THE DARK SIDE OF GOD: WHY INNOCENT PEOPLE SUFFER
Job 9:1-2, 16-24
“I am blameless … therefore I say [God] destroys both the blameless and the wicked. When disaster brings sudden death, God mocks at the calamity of the innocent.”
This is terrifying! Job tells us that God delights in the suffering of innocent people. Do you believe it? – Probably not, or you wouldn’t be here. But do you fully disbelieve it? Was God responsible for the Holocaust, for 9/11, Hurricane Isabel, and the war in Iraq? How do you explain innocent suffering to those who want to use it as proof that God doesn’t exist, or … worse, that God is hateful and cruel?
The Book of Job, which is included in the lectionary for all of October, is a study of what is known as the theodicy question, which is the most – the truly gut – issue in theology. Theodicy literally means “divine justice,” but a clearer statement is this: if God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving, then why do innocent people suffer? Why doesn’t God just fix things? Another way of asking it is: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” The philosopher Huston Smith has said that the fundamental difference between religions is in how they explain the theodicy question. Job’s story is a most eloquent, if perplexing, examination of innocent suffering, for, although Job is defined as blameless and God-fearing, he nonetheless suffers mightily.
At the risk of over-simplification, there seem to be six standard responses to the theodicy question, specifically:
1. Absence: cause and effect is based solely on natural causes. No God, no divine justice, no theodicy problem.
2. Dualism: there is an all-knowing, all-loving, and mostly all-powerful God, but he or she is opposed by the devil or other supernatural evil forces. While it flies in the face of a true monotheism, dualism is a philosophically cogent explanation of the universe.
3. Original or human sin: there is no innocent suffering, because there is no innocence. Humans are selfish, stupid, and flawed. This is the underlying theology of many of the Hebrew prophets, who blamed the Assyrian conquest and the Babylonian exile on the ungodly behaviors of the Jewish people. St. Augustine and Calvin came up with this concept toward the ends of their lives, mostly because it was the only viable explanation for innocent suffering they could find. This was the same argument used by Pat Robertson in blaming God’s “curse” of 9/11 on the “loose morals” of our country, particularly among homosexuals. This is also the primary explanation used by Job’s friends. God is all good; therefore, Job must have done something to deserve his punishment.
4. What I call an “incomplete deity” suggests that God is not all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving. God may have one or two of these characteristics, but not all three. In the beginning, Job decides that, while God is all-powerful and all-knowing, but most decidedly unloving – a terrifying combination. Others, including many of the intellectuals of the Enlightenment believed that God is good, but cannot or will not interfere in human events to the extent that we might like. Holocausts and tyrants come and go, and God suffers as much as we do. At least one leg of the perfect wisdom-love-power triangle is missing. God is incomplete.
5. Incomplete understanding is the idea that suffering is temporary and the joys of heaven make up for any undeserved grief on earth. This belief is central to Christianity, Islam and, to a lesser extent, Judaism. The Hindus have a particularly elegant explanation, for they believe that we are reborn into higher or lesser animals, or happier or sadder individuals, based on the sum total of previous lives, of which we are ignorant. Although himself a Protestant, Max Weber, the noted philosopher of the last century, felt that reincarnation offered the best explanation for the theodicy question.
6. The last possibility is that suffering is good for us. This is the argument of St. Paul in the epistle. He notes – quite correctly, I think – that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” This explanation offers two great benefits: it allows us to honor God in a way that is fairly charitable and thus to our liking. Also, it squares with our experience – perhaps not completely, but to a great extent. The longer we live, the more likely we are to have stories about how an event that seemed horrible at the time was, in fact, a catalyst to something quite wonderful. For Buddhists, suffering is one of the keys to enlightenment.
So let’s see what’s going on with Job. In the first verse of the first chapter, he is identified as one who fears God and turns away from evil. But then God allows Satan to test Job, for, as we all know, it is easy to be good when life is comfortable, but a different story altogether when things go sour. Job’s animals and servants are killed off by a fire from heaven, his children are killed off by marauders and mighty winds, and finally, sores and boils cover his body, causing great pain. Job’s plight is made more miserable by a bunch of so-called “friends” who explain God’s justice by blaming Job. They resort to the usual tactics: they argue theology, they explain what cannot be explained, they pronounce judgment. They do what most of us do: they blame the victim. Their pompous platitudes only serve to make Job angrier – both at them and at God. Finally, Job has had enough; he stops talking about God and talks instead to God. He challenges God with unbridled venom. In his rage and confusion, Job yells: “Damn you, God, explain yourself!”
And what does God do? God appears in a whirlwind. God becomes present. God speaks to Job and argues, “My ways are not your ways. Don’t try to understand what is not in your power to comprehend.” Then God restores Job to his original state, but even better, with more lands, and more children. God also castigates the friends for presuming to know what God’s intentions were; in fact, they are forced to eat a healthy amount of humble pie. And so, unless you were one of Job’s first children or servants, you recognize this as a happy ending.
