What I want to share with you this morning, is not linked to the lectionary reading, and its not necessarily a seasonal theme, though it perhaps has links to themes we often consider in early November as you will see. However, it is an issue that I have been mulling over for months, if not years and one which comes up repeatedly as problem for the Christian faith time and time again. Why does a loving God allow bad things to happen, particularly to good or innocent people. It is if you like, the ultimate “old Chestnut” of theology, and perhaps the hardest nut to crack. The first thing I want to say, is – please don’t hold your breath! I don’t believe I have any miraculous insights into this problem, I would just like to share with you my musings and hope perhaps they may aid your thinking and in turn I would love to hear how you think this issue through yourself.
So why does a good and loving God allow bad things to happen. There is one approach to this question which perhaps in the church we have been encouraged to take. That is: it is beyond our understanding. In the reading from Job, at least part of what God is saying to Job after his long litany of complaint, is “What do you know!”
This may ultimately be true, however, it is an approach which wont endear us to anyone struggling with the issue as many do and finding it a barrier to faith. “Why does God allow suffering? Don’t worry your pretty head about it – you just wouldn’t understand it! Leave it to God” It doesn’t seem to me to be productive line of argument. We have God given powers of curiosity, reason and intelligence and I believe it is right to question, argue, and ponder these matters.
So this question of why does God allow suffering or more specifically how we try to answer this, is in fact an ancient one and the issue significant enough within theology to even have a word that defines it Theodicy. Theodicy as defined by Wikipedia is “attempting to answer the question why a good God permits the manifestation of evil” The term theodicy should you be interested was coined by the German philospher Leibniz in 1710 – in an essay attempting to rationalise the Goodness of God, the freedom of humans and the origin of evil. The philospher Voltaire who many will have heard of criticised his attempt at rationalisation in a poem about the suffering of people in a massive earthquake in Lisbon in 1755 when it has been estimated that possibly as many as 100,000 people died.
One way of framing this problem is that there are three statements that, according to logic, cannot all be true:
1) Bad things happen in the world, including to good and innocent people
2) God is all loving
3) God is all powerful
So something has got to give, yes?
First statement, So bad things happen, this is a given, that no one can dispute. Some bad things like earthquakes and some illnesses are beyond our control. Some bad things such as wars and violence are the hurtful actions of humans on each other – though we might still ask the question. Why does God allow it. I included in the old testament reading, in addition to the familiar retort of God to Job “where were you!”, an earlier passage by Job outlining his witness of the injustices of people to each other. Some the descriptions reminded me of the plight of the Syrian refugees in parts of Turkey, Greece and Croatia. “At night they sleep with nothing to cover them. They are drenched by the rain that falls on the mountains and they huddle besides the rocks for shelter.” We see it or hear of it in the news, we each have examples in our own lives and lives of those close to us, of pain, of catastrophe, of injustice, of the unfairness of life.
So this first statement, there is really no getting around it!
The second statement: God is a loving God. A loving God should not allow bad things to happen. Unless perhaps God is causing these bad things to happen as punishment. The old Testament is full of stories of how God punishes people for their wrong doing. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti the former baptist minster and presidential hopeful in the USA Pat Robertson, declared that the earthquake was Gods judgement on the Haitians who had formed a pact with the devil in order to liberate themselves from their French slave owners in the 1700s.
I don’t know about you, but for me the stories of Gods vengence in the Old Testament are hard often to understand other than as broad narratives about how people turn to or away from God. I then take most of my inspiration from the New testament and from Jesus as the true picture of God, as the embodiment of Love.
The passage from Luke is a curious one and is not found in any of the other gospels. Apparently there is a disaster in Siloam, a tower falls killing many people, perhaps many of whom were devout or innocent and so the age old question is debated by the disciples. Jesus initial response is quite clear. Were those who where killed particularly bad and was this a judgement on them. No. That’s pretty clear. But then he almost appears to contradict himself “but if you don’t turn from your sins, you too will die as they did” Im not dodging this bit, but Im going to come back to it later….
If then, God is not love itself, then I for one, I afraid, would be through with the whole God thing. But, I strongly believe that God is love, and that statement is another given or should be.
So we are left with the statement about power. On the one hand we used to the concept of God being all powerful. The concept is important in many songs and hymns. One of my favourite hymns is a Charles Wesley one “God of all Power and truth and grace”.
