This is Part 4 in a series of posts. Click here to read previous posts.
I’ve been arguing on my blog for years that we Methodists are not, in general, well-equipped, theologically, to deal with tragic events—such as the recent hurricanes that ravaged the east coast of Texas, the Caribbean islands, and Florida over the past few weeks.
Case in point: Read this article from last week entitled, “Ask the UMC: How do United Methodists understand human suffering from natural disaster?”
(What an ambitious title, by the way! Did we convene a General Conference without my knowing it, so that this author—whoever it is—could speak on behalf of the entire church?)
Needless to say, no one asked yours truly—a United Methodist—how I understand human suffering from natural disaster. I find this article deeply—though typically—insufficient.
The author quotes a John Wesley sermon called “The Promise of Understanding”:
[W]e cannot say why God suffered evil to have a place in his creation; why he, who is so infinitely good himself, who made all things ‘very good,’ and who rejoices in the good of all his creatures, permitted what is so entirely contrary to his own nature, and so destructive of his noblest works. ‘Why are sin and its attendant pain in the world?’ has been a question ever since the world began; and the world will probably end before human understandings have answered it with any certainty” (section 2.1).
By way of interpretation, the author writes the following:
While Wesley admits we cannot know the complete answer, he clearly states that suffering does not come from God. God is “infinitely good,” Wesley writes, “made all things good,” and “rejoices in the good of all his creatures.”
Our good God does not send suffering. According to Wesley, it is “entirely contrary to [God’s] own nature, and so destructive of his noblest works.” Suffering is not punishment for sin or a judgment from God. We suffer, and the world suffers, because we are human and part of a system of processes and a physical environment where things go wrong.
Let me begin by saying—and I mean this as respectfully as possible—”Ultimately, who cares what Wesley said?” The Rev. Wesley himself, a convinced Protestant, would likely appreciate my saying this. We are supposed to be “people of one book,” and that book is not ultimately a collection of Wesley’s standard sermons: it is the Bible.
Having said that, I disagree that this author has interpreted him correctly. Notice Wesley begins by saying that we don’t know why “God suffered evil to have a place in his creation.” While I think Wesley’s words are a bit strong here, this is one sentence from one paragraph of one sermon preached over the course of a long life of published sermons, tracts, magazines, and books. Wesley “never had an unpublished thought,” so the old joke goes. This paragraph hardly exhausts Wesley’s thinking on the subject.
While I don’t have the reference now, one of my Wesleyan theology professors in seminary said that Wesley didn’t hesitate to explain the divine origin of at least one or two natural disasters that affected England in his day.
Besides, what we know from the rest of Wesley’s corpus is that he was a “greater good” apologist for evil, like most of his contemporaries: In other words, now that sin and evil are a part of this Creation, God will use them redemptively in order to bring about a greater good. Wesley would likely point to Romans 8:28 and some of the scriptures I’ve dealt with as part of this series of blog posts.
Regardless, Wesley is speaking about God’s allowing evil to begin with; not what God is doing with evil and its “attendant pain” right now.
The author writes that Wesley “clearly states that suffering does not come from God.” He does no such thing! Notice how easily the author conflates evil with suffering. Why does he or she do this? To say that evil does not originate with God is not the same as saying God doesn’t send suffering. Do I have to rehearse my arguments from scripture in the previous three blog posts? For example, recall that God literally struck down Ananias and Sapphira for their sin in Acts 5. Was that not suffering? Or what about Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Corinthians 12? There is clearly a sense in which God wanted Paul to suffer from his “thorn in the flesh” to keep him humble. Or what about those Christians in the church in Corinth who got sick and even died from eating the Lord’s Supper “in an unworthy manner” (1 Corinthians 11:30)?
While we might say that in a world without sin God doesn’t want his children to suffer, we no longer live in such a world. In our world, God does want us to suffer if by doing so he can accomplish his good purposes—as the Bible and our own experience prove that he can.
I’m reminded of a question that Rob Bell raised in his book Love Wins. Bell was kind of, sort of arguing—in that mushy, hard-to-pin-down, Rob Bell sort of way—that it doesn’t make sense that God would send sinners to hell. Why? “Doesn’t God love everyone and want to save them? Does God not get what he wants?” Mark Galli’s response, in his own book God Wins, was dead on: “Yes, but God wants more than one thing!”
God wants more than one thing. This is true when it comes to suffering.
By all means, all things being equal, God doesn’t want a world of sin, evil, and suffering. But not at the expense of creaturely freedom. In other words, God obviously wants this world of sin, evil, and suffering more than he wants a world in which sin, evil, and suffering are impossible.
