Defending God

When a cyclone kills over 130,000 in Myanmar and an earthquake snuffs out the lives of 80,000 more in China, I have little interest in defending or justifying God.

When my son (Joshua Mark Hicks) dies of a genetic disorder after watching him slowly degenerate over ten years and I learn of the tragic death of a friend’s son (John Robert Dobbs)–both dying on the same date, May 21–I have little interest in defending or justifying God.

How could I possibly defend any of that? I suppose I could remove God from responsibility by disconnecting him from his creation but I would then still have a God who decided to be a Deist. That’s no comfort–it renders God malevolent or at least disinterested. I would prefer to say God is involved and he decides to permit (even cause–though I would have no way of knowing which is the case in any particular event) suffering. I would prefer to hold God responsible for the world he created and how the world proceeds.

I’m tired of defending him. Does God really need my feeble, finite, and fallible arguments in his defense? Perhaps some need to hear a defense–maybe it would help, but I also know it is woefully inadequate at many levels.  God does not need my defense as much as God needs to encounter people in their existential crises. My arguments will not make the difference; only God’s presence will.

I know the theodices and I have attempted them myself (see my old “rational” attempt which is on my General Articles page; I have also uploaded the companion piece on the Providence of God).  A free-will theodicy does not help me with earthquakes, genetics and cyclones; it certainly does not explain why God does not answer the prayers of his people with compassionate protection from such. A soul-making theodicy does not explain the quantity and quality of suffering in the world; suffering sometimes breaks souls rather than making them.  There are other theodicies and combinations, but I find them all existentially inadequate (which is an academic understatement!) and rationally unsatisfying.

My theodic rationalizations have all shipwrecked on the rocks of experience in a hurting and painful world. My theodic mode of encounter with God in the midst of suffering is now protest.

Does God have a good reason for the pervasive and seemingly gratutious nature of suffering in the world? I hope he does–I even believe he does, but I don’t know what the reasons are nor do I know anyone who does. My hope is not the conclusion of a well-reasoned, solid inductive/deductive argument but is rather the desparate cry of the sufferer who trusts that the Creator has good intentions and purposes for his creation.

Lament is not exactly a theodicy, but it is my response to suffering. It contains my complaint that God is not doing more (Psalm 74:11), my questions about “how long?” (Psalm 13:1), my demand to have my “Why?” questions answered (Psalm 44:24), and my disillusionment with God’s handling of the world (Job 21, 23-24). It is what I feel; it is my only “rational” response to suffering.

I realize that I am a lowly creature whose limitations should relativize my protest (as when God came to Job).  But, as with Job and the Psalmists, I continue to lament–I continue because I have divine permission to do so! Of all “people,” I must be honest with God, right? I recognize that my feeble laments cannot grasp the transcendent glory of the one who created the world and I realize that were God to speak he would say to me something of what he said to Job.  But until he speaks….until he comforts…until he transforms the world, I will continue to speak, lament and protest.

But that response is itself insufficient.  I protest, but I must also act. 

As one who believes the story of Jesus, I trust that God intends to redeem, heal and renew his world. As a disciple of Jesus, I am committed to imitate his compassion for the hurting, participate in the healing, and sacrifice for redemption. I am, however, at this point an impatient disciple.

Does this mean that there are no comforting “words” for the sufferer?  No, I think the story itself is a comfort; we have a story to tell but we must tell it without rationalizing or minimizing creation’s pain. We have a story to tell about God, Israel and Jesus. God loves us despite the seeming evidence to the contrary. God listens to our protests despite our anger and disillusionment. God empathizes with our suffering through the incarnation despite our sense that no one has suffered like we have. God reigns over his world despite the seeming chaos. God will defeat suffering and renew his creation despite its current tragic reality. The story carries hope in its bosom and it is with hope that we grieve.

My love-hate relationship with God continues…I love (trust) him despite my unbelief.  God, I believe-I trust; help my unbelief–heal my doubts.  Give light to my eyes in the midst of the darkness.

May God have mercy.



