Theodicy– The Questions Real People Ask

Here is a quote by Howard Stone from “The Word of God and Pastoral Care”

Over the years, while making pastoral carecaution2bagainst2bbad2badvice visits and especially hospital visits, I have sadly encountered many people whose well-meaning friends and acquaintances have responded to their why questions with theological answers that left them terribly upset and proved actually to be destructive: ‘This is God’s punishment on you and for your sins.’ ‘This is God’s will; you have to accept it.’ ‘This has happened to bring you to the Lord.’ ‘God wanted your dear one with him in heaven.’ ‘If you hadn’t skipped out on your wife, this wouldn’t have happened.’ ‘If you had stayed home with your children where God wants you to be, they wouldn’t have started taking drugs.’

More recently I have also come across another whole class of answers — more psychological than religious — to theodicy issues: ‘You are responsible for your illness.’ ‘You are sick because of your destructive thoughts.’ ‘The cancer inside you is pent up anger; you’ve got to release it to get well.’ ‘You are what you eat; if only you had cut out salt and exercised more.’ Some people are so eager to give their answers that they scarcely wait for the questions to be asked. The results are often quite grim.

When I first began pastoral care work, I would have thought such pronouncements were rare, or occurred only in the more conservative denominations. Not so! Things such as this happen everywhere, regardless of the conservative or liberal orientation. Simplistic and damaging answers flow from well-meaning people at a time when their hearers are in considerable distress, vulnerable, and unable to talk back. I raise the issue here because if ministers care only for people’s emotional pain and do not respond theologically to the issue of theodicy, parishioners will inevitably get their theological education elsewhere, and it may not be the kind we would have wished for them. In other words, if ministers will not respond, sooner or later, to the vital questions of theodicy, neighbors and friends are likely to do so, and not always in a helpful manner.                                       –page 165

 

Can Bad News Still Point Us to the “Good News”?

I read an article recently (not sure I could figure out which one) that said that Pat Robertson of 700 Club/CBN fame would not allow testimony stories on his show where God did not answer the prayer of the testifier. Or to be more accurate, God did not do what the praying person wanted God to do. Is that true? I have never seen 700 Club so I don’t know. But I know the temptation of many churches, and not merely those that preach (material) prosperity, to seek “happily ever after” testimonies. To encourage unbelievers to accept the Gospel (Good News) and believers to trust God more, it just seems to make sense to tell stories of God granting what we want.

But there are problems with this. I think some testimonies of “bad news,” meaning not getting exactly what we want, can be useful to point us to the Good News, or strengthen our trust in God.good-bad-news-400px

