GOD AS PARENT
A wonderful thing happened to me when I became a parent. I realized that if God is to be understood as a loving father or mother certain things must be true:
· As our parent God does not want us to suffer.
· As our parent God cannot always protect us and our suffering causes God profound anguish.
· God would rather be the sufferer than watch us suffer for even a minute because that’s how a loving parent feels.
· God cries with us; God is reaching out to console and support us.
· We will always be loved by God; we can never lose God’s love whatever we do even if we move away and break off contact.
· And however old we get we will always be God’s son or daughter.
“I’m sorry but this doesn’t help me much,” you might respond, “What about the omniscience and omnipotence of God? Can’t God make it so that we don’t have to suffer?”
This is a question as old as philosophy itself. It is referred to as the Problem of Evil. The traditional formulation of the Problem of Evil and Suffering goes something like this:
i If God is all good and loving then God does not want us to suffer.
ii If God is all-powerful then God has the ability to make a perfect world in which pain and suffering do not exist and people always choose good over evil.
iii But yet we are suffering.
iv So we have to conclude, either God is not all good and loving, or God is not all-powerful, or there is no God.
WHY DO WE SUFFER?
There are many traditional attempts at solving this conundrum; they are referred to as theodicies and include some of those unhelpful things that people tend to say to us at wakes or whenever something bad happens: Suffering makes you stronger; God is teaching you a lesson; God is punishing you for your sins, after all none of us are innocent before God; It’s all just part of God’s plan, part of the “Big Picture,” and everything happens the way it was meant to; Suffering is a mystery that we will never understand in this life because we are not God. Job was given this last answer when he eventually received a response form God, but then Job eventually got back double what God had taken from him. Apparently his suffering was just a test of faith all along. I don’t see God building people two new houses for every one they lost. But Job didn’t believe in heaven, Is the theological response, so the author had to show that God was fair to Job in this life. The implication for us being, God will make everything right in heaven. I don’t know about you but I need something a bit more than that to keep me going right now. And having a flood free city in heaven isn’t much consolation to those of us who have lost photo albums, and baby books, and Grandmother’s jewelry, furniture, clothes and perhaps our whole house.
There is no answer to the Problem of Evil that works in every situation, and sometimes people’s answers can be quite hurtful. Like the situation of a mother who has just lost a two-year old child to cancer and is told by a well-meaning friend, Well at least you are young enough to have another child. Maybe God just wanted you to learn something from this to help you be a better parent next time. This scenario actually happened to a friend of mine. But can we imagine that our God—Jesus’ Abba/ Father, the Psalmist’s Good Shepherd, Isaiah’s Mother nursing her child at her breast—would want a child to get cancer because the mother needs to learn to be strong or to be a better person? Would our God send us Hurricane Katrina as a punishment for our sins or to teach us the importance of people over possessions? What about the innocent children? And what about the hundreds who drowned or died of heat exhaustion on crowded interstate overpasses or had heart attacks because of stress? What lessons was God teaching them? Did they die to test our faith?
DID JESUS GIVE US AN ANSWER?
As Christians we have to turn to Jesus and not Noah or Job for our answers. Despite what some evangelicals are saying, Katrina was not a punishment for homosexuality, promiscuity and gambling! If so, shouldn’t there have been a world-wide flood like in Noah’s time? [ Humorous interjection: What did Noah tell the rabbits? “Only two, only two!” Bill Cosby ]
Unfortunately for Christians Jesus didn’t give us an answer to the problem of evil as such, but he did give us two responses to the issue. First, he showed us how to respond to suffering with grace and faith, even when things seem to make no sense and we don’t deserve what is happening. Second, Jesus gave us a parable on the unreasonable and foolish love God has for us. We all know the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but have you ever noticed how gullible, how weak the father seems to be? He lets his son take his inheritance and fritter it away. And every night he walks out to the crossroads hoping and praying to see his son on the road home. And when his son does return home at last — poor, hungry, and asking for help — the father doesn’t punish him. He doesn’t even say, I knew you were a good-for-nothing. I told you, you couldn’t make it on your own. What does this foolish, doting father do? Certainly not what was just according to the law, or even fair according to Martha Stewart’s parenting rules. He ignores his “good” son and throws his wayward, selfish son a party for which he spares no expense. His love for the wayward son is greater than any wrong his son has committed. This is how Jesus portrays God. All the bad son had to do was turn back to his father and make that journey home and all was forgiven. In fact the son had already been forgiven, but he couldn‘t experience that forgiveness until he made the decision to be reconciled with his father. What a wonderful, foolish love the father had for his son. Imagine how his neighbors would have ridiculed him and how the teachers of the law would have heaped disdain on him.
SO WHERE DOES THAT LEAVE US? WHO’S IN CHARGE? WHO’S TO BLAME?
Where does the Prodigal Son story leave us? Personally I just can’t fit this Abba/ Father God that Jesus reveals to us with a God whose Big Plan includes children dying of cancer, hundreds drowning in floods, thousands losing their homes, their jobs, their businesses, their communities, thousands dying in earthquakes. Instead of teaching us why we suffer, Jesus’ answer to the Problem of Evil involves showing us the kind of person we are called to be in response to suffering, and the kind of God Jesus wants us to believe in.
But if God is so loving and concerned why isn’t nature perfect instead of chaotic and destructive? And if God isn’t responsible for hurricanes and floods then who or what is? Is life just a random, chaotic set of events with no distinguishable pattern or plan? More on the nature of the created order and on God as the author of creation in “ Is God in Charge?”