28 Responses to “Defending God”

  1.   Gardner Hall Says:

    Our efforts to explain the unexplainable are so hollow in the face of disaster. You are so wise not to rush in where angels fear to tread and I’m sure that your experiences have taught you the futility of trying to do that.

    I suppose there are two questions that pound away at us when in grief: (1) Why? and (2) How can I deal with this? The Bible simply doesn’t try to give detailed answers to the theoretical first question, but it gives an overwhelming abundance of examples and teaching about the practical second. Of course, the example of the Man of sorrows, is the most powerful balm.

    I’ve been trying to preach on this and your thoughts are extremely helpful. Thanks so much.

  2.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    Very well said post!

    Rex

  3.   Dianna Says:

    i don’t know how i ended up at your site reading “Defending God.” Things that make ya go, “hmmm”. Food for thought…real MEATY.

    God gave me a word a few years back and i want to share it with you. Go to my website and then go to the “ministry” page. Near the bottom, click on the “Word to the Bride.”

    Keep up the great writings and many blessings.

    Di

  4.   Quiara Says:

    Thank you, once again, for articulating things so succinctly and being unafraid to be real and honest about this God we love, yet do not understand. And thanks for sticking with him when he (refuses to?) doesn’t make sense.

  5. Profile photo of Matt Dabbs  mattdabbs Says:

    Is it possible to say God has all power and all wisdom and yet does not cause these things? I think so. Is it possible that these things happens and that he weeps right there along side us? I think so. I think we get ourselves in a logical bind and think that “everything happens for a reason” and that “if you wait long enough it will all make sense.” I don’t think God plays games with us like that. I do think that he is just as saddened by it all as we are. I think too often logic puts us in a trap that we cannot see our way out of but I don’t think everything has to follow logical pathways.

  6.   Quiara Says:

    Matt, if you don’t believe that God has ever caused things that we, as humans, see as “unpleasant,” “bad,” or even “evil,” you need to spend a little more time in the old testament. As C. S. Lewis said, “Sometimes it’s hard not to say ‘God forgive God’.”

  7.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    YouTube – Rubik’s cube solve 10.56 seconds

    just a little something, to put things in perspective.

    This is supposed to be a link

  8.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    I quite honestly think that God after the establishment of the church changes the way and purpose of his dealing with men and nations.
    Through Christ.
    I would need some help on this John Mark so I don’t know if I should say anything or not it just the way that I think.
    We all pretty much know about the persecutions and the Saints that went to a hideous death.
    In the establishment of the kingdom on earth.
    I don’t understand the full extent of Satan being thrown out had been spoken of as the prince of this world in any other respect than that.
    God’s purpose is to seek and save the lost through the church.
    The way I see a lot of things is a self fulfilling prophecy by men using Scripture and error, and Satan using that to distort the purpose of God. In general.

    This is a question I would like you to deal with if you have the time John Mark. There’s just a bunch of things in this new age that I just have not put together.
    Quite honestly for the last 20 years.
    I haven’t even looked at the book of Revelation.

  9.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    From the aspect of a self-fulfilling prophecy,
    again if you look toward Karl Jung. Whom I haven’t read for 30 years and his aspect of collective unconsciousness or consciousness. Can’t really remember which I’ve would presume it’s consciousness.
    Also his dream therapies and the and empirical nature of dreams and their interpretation.
    I think I can put together reasons why societies seem to be driven to such a similar (but misguided in my opinion) predisposed end and manner as was prescribed in the establishment of the kingdom prior to the enthroning of God’s Christ

  10.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    I think too often logic puts us in a trap that we cannot see our way out of but I don’t think everything has to follow logical pathways.

    mattdabbs.

    If we inherit the kingdom that is not of this world if we are preaching the kingdom that flesh and blood cannot inhabit.
    Then I would agree with Matt that the types of logic that we use is not appropriate.

    Logic is based on fulfillment of Scripture, and the evidence of Scripture being fulfilled.
    in the hope of the Scripture coming true, which demands of us to change. because of knowledge gained in Scripture being truth, and faithfulness to secure our hope.

