Thursday, April 30, 2009

Life’s Uncertain Times Should Prompt Serious Theological Questions

We live in what seem to be uncertain times. The daily economic news is bleak. The continuing wars and the threat of more wars create a sense of fear. And the outbreak of disease causes us to worry and panic. Indeed, each day is filled with uncertainties, whether these are personal struggles or more widespread sufferings.

But is this not what life is and has been throughout history? For sure, there have been better economic times in the past, and one could make the argument that we have seen more peaceful times in our world. Moreover, our personal lives are mostly filled with days of joy and celebration. But by and large, life is always uncertain, and we can never really predict when things will go awry in our lives. And it is this uncertainty to our lives that is often most troubling for us.

I think that we Christians are more unwilling to admit that life is uncertain. As Christians, we are particularly guilty of assuming that all things should work out for us. We express this way of thinking when we respond to tough and heartbreaking times of life with pat answers such as, “God has everything under control”; “Everything will work out for the good”; and “God is teaching you something through this.”

While these answers, and the sentiments behind them, may seem reasonable to us, and we would like them to be true, the reality is that they are sometimes not true. God does not always have everything under control, for if God did, then we would not experience the pain and suffering that we go through as humans. Moreover, not everything does work out for the good. Evil does often win. And while we might learn something through our sufferings, it seems to me to be a very capricious God who would want to teach us through human suffering, especially suffering on a grand scale.

The reality, however, is that life is uncertain for all of us; Christian or non-Christian. Though our world is full of beauty and goodness, and humans are by and large loving and caring, life is uncertain. While God has created a world of beauty and goodness, chaos is part of that world, and chaos often invades our lives through our own choices, the choices of others, or simply because life is unpredictable.

Such an understanding of this view of the world, however, should raise questions for those of us who believe in a good and sovereign God. Simply stated, we should ask, “Where is God during times of struggle and suffering, whether they are personal or more widespread?” This is a serious question, but in my mind, this question should always be first on our minds when we experience or witness human suffering. It is a much deeper response to sufferings and uncertainties than the pat answers we Christians have learned to recite.

Indeed, there is clear evidence from both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament that reacting to suffering in this way is deeply faithful and is not a lapse in our faith. The Psalmist of Psalm 13 expresses the honest pain he feels as he questions the love and providence of God. “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” “How long will you hide your face from me?” 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.

Even Jesus, the divinely empowered Son, protested to his beloved Father, “My God, my God. Why have your forsaken me?” Jesus, like the Psalmist, felt abandoned by the one being he thought he could trust. His cry did not express a belief that God had everything under control, or that all things would work for the good, or that God was teaching Jesus through his suffering. No, Jesus’ cry out to God was a cry protesting that God was letting evil win.

Life will continue to be uncertain for all of us. Indeed, we will face times in which life will become almost unbearable. Some have sought simplistic answers to life’s struggles. Others have been so confounded by the problem of evil that they have abandoned a belief in God altogether. While I have not reached the point of losing my faith, I am very often confused by God’s justice and I can only cry out, “How long, O Lord?”


Anonymous said...

To be sure, there are no pat answers to the questions of suffering, precisely because the origins/causes are varied. We don't always know or understand, hence the best paradigm is that of Jesus himself, to journey with us/others in suffering, while living and struggling with the questions, which are holy, and keep us connected with the Holy One.


Country Parson said...

This morning I got an e-mail from a friend who is mildly confused and disappointed that the clergy of our diocese are not more enthusiastic about her holistic approach to stewardship. She wondered why. My response was that it's anxiety, and a lot of it. When economic times are tough, church budgets are hurting and clergy positions are in jeopardy, it's very hard to love one another as Christ has loved us. Maslow was right, a lower need unsatisfied makes it all but impossible to rejoice in the satisfaction of higher needs. I guess some people think clergy should be immune from that, but it doesn't seem to work that way very often. In Christ we have been shown another way. That's what we believe and what we preach. We just have a hard time living it.