Chapter 3: The God Who Goes “Zap”
“And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.” (I Kings 19:11b-12)
Certainly we would all agree that we need a way of speaking about what God is and does that is both sensible and faithful. This is one of the primary goals of this book. But before we can arrive at this we first have to clear the way by understanding what God isn’t and doesn’t. And it is neither consistent with our common sense nor in keeping with our Christian faith to speak of God as a God who goes “zap”. That is, it is neither sensible nor faithful to conceive of God as “meddling”, as intervening on specific occasions for specific purposes in the finite physical events of our world.
Many sensible and faithful people believe that God does exactly this, either on occasion or by controlling every particular thing that happens. Therefore it is incumbent upon me to show how this is inconsistent with our reason and our faith. This is a relatively simple matter in connection with our common sense. But the question of consistency with our Christian faith will lead us to confront the darker areas of life as we deal with the problem of suffering.
Common Sense and the Zap
Let us return to our old friend the thunderstorm. Assuming that you agree that our common sense is that this phenomenon is to be explained by meteorology and not by referring to the wrath of God — why? Why do we think this way? Why do we not consult oracles as well as weathermen?
Aside from the sociological answer that we think this way because we have been taught to by our society, there is also an important principle at work here. It is known in philosophy as the “principle of economy” or “Ockham’s razor”.1 The principle is this: that any event or state of affairs should be explained in the simplest way possible, and that once you have explained it one way, you don’t go explaining it yet again by postulating other “deeper” causes for it.
“Simplest” explanation does not mean simple in the sense that it is simpler to say, “God caused the thunderstorm’ than it is to try to understand ionization and humidity and the like. Instead, we mean that we should first try to explain finite physical events by looking for finite physical causes, by looking to the kind of cause that we know exists and operates in our world. These natural and human causes are “simpler” than any supernatural causes we might suggest. Thus, for instance, if we can come up with natural physical causes sufficient to explain an event, then we need not and ought not to postulate magic, miracle, or mystery.
Likely, you would say that this is just common sense. Quite so. But this was not always the case. Furthermore, besides being aware that part of our common sense is endowed with the fancy philosophical name of “principle of economy” (which doesn’t really matter), it is important that we are aware of the principles of reasoning with which we operate so we can ensure our own consistency (which does matter).
Now, Ockham’s razor in hand, let us return to the thunderstorm. We explain it as the result of physical atmospheric conditions. This is sufficient. There is no room for Thor, no need to guess at the anger of God.
But suppose during this storm someone is struck by lightning and killed. When this happens a large number of us drop our razors. We seek another kind of explanation. We may talk about fate or the will of God.
If a tree is standing alone in a field and is struck by lightning we are satisfied with a simple explanation of physical causes. But if a person happens to stand in the middle of a field or take shelter under this tree during this same thunderstorm and is struck by lightning, many of us suddenly require a very different kind of explanation. When personal suffering is involved, and especially when a person dies, we need to feel that there is a purpose for this, that there is “more” of a reason than just mere happenstance or bad luck. Often we reassure ourselves with the belief that God is in control, so this must be God’s will, and so (we conclude) there must be a good reason for it. The greater the impact on our own life, the greater our need to feel this.
But electrical charges do not distinguish between a tree and a person, so if you can explain the tree getting struck by lightning in a simple way, then the same explanation will hold for the person — except you might wonder why they didn’t have enough sense to come in out of the rain — even if this person is your spouse or your child. To look for another reason here, a “deeper” reason, is to try to find motives and goals in natural processes just as we would look for these in people.
Our common sense is that finite physical events have finite physical causes. If this is so, it does not make sense to suddenly postulate supernatural causes or metaphysical purposes when these events happen to have a strong impact on our lives. This is true whether we’re speaking of storms or floods or fires or wars or automobile accidents. It does not make sense to ask “why” of a storm or a fire. It does not make sense to ask why your child died when hit by a ton of steel moving at sixty miles an hour. We cannot expect that the laws of nature would make an exception in our particular case, or that they have a particular goal in mind.
It does, of course, make sense to ask “why” when it comes to the actions of human beings. This is one of two major exceptions allowed by our common sense to the general rule that finite physical events are explainable by finite physical causes. In a way, this does not constitute an exception: it is still the physical action of a human that brings about a physical result. But it does make sense to look for purposes and motives in a way that is not true of natural phenomena, and the cause in which we are interested is likely to be found in the thinking or feeling of another person. We want to know why the assailant shot at us, not why a hammer detonates gunpowder or how this causes a lead projectile to travel at high speed.
