Today’s guest post comes to us from my good friend, Matthew Simpson. Matthew is a life-long Episcopalian who graduated from the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg , Virginia, with a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies. His focus during his studies at University were on various topics such as Qur’anic Studies, Confucian Thought, Post-Holocaust Jewish Theodicy, and Christian Existentialism. He is currently a student at in the Diaconal Studies Program at General Theological Seminary in New York City, and in the four-year process to be ordained in the Sacred Order of Deacons in the Diocese of Pennsylvania. He is currently a member of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in New Hope, Pennsylvania. I think it sort of goes without saying that his perspective on the problem of evil is worth considering. Enjoy!
When I was asked by Rocky to write a blog on the topic of Theodicy, I was both flattered and excited. Primarily because I respect Rocky and his work, so to be asked was an honor to me. So when it came to the topic of Theodicy, the age-old question of “If God is good, whence evil?” and “why do bad things happen to good people (and vice versa)?” I felt eager to get started, but soon felt trepidation. I suddenly felt a more pressing and daunting question, “where to begin?”
I am reminded of a story when I was just a bit younger and riding around on my motorcycle in Western Virginia. I was a bit lost, and wanted to find a way to get back onto Skyline Drive (a beautiful drive, I recommend it). At the time I still had a flip-phone so it had no GPS, and besides I was on a motorcycle so GPS would not have worked anyway. I stopped at a rundown gas/gift shop and humbled myself to ask directions. I walked in and saw an older man with a brown and white beard, wearing overalls with a red flannel shirt, and after some short banter about my motorcycle I asked “how do you get to Skyline Drive from here?” I will never forget how his response started, “well, I wouldn’t start from here…”
I feel that is the perfect line to begin this topic. The questions of theodicy are so broad, and it can be approached in so many different ways we are bound to find ourselves disjointed with any systematic approach. No matter how it is approached some will say, “Yes!! Finally! This is where I am at, and where I am coming from, but….!” While others will say, “What is he talking about? He is not even answering the questions I have, but…?” In Theological Studies, I believe the branch of theodicy to be different from other branches of theology. Soteriology, Eschatology, Christology, Epistemology, Metaphysics, etc. all are very cerebral, they are academic. Theodicy is different, because theodicy has to do with suffering, and suffering smacks our souls hard with our fragility, our mortality, and if we let it, our humanity. When we discuss theodicy we are not asking lofty questions on the nature of Scripture or Virgin Births, but we are asking questions regarding human suffering; the pain of others, and inevitably our own pain. We all encounter suffering in some way as human beings. The other branches of theology can be discarded if one is not a Christian, but you cannot discard the experience of suffering from the human condition. This makes theodicy a very personal theology; we ask these questions mainly out of our vulnerability…and if we don’t, then we risk a very artificial theology when it comes to suffering and evil.
So where we do go from here? I will start us on the Classical Approach…we will first head to the Book of Job. From Job we will briefly explore suffering in Scripture and in history and God’s apparent silence. Next, from Post-Holocaust Jewish Theology we will look at the “Theology of Protest,” and ask the question: “Is God Abusive?” And then I will be looking at an interview with Dr. Pamela Nesbit, a clinical psychologist and the Episcopal Archdeacon of Pennsylvania on how we should approach pastoral care to those who suffer, and how we should approach our own suffering as Christians. Finally, of course, there will the obligatory final thoughts…or questions. So let the journey begin.
Why the Book of Job?
Whenever the topic of Theodicy comes up, I have always been directed to go to the Book of Job. It is sort of the “go-to” book for this type of stuff. But when I read it, I am find myself greatly disturbed. Why? Everything is not how it should be in this book: The good guy is an innocent victim, his righteousness is what makes him a target of a cosmic bet (?!?). Good solid theology (provided by Job’s friends) is proven inadequate and wrong. People die for apparently no reason. But the worst part; the worst part is how God is portrayed. This was a bad public relations move for God. God is almost out of character, almost human in this story. And though it all ends well for Job (barring the loss of his first children, does one ever get over the loss of a child?); my ideas of right and wrong, of justice, and of God’s character are as smashed along with the bones of Job’s children. Let us look at the Book, and see what questions arise…
The Scandalous Bet
Many of us know how Job begins. The hosts of heaven and God are meeting and God brags about his servant Job and how loyal and righteous he is. Then an accuser basically says that Job is only loyal and righteous because God protects and blesses him so well. Then comes the wager: the accuser bets if Job loses all his fortune that Job will curse God to his face. God takes the bait, and places the bet!?! God allows the accuser to destroy all Job owns, and those who he loves. Was this necessary? Does not God know the hearts of all men and women?
