A word about tragedies (part 2)

May 7, 2015

Blogger Ryan Dueck offered a thoughtful reply to my previous post. Among other things, he said the following:

I realize full well the force of your argument with respect to intervention, providence, answered prayer, etc. I’ve wrestled with these questions for years. For my part, I’ve simply come to the point where I am unwilling to sacrifice my conception of God’s goodness for my conception of God’s power and/or knowledge with respect to sovereignty…

Re: falling victim to the “sum of suffering” argument… No, I don’t think so. I feel exactly the same about one instance of suffering as I do about massive large-scale suffering. A five-year-old girl being sexually assaulted evokes the same response in me as an earthquake in Nepal. And this is where I think the “God has a reason for your suffering” falls short, whether we want to claim that suffering is God’s tool to punish rebellion or forge character or whatever. At least on some kind of one-size-fits-all level. Could you or I honestly tell a little girl that God has some pedagogical purpose for allowing her to be raped? And even if, inexplicably, we could say such a thing, the question of whether or not we should seems laughably absurd.

To which I responded with the following:

I sensed that you had wrestled with these questions. I appreciate that. One thing I’m arguing is that the difference between God’s “causing” (as in a highly Calvinist, deterministic way) and God’s “permitting” (as most of the rest of us believers affirm) isn’t as great as we may want it to be. To say, “God permits or allows,” doesn’t let God “off the hook,” if you will.

In other words, unless or until he articulates his conception of providence and sovereignty, I believe his conception of God’s goodness remains at risk. The only “out”—to which “process theologians” resort—is to say that God doesn’t have the power or knowledge to do much about suffering, evil, or death. But obviously this can’t be a Christian viewpoint.

What kind of God would allow, under any circumstances, a child to be raped? Well… a God who knows, perhaps, that the consequences of intervening to prevent that evil would be worse. Right? Only an infinite God can know these consequences. We can’t. We’re not surprised by our epistemic limitations. So we trust God, who doesn’t share our limitations.

Regarding the child rapist, I don’t know what else we can do except to affirm three things simultaneously: (1) The rapist’s action is evil and will be judged and punished by a God who has justifiable anger toward sin. (2) Nevertheless, in the interest of God’s good purposes for our world—among which is a desire for maximal human freedom (which is a great, if terrifying gift)—God has decided to allow this evil to take place. And (3) God will be working to redeem this evil, if not fully in this present world, then in the word to come.

I agree with Hart that bad stuff doesn’t happen because God needs it to happen to accomplish his purposes. (In his book, Hart talks about this at length.) But it’s not a question of God’s “needing” it to happen. A more helpful way to look at it is that bad stuff happens for any number of reasons: we live in a fallen, sin-filled world; our actions have consequences. The question is, What’s God going to do about it now? How’s God going to use it? And this is where a healthy understanding of God’s providence and sovereignty comes in.

As an Arminian, I find it helpful to think in terms of God’s “antecedent” and God’s “consequent” will. In a world in which humanity (and angels) hadn’t fallen into sin, then by all means, suffering and death would have no place, and they would be against God’s will. But given that we live in this world, here’s what God wants; here’s what God will do; here’s how God will use suffering and death. If God can transform the worst evil—the death of his Son—into the greatest good, then it’s not hard to imagine that God can make the same transformation with “lesser” evil. I believe he does so all the time.

How does Hart or Micheli imagine that God is off the hook by saying it’s all meaningless? Although, as I say, Hart contradicts himself. It doesn’t matter whether suffering and death have meaning, per se. Maybe they don’t. But if, as even Hart allows, God can redeem it, then we’re back to meaning and purpose.

Whether suffering actually produces “good effects” for the people suffering depends, in large part, on that person’s response. Suffering can and will destroy a person’s soul sometimes, as we all know. I take it that this is in part what James is getting at in chapter 1 of his letter. Will this suffering prove to be a helpful test or a temptation to sin? It depends. But I think we can affirm Jesus’ promise to Paul, who knew a thing or two about suffering: “My grace is sufficient for you.”

For a fascinating, deeply moving, and fairly “secular” account of this point, read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl, a psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor who stood on the highest moral high ground imaginable—besides Jesus himself—says that every instance of suffering offers us a choice: will this suffering crush our souls or enable us to grow spiritually. In many cases, he conceded that suffering crushed his fellow inmates, but he didn’t believe that it needed to. It’s a choice.

After one particularly difficult episode in the death camp, his fellow prisoners were committing suicide in large numbers. He said that he gathered his colleagues and gave them a speech (I’m paraphrasing), “You want to kill yourself because you don’t expect anything more out of life. But life still expects something from you! Even if it’s only to walk into the gas chamber with your head held high.”

We’re Christians! How much more true is that for us? God expects something from us! As Frankl quotes Dostoyevsky: “My greatest fear isn’t suffering—only that I wouldn’t be worthy of my suffering.”

I don’t deny that we “pick our spots,” pastorally, when we communicate words about God’s sovereignty or providential care, but it isn’t the case that we never say anything or, in my opinion, resort only to saying, as so many of our fellow mainline Protestants do, “It’s a mystery.” Well, it may be a mystery to us in our finiteness, but it isn’t to God. And it’s perfectly okay to affirm some things about suffering, preferably before we’re in the midst of it.

2 Responses to “A word about tragedies (part 2)”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    All excellent points, Brent, on a difficult subject. I don’t even have any caveats! 🙂


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