After All That I Put You Through
A few days ago, my wife and I were bombing through the mountains at the tail end of a holiday in British Columbia and had exhausted all other conversational options. So we decided to discuss the problem of evil and free will. It seemed like a nice, light holiday topic, a welcome break from what I think about most days.
Actually, we hadn’t really run out of things to talk about. The conversation emerged from a sermon that we had just listened to by Brian Zahnd. He has a summer sermon series each year called “Finding God in the Music” and the song for last Sunday was The Killers’ Quiet Town. It’s a brilliant song, which was more than enough of a reason to listen to the sermon. As it happened, we had just seen The Killers in Vancouver two days prior and our brains were still buzzing with Brandon and the boys from Las Vegas (well, mine was, at any rate… still is, actually). They’re a fantastic band and they put on a phenomenal show.
Back to freedom and evil. The theme for Zahnd’s sermon was based on the opening line of Quiet Town:
A couple of kids got hit by a Union Pacific train
Carrying sheet metal and household appliances
Through the pouring rain
The song is based on an experience from lead singer Brandon Flowers’ childhood, when a few kids in his small Utah town were killed by a train. These are formative experiences and they produce some of the deepest questions we can ever ask. How can these things happen? What kind of a world do we live in? What kind of God allows this? How can we square the love of God with the shattering pain that human beings must endure? These were among the questions Zahnd addressed in his sermon.
It was a good sermon, in my view. But in the end the preacher only has so many options when it comes to the problem of evil. Christian faith proclaims that God is present in suffering, indeed has not exempted himself from it. And Christian faith points to a new creation where tears are wiped away and evil and sorrow and suffering are no more. We may get there by different means, but this is where all of us preachers end up. Where else could we?
The second truth is a vitally important one. Suffering is not the last word on any story. What is destroyed can be remade. What has been stripped down can be built up. What is dead can come alive. There is a hope beyond this present world. But I know this can sound like so much pie-in-the-sky to the unconvinced. Heck, it can sometimes feel that way even to the mostly convinced.
So instead, I’ve been thinking more about that first truth. God is present in our suffering. God has not exempted himself from the pain of the world. There’s a scene in Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece Anna Karenina where one of the main characters, Levin, becomes a father for the first time and immediately thinks: Now the world has so many more ways to hurt me.
Well, yes. Any parent knows this. Any lover knows this. Anyone who ever opens their heart to another human being knows this. Anyone who takes a risk or steps boldly into the unknown or who assumes responsibility for someone or something knows this. Any extension of ourselves beyond ourselves entails the possibility of pain. And the longer we live and the more that we give and the more that we learn, the more ways that the world has to hurt us.
I wonder if what is true for us is true for God. I wonder if, in creating a world in and for love, God has given himself many more ways to be hurt. I realize that this bumps up against other questions of God’s knowledge and power (did God not know creation could lead to pain? Could God not have created some other kind of world?), but how else to explain the jilted lover portrayed by the prophets or Isaiah’s suffering servant? How else to explain frustrated exasperation of God as the people of Israel stumbled and bumbled from Egypt to the land of promise? How else to explain Jesus, for heaven’s sake, the Man of Sorrows, the one who wept at those who refused the way of peace, the one who cried out from Calvary’s cross, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”
Perhaps at the dawn of creation God was not so different from Levin looking in his newborn’s eyes. Now the world has so many more ways to hurt me.
In Vancouver, The Killers played most of the songs everyone wanted to hear. Mr. Brightside, Human, All These Things That I’ve Done, etc. But there were a few surprises, too. For me, one of these was Fire in Bone, from 2020’s Imploding the Mirage. It’s a song that took a while to grow on me musically. Even though I came to love it (like pretty much every Killers’ song), it didn’t seem an obvious choice for a high-octane arena concert. Strangely, they didn’t consult me before the show. Ah well, they, ahem, killed it live anyway.
And the words to the song struck me in a new way. It seems to fairly obviously be drawing from the parable of the lost son in the gospel of Luke. It is written from the perspective of someone who has tramped off in stubborn sin, someone who feels fire in their bones, “run down, wrung out, empty, unseen, and preyed upon.” How many lost human souls in our world feel this way every day, I wondered as I listened to this song.
And then the chorus. Oh man, that chorus:
When I came back empty-handed
You were waiting in the road
And you fell on my neck
And you took me back home
After all that I took from you
After all that I put you through
Here I am
The God whose very essence is love, who created in love, and in so doing opened himself up to all kinds of pain, still waits on the road, still falls on the necks of all his wayward sons and daughters, no matter what they have put him through, as they make their way home.
The image above is taken from the album cover of The Killers’ most recent album, Pressure Machine.
So, you actually talked about evil and free will while bombing through the mountains? Had you already talked about the kids’ disappointments or pleasures, about difficult church members, about your parents, aunts, uncles, etc etc? Anyway, I enjoyed the blog even if on an old topic. Me, I’m quite sure God, having created us with free will (yes) and also lovingly present when we go through consequences of our actions, should be spared the silly accusations of ‘when bad things happen to good people.’
Yeah, we covered all that other stuff, too. Thirty-plus hours driving is plenty of time 😉
I’m not quite as inclined to dismiss the existential angst produced by the problem of evil, even if I am largely persuaded that the freedom that is required for the existence of love is as good an explanation as we’re likely to get for now. But I have long puzzled over the “when bad things happen to good people” thing. Where are these “good people,” for starters? We’re all a mixed bag, sinners and saints every one of us. And what about the good things that happen to bad people? This seems to require no explanation, even if logical symmetry would seem to demand it.
I guess we’ll tackle these matters on our next road trip. 🙂
Wasn’t really going to comment but I think Ryan is right to not dismiss the problem of evil so easily. I think we come to different conclusions but I can respect a person struggles with it and still chooses to believe.
I just fail to see how a mother of two kids we lived next to awhile back is dealing with another round of cancer after just getting through the first only a month ago. These kids already lost their father two years ago. I don’t really understand what actions these folks have committed to deserve these consequences.
The calculus of these situations seem like they should be difficult for any Christian. If it all was logical symmetry be effect and cause then perhaps Karma would be a more appropriate answer to the problem of evil.
ps I still prefer Sufjan Stevens ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’ to the new Killers song on the subject of this post, but your passion for this band is making me want to come around to the newer albums.
Yeah, whatever we want to say about evil and suffering and the existence (or not) of God, any kind of calculus or symmetry seems off the table. You can’t really read the bible honestly (or pay attention to reality) and come to the conclusion that suffering is measured out according to moral performance. And the weight of how this is experienced (by the young mother, for example) should never cease to make us shudder.
I’ve always liked the lyrics to that Sufjan Stevens song (the last stanza in particular), but I find the music harder to like. I am an incorrigible stadium rock guy. 😜