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Our Refuge and Strength

Last week’s earthquake in Nepal has, at last count, resulted in well over five thousand deaths and has crippled the nation in all the devastating ways that “natural disasters” do. We see these images and read these reports on our screens and we feel numb. We have few categories for such suffering. The weight of the pain seems too much to contemplate. We don’t know what to do or say or how to pray. For a while, at least.

Eventually, though, a familiar script begins to unfold, at least online. Social media begins to be flooded with a combination of opportunities to donate to relief efforts (which is laudable and desperately necessary and one of the increasingly few good uses of social media) and inspirational stories of “miraculous” survivals after days in the rubble (I saw two of these today). Oh, and articles from Christian bloggers with titles like “Where Was God in the Earthquake?” Where, indeed.

Jason Micheli is a pastor/blogger whose voice I have come to appreciate greatly over the past few years, not least because he recently had a seismic shift in his own life with a devastating cancer diagnosis. Today, he wrote a great piece about the question of where God “is” when bad things happen. This is the question that we are always asking, isn’t it? Why does God allow what he allows? How can we think about something like “divine providence” in the context of the world’s horrors without going insane or extending the middle finger of protest to the God who allows such things?

In his article, Micheli quotes one of my favourite books on the problem of evil, David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea:

Simply said, there is no more liberating knowledge given us by the gospel—and none in which we should find more comfort—than the knowledge that suffering and death, considered in themselves, have no ultimate meaning at all.”

Yes, certainly, there is nothing, not even suffering and death, that cannot be providentially turned towards God’s good ends. But the New Testament also teaches us that, in another and ultimate sense, suffering and death—considered in themselves—have no true meaning or purpose at all; and this is in a very real sense the most liberating and joyous wisdom that the gospel imparts.

Is Hart right about this? Suffering has no meaning at all? Is this the “most liberating and joyous wisdom that the gospel imparts?” So many people would say the exact opposite of this. The liberating wisdom of the gospel is that their suffering does have a purpose in God’s ultimate plan, however indecipherable such a purpose might be.

Many people need this to be true. I recently sat across a table from someone who demanded that this be true. If there was no meaning for all the bad things in the world, if God wasn’t somehow using each instance of pain and suffering to accomplish his ultimate plan—if suffering wasn’t planned by God and somehow necessary—the only logical response was despair. No, meaningless suffering is certainly not seen as “liberating” for many people; it is seen as a threat, and little more.

Catastrophes like the one in Nepal sharpen the question of how or if divine providence works. But there are “ordinary horrors” that each of us moves through each day. The following is the result of a (very) quick mental scan of the past week or so in my own personal orbit.

A relative roughly my age who just discovered multiple tumours. This after recently losing his wife and raising two high school kids on his own while struggling with a chronic illness that has affected him since he was young, and after his father-in-law recently barely survived open-heart surgery.

A friend and colleague whose spouse recently received a cancer diagnosis and a bleak prognosis.

Another friend who continues to stumble around in the fog and darkness left by the loss of a child.

Another relative who has suffered from debilitating chronic pain for a decade (or more).

And there are those that struggle with infertility, with addictions, with relational dysfunction and breakdown, with depression, with poverty, with…

Yes, I know that as a pastor I regularly encounter people in pain—perhaps more than those in other professions. But that’s a lot of suffering. And, again, that’s only based on a week’s worth of conversations and encounters. Does God have a specific providential plan for each and every one of these instances? Is there a reason that person x gets cancer and person y loses a young daughter? Is there a specific divine plan at work in this particular diagnosis or that particular natural disaster?

I don’t think so. I can’t think so. To think that God is somehow micromanaging the horrors of the cosmos for his (or our) benefit, or putting the jigsaw puzzle together, or calibrating the pain for some master plan seems to make God morally incomprehensible. The God that I see in the face of Jesus does not operate this way, does not deliberately pile burdens upon those already bowed low with sorrow, does not break a bruised reed or snuff out a wick. I’m inclined to agree with David Bentley Hart—it is good news that suffering has no inherent meaning. It fits with my experience. It fits the world I observe. It frees me from having to root around in pain (my own or others) trying to decode whatever message God might be trying to communicate. It allows me to pray.

The truth is, I don’t know how the providence of God works, and I am increasingly convinced that I never will. The only “reason” that some things happen is because the world is a screwed up place where terrible things happen. All. The. Time.

This Sunday we have a choir coming to our church, and they are coordinating our worship service. The scripture they have chosen as their theme is Psalm 46. I spent some time reading and praying this psalm this morning.

