May 21 is a dark day in my own history. Joshua died eleven years ago today at the age of sixteen. I offer this chapter out of my ebook on The Shack and spiritual recovery in his honor.
Oh, the depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
“Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?”
Romans 11:33-34 (NIV)
The death of a child, especially the brutal murder of Missy, raises passionate questions about God’s handling of the world. Mack’s “last comment” to the Triune God around the breakfast table on that first morning was something we have all thought at one time or another: “I just can’t imagine any final outcome that would justify all this” (p. 127).
There it is. Bold. In God’s face. It is almost a gauntlet challenging God’s own imagination, his own resources—his wisdom and knowledge. Can anything justify the evil in the world?
This is the problem of theodicy, that is, the justification of God. Why does God create a world in which evil is so pervasive, strong and unruly? Why does he give evil this space to grow? When a cyclone kills over 130,000 in Myanmar, an earthquake snuffs out the lives of 80,000 more in China, and a tsunami kills about 20,000 in Japan, I have little interest in defending or justifying God.
When my son 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 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 circumstance) 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 crises. My arguments will not make the difference; only God’s presence will.
I know the theodices and I have attempted them myself. Young utilizes a few of them. A free-will theodicy that roots evil in the free choices of human beings 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 that says God permits evil to develop our characters 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 pastorally inadequate and rationally unsatisfying.
My rationalizations have all shipwrecked on the rocks of experience in a hurting and painful world. The way I most often approach God in the midst of suffering is now protest, a form of lament.
Does God have a good reason for the pervasive and seemingly gratuitous 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 desperate cry of the sufferer who trusts that the Creator has good intentions and purposes for his creation. I believe there is a Grand Purpose that overcomes the Great Sadness.
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 told 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 this 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 condition. The story carries hope in its bosom and it is with hope that we grieve.
Mack could not “imagine any final outcome that would justify” all the evil in the world. This is something that Mack says before he sits on the judgment seat before Sophia, but it is a function of the judgment seat to decide what would justify evil and would not. If humans can’t imagine it, then it can’t be possible, right? And that is the crux of the problem—human imagination has become the norm rather than trusting God’s wisdom and knowledge that is beyond searching out, plotting or understanding.
Human imagination or trust in divine wisdom? Which shall we choose? The former, as a criterion, excludes the latter. The latter is patient with the former’s limitations.
But trust is the fundamental problem. At the root of distrust is the suspicion, as Papa tells Mack, “that you don’t think that I am good” (p. 126). We humans tend to trust our own imagination (or rationality) more than we trust God’s goodness. We doubt that “everything—the means, the ends, and all the processes of individual lives—is all covered by [God’s] goodness” (p. 126).
In one of the most powerful scenes in The Shack Papa acknowledges that he could “have prevented what happened to Missy.” He “could have chosen to actively interfere in her circumstance,” but he decided not to do it (p. 222). Only love enabled Mack to trust God with that decision.
We can’t imagine what could possibly justify evil? But, at one level, that is the wrong question. God’s purpose is not to justify it, but to redeem it (p. 127).
My favorite scene in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ is when Jesus, carrying the cross, falls to his knees under its weight. His mother runs to him and their eyes lock. With blood streaming down his cheeks and holding the symbol of Roman power and violence, Jesus says, “Behold, mother, I make all things new.”
This is the promise of God—a new creation, new heavens and a new earth in a new Jerusalem. There the old order will pass away and the voice of God will declare: “I am making everything new” (Revelation 21:5a).
A day is coming when there will be “no more curse” (Revelation 22:3). There will be no more darkness–the glory of God will fill the earth with light. There will be no more violence–the nations will receive healing and walk by its light. There will be no more death, mourning or tears–the Tree of Life and the Water of Life will nourish the people of God forever.
That renewal, however, is not simply future but is already present. Hope saves us even now. As the Father pours out his love into our hearts by his Spirit, includes us in the Triune fellowship at his breakfast table, and walks with us in our suffering, we can experience the joy of relationship, the peace of love and the hope of renewal.
Mack discovered it when he learned to trust. We will too.