Friday, February 24, 2017

Some Thoughts to a Friend Concerning Suffering and Evil

The subject you raised is such a complex and difficult one. Permit me a few thoughts as part of a conversation we can have; by no means do I think the questions can be fully resolved. Trying to see questions of suffering and evil in a large perspective, I take from God’s story in Scripture that God created the world and us to flourish in love, truth, beauty, and goodness. We turned from God's good intent in creation, and this has led to all manner of ills, suffering, evil, and death — for us and for the created world, animate and inanimate, around us. In response, God both judges and redeems. It can’t be that God simply ignores or excuses our culpability for this mess. Repulsed by the ills and evils we engender, God judges and punishes, or at least allows judgment and punishment to result. This is a holy and just response, analogous to our judgment when people commit wrong and harm others. Yet it also is not the case that God simply judges and condemns. God acts throughout history — supremely in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus — to enter into our world, our lives, with good news and hope of salvation and transformation. (In this regard, we keep in mind in particular that “salvation” comes from a family of words meaning “healing,” as in our modern word “salve.”) This is God’s pity, mercy, grace, and love. This, I think, is God’s fundamental intent in our broken and pained world, as grace and love were God's fundamental intent in creation. I take great significance and comfort and hope in the clear New Testament focus that God, even in his just holiness, ultimately enters into our world and our lives to redeem and transform us through suffering love: a cross, not a sword. I don’t know quite how to square this with all of the biblical story: it has something to do with unfolding revelation and deeper and deeper entry into our world by God until the Word made flesh in Jesus, thus suffering love. But that only provides a large framework, not an answer to every question. I always tell people that doing theology (and living the life of faith) is not like doing long division without remainders. Doing theology, doing life itself: there are always remainders. Scripture doesn’t actually spend a lot of time trying to provide a systematic and comprehensive rationale for ills and evil, judgment and punishment, grace and redemption. To a large extent, these things are just assumed to be endemic to existence as created by God, messed up by us, and re-created with a fierce love in the death and resurrection of Jesus by that same God who turned toward us when we turned away from him. The questions then are these: who is God in all of this? What is God doing in all of this to overcome evil and death? What should we do in response to God and what he is doing? In other words, this is God’s story from creation to redemption to consummation. In and with God’s grace and love, how can we be changed from people messing it up to God’s people participating in and furthering God’s story?

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