The second major exception to the general rule that physical effects have physical causes is in the area of health and illness. We recognize that our mind and body are interconnected, and that a person’s mental and emotional state can affect their physical health in a number of ways, and can even make a life-and-death difference under some conditions. One cannot get hepatitis without physical exposure to the virus, but we know that our recovery would depend in part on our own mental attitude. We also know that emotional stress or depression greatly increases our chances of developing a serious illness. The wise among us know that people really do die of broken hearts.
Our common sense is not tied to the purely mechanical, It definitely recognizes these two categories of possible non-physical causes for physical events. We shall address at a later point the question of how God may or may not act in connection with these two categories. However, with the possible exception of these two areas, we do explain finite physical events with finite physical causes. Therefore we must conclude that it is not consistent with our common sense to speak of God going zap in the physical world.
Our Faith and the Zap
Neither is it in keeping with our Christian concept of a loving Deity to speak of God as acting this way.
It is possible to think of God intervening in worldly affairs and physical happenings according to two different models: as a constant cosmic string-puller who controls each and every event of any importance (either by causing it or by consciously allowing it to happen), or as an occasional meddler and zapper, limited (perhaps by self-restraint) to intervening in a certain number of instances.
The first of these two conceptions, that God exercises control over at least all those events that are important, is commonly the underlying assumption for those who believe there are “deeper” reasons or purposeful explanations for those events that cause us joy or sadness. Consequently we will address this idea first. The problem we confront here is really the problem of suffering, for it is our hurts for which we most need some sort of justification, some satisfying explanation. I call this the problem of:
Pain, Honesty, and Faith
Pain, honesty, and faith. Separately, each one can be a problem for us. I know they have each been a problem for me. Together they have constituted a special problem. If you are neither blind nor self-deceived, together they constitute a special problem for you, too.
First, there is the problem of pain. At one time or another we are all hurt, and hurt badly, physically or emotionally or both. (I hope all your hurts are small ones. I doubt they will be.) And this presents a problem for us: how do we cope? Why did this happen to me? How do we make sense out of it?
Second, there is the problem of honesty. I mean honesty with yourself: you could also call it intellectual integrity. It means not denying what your eyes see or what your ears hear or what your heart feels or what your mind reasons. Even harder, it means not denying your eyes for the sake of your heart, or your ears for the sake of your mind, or either your mind or your heart for the sake of the other.
Third, there is faith. Perhaps if you do not bring in pain and honesty, if you do not insist that your faith face pain squarely and honestly, that it be consistent with what your mind reasons and your heart feels and your eyes see, then perhaps faith is no problem for you. But if we would have a faith that neither denies pain nor hides in dishonesty, then we must take a long, hard look at the fact of suffering. Let us begin by examining the desire we so often have for a justification or a “deeper” reason for our suffering.
“There Must Be A Reason”
There must be a reason. When disaster strikes, when tragedy tears the normal fabric of our lives, we demand a reason. We demand to know how this could happen, why it was allowed to take place. We want, and perhaps need, to know that there was a reason, that it was not merely senseless happenstance.
Why did the river overflow its banks? Why right here? Why weren’t we warned? Why was our house washed away? Why did Uncle Harry die?
Sometimes it’s enough to have the simple, causal, often mechanical answers that the razor allows as sufficient: the river overflowed because heavy storms dropped ten inches of rain in a forty-eight hour period just as the snow was melting. It flooded right here because of the contours of the valley. The weather service did issue warnings, but you refused to believe that the levee wouldn’t hold, that this could really happen here. Your house washed away because that is the natural result of two fathoms of water flowing against a frame house. Uncle Harry died because he never learned how to swim and so couldn’t make it through the water to safety.
Sometimes this kind of answer is adequate. When tragedy happens to someone else, when you’re not caught up in the immediate effects, when neither you nor those close to you suffer any great personal loss, this kind of answer is probably all you need. When the same disaster strikes many others as well as you, when you do not feel singled out by it, this kind of answer may well eventually seem adequate.
The crunch comes when you are singled out for pain and suffering: when your family is struck with cancer, when your child is hit by a drunk driver, when your spouse has an emotional breakdown, when you are paralyzed from the waist down for life. When anything like this happens the kind of simple causal answers we gave above are likely to seem totally and obviously inadequate. We may ask, “Why?”, and in fact we may scream, “Why?”, but we are not interested in hearing about the limits of modern medicine or the inevitable result of two thousand pounds of steel impacting on skin and bones. To a large extent our cry of “Why?” is not a question at all, but rather a cry of protest and anger and anguish. To the extent that it is a question, we are asking, “Why me? Why did this happen to me?”
