Can We Justify God?

Joshua, my son, you would have been 30 today.  I miss you, and yearn to hold you again.  One day….yes, one day.  Till then, rest peacefully. [I have republished this in honor of the anniversary of his birth on Feb. 17.]

Joshua died  at the age of sixteen. I offer this chapter out of my book 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.

22 Responses to “Can We Justify God?”

  1.   Keith Brenton Says:

    Thank you for this comfort today.

  2.   Warren Baldwin Says:

    Thank you, John Mark.

  3.   Ben May Says:

    Thanks for this wisdom, John Mark.

  4.   Jeff Slater Says:

    Thanks for this, Bro. It comes at a good time for me.

  5.   Randall Says:

    Read this again and I thank you for dealing so honestly with the issues and sharing with us.

  6.   Terrell Lee Says:

    Oddly, even when God sort of explains or defends himself, it often leaves us mystified. If God is comfortable with that, perhaps I can also learn to tolerate mystery in faith. But it’s not easy.

  7.   Eric Hancock Says:

    Mr. Hicks, despite your disavowal of theodicies, you have provided one here, if we are to pay attention to Leibniz’s proposal of what theodicies are: to argue for God’s likely existence in the face of suffering and evil. Your stance, it seems to me, rests on two legs: 1) we cannot understand God’s ways; and 2) all will be made well in the end.

    As you may readily admit, your offer of comfort is not new. Neither are the criticisms of it. Among them are:

    a) it goes down easier if one is white and at least middle class. It’s categorically more difficult if one, when they think of grandparents, great-grandparents, and ancestors who lived whole, short lives in chains and physical violence, depredations, rape, dispersion, and frequent rape.

    If your theodicy proposes that no balancing justice – only sweet redemption – comes to all, slave and perpetrator of slavery alike – and this may perhaps include the state – in God’s ultimate kingdom, then calling this a divine mystery beyond human comprehension seems less like faith than escapism.

    b) the notion that we are small and cannot grasp God (we’ll set aside how this is clearly a misreading of Job) goes against large themes and promises in scripture: that we are made in God’s image and likeness surely includes that we are just a little lower than angels in how our minds reflect God’s own nature; Jesus’ promise that we how have seen him have seen the Father; that the Christ reveals God and that his coming has so opened new possibilities in human nature that we can actually participate in God’s own nature (according to I Peter).

    It would seem rather that there ought to be a growth plan in our ability to know the mind of God – at least with respect to our own graced experience of human life. Yes, we see through a glass darkly. And yet the promises of life in God that are enumerated throughout the letters of Paul and Peter indicate that we should now – together in Christ – be empowered as a community to reach much further in spiritual understanding. That are continual depths to plunge.

    You seem to present a picture of passivity, of, frankly, old time protestant anxiety of boldness, of depth, or intellectual use of the supreme tool that demonstrates our favor in God’s sight.

    Finally, I think you would agree that there is no better, no more supreme revelation of God than the Son, Jesus Christ. And as you and read the Gospels, I’d ask, when did Jesus ignore the pleas of anyone physically suffering?

    Your theodicy is not a non-theodicy. It is a surrendering theodicy. Typically one that comforts those who have suffered private tragedies. But those whose public station in the hierarchy of society is hardly changed by those tragedies, and sometimes even strengthened by their loss. For the poor, that is not the silver lining playbook.

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      Thanks for the response. Let me offer a few observations.

      I think my piece actually boils down to two points: (1) protest evil through lament with the hope that ultimately God will set things right (even in the present as well as future) and (2) act to redeem evil by imitating Christ in the present as a means of participation in God’s in-breaking kingdom. While the context of my piece is personal tragedy, I think those points are particularly applicable to (indeed, have been applied) in broader contexts of social justice. I am very much aware of the broader concerns than personal tragedy, but the context of this piece is personal.

      I don’t think I claimed it was a non-theodicy as much as I don’t think I have the answer the ultimately justifies God. Rather, it is a protest theodicy if we want to name it. At the same time, it is a call to justice in the imitation of Jesus (but that was not my emphasis in this piece, to be sure).

      To the extent it is a “surrendering theodicy,” it does surrender to God. But it does not surrender to injustice. I think you overread a contextualized piece in order to get to such a point.

      Thanks for listening. Peace.

      •   Eric Hancock Says:

        Poverty and slavery are personal contexts, too, for millions of people. It’s just that they are almost wholly disbelieved.

        I must also be erring in under-reading the protest. I see you use the word, but the writing hand seems altogether relaxed. As if protest is to be seen simply as a psychological stage of grief. A check mark of protest rather than a clenched fist.

      •   John Mark Hicks Says:

        I appreciate that it can be read as you describe, and I recognize that slavery is personal as well. I suppose I only meant that I was writing out of my own personal experience in this piece and struggling with grief.

        If I know myself, it is a clenched fist of protest. I think this is clear from other pieces I have written on the laments of Job and the Psalms but is not as apparent in this piece perhaps.

        Thank you for the reminder that passivity is not part of our response to evil in the world, and that evil encompasses much more than my own personal experience.