  1.  Some “bad news” stories can be more inspirational than other stories. Joni Eareckson Tada’s life story, or the story of Fanny Crosby would not be more inspirational if Joni was healed of quadriplegia or Fanny of blindness. Many of us really need to know that an abundant life is still attainable in whatever state we are in. If God’s benevolence can only be seen in the lives of the healthy and wealthy,  how can the downtrodden visualize a great future that still dovetails with there present condition?
  2. “Bad News” stories can help us be sympathetic with those whose lives are painful. I can’t help but think the theology of Job’s friends would be a little better nuanced if they had suffered in ways that they could not connect to their relationship with God. A friend of mine had skin problems. Well-meaning Christians would suggest all sorts of things to “fix” him. That is okay I suppose, although it certainly gets old. Others would try to sell him stuff to solve the problem. This is a bit self-serving, but perhaps they honestly thought they could help. Others would subtly, or not so subtly, suggest that he had sin in his life, or perhaps his ancestors who had sinned.  Not all that helpful, frankly. Skin problems are especially difficult because they are visible. People can hide other problems, and look like things are okay. But humans can only see the external, and skin problems are external. Much of Job’s suffering was in the boils, and much of the suffering in the boils wasn’t physical, but social. Job needed more sympathy and support, not finger pointing. He needed friends who were not only familiar with Deuteronomy and Proverbs, but also Ecclesiastes, Jeremiah, and I Peter.
  3. “Bad News” can strengthen faith. This seems a bit counter-intuitive, yet our faith in God as our Good Shepherd is not only found in His bringing us to greener pastures and stiller waters, but also in leading us (and protecting us) through the valley of the shadow of death. For us, a few years ago, we had a major financial setback. It was of a sort that we were pretty sure that one or both of us would have to leave the mission field. However, we kept delaying going back and delaying going back. God did not suddenly deluge us with new financial support… just a trickle. But it has been enough. We have been able to more than survive. Before, we could quote verses like in Matthew 6 where Jesus talked about the Father knowing our needs and His intention to care for us. But in living that out with God sustaining us, despite Him never completely reversing the situation, has definitely increased our faith. Frankly, I believe that testimony would strengthen/embolden a Christian in ministry more than several “Praise Jesus” TV testimonials. The writer of Hebrews in chapter 11, a section known as the “Hall of Faith,” sought to strengthen the faith of young Jewish Christians by looking back at Old Testament saints. Half were happy and half were sad. In some cases, God gave victory and vindication, and in some God comforted those who were faithful despite torture, killings, and losses. We need both sides.
  4. “”Bad News” can empower our theology. I periodically get responses from students or ministry partners where they struggle with the fact that God doesn’t seem to be answering their prayers. For many, the theology they were taught suggested that through the right kind of prayer, they could get God to be their servant, rather than they becoming His servants. Flabby theology is disconnected from reality. A strong theology is reflective and iterative. Our theology should help us through the dry and cold times in life, not just the rosy and lush. Is this important? Absolutely. Our theology is tied to our sense of purpose, and our ethics. A good theology gives us an understanding of who we are, and our relationship with both our world and our God. A theology that misrepresents these areas will not stand well when our circumstances change. And if bad theology leads to bad ethics (understanding of what we should do and should be), our responses to adversity are likely to lead to wrong, or at least unproductive, activities and thoughts.
  5. “Bad News” helps us identify the Good News. We identify things typically through contrast. In biking, it is the uphills that help us understand the good news. This may be a bit obvious… but it is still worth dwelling on. The goodness of God is not really identifiable except in contrast to struggles and pain. But perhaps that doesn’t go far enough. Sometimes those very struggles of pain help us to recognize God’s goodness in their  presence. In Proverbs, King Agur prays

Give me neither poverty nor wealth;
feed me with the food I need.
Otherwise, I might have too much
and deny You, saying, “Who is the Lord?”
or I might have nothing and steal,
profaning the name of my God.

Proverbs 30:8-9

Our continual need of God’s care makes us more dependent on God. Having all of our prayers answered, can make us forget God. We are forgetful people. We need some bad news to remember that one who cares for us.

Bad Stuff

“What is ‘I Don’t Know’?” That is the best Jeopardy answer I can give to the statement to the answer “Why bad stuff happens to good people.” Some feel this is a “cop-out,” or taking the easy way out. Frankly, I have heard a lot of easy-way-out answers to that question:

  • “God’s ways are above our ways.” That is saying “I don’t know” while pretending to be theologically profound. bad-stuff
  • “All things work together for good.” This is saying that bad stuff really isn’t bad. How is that so? Well, “I don’t know.” So this is still the “I don’t know” answer, with some bad hermeneutics thrown in.
  • “You must be being punished for something.” Job’s friends are definitely with us today. Divine karma or generational bondage may be satisfying for those who are prone to finger-point, but that view doesn’t really stand up to Scripture.

Speaking of Scripture, what does the Bible say? The answer is complex. I had a professor who argued that the aphorisms of Proverbs (the righteous are blessed and the unrighteous are cursed) pretty much summed things up in the Bible, with the sole exception of the Book of Job. I was always a bit uncomfortable with that. First of all, if there was one exception why can’t there be two or three. Second, in fact, it seemed like there were many such exceptions in the Bible. Consider Jeremiah, for example, whose life no one would envy, despite leading an apparently godly life.