A couple of factors contribute to our feeling that this question of “Why?” is a legitimate one that demands more of an answer than can be provided by matter-of-fact physical causes. For one, we seem to have the feeling that well-being is normal, that it is to be expected. No matter how often we may speak of counting our blessings, we usually do take them for granted. Though we would deny it, we feel that life “owes” us well-being and even happiness. Therefore suffering is felt as unfair and unjust, and our question of “Why?” takes on a moral tone that seeks an answer that would show us purpose and justice.
We also often feel suffering as a punishment. The reason we feel this way relates back to this same belief that we deserve good fortune, and perhaps also to our childhood experiences of reward and punishment, and to ideas about God doling out good and bad fortune alike. For whatever reason, suffering feels like punishment. And so we demand to know “Why?”, though again this is more protest than question, for we know we haven’t done anything monstrous enough to deserve to be singled out for this kind of horrible punishment.
But if we cannot explain this suffering as a deserved punishment, most of us still find unacceptable and unbearable the alternative explanation: that there is no deeper reason for our suffering, that it is after all just a matter of happenstance and bad luck, that it is (in a moral sense) senseless. We want to avoid this conclusion. If we cannot avoid it by accepting that suffering is deserved punishment, then we often try to avoid it by saying that suffering is for our own good, or for the good of the world. After all, God works in mysterious ways. As long as we know that God is good and just and in control, then we know that what happens is for the best, even though we may never understand just how or why.
If suffering is either deserved punishment or else is for the ultimate good, then it makes sense to us. It is acceptable to us. And the assertion that all suffering, however great, is one or the other makes eminent sense if you believe that God is good and omnipotent, and that God exercises this omnipotence to control events here on earth. I, myself, cannot believe this. It would be dishonest: dishonest with what my eyes have seen, with what my heart has felt, and with what my mind is able to reason. Nevertheless, it is a time-honored conviction that has been expressed since ancient times.
“The Lord does not let the righteous go hungry, but he thwarts the craving of the wicked?’
“What the wicked dreads will come upon him, but the desire of the righteous will be granted.”
“The fear of the Lord prolongs life, but the years of the wicked will be short?’
“The hope of the righteous ends in gladness, but the expectation of the wicked comes to nought?’
“The Lord is a stronghold to him whose way is upright, but destruction to evildoers?’
“The righteous will never be removed, but the wicked will not dwell in the land?’
“Be assured an evil man will not go unpunished, but those who are righteous will be delivered.”
“No ill befalls the righteous, but the wicked are filled with trouble?’
“In the path of righteousness is life, but the way of error leads to death.”
“Misfortune pursues sinners, but prosperity rewards the righteous?’
“A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children, but the sinner’s wealth is laid up for the righteous.”
“The wicked is overthrown through his evil-doing, but the righteous finds refuge through his integrity?’
(Proverbs 10:3, 24, 27-30; 11:21; 12:21, 28; 13:21-22; 14:32)
The good are prosperous and happy; the wicked suffer for their wickedness. The Lord who controls the fortunes of human beings doles out good fortune and bad in just portions to those who deserve them. God rewards goodness with a long and happy life and punishes evil with misfortune and suffering.
One has to admit that this is a thoroughly satisfactory system. Who could complain about a world where the good are rewarded and the wicked punished? It is desirable on our part and commendable on God’s part. It is everything you could want.
Of course, there is one fairly important problem with all this: the world just doesn’t work this way. No matter how desirable and commendable, things just don’t always work out according to this plan. You know this as well as I do. And in spite of the impression given by Proverbs many ancient Jews realized this too.
For a while any apparent inconsistencies in divine justice could be explained by making reference to miscreant ancestors. After all, had not the Lord said, “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation”? (Exodus 20:5) So if you suffered some undeserved misfortune you could always figure that one of your eight great-grandparents had secretly performed some pernicious iniquity that was only now receiving proper retribution. Not that this would be likely to provide much personal comfort, but you could at least believe that this suffering was in fact deserved by your family and that the system of divine justice still prevailed.
But this sort of explanation could not endure the rise of individualism, the increasing sense of the worth of each individual for his or her own sake. The idea of one person suffering for the sins of another became an affront to people’s sense of justice and individual responsibility, and the prophets denounced it:
The word of the Lord came to me again: “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine, the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sins shall die?’ (Ezekiel 18:1-4)
The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself. (Ezekiel 18:20. See also Jeremiah 31:29-30)
This is only fair, and returns us to the system of divine justice described in the Proverbs: the good are rewarded and the bad are punished in this life by the all-powerful Lord of human destinies. But if we can’t blame obvious exceptions to this system on the sins of our ancestors, then it is left defenseless against the harsh realities of life. The world simply doesn’t work this way. It is this problem that is squarely confronted in the Book of Job.