  8.   Carlos A. Baltodano Says:

    Brother John, thanks a lot for ministering many of us from you own suffering. You are a great inspiration and I pray that your hope and trust in God would fill you with sufficient comfort and joy for the present and for the future.


  9.   K.D. Says:

    What you said about “human imagination has become the norm rather than trusting God’s wisdom and knowledge that is beyond searching out, plotting or understanding”–that is where I feel like I am just getting to in my life right now–learning to trust Him, to really recognize that, while it is right for us to ask questions and struggle for real answers, to always do so with humility, recognizing that there are parts of the whole that we simply will not understand.

    I have not read a whole lot on theodicies and “the problem of evil”, but enough to think that this point probably ought to be focused on more–not to devalue questioning and wrestling and lamenting–not at all–but to learn the humility, the sense of “Wait a minute; the universe is bigger than my brain, let alone its Maker. I may not get all of this, even if I’m really trying.” The shift from “I must absolutely understand all this and be sure I’m right for this to be okay” to “I have wrestled with the questions and this is what I believe makes the most sense and am prepared to live for, but I am not the Truth-holder, just an imperfect, ever-growing pilgrim.”

    I am finally, hesitantly, getting comfortable with mystery and, well, faith as part of my relationship with God.

    I say this as someone who has not experienced a great deal of tragedy in my own life, so far, but have only struggled with my own faith and maybe my own personality, I guess. I can imagine for those who have, it makes this that much harder. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      Thanks for your reflections K.D. Ultimately, there is mystery here as we inquire into the mind of God. And we don’t want to let that incomprehensibility suppress lament in the face of the reality of pain and suffering in the world.

      •   K.D. Says:

        Yes, absolutely. Lament / wrestling (for answers), alongside humility / trust / obedience. It feels to me like there’s a tension there that God honors and perhaps intended for us. Perhaps b/c they are fundamental even to His experience of the world He created? Creating us for good, yet knowing that evil would of necessity have a part in this world–perhaps the Lord would say a part that He would ultimately use for good, yet even so He doesn’t minimize its evilness (for which reason lament is perhaps part of the only just and right response?). Of course I don’t know for sure; just my thoughts lately on what He *might* say. Blessings.

  10.   Eric Hancocl Says:

    I strongly agree with this, “Ultimately, there is mystery here as we inquire into the mind of God.” But I find that in the two thousand years of christian witness, there are deep, soul healing traditions that know exactly how to enter into mystery, in both calm and in soul crushed distress. There is a way into mystery that brings growth and life. No need to stop with the mere acknowledgement of pastoral failure, call it faith, and try to get past it. God’s spirit is alive even when absent.

    It seems to me that the protestant tradition comes to its weakest moments in times of intense personal pain. It is at moments of extremis when words are least effective. But ritual can be a way back to life.

    I cannot offer you words, Mr. Hicks. But the church has and still offers the Eucharist in black vestments – in dark lament. The church offers the symbol of another death on a cross and meditation can be spent in front of it. The church offers the yearly sacrament of ashes and a long, stern reminder that we are all dust, come from dust and will return. The church offers work in parishes giving asylum to those who’ve crossed the border without paperwork or legal approval because of their own experiences of death and pain and suffering moved them. The church offers anniversary communion on anniversaries of death. And the church offers the sign of resurrection.

    In short, where protestantism is strong on rhetoric and enlightenment logic, it is poor in ritual. It left half of human createdness behind.

    Ritual, sacrament, the visible sings of invisible grace: bodily movement; moving in physical rhythm with other lives who are kneeling, praying, who are the embodiment of Christ’s bride; holding out one’s hand and eating and drinking; water, oil, crossing myself. The signs of life, of Christian life, when I am cold in silence or hot in anger inside… this is a way back into life. A life where God cannot be justified but can be loved.

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      You might be amazed to know how much I agree with you. Not justified, but loved. Lament, but yet faith. Facing the reality of death with the Eucharist of hope. Ash Wednesday and Easter are part of my liturgical year as well.

      Those who know my writings know both sides here of my faith. The deep protests of lament, but also the joyous embrace of trusting hope through the Eucharist.

      I have written extensively on the sacraments and believe in the power, hope and vision of the sacraments.

      Blessings, Eric.

      •   Eric Hancocl Says:

        Are you telling me that sacramental theology is making inroads in the Restoration movement?!

        I noticed an earlier commenter wrote something about “faith beyond understanding.” Who can say, but I think Anselm had a more mystic notion of understanding than did John Locke.

      •   John Mark Hicks Says:

        Indeed, it is. You might want to read my article on Stone-Campbell Sacramental Theology under the Academic menu. Or my article on the eschatological understanding of the Eucharist.

        Faith seeks understanding, and we believe in order to understand. Yet, understanding never fully grasps or exhausts who God is.


  11.   Eric Hancock Says:

    John Mark, I wish you all the best and the glory of Christ shining throughout your life together with your family both here and in the hereafter.

  12.   Randall Says:

    That last exchange between Eric and JMH was interesting and edifying.

  13.   Terry Bouchelle Says:

    As I read this touching letter again The Rightious Brother’s passionate recording “I Hunger For Your Touch plays in the back ground on Starbucks speaker.


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