Is God omnipotent? Is God not all powerful? I may be treading on theological dodgy territory, but I wonder if its worth considering what we mean by powerful. Paul in Corinthians talks of Gods “weakness” being greater than human strength. The Christ child of the nativity, the form God enters the world, a helpless babe, and even as an adult not immune to death albeit tempoarily.
When Jesus says, “unless your turn from your sins you too will suffer the fate of those who died in the Siloam tower disaster” he is presumably referring to the eternal life to be found in God. “Whoever believes in God will have eternal life”. But perhaps in turning from our sins, we need to realise the Power of God in our hands.
I suppose I have never believed in a God intervening in the world as a Monty Pythonesque mighty finger to squash our foes, or to pinch out growing tumours in reponse to a prayer. It may be bordering on the heretical but I strongly believe that the power of God is vested in us. If there are evil and bad things happening is it not down to our failings to be inspired by the love of God and create a better world. I am a clinical scientist by profession and try to use my skills to assist doctors in the diagnosis and treatment of infection. As human beings we are responsible for so much of the suffering and hurt in our world, do we not have God-given skills to find cures, to mitigate damage, to look after this world for everyone. But I am not quite naïve enough to think that if only everyone pulled their weight and worked for health and peace that all of the problems of the world would vanish. Ultimately there is a limit to what we can do, ultimately there are bound to be horrific events that are no ones fault, that could not have been predicted, that no one can do anything about. What then.
In ancient days theodicy was about questioning God, and asking why he allowed the bad things to happen. In more recent centuries, it has been about saying if bad things happen, then how can we believe in God?
What has been interesting for me reading the theological debate about theodicy, is that there has been a move away from the whole issue in recent years in an anti-theodicy movement, particularly coming from Jewish theologians after the holocaust of the second world war. This approach protests against the experience of evil to God, but must come from a persons belief in and love of God. Its perhaps about recognising that the 30 or so chapters of Jobs complaints and protests against injustice are not just there to be knocked down but Gods rebuttal but represent a true and meaningful part of our relationship with God.
The contemporary philospher Nick Trakakis has suggested that “theodical discourse can only add to the world’s evils, not remove or illuminate them.”
The American Theologian Wendy Farley believes that “a desire for justice” and “anger and pity at suffering” should replace “theodicy’s cool justifications of evil”.
Ultimately, this dilemma is one that tests our faith, and for some people is a barrier to faith. The atheist and the sceptic will say, but of course there is an easy way to resolve your dilemma. There is no God, its not theodicy, its idiocy! Bad things happen because the world is an intrinsically chaotic place and because people are just horrible to each other a lot of the time and reasons for that we can leave to the sociologists.
What I hope and pray is that I would respond to this by saying, Ill show you God, despite a world of evil and suffering, and for me the key is a phrase that we often sing and many of us will know well, and its in latin! Ubi charitas, Deus ibi est. Where there is love, there is God. Its not actually from the bible, it comes apparently from some ancient roman catholic liturgy, but in many ways it sums up the gospels in a single phrase. Where there is love, there is God. But the order of this motto is so important, its not where there is God there is love, but where there is love, there is God, God is if you like, defined by love, and this then makes it a potentially, but wonderfully dangerous maxim.
A stridently atheistic university professor spends more time than she needs to working with a student with is struggling with his course because his mother is dying of cancer.
Ubi caritas deus ibi est
A synagogue offers office space to a mosque that has suffered a fire and is struggling to cope to provide services to its congregation.
Ubi caritas deus ibit est
A convicted murderer having served his time, sets out to work with deprived children in the community
Ubi caritas deus ibi est
The people of a church decide its better to intercept food going to waste and offer meals on a pay as you feel basis
Ubi caritas deus ibi est
We, each of us, experience a kindness from an unexpected source
Ubi caritas deus ibi est
If your head is spinning with all this theology and counter-theology, I don’t blame you, I realised I may have bitten off more than I can chew soon after I started writing this sermon!
But let me leave you with two suggestions:
Its ok and it’s good to protest, to God against all the suffering of the world, and importantly to the world against the injustices of our time, and to recognise our role in them.
And then, if you can, still believe in the ultimate love of God.
And if you can see God in the acts of love amidst the pain and the injustice, the acts of love that never cease to surprise us in the people around us, if you can experience the love, the unconditional love of God through the acts of others.
Then you can say with the philosopher Jung when asked if he believed in God “ I don’t need to believe, I know!”