“There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” (Job 1:1) This was Job, deserving of good fortune if anyone was. But then in the span of one day all his wealth was stolen or destroyed and all his children killed. Soon after he himself was afflicted with sores from the crown of his head to the soles of his feet.
In the prose introduction of this book this suffering is depicted as a test. God, after bragging about Job, grants permission to Satan to do whatever he wants to to test Job’s faith. (“Testing” is still a common explanation of suffering which we will consider later in this chapter.) However, the main body of the Book of Job does not try to explain suffering this way. Instead, it gives us a poetic picture of the head-on collision between the facts of life and the belief that suffering is a punishment from God. Job argues on behalf of reality while several of his friends take the side of this traditional belief.
Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar come to visit their suffering friend, as friends should. They are good religious men who know that God is just and in control of what happens. They are confident that they understand the workings of God’s justice; the good are rewarded in this life and the wicked are punished. So they are convinced that the suffering which afflicts Job can only be the deserved punishment for some evil he has done. And, therefore, they demonstrate their concern for Job by urging him to repent of these sins he must have committed, for only if he repents do they see any hope for their friend.
Job also believes that God has control over what has happened to him, but he knows that he has done nothing to deserve it, as do we the readers. He is innocent. Therefore, unlike his well-meaning friends, he is unable to applaud God’s justice. Not only does he suffer without being guilty of any significant sin but he also sees the wicked prospering around him. He knows this is so, and knows it is not just.
Job’s friends are not persuaded. They continue to insist that he does deserve this suffering — he must! He has to be guilty, and he had better just quit protesting and repent. Their well-meant admonitions have the look of cruel and callous torment in the light of what we know.
No matter how much we wish that God would ensure good fortune for the good and bad fortune for the wicked, it just doesn’t work this way. This is a point of great importance made by the Book of Job.
But then how do we explain Job’s suffering? This, of course, is the question that bothers Job himself. He never doubts that his misfortune is under God’s control. In fact, he still has enough faith in God’s justice that he appeals for a hearing, confident that God will recognize his innocence, and so the injustice of his suffering, and so will revoke it.
As a rule, if someone in a position of power is responsible for the suffering of an upright and innocent person this would seem to provide a reasonable ground for accusing that someone of injustice. In this case, however, by insisting that he is innocent, it is God whom Job is accusing of injustice. So Job comes in for a stinging rebuke.
This is carried out by Elihu, a younger man who first vents his exasperation at the three friends for failing to properly answer Job, and then condemns Job for justifying himself instead of God. He doesn’t offer to explain how Job’s suffering could possibly be deserved, but simply asserts, “Far be it from God that he should do wickedness, and from the Almighty that he should do wrong. For according to the worth of a man he will requite him, and according to his ways he will make it befall him. Of a truth, God will not do wickedly, and the Almighty will not pervert justice.” (Job 34:10-12)
Elihu apparently feels that this assertion is not subject to challenge by mere facts. Furthermore, he insists, whether or not Job may previously have been blameless, he is now guilty of rebellion and pride for challenging God’s justice and placing his own wisdom on a par with the Almighty’s. Job remains unconvinced, stubbornly holding to the fact of his own innocence and the logical implication that the God responsible for his suffering has acted unjustly. Again he appeals to God, and at last God answers him. But it is not the answer that Job had hoped for:
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsels by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements? Surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? Or who shut in the sea with doors, when it burst forth from the womb; when I made clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, ‘thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed?’” (Job 38:1-11)
God goes on in this vein for most of four chapters, describing the wonders of creation and the mighty power, infinite wisdom, and loving providence of the Almighty. Confronted with this awesome display of the majesty and wisdom of God, and suddenly aware of his own insignificance and ignorance, Job backs down:
“I know that thou canst do all things, and that no purpose of thine can be thwarted . . . Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand .. I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eyes see thee; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes?’ (Job 42: 2, 3, 5-6)
Yes, Job backs down and repents. It does not matter that he is then blessed with wealth and children again. This was wrong of him. It is not what he ought to have done. It is, in fact, a cop-out, a clear and certain cop-out.
Not that Job or anybody else could reply to God’s challenge or answer God’s questions. The universe is indeed beyond our understanding. We do not know the beginning and end of it, nor its foundations, nor the God of it all, nor even in any adequate way our own role in it. We cannot presume to meet God’s challenge. We can only, with Job, humbly confess our ignorance, our limited view, our failings.
