Friday, April 15, 2011

Mystery (The Problem of Pain)

Because I'm a person of faith, people often ask me if I'm mad at God. Couldn't he have done something to stop Vincent from dying? As Christians, we believe that among God's many attributes are both absolute power and absolute goodness.

The question of how God's love and power relate to each other is one that all theologians and sufferers have wrestled with over the millennia.  If God is good AND powerful, why doesn't he stop horrible events from happening?  Why are there child soldiers, rape, famine, cancer?  Why do kids die?  Why do bad things happen to good people?  Why do bad things happen at all?

Some people think that God, although powerful in nature, sort of ties his hands behind his back by giving us humans free will.  At the end of human history God's powerful enough to win the war against evil (using us, his followers) as we break powers of darkness and evil and incarnate God's power and love to our broken world.  He can be prevailed upon through prayer to change events, but only if the powers of darkness are broken first.  He's absolute goodness, only wanting us to thrive and be full of good things.  He weeps with us when we encounter evil, when we are wounded from the fault of others' free will choices.  From this perspective, it would never be his will to let Vincent die.

Critics of this view say it compromises God's omnipotence (power) in a manner inconsistent with the biblical description.  He can't be a truly all-powerful God if he's wringing his hands over situations he cannot at this moment change without our help.  God ceases to be God if his hands are in any way tied.

Proponents of this next view remind us of our utter sinfulness as humans.  As completely flawed beings who first introduced sin to the world, we deserve whatever the perfect God metes out to us.  We deserve nothing from him, although through his son Jesus we've recieved everything we really need, promise of redemption, the sure hope of eternal life.  God is completely powerful over all world events, he presides over everything that occurs, and though not evil himself, allows evil to exist for a time being for reasons we do not understand.  His goodness is always complete, even when we cannot see it.  From this perspective, it could have been his will to let Vincent die.  (This is usually the point where the discussion veers toward further theological splicing between God's prescriptive will and his decretive will... but I don't want to go there.)

Critics of this view say that God seems to be a cosmic meany.  He's able to change horrible events, able to eliminate all evil, but instead allows it to exist.  (Of course, these views can be nuanced much better than I've stated.  I'm sure I've left many important details out of each one, but then again, I'm much better at ranting then reporting.)

So, the argument goes, either God is completely powerful (and not fully good), or he's completely good (and not fully powerful.)  In the face of deep suffering, it's difficult to believe that God can be both simultaneously. 

Where do I stand? Part of me would like to think that what happened to Vincent was a terrible injustice caused by living in a messed up world.  God would like to have stopped it,  only wanting goodness and wholeness in our lives, but his hands were tied.  But I don't really believe that.  I do believe that Vincent's death was a terrible injustice.  But I believe that God didn't stop it for some reason(s) unknown to me at this time.  I believe he is powerful enough to do it, but for some reason he didn't.

I would like Vincent's death to have as much meaning as possible.  If it was just a random event that occurred, how meaningful is that?  It's like winning the crappiest lottery ever.  Even though I don't believe God specifically ordered in his perfect will for Vincent to get cancer and die, I believe that he did foresee it and let it happen anyway to us.  I believe he could have stopped it, and yet he didn't.

Over the years I've grown to accept this fact:   our world is pretty awful.  It's in the process of being fixed and redeemed, and one day all suffering will cease, and our earth will be renewed.  Until then all sorts of bad stuff happens, largely a result of what we do to each other.  Large corporations want more money, take shortcuts, pollute the water and people get cancer.  We want more power and oil so we go to war.  Kids get killed.  Women get raped, the environment gets exploited, stuff gets stolen, we die, awful, awful evil happens and gets thrown our way.  It's the way of this world.

Now where does God fit into this?  Well, I believe that whatever transpires in our life, whatever events in life we go through, they have to pass through God's hands first.  He doesn't cause them, but he makes sure that whatever they are, they are something that we are able to triumph over, if not in this life, than the next.  He makes sure we get justice, if not now, than later.  And in the meantime, all the awful things that happen that would try to destroy us, he can transform into scars of beauty, into something useful for helping someone else's pain.  God is very economical.  He doesn't waste our pain, our wounds.  If we let him, he as the ultimate alchemist transforms our tragedies into something beautiful, useful, something that brings him glory.

I've always known that God does not keep us "safe".  That's not his ultimate goal.  And from the viewpoint of eternity, what does being "safe" really mean?  Are you safe if you have a comfortable home now, happy relationships, a good bank account, and yet who you truly are deep inside is conflicted, without peace?  Are you "safe" if you've never been deeply hurt or in a debilitating accident, but your inner soul is isolated from the one Reality that can offer transcendent living, real hope?

The apostle Paul in Colossians 3 says this:
"...For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God."
My Real life, who I truly am and am becoming, my real beauty, my real strength is all hidden with Christ up there in heaven.  It's kept truly safe with God and with Vincent who is one of my greatest treasures.  It's out of reach for now, but it's part of a greater Reality that I cannot see, a Reality that goes far and beyond what think is "real".

I watched Toy Story III just a few weeks before Vincent died and it gave me a useful analogy to describe the way I feel about his death.  In the movie, Mrs. Potato Head loses one of her eyes somewhere in Andy's house.  She can't find it, and after different events transpire, she, along with all the other toys, wind up in this horrible daycare where they are mistreated and are trying to escape.  They need to know what is happening back at home, and Mrs. Potato Head is able to channel her vision through her hidden eye, the one back at home, to see what is happening and to be connected to what was going on there.  She didn't have that eye physically with her, so she was blocking out what she could see right in front of her face, and instead, "seeing" with her missing eye.

I have to use my "missing" eye, the one that is hidden in God, to see the greater Reality there in heaven as opposed to just what is in front of me at this moment.

My spiritual director lent me her copy of Susan Howatch's book "Glamorous Powers."  Here the main character, Jon, an Anglo-Catholic ex-monk, is comforting his wife after their baby son Gerald has just died.
"...Look at the world from yet another angle.  Look at it as an idea in the mind of God, a brilliant dynamic idea which we ourselves can't fully grasp except that its dynamism ties us to the change we can't escape.  But beyond the idea, beyond the mind of God, is God himself, the unchanging perfection of ultimate Reality.  In other worlds, this cage we live in, this prison of time and space isn't ultimately real. Gerald may have slipped out of the cage ahead of us, but that doesn't mean he's ceased to exist.  As part of the ultimate reality his existence is reflected back into the world of time and space in the form of absolute values, the values which can never die, and the value in which we can most clearly see him reflected is love..."
I will see Vincent again.  But right now I have to use my other eye to see the ultimate Reality beyond this prison of time and space.  And until I see Vincent again with both my eyes, I'm going to try and reflect his life, and the life of God who is the ultimate Reality, back into this world.


Anonymous said...

Beautiful Rebecca...and I appreciate the use of Mrs. Potato Head! It makes the picture clear.

Kimberley said...

Thank you for sharing!!! Know that you are often in my thoughts and prayers...Great analogy with Mrs Potato Head....Trust that you will continue to find grace, and one day, be able to see things clearly...Hugs

Unknown said...

Amazing post! Your analogy brought it to life and really made me grasp what you were saying. SO TRUE! Thanks for posting!

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written and so true. I'll look with that other eye too and although blurry now, it will come into focus.

Rebecca said...

Thanks guys for your super-kind remarks. Hopefully we'll all learn to see with our other eye.... I know I have a way to go! :)