Theodicyus

Call me Theodicyus.

I’m on an Odyssean journey, like many others, to comprehend why God permits evil, suffering and pain.

cosmic-christMost of the time, I’m on board with the direction God wants that journey to take. I may not like that direction, but I’m willing to pursue it at least for a while, to see if it comes to a logical conclusion … or at least a depot or a way station that makes some kind of sense to my pathetic wounded heart.

But this morning I literally awakened, as I often do from a restless sleep, with a “What if?” that knocked the horsepower right out from beneath me. I didn’t know if I could go and teach my church family this morning. I didn’t know if I could even crawl out of bed.

This was the “What if?” in my soul when I woke up:

“What if God has been trying all along to communicate to us that the obliteration of evil is good, whether it is in one’s own soul or annihilating those who have sold their souls out to evil?”

Oh, it didn’t come all in a rush and it didn’t come in those exact words. I’d been dreaming about trees and limbs falling — probably because I’d had two huge limbs fall off one of my front yard trees to the sidewalk below a month before, and falling trees had been in the national news last night. No, probably my first thoughts as I surfaced from the ocean of dreams were probably more along the lines of “It cost a lot to have my whole tree removed and thank God no one was hit or injured and I didn’t get sued and I hate to have a living tree cut down just because it’s so overbalanced the rest of it will eventually fall across the street and why do tree limbs have to fall on people and hurt or kill them anyway?”

Followed soon after by the very mature pondering of “Why can’t trees just fall on evil people like ISIS terrorists who kidnap and capture and torture and rape and behead people?”

(I’m sure it didn’t help that I awakened with a colossal headache besides.)

Then came those sleepy musings about why God did or didn’t act in certain ways, expected ways, my ways in the Old Testament and even other places. Why a flood? Why utterly destroy two cities? Why strike people dead for worshiping another? Why the order to “dedicate/give over to God/often by utter destruction”? Why a cross, a dishonorable instrument of pain and death?

Okay, I can understand that is the way that Father and Son agreed that is how sin deserved to die, and that the Son was willing to bear sin to that ignominious death for us.

No, not really, not in my heart “understand” it; but in my mind at least I can comprehend the words and they make a kind of sense in the way that any concept of divine justice-and-mercy can make sense to a human being of fallible judgment using three pounds of sweetbreads for a logic processor.

But what if — in the flood-genocide and the Sodom-and-Gomorrah genocide and the worshiping-golden-calf-genocide and the order to Israel to give-over-whole-cities-of-baby-sacrificing-pagans-to-God-by-completely-destroying-them — what if those and all the other seemingly violent/callous/inconsistent acts of the Creator aren’t intended to cause terror/doubt/criticism of Him?

What if they are His way to communicate what His sovereignty defends: an ultimate good, a perfect comprehension of good that is so far beyond ours that He must use the most crude ways imaginable to get them across to us so that we can understand in our limited way?

What if His justice and mercy are one in the same thing (not in conflict with each other, as we so often perceive them to be)?

What if the total eradication of evil is the only way that good can triumph (and it MUST triumph)?

What if evil must be permitted to show how heinous and selfish and rebellious is truly is, in order for good to be illuminated for how glorious, selfless, and loyal to God that it is?

What if God expects us to grow to a point where we stop judging Him by our own ethic, our human standards, our selfish arrogant Eden-based value system (“I think I know better about this fruit than God does …”) and judge His goodness, rightness, and holiness by His own standard?

We’d have to understand it first.

So what if He’s given us the clues all along in scripture, and we created theodicy because we don’t want to see them for what they are?

I don’t like this possibility.

I want my old god back.

I want my pacifist god who, like me, hates to cut down a living tree; who couldn’t possibly cut down a human being, or allow a good human being to be cut down in mid-life, especially a wonderful human being like my beloved Angi. I want a god for whom those character traits are just unthinkable anomalies, “ways that are above my ways,” ways that I will never understand or be expected to understand.

I want back my old god; the one I can easily find strolling in the corporate hallway in the cool of the day in his cool business suit and take him by the lapels and shake him and shout “WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?” like Job did and feel justified about doing so.

I don’t want to understand God this deeply if it goes this deep.

It hurts too much.

It doesn’t fit my paradigm.

The journey doesn’t take a turn in my direction.

I don’t get to have my way.

Not Exactly a Prayer

God,

I think I understand now why the Charlie Anderson character in “Shenandoah” feels more comfortable talking to his dead wife than he does talking to You.

I understand Charlie’s dinner-table prayers better now. The anger. The insistence on self-sufficiency. The determination to pray anyway because that was what she had done and it would have made her happy if she were still there at the dinner table.