But if Job does not have all the answers, he still knows one important fact, and it gives him a big question that he should not so easily drop. God may know the depths of the universe, but Job knows he has suffered terribly and that he, a righteous man, did not deserve to suffer. So if God can ask, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”, then Job can ask — and indeed if he is human he must ask – “Where were you, O God, on that day when all my herds were taken and all my servants and even all my children were killed? And where have you been since that day, while I suffered from heartbreak on the inside and a terrible disease on the outside, without aid or comfort? No, I was not there when you laid the foundation of the earth, but where were you when I was hurt and afraid and desperate and cried to you in vain?”
This is what Job must ask if he is to be honest about his pain and his convictions. I don’t like this question. It makes me feel uncomfortable and insecure. It reminds me of things I would rather not be reminded of. But the question is there, and if we are honest we must ask it: “If God is a loving and all-powerful God, then why does this God allow so much suffering to happen?”
What answer can God make to this? Or rather, what answer can we make on God’s behalf?
If we insist on holding God responsible for fortune and misfortune, health and disease, life and death, and if we also believe that God is loving, then how is it possible to explain undeserved suffering? Whether or not we would claim that any particular suffering is deserved, it is obvious that there is a significant amount of suffering that simply cannot be called either deserved or just according to any reasonable standard of justice. You cannot justify major suffering by pointing to minor moral failings, which all of us have, especially when many with equal or greater failings suffer less.
Is it possible to reconcile this undeserved suffering with a loving, “in charge” God? It would be, if this suffering could be explained as being in one way or another for the good. If suffering is not deserved, it still could be for the ultimate good, either of the individual or of the world. Only if suffering is for the good can we maintain that a loving God is in control of worldly events.
Before we attempt to explain or justify suffering, we must realize just what it is and what it can do to people. We must make sure that we have an adequate understanding of it. Surely we have all learned something about suffering firsthand. But we are also very good at repressing our memories of pain and agony, so we need to remind ourselves just what it can mean to live in the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
The Valley of the Shadow of Death
This is the valley in which we all live. The shadow cast by death into our lives gives us awareness of our own finitude, the knowledge that we will all die. I will die and you will die. This is your one fling at this thing we call life.
We all have to live with this knowledge. It means that when something happens to mar our one chance, when an accident or bad luck or illness or just circumstances determine that our one chance is to be twisted, or unusually painful, or abbreviated . . . well, that’s it. It’s once and for all. There is no re-deal of the deck, no court of appeal, no recourse to litigation. That’s it.
On the average, of course, the shadow is not as dark as this. But to the young widow with children to raise alone, to the man dying an agonizing and untimely death from cancer, to the person full of life and hope who is incapacitated by multiple sclerosis, or to the child who has to start his or her life with an uncorrectable birth defect, the average isn’t what matters. If the suffering that you have known has been the kind which passes after a few months or even — how hard it can be! — after a few years, remember that there are those for whom the cloud never passes.
Remember, too, what pain can do. Plain old physical pain is capable of great destructiveness. Serious pain in just one small part of your body — the kind that sears and penetrates — can act as a great weight on you. It drains your energy, eats away at your ambition, and drags on every movement you make. It wears you down and wears you out until all you want is just to be comfortable, until all you want is for the pain to stop. It eats away at your efforts to live the life you want and sabotages your efforts to pretend you are normal. When it flares up it radiates like poison through your whole system until body and mind alike are infected with it. You can get to the point where all you want out of life is just to be normally healthy, while at the same time you may know this is the one thing you will never be.
This is only simple, uncomplicated pain. We should not be surprised that it is usually complicated — by depression, loneliness, frustration, financial difficulties, and other problems.
Incapacitation, even without any pain, can be just as bad. I doubt if you can really imagine what it’s like not to be able to use your body, not to be able to take a walk or play with your children or hold a job or make love, utterly dependent on someone else to look after you, dependent on their being willing to take the time to wait on your wants and needs. It’s not easy to imagine this. But there are people around you who don’t have to imagine it, who have to live with it as part of their one chance at life.
And then there is emotional suffering and crippling: the unloved, the lonely, the bereaved, the rejected; people with broken dreams and people with shattered psyches. The deep pain in the human soul sometimes caused by that which happens to us can cripple a person and destroy a life just as surely and effectively as any physical ailment.
If a person has difficulty coping with the “normal everyday” problems of life we may call it emotional illness. This may be a result of previous traumatic events in that person’s life or may be due to an inherited chemical imbalance in their blood. Too often we think that “emotional illness” means “craziness”. It usually does not. What it does mean, more than anything else, is pain: pain somewhere in the depths of our psyches, pain that cannot always be rooted out or covered over, pain that in some cases never gives way to allow a person to live a normal life.
