May 21, 2001 and May 21, 2008 have something in common. Those are the days on which our children died–my son Joshua and John & Maggy Dobbs’ son John Robert. The memories are painful and today we will each remember, commemorate and reflect.
I pray for peace for John & Maggy today, but I know it will come with great difficulty if at all. They will remember as they determine. I will remember today by going to the grave of my son, sitting in my chair and writing in my journal. It is a beautiful day today. While I usually resist visiting the grave, today I am drawn to it and see the blue skys as hopeful, life-giving and calming.
In memory of Joshua Mark Hicks and John Robert Dobbs, I am republishing a post from May 24, 2008 which expresses my own protest, pain and disillusionment after I learned of John Robert’s accident. It still rings true for me.
May the God of peace and comfort be with you all–the world is much too broken to live in it alone.
John Mark Hicks
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 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 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 God. Does God really need my feeble, finite, and fallible defensive arguments? 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 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 God does–I even believe God 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 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) though not minimize it. 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 God would say to me something of what he said to Job. But until God speaks….until God comforts…until God 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 the 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 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.