God is not “the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of merit”

September 20, 2017

In Monday’s blog post, I complained about this effort by a United Methodist writer to say something meaningful about hurricanes—and disasters in general. I wrote,

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)?

I now see that Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde beat me to the punch years ago, when he wrote the following (h/t David Zahl and Mockingbird Ministries):

Contemporary theologians talk much about the problem of evil. Some think it is the most difficult problem for theology today and one of the most persistent causes of unbelief. … Since suffering is itself classified as evil, it is of course simply lumped together with disaster, crime, misfortune of every sort, abuse, holocaust, and all manner of notorious wrong as one and the same problem. So it is almost universally the case that theologians and philosophers include suffering without further qualification among those things they call evil. … Evil does cause suffering — but not always. Indeed, the usual complaint is that the evil don’t seem to suffer. However, the causes of suffering may not always be evil — perhaps not even most of the time. Love can cause suffering. Beauty can be the occasion for suffering. Children with their demands and impetuous cries can cause suffering. Just the toil and trouble of daily life can cause suffering, and so on. Yet these are surely not to be termed evil. The problem of suffering should not just be rolled up with the problem of evil…

Identification of suffering with evil has the further result that God must be absolved from all blame. Thus, the theologian of glory adds to the perfidy of false speech by trying to assure us that God, of course, has nothing to do with suffering and evil. God is “good,” the rewarder of all our “good” works, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of merit. …Meanwhile, suffering goes on unabated. If God has nothing to do with suffering, what is he involved with? Whoever does not know God hidden in suffering, Luther asserts in his proof, does not know God at all.

I made the following comment on the Mockingbird site:

Most of life is suffering to some extent—or at least my life is. (What am I doing wrong?) To conflate suffering with evil, and say that God has nothing to do with either of them, is to assume that suffering represents an interruption to the life that God wants for us. Therefore, as Forde implies, God must be displeased with me because I’m not living “according to his plan”!

Wait… Do I live most of my life feeling as if God is disappointed with me?

I’m serious! That last question is not rhetorical! If God has nothing to do with suffering and evil, what does he have to do with me?

2 Responses to “God is not “the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of merit””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    I agree basically with what you say here, but would note that at least SOME suffering is as a result of “not living ‘according to his plan.'” At least, not according to obedience to his commandments. Thus, while all conduct is in one ultimate sense part of “God’s plan” (as in, God the playwright, using my analogy), nevertheless God “as the actor on the stage” may be disappointed with what I am doing and “punishing me” accordingly (as with King David, as perhaps the most notorious example), See what I mean?


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