Perhaps only the extreme cases are this bad. If so, there are far, far too many extreme cases. And there are very many more which, if not this extreme, are still undeniable instances of major undeserved suffering.
Of course, we all have our favorite example of the hurt or crippled or deprived individual who through determination and valiant effort has managed to overcome all obstacles and go on to lead a useful and meaningful and maybe even a joyful life. These people deserve all manner of honor and commendation. But they are just a small percentage, the tip of the iceberg, that managed to struggle above water. The many who are not so lucky tend to be hidden away out of our sight.
As for those who are caught by events or stricken by an illness that cannot be overcome by hard work and will power alone, who are condemned to suffer the consequences — yes, like you, I have been surprised and impressed at the good cheer and high spirits that even some of these people exhibit. And isn’t it nice how they don’t talk about their illness or their pain or their frustration or their despair?
But I learned something about this, learned it the hard way. Perhaps you already knew it. This happy front is not put on for your sake or mine. It is not maintained for the benefit of others at all. And though it is often maintained only with a good deal of effort and energy, it is worth all the trouble it might take. For this front of good cheer represents their pretense of normalcy, not primarily to others, but much more importantly to themselves. It is their defense against constantly confronting the fact of their own deeper misery, a valiant and — thank goodness — sometimes successful effort to deny and hide from the inescapable tragedy of their own lives.
We do not like to confront human suffering like this. I personally find it extremely painful. But if we are to be honest with ourselves we must remember just how dark the shadow is in some lives. We must keep in mind just what this suffering is as we consider the explanations that can be offered to reconcile it with the existence of a loving God who controls worldly events.
The Justifications of Suffering
It is possible to reconcile the existence of undeserved suffering with the existence of a loving God who is responsible for life and death, fortune and misfortune, only if all such suffering can be adequately explained either (1) as a test, (2) as being for the sufferer’s own good, or (3) as being for the greatest good of the world, being ultimately for “the best”. I will argue that these explanations are inadequate and untenable. This is not to argue against God. This is to argue for God, to free God from some human ideas that do injustice both to God and to us.
1. Suffering as a Test
One possible explanation of suffering is that it’s a test. It is a test of our faith, put to us by God.2 But if this is to fit with a loving God there must be a good reason, in keeping with God’s loving nature, for testing us. What could this reason be?
Why do we need to know? Why can’t we just say that God tests us with suffering for a perfectly good and loving reason, and we just have no idea what this reason could be?
Of course anyone who wants to can say exactly this. But for one thing, this is tantamount to saying, “I believe that God has a good reason for testing us because I want to believe this, regardless of how it fits with reality or reason?’ While anyone can say this, they ought not to expect the rest of us to be overwhelmed by their argument.
For another thing, when we have two propositions that appear on the surface to be irreconcilable the burden of proof is on those who would reconcile them. Certainly the evil of the suffering in the world and the loving control of God in the world are not easily and obviously reconcilable. Anyone who asserts that they are should at least indicate how this is possible.
So unless we are to substitute wishful thinking for careful thinking, we need to ask what would be the possible reasons for God to test us with suffering, and are these in keeping with God being good and loving? As far as I can see, there is only one good reason for ever testing anyone: to ascertain whether that person is qualified for, or deserving of, certain rewards or privileges. Thus, students must be tested to see if they have mastered a subject well enough to receive a passing grade. Before anyone is granted a driver’s license they have to show both that they are capable of driving a car and that they are familiar with the traffic laws, so they are tested in these two areas. Often a written or oral test is given to applicants for a job. In all these cases the necessary skill and knowledge are tested and the reward is granted or not, according to the results of the test.
So if God tests us, it must be a testing of our faith or our goodness out of a need to know whether we are deserving of certain possible rewards. Certainly this would be in keeping with love and justice as long as the tests were fairly administered and appropriately rewarded. But there are a couple of problems here.
Problem #1: This requires you to say that God would need to test our faith in order to know how strong it is. This means saying that God does not know everything, does not know our innermost selves or how we would react to certain events. If God knew this, the test would not be necessary. Of course, for some people it poses no problem to claim that God’s knowledge is limited in this way, but you should be aware that this is the implication here.
Problem #2: The test of suffering is not fairly administered and appropriately rewarded. It is not fairly administered because neither is it given equally to everyone, nor is it given only to those whose faith or goodness is seriously questionable. Remember Job.