    Blessings
    rich in California

  11. Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    Matt, I prefer to believe that everything happens for a reason or, perhaps better, God has a reason (purpose, intent, goal) in everything. I can’t give you the reason for everything, of course. But when I pray for God’s protection, when I pray for a healthy child, when I pray for (fill in the blank), I assume God has his reasons for saying “yes” or “no” or…whatever he might say. When God decides to permit he has made a decision and God’s decisions are not arbitrary–he has his purposes or reasons. That is what I trust; otherwise, God has decided to let his creation proceed without his guidance/direction and anything that happens might be outside of his sovereignty (thus, why pray?).

    Consequently, I think “why” is a legitimate (though unanswered) question. It is not answered in Scripture and it is not answered for us. We have no answers to that question, but we are given the path of trust to embrace the story of God in the world.

    So, I’m one of those who believes every event has meaning and everything has a reason.

    It seems to me that Scripture boldly teaches that God does cause some “bad” stuff–he creates trouble for his people, for example (Isaiah 45:7). God does whatever he pleases (Psalm 115:3) and it appears that it pleases him (for some reason beyond my ability to comprehend) to permit (if not cause) “bad” stuff in his creation.

    Is this limited to the Old Testament? Revelatinn assumes, it seems to me, that God still works in the world in exactly the same way he did in the Hebrew Scriptures–he works through nature, through nations, etc. God decides when the fourhorsemen will be released, when the locusts will be released, when Satan will be bound, etc. Acts 17, it seems to me, assumes God is still active in the world even setting the boundaries of nations.

    These are all difficult questions and I am confident of very few answers to them.

  12.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    You know John Mark what’s so neet about you, you’ll discuss almost anything almost never drop the ball, give us all answers from an extremely dedicated point of view, exercising kindness and prudence, and you’re not afraid to say I don’t know.
    And I’ve got a problem…
    Hope you’re having a better day today John Mark.
    Blessings
    rich in California

  13.   Quiara Says:

    I sounded harsh in my previous comment. Was not my intent. Nor did I mean to imply that those things are limited to the OT, just that since it encompasses more than 1/2 the total scripture we have, it also tends to encompass more than 1/2 of the difficult things to explain.

    I don’t know if I am a strong enough person to say that there is a reason for everything. My theology touches that, in that I believe God redeems everything eventually and I’m not afraid to take the unpleasant to the throne of God and demand (though totally aware that I will not understand), “Why??”

    I can’t say that I believe there is a reason for the death of children, the abuse of the innocent (or even of those who aren’t), the marring of the image of God in our fellow man BY our fellow man — I can’t say, from where I am, that there is a reason for it. (That doesn’t mean there isn’t; it just means I’m not there — yet, if ever.) But I believe that there is redemption for it. And possibly that redemption is all the “reason” any of us will get.

    I don’t like to believe that God allows or even sanctions the pain and suffering in the world. And I like it even less when the “world” become “my life” and touches the ones I know, the ones I love — or even myself.

    But I can’t really say he doesn’t.

  14. Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    Quiara,

    I totally understand your response. I understand the hesitation and/or inability to believe there is a reason for some of the horror in the world. This is especially so since I cannot myself think of good reasons for such. I am at a loss.

    At the same time gratituous suffering seems to fall so far outside of the sovereignty of God that I find it disconcerting. Does any suffering fall within his sovereignty? I have many questions that proceed from that one.

    I trust that God reigns over the evil in the world and for some reason (whether broad or specific) at least permits it when he could stop it at any time. At bottom, it seems to me there must be a reason since God decides (for some reason) not to stop the suffering which is something he could do and eventually will do.

    I have more questions than answers, my friend…and most of them are for God himself. :-)

  15.   Quiara Says:

    I trust that God reigns over the evil in the world and for some reason (whether broad or specific) at least permits it when he could stop it at any time. At bottom, it seems to me there must be a reason since God decides (for some reason) not to stop the suffering which is something he could do and eventually will do.

    This encapsulates what I’d hoped to say. I don’t believe in some cosmic dualism where there is God on the one hand and All Evil on the other — especially as we tend to define “evil” as “that which is unpleasant or which I do not like.” I believe God is sovereign beyond comprehension, whether I like it or not.