This is no attempt to work on an in-depth look at theodicy. But looking at it Biblically, in a fairly cursory manner, one could say that bad things happen to people because they are:

  • Bad. Deuteronomy and Proverbs support the human instinct of justice… good happens to good people, and bad to bad— just as it ought to be.
  • Good. I Peter, for example, and much of the Gospels supports the idea that those who do good, will suffer persecution and misery because the world is in opposition to them.
  • Either or neither. Ecclesiastes and a number of the Psalms, for example, make it clear good things and bad things often occur with no apparent connection to whether the person deserves it.

So how should one respond to someone who has suffered? One could say:

“Bad things are happening to you because you are good, because you are bad, or regardless of any consideration of your moral status.”

Such vagueness may not seem satisfying, but it is fairly consistent with what Jesus said:

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

                                                                                        -Luke 13:1-5

Jesus denies the “Bad things happen to bad people” explanation for the Galileans and those crushed by a tower, at least denying proportionality between their fate and their behavior.  But then he implies that those who don’t repent for sins could be punished.

Elsewhere, Jesus heals a blind man who was blind from birth. He denies that his state was tied to personal sin, or generational punishment. Jesus said that it was so that God would be glorified by his healing. While that is an interesting answer, it does not really answer the question we are discussing. It doesn’t say why he, specifically, was blind while another had sight, for example.

It seems to me that one could sum up what Jesus said with the following:

“Bad things can happen for many reasons, but it is not beneficial to speculate as to issues of divine retribution or blessing. It is much wiser to meditate on your own situation, than the situation of others.”

So in pastoral counseling, the best answer to why bad things happen to a person is, or at least starts with, “I don’t know.” However, that should be followed by helping the person to look at his or her own situation and determine what, if anything, needs to change.

Why am I mentioning this in a Missions blog? Frankly, missionaries are commonly  most among those guilty or perpetuating limited, doubtful answers as it pertains to suffering. A number of people have made the argument that the “Prosperity Gospel” in Africa (although perpetuated by its own marketers today) was first spread unwittingly by missionaries who expressed poorly and over-simplified view of theodicy, honor, and blessing, to new believers and pre-believers in the field.

Some doctrines don’t have to be fully delved into early on. We don’t necessarily have to have new believers who can describe the major views on atonement (all of the views appear to be incorrect to some extent anyway). But suffering has immediacy and importance. If this is left to be answered by sub-Christian platitudes, it is hardly surprising if it results in a sub-Biblical view of God or of faith.

 

 

Suffering and Viktor Frankl

WAR & CONFLICT BOOK
ERA:  WORLD WAR II/WAR IN THE WEST/THE HOLOCAUST

I am not an expert on Theodicy, on suffering and its underlying meaning (or underlying lack of meaning). That being said, churches (especially the safe and affluent churches, but even the persecuted and vulnerable churches at times) have trouble with suffering.  It seems to me that part of the problem is that the church (we in the church) fail to deal with the complexity of this issue as presented in the Bible. There seems to be three general “strands” of thought in the Bible that are intertwined or braided into something not meant to be separated. It seems to me the church fails when it seeks to follow one strand and ignore the other two.

Strand One:  The Universality of Suffering. Genesis 3 and Ecclesiastes are the most obvious examples, but one can find it elsewhere. It is common to all, both good and bad, and as such, may have no ethical or redemptive “meaning.” Suffering Happens.

Strand Two:  Suffering is due to the Sinner. Suffering can be the result of specific sinful actions by specific sinful sinners. A person may suffer because of his own sin, or being sinned against by others. As such, God punishes the evildoer, and rewards or vindicates the righteous. Deuteronomy and Proverbs are the two strongest examples of this.