I comprehend better what he feels to have a son distant and a daughter to whom awful things have happened.

Is that what this is all about, God? Becoming more compassionate toward a character in a drama?

No. Of course not.

But it’s not like You’re going to tell me what it’s all about, either. Those days of You speaking out of the whirlwind are gone, aren’t they?

Even Your answers to Job were mostly questions. Like that would help.

And It’s not like I blame you that Angi’s gone. You didn’t do that. I know who did, and I hate the evil that urges sin that leads to death at least as much as You do.

Yet you permit it. Sin and death, I mean. You let it happen. And there are millions of us who are trying to figure out why. Some will pin their disbelief on it. If You existed and You are good, they say, You wouldn’t permit it.

As if they understand all about You and can judge You any better than Adam and Eve did. Or what good is. Or what love really means.

Oh, I have my theories. That You created us to choose, and to make the choice fair You make it based entirely on faith and our perception of good in what we experience. You give us the choice to love You and others more than self or to love self more than anything else. And it doesn’t always work. A lot of us choose to love self thinking somehow that in spite of all the consequences of social alienation and personal guilt and even some perception of Your absence in our lives, being in love with self feels so good that it’s the best thing ever. I get that.

What I can’t fathom is why You would put someone in my life and the lives of so many others who loved self less and others more — someone who did that with such grace and abandon, like Angi — only to allow her to be taken away when so many years of that exemplary love could have blessed so many more, and so deeply.

I don’t get that at all.

I suppose it’s part of this whole faith environment that You remain inscrutable as a stone Buddha on the matter.

No, I haven’t forgotten Your Son. I know you allowed the same thing to happen to Him, and worse, and at probably half Angi’s age. I also know she went out of this world with all of the confidence in Your power to bring life back and better that He did.

Is that what this is about? Faith at the end? Faith that doesn’t quit? Faith that looks ahead in love?

Because I’ve got to tell You that, even with all the faith I can generate, life without her seems pretty awful right now, no matter how many other blessings You may send. Maybe I should see them better for what they are, but the proportion of pain seems so gigantic in my life that they are often eclipsed.  Life is empty and dark and cold, and its purpose is murky and its foundation is shaky and its ultimate end is never in sight — like the horizon of a planet too big to circumnavigate in a thousand years.

My friends say it’s all right to be angry with You. That Job got angry with You. That the psalmists were often angry with You. That You’re big enough to take it.

But being angry doesn’t help. And blaming doesn’t help. And being theoretical about theodicy doesn’t help. And being overwhelmed by grief doesn’t help.

Nothing. Helps.

Angi’s gone. And I’m still here. And, with the tiniest fraction of all her extraordinary gifts, I’m supposed to muck through all of this life stuff without her.

I get that, too.

She’s not around to talk to anymore. She’s not here to listen, not here to offer advice, not here to comfort or counsel or give warmth or a sweet embrace when words don’t work anymore. She was never stingy with any of that.

So I hope You understand that, just like Charlie Anderson, sometimes I’d rather talk to her.

Than to You.

And I trust that You really are big enough to take that.

Amen.

The Day I Broke

I remember it like it was yesterday.

Because it was yesterday.

I awakened a little troubled, because I had picked up Laura early from school the day before due to her texted complaint of a sore throat. Sure enough, when I had gone to get her, she felt a little warm and had very little appetite for a teenage girl before lunchtime. Since her pediatrician had canceled Laura’s appointment for this Friday, we just planned to go in during open clinic hours yesterday morning and see whom we could see.

That worked okay. I brought her home. I took Angi to chemo for her regular three-Tuesdays-in-a-row-one-off appointment. I got Laura’s prescription.

That’s when things got weird.

I didn’t go on to work. I had intended to. I just didn’t. I went home (thankfully). I’m not sure I knew what day it was or that I should have gone to work. I’m not even sure I was aware that I was employed, or where, or doing what.

I went home. I think I checked on Laura. Asleep again, as I recall. I helped my 94-year-old mom-in-law Harriette with her TENS pain control unit; one of the wires to an electrode was loose. I went upstairs to the bedroom.

And, as nearly as I can tell, I stared for a couple of hours.

I may have posted some things on Facebook and Twitter. Looking at them later, I couldn’t remember writing them. Or at least, writing them the way they were written as I was reading them. (I’m not sure – I think Facebook may have had some sort of retro-server malfunction too, which confused me even more. I was seeing posts from several weeks or months before, but time-stamped just hours before.)

Things got weirder.

I started remembering dreams. Vividly. From months and years and even decades before.

And I could not tell the difference between the “reality” in the dreams and the reality of my waking life. One seemed just as valid as the other. Even when they contradicted each other. I would describe it further, but that is all I can remember. The specifics are gone now.