    All I can say is that the Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the Name of the Lord. . .

    . . . whether we (I) understand him or not.

  16.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    I don’t know if JMH remembers this or not. But he was speaking on his own spiritual journey (which involved his own experiences of suffering) at Harding Graduate School of Religion. It had been a year and a half since my son died (3 days old) and a couple of months since my younger brother died (age 29).

    My faith was at a fragile state, not because I no longer believed in God or in Jesus but because I no longer was sure whether God cared or if he cared, whether he was powerful enough to act. My quandry was that if God hears prayers (for a healthy son, for the life of my brother) then why does he not answer them. Is he not able to answer them or does he just not care? When you find yourself stuck on that question, as I was, you can see how your faith begins to crumble rather quickly. I was at a point where I no longer prayed because I was no longer sure whether my prayer mattered or not.

    So I asked JMH how do you learn to pray again. His reply was to quote Romans 8.28. That initially made me mad because I had heard so many people who know not a thing about catastrophic suffering quote that passage as though the pain of suffering go away (I still hear people say things like this). But because I knew where JMH had been, I gave him a little lattitude.

    That night I went home and read Romans ch.1-8 somewhere around ten times (I was up late at night). At last it dawned on me, God goal for me is my redemption. Romans 1-8 is the explanation of how God has and will bring about redemption for his people, both Jew and Gentile. Romans 8 ends begins with no condemnation in Christ and ends with our status as ‘more than conqueors’ in Christ. It dawned on me that the ‘good’ in Rom 8.28 is my redemption, that God is at work for my redemption. In the verse immediately proceeding v. 28, we are reminded that through the Spirit we pray (even if we do not know what we ought to pray) and God hears that prayer and thus knows what to do with it to bring about our redemption.

    That was a freeing moment and continues to be. The veil was lifted, so to speak. I still do not understand why suffering exists nor do I find it any easier to accept the death of my son and brother. BUT… I no longer needed an answer for the why (though I still do wonder why). Nor did I need to understand exactly how God was at work (as I wanted to before). I didn’t need too. Even though God was much more mystery than I had ever considered prior to the death of my son and brother, I was content with the existence of mystery because I knew (faith/trust) that God would bring about my redemption.

    It was a couple of weaks later that I learned a new hymn (actuall an old hymn) that has come to express my faith and is now a favorite of mine (of which I have yet to sing without crying), so I will leave you with two verses of that hymn to read…

    “Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side.
    Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
    Leave to thy God to order and provide;
    In every change, He faithful will remain.
    Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heavenly Friend
    Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.”

    “Be still, my soul: the hour is hastening on
    When we shall be forever with the Lord.
    When disappointment, grief and fear are gone,
    Sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
    Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past
    All safe and blessèd we shall meet at last.”

  17. Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    Rex,

    I vaguely remember that conversation. It was some time ago. I did not know I made you mad. :-) But I’m glad you opened yourself to the God who speaks through that text.

    Romans 8:28 was one of James A. Harding’s favorite texts and he outlived five of his children and one wife.

    I think you are right on about Romans 8:28. God seeks our good–and this is transformation into the image of his son (that is, redemption). To this end he fellowships with us in our suffering and the Spirit is present to groan with us, speak for us and interceed for us.

    Pneumatology is so important in this topic of suffering–it is by the power of the Spirit that hope lives in us again and it is by the work of the Spirit that we learn to pray again.

    Thanks for your extended and personal comment.

  18.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    There seems to be so much evil in the world.
    Men blowing up villages, men blowing up cities, and men abusing men and abusing children.
    also all the people dying of starvation because of bad government because of bad leadership. because it just plain evil men. we can take a trip on a jet plane and be anywhere in the world than 10 hours.
    Can we do anything about this destruction, can we do anything about the perverseness of the world can we do anything about anything other than what we think. We can turn off the TV we can turn off the radio we can turn off all of the forms of information that we have in this technologically sophisticated world of ours.
    And deal with the reality that God places right in front of our nose.
    We choose not to do that.
    I wonder why that is.
    I wonder if that has anything to do with canes response am I my brother’s keeper.

