I am pleased to share another guest post by my daughter, Katie Laurence, a second-year seminary student at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, California. Last week, Katie reflected on the nature of God, and invited us to think of God as more than Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This time, she is reflecting on one of the most challenging questions of them all: If God is good and all-powerful, why do good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people? Thank you, Katie, for giving me permission to share your reflection here.
Christian theology often uses the word “theodicy,” which sounds academic and intimidating, but actually refers to a question all of us have grappled with in our personal and communal lives of faith: How do we defend – both to ourselves and to others – our faith in God and our lives as Christians in light of all the evil and suffering we see in the world every day? In other words, what do we say to the claim that the suffering and evil of the world are not compatible with a God who is both omnipotent (all-powerful) and good? If God is good and all-powerful, why do good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people? How could a good, all-powerful God let children die of cancer, or allow genocide to happen, or any number of other terrible things that cause suffering?
Often, until we experience a personal tragedy that shatters our previously comfortable lives, we hold a set of contradictory and vague ideas about the problem of suffering. We might say things like “everything happens for a reason” and “evil exists because humanity has free will.” These statements add up to an idea of a God who can control everything but chooses to allow humans to cause suffering for the sake of giving us free will, but also who chooses to step in and change things sometimes. Most of the time, we can go about our lives without having to reconcile the contradictions of these ideas of God.
But then, when we experience a personal tragedy, we cannot see how a good God could let this happen. Why did God not choose to step in this time and prevent this tragedy? What possible “reason” could there be? If God could have prevented this but didn’t, then God can’t be good. And if God could not have prevented this, then who is this God we are left with? Suffering forces us to wrestle with the assumptions we’ve been holding about who God is and how the world works.
Last week (Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), we looked at the Trinity and St. Augustine’s famous quote: “if you understand something, it’s not God.” So, a starting place for approaching the issue of theodicy is remembering that we can’t ever fully understand God. If we think we totally understand God, then we’ve landed on a false idea of God. Yet, we are compelled to keep trying to understand God, because we yearn for relationship with God. The journey is worth the risk of misunderstandings! Any attempt we make to understand God brings us closer to God. With this in mind, I’d like to explore the issue of suffering through a Bible story you might have encountered: the Book of Job.
We don’t often read from the book of Job in worship services, but it became one of my favorite books of the Bible when I was grappling with debilitating chronic illness as a teenager. The book of Job begins and ends in the way that many fairy tales do, starting “once upon a time there was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job.” In this particular fairy tale, God and the satan (a Hebrew word meaning the adversary; in this part of the Bible he is not Satan the Devil but a character in the story) agree to test Job, who was an exceptionally faithful man, by causing him great suffering. The satan takes everything away from Job: his children, his possessions, his health. At the end of the book, Job is vindicated by God for “speaking of God what is right” (Job 42:8) and given back twice the blessings he had before. This narrative seems to fit into our clumsy ways of describing a just, good, all-powerful God. However, I want to look more closely at the 39 chapters of beautiful poetry that are sandwiched in the middle of this short 3 chapters of fairy tale prose.
Three of Job’s friends are visiting him. At first they sit and grieve with Job without speaking for seven days and seven nights (Job 2:12-13). Then, Job speaks about how miserable he is, and his friends open their mouths. If you’ve ever tried to comfort someone who is grieving and suffering, or if anyone has ever tried to comfort you when you were grieving and suffering, you’ll recognize the familiar blunderings of Job’s friends, who probably should not have tried to explain why Job was suffering. They were doing a much better job of being his friend when they were wordlessly accompanying him in his grief rather than trying to explain it! They try to convince him that either he or his children must have sinned to earn this terrible suffering and tragedy. A theologian named Catherine Keller draws a comparison between their unhelpful words and things we often say today: “it was God’s will;” “God wanted little Suzy for himself;” “God doesn’t inflict more than you can take.” These are words we grasp at when we want to say something, anything, comforting, but they don’t seem to help much when you’re the one grieving.
After Job’s friends have broached the topic of why all this tragedy and suffering is happening to Job, Job begins to express his grief, confusion, and anger in beautiful poetry. He cries out:
Know then that God has put me in the wrong,Job 19:6-7
and closed his net around me.
Even when I cry out, ‘Violence!’ I am not answered;
I call aloud, but there is no justice.
Job even demands that God come and answer to him for this injustice:
O that I had one to hear me!Job 31:35
(Here is my signature! Let the Almighty answer me!)
O that I had the indictment written by my adversary!
Job uses legal language to demand God answer him. Miraculously and breath-takingly, God does answer Job, “out of the whirlwind” (Job 38:1). God asks:
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?Job 38:4-5
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements – surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
God goes on to speak at length of God’s own creation. At the end of this poetic, striking speech, God joyfully describes the Leviathan at length:
I will not keep silence concerning its limbs,Job 41:12
Or its mighty strength, or its splendid frame.
God answers and at the same time does not answer the question we still face today, the issue of theodicy. Job asks why bad things happen to good people, and God answers, almost comically, with a long, wide-ranging poem about creation spoken from a whirlwind! Whirlwind-God celebrates the wildness of creation and doesn’t even speak about human concerns. God’s creation poem ends not with an answer to Job’s unjust suffering, but with an enthusiastic, at times amusing, ode to a sea monster, the Leviathan, whom Catherine Keller calls “the monster of chaos.”
What do we walk away with from this encounter with the book of Job? Certainly not a clear answer. However, we have something better: First, our struggles and concerns about suffering, justice, and God are reflected in the Bible. When we grieve, question, and are angry at God, we can find comfort in Job and in the reassurance that these thoughts and feelings are part of being human. This is part of why I found reading the book of Job so comforting as a teenager who was scared and in pain. Job gave me words to express what I was feeling and confidence that God heard all my grief and anger.
Second, in answering Job from the whirlwind, God has given us a kind of answer: God is beyond our understanding, so we should not try to explain suffering through our own narrow ideas about justice. We can’t say when something bad happens that “it was God’s will;” God is greater and more complex than simple answers like that. But that doesn’t mean we can’t understand anything about God; God-as-whirlwind enthusiastically does will something: a chaotic, vibrant, living, complex, ever-changing world of humans and eagles and snow and even sea monsters. Theologian Catherine Keller writes that “even for one as tragically hurt as Job, new life can take place. This may only be possible because he has refused to suppress piously the turbulent truth of his own experience, but has grieved and raged and confronted the meaning of life.”
God who spoke to Job from the whirlwind, God who willed into existence a chaotic, vibrant, whirling world, God who enthusiastically loves all your creation, God who is beyond our understanding but hears us and is with us always: Come near to us in the midst of our suffering and grief and anger and confusion. Accompany us when we question why the world is the way it is and where you are in all of this. Be steadfastly with us when we doubt your love or even your very existence. Help us to find you both in joy and new life and in the midst of suffering and death. Amen.
I was inspired to write this devotion by a few pages in Catherine Keller’s book “On the Mystery: Discerning Divinity in Process,” which is an academic but fairly accessible introduction to process theology (a way of doing theology that emphasizes change, becoming, and experience rather than God’s transcendence and perfection).