Comfort or hardscrabble? Comparative views on evil and suffering

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Young boys in the Muthare slum of Nairobi, Kenya

If you want to chew up a church in America, hire a missionary who has just returned from Africa. When you’ve witnessed abject poverty and the resilient spirit of many who live in it, you may be tempted to ask a well-off U.S. church member complaining about petty things:

Would you like a little cheese with your whine?

As a theology teacher, I often include a section on theodicy in courses I teach pastors here in Africa. Theodicy is the doctrine of evil and suffering, especially attempts to justify God whom we believe – despite all evidence to the contrary – is both Almighty and good. It’s the old question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” But I’ve noticed across the years that theodicy doesn’t cause the angst in my African adult students that it causes in me. In fact, I’ve yet to come across a book written by an African theologian on that topic, though it’s a perennial favorite among American Christians, including the latest by Pastor Tim Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (2013).

Why is this the case?

Many Americans I know (including myself) are accustomed to comfort, growing angry at God when difficulties unexpectedly arise. In contrast, many Africans I know are accustomed to a hardscrabble life and praise God heartily when they receive unanticipated blessings.

My wife and I went to the Muthare slum in Nairobi for church a few years ago. Eighty of us were packed tightly into a small room with a tin roof and a dirt floor. We sat on wooden benches in their humble church. At the end of the service, they wanted to celebrate Christmas early since the children in their church-run primary school were at the end of their term and would soon scatter. Two women brought out a white 12″x 12″ frosted cake. Before that day, I wouldn’t have thought it possible to cut such a small confection into eighty slices, but they masterfully pulled it off, gingerly wrapping each morsel in a napkin and passing it to the children. The young ones’ eyes lit up in delight at the sugary treat! I thought how as boys my five brothers and I easily devoured a birthday cake twice that size and with a fraction of the gratitude that those Kenyan children showed.

What was the difference? My brothers and I expected comfort as life’s default setting and so took cake for granted. As for Muthare churchgoers, they seemed to expect tough times as the norm and so were elated to find an exception to the rule.

Regarding theodicy, the apostle Peter lived closer to the dominant African view than the dominant American one. In 1 Peter 4:12-13 he writes:

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as through something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed (TNIV, italics added).

How can I who have received so much so easily fall into a complaining mode? My prayer is that God will help me to see the world with new eyes, as a place where tough times are normal and good times are a serendipity. Then, let me as I am able and directed by God’s prompting, be a channel of God’s good gifts.

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Photo credit: Journey of Hope

James Dobson’s strange theology of Sandy Hook

James Dobson, Ph.D., well-known child psychologist

James Dobson, Ph.D., well-known child psychologist

On December 14, 2012, a gunman entered Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. After a shooting rampage, 26 lay dead, among them mostly children.

Inevitably, there was a single question that arose in the face of such a tragedy: Why?

Many answers have been offered to that question, but one of the most ill-advised was that of Dr. James Dobson. In a December 27, 2012 radio broadcast (click here to listen), Dobson spent the first ten minutes or so reading a letter he had produced thirty years earlier, lamenting the breakdown of the family. Here he was on solid footing, clearly commenting within the area of his own professional expertise. Though Dobson has chafed in the past when critics have wrongly called him a preacher or evangelist, this did not prevent him from speculating about how God fits into the picture, comments picked-up and critiqued in multiple media outlets:

I am saying that something has gone wrong in America. We have turned our back on God. Millions of people have decided that God doesn’t exist or He’s irrelevant to us. And we have killed 54 million babies…I think we have turned our back on the Scripture and upon God Almighty, and I think He has allowed judgment to fall upon us. I think that’s what’s going on.

Like James Dobson, I lament the 54 million unborn babies lost to abortion since the legalizing of Roe v. Wade in 1973. However, there are multiple problems theologically with Dobson’s statement. Here are some of the questions that arise:

1. Would God retaliate for 54 million abortions by allowing the killing of elementary school children?

These are not Dobson’s words as such, but in context, it is his clear implication. God allowed – on Dobson’s reading – “judgment” to fall on America. Apparently, the gunman was the instrument of that wrath. Yet did not Jesus say: “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9b, NIV)? If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. Our Savior is the one who took little children on his lap, hugged them, laughed with them, and told us that if we want to enter the Kingdom, we must become like them (Matt. 18:3). What a picture of unconditional love! God is not let off the hook by Dobson’s insertion of the word “allowed,” as if making God a bystander somehow lessens the offense. Child protection agencies recognize that child abuse is not the only way children are harmed; child neglect can be equally harmful to a child’s well-being. By Dobson’s logic, by allowing the gunman to go on his rampage, God neglected those children that day, supposedly to allow God’s “judgment” to fall. If Dobson is correct,  how could we worship such a God?