    Christ’s spirit is God’s stop loss.
    If we would accept it and believe it and realize and come to understand and accept that we are travelers in this world and we will not get out alive but we don’t die.
    I know that seems to be a problem with some
    We have faith built around Scripture, we have a God that not only numbers that hair on our heads but tries our faith.
    I understand you all have lost or most of you have lost very dear loved ones to you.
    My faith rests in the hope of eternal life through the spirit of Christ that was given to us by God.
    If I believe that then life takes on a different meaning, so does death so to sickness so does illness so does anything else that through the fear of death I was brought into slavery all my life Hebrews somewhere.
    Every step I take is guided by God and I wish I didn’t get in the way as much as I do. I am a true idiot most of the time, but I do know what I believe and it carries me through.
    I just don’t think it’s right to live in pain there’s just too much in Scripture on how to resolve it.

    If only I will ask, if only I will seek, and if only I will apply.
    accept help no matter how it comes to me.
    Just might be a circus from a man dressed in a clown suit.
    God didn’t tell me how he was going to do it.
    he just said he would.

  19.   RICH CONSTANT Says:

    p.s.
    and if the church and faithful men were actively engaged in the life of the spirit and ministering the word the way it should have been. From 280 a.d. there wouldn’t be as many evil men in this world today screwing up so many people and so many lives that we hear about on our technologically efficient media broadcasts.
    If I’m living in pain there’s a reason for it.
    And like everything else it might be that I’m unwilling to change.
    At least that’s how it works with me.
    I learned a long time ago.
    If people that love me are giving me advice and they know me very well. And it doesn’t go along with what I think.
    Chances are I wouldn’t see a clown in a clown suit at a circus eather..
    because chances are I just might be wrong and I couldn’t accept that either.

    Blessings rich in California

  20.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    I wasn’t mad as in the sense that I was ready to explode with a raging temper. It was more of the sense that I could not understand how Rom 8.28 could be your only reply, since you of all people should know what it feels like for people to proof-text certain scriptures as though they can bandage someone’s pain and expect that everything will return to Mayberry-land. Of course, I learned that that was not what you were doing.

    Rex

  21. Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    I did not think you were enraged, my friend. But I do realize how frustrating it can be for someone to throw out Romans 8:28. I am grateful that you immersed yourself in the context of Romans 1-8 and discovered how God speaks comfort there as he encounters us by his presence. Unfortunately, we sometimes hear Romans 8:28 as a proof-text from well-meaning people, but it needs to be heard–as you point out–as the conclusive verdict/trust that flows from God’s might acts for his people.

    Thanks for pushing this discussion further. I appreciate it.

  22. Profile photo of Matt Dabbs  mattdabbs Says:

    If you heard me say I don’t think God ever brings calamity or causes things we see as hurtful to come into our lives then you misread what I typed or else I didn’t say it very well in the first place. I think God does that. You see it all over the pages of the OT and the NT. To me though there appear to be events that God’s people go through that He is not intentionally purposing and putting them through but that he can use for his glory if we endure them. I don’t think that just because God may cause some of those things means he causes all of them and I think we back ourselves into a corner because logic God into such a tight box of what we think he can and cannot do that in our minds God is no longer free to do what we think can or cannot happen because it doesn’t fit our logical schemes. I think that is a dangerous place to be. For instance – God is not always fair. He chose Jacob over Esau even before they had been born or had done anything to win God’s favor. Another instance – grace. Grace is the perfect example of God working against human logic. Let’s also not forget 1 Cor 1 where Paul writes about God using foolishness to shame the wise. Just my 2 cents.

  23. Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    Thanks, Matt, for the further response. I agree that God does not necessarily cause everything–he does permit as well as cause. I don’t know how we could ever discern the difference from our end. And from our end it seems ultimately insignificant since divine permission involves a decision to permit. Consequently, God is responsible for whatever he either causes or permits. Divine responsibility is my interest in this discussion since I can’t discern when God permits or causes.

    In my book Yet, Will I Trust Him I made the same point about God’s fairness. God is not obligated to treat all his imagers alike. I think he has the same goal for all of them–communion. But how he deals with us in process toward that goal is totally his call.

