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Posted by on Mar 24, 2014 | 8 comments

The Goodness of God and the Theology of Suffering

The Goodness of God and the Theology of Suffering

William Blake - The Lord answers Job out of the whirlwind

“If Jesus could heal a blind person he happened to meet, then why not heal blindness?”[1] This, for Christopher Hitchens, was one of the simple, obvious questions marking an intelligent person’s path away from faith. It was his way of describing one of the most common objections to Christianity. How can we believe in a God who is both all-powerful and good amidst the brokenness we see in the world? The strength of this objection lies in its appeal to both reason and emotion. In the face of suffering and evil, heart and mind come together in an outcry against the claim that God is good.

I come from a church background that has a strong sense of God’s immediate presence and direct intervention in our lives. We believe in the reality of miracles and healing. We believe God is intimately involved in our circumstances. We regularly proclaim God’s goodness and power in our worship, and invoke them in our daily lives. For example, I pray for God to provide me with a parking space, safe travel on my holiday, a good deal when I buy a house. I thank him for his goodness in preventing me from catching the flu. God loves me so much and looks after me so closely!

My point isn’t that we shouldn’t emphasise those things. My point is that they sharpen the problem by raising a specific question: doesn’t God love everyone else as much as he loves me? What about the people who didn’t get what they asked for? What about tsunami victims, orphans, homeless people, cancer patients, people in broken marriages? If God is powerful enough to provide me a safe holiday, why does he not provide food for starving children? And if/when I or my family suffers, should I believe God is unable or unwilling to heal us, or that we deserve it for some reason?

In recent times we have seen two main responses by Christians to the problem. One is to shrug the shoulders and call it an unexplainable mystery: we can’t understand why God allows suffering and evil, but all we can do is trust him anyway. The other response is to produce “theodicies,” rational justifications for evil, explanations of what God’s power and goodness “really” mean in a way that makes them no longer incompatible with the possibility of suffering.

Both these responses are right and both are wrong in important ways. Briefly, both assume it’s not worth thinking long and hard about something you can never understand. It is true that evil cannot be fully explained if we believe God is good. But it is not true that your life can’t be enriched and your understanding enlarged by meditation on what remains a mystery in the end. After all, Christianity is full of unexplainable mysteries. Nobody has ever explained the Trinity or the Incarnation, yet these doctrines have been a continual source of nourishment throughout the history of the church. The more we learn, the greater the wonder and mystery we encounter, and the deeper our connection with God.

There is a danger in my type of church of becoming “triumphalist” – ignoring the logical difficulties with what it believes and declaring “God is good” in a manner which then becomes emptied of meaning. Instead, I believe that a theology of suffering is one of the most important things to think about if we want to understand what God’s goodness really means. It transforms our understanding of God’s love, his calling on our lives, the mission of church, and everything else we believe as Christians.

The Christian tradition is overflowing with commentary on this topic. My favourite two books are The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis, the latter written after his wife died of cancer. Our current period of lent is also a good time to reflect on the crucifixion of Jesus. I recently attended a production of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion which contains some profound insights on what Jesus’ suffering means in relation to our suffering.

The assertion that God is good is a defiant claim that we make in spite of the way things look. To forget this is to lose the prophetic edge of Christianity that speaks a word of piercing light into the darkness. But this doesn’t mean we can’t think rationally about it –  on the contrary, it makes the task even more important.

The problem of suffering arises from both mind and heart. Only a full engagement with both mind and heart will produce a fruitful theology of suffering that deepens our relationship with both God and neighbor.

[1] Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, First Trade Edition (Atlantic Books, 2007), 7.

Photo credit: William Blake, “The Lord Answers Job Out of the Storm

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Barney is a Junior Research Fellow at Pembroke College, Oxford. A philosophical theologian who believes in making theology relevant to the public sphere, he has a less academic blog at Everyday Theology, in which he attempts to render theological insights in an accessible way.