God is our refuge and strength,

    a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,

    though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;

though its waters roar and foam,

    though the mountains tremble with its tumult…

God is our refuge—our place to hide, our shelter, our hiding place…

God is our strength—for strength will surely be required in this world and all that it contains…

Therefore we will not fear—though awful things will always be happening, though the plates shift and all comes to rubble, though we are finite and fragile, and not long for this place… Though this world is not (and has never been) safe… Though meaningless awful things happen every day around the world… Though the pieces don’t fit, though the explanations elude us, though we ache for insight into some kind of master plan (or at least, we think we do—would we really want there to be a “reason” for what happened in Nepal?), though it often seems like destruction and chaos are stronger than love and hope, though this world often seems virtually tailor-made to frustrate human longings….

Despite all of these things and more…. We will not fear.

Because God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

Even if that trouble has no meaning or purpose other than to one day be exposed as being exactly what it felt like to us at the time—damnably false and unjust, mercilessly contrary to the character and purposes of God.

17 Comments Post a comment
  1. mmartha #

    David Bentley Hart’s work has been a blessing and if not an explanation, a perspective of hope over our own optimism (also given attention in The Doors of the Sea). Especially in your writing I liked the reference to looking into Jesus’ face. That is certainly an assurance.
    From The Beauty of the Infinite, 399, I recount this thought though knowing it isn’t a thorough rendering of Hart’s meaning in the section “Eschaton.” But “God tells correctly the story that a sinful humanity tells awry, and so saves not by unifying the many strands of human history in a great synthesis but by electing one story as the truth of the world.”
    Rowan Williams has referred to David Hart as brilliant. He is absolutely a deep thinker and theologian.

    April 30, 2015
    • What a magnificent line from The Beauty of the Infinite! Thank you for sharing this.

      April 30, 2015
  2. mike #

    Such a difficult Contemplation to reason-out. With a subject as delicate and complicated as this I’m generally forced to reference “personal experience” to inform just what it is I believe.
    It seems that everything “bad” that has happened in my life has EVENTUALLY resulted in an improvement, mostly in my relationship with God, but other things too. I readily admit that I have frequently sought refuge in the Almighty when “things went south” so to speak. I’ve confessed here before that I’m such a user of God,…and He knows this. So what I’m trying to say here is that my own personal experiences of pain,suffering and tragedy have always driven me back to the Throne of God, and I can’t help but believe that He had a hand in it ALL.

    Who can know the extent of the unseen/unknown ramifications that the tragedy in Nepal has put into play in Humanity? God is deliberately at work reconciling the World to Himself, one heart at a time.

    Christ have mercy.

    April 30, 2015
    • Yes, it’s very difficult, Mike. After I wrote this piece, my first thought was of all the many people who would say that suffering brought them closer to God—and in a way that they cannot imagine anything else doing. This testimony must never be discounted. My inclination is almost always to defer to those for whom these are not comfortable abstractions but real life experiences.

      And yet. I look at Nepal… and Haiti… And I cannot conceive of any “system” where this could be necessary for some higher purpose. I cannot imagine how little children and elderly people being crushed under the weight of rubble could be part of some “higher good.” I just can’t. Maybe it’s my own poverty of imagination. I don’t know.

      But even more important than my inability to conceptualize some system where this could all fit is my inability to think of a God who would require this. It’s virtually impossible for me to love and worship a God who deliberately and specifically afflicts people or communities or nations with the kinds of suffering that we regularly see in our world.

      It seems to me that each of us, wherever we fit on the spectrum of how God’s providence works, has an “I dunno” hole. Those who have a quite exalted view of providence, where God specifically decides each and everything about the cosmos, are forced to say “I dunno” when faced with the question, “How could this God possibly be good?” And those whose understanding of God’s providence involves far less specificity and far more openness are forced to say “I dunno” when faced with the question, “How could this God possibly be trusted to overcome evil in the future if he’s not controlling everything now?” Or something like that.

      When it comes to questions of divine providence, I think each of us is just picking where to stick the “I dunno.”

      May 1, 2015
    • I’m such a user of God,…and He knows this.

      Love this line, incidentally! Me, too.

      May 1, 2015
  3. Joyce #

    You write: “The truth is, I don’t know how the providence of God works, and I am increasingly convinced that I never will.”
    I say you’re right on!

    May 2, 2015
  4. Joyce #

    Ryan, I hope you realize that I was not referring to you alone, I meant it apply to us all. I recently heard a quote from the most senior of the Robert Schullers who said: Believers make a commitment before they know all the answers. It is surely that, isn’t it?