    I appreciate your two cents. :-)

  24.   Jim Holway Says:

    I have been discussing some abuse situations during my childhood years with my father, an agnostic at best. My perspective of those years is that those trials helped form and mold my character into something God could use, something that would accomplish his purpose for my life as a missionary, church planter, preacher, etc. My dad’s response is, Yes, but couldn’t God have formed your character and made you into a preacher without so much pain and suffering along the way? Good question.

  25. Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    Yes, it is a good question. I have similar questions. Could not God have formed me for his purposes without the death of my wife and son?

    I don’t know the answer to that question. Was this the only way? It does not seem “reasonable” to me that it could be the only way but I don’t trust my “reason” all that much in such matters. Either way, it is what God chose and/or used.

    Character-formation (or soul-making) is not the bottom-line answer, it seems to me, for the problem of evil (though it is a popular one). It gives us significant insights, I think. It is helpful. But ultimately it is also intellecutally and emotionally unsatisfying.

    I suppose we are left with something like this: This is the way my character has been formed to this point in my life and God permitted (or perhaps chose) this mode of character-formation. It is the way he has worked in my life. I don’t like it and I would not choose it, but it is what it is….and it is something that God uses for his purposes.

    Staying story-formed, I would stress that God himself chose this for himself in Jesus. He chose to suffer with us, to be formed by suffering, to be made perfect through suffering. Jesus, then, becomes a “forerunner” or “pioneer” for us in the path to glory through suffering.

    I find “rationalizations” inadequate, but I find meaning in living within the story of Jesus….at least enough meaning to permit an opening for the exercise of faith.

    Thanks for the comment, Jim.

  26. Profile photo of Matt Dabbs  mattdabbs Says:

    One of the things that set me on a great path in my walk with Christ was the death of my grandfather. I wouldn’t dare say that God killed my grandfather in order to help me grow spiritually or even that he allowed that to happen because of my own need to grow spiritually. I think that would be incredibly self-centered if I were to think that He did.

    Without his death I would have never moved to Alabama as a teen, never gone to Harding, never married who I married or probably end up in ministry as I have. I don’t think that is why my grandfather died. I think he died because this world is not as it was intended to be and because he had cancer…not because God killed him off to advance me. The moment we start thinking everything has something to do with ourselves is the moment we miss the point.

    I often hear people say God is allowing them to go through certain things and I don’t know if that is always the case. I don’t think everything has to point back to us. It is possible God does something, allows something, or didn’t intend for something to happen at all and it have nothing at all to do with us.

  27. Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    I would suggest that it is not an either/or, but it is a both/and.

    For example, I would not agree that it is self-centered to think events have a divine intention for me unless I thought it was only about me. I would suggest that every event is multivalent–God is doing many things, at work for many purposes for many people in any particular event. I think it always has something to do with us–some intent, purpose God has for us…but not only for us but for his creation, for others involved, etc.

    I think it is insufficient to say that any particular event is fundamentally about the nature of the world as fallen. This would be especially true (though no more true, in my opinion) if prayer has petitioned God concerning “X”. When God answers “yes” or “no” or whatever he may answer, he has some intention in his answer. And thus what happens is invested with some divine intent. Prayer entails, in my opinion, that God decides to do something about what we are praying out and thus divine intent is invested in his response.

    I would not dare interpret what God has done in your life, Matt. That is for you to interpret. I can only interpret for my life, and see God’s interactive, engaging hand in all aspects of my life so that everything is invested with meaning, especially (if the other is not granted) when God and I dialogue over the future.

    Thanks for the further comment. It is good to hear varying perspectives.

  28.   James C. Guy Says:

    Sometimes there are just no answers. But, we want them. We are not satisfied without them.

    But then, faith is not believing in what we see (and know), but in what we can’t see (and know). Faith is lost in sight. We just have to trust – hard as that may be.

    I feel for John and Maggy. I talked to him that morning – mentioned Job – and couldn’t find words or answers. Faith is hard sometimes too – but it’s not only all we have – but it’s really all we need. Answers and stuff will come later.

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