Suffering abounds: how can you believe in God?
You’ve all asked this question. You have all been asked this question. Whole books have been written on it, and an entire segment of theology wrestles with it. It’s generally called theodicy or the problem of evil… or what are you smoking that you can pretend a good God exists in this world ripe with horror????
I do not intend this entry to be a greatly researched response. It is not intended to convince or convert you. I am not defending God – God never asked me to do such a thing even if I could (and I have quite a few answers I’d like to demand from God as well). Consider this post in the category of we are having coffee and you asked a genuine and reasonable question of me, and I’m offering my response. And to aid in that feeling I’ve grabbed no books, will google no replies, and have no idea what I’m about to say (okay – I’ve got an idea, it’s not the first time I’ve been asked after all… but it’s not an outlined and re-written response, its rather steam of consciousness)… after all – those are the real kind of responses aren’t they… and I kinda feel this question deserves that kind of response. (For a brief backstory this post is actually in response to a real person who asked just such a real response in a time when I didn’t have time to respond… and this is my apology of sorts.)
First of all this question brings a lot of baggage (as many questions do). And the response does as well. For instance… what God do you think I believe in? A lot of Christians believe in a lot of different gods and they all share the same name(s): God, Lord, Jesus, Yahweh (when we are trying to be clever and yet abusive to our Jewish roots at the same time)… etc. The problem is those are just words. For myself, I do not believe in a God of omnis… omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and perfectly good. That God – in my opinion – is a philosophical construct and not God. God says… I am. That’s all. I am. What is important is that God is… not that God is all-fill-in-the-blank. God just is. We many want to pin down God in words, or take great relief in the idea that we can name God as Superman without the allergies to kryptonite… but sadly God spends very little time in the scriptures I wrestle with caring about that need in us. God simply says: I am. Later God says more… like come and follow me, you are forgiven, and even – I will am dying for you. But first and foremost all God wishes to reveal is that God is. As I learn about God, in stories of the Bible, of people of faith, and in my life I come to understand more about the character of God. I come to understand what I believe I can count on. But these aren’t absolute statements… they are… feelings if you will. I am not alone… God is with me. I am worthy… God loves me. I have purpose… God invites me to join in fostering and cultivating goodness in creation.
I can’t convince anyone of these things, and I can’t convince myself either. Its faith and it isn’t a science (of course science rarely is either which is the beauty of it all). You have to experience them for yourselves. They aren’t always rational statements and no matter how well I remember my symbolic logic course from William and Mary they won’t help me with God. God just is. No, if A then B… just A. You want more, I want more. We aren’t really gonna get it no matter how loud we yell… we just have to catch those little moments, those still small voices, those rearview mirror views of God working good in our life.
The Bible is full of moments of “counter-testimony”. The Bible is gritty and it realizes the world is full of sin, evil, and suffering. The Bible says less than flattering things about God… like in Psalm 22 when the Psalmist says, “You lay me in the dust of death.” God kills with a flood and then promises never to do that ever again (everything but the, “I’ve messed up and I’m sorry.”) And quite a few people enter debates with God (and God doesn’t always win). My favorite may be when Habakkuk says (my own liberal translation), “Wait – are you the God of all those fancy omni-words… and you think that plan you just told me about is justice???? Think again… and I’ll be waiting here to see that you figure out something more in line with the whole good God thing.”
The first side of our problem when we wonder how we can believe in God in the midst of a world with suffering is what we believe ABOUT God. What God do you believe in? Philosophic constructs fail… even God ones, the moment you see a child dying of cancer, or the devastation the natural world wreaks upon itself and us, or see hard-work loving people who live life with a black cloud not of their making over their heads wherever they turn those constructs are just so much dust.
I do not believe in a perfect God. I believe that God is larger than I can fathom in a world more complex than I can even see. I believe this God is good (though what that means I don’t know… it certainly doesn’t mean what I would like it to mean) and that for reasons I cannot fathom God doesn’t just answer the world’s ills. And as much as I’d like the kind of answers Job and his friends wanted… God doesn’t give them. And that is okay with me. I’m okay with a God that cannot be fully known. I’m okay that there are answers I demand that God won’t answer. God’s people suffer and God suffers too. God hears cries and responds… God is at work in the world. But sometimes that work is too little and too late. (Guess what… I too hear cries. I do too little too late. Does this get God off the hook? No way. But I realize I need to make sure I’m not trying to hold God more accountable than myself either… and that’s a pretty big thought so we’ll leave it at that for now – but I had to mention it so sorry for the interruption.)
Jesus weeps when Lazarus dies… and weeps when he enters Jerusalem… and asks to not have to die right before he is arrested… and moans about being forsaken by his father in the midst of death. Crap… and now he’s being mocked because no omni-God-father is rescuing him now. Jesus suffers… God suffers too. And it’s all pretty shitty. I know… I know… that offends some of you but really I hope it’s the reality that offends and not my language because any less of a word doesn’t feel like enough for me as I see billions of faces transposed onto the cross suffering and not being rescued……….
I believe Jesus rose from the dead. Its foolish. It really is. But I believe Jesus rose from the dead and that with it Jesus raises hope. Jesus raises hope that shitty isn’t all there is to say. That God is walking alongside us, willing to suffer with us, and hoping too that justice can be done, that peace can be a reality and not just a beauty queen answer, and that death will be no more. No more. A pipe dream? Yup – God’s pipe dream. And I believe God is at work in the world making it reality and that its taking longer than I would like but it still the goal and that primary way God is doing that is by getting you and I to do it.
I believe God is at work in the world through you. And me… and all people. I think God doesn’t really care if you believe that statement or not. And many other Christian opinions aside I think God calls good anyone adding good into the world be they Buddhist, Muslim, Atheist, or Jew. And so I believe in God because I believe in you. All evidence to the contrary I believe in me. All suffering and evil and crappy shit right in front of me I believe in humanity, because God believe in us even after all this time. That chicken and the egg logic… yup it is – but I believe it. I stake my life on it.
Do I make sense to you? Probably not. Wish I could be clearer? I do too. But my coffee is cold (this happens to me ALL the time), and it’s all beyond me anyway –and there is beauty to that too (which I miss much of the time but can see now and then when I’m willing). There is more to be said of course, and less to be said… I invite you to say it all and none in the comments. It’s meant to be a coffee conversation after all. Thanks for joining me. Thanks be to God, for you for me and for this world that isn’t what I’d want it to be but is still worth living in! Amen.