    May 3, 2015
  5. mike #

    Providence/Divine Intervention or just plain luck? You decide:

    I decided to change the oil in my 1998 Nissan pickup truck this weekend. Everything was going OK until I tried to remove the old oil filter, I spent over an hour trying to get it off by hand, then I resorted to a Big screwdriver and hammer to knock it loose to no avail, I ended up punching several dents and holes in the old filter but it didn’t budge. I went back to the auto store and bought a oil filter removal wrench and proceeded to finally get it off. Then I screwed on the new filter and started up the truck. Then disaster struck.. The new filter blew off and 4 quarts of very expensive synthetic spewed out on the street. I was horrified at the huge oil spill and concerned at what the neighbors might say.After spreading A LOT of cat litter on the spill I went back to the auto store and told them what happened and they offered me a free replacement filter and a small discount on the replacement oil. Back I went and put on the new replacement filter but I noticed it wouldn’t screw on tight and would break loose before getting really tight. I figured I had stripped the grooves on the oil filter bolt on the engine…this would be a very costly to fix!. I called my brother-in-law and asked his advice, during the conversation I mentioned the make and model of the truck to him. My wife was listening in the background and informed me that my truck WAS NOT a 1998 but a 1997 and that Nissan had completely changed the engines in the 1998 models. After quickly hanging up with my brother-in-law, I went back to the auto store and purchased an oil filter for a 1997 model, the guy told me that there was a probably very subtle difference in threading! The new filter went on perfectly!

    Several times while all this was going on I asked God to help me out of this jam and provide a easy fix. Did He answer my prayer?? Was it the hand of providence that allowed my wife to overhear my conversation with my brother-in law and provide the solution? ..I believe so.

    May 4, 2015
    • My wife is often the voice of God in my life. 🙂

      (Great story! Thanks for sharing it.)

      May 4, 2015
  6. brentwhite #

    I left a similar comment over at Micheli’s blog, but I won’t hold my breath that he’ll respond. (We have history.) I’ve read Hart’s book, and for a while I was enamored of it, not because it made much sense, but because he wrote with such force, such extreme self-confidence, such derision, how could he be wrong? But if so, how do we explain this very sentence that Micheli excerpts?

    Yes, certainly, there is nothing, not even suffering and death, that cannot be providentially turned towards God’s good ends.

    How is this not a remarkable concession on Hart’s part, which contradicts much of what Hart says (or what Micheli says he says). If this is true—that God “can certainly” turn even suffering and death providentially “toward God’s good ends” (I would say “will certainly,” per Romans 8:28, but that hardly affects my point), then that implies that suffering has meaning: God is using it for his redemptive purposes. If there’s a purpose in allowing it, then that implies meaning.

    Or think of it this way: If we believe that God responds to and at least occasionally grants our petitionary prayers (it’s hard to argue against this point on biblical grounds), then what are we to imagine when God doesn’t grant our petition? There are three options, as far as I can see: (1) God is powerless to grant the petition; (2) God is capricious about granting our petitions; or (3) God has a good reason (whether we know what it is or not) in not granting this particular petition.

    Is there some fourth option?

    I had a clergy friend tell me, “Maybe God sometimes just lets nature run its course.” Yes, but why? If there are times when God doesn’t “just let nature run its course,” as my friend conceded that there are, then surely God has a good reason in those cases when he doesn’t. And if he has a reason in those cases, there is, therefore, meaning in all cases.

    Think about the nearly infinite sequence of cause and effect that is set in motion in all directions by even one small event, never mind an earthquake, hurricane, or tsunami. Even one person’s death affects hundreds, or thousands, throughout history—people born, people unborn, people who may not even exist because of this person’s death. One “small” death changes the world. God can’t simply “let nature run its course” without intervening in some way—if in fact God loves us the way scripture says he does.

    Also, I wonder if you’re not falling victim (as so many of us do when it comes to such large-scale tragedy) to “sum of suffering” arguments. What I mean is, the scale or extent of a tragedy adds nothing to the argument for or against God’s goodness. As C.S. Lewis said, “The sum of suffering doesn’t exist because no one suffers it.” In other words, the worst suffering in the world is the one person who suffers the most, and no more. The worst suffering that that existed in the wake of that earthquake in Nepal was one person suffering. No one suffered more than that. While that suffering was obviously terrible, each of the dozens of people who died in traffic accidents while driving home today suffered nearly as much as anyone suffered in Nepal.

