I am delving into the matter of suffering. No one voluntarily enrolls in the School of Job. We walk past its gate, hoping our name is not called to come in and sit down. As soon as suffering invades our lives, we are not any different than our founding father of the human race, Adam. We engage in blame. Look how Adam and Eve responded to God's inquiry (He knew about them having eaten the fruit on the tree) and how they will not take personal responsibility for their actions:Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”
He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”
And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”
The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”
Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”
The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” (Gen. 3:8-13)
Our need to blame is driven by a deep fear: the fear of exposure, a glaring light shining right into our shame. It's not just the guilt we are feeling--guilt results from knowing that we have done something wrong. Shame results from believing we are past redemption; no good; worthless and one big mistake. No one wants to feel that way, so we submerge that shame under blaming someone or something, redirecting that glaring light elsewhere.
Adam blamed God and Eve: He gave Eve to him and she was the one handing him the fruit. Eve, unwilling to stand in the light, blamed the serpent.
Nothing has really changed since that day when God shines His light into our lives and our lies, and we immediately redirect the attention elsewhere. Adam blamed God. We blame God. We reason that because He is in charge of the universe, His hand must be involved in whatever takes place, whether good or bad. In fact, we even created a theology that if examined carefully, have God aiding and abetting felonies on a truly horrendous scale and quite often.
I have had friends throughout the years who are Calvinists. I am wary of adhering to any -ist or -ism with a human name in front of it as a theological lens, but I have enjoyed conversing with my friends who are -ists.
Many years ago a pastor friend of mine loaned me a book on Calvinism, hoping I would see the light. One sentence struck me like a thunderbolt: The author thanked God he was not born a Hottentot (the beleaguered South Africans whose lives were made miserable by European apartheid), implying that God had ordained him to be white and in control. I was shocked.
Another friend said to me in all sincerity, speaking of her closet friend who had been raped when she was four, "So-and-so has had a hard time accepting that God had ordained her rape." What?
So if God is in control, everything that occurs on this planet is ordained by Him. Rape of children. The Holocaust. Name your 20th century genocide. Serial killings. The list goes on and one, and in their effort to acknowledge God's sovereignty, such believers step right into Adam's shoes, placing God at the scene of the crime, and His complicity in it.
One day, I was invited by this friend to a play celebrating Martin Luther and the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The play consisted of Luther debating the Pope. (Not historical in fact, but oh well.) Of course, the pastor as Luther got all the great lines, and the woman's son was the Pope, barely able to stand up under the machine-gun fire responses wrought by Luther. (Kind of an odd morality play to watch in this day and age.)
After the play was over, as we booed the Pope and clapped for Luther (I refrained), the pastor asked the audience if we had any questions. I asked him why Luther had descended into a virulent antisemitism in his later years, even to the point of suggesting that Jews should be locked inside their synagogues and burned. He said that was a regrettable position that Luther had taken. Hmmm. Later I approached him privately and asked him if he knew about the judensau on many Lutheran churches in Germany, and how there is a debate whether to leave them in tact to teach history, or remove them, due to their highly offensive nature. He didn't now about them, and when I explained that carved into stone on these churches' wall is a Jew sucking milk from a pig's teat, he looked horrified.
In this church's effort to celebrate the theology of Calvin and Luther, they had to sneak past history and human suffering very quickly, to get to the intellectually satisfying position that God is in control and ordains everything that happens to us.
It is very comforting to say, "God willed this." Or equally say, to the person who is reeling in a tragedy, "God ordained this." On other words, the fear that our suffering has no meaning and that terrible things happen on this planet randomly, is an abhorrent idea to people who love God and want Him to be in control. Their fear drives them to ascribe to God culpability for everything, even if it means having Him preside over the rape of a child.
I am sure some of you will be offended at how much I have reduced Calvinism and Lutheranism. But theology in the seminary is not where the average person lives and breathes, and sweeping dogmatic statements implicating God in criminal behavior needs to be confronted. Yes, both reformers had some good insight into the Bible, but those who have inculcated their views into a daily way of seeing how God works has left me deeply saddened.