Strand Three:  Suffering is due to Faithfulness. Suffering can also be the anticipated result of faithfulness to God. Job, I Peter, and much of the Gospels support this strand.

Of course, if one embraces all three strands, there are challenging implications to the church:

  1.  When we see a person suffering, we should not be quick to judge. Perhaps we should not judge at all. But if suffering is universal/meaningless, or due to sin, or due to faithfulness, it is ill-advised to presume only one and ignore the possibility of the others.
  2. Suffering should not automatically be avoided. Jesus was described as a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, and calls us to suffer with him. This does not mean one necessarily should be seeking to find suffering and then to wallow in it. But I think it does mean that the paths of the righteous are likely to take us both to green pastures and still waters, and through the valley of the shadow of death. It may well be that the former is the hope, but the latter is the norm.

With this in mind, here is a sizable quote from Viktor Frankl in his work, Man’s Search for Meaning (Part One). It describes finding meaning in a German Concentration Camp in World War II. It is not Christian Theology or written by a Christian. Sadly, many who were causing the unjust suffering would describe themselves as Christians. However, he speaks of “Life” in a metaphoric fashion that in some places can seem to mean “God,” or in other places, “the path/s that God has ordained.”

Nietzsche’s words, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,” could be the guiding motto for all psychotherapeutic and psychohygienic efforts regarding prisoners. Whenever there was an opportunity for it, one had to give them a why—an aim—for their lives, in order to strengthen them to bear the terrible how of their existence. Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost. The typical reply with which such a man rejected all encouraging arguments was, “I have nothing to expect from life any more.” What sort of answer can one give to that?

What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way. Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. “Life” does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique for each individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny. No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response. Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action. At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. Sometimes man may be required simply to accept fate, to bear his cross. Every situation is distinguished by its uniqueness, and there is always only one right answer to the problem posed by the situation at hand.

When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.

For us, as prisoners, these thoughts were not speculations far removed from reality. They were the only thoughts that could be of help to us. They kept us from despair, even when there seemed to be no chance of coming out of it alive. Long ago we had passed the stage of asking what was the meaning of life, a naive query which understands life as the attaining of some aim through the active creation of something of value. For us, the meaning of life embraced the wider cycles of life and death, of suffering and of dying.

Once the meaning of suffering had been revealed to us, we refused to minimize or alleviate the camp’s tortures by ignoring them or harbouring false illusions and entertaining artificial optimism.

Suffering had become a task on which we did not want to turn out backs. We had realized its hidden opportunities for achievement, the opportunities which caused the poet Rilke to write, “Wie viel ist aufzuleiden!”(How much suffering there is to get through!) Rilke spoke of “getting through suffering” as others would talk of “getting through work.” There was plenty of suffering for us to get through.

Therefore, it was necessary to face up to the full amount of suffering, trying to keep moments of weakness and furtive tears to a minimum. But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer. Only very few realized that. Shamefacedly some confessed occasionally that they had wept, like the comrade who answered my question of how he had gotten over his oedema, by confessing, “I have wept it out of my system.”

Mythology and Theodicy in the Visayas

My son is taking a class “Mythology and Folklore” at his university here in the Philippines. They have been studying some creation stories here in the Philippines. Some are etiological, while some are more entertaining. One struck me especially. It is “Tungkung Langit and Alunsina”… a creation story from Panay Island.

A number of Philippine Stories can be found at Visayan Mythologies

I am using the story from the blogsite:

Once upon a time when the earth was but a shapeless, formless void appeared the god called Tungkung Langit (“ Pillar of Heaven”) and the virgin goddess of the eastern skies, Alunsina (“ The Unmarried One”).
The old Visayan folklore states that Tungkung Langit fell in love with Alunsina. After he had courted her for many years, they married and made their home in the highest part of heaven. There the water was always warm and the breeze was forever cool, not a bad weather was in sight, and the couple was happy. In this place in the heavens, order and regularity began.

