Archive for June, 2013

What the Matrix really is…

Posted: June 30, 2013 by J in Bible, Theology

“Do you want to know what the Matrix is, Neo?”

Everyone reads Scripture with assumptions and ideas about what’s going on with the book as a whole. Everyone has a view of ‘what it’s all about’ which colours the way they read the parts. Controlling ideas which frame and guide interpretation. It may be as simple as ‘the Bible is my rule book’, or somewhat more sophisticated, ‘the Bible is about how to get right with God.’

Biblical theology has encouraged the process of identifying and articulating the controlling ideas and categories: the ‘big picture’ or grid. Biblical theology encourages us to see the unity of Scripture: how it all hangs together and what’s at its heart.

What then are the big picture ideas and categories that emerge when we read Scripture in this way? What’s the right grid to read it through?

This is a contentious issue, not everyone agrees on the answer. But it’s worth pursuing: for whatever the book is about, that’s what our world is about.

So I thought it might be helpful for me to ‘come clean’ – to own up what are my guiding lights, the ideas and assumptions that control my own reading. And maybe, for clarity’s sake to contrast them with what are not my big picture ideas.

Here goes:

Controlling category: eschatology*, not soteriology

Controlling genre: narrative, not law or proposition.

Focal location: this created order (earth), not another world

Controlling concept: the kingdom of God, not salvation

Major players: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, mankind, the demonic

Big picture event: the victory of God, not the satisfying of the law

Summary texts: Psalm 110:1

The LORD says to my lord,
“Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies your footstool.”

and Mark 1:15

not John 3:16     and not Romans 3:28 “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”

Future hope: restored world, not escape from world

Identity of church: outpost of new creation, not preachers of the message

If nothing else, I hope this helps you make sense of some of the other strange stuff you read around this blogsite. 🙂  It might even help you make sense of stuff you read in Scripture – who knows!

I’d love to hear your reactions, reflections on my controlling concepts confession. What could I add to it, or change?

DISCLAIMER: (I don’t often do these so I hope you appