Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Paradox of Pain

Which of these is true? Either God is all powerful but doesn’t care about the people of Japan and their suffering or He does care about the people of Japan but He’s not all powerful? Which is it?

There’s a viral video clip circulating of an interview with Rob Bell, pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, mastermind behind the effective Nooma videos and author of the just-released much-discussed book Love Wins. The interview, with Martin Bashir of MSNBC, has Bell’s detractors rejoicing at Bell’s apparent sidestepping of some either-or questions.
One either-or question Bashir repeats has been echoing in my head, as I’ve followed the news of tornados in unexpected places, heard reports of the continuing struggle following the earthquakes and tsunami in Japan, and spent time visiting and praying for our friend Emily, struck by lightening almost three years ago. Here’s part of the transcript:

Kyodo Press
Bashir: Before we talk about the book (Love Wins), just help us with this tragedy in Japan. Which of these is true? Either God is all powerful but doesn’t care about the people of Japan and their suffering or He does care about the people of Japan but He’s not all powerful? Which is it?

Bell: I begin with the belief that God, when we shed a tear, God sheds a tear. I begin with a divine being who is profoundly empathetic, compassionate and stands in solidarity with us. Secondly the dominant story of the scriptures is about restoration, it’s about renewal, it’s about rebirth, it’s about a god who insists in the midst of this chaos the last word hasn’t been spoken so people of faith cling to the hope God will fix this place. It’s a beautiful hope. We ought to keep it front and center now.

Bashir: So which of those is true, he’s all-powerful and he cares or he cares and he’s not all-powerful?

Bell: I think it’s a paradox at the heart of the divine. Some paradoxes are best left as they are.

Bell is finding himself criticized in Christian circles because he insists on paradox. God loves us, cares, is all powerful, but allows tsunamis. Jesus will draw all men to himself, but we have the freedom to resist. We don’t like paradox, yet if we watch the world carefully, and read scripture thoughtfully, we find reality saturated with paradox, and our attempts to nail things down, tie them up, list them out, thwarted at every turn. 

Consider this short passage: "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose" (Philippians 2:12-13).

Who is working? What part does human agency play? Looks like paradox to me. I could spend this whole blog listing inescapable paradoxes, but stay with this one: is God caring but unable to stop tsunamis and tornados, or is God powerful but disinterested?
Put this another way: Where was God when my parents split and left four kids to fend for themselves? When Emily was digging daffodil bulbs and a lightning bolt shot through her? When all those priests whose parishioners trusted them abused the children in their care? When the tornado ripped roofs off homes, and smashed cars with children inside?

Here’s the paradox, the puzzle I can’t unravel. He was right there – grieving. He was right there, loving those who did harm, those done harm, arms of love surrounding both  the innocent and the guilty. Waiting to bring redemption.

Don’t buy it?

We approach the problem of pain from one of two directions. We can see it as an intellectual exercise – the Pharisees either/or. When we come at it from that direction, we get the answer God gives in Job:
“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
   Tell me, if you understand.
  Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! . . .
“Brace yourself like a man;
   I will question you,
   and you shall answer me.
“Would you discredit my justice?
   Would you condemn me to justify yourself?

In other words, God says “you think your puny mind is going to understand my intent? Little, time-locked, three-dimensional human, you think you think you can grasp the greater purpose of one who lives outside time, outside space, in dimensions you can’t begin to fathom? You trust your mind that much?”

The other approach is that of the hurt child, the wounded friend, asking “Why?”

Peter Kreeft, philosophy professor at Boston University, leans into this question in a thoughtful discussion of suffering:  

“This is not merely the philosophers' ‘why’" Not only does it add the emotion of tears but also it is asked in the context of relationship. It is a question put to the Father, not a question asked in a vacuum.

The hurt child needs not so much explanations as reassurances. And that is what we get: the reassurance of the Father in the person of Jesus, ‘he who has seen me has seen the Father’ (Jn 14:9).

The answer is not just a word but the Word; not an idea but a person. . . He didn't give us a placebo or a pill or good advice. He gave us himself.

Anna Kocher  2006
. . . He sits beside us in the lowest places of our lives, like water. Are we broken? He is broken with us. Are we rejected? Do people despise us not for our evil but for our good, or attempted good? He was ‘despised and rejected of men.’ Do we weep? Is grief our familiar spirit, our horrifyingly familiar ghost? Do we ever say, ‘Oh, no, not again! I can't take any more!’? He was ‘a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.’ Do people misunderstand us, turn away from us? They hid their faces from him as from an outcast, a leper. Is our love betrayed? Are our tenderest relationships broken? He too loved and was betrayed by the ones he loved. ‘He came unto his own and his own received him not.’ 

. . . Does he descend into all our hells? Yes. In the unforgettable line of Corrie ten Boom from the depths of a Nazi death camp, ‘No matter how deep our darkness, he is deeper still.’

Kreeft’s discussion raises some interesting ideas about suffering, the cross, God’s love, but leaves questions, objections. Any attempt to address suffering is by necessity superficial – pain goes beyond words, beyond thought. Who would expect the problem of pain to be resolved in a two sentence soundbite, (as in the Bell/Bashir interview) a short (or long) blog entry, a few-thousand-word essay?

C. S. Lewis, described as the greatest apologist of the early 20th century, wrote two full-length books wrestling with the question of suffering, first from the philosophical angle, in The Problem of Pain, and again from a personal, relational point of view, in A Grief Observed. Anyone seriously considering suffering and pain would do well to read them, but his conclusions are no clearer than Rob Bell’s simple admission: “It’s a paradox at the heart of the divine.”

Here’s what Lewis says in A Grief Observed:

When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of ‘no answer’. It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate gaze. As though He shook his head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace, child, you don’t understand.

Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily, I should think. All non-sense questions are unanswerable. How many hours are there in a mile? Is a yellow square round? Probably half the questions we ask — half our great theological and metaphysical problems, are like that.

Later, Lewis concludes:

Heaven will solve our problems, but not by showing us subtle reconciliations between all our apparently contradictory notions. The notions will be knocked from under our feet. We shall see that there never was any problem.

We see in part, and understand in part. What I’ve learned, in my own experience, and in shared prayer and struggle with many others, is that when we turn to God in our pain, he comes close. He meets us there. He leads us into deeper knowledge of himself, greater fellowship with Christ and his cross, and deeper compassion with others in pain.

Jeff Roberts, Birmingham News AP
That may be the most mysterious aspect of suffering. “The answer is not just a word but the Word; not an idea but a person.” And while the person is always Jesus, sometimes the person is also us. As Kreeft says: He came. He is here. That is the salient fact. If he does not heal all our broken bones and loves and lives now, he comes into them and is broken, like bread, and we are nourished. And he shows us that we can henceforth use our very brokenness as nourishment for those we love. Since we are his body, we too are the bread that is broken for others. Our very failures help heal other lives; our very tears help wipe away tears; our being hated helps those we love.

How is it possible, that our suffering can aid those who suffer? Paradox. Another of those questions that will be knocked from under out feet, when we see the full purpose, in dimensions we can just begin to imagine. Another mystery to pursue another day.

Like graves, we heal over, and yet keep
as part of ourselves the severe gift.
By grief, more inward than darkness,
the dead become the intelligences of life.
Where the tree falls, the forest rises
There is nowhere to stand but in absence,
no life but in the fateful light.
    From Rising (Wendell Berry)

Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.