When Bad Things Happen

March 2, 2008

In thinking about “breaking through the wall” in our understanding of faith, we encounter the very difficult question of what to do when bad things happen. The list of “bad things” is very long indeed (pain, illness, suffering, death, poverty, grief, loss, loneliness, tension, heartache – the list goes on and on) and it is simply part of the human experience that they do, indeed, happen. In fact, last week we commissioned several groups who, at the present time, are in different places around the country on mission and service trips. One of the groups is a hurricane-relief group and is in Cameron, Louisiana – the very place where Hurricane Rita came to ground and, shortly thereafter, Hurricane Katrina passed through. Devastation there is extraordinary. How can we talk about God using terms like “love”, “grace”, “compassion”, etc. and, at the same time, see things like the effects of the hurricanes in the world around us? Wouldn’t it be helpful if we could understand why bad things happen?

A news article featured James Campbell, Professor of Philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology, discussing the death of his eight year old son in a traffic accident for which nobody was at fault. He is cited as saying, “My son’s death was just meaningless. If we can anchor our grief in meaning and make it serve a greater purpose, then we can make sense of it … but with my son’s death, I could make no sense out of it.”

It is the fact that we can “make no sense out of it” that is so troubling to us, whatever the “it” might be in our own lives. How do we actually “make sense” out of things? One way of understanding how that might work comes from the realm of process psychology and we can illustrate the basic ideas as follows:

1. Life is a set of processes and encounters that occur over the years and we can represent as these blue circles:

2. When one event happens, it helps us make sense of another – for example, we might understand what it means to love someone because we experienced love from our parents – and so the events that make up our lives are joined into a web in which understanding and meaning comes from the connections. The more we can connect any given circle into the web, the more we “understand” it and find meaning in it:

3. When something occurs that does not fit into our web of experiences at all – like the death of child as described by Prof. Campbell – then it is as if we suddenly find that there is an outlying experience not connected into our web and so absolutely inexplicable to us. It simply makes no sense at all:

4. As time goes on and we have new experiences, our web grows and grows, as shown here:

5. It is possible that one of these new experiences might allow a connection to make with the outlying, inexplicable experience that had made no sense to us:

6. If that happens, we might then say that we are beginning to “make sense” of what happened. In fact, the saying “time heals all things” might be understood in this way.

7. The problem for us is to recognize that we have a certain experience of God and that we have an experience of pain and suffering in the world, and to ask what might be the connector that links them together in our web so we can make sense of what we actually experience?

We can summarize a few of the possibilities that theologians and philosophers have devised over the years and see if any of them are helpful to us:

#1.The issue of “God’s will versus free will” – If we truly have “free will” then we have the option to make choices that lead to pain and suffering. Augustine had thoughts on this option, as follows:

• God has judged that human free will is worth the price of the pain and suffering that we experience in the world.
• God created a more-perfect universe by allowing for the occurrence of evil

Alvin Plantinga, a theologian who has worked extensively on this issue, wrote, “It is possible that God cannot create a world in which all free agents voluntarily choose to do right”.

#2. The issue of character and “soul” – here the basic idea is that we “grow” as individuals and as a community through pain and suffering and so it actually has a “good side”:

• Pain and suffering develop character (Irenaeus)
• Pain and suffering result in “soul making” (John Hicks)

Of course, this raises the issue of whether there are other ways to “grow my soul/character” that do not involve having eight year old children die?

#3. The issue of God’s power – here the question is raised as to the “omnipotence” of God. If God is not actually “all powerful” then perhaps evil occurs and God is powerless to stop it. Such ideas are part of the theology of Charles Hartshorne and others (process theology) in which it is said that God participates in, but does not absolutely determine, the outcome of every process in the universe. Hence, God never coerces outcomes and so is no
t responsible when those outcomes result in pain and suffering.

#4. The issue of God’s knowledge – If God does not “know” (or determine) the future, perhaps God does not know with certainty that a bad outcome will occur when a specific event takes place? In open theism it is asserted that God is unchanging in love but otherwise acts responsively in the universe. God therefore does not know and cannot know the future perfectly (there is a tricky issue here called “middle knowledge” which might suggest that God knows the present so perfectly that God can speak of the future with the appearance of knowing exactly what will happen but in fact is speaking simply with a high level of confidence based on probabilities). So, if God does not know what will happen in all situations, God cannot stop bad things from happening.

Here we have sketched out four of the ways people think about God while acknowledging the reality of pain and suffering in the world:

#1. The issue of “God’s will versus free will”
#2. The issue of character and “soul”
#3. The issue of God’s power
#4. The issue of God’s knowledge

While these ideas are perhaps helpful in some ways, it seems that in the case of the pointless death of a young child, God “gets off on a technicality” when it comes to understanding pain and suffering. Are there other possibilities? One way forward might be to acknowledge that the story of our faith comes not from theology and philosophy textbooks but rather is contained in the Biblical narrative. In the Biblical narrative:

• A “father-son relationship” between God and Jesus is described
• The crucifixion is an example of intense pain and suffering
• The crucifixion event thus places God in the same position as a parent who has lost a child.

Perhaps, based on a narrative approach, we might see that even though very few people are able to relate to a parent who has lost a child, God surely does. Perhaps pain and suffering provide humanity with a unique means of identifying with Christ, and therefore of knowing something of God. Perhaps without pain and suffering, knowledge of God would be flawed. When people talk of coming closer to God through a tragedy, perhaps this is what they mean.

When we asked the question earlier about what might connect our experience of God with an experience of pain and suffering, we illustrated the situation this way:

Perhaps the answer to that question looks like this:

Why have theologians and philosophers been reluctant to embrace such an idea? The answer is that this understanding of God suggests that God is “changed” by the events of the world. God actually “suffers” alongside us.

While we of course acknowledge that speaking of God “suffering” is to attribute human emotions to God (and hence is an anthropopathism – essentially a metaphor), perhaps (using words I read recently that stuck in mind even though the title of the book did not) such descriptions are “the least inadequate way of speaking about God”. To say that God “suffers” presents a challenge to the idea that God is perfect in all ways. It challenges the idea of God’s impassibility (changelessness). It asserts that God is immanent in the world in ways that allow the world to affect God, as well as ways that allow God to affect the world. Many of these ideas are problematic in classical theological and philosophical understandings of God. But they are less problematic in the light of the Biblical narrative. If we are willing to step into that narrative for a moment we encounter a God who changes often (if we are inside the narrative we can simply ask Abraham, who bargained with God, or Jonah who saw God “repent” of a choice to smite Nineveh) and who is certainly affected by the world (God gets angry with his people, for example).

Perhaps when we are in pain and when we encounter suffering, it is the God of the Biblical narrative that makes most sense to us and with whom we can resonate most closely. It is the God of the 23rd Psalm who walks alongside us when we encounter the deep, dark valleys in life:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul: He guides me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: You have anointed my head with oil; My cup runs over.
Surely goodness and loving kindness shall follow me all the days of my life; And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

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