The accuser leaves and does indeed destroy all Job holds dear, barring his wife. All his livestock is taken or killed, all his servants are killed (but two), and all his children are killed. What were these persons in God’s schemes? Are they treated like imago dei or pawns? But in all this righteous Job only blesses God.
The accuser presents himself before the Lord again. God brags about Job’s loyalty and righteousness even though violence was incited against him “for no reason(?!).”1 The accuser than says the infamous line “skin for skin,” take away Job’s health and he will curse you. God takes the bait again?!? God lets the accuser have his way with Job and gives him sores and blisters on his body.
The Friends of Proper Creed
So Job suffers greatly as the result of a bet in the heavens. And so his friends come to “comfort” him. Again, if anyone is familiar with the book they will know that Job’s friends present the most sound theology: “You suffer because of your sins.” When Job maintains his innocence, his friends respond that Job must be a liar because God is just, God is good to those who are righteous, but God punishes the inequity of those who are evil. Job is accused by his friends of thievery, mistreating his servants, being too proud. His friends in order to make sense of everything that has happened to Job must (for his sake or theirs?) come up with a solution, a fix for Job’s suffering. They tell him over and over again that if he just admits his guilt, if he just confesses his sins, God is gracious and will forgive. Job refuses. Through the whole ordeal Job maintains his innocence and integrity. His friends eventually turn quiet. And in the end, they have to make amends to Job to be forgiven by God. What frustrates me is that these men are giving formulas of theology that are saturated in the Hebrew Bible. Yet, they are wrong here.
In the midst of great suffering, The Book of Job is both cruel and honest: in our hour of greatest desperation it takes away our certainty. It strips us of our formulas and teaches us that our intentions to “fix” somebody are ultimately warped. But what of Job? What happens to him?
The Anguish of Job
Here is where the Scriptures do more justice than any writing. After Job has lost his family, his health, and the respect of his friends, he experiences something worse…silence. Silence from the One who he was always faithful to:
“Though I cry, ‘Violence!’ I get no response;
though I call for help, there is no justice.
8 He has blocked my way so I cannot pass;
he has shrouded my paths in darkness.
9 He has stripped me of my honor
and removed the crown from my head.
10 He tears me down on every side till I am gone;
he uproots my hope like a tree.
11 His anger burns against me;
he counts me among his enemies.
12 His troops advance in force;
they build a siege ramp against me
and encamp around my tent.
13 “He has alienated my family from me;
my acquaintances are completely estranged from me.
14 My relatives have gone away;
my closest friends have forgotten me.
15 My guests and my female servants count me a foreigner;
they look on me as on a stranger.
16 I summon my servant, but he does not answer,
though I beg him with my own mouth.
17 My breath is offensive to my wife;
I am loathsome to my own family.
18 Even the little boys scorn me;
when I appear, they ridicule me.
19 All my intimate friends detest me;
those I love have turned against me.
20 I am nothing but skin and bones;
I have escaped only by the skin of my teeth.
21 “Have pity on me, my friends, have pity,
for the hand of God has struck me.
22 Why do you pursue me as God does?
Will you never get enough of my flesh?
25 I know that my redeemer lives,
and that in the end he will stand on the earth.
26 And after my skin has been destroyed,
yet in my flesh I will see God;
27 I myself will see him
with my own eyes—I, and not another.
How my heart yearns within me! (Job 19:7-22; 25-27 NIV)
Even after all this Job is faithful. Job also wants answers. Why?! Something else happens in Job that we see. His own suffering brings about his anger and empathy towards other people’s suffering. In his own experience of injustice, Job seems to be more aware of other injustices. What starts as a demand for an answer for injustice done solely to him, becomes a demand for an answer to the injustice done to others. And so he asks the questions we still ask today:
“Why does the Almighty not set times for judgment?
Why must those who know him look in vain for such days?
2 There are those who move boundary stones;
they pasture flocks they have stolen.
3 They drive away the orphan’s donkey
and take the widow’s ox in pledge.
4 They thrust the needy from the path
and force all the poor of the land into hiding.
5 Like wild donkeys in the desert,
the poor go about their labor of foraging food;
the wasteland provides food for their children.
