, but there we go again.

I write all this rather uncomfortably because I'm discussing the plight of the suffering or deceased from a cozy academic station in comfortable California.  I agree wholeheartedly that those Christians who declare "goodness and love" as a rote expression chafe at the experiences of the suffering, but I also know that there are many who have experienced such suffering and would still declare this of God.  Although we could discount their response as the deluded reaction of the lesser mind, they might be the ones laughing at us if they realized that we had rejected God for the same suffering that had instead strengthened their faith.
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