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Posted by on Mar 24, 2014 | 8 comments

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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Just your average grad student, trying to conquer the world through theological debate, like so many before me. I believe theology can be both profound & easy to understand, academically rigorous & accessible. I contribute to a less academic blog at Everyday Theology.
  • Barney, I have been reading Polkinghorne’s edited volume on Kenosis and like what a lot of his contributors do with God’s relationship with creation – which of course has a great deal of impact on one’s theodicy. Though I reckon they rely on scientific methodology too much. I am a bit suspicious of your conclusion that a theodicy requires assuming that its not worth thinking long and hard about something. Isn’t that exactly what a good theodicy should do: think long and hard about suffering?

    On a different note: do you have a rough guess at the direction you would take to answer your big question?

    • Justin, you’re right that theodicy doesn’t intrinsically mean conceptual closure. Many philosophers identify the first modern theodicy as coming from the rationalist Leibniz, who created the problem for himself by his assertion that everything couldn’t be other than the way it is, and therefore “this is the best of all possible worlds.” Leibniz’ theodicy was a full and final explanation that, for him, removed mystery from the equation. Since then, much of what comes under the heading of “theodicy” follows the same track. Its exponents pursue the question because they believe there is a rational answer. I don’t know if they would pursue it if they thought it would end in as much mystery as that with which it began. But you’re absolutely right that not all theodicy is like that, and much that is said about God and suffering has more depth by keeping an element of mystery to it.

      What direction would I take? I would resist any explanations that distance God from the world in any way, such as the one provided by royce in the below comment. The problem becomes easier if one sets God at a few stages of remove from current circumstances, creating space for things seemingly out of God’s control. I can’t reconcile that kind of God with the picture given us in the Old Testament, of a relentlessly ever-present God to whom is attributed all causality. Instead, I would start by foregrounding God’s love and starting to explore what it would mean if everything that happened was a consequence of the unbounded love of the creator and sustainer of all things. My line would be very much the one Alex takes in a previous post:

      I could say a lot more but it’s good to keep a word limit on these comments, too!

  • royce

    The problem of evil is not complicated, unless you disregard free will and do not take seriously the presence of Satan and demons. Scripture as a whole seems to paint quite a clear picture that real tangible forces are opposing God’s will. If you take seriously God’s entire creation, structure of the cosmos and a freewill rebellion there really is no question because the answer is obvious: God is good, he gave his creatures free will. For this freewill to be real it must be honored. When it is honored angels, demons, humans can do good or evil.
    A theology of suffering in this light is less “woe is me” and more congruent with the life of a soldier in the trenches. After all we are called to spiritual warfare. Want to write more but I’m on my phone.

    • Thanks, Royce, for your contribution! Glad that you’re willing to engage with the issue and that you see a clear path forward.

      I was wondering if you could use your model to help me answer some of the specific questions I have above? Some of them involve the relationship between the creator’s power and creaturely freedom. For example, if I pray to be offered a particular job, and someone offers it to me, is that an answer to prayer or an exercise of free will on the part of the employer? Or if I pray for a beautiful wife, is God powerless to grant or refuse my prayer due to the free will of the woman?

  • Silas

    I think this touches on the heart of theology after the 20th century. Unlike royce, I think this is a very complicated topic, especially for monotheists. I agree with J.W. Pritchett that kenotic ideas can assist in thinking through these questions, especially in regard to natural evil. However, I think they do inevitably lead to a redefinition of power and concepts of an all-powerful God. Polkinghorne definitely is forced to make this move when he proposes divine special providence as acting as a cause among causes (The Work of Love p. 104). Here he nears a similar outcome to that of process theologians (without limiting God through the process metaphysic). He makes the move because he is not sure how to defend any other explanation other than with fideistic assertions.

    Barney I want to affirm your optimistic conclusion about prophetically claiming that God is good despite what the circumstances portray, yet I am incredibly weary of doing so if it is nothing more than fideistic conjecture. While I can appreciate Lewis’ honesty in sitting with the pain and the questions, I did not find him as offering a theological way forward. Do you see a way forward that does not go the course of process bent understandings while avoiding fideism? On this topic I simply have been unable to reconcile the 20th century and its horror with a God who answers prayers regarding requests for parking spots.

    • Silas, thank you for your honest engagement and recognition of the difficulty of the issue.

