The Goodness of God and the Struggle of Faith

While some may think that theodicy is a particularly modern problem, I am inclined to disagree. While such a problem might be uniquely ubiquitous in modern consciousness as compared to earlier historical places and periods, it does not seem to be a uniquely modern problem so much as a uniquely human one. That theodicy is not a uniquely modern problem one may witness from Book III of Sextus Empiricus’ Outlines. The god of the philosophers presents an ancient and irresolvable dilemma between the attributes of divine goodness, power and will.

But for proof that this is an anciently human matter, one may take several biblical examples: Jacob, the Psalmist, Job, and, perhaps preeminently placed among the Gospel accounts, that of the father of Mark 9 whose son has been in his debilitated condition all his life and who cries out, “I believe, help Thou my unbelief”–it wasn’t, I do not think, that the father doubted God could heal his son, but whether he would. It is easier, it seems to me, to believe in God’s power than to trust in his goodness.

Power is something we see exercised everyday in our fallen world, mostly in the cause of harm and toward the achievement of self-serving ends. This, as bedeviling as it is, is something we experientially understand. And because the wills directing these exercises of power are not good, or, at least are not wholly good, and because they are subject, in their self-interest, to manipulation, I think we are rationally more able to deal with the philospher’s god. With such a god, evil and suffering are explicable, or at least apparently so. But more importantly, we have some semblance of control, so we think, over our pain because we may bargain and barter and cajole this god. That is to say, in suffering, what our mind needs is the philosopher’s god, the god of cause and effect, who, we hope (though we cannot trust) can be manipulated by our promises and offerings. Our pain and suffering thus becomes seemingly explicable and, more importantly, in some way (however illusory) under our control.

Faith here is perhaps not easy, but it is not hard. For ultimately we are not exercising a faith in God (or god) but in ourselves and in our ability to bargain with God/god. We are putting our trust in our salesmanship.

Faith in a good God, however, is so very much more difficult. One would think that it would be so much easier to place our trust in a God of unutterable and perfect goodness. But in the face of pain and suffering, it is not. We may want to believe, desperately so, but we find the reality of the pain incompatible with the purported goodness of God.

And no amount of apologia seems to help. One may argue the instrumentality of suffering. But the follow through makes God appear a great sadist. One may argue the teleological good of suffering. But one may then argue whether the cost justifies the payoff. One may argue the points of free will, human sin, and so forth. But then we return to the question of God’s power. It seems that no matter how one may defend the goodness of God to the suffering, there is a gap between the intent of the words and the unfilled space within that still stings and throbs.

We are trying, I think, to answer the question of the heart with the answers of the head, and the heart finds such answers woefully inadequate. It seems to me, the heart that suffers and hurts needs not reasons but love. The heart the suffers greatly and hurts deeply needs a great love. Such a heart has a space that will not be filled except by divine love, the love of the Father. Not, I do not think though I am not sure, the love of a father, however true, who cries out “I believe, help Thou my unbelief,” but rather the love of the Father who cries out, “I love you, and I will love you yet more.”

Such a love may seem at times more terrifying than healing. I do not think I understand rightly why, though perhaps I may make guesses. I am reasonably convinced that it may well be largely due to the very lack of control that one fears when in pain. For pain and suffering bring a sort of chaos to the peace and stability of an ordered life. We must, so we feel, right the ship at all costs. We must restore order and domesticity to our daily world. How is it that we would accept yet more wildness into the chaos? How is it that we may face the losses we experience in pain and suffering with the thought, indeed, the reality of yet more losses? When one’s life is slowly being stripped bare of all its markers and foundations, must one suffer the stripping of one’s soul as well? Must injustice be topped with yet more injustice?

I think, too, the divine silence is another fear. Of course, what we want to hear is not reasons and explanations, but, rather, promises. Please tell me this will turn out right. Please promise me not only that the pain will end, but that life will be better. Or, perhaps what we want mostly to demand: Please tell me that my worst fears will not materialize. And to these pleas there is no word from the heavens, no visitations, no visions, no miracles. There is nothing but silence. One prays into the silence. One reads the Scriptures and they are little more than ink and paper. The heart is not “strangely warmed.” Moment follows moment. One stands in front of the icons and hears only the hum of the appliances, the brush of the wind against the window, the slumbering sighs of one’s children. It is not the sky of brass, impenetrable to one’s prayers, that one encounters. At least one can hammer one’s fist against that. Rather it is the endless night into which one’s prayers go, dissipating and fading into nothing.

I have heard too many times to count that God’s goodness, and our own health of soul, calls forth our thanksgiving. And Fr Stephen sets forth four things we must know in giving thanks (streaming mp3 audio from AFR here), the first of which is God’s goodness. To give thanks in happiness is not hard. But as far as I can tell, to give thanks in suffering is a duty, and it is, I am told, the practice of God-bearing saints. I do not know whether thanksgiving will draw forth the divine voice into our pain-filled silence. I do know that giving thanks in sadness is unutterably hard. I do not know how to do it without clenching my teeth.

That God is good is something I must believe if I am to retain my sanity, it seems to me. But whether I can believe it is something that must be decided with each wave of hurt, each act of endured injustice, each constrained tear. Resignation and fatalism is so much easier than this. But if God is, then this, this believing in his goodness, is that to which we have been called. It is absurd, perhaps. But it may be that it is a better absurdity than that which Camus proffered. At least I believe that most of the time.

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