Thursday, May 8, 2008

Suffering Raises Questions about God’s Justice

I was sitting on my porch this past week reading the Monday edition of our local newspaper, enjoying very much an article about a married couple who spent their lives traveling the U.S. driving trucks. It truly is a great story of love and partnership between husband and wife.

In the middle of the article there is this wonderful quote by the gentle lady, “I emphatically believe that God was riding with us.” In her own words, she was giving credit to God for her wonderful life and the blessings God had showered upon her and her husband. Her perspective about the blessings of God should serve as an example to all of us to thank God for the grace we experience each day.

As I sat on the porch finishing that particular article, I flipped the paper over only to see this headline: “Cyclone death near 4,000 in Myanmar.” As most of us are aware by now, a devastating cyclone hit the Southeast Asian country on Saturday. As I write these words, media outlets are reporting that as many as 100,000 might be dead. The human suffering is surely overwhelming.

Seeing these two stories on the same front page of this newspaper raised for me once again the question concerning evil and suffering and the belief in a God who is just. Indeed, tragic events like the devastation in Myanmar, if we are honest with ourselves, ought to cause us to ask serious questions about God and the problem of evil, or what theologians call theodicy.

Theodicy seeks to reconcile how God can exist as a loving, knowing, and powerful being while evil and suffering persist. While this is a philosophical question, it is also a very existential question, one that has an impact on each of our lives. How can a God who is so loving and powerful bless my life while I watch thousands suffer in a country far away?

Obviously I cannot answer the problem of theodicy in this column; I cannot answer it period. But I do think Scripture gives us a guide to working our way through the messiness of these questions, although the Bible does not give us the answers we want. Indeed, the writers of Scripture often struggled with this very question, never reaching a definitive answer.

One canonical book in particular addresses this question through poetry. The book of Psalms is a collection of poems from Israel’s history that speaks in honest language about God and human life in relationship to God. Walter Bruggeman, a biblical scholar and theologian, has written on the Psalms and offers a way of seeing them as expressing the “flow of human life”.

Bruggeman categorizes the Psalms under three general themes: psalms of orientation, psalms of disorientation, and psalms of reorientation. These themes also express human existence as we find that our lives move from one theme to another. It is the psalms of disorientation that seek to address the problem of pain and suffering.

By disorientation, Bruggeman means that we enter a season of life when we experience pain and when we question God. We move from a world of order and goodness, into a world of chaos and evil, whether we experience it personally or see it in the lives of others. It is these times of disorientation when the psalms of complaint and lament speak to us about how honest we can be with God and ourselves.

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” “How long will you hide your face from me?” These are the opening words of Psalm 13 and they express the honest pain the psalmist feels as he questions the love and providence of God. He takes his anger to God in a bold and honest prayer of accusation, blaming God for forgetting him, for hiding from him, for not loving him. Is this right? Is this acceptable? Is this faith?

The answer to all of these is yes. And the reason we can call out to God with such raw and honest language is that God is the only one to whom we can bring our prayers of protest that call out to God for help, particularly when the pain, the suffering, the loss is so overwhelming. Even Jesus called out to God in protest, “My God, my God. Why have your forsaken me?”

Theodicy will continue to remain a conundrum. Some have sought simplistic answers like “it’s because of sin” or “it’s God’s will” or “Just have more faith.” Others have been so confounded by the problem that they have abandoned a belief in God. While I have not reached the point of losing my faith, I am often confused by God’s justice and I can only cry out, “How long, O Lord?”


Malcolm said...

"How long, O Lord?" - I spent years wrestling with Theodicy and all efforts fell far short of satisfactory. In the end though, I was more puzzled as to how and why Love existed amidst all this suffering and evil. I think at that time love proved an even greater mystery, (it certainly had little room in "survival of the fittest").

All that I can do is be grateful for the blessings in my life and, do what I can to help others less fortunate; I usually remember the former but don't necessarily do all I can with regard to the latter.

A stimulating post, as always.

Molly said...

Today I am interviewing for a hospital Chaplaincy residency. In trying to center my thoughts I came back to Bruggeman's view of the suffering Christ. Thank you for your post. I will take that with me today as I struggle to answer why I want to become a hospital Chaplain.