And how could it be claimed that “passing” the test of suffering could be appropriately rewarded? We all know it isn’t always rewarded in this life. In fact, in too many cases it destroys a life. So any reward must come in an afterlife. But those of us who believe in an afterlife also believe that it is available at least to all the faithful. How then are the faithful who suffered more rewarded any more than the faithful who suffered less? Is it conceivable that those who suffered most in this short life are consequently better off for eternity? If so, then it is manifestly unfair that only some of us are put to this test.
Conclusion: for us to explain how a loving God could cause us to suffer as a test, we have to assume that God’s knowledge is limited, we have to explain the apparently random selection of people to be tested, and we have to postulate a complicated system of rewards in the life to come in order for the different degrees of severity of the test to be appropriately rewarded. And then we have to explain how it could be fair for some to have a chance at earning these rewards while others do not.
I do not believe that this is possible. It’s too cumbersome and too complicated. It forces us to view God as either a schemer or a random chance program. The concept of God that all this requires does not fit with the loving God of our Christian faith.
2. Suffering Is for Our Own Good
The second possible explanation is that suffering is for our own good. That is, while it may not be deserved as punishment it does bring about an over-all improvement so that we are better off because of what happened.
One clear example of this would be the person on their way to the airport for an overseas vacation who gets caught in a traffic accident and ends up instead in the hospital with a broken leg, only to find out that the plane they would have taken crashes and everyone aboard is killed. Obviously, the pain of a broken leg and a ruined vacation are more than offset by the saving of their life.
Another example might be the illness which strikes a dynamic, hardworking business person who has been pursuing material success to the exclusion of their family and other interests, to the exclusion of what is important in life. If a mild coronary or other physical illness forces them to slow down for awhile, and if this gives them the occasion to take stock in themselves and they realize that they have been forsaking the important things in life for the unimportant, then any physical pain and any damage done to their career would be more than offset by their recovery of a proper sense of values, by their recovery of their self.
Things like this do happen. Sometimes a painful experience turns out to be a lucky break for us. Sometimes a particular occasion of suffering clearly produces a very desirable result. Even more often, suffering provides a valuable lesson to us. It can improve our character, give us humility and patience, help us get to know ourselves, and enable us better to appreciate the suffering of others.
All this is true. Suffering can indeed lead to good. It may even be that some good can come out of most suffering. But that isn’t the question. The question is, does whatever good comes from suffering balance the bad of it to such an extent that we can honestly attribute it to a loving God?
In some cases it does. A saved life clearly outweighs a broken leg. And certainly there are many cases of suffering in which the pain is outweighed by a significant growth in maturity or sensibility, or by giving rise to a person redirecting their life. But we must be careful here. We must avoid saying that since the good from suffering outweighs the bad in some instances of which we are aware, therefore it must be true that the good outweighs the bad on all occasions. This would be an unwarranted generalization, for there are also instances of suffering in which there is either no discernable good at all for the sufferer or else too little to be worth the steep price.
Consider the all too common experience of losing a spouse through death. It may be that in time the widow or widower develops new abilities or a deeper faith or a better character or at least more sensitivity and compassion for others. Something good may well develop that otherwise would not have. But the loss of a spouse is a tearing, shattering experience, and I doubt that the benefits often outweigh the pain.
Or consider incapacitation of one kind or another. A couple of years of this are usually quite sufficient to teach a person all they can learn of patience and character and compassion. What about after that? What good can come from the additional long years of suffering? What possible good can repay a person for having to spend their one life in an invalid’s prison?
Or consider those who die young. What good could possibly come of this to the one whose life is cut short? This could only be for a person’s good if otherwise they either would have suffered unspeakably or would have turned evil and missed out on a heavenly reward. But then why would God allow others to suffer so or to turn to evil? And if God is in control, could this not simply be prevented instead?
In the end, I simply cannot believe that each and every young life that is snuffed out would otherwise have suffered great pain or turned to evil. I cannot believe that each and every event of undeserved suffering is outweighed or even balanced by the good that comes of it for the sufferers. Not by a long shot. My eyes, my mind, and my heart all tell me different. And this is just in response to individual cases of suffering, without even considering famine and plague, war and holocaust.
A common response to this runs something like this: “Of course we can’t see the good here. We don’t know everything. We don’t see with the eyes of God. We don’t know what would’ve happened to these people if they’d stayed healthy or lived longer. But if we can’t possibly know this, God does. With perfect knowledge God sees to it that the way things work out really is for the best, even if we don’t understand how.
This constitutes the third possible explanation of undeserved suffering for those who would believe that God is both loving and in control.