Tungkung Langit was a loving, hard-working god. He wanted to impose order over the confused world. He decided to arrange the world so that the heavenly bodies would move regularly. On the other hand, Alunsina was a lazy, jealous, selfish goddess. She sat at the window of their home all day doing nothing but brush her long beautiful hair. Sometimes she would leave her home, sit down by a pool near the door, and comb her long, jet-black hair all day long. One day Tungkung Langit told his wife that he would be away for some time. He said he must make time go on smoothly and arrange everything in the world and did not return for a long time. Alunsina thought he was off to see a lover, so she summoned the breeze to spy on Tungkung Langit. Tungkung Langit caught the spying breeze and he became very angry with Alunsina. After he returned home, he told her that it was ungodly of her to be jealous since there were no other gods in the world except the two of them.
Alunsina resented this reproach, and they quarreled all day. In his anger, Tungkung Langit drove his wife away. And with that, Alunsina suddenly disappeared, without a word or a trace to where she went. A few days passed, Tungkung Langit felt very lonely and longed for his wife. He realized that he should not have lost his temper. But it was too late, Alunsina is gone.  Their home which was once vibrant with Alunsina’s sweet voice, his home became cold and desolate. In the morning when he woke up, he would find himself alone. In the afternoon when he came home, he would feel loneliness creeping deep within him.

For months Tungkung Langit lived in utter desolation. Try as he did he could not find Alunsina. And so in his desperation, he decided to do something to forget his sorrow and win back his wife’s favor. So he came down to earth and planted trees and flowers that she may notice it, but she still didn’t come home. Then in desperation, he took his wife’s jewels and scattered them in the sky. He hoped that when Alunsina should see them she might be induced to return home.
Alunsina’s necklace became the stars, her comb the moon, and her crown the sun. But in spite of all his efforts, Alunsina did not return home. Until now, as the story goes, Tungkung Langit lives alone in his palace in the skies and sometimes, he would cry out for Alunsina and his tears would fall down upon the earth as rain and his loud voice, calling out for his wife, was believed to be the thunder during storms, begging for her to come back to their heavenly palace once more.

To me this is a great story from the aspect of theodicy. How does one deal with the concept of a benevolent Creator designing a world of suffering? One option is to get rid of the Creator… but, frankly, the world sure appears to have evidence of design in it. Even many of those who have gotten used to describing cosmogeny and history in terms of accident and natural (predictable) processes seem to drift into thinking of these processes as having a certain planned efficiency to them. Another option is Dualism where the world has two competing powers in conflict. It is hard, however, to reconcile the seeming orderliness of the world with such a chaotic formation and maintenance of the Universe.  So if we accept a single Designer, must we assume such a creator as being weak or somewhat evil?

The World, in the above myth, was created by Tungkung Langit, a single god of order. Although there is a female godess here… the godess is not part of the creation (either positively or negatively) but rather the motivation for creation.

The Visayan Creation described is an act of love and sorrow, of loss and of hope. The world we live in has order, beauty, and suffering. The suffering, however, is not without hope.

To me, the Creation story in the Bible is highly etiological. It’s primary role is in telling us why we live in the world we live in, and who we are with respect to each other, creation, and our Creator. It also explains why there is suffering in the world. However, there is still somewhat lacking. After all, if God is omniscient, all-powerful, and all-righteous, the whole mess should seemingly have been fixed before it started. For me, the Creation story in the Bible is not fully satisfying until one ties in the story of the Cross. Once we bring this story in, we find that God did not simply create a world with suffering, but God is one who suffers with us. But that suffering is not meaningless… but motivated by love and directed towards hope.

“Tungkung Langit and Alunsina” reminds us of the truth we learn from the Gospels. Suffering and loss are not what what distances us from God but what draws God close to us. Suffering and loss, love and hope, are brought together in the Cross.