Somehow I became aware that Angi was texting me that it was time for me to come and pick her up.

I had no sense of the time that had passed. It seemed like only seconds since her previous message that it would be at least another half-hour.

Shaken, I got in the car and went to pick her up. Except that by the time I got to the turn for Route 23, I could not remember why I was in the car or where I was going. Within a couple of stoplights, I was able to remember that I was supposed to pick up Angi. But where? The doctor’s office? The hospital? The cancer center? They’re all on 23. It had to be the cancer center.

While the chemo drip finished, I tried to collect myself. But Angi could tell something was wrong, and once we were in the car, she asked me. I have no idea what I said in the conversation that followed, and I can usually recall fairly recent conversations almost word-for-word — conditioning from years of journalism. I’m sure it was disturbing. She told me later that I had told her about the waking dream-recollections, and being unable to connect with reality.

By the time I got home, my chest was hurting pretty badly. After getting Angi comfortable on the sofa on the main floor, I went upstairs to try to nap it all away. I slept for about an hour. In the meantime, Angi called our doctor. When Harriette called up the stairs for me, I woke up — had missed Angi’s texts about the doctor being willing to see me. I called his office to confirm the appointment. I was really confused by then, and still hurting. I can only imagine what I sounded like to the receptionist. She spoke to my doctor, who told me to get to the emergency room and under no conditions was I to drive.

I had to go downstairs to Laura’s room to wake her up and ask her to drive me. I hated that. She stuck with me as I checked in. I couldn’t remember simple things that I was asked. I couldn’t remember everything that had happened earlier. I just knew that I was confused and my chest hurt and that I couldn’t remember earlier in the day where I was supposed to pick up Angi.

armband

And my teenage daughter — bravely battling severe depression herself — had to see me break down in tears.

The hospital staff ran me through all the tests you can imagine in short order – lots of attempts to draw blood from these redheaded slippery veins of mine for bloodwork; a CT scan of the brain; a chest X-ray for the heart and lungs.

All normal. Or at least, within normal parameters for a healthy 57-year-old male.

About three hours later, my mental fog was beginning to lift. I knew what had been going on, though I was committed to stay another hour or so for a second round of bloodwork to confirm.

My chest was congested, probably from chest cold or allergies. But more importantly, I had been experiencing a silent (painless) migraine. I’ve had them before. I lose about 30 or 40 points of I.Q. when they happen to me. I can’t think. I can’t remember clearly.

But this one was clearly the worst and longest one I’ve ever had, and with perceptual/cognitive symptoms I’ve never had before. Fortunately — I think — I have only vague impressions of the lost hours and bizarre connection with my subconscious dreamworld. In college, thirty-some years ago, I did a self-study in the library to learn about schizophrenia — and a lot of what I experienced feels very similar to what I read about all those years ago.

It is no fun to feel like you are developing schizophrenia.

Migraines can be triggered by many things — including stress — and I have been doing a lot of stress lately. Look up any “stress points” chart and you’ll see that my family and I have been racking them up like we’re trying to set a new record. Severe change in a family member’s health? Check, check. Major mortgage? Biggest we’ve ever had. Buying, selling a house? Check, check. Oh, and eight months later: Check, check. Change in residence? Moved two states over. Change to a different line of work? Check. Change in financial status? Oh, yes; many medical bills. Spouse starts or stops work? Angi can do a couple of mornings a week at best. Change in work responsibilities? Yup; whole different job. Change to a different line of work? Yes, I’m trying to move from part-time to full-time employment. Child leaving home? No, we moved away from our son and left him to finish his schooling. Change in church activities? Started preaching from time to time. Change in social activities? Yes, we don’t get out anymore. Revision of personal habits? Yes. I’ve been trying to pick up the things Angi has done for years, chauffeur family members who can’t or shouldn’t drive, keep up with the things I’ve always done.

I think I’ve pretty well popped the stress cork with the sum of those points.

I exceeded manufacturer’s recommendations.

And I broke.

I’m much better today. Still trying to clear out the chest with Mucinex. Still having a few disturbing flashbacks to the missing hours yesterday; little glimpses with greater clarity into the Great Unclear.

I happened across my family doctor in the local grocer’s this evening and caught him up. He seemed relieved. He’s just a couple of years younger than me. He’s seen a lot.

For no better reason than “I want to,” I’ve chosen to take comfort in that.

You can look at troubled life and say, “It could have been a lot worse.”

You can look at troubled life and say, “It could still get a lot worse.”

You’ll be right either way.