3. It’s For the Best
To say that “it’s for the best” is to claim that even though it may not be best for the individual sufferer(s), the consequences of this suffering are such that the world is better off because of it. This claim must be made of each and every case of undeserved suffering. This is easier than might be expected because the proponents of this line of thinking generally do not feel it necessary to suggest how this suffering could be for the best, only that it is.
As such, this explanation of how a loving, in-control God can be reconciled with suffering is more nearly an affirmation of belief than it is an explanation of anything. It appeals more to our emotional needs than to our logic. We are left to choose between two understandings of the world — one in which a loving God is responsible for the suffering, which we can therefore be assured is “for the best”, and one in which it is simply apparent that all this suffering could not possibly be for the best.
No matter how much I would like to believe that everything is for the best, I find this impossible to do. How could it be possible? How could it possibly be “for the best” for someone to die a slow and agonizing death from cancer? How can this kind of death be better for that person, or for their family, or for the world, than if they had died a less painful one? And even if occasionally some great spiritual benefit results in one of these cases, what about all the others? Is it really possible that there might be something unspeakably horrible in store for every single person who dies this way, or for the world, that only this kind of suffering and death can avert? Is it conceivable that the future of the world depends on the suffering of each and every one of these separate individuals? Is it possible that the universe is so constructed and is in such danger from some great unguessable horror that it is actually better off because of the traffic death in Iowa and the torture victim in South America and the starving child in Ethiopia? When these are multiplied by the millions?
I just can’t believe it.
It is not possible to reconcile belief in a loving God with belief in a God who is in control of events on earth. We must choose one or the other. Since Jesus the Christ ministered on behalf of the God of love and not in service to the God of earthly power, we who would follow Jesus must choose the loving God. We cannot faithfully believe in a God who is a constant string-puller and controller of earthly events, for to do so is to deny that this God is loving.
Can God Be An Occasional Zapper?
But what about God as an occasional zapper? Could not a belief in God as intermittent intervener be in keeping with our faith in a loving God?
I think not. If God intervenes only in some instances and not in others, we must ask why. It would be one thing if it could be shown that God was limited to certain interventions by some important moral principle or by the nature of the events or by God’s own limited abilities. If this were the case we could at least say that God does whatever is possible or advisable.
But if some cures or some reconciliations or some narrow escapes are the result of God’s intervention, then what do we say of similar cases where there is no cure, no reconciliation, no escape, no intervention? If God could intervene in some cases what could be the reason for not intervening in other cases where it is needed? We cannot say that God cannot do this if we are assuming that God has done so at other times. To say that “it’s for the best” is to fall back on the unconvincing arguments considered above. Certainly those who benefit from supposed interventions are no more deserving than many people who are not so fortunate.
God as an occasional intervener is as bad as God in full control of everything, giving us a picture of an arbitrary and capricious actor, at times withholding from the most deserving people help that is desperately needed. This is not reconcilable with our concept of a loving God.
In this chapter we have been forced by our honesty and integrity to confront the problem of suffering. This is not a pleasant task, but a faith which cannot do this is not worthy of the name. And we can repeat that usually life is not as dark as this for people. More importantly, we must clarify the role of our faith here. We are not called upon to explain or justify misfortune. What we are called to do is to bring our love to those in pain, to help those in need, to brighten dark days and dark lives with the light of our caring. This is the crucial role of our faith in response to suffering — this, and to suffer with people in our caring about them. The duty of faith here is to be honest about the problem and so to be able to minister to those who hurt. And we can bring light and joy and love into people’s lives.
We began this chapter by saying that we need a way of speaking of God that is both sensible and faithful, and we have been forced to conclude that to speak of God as either controlling all events in this world, or as sporadically intervening to cause them, is neither. We recognized common sense exceptions in the areas of human motivation and some aspects of health and illness, which will be addressed later. Otherwise, however, we must conclude at this point that to speak of God as determining worldly events, as constantly or occasionally going “zap” into our normal processes, is consistent neither with our common sense nor with our Christian faith in a loving God.
This, of course, raises some questions about the miracles in the Bible. We will turn next to this and then to consequent questions about Jesus of Nazareth and Christian doctrine before returning again to a consideration of talk about God.
1. William of Ockham was a 14th century philosopher/theologian who said, “Essentia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem’ whatever that means, and who argued that theology should be reasonable and logical whereas faith is a matter of faith and ought to show in your way of life. To which I say, “Right on, brother William!”
2. Some would no doubt explain suffering as a test of our faith by “the devil”. But if there were a devil who could do this on his or her own, then God would nor be all-controlling and not be responsible for this suffering, which is the conclusion I reach anyway. If the devil needs God’s permission, then God is still responsible. (See Chapter 15 for more on the devil.)