2. Is there an “evil streak” in God?

We serve a God who is just. God cares deeply about sin, and constantly warns us against its negative effects (Galatians 6:7, Romans 6:23). But James Dobson’s comments go beyond the image of a God of justice, painting instead an evil God.

I’m reminded of a story of a old golfer with salty language. One day, his pastor invited him out to golf. On the first hole, the old man stepped up to the tee, swung at the ball and totally failed to connect. “Darn’t!” he cried. “I missed.” Surprised, the preacher warned him: “You need to watch your language. God doesn’t like it when we talk that way,” to which he replied: “Nah, it’s no big deal.” On the second hole, the same scenario repeated itself – another swing, another miss. “Darn’t, I missed” he swore. “I told you on the last hole, God doesn’t appreciate that kind of talk” the pastor warned. Again, the old man shrugged it off. Finally, on the third hole, he swung like before and totally whiffed. Yet again, he griped: “Darn’t! I missed.” Suddenly, the skies opened up and a bolt of lightning descended, striking the pastor dead. Then came a booming voice from heaven: “Darn’t! I missed!”

If the killing of 26 at Sandy Hook was truly a demonstration of God’s judgment, we must admit that God had lousy aim, punishing the wrong individuals. In Ezekiel 18, God affirms that each of us bear the weight of our own sin, that judgment comes upon the guilty party and not upon the innocent. To say that God allowed a gunman to mow down school children in a hail of bullets is to make God the de facto executioner . In this way, shall we passively attribute to our just and loving God such a callous and wicked act? To do so would be to project upon God a darkness that is foreign to the divine nature. John affirms:

God is light. In him is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5, NIV).

A dark cloud, an evil presence, invaded Sandy Hook on that day. A Hindu could believe that God – like the Force in Star Wars – has a “dark side” and a “light side,” but Christians dare not tolerate such a foreign idea in our theology. Shall we claim that God had anything to do – even passively – with that dark presence at Sandy Hook? How does that begin to fit with what we know about the character of God as revealed in Christ?

3. Are God and humans the only actors on the stage?

A final concern with James Dobson’s comments touch upon who exactly are moral agents with the power of free will. In theologies that over-accentuate the sovereignty of God – a God who controls all events in the minutest of detail – one is obligated to try to discern God’s plan in every circumstance, even the most egregious acts. Either God directly caused it or – to use Dobson’s language – “allowed” it. On the other hand, Gregory Boyd in God at War argued that God is not all powerful in so far as others also have volition that God has freely granted to them.

Who are these others?

These include human beings but also faithful angels and rebellious angels, including the devil and his demons. Since the Fall in Eden, Boyd argues that earth has become a battlefield. On such dangerous terrain, innocents are sometimes caught in the cross-fire. They may be injured, even killed. Through the Christ event – his incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension – God has won a decisive battle, but the war will not end until the return of Christ in triumph. Meanwhile, we live in the precarious parentheses when the reign of Christ has been inaugurated but awaits final consummation. In this “already/not yet” of human history, terrible things still happen, yet we put our trust in a God who ultimately will defeat the forces of evil.

This acknowledgement of multiple actors on the stage frees us up to imagine other possibilities. I don’t for one minute believe that God had anything to do with the massacre at Sandy Hook, either actively or passively. What was God doing that day? God was surely seen in the heroic, selfless acts of administrators and teachers who laid down their lives for their students. God was there in the great calm granted to other teachers as they comforted their students, leading them hand-in-hand to havens of safety outside. God was there as reflected in the quick thinking of some teachers who hid their children in classroom closets and cupboards, and God was there in the warm embrace of first responders and churches who brought solace to the grieving. Evil showed up at Sandy Hook that day, but it was hardly a sign of God’s judgment. Rather, in the face of that evil our active and loving God was on the job as always, using people as divine instruments to bind up the wounds of the traumatized and the brokenhearted.

Conclusion

Dr. Dobson has earned the respect of many for giving sound advice on the family across the years, but in this instance, I think he misspoke, for the reasons I’ve outlined. Of course, this happens to all of us now and then. Hopefully he can revisit the issue in a later broadcast and clarify his remarks.

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Photo credit: Mark Davis