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.
In case you missed it, here is the link to the previous post in this series. Enjoy!
Answer me when I call to you, O my righteous God.
Give me relief from my distress;
be merciful to me and hear my prayer. (Psalm 4:1)
The Book of Job has shattered any clean or neat theology on “Why” God allows evil or suffering. If I look at the Book of Job honestly, I can think of no sound reason to justify God’s treatment of an innocent and loyal servant. Is Job an isolated incident, a slip of the divine hand?
I think if we are to ask the questions today of “Why does this happen?” and “Where is God?” we need to first explore more of our Scriptures (as much as a blog allows), and also reflect a little on history. This problem of suffering and evil goes far beyond our mortal lives or our current time; it has been with us since the times of Job. So let us be willing to be stripped away from our certainty of who God is… our ideas of what we want God to be; and let’s look at those passages and events we can’t ignore. Let us continue down the road of these dark and foggy questions; we won’t have to go far to hear the cry of God’s people:
My disgrace is before me all day long,
and my face is covered with shame
at taunts of those who reproach and revile me,
because of the enemy, who is bent on revenge.
All this happened to us,
though we had not forgotten you
or been false to your covenant.
Our hearts had not turned back;
our feet had not strayed from your path
But you crushed us and made us a haunt for jackals
and covered us over with deep darkness
If we had forgotten the name of our God
or spread out our hands to a foreign god,
would not God have discovered it,
since he knows the secrets of the heart?
Yet for your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to the slaughter.
Awake, O Lord! Why do you sleep?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.
Why do you hide your face
and forget our misery and oppression? (Psalm 44: 15-24)1
Here we see another incident of an innocent cry to God. Did God cause this suffering? We don’t know, but we do know God is allowing the suffering and shame of his chosen people. To what end? Again, the Scriptures do not say. Their case is similar to Job; they have not sinned against the Lord or abandoned the Covenant, and yet they are oppressed and shamed by their enemies, while the God who promised to be there appears to be absent.
I think this definitely echoes in our day, in our own lives. I think these passages are beneficial to those of us who suffer; if nothing else it is encouraging to know that these feelings of abandonment; this apparent suffering in the silence of God is a part of our faith tradition. God has done this before! We see in Scripture that God does appear to abandon the innocent in their plight. But what of the guilty? I think that answer depends on whether they are chosen or not; and in this case, it is better if you are not chosen.
What of the people of the Covenant when they did break the Law? Did they get the punishment they deserved? In Lamentations and Jeremiah we hear awful omens and tales of what the people did and how they suffered in the abandonment of the Covenant. In Jeremiah we hear of awful things the people did in their worship of other gods (did they do it because of God’s silence in troubled times past?). “They have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as offerings to Baal—something I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind. (Jer. 19:5)” It appears that humanity managed to shock God in the horror of its actions. But, before we get over the shock of our ancestors for breaking the Covenant, God retaliates with horrors of His own: “I will make them eat the flesh of theirs sons and daughters, and they will eat one another’s flesh during the siege (Jer. 19:8a).” Did the people deserve that? And if they did deserve it; did the children? Why are the children always to suffer? We find out this prophecy did come true:
Look, O Lord, and consider: Whom have you ever treated like this?
Should women eat their offspring, the children they have cared for?
Should priest and prophet be killed in the sanctuary of the Lord?
Young and old lie together in the dust of the streets;
my young men and maidens have fallen by the sword.
You have slain them in the day of your anger;
you have slaughtered them without pity. (Lamentations 2:20-21)2
These are not the fulfilled promises of God we talk about in Sunday School. In the prophets before the exile (Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah) we read of the horrible things that the people of Israel and Judah did. Particularly they trampled the heads of their poor, mistreated the foreigners, oppressed the widows, ignored the cause of the orphans, participated in all sorts of outlandish rituals towards other gods. These actions led to a system (particularly in the Northern Kingdom) of a major disparity in wealth and privilege. Some starved, while others had numerous houses. Because of the rampant injustice, violence increased (it always does without justice), and the prophets called on the people to turn from their wicked ways. Was the sacking of Jerusalem the answer to the prayers of the victims? And if so, is it not cruel to be delivered from their oppressive homeland just to be met by a sword? Is this God’s justice? Let us take a temporary break from Scripture…
If we look at the world around us we continue to ask the same questions regarding God’s justice we ask when reading Scripture. Natural disasters happen all the time, are they necessary? Must there be earthquakes? Tsunamis? Was God there to answer the screams of terrified children as the waves of the 2004 tsunami swept their lives away? Could not God cure childhood cancer? Innocence still seems to be a choice victim for the Universe. As Christians we have a lot to reconcile in our theology. “The Creator God of this Universe is Love,” “Nepal Cities Flattened by Earthquake, Thousands Dead.”
So what do we do with this knowledge? To be honest, we always had this knowledge, but I think Christianity evades it; we evade it. But why do we evade it? I believe we evade it because it forces us to see a side of God and a side of life we don’t want to see. I believe we evade it because it exposes how little we know, how inept the answers we learn at Church are in the light of so much suffering and pain. But if we choose to look at the pain what do we learn about God and this world?
To reflect on these questions as Christians we are eventually going to have to go to Jesus of Nazareth. But before we get to him, I think it is important we take one more stop in this disturbing journey…we are going to go a place in history where all our worst human terrors meet cold divine silence…we are going to go to Holocaust.
1: For additional readings in Psalms see Psalm 22, Psalm 88, Psalm 77:7-9
2: For more in Lamentations read Lamentations 1:11-13; 5:1-14; 5:19-22