    Whether God lets one person die in a car accident, or one-hundred thousand in an earthquake, God is no more and no less off the hook for human suffering.

    Finally, at the risk of sounding glib, heaven does balance the scales of justice. We need an afterlife for justice to be fully and finally done. That is part of our Christian hope.

    May 6, 2015
    • Re: if suffering can be redeemed, then that implies that suffering has meaning…

      I won’t presume to speak for Jason or for DB Hart, but for me I suppose I would locate the “meaning” of suffering in the response to it, whether on a strictly human level or in our participation with God in overcoming/redeeming/moving through it. Perhaps the meaning isn’t to be located in the suffering itself (i.e., the suffering has no inherent value in and of itself), but in the web of actions and beliefs that are employed in response to it.

      I realize full well the force of your argument with respect to intervention, providence, answered prayer, etc. I’ve wrestled with these questions for years. For my part, I’ve simply come to the point where I am unwilling to sacrifice my conception of God’s goodness for my conception of God’s power and/or knowledge with respect to sovereignty. I reflected on this in a comment above:

      It seems to me that each of us, wherever we fit on the spectrum of how God’s providence works, has an “I dunno” hole. Those who have a quite exalted view of providence, where God specifically decides each and everything about the cosmos, are forced to say “I dunno” when faced with the question, “How could this God possibly be good?” And those whose understanding of God’s providence involves far less specificity and far more openness are forced to say “I dunno” when faced with the question, “How could this God possibly be trusted to overcome evil in the future if he’s not controlling everything now?” Or something like that.

      When it comes to questions of divine providence, I think each of us is just picking where to stick the “I dunno.”

      Re: falling victim to the “sum of suffering” argument… No, I don’t think so. I feel exactly the same about one instance of suffering as I do about massive large-scale suffering. A five-year-old girl being sexually assaulted evokes the same response in me as an earthquake in Nepal. And this is where I think the “God has a reason for your suffering” falls short, whether we want to claim that suffering is God’s tool to punish rebellion or forge character or whatever. At least on some kind of one-size-fits-all level. Could you or I honestly tell a little girl that God has some pedagogical purpose for allowing her to be raped? And even if, inexplicably, we could say such a thing, the question of whether or not we should seems laughably absurd.

      I’m not suggesting that there are not cases where people who have experienced horrors like this have not found moral meaning or redemption in their suffering at a later point in life, or that they could not be drawn closer to God by such events, or even that God could have specific meaning for suffering in someone’s life. Miraculously, mercifully, this is so. But there are countless examples in the other direction, too, where people are hardened and destroyed by such things, and where, often, it is precisely well-meaning religious folks with their “explanations” for suffering that have done much of the damage. There are times—many times—where we should just shut up with our presumed explanations. Job’s friends were doing pretty well for the first seven days they were with him. And then they opened their mouths.

      Finally, you said:

      Finally, at the risk of sounding glib, heaven does balance the scales of justice. We need an afterlife for justice to be fully and finally done. That is part of our Christian hope.

      Yes, amen. Thank God.

      May 7, 2015
      • brentwhite #

        I sensed that you had wrestled with these questions. I appreciate that. One thing I’m arguing is that the difference between God’s “causing” (as in a highly Calvinist, deterministic way) and God’s “permitting” (as most of the rest of us believers affirm) isn’t as great as we may want it to be. To say, “God permits or allows,” doesn’t let God “off the hook,” if you will.

        What kind of God would allow, under any circumstances, a child to be raped? Well… a God who knows, perhaps, that the consequences of intervening to prevent that evil would be worse. Right? Only an infinite God can know these consequences. We can’t. We’re not surprised by our epistemic limitations. So we trust God, who doesn’t have these limitations.

        Regarding the child rapist, I don’t know what else we can do except to affirm three things simultaneously: (1) The rapist’s action is evil and will be judged and punished by a God who has justifiable anger toward sin. (2) Nevertheless, in the interest of God’s good purposes for our world—among which is a desire for maximal human freedom (which is a great, if terrifying gift)—God has decided to allow this evil to take place. And God will be working to redeem this evil, if not fully in this present world, then in the word to come.

        I agree with Hart that bad stuff doesn’t happen because God needs it to happen to accomplish his purposes. (In his book, Hart talks about this at length.) But it’s not a question of God’s “needing” it to happen. A more helpful way to look at it is that bad stuff happens for any number of reasons: we live in a fallen, sin-filled world; our actions have consequences. The question is, What’s God going to do about it now? How’s God going to use it? And this is where a healthy understanding of God’s providence and sovereignty comes in.

