"Though the Fig Tree Does Not Bud:"
Living the Questions of the Problem of Evil
For Sunday October 3, 2010
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)
Lamentations 3:19–26 or Psalm 137
Habakkuk 1:1–4, 2:1–4
2 Timothy 1:1–4
After battling brain cancer for four years, my friend's oncologist at long last advised him that he has only several months to live. This past summer mudslides in China and monsoon rains in Pakistan killed hundreds and devastated millions of innocent people.
Most Christians believe that God is perfectly good and that he would therefore want to do something about all the evil in the world. We also believe that God is fully powerful and surely able to do something about suffering. Still, horrific evils exist, both moral and natural, and they provoke honest intellectual questions about whether Christianity makes sense. If you're willing to forfeit the power or goodness of God, then you're off the hook, but most Christians are uncomfortable taking that route.
The focus of the Scriptures, though, is personal rather than intellectual. How does my own life make sense in a world so full of suffering?
Instead of pious platitudes about the problem of evil, the Biblical authors vent their emotions with brutal honesty. One entire book of the Bible grapples with the theologically unthinkable — that Babylonian hordes vanquished God's elect people and ransacked Jerusalem. The book is simply called "Lamentations." These ancient dirges lament Israel's slaughter and destruction — depopulated villages, abandoned streets that once bustled with business, refugees deported to foreign lands, starvation, mass unemployment, and the humiliation and helplessness that result from total subjugation. Where was God in such death and destruction?
The psalmist for this week anguishes over the same catastrophe. Exiled to the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Babylon, he raged for revenge: "O daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us — he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks" (137:8–9).
For a long time I found this verse embarrassing, but I've come to appreciate it as an authentic cry of indignation. Who wouldn't beg for divine retribution for psychopathic dictators like Sudan's Omar Bashir or Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe? Still, there's a thin line between a prayer for divine retribution and the lust for human revenge, and maybe the psalmist is a classic case of the oppressed victim becoming the new oppressor.
Whereas the psalmist raged, the prophet Habakkuk complained that God felt silent and aloof: "How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, 'Violence!' but you do not save?" (1:1). And why would God ever choose wicked Babylon to punish elect Israel? “O Lord, you have appointed them to execute judgment; O Rock, you have ordained them to punish” (1:12–13). Where was the moral calculus in that?
The pages of Scripture are soaked with the tears of human pain and suffering, just like our own lives. The first five readings for this week (every one except the gospel and the epistle) reveal a startling lexicon of grief: weeping, torment, disbelief, vindictiveness, envy, anxiety, wrath, bitterness, tears, betrayal, affliction, distress, desertion, desolation, weakness, violence, and the silence of God who appears not to save. By venting their frustrations, perplexity, and pain, the Biblical writers encourage us to do the same. There's not the faintest suggestion that we should repress our questions, stifle our emotions, or resort to artificial optimism or superficial cliches.
These pious protesters remind us that we will never understand everything about the mysterious ways of God. Period. Some of the suffering we experience is inscrutable, it admits to no resolution no matter how much time, money, effort, prayer, or therapy we throw at it. In the words of Augustine (354–430), "the secrets of heaven and earth still remain hidden from us" and therefore we must "rest patiently in unknowing."1 So, if venting our emotions is okay, so is making peace with our ignorance.
In a famous passage that the apostle Paul quotes in Romans 1:17, Habakkuk writes that "the righteous will live by faith" (2:4). That's not what Habakkuk wanted to hear; he says that it made his heart pound, his lips quiver, and his legs tremble. But he nevertheless chose faith and decided to watch and wait:
Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior. (3:16–18)
This was no plea bargain with God or a quid pro quo; Habakkuk's faith didn't depend upon a favorable outcome (cf. Daniel 3:17–18).
In the gospel this week Jesus invites us to choose the mystery of faith over the logic of doubt. Mustard seed faith, he says, can move mountains and mulberry trees (Luke 17:6 = Mark 11:23 = Matthew 21:21). What might Jesus mean by such obvious hyperbole?
My ninth grade English teacher, Estelle Tilley, taught us that a transitive verb always requires an object ("I lifted the rock"), unlike an intransitive verb that doesn't require an object ("I sleep."). The transitive verb "to have faith" must have an object. It's almost impossible to say "I believe," and leave it at that. Believe who or what? Rather, we say "I believe that. . . ."
Jesus turns our focus away from the faith by which we believe (fides qua creditur), our subjective act of believing, to the faith which we believe (fides quae creditur), to the objective truth of who or what we believe. Because it is the object of faith (God's character) rather than its subject (my believing) that's key, the tiniest act of faith in the unconditionally good God gives us hope.
Finally, a significant aspect of faith is waiting. In the face of pain, suffering, and injustice, God assures Habakkuk that, despite appearances, He is working, and so he should watch and wait (2:1, 3). Jeremiah writes the same thing (Lamentations 3:22–26):
I say to myself, "The Lord is my portion;
therefore I will wait for Him."
The Lord is good to those whose hope is in Him,
to the one who seeks Him;
it is good to wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.
Likewise, the psalmist for this week warns three times against "fretting," and instead advises us to "wait patiently" for the Lord (Psalm 37:1, 7–8).
A few years after moving to Fuller Seminary, professor Lewis Smedes fell into a deep depression that, he writes, "made a hash of my relationship with God, and pushed me into a dark night of the soul. My experience was, from start to finish. . . a hellish sense that God had abandoned me." He was alienated from his colleagues, his family, his own self, and felt like a tremendous hypocrite. "I did not know where God was during this time. I only 'knew' that wherever he was, he was not with me. But I was wrong. He was with me because he was in Doris and Doris was with me. What did she do? She did nothing. Nothing but wait. And wait. And wait. God came back to me on the strength of her power to wait for me. Never before had I known the saving power of waiting."2
Smedes raged and complained. He admitted his ignorance. He could barely muster only a feeble faith. But most of all, he and Doris waited. Eventually, he testified how "God came back to me at the very moment that I had reached ground zero in my hopelessness."3
Image credits: (1) Hurriyet Daily News and (2) WashingtonPost.com.