One pastor’s response to great suffering

February 10, 2010

In light of our upcoming two-part sermon series, “Does God Love Haiti?” one of you pointed me in the direction of this presentation from a vicar in the Church of England. He spoke these words in the wake of the tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004. With great compassion and sensitivity, he correctly diagnoses the problem with a lot of pious talk about God’s involvement in the universe as puppet-master or master controller. If God’s sovereignty over the universe implies that God controls or causes every event in the universe, then we ought to be greatly alarmed by events like the tsunami, the flood on the Gulf Coast, or the recent earthquake in Haiti.

I was reminded of the earthquake in the San Francisco area that interrupted the World Series in 1989 between the Giants and the A’s. I was listening to a Christian radio broadcast the morning after the previous day’s disaster. The very well-meaning DJ explained that he had many good friends in the Bay area, and he was understandably relieved that they were O.K. But he said more than that, unfortunately. He said, “I just want to thank God that they’re O.K.”

Even as a 19-year-old I remember thinking, “Whoa! Hold on a minute! You don’t get to thank God that your friends are O.K. when so many other people—who don’t have the pleasure of your acquaintance—died or were injured. If you’re going to thank God that your friends are O.K., are you willing to blame God for failing to save these others from harm?” I suspected that this DJ would not blame God for any bad thing (although if he were an extremely hard-line Calvinist, I suppose he might).

If the occasion of the earthquake inspired this person to thank God for these friends in particular, who had been perhaps a taken-for-granted blessing in his life, or for the gift of friendship in general, then that would be a perfectly appropriate and Christian response. But thanking God for their safety? I don’t see it. If someone disagrees, please tell me why. As Rev. Honey points out, this would be believing in a God who shows a distressing kind of favoritism. (And as I will surely point out in my sermon on the subject, it contradicts scripture as well as our sense of love and justice.)

While I liked much of Rev. Honey’s talk, and I heartily agree that saying, “I don’t know why,” in the face of great suffering is far preferable to well-worn religious platitudes, I don’t think he says enough about God, and what he does say is less helpful than he might imagine.

For example, he proposes as a possible solution a God who is within everything as a cosmic “soul” of the universe. Technically, I suppose this might be the softer version of Hinduism’s pantheism (God is everthing) known as panentheism: God is in everything but not exactly equal to everything; it retains some degree of God’s transcendence. While I often preach that God is closer to us than we are to ourselves, and that—echoing 1 Corinthians 8:6 and Acts 17:28—we exist within, for, and through God, Rev. Honey goes one step further than I’m willing to go. His within-ness of God implies that when it comes to evil in the universe, what you see is what you get.

In other words, there’s no sense complaining about evil and suffering in the world: if we maintain that God is good, as I’m sure Rev. Honey does, and God is intrinsically a part of everything that happens, or vice versa, then what happens is, by definition, good—if only we could see it from God’s point of view.

The other explanation of Rev. Honey’s words would be that God’s goodness, like ours, is less than perfect. We can sympathize with that kind of god, who is a lot like us, but let’s not think for a moment we can worship him! We certainly can’t have much faith that such a god can solve our problems, even if he wants to.

Is this really much more helpful than the extreme-sovereignty perspective I mentioned above?

No… Whatever else we say about evil, suffering, and death, let’s emphatically declare that they are enemies of God, and that God’s rescue plan through Jesus Christ means their ultimate defeat. God and the kingdom God’s Son Jesus ushered in stand squarely against what happened in the tsunami and the Haiti earthquake. This belief doesn’t solve the problem of why they happen, but it draws more clearly the boundaries of what we can say about it as Christians.

One other quibble: Rev. Honey also falls victim to a kind of chauvinism of his place in time when he says words to the effect that the tsunami finally woke us up to the reality of evil and suffering. Please… Still, I applaud the effort and his sensitivity to the issue. His heart is in the right place.

And I could listen to his accent all day long!

2 Responses to “One pastor’s response to great suffering”

  1. Brian Sassaman Says:

    I agree Brent. I like the idea of his line of questions, but I agree with your point “I don’t think he says enough about God, and what he does say is less helpful than he might imagine.” You hit the nail on the head!

    Those TED videos are really good. Very few on religion though.


  2. […] in God. See my previous post and this entry for more discussion about God and science. Also, see this post, among others, about suffering and […]


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