God “stoops to conquer” us

May 17, 2013

One very difficult truth that C.S. Lewis communicates in The Problem of Pain—which I suppose makes this profoundly poignant and sensitive work an object of scorn to a few high-minded people—is that the suffering we face is often good, necessary, and, most troublingly, God-ordained—not merely for the really bad people, but for “decent, inoffensive, worthy people,” too. Lewis asks, “How can I say with sufficient tenderness what here needs to be said?” He can’t. There’s no nice way to put it.

Let me implore the reader to try to believe, if only for the moment that God, who made these deserving people, may really be right when He thinks that their modest prosperity and the happiness of their children are not enough to make them blessed: that all this must fall from them in the end, and that if they have not learned to know Him they will be wretched. And therefore he troubles them, warning them in advance of an insufficiency that one day they will have to discover. The life to themselves and their families stands between them and the recognition of their need; He makes that life less sweet to them. I call this a Divine humility because it is a poor thing to strike our colours to God when the ship is going down under us; a poor thing to come to Him as a last resort, to offer up ‘our own’ when it is no longer worth keeping. If God were proud He would hardly have us on such terms: but He is not proud, He stoops to conquer, He will have us even though we have shown that we prefer everything else to Him, and come to Him because there is ‘nothing better’ now to be had… It is hardly complimentary to God that we should choose Him as an alternative to Hell: yet even this He accepts. The creature’s illusion of self-sufficiency must, for the creature’s sake, be shattered; and by trouble or fear of trouble on earth, by crude fear of the eternal flames, God shatters it ‘unmindful of His glory’s diminution’… And this illusion of self-sufficiency may be at its strongest in some very honest, kindly, an temperate people, and on such people, therefore, misfortune must fall.[†]

Before we disagree, let’s ask ourselves: How has God used pain and suffering in our own lives?

Days after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami killed hundreds of thousands in one fell swoop, then-Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams wrote an op-ed in a London paper saying that when we see death and destruction on this scale, it causes us to question our faith in God, or in God’s goodness.

Williams meant well, of course, and we clergy always say these sorts of things after tragedy strikes, don’t we?

But a commentator in another paper ridiculed the archbishop: “What is he talking about? Did he not notice that churches were packed this past Sunday?” His point is well-taken. After all, did Americans abandon God in droves after 9/11? Quite the opposite: churches enjoyed a strong uptick in attendance for weeks or months afterward. Far from turning us away from God, suffering often brings us closer to God. God knows this better than anyone: God pours his blessings on us, and we ignore him. God takes them away, and we’re on our knees.

Even as I write this, I want to be careful: God isn’t the author of evil, even the evil whose consequences ultimately bring us back to God. But God is constantly at work in the midst of evil to bring good from it—even the good suffering that shatters our illusion of self-sufficiency.

As Lewis said, this is an example of Divine humility: Sure… we gladly come back to God when we feel like our lives are threatened. Why not before? Why should God have us back on those terms? Why should God be moved when we “strike our colors” after the ship is going down?

I’m not sure. God wants us to come home, and he isn’t picky about the means by which he gets us there. Suffering is one of those means.

I said in an earlier post about the Frankl book that we need to be “worthy of our suffering.” One way we make ourselves worthy is by learning from it, repenting of the sin that it awakens our conscience to repent of, and letting it shape us into the people God wants us to be.

C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 95-6.

9 Responses to “God “stoops to conquer” us”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, this is a good post, but I am not sure I totally agree with this statement: “God isn’t the author of evil, even the evil whose consequences ultimately bring us back to God.” I think this depends on what you mean by “evil.” God is certainly never the author of SIN (“God cannot be tempted by sin, neither does he tempt any man.”), but I don’t see any scriptures teaching that God is never the author of CALAMITIES of one type or another. God struck Israel with plagues, for example, when they strayed (whether by way of punishment, or as “consequences intended to ultimately bring them back to God.” God said to Moses, “Who made the blind and the mute?” I think the point of Lewis’ statement is actually that God IS the author of such calamities, which he imposes specifically to draw us to Him.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I’ll put it like this, Tom—and with this Lewis would certainly agree: If God is the author of a calamity, then the thing that we perceive as a “calamity” is good. I’m willing to say that this could be true of much so-called natural evil. Forest fires, for example, are horrifying when they burn your house to the ground, or worse, but the fires themselves have a purifying effect on the forest: trees and ecosystems become stronger afterwards. There’s probably a sermon illustration there.

      The wide consensus of Christian theology says that God cannot be the author of evil, however, because evil itself isn’t a “thing”: it’s the absence of a thing—namely, evil is the absence of good.

      My main concern is someone saying, “Pastor Brent said that God caused 9/11.” See what I mean?

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Brent, see Isaiah 45:7 (KJV, “create evil”; NIV, “create disaster”–“I, the LORD do all these things.”). I recognize that God never does anything “morally wrong,” but what is “morally right” is frequently “physically disastrous.” I don’t agree that the disaster is always something ultimately “naturally beneficial”–it can be just be a plain disaster naturally. Such as the tornadoes here in Texas. But with some much better SPIRTUAL end (which is what makes it okay for God to do that without being “morally wrong”). And, in fact, since God has both a punishment and a “chastening” motivation at play, particularly in dealing with different people being affected by a single event, it would be difficult to say that God is “not responsible” for the event. He says he IS “responsible.” Which gives us hope because these things are not simply “happening to us.” God is in control. This does not override “free choice” or the sinfulness of those human agents sometimes at work in the “disaster”–they will ultimately receive their own “reward” for what they choose to do, even if not until Judgment Day or the hereafter.

