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An Act of (Active) Love

Something I’ve learned over a decade and a half of pastoral ministry, is that people interpret and cope with their suffering in very different and very personal ways. Some cannot tolerate the idea that God could play any causal role whatsoever in their pain. God is their co-sufferer, labouring to bring goodness out evil, redemption out of brokenness. God is the salve, not the source. Others, take refuge in a highly specific and highly personal conception of God’s role in orchestrating the events of this world. Their torments come directly from the hand of a meticulously sovereign God whose will, while sometimes inscrutable, is always done. And then there are others—most of us, I suspect—who find ourselves somewhere between these two poles.

In my earlier days, I would have gravitated much more toward the former view than the latter. The idea that God could play a causal role in human suffering seemed to radically diminish God’s goodness, which I was desperate to preserve. If presented with a choice between a theology that prioritized God’s goodness or one that emphasized God’s power, I would choose goodness every time. The idea that God presided serenely over history’s horrors, or even the more mundane trials and tribulations of our own lives was more than I could take. I would take an impotent God over a God whose potency caused so much pain.

And now? Well, it’s complicated. I am still quite keen to conceptualize God’s role in suffering in ways that centre divine characteristics like love, grace, compassion, mercy, co-suffering. Christianity is nothing if not a following of the God who suffers alongside his creatures and his creation. I have, however, lost interest in the project of rationally explaining how God’s goodness and God’s power fit together when it comes to his role in the suffering of the world. There is a mystery here, and I’ve learned that it’s one that we must live with.

And I’m less destabilized or offended by the idea that God could play an active, causal role in human suffering than I used to be. Zena Hitz puts it memorably in her recent book, A Philosopher Looks at the Religious Life:

Theologians are fond of the distinction between God’s “permissive” will and his “active will,” and saying that God never actively wills evil. Yet willed permission is still an exercise of will, and one must ask how that permission is meant as an act of love for us personally. Otherwise, Christian life will only ever be lukewarm, a pious hobby lived in relative luxury, where one thanks oneself under the guise of thanking God. Only with the practice of abandonment and its freedom can Christianity fulfill its promise of consolation in the face of the worst suffering or its deepest, most luminous and sparkling promise, the promise of happiness.

Quite a quote that one. It hit me between the eyes when I read it this week. It takes courage and deep conviction to ask the question of how the suffering God permits in our lives is meant as an act of love. But I am increasingly thinking that this is the question we must ask if our faith is not to amount to little more than a “lukewarm, pious hobby” (ouch!) where our talking about God is mostly an exercise in just talking about ourselves.

As I mentioned, I watched The Passion of the Christ with the guys out at the jail this week. The movie was terrible in all the ways that I expected it to be terrible (and a few others besides). Aside from this, I had somehow forgotten that the film is in Aramaic, Hebrew, and Latin. It’s a bit of a problem when you have some guys who struggle with reading and a 2+ hr film is all subtitles. But the guys were very gracious. They were mostly just happy to be able to watch a whole movie from start to finish with no interruptions.

At any rate, it’s interesting to think of the cross through the lens of our philosophical and theological hairsplitting between God’s active and God’s passive will. There’s obviously a lot going on, theologically, in the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Here, too, we are trembling before a deep mystery. At the very least we must say that God somehow actively willed this evil, and that it was at the same time it was and is meant as an act of love.

Jesus was both victim and victor. God was both casualty and causality. We must not insist upon one at the expense of the other, lest we risk thanking ourselves under the guise of thanking God.

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. I will posit that to be redeemed is to be made for love. I will posit further that to live love fully, is to be so comitted to otherness that our very being is devoid of self interest, or put another way, our self interest is only sated in so far as we are dedicated to the others we serve.

    If these ideas resonate, knowing what you know about yourself and others, how exactly do we acheive redemption and love without passing through pain, suffering and death?

    April 21, 2023
    • Personally speaking, the, “baked in” failing of the, “Passion” is that it could never be violent enough. The depths of our depravity, should we ever dare to imagine them, would destroy us.

