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The Problem of Evil and the Providence of God:
Our Gray and Dappled World

For Sunday October 11, 2009

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)

Job 23:1–9, 16–17 or Amos 5:6–7, 10–15

Psalm 22:1–15 or Psalm 90:12–17

Hebrews 4:12–16

Mark 10:17–31

           During his last two years of college at Princeton, the American political philosopher John Rawls (1921–2002) considered studying for the Episcopal priesthood. That was before he fought in World War II as an infantryman and saw Hiroshima after it had been bombed. Before he heard a Lutheran pastor preach that God used Allied weapons to kill the Japanese and protected the Allies from the enemy's bullets. A friend died in the war. And after the war, Rawls was deeply shaken to learn about the Holocaust.

           The war made Rawls doubt any connection between human prayer and divine providence: "How could I pray and ask God to help me, or my family, or my country, or any other cherished thing I care about, when God would not save millions of Jews from Hitler?" In the end, Rawls lost his Christian faith. He found it impossible to reconcile the perfect will of God with the brutal realities of human history.        

           Rawls' crisis mirrors Job's famously bitter complaint. Job longs to plead with God, to state his case before him, and to protest his unjust suffering. He knows that God is righteous and that he would hear the cry of an innocent person. But there's a problem — he can't find God and he doesn't know where to look for him. Job searches up, down, left, and right, but God feels absent and he feels abandoned. "If I go to the east, he is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find him. When he is at work in the north, I do not see him; when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him" (Job 23:8–9). Using his spiritual compass to detect some hint of divine activity, Job can't determine the truth north of God's presence in human history.

           In his book God's Universe (2006), the Harvard astronomer Owen Gingerich calls experiences like these "questions without answers." He includes an example of his own. When Gingerich was seventeen his only brother was killed by a car while delivering newspapers on his bike. Decades later, in one of the last entries in his diary, Gingerich's devout Mennonite father still agonized over why God would allow such a tragedy to befall his teenage son. Similarly, in his book The Language of God (2006), Francis Collins, head of the human genome project, writes about his daughter's rape and how it challenges his faith even today. Why did God not intervene to protect his daughter? Why was the perpetrator never caught and brought to justice?

           Whereas Rawls lost his faith, Gingerich and Collins did not; they held fast in their Christian confession. Forfeiting your faith does nothing to solve the problem of evil. The problem of evil remains for every person and world view. Some people have even argued that whereas the problem of evil is difficult to reconcile with believing in a good God, the problem of good becomes impossible when we don't.

           Our world is neither purely good nor only evil, neither all black or all white. Rather, it contains black, white, and many shades of gray, much light but many shadows. Job's unjust suffering rightly troubles us, as do the 5.4 million deaths in the Congo war or the billions of people who barely subsist on a few dollars per day and die because they lack clean water. But just as mysterious are human altruism, our unimaginably vast, complex, and finely-tuned cosmos that gave rise to intelligent life that can ask "questions without answers," human conscience, and breath-taking beauty.

           In his poem Pied Beauty the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889) described our world as "dappled."

Glory be to God for dappled things —
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced — fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Hopkins senses God's presence even, or especially, in "the dappled things" — things mottled as well as uniform, crooked as well as straight, sweet as well as sour, blemished as well as beautiful, surprising as well as predictable, and, yes, in things painful as well as pleasurable. God does act in our imperfect, irregular, dappled world and in our frail personal lives, says Gingerich, "but not always in the ways most obvious to our blinkered vision." This became "excruciatingly clear," he notes, in Psalm 22 for this week, which centuries later Christians recounted hearing from the parched, cracked lips of Jesus who screamed, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?" (Psalm 22:1).

           In that horrendous cry of dereliction, though, in some mysterious way God was in Christ reconciling the dappled cosmos to himself. Thomas Aquinas (1224–1274) gave us the startling phrase “O felix culpa!” in reference to the fall of Adam. “O fortunate crime!” The fall of Adam as a blessing? Sin and evil, however radical and ugly, are the occasion for something far greater — the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. God uses our sin, suffering, and even satan himself for his purposes of goodness, so that St. Augustine writes, “God judged it better to bring good out of evil, than to allow no evil to exist.”

           Some people look at our dappled world and see only blind chance. In this view humanity would seem to be an unimaginably lucky and glorious accident resulting from 15 billion years of random events, void of any transcendent meaning or purpose. Such genuinely consistent atheism, though, comes at a high cost. In his book Nothing To Be Frightened Of (2008), the British novelist and atheist Julian Barnes wonders whether he can honestly assign any meaning to his personal story given his disbelief in God. Does his life enjoy a genuine narrative? Or is it only a random sequence of events that ends with total extinction, such that any and all meaning-making is what he admits is pure "confabulation?"

           Others follow Hopkins and amidst the dappled shadows see God's action in human history. Christians have long found genuine comfort in this notion of God's providential care so well described by the Protestant reformer John Calvin (1509–1564):

(W)hen that light of divine providence has once shone upon a godly man [sic], he is then relieved and set free not only from the extreme anxiety and fear that were pressing him before, but from every care. For as he justly dreads fortune, so he fearlessly dares commit himself to God. His solace, I say, is to know that His heavenly Father so upholds all things in His power, so rules by His authority and will, so governs by His wisdom, that nothing can befall except He determine it....Whence, I pray you, do you have this never-failing assurance but from knowing that, when the world appears to be aimlessly tumbled about, the Lord is everywhere at work, and from trusting that His work will be for your welfare? In short, not to tarry any longer over this, if you pay attention, you will easily perceive that ignorance of providence is the ultimate of all miseries; the highest blessedness lies in the knowledge of it.

God, as believers like Gingerich, Collins, Hopkins and Calvin understand him, is not merely a Cosmic Other who flung the stars into space. He's not a what but a who, a someone and not merely a something, a personal redeemer who loves us in what the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber called an I-Thou relationship.

           The New Testament reading this week reminds us that in Jesus "we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted and tried in every way, just as we are — yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need" (Hebrews 4:15–16).

For further reflection

* What might the French Nobel laureate André Gide (1869–1951) mean when he writes, "Joy is rarer, more difficult, and more beautiful than sadness. Once you make this all-important discovery, you must embrace joy as a moral obligation."
Consider Juliana of Norwich (14th century): "The greatest honor we can give Almighty God is to live gladly because of the knowledge of his love."
Have you ever sensed the providence of God in "dappled things?"
* What is the ultimate message of the book of Job?
* Habakkuk 1:1–4:

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?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
     Why do you tolerate wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
     there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralyzed,
     and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
     so that justice is perverted.

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