For the past few days, I’ve been reading blogs and sites and posts by people who have struggled with crisis and tragedy in their lives. I’ve posted honest comments. I’m struggling, too. I don’t yet have a Unified Field Theory for the problems of theodicy. I don’t know anyone who does.

I continue to believe God is good, even though He permits good and bad to happen to good and bad people. I don’t know why. I think bad things happen to people at the instigation of Satan, the accuser. He lives to hurt and torment because he hates people to the core. I don’t know why. I am convinced that it all somehow has to do with a greater good, a level playing field for the fair competition between good and evil in this world and each of us chooses the outcome of her/his own personal game.

I understand that you can quit, give up, give in, give out, stop giving, surrender. That’s how you lose. You lose faith. You lose hope. You lose love for God, for others, for self, for life.

I could do that. You could do that. Anyone could, given enough stress points and the will to choose.

But it’s a zero-sum choice. If I give up on faith … on life … on God, well, as the Zack Mayo character in An Officer and a Gentleman so eloquently paraphrases Simon Peter:

“I GOT NOWHERE ELSE TO GO!”

I hope I remember that.

Job, the Lord, and Theodicy

I originally wrote this as a comment on an excellent, honest and challenging post called “Fight Like A Man, You Dirty Dog!” by Les Ferguson, Jr. at his blog. But I thought about it a little more and wanted to share it here, too. Les closes his post by asking these questions:

“What do you do when it feels like you have given God everything and there is no divine protection in it?

“If the Creator of the Universe doesn’t fight fair, what recourse do we have?

“I get that we live in a broken world and bad things happen to good people. I get it. I hate it. And I certainly don’t understand it.

“But what do you do when it feels like the dirty dog is God?”

So I answered:

I have struggled with this long before my current challenges began.

I continue to believe that God is good. I’ve concluded from the book of Job that evil, pain and suffering are from the accuser, not from God. I don’t understand why God permits it. Job doesn’t get a reason. God never tells Job about His wager with the accuser, or the fact that (incredibly) the Creator of all things believes in Job just as much as Job believes in Him.

That’s what astounds me. God’s answer, in essence, isn’t an answer to Job’s questions at all, but the implied reassurance that God is God, and He can be trusted.

There’s never a moment in the book of Job that I can recall where the existence of God is in question. His nature and character (along with Job’s) are debated on and on. But no one ever says, “With all these terrible things happening, there just can’t be a God.”

The whole work is a work about faith. It may be called integrity, but ultimately what Job (and his friends) must learn is that his trust can’t be in himself or others or stuff – but in God.

So I can only hope to navigate this present hell in my life by faith – and trust that His inscrutable purpose in letting Satan tear at my family is because – somehow – He believes in us.

Which is not as much help as I would like it to be when I want to grab the one responsible for the suffering and evil and pain in the lives of my family and yours and so many others … and beat him to a bloody dying pulp.

I can’t do that.

The victory is already God’s through Christ.

I have to trust in that.

It’s all I’ve got.

Why Does God Allow ___?

I’m sure that a lot of people who have seen and know me have the impression that I am in a constant state of befuddlement. Truth is, I am always open to the wonder and complexity of life, and almost always trying to comprehend it.

I’m amazed at how the interaction of opposing elements creates newness and innovation; how vital it is that there is difference so that there can not only be conflict, but also resolution and harmony and growth. So I see the wisdom of God in having both good and evil within His will, even though His will is only good.

Without evil, good cannot be shown for what it truly is, and vice-versa.

Without good and evil, there can be no real choice that builds our character and forms our souls.

Without good that leads to life conflicting with evil that leads to death, there can be no ultimate victory that glorifies God and displays His magnificent brilliance. For it is His wisdom that brought something out of nothingness, filled it with life yet made it temporary, and made its capstoning creation intelligent and rational and capable of choice — of creating and/or destroying. It is His Word that brought man to life, and when we chose evil and death resulted, His Word — through His own death and return to life — brought endless life back to all through the power to choose.

I sympathize with those who ask, “Why does God allow ___?” It is a foundational mystery about the character and nature of God. The answer I’ve been able to discern seems too simple to answer such a complex question of theodicy. It probably is.

To me, any word that fills that blank is a synonym for “brokenness.”

Our world is broken.

It may not be much of a comfort, but I believe God allows evil and death and darkness and hatred and suffering so we can see them for what they are, because they contrast so definitively with what we want — what He intends and wants for us — good and life and light and joy and peace. It is small comfort, but I believe that’s why evil and death are not His will, but allowing them is within His will. His will is goodness and life.

He wants us to see them for what they are.

He wants us to choose between them, and choose wisely.

He wants usto be part of His restoration of everything to the perfect state in which He created it — for good, for life, forever.