But wait! There's more. John Piper has identified prosperity gospel as American Christianity's biggest import and is very upset by that. He feels that it misrepresents the Gospel and when this theology fails, people will move away from God altogether. I respect him for that. (Yes, I know he is a Calvinist. I can still learn from him, even if I disagree with his theological lens.) The Third World is awash in prosperity gospel preachers, and its appeal is understandable. The fear your life is ordained, with all of its pain and suffering, is not very appealing, especially when the future looks as bleak as the present. God's ordaining of your suffering may give it meaning, yes, but in the long run, such a life has little hope in it. So, what is the answer to suffering? Instead of placing the responsibility on God, prosperity gospel teachers teach that you haven't yet applied the Laws of Prosperity! Your suffering comes from your ignorance and now, all you must do is exert your faith and access God's wealth. Of course, the best way is to tithe money into such a church and God will multiply it over and over for you! You just need to exert your faith, BOOM! Wealth, health and a prosperous life are yours!
So, according to this theology, your faith is the antidote for suffering. God ordains, in this theology, a life blessed beyond measure, especially in the material realm, where we live. So hunger, disease, poverty and suffering are just a big cosmic misunderstanding, and once enlightened, heaven comes down to earth via our faith!
You may be thinking at this point, Wow, Rhonda, isn't this a bit unfair? Boiling down a response to suffering as believing either God ordained it or we have the power to change it with our faith--isn't that being a bit reductive?
No. I don't think so. The American church is replete in prosperity theology and our megachurches are awash in its teaching, in some form or another. Many of the Calvinists I have talked to see their theology as a way to strike back at the prosperity gospel, by putting God back on His sovereign throne. They eagerly want to pull down what they see is presumption parading as faith and toss it in the trash heap. They agree that God wants our faith, but ultimately, even if we have all the faith in the world, if our child is sick and is going to die, because God wills it, our faith will not have any impact. The Calvinists revile this faith in faith way of thinking, and the prosperity types don't want a God that doesn't want the best for them in this world, not just in the world to come.
In this time we are going through, with Covid-19 on the rampage (despite our overwhelming desire to bring back the normal, by not wearing masks and sitting in church) we are faced directly with suffering and we want to cope with it. Meaninglessness only lasts so long; no one wants to sit and their cosmic lunch alone. For us to endure suffering in life, we want a meaningful explanation, one that gives us hope and encourages us to face another day.
I am hoping as we explore suffering, to offer a model that was inspired by a scene in the series, Band of Brothers.
One of the soldiers, who has driven ahead of the company, is rushing back to tell the sergeant that he needs to come and see something. The sergeant wants to know what the soldier has seen, but the soldier just can't seem to explain it. The company pulls up to a barbed wire fence, where gaunt, skeletal men slowly come up to the fence, in stripped uniforms. The sergeant wants to know what's going on; one of the soldiers, who speaks German, is trying desperately piece together what the inmates are telling him. More and more people gather and the stench of the camp invades the senses of the soldiers. They have no idea what they have found, for this is no Geneva Convention guided POW camp; something is horribly wrong, and the Americans who have arrived are completely dumbfounded as to what they are seeing.
We know. We want to reach in and tell the soldiers this is the real war that Hitler wanted: the utter elimination of the Jewish people. The D-Day invasion, of which these soldiers have been a part, was only part of the war effort. But as one soldier realizes, who earlier had been complaining about why they have been fighting so hard, this is why: to stop this unspeakable evil. He gets it and at the end, so do we. This was truly a crusade to stop not just a war but the wholesale slaughter of humanity.
Now, the model that I will be exploring is one of our planet as being one big war zone, with unspeakable evil occurring daily. The planet was invaded by an evil when Adam and Eve handed it over to the enemy, who had promised them so much and who then gave them a legacy of evil and destruction. His job, from the moment Adam and Eve took that apple from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, instead from the Tree of Life (God's wisdom and ways) was to "steal, kill and destroy." (John 10:10)
Jesus stepped into this war zone to retake the planet, one soul at a time. Suffering is an intrinsic part of war zones. We will examine how suffering is part of this planet, pure and simple, and the hope is in Jesus and how we follow Him through the chaos.
Stick with me.