6 They gather fodder in the fields
and glean in the vineyards of the wicked.
7 Lacking clothes, they spend the night naked;
they have nothing to cover themselves in the cold.
8 They are drenched by mountain rains
and hug the rocks for lack of shelter.
9 The fatherless child is snatched from the breast;
the infant of the poor is seized for a debt.
10 Lacking clothes, they go about naked;
they carry the sheaves, but still go hungry.
11 They crush olives among the terraces;
they tread the winepresses, yet suffer thirst.
12 The groans of the dying rise from the city,
and the souls of the wounded cry out for help.
But God charges no one with wrongdoing.
13 “There are those who rebel against the light,
who do not know its ways
or stay in its paths.
14 When daylight is gone, the murderer rises up,
kills the poor and needy,
and in the night steals forth like a thief.
15 The eye of the adulterer watches for dusk;
he thinks, ‘No eye will see me,’
and he keeps his face concealed.
16 In the dark, thieves break into houses,
but by day they shut themselves in;
they want nothing to do with the light.
17 For all of them, midnight is their morning;
they make friends with the terrors of darkness. (Job 24:1-17 NIV)
And so Job’s protest becomes ours. He becomes the spokesperson for humanity. Our questions, our protests are echoed in this Book. Perhaps that is why I am always told to read it. Where is God in the midst of the suffering of others? The destitute crushed; the poor abused: Are we all abandoned, or is it just the innocent victims that are abandoned? Why do the greedy and evil get ahead, while the righteous suffer? Were the babies who were snatched to pay a debt (24:9) also a part of a divine bet? Or…or what? From a man with a shaved head, torn clothes, immersed in ashes, covered in sores comes the gut-wrenching cry of the tormented soul: “OH GOD WHY? WHERE ARE YOU?”
In so many of our own stories this cry is met with soul-crushing silence. In this particular story however, God does show up. But if we are looking for a merciful clean answer, another beautiful salvific formula we will be disappointed.
God’s Answer to Job’s Suffering
God finally shows up to address his victim, and begins his response in this way:
“Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you answer me.” (38:2-3)
God is then to go on for quite a bit asking questions such as:
“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? (38:4)
“From whose womb comes the ice? Who gives birth to the frost from the heavens? (38:29)
“Can you pull in the leviathan with the fishhook or tie down his tongue with a rope? (41:1)
What is interesting is what God does not address; God gives no reasoning for what has happened to Job. God has given an answer, but he has not answered the question. Our hero Job buckles, tired and frightened Job answers: “My ears have heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes. (Job 42:5-6)”
What are we to make of God’s response? What are we to make of God? Carl Jung comments bitterly:
“It is Yahweh himself who darkens his own counsel…He turns the tables on Job and blames him for what he himself does: man is not permitted to have an opinion about him…For seventy-one verses he proclaims his world-creating power to his miserable victim, who sits in ashes and scratches his sores with potsherds, and who by now has had enough of superhuman violence.”2
I think Jung is onto something here. The behavior of God is awful and THAT is perplexing to us, and not in the way it is usually perplexing. We are usually in awe of God’s wonder, God’s grace, God’ mercy, God’s love, but what is this? God almost acts as a shameful parent. Where is the mercy? Why doesn’t God apologize, or at least show some compassion? I would never recommend this Book of the Bible to someone who has been raped or abused; what could they derive from it?
Holding Onto Job As We Move On
I don’t want to say “Parting Thoughts” here, because this Book will pop up a lot in the future blogs. But I do want to talk about what I find relevant in the Book of Job. This book makes me angry. And we have learned that many times anger towards one you love is a derivative of being hurt. This Book hurts me, it hurts us. We learn in this Book the creeds, the paradigms, the boxes we put God in do not fit. Even when I make a beautiful box of love, grace, mercy and compassion, God does not fit. And if I were to make a box of God being just, rational, methodical; even here God would not fit. God behaves here in a way that is so unlike God as we typically see in Scripture.
And what of our suffering? That too cannot fit in a box it seems. If we are honest, and we must be honest if we are to be responsible; we see that our suffering does not fit neatly in an ordered universe. It often will not make sense…and this can hurt even more.
Next, I will explore some passages in our Scriptures that echo this desperation, this loss, this anger. Our question will shift from “Why” to “Where.” Where is God in suffering?
1: God admits Job’s suffering was for no reason.
2: C. Jung, Answer to Job, trans. F.C. Hull (Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press, 1958), p. 16.