        This is certainly not the best example, but recall how Ahab died. A certain enemy soldier drew his bow “on a whim.” Yet the event happened to fulfill Michaiah’s prophecy that Ahab would be killed in the battle. So, was God “responsible” for that chain of events, or not? I think he was, even though as far as the soldier was concerned, he was simply doing what he wanted to do.

        The key to the “puzzle,” as I see it, is that the events will all be “sorted out” come Judgment Day. Thus, some people ARE “wrongly” injured by calamitous events, in that they did nothing to “deserve that.” But, God will more than “make it up to them” in the final Day. (In fact, we ALL deserve for bad things to happen to a degree because we all sin, so it is not as though God is at fault in all events, but more particularly He will take into account the “degree” of the magnitude of what occurs (as, in a “picture” example, he did with Job) in ultimately “balancing the books.”) “Each man will receive for what he did, whether good or evil.”

        So, was God “responsible” for 9/11? He did not “tempt” the culprits to do it, but he used their own motives and circumstances to bring about the “calamity.” Hard to take, to some extent, but I just don’t see any way around it. Otherwise, we would be overwhelmed with continuous calamities, given all the “bad actors” we have, and with no good end in view.

        I hear you in one anticipated response. Why, then, should we resist “evil” or “calamity”? Because that is part of how God “makes things happen” as well. They ARE “calamities.” So we DO attempt to avoid or ameliorate them to the extent that we can. But we don’t lose heart when some happen, regardless of our efforts. We trust God.

      • brentwhite Says:

        So you’re saying that God thinks, “I want 9/11 to happen.” So he arranges all the necessary actors with their freely chosen, evil intentions and let’s them do what they want?

        I don’t buy it. That makes God, once again, the author of evil. That he did so without overriding the actors’ free will doesn’t let God off the hook, as far as I can see.

        Besides, God doesn’t need to intend for bad people to do bad things. Evil will happen. How God uses it or what God does with it is something else.

        Did you see my recent post about the chess grandmaster analogy? How God is in control without controlling us? That’s helpful to me.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Brent, “God calls the end from the beginning.” As said in the Isaiah passage, “I make all these disasters happen” (my paraphrase). God has the entirety of history laid out before him from the very start.

        Now, it is not as though it makes no difference about God’s “role” in these events. Again, God does not “cause” sin. It is always the Devil (or, our own lusts-per James) whispering in our ear when we give in to temptations. But, “The Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, to be tempted of the Devil.” Also, Jesus knew that Peter was going to deny him before he did so, knowing Peter as he did and knowing the circumstances that Peter would encounter.

        So, though I missed the grandmaster post (I was very busy recently, but I will try to find it–what day was it?), I think I am likely somewhat in agreement with it. In my view, for example, God “plays chess” with the Devil, always “outsmarting” him (as with Christ not sinning when tempted, and salvation being wrought from the death on the cross that Satan and his minions orchestrated, from their vantage point–Satan entered into Judas). But God necessarily, simply by his very nature, knew what all those chess moves and counter-moves were going to be. That does not take away from the chess game–both God and the Devil are doing what they want, and God does have to be pretty brilliant to outsmart the Devil with each move (regardless of God’s intellect being in play “before” or “at the time”).

        To your point, then, about God “wanting” 9/11 to happen. Can we see that a person (and we are made in God’s image) both wanting something to happen and not wanting it to happen, at the same time, but having to go with one over the other because of the overriding end in mind? I wanted my daughter to learn to ride a bike, but I did not want her to skin her knee, but I knew the skinned knee had to happen a part of the learning to ride, so I bought her the bike? Every time God “causes” (in the ultimate sense, not as the “actor on the stage” every time) something “calamitous” to happen, he does not want it in and of itself, but he does want the end he has in view, so he goes with that episode. That’s my view of the matter.

      • brentwhite Says:

        “The end he has in view.” Now we’re getting somewhere! The point of the chess grandmaster post (maybe last week?) is that he doesn’t need any particular “end” on the human side, much less an evil one like people flying planes into buildings to kill people, in order to accomplish his ultimate end. He can work with whatever we throw at him and yet—at the end of history—say, “This is how I wanted it to turn out.”

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        But the problem as I see it is that “Christ was slain before the foundation of the world.” It was not just some “thrust and parry” that led to that pivotal event of all of history. God HAD to have some “guidance” role in the course of human events to bring that about, not just “responding” to what we choose to do. Also, Jesus did tell Peter he would deny him BEFORE that situation even presented itself. And Isaiah prophesied “Cyrus” by name long before he was even born. Throughout scripture God shows he already knew what would happen.

      • brentwhite Says:

        Of course. That’s God’s foreknowledge. He both foreknows events while also working within them and shaping them. God has a guiding hand and God moves history to its climax—Calvary—but that doesn’t imply that he needs any particular evil event to get us to that point. Remember: my objection is to God creating or willing evil. Evil happens anyway. Watch how God uses it!

      • brentwhite Says:

        Also, God’s “creating disasters” per Isaiah seems consistent with this blog post. God punishes. God disciplines. God brings disaster upon us in the sense of letting us suffer the just deserts of sin. But it’s not a matter of God saying, “I need this evil thing to happen in order to get my point across.” More like, “I’ll let this evil thing happen…”

        Maybe a nitpicky difference. I like your emphasis on God’s sovereignty, though. In my tradition, we underemphasize that.

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