In the end, it will be clear that all the suffering of this world, alongside God’s redemptive plan for it, will be to his glory. I can imagine some ways in which this might be true—and our best Christian apologists have helped us to imagine it—but whether I can or not is irrelevant: the fact remains that if God didn’t want the world in which we live, we would live in another world.
If you disagree with my logic, please tell me why.
Notice the question-begging that “Mr. or Ms. UMC” engages in with the following statement: “We suffer, and the world suffers, because we are human and part of a system of processes and a physical environment where things go wrong.”
Yes, but why? Could God not have created a world without such a “system of processes” or “physical environment”? Sure, if you’re a “process theologian” who denies God’s omnipotence, or an “open theist” who denies God’s foreknowledge, then you might have a case. But even I, who doesn’t have the authority to speak for the entire United Methodist Church, knows for sure that our denomination’s founding documents and doctrines rule out such a belief.
Finally, notice the contradiction in the author’s citation of John 9:
When Jesus and his disciples encounter a man born blind, the disciples ask Jesus the question we are asking. “Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?” (John 9:2). Jesus, why does seemingly arbitrary suffering occur?
Jesus’ answer, “Neither he nor his parents,” tells us that the disciples are asking the wrong question. “This happened,” Jesus continues, “so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). Jesus asserts that it is in our response to suffering that God is found, in moments of everyday grace and in grand and sweeping gestures of care and solidarity with the suffering. God’s mighty works are found in hospitals and nursing homes and shelters.
“Why does this seemingly arbitrary suffering occur?” By the author’s logic, Jesus ought to say that the man was born blind because he was born into a “system of processes and a physical environment where things go wrong.” And given that this happened to him—and no one knows why—now God can redeem his suffering through a miraculous healing.
But this isn’t at all what Jesus says.
Instead, Jesus says God sent this man’s suffering, and Jesus even tells us the reason: “so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him.” Jesus’s words only rule out that God isn’t punishing the man for his sins, or the sins of his parents, not that God didn’t enable or allow the man’s suffering for a reason.
The author asserts that “it is in our response to suffering that God is found,” but that’s not true in this case: God is also found in the man’s being blind in the first place. His blindness was a part of God’s plan for his life—for a good reason! To glorify God!
If you think that my words sound cold-hearted, how would you interpret Jesus’ own words?
When I read officially sanctioned Methodist articles such as this one, I’m struck by how human-centered they tend to be. It’s as if Methodist thinkers such as this author imagine that we human beings exist for our own sake, rather than for God’s—as if our happiness is God’s chief concern, and when we’re unhappy, then something has gone badly wrong, and God owes us an explanation. Sadly, these Methodist thinkers tell us time and again, there are no explanations.
Of course there aren’t explanations! It’s as if we’re looking in the wrong end of the telescope and asking why our universe is so small!
Just this morning, one UMC pastor, Drew McIntyre tweeted the following:
— Drew McIntyre (@DrewBMcIntyre) September 18, 2017
He’s writing in response to something that Methodist bogeyman John Piper said (taken out of context, as most tweets are):
Your suffering is never meaningless. God always designs it for your everlasting good.
— United in Christ (@UnifiedinChrist) September 18, 2017
Given what I’ve written above, you won’t be surprised at my response to Drew:
While I wouldn’t put it like this, if God allows it, he must—if he is all good and all powerful—do so for good. Much scripture 2 back it up.
— Brent L. White (@brentlwhite) September 18, 2017
Not sure y this is more “comforting”: “your suffering is meaningless. God hates it, but what do you expect him to do about it?”
— Brent L. White (@brentlwhite) September 18, 2017
Anyway, speaking of John Piper—and picking up where I left off in my previous post in this series—these words from his controversial blog post on the collapse of the I-35W bridge resonate with me. This is an example, I believe, of “turning the telescope around” and looking at the question of suffering from the correct perspective:
All of us have sinned against God, not just against each other. This is an outrage ten thousand times worse than the collapse of the 35W bridge. That any human is breathing at this minute on this planet is sheer mercy from God. God makes the sun rise and the rain fall on those who do not treasure him above all else. He causes the heart to beat and the lungs to work for millions of people who deserve his wrath. This is a view of reality that desperately needs to be taught in our churches, so that we are prepared for the calamities of the world.
The meaning of the collapse of this bridge is that John Piper is a sinner and should repent or forfeit his life forever. That means I should turn from the silly preoccupations of my life and focus my mind’s attention and my heart’s affection on God and embrace Jesus Christ as my only hope for the forgiveness of my sins and for the hope of eternal life. That is God’s message in the collapse of this bridge. That is his most merciful message: there is still time to turn from sin and unbelief and destruction for those of us who live. If we could see the eternal calamity from which he is offering escape we would hear this as the most precious message in the world.
What can I say to this but Amen?