        As an Arminian, I find it helpful to think in terms of God’s “antecedent” and God’s “consequent” will. In a world in which humanity (and angels) hadn’t fallen into sin, then by all means, suffering and death would have no place, and they would be against God’s will. But given that we live in this world, here’s what God wants; here’s what God will do; here’s how God will use suffering and death. If God can transform the worst evil—the death of his Son—into the greatest good, then it’s not hard to imagine that God can make the same transformation with “lesser” evil. I believe he does so all the time.

        How does Hart or Micheli imagine that God is off the hook by saying it’s all meaningless? Although, as I say, Hart contradicts himself. It doesn’t matter whether suffering and death have meaning, per se. Maybe they don’t. But if, as even Hart allows, God can redeem it, then we’re back to meaning and purpose.

        Whether suffering actually produces “good effects” for the people suffering depends, in large part, on that person’s response. Suffering can and will destroy a person’s soul sometimes, as we all know. I take it that this is in part what James is getting at in chapter 1 of his letter. Will this suffering prove to be a helpful test or a temptation to sin? It depends. But I think we can affirm Jesus’ promise to Paul, who knew a thing or two about suffering: “My grace is sufficient for you.”

        For a fascinating, deeply moving, and fairly “secular” account of this point, read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl, a psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor who stood on the highest moral high ground imaginable—besides Jesus himself—says that every instance of suffering offers us a choice: will this suffering crush our souls or enable us to grow spiritually. In many cases, he conceded that suffering crushed his fellow inmates, but he didn’t believe that it needed to. It’s a choice.

        After one particularly difficult episode in the death camp, his fellow prisoners were committing suicide in large numbers. He said that he gathered his colleagues and gave them a speech (I’m paraphrasing), “You want to kill yourself because you don’t expect anything more out of life. But life still expects something from you! Even if it’s only to walk into the gas chamber with your head held high.”

        We’re Christians! How much more true is that for us? God expects something from us! As Frankl quotes Dostoyevsky: “My fear isn’t suffering—only that I wouldn’t be worthy of my sufferings.”

        I don’t deny that we “pick our spots,” pastorally, when we communicate words about God’s sovereignty or providential care, but it isn’t the case that we never say anything or, in my opinion, resort only to saying, as so many of our fellow mainline Protestants do, “It’s a mystery.” Well, it may be a mystery to us in our finiteness, but it isn’t to God. And it’s perfectly okay to affirm some things about suffering, preferably before we’re in the midst of it.

        May 7, 2015
      • I don’t have any substantial disagreement with anything you’ve written here, Brent. You’ve articulated the importance of God’s redemptive sovereignty quite well. I suppose I would just be a bit more reticent to speak so confidently about the “meaning” of suffering in this or that specific case. This is especially true pastorally, in my view. I have sat with people suffering crushing loss, as I’m sure you have, too. Sometimes (very rarely) they are interested in speculating about how it all fits with Divine Providence. But far more frequently, they simply want to know that God weeps with them in their pain.

        Can God weep over what he wills? This is the question, in a nutshell, I suppose. And, I think that just as you rightly point to the cross as evidence that there is no suffering so great that it cannot be turned toward God’s good purposes, so here I would say that our answer must be “yes,” no matter how many qualifications we might want to include. God can and does weep over what he wills (or allows). Any theology with a cross at the centre of it would seem to demand this possibility.

        A final word about “mystery.” You are critical of the way in which mainline Protestants play this card. But we’re all doing it, wherever we are on the spectrum. There is no theology that ties it all up perfectly with no loose ends, no stray threads. At some level, we are all forced to say that there are things that we simple cannot understand when it comes to God, providence, evil, suffering, redemption, etc. I suppose I prefer to err on the side of preserving my moral categories about God and the lived experience of human suffering and resist the urge to interpret pain that is mostly foreign to me. This doesn’t mean that I refuse to speak of redemptive suffering, or that I tell people that their suffering has no meaning. It just means that I’m very slow to go this route.

        May 7, 2015
  7. Christ was innocent, yet suffered horribly. He was redeemed and sits at the right hand of the Father. Any other living person who has suffered innocently unto death, sits at the right hand of Christ. Know it to be so, for it is.

    Know that the person you lost, has been found by Jesus. They have been glorified and are experiencing indescribable happiness beyond human comprehension, in the presence of God.

    May 8, 2015

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