      Like Lewis in his first book, I am hesitant to say what I really think because it involves conjecture far beyond the suffering I’ve personally experienced, and it’s impossible for me to say whether I would still hold to such beliefs were I to suffer greatly. But in my experience, there is hope in the notion of a God who really could have prevented atrocities and doesn’t, for purposes that are rooted in a love far higher and greater than we can conceive or imagine. This is a position unbearable in some respects, but carrying more meaning than solutions that try to relieve God of the responsibility by some kind of complex metaphysics that limit the power of the all-powerful. There isn’t any explanation we can offer that undoes the reality of the suffering: whether God is present or absent, responsible or non-existent, the suffering is still there and still horrific. Given the choice, I would rather shout at God, blame him and ask him why than assume him to have been far away and either unconcerned or unable to help.

      That said, you’re right that the redefinition of power is involved in explaining the problem. Certainly God chooses not to contravene human or angelic freedom. But this is not the same as going the route of a process theology that severely limits God’s power and, in my view, departs dramatically from the God represented throughout the Christian tradition, especially the Old Testament. Unless we believe in the same God who would precipitate the outcries we read in the lament psalms, we must have missed something.

      I’m not sure what you mean by fideism though. If you mean blindly ignoring the pain in the world in order to maintain a carefree belief in a good God, then I agree. But on the other hand, all construals of reality that contain any kind of hope are fideistic at some level. If we become atheists or agnostics then the problem simply shifts from that of pain to that of meaning. Process theology seems to me like a pragmatic halfway house between theism and atheism, unwilling to relinquish belief in a deity but unwilling for that deity to have the total supremacy ascribed to him by a thousand voices in the Christian tradition. It is a lesser God, easier to believe in but harder to love unreservedly.

      • Barney, am I correct in noticing that in your post you’re privileging OT depictions of God as all-powerful? What if you were to shift the focal point of power from YHWH to Christ? It seems to me that one of the marks of Christian theology is that it in some sense thinks that Jesus Christ gives us the best representation of the what the divine is like? I think that both Silas and Justin have been hinting toward this point, but I wanted to make it explicit.

        If Jesus were in fact to give us the best picture of who God is and what God is like, then I think we need to modify the thrust of our prophetic assertion that God is good. Jesus—as he is presented in the gospels—is indeed portrayed as the good one, but he is certainly not all-powerful. He takes a stridently weak and servant-like posture in his ministry. He can’t stop—nor does he wish to stop—the machinations of the powers and principalities at work in this world. He spreads his message of the kin-dom of God through the rather weak art of persuasion, not power. This theme is then picked up by most of the NT authors including Paul and most acutely in the Petrine literature.

        The proper response then—it seems to me—is not to repeat the laments of the psalms at the absence of all-powerful God, but rather to embrace the weak role of Christ as we seek to ameliorate suffering even as we participate in it. This is a theology that is willing to “rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep,” classical definitions of God notwithstanding. For what it’s worth, I think this tack maps quite well onto (particular) process theologies, more so than it does on more traditional theisms.

      • Ryan, thank you for your astute observation and commentary. You’re right that my analysis so far has focused mainly on the picture of YHWH given in the Old Testament and hasn’t much integrated the distinctive revelation of the New Testament.

        However, I think in this area what the NT contributes readily affirms what I’ve already said, as well as giving additional guidance (in the passages I believe you are referring to) for how to understand our own role as Christians in imitating the example of Christ.

        In the apostle Paul we also find a resurrected Christ being given all power and authority and dominion, (e.g. Eph 1:20-21) which in the context doesn’t seem to be an eschatological promise. When Jesus was arrested, he hinted at the ability to rescue himself through an army of angels at his command (Matt 26:53). In a previous post I examined some of Jesus’ more incomprehensible sayings in the Sermon on the Mount, which seem to indicate a radical trust in the provision of God: I think Jesus’ general way of describing his “heavenly father” is as one who has all things in total control, who sends rain and sunshine on all, who takes individual care of each of his children, and who merits total unreserved confidence in both his power and goodness. I find it hard to trust a God who is not intimately in control, because I don’t see such a God as being worthy of trust. Perhaps it is here that the problem of suffering is sharpest for me.

        In short, I don’t think the NT witness in any way diminishes the OT picture of YHWH’s power, but rather the incarnation deepens God’s own involvement with and empathy for our suffering, as well as providing us a perfect example to follow when we suffer, an example which included total trust in YHWH no matter what the cost.