journey post 22: The Journey Question: Can God really be good when everything else is so screwed up?
“Life sucks and then you die.”
That’s the teen angst version of more erudite attempts at explaining that central life journey question. It was heard with great frequency around our house during the 90s coming from the lips of one of our sons. It always drew a laugh. But the humor was biting, and we weren’t very clued in as parents or privy to the pain that lay behind it.
Pain and fear in our world is too real to joke about. As I write this, the situation in the Ukraine brings my generation—the baby boomers—back to some frightening collective Cold War memories. Those were traumatic times. It’s hardly sufficient to say that the Cuban missile crisis, for example, brought us ever so close to nuclear holocaust. That doesn’t communicate the palpable fear one felt just walking into a neighborhood store, noticing the distracted looks and hushed conversation going on as we expected Armageddon any moment.
As I write, life is still being measured in degrees of turmoil and confusion for the friends and families of 239 people plus crew on a plane that has, so far, vanished without a trace over a week ago. Somewhere today, the pre-teen daughter of a formerly happy family has disappeared into the growing labyrinth of sex trafficking; somewhere a gentle elderly man is watching as the spark grows dull in the eyes of his life’s partner drifting through the confused and terrifying cloud of Alzheimer’s; elsewhere, families are in free fall over a death or drugs or divorce or a deserting dad—dying dreams, every one.
The litany of suffering among the innocent and not-so-innocent could fill volumes every day of our lives. And we are made more aware of it now, thanks to the birth of the internet 25 years ago this month. Yet most of us can walk away and go about our daily lives if we are not somehow personally involved. It’s not that we don’t care, but we are mostly helpless to diminish its volume, and too close contact would undoubtedly lead us to despair and possibly suicide.
That we can walk away is a blessedly built-in defense, designed to help and heal in time of trauma and prevent our being overwhelmed. Still, it is right for us to be involved at some level in helping to alleviate pain and suffering around the world. Conscience and the golden rule tell us so. But the problem seems to be growing exponentially no matter what we do, and when it is personal, it rocks the very foundation of our own lives. Pain’s ripples travel far.
This brings us to what I call a central life journey question. Its puzzle occupies most of humanity. Most believe in God at some level. Most believe in conscience and the golden rule and goodness. It makes sense to argue that the God who created us with a conscience that tells us what we ought to do (because it is good and right) is himself good. But something does not compute. There is this one intractable problem that gnaws at the soul of humanity: “How can God be good and just and allow all this pain and suffering?” There are corollaries: “If God created the world and is all-powerful, why has his world gone so wrong, and why doesn’t he simply stop it all?” “Maybe he’s good, but just not powerful enough to stop it? Or maybe he is powerful enough, but just not so good as some would want to think.”
Perhaps you have heard some well-meaning religious person trying to comfort a parent who has watched the prolonged and unbearable suffering of a child. Perhaps they said a verse like, “God works all things together for good.” Then came an embittered response, dismissing any talk of a loving God: “If that’s a God of love, then I want nothing to do with him.”
But the question persists, awaiting some satisfactory answer that doesn’t destroy those who need to make sense of it the most. You might assume that I would have a ready-made answer, being a Christian and all. But it’s not for nothing that I have called this blog describing my life as a “zigzag journey.”
The problem I run into in trying to give any answer here is a question of honesty. Christians are supposed to believe in a God who is a loving heavenly Father, good and kind and all-wise. Christians are not supposed to question that God is good, right? If you assume that, you would be wrong.
Many, perhaps most, Christians would hesitate to express such a doubt out loud, for that would reveal unbelief—and what Christian wants to be accused of that, pray tell? So, we just stuff it. The problem with stuffing is twofold: it eventually comes out and with it comes that question of honesty…. I once mentioned in conversation with a long-time pastor that Christians can be some of the most dishonest people in the world, and he heartily, if sadly, agreed. We are still human, after all.
The first disciples were not very good at hiding their unbelief. Jesus called them on it on a regular basis. As a matter of fact, lack of faith was about the only thing I can think of that he rebuked them for. It was a good thing for their unbelief to come out—those disciples, like the rest of us, would not have dealt with it otherwise. The only disciple I remember who seemed successful at hiding his unbelief was Judas.
I don’t have a simple, one-size-fits-all answer to throw into the blogosphere. I’ve occasionally wondered why God didn’t make the Bible a ready-reference encyclopedia so we could find easy answers and get on with our lives. The fact is, he has not, despite some who claim to have all the answers clear and pat.
I believe more firmly than ever that God is good, and that he is loving and kind and all-wise. But we do not trust God just because we’re supposed to. As with trusting people, it requires honesty in relationship: it’s not just a decision or magic leap. I never saw that God is good until I faced the question that had been hiding for years in the dark recesses of my own mind, until I faced the evil that I accused him of. That was a time when I became brutally honest with and about him.
This and the next couple posts reflect the fact that I have been wrestling with just how to frame the question and offer what I believe to be a satisfactory—if not simple—answer that is in line with the way we are made, how things are, and with what Scripture actually says.
Michaelangelo’s “La Pieta”