But let’s go back to the question of innocent suffering. What explanation works for you? The simplest answer is that God does not exist. The second easiest possibility is that competing forces of good and evil determine causality as we know it. These are plausible answers that have been held by some of the greatest thinkers throughout history. But if you want more, then you will have to take a leap of faith – and this means that its validity is based on a truth that is singularly yours.
I believe that one’s answer to the theodicy question is, in the end, a gut decision, predicated on experience, not reason. After years of fruitless study, I came to understand innocent suffering within the larger context of an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving God, but only because God gave me my own “whirlwind-like” experiences with which to integrate previous grievances. Before I explain more, I need to reassure you that I have two wonderful children – both in college, both doing extremely well. But, nearly 25 years ago, I gave birth to a daughter who had a heart defect that should have been correctable, but wasn’t. For three months, I sat with her in the ICU of Children’s Hospital while she went through numerous and painful operations. This, as you can imagine, is when my interest in theodicy changed from being somewhat academic to very personal indeed.
Like Job, I racked my brains for every sin – mortal or venial, known or unknown. None of them justified this kind of response on God’s part. Perhaps I had not prayed hard enough; perhaps I didn’t believe as fully as I ought. Yet, even if I had done something wrong, there is no way that God’s punishment should be exacted on this innocent child. Yes, I could admit the theoretical value of suffering, but theory wasn’t cutting it for me. At her funeral, one cousin said that God loved my daughter so much that he wanted her up in heaven with him. Knowing that she meant to comfort, I smiled, but thought: “Who would want to worship a God like that?” Loving intentions but lousy ministry and God-awful theology.
Eventually, I came to an understanding of an all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful God because God sent a few whirlwind-like experiences my way. My vision grew such that I could recognize God in the golden light of an autumn afternoon, in a haunting mist trapped in low mountain valleys, in a perfect spider web encased in the early morning dew. I learned that God is present in dreams, in the unexpected kindness of a stranger, in the chortle of a toddler upon learning a new skill, in the tough love of a friend who forces us to a new understanding of ourselves. Once I learned to recognize God’s presence in the world and people around me, I found comfort.
And so I believe that there are two key lessons from the Book of Job. The first is theological: experience trumps dogma hands down. Job’s posited authority in experience, in the reality of God that he knew in his life. His “friends,” on the other hand, relied on dogma: “This is what we have been told; this is what we want to believe.” God honored Job as speaking truth, and castigated the friends for talking about that which they did not understand. So never replace your personal knowledge of God with other people’s theology about God.
The second lesson of the Book of Job is in the practical advice that God offers on how to comfort friends and family who are suffering. God does only thing possible: God becomes present in the whirlwind. The theodicy (divine justice) issue is answered with a theophany (divine presence). Consider also Holy Communion: in a few minutes, we will re-enact Jesus’ last supper with his friends, in which he taught them to recognize him – his body and his blood – his real and ongoing presence – during their future meals together. Today, Christians all over the world are celebrating World Communion. Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians believe that Jesus is literally present in the bread and wine; most of us do not. Yet we can recognize Jesus’ spiritual presence as a theophany, realizing that the Last Supper was instituted by Jesus to provide comfort to his disciples, then and now. As Christians, this is our call also: to be present, without words, without explanations.
Thus the real value of suffering is that it allows us to be instruments of God’s love. In that sense, Paul was right: suffering is good for us because it feeds the spark of divinity within each of us. Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope makes for a better world. As someone who lived in Washington, D.C. and worked in New York City just after 9/11, I can attest to the fact that people acted, well – divinely – to one another. It was a pleasure to drive in the city for all the courtesy and graciousness displayed. Donations of food appeared at every fire and police station all along the East Coast. I saw a woman go up to a postal worker with tears in her eyes to offer sympathy for the anthrax deaths and to thank him for the job he did. Anyone who was here during the Loma Linda earthquake probably knows what I’m talking about in saying that suffering often brings out the best within us.
I also agree with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who argues that God is incomplete by choice. Here are his words: “The God that I worship is a strange God. Because it is God who is omnipotent, all-powerful, but [it] is also God who is weak. An extraordinary paradox: that it is God, a God of justice, who wants to see justice in the world. But because God has such a deep reverence for our freedoms all over the place, God will not intervene, like sending lightning bolts to dispatch off all despots. God waits for God's partners: us. God has a dream. God has a dream of a world that is different, a world in which you and I care for one another because we belong in one family. And I want to make an appeal on behalf of God. God says, ‘Can you help me realize my dream? My dream of a world that is more caring, a world that is more compassionate, a world that says people matter more than things. People matter more than profits. That is my dream,’ says God. ‘Will you please help me realize my dream – I have nobody, except you.’”
So consider the good news: while we may not find any rational explanations for the question of innocent suffering, there is an answer, and we are it. In God’s dream, we have been chosen us for the starring role. God loves us and needs us and will always be there to comfort us. No greater honor hath anyone! Amen.