      April 21, 2023
      • If we want to come to a better understanding of the redemptive nature of suffering we need to re orient our understanding of scripture. Like many aspects of Holy Spirit activity, if not all, events are better seen as circumstances that happen once through time as opposed to events that happened once in time. Eden was then and is now. Adam was then, Adam is now. Eve was then, Eve is now. I am Adam, you are Adam, she is Eve.

        April 21, 2023
    • Yes, part of what redemption entails is indeed the recognition of what has always been true: that we were made for love.

      April 22, 2023
      • It is good for us to agree about something.❤️
        I appreciate your story telling, your basic decency, your humanity and all your intellectual skills. You can lay out an argument with the best of them.
        I suspect I will continue to confound you though, in spite of your or any other’s brilliance, I remain convicted that a believed argument, an intellectual assent to the truth, a rational faith, are woefully inadequate to guide us through our own inherent deficiencies and the suffering of life.

        Without a robust prayer life that includes a surrender of the self through a mystical interaction mediated by the Holy Spirit, we cannot live faith, we cannot live love. We will be forever debating our issues rather than living out the good news.

        His peace be with you, always.

        April 24, 2023
  2. Ajanzen #

    Thanking ourselves under the guise of thanking God. Yes. And so often thanking God for our blessings and our wealth when really we are congratulating ourselves for our amazing achievements.

    Richard Rohrs Breathing Under Water chapter 6 talks about the paradoxes and truths in tension you refer to. It may be my favorite chapter.


    April 21, 2023
    • Thanks, Abe. I have kind of mixed responses to some of Rohr’s work, but I think that book is excellent.

      April 22, 2023
  3. Elizabeth #

    This really made me think! I’ve long wondered and tried to reason out the power of God and suffering. I love this line, “There is a mystery here, and I’ve learned that it’s one that we must live with.” It’s not in my power to know or even understand. I’m good with God’s mystery. If I make it to heaven, I expect it all will make sense. It’s beyond my ability to split hairs and come to any sort of conclusion. I can live with it.

    But this line, “where one thanks oneself under the guise of thanking God.” – I remember hearing someone say, “I don’t mean to pat myself on the back but….” Just wow! It never sat right.

    Thank you for challenging me at my core.

    April 21, 2023
    • That line really jolted me, too, Elizabeth. Thanks for this.

      April 22, 2023
  4. Chris #

    Human suffering troubles me less than the suffering of animals.

    April 23, 2023
    • Why is that Chris?

      April 25, 2023
      • Hey, here’s some exciting news the mayor of New York has announced a partnership with the mayor of London England wherby they will undertake to reduce meat consumption in their respective cities by 33% over the next several years. The mayor of new york a bumbling sort of fellow who struggles to read prepared script, doesn’t exactly spell out the plan other than to tell meat eaters it is about time we confronted our hypocrisy. What he is also happy to announce is that this has to be a good idea because it is in partnership with Bill Gates, a subsiduary of the WEF and American Express…what could go wrong?
        In an unrelated story the WEF also releases a film clip warning that the world wide cultivation of rice is a threat to the planet and that the basic staple that is 80% of the daily food intake for 50% of the worlds population needs to be controlled….by somebody…not sure who…again, what could go wrong?

        We are at war people. The end of covid mandates was just simply a pause in the fighting. This is a siege and Round 2 is about to unfold. WAKE UP!!

        April 25, 2023
      • Elizabeth #

        That is false news spread through Rumble, Tiktok and FB. Not the most reliable news source. I just did some simple fact checking. Now the rice issue – what they want to control is the amount of water used when growing rice. (Does it really need to be submerged?)
        Anyways, I suppose you were just using these examples to push the, “We are at war people” idea. Seems like you say it about every 2 – 3 months. On posts where the comment isn’t relevant to Ryan’s blog post.

        April 27, 2023
  5. Not false news, Elizabeth. The WEF is advocating for some kind of national/international control over the farming of rice. Part of the 2030 agenda. It is one thing to regulate farmers at national and international levels it is quite another for international organizations to take control over food supplies. What could go wrong?

    Every time this has been done in human history, forced famine and death has followed.

    If you did not learn that the mainstream media is the source of all disinformation and that you were lied to about everything Covid during the past 3 years, you are one of this war’s victims. Sadly there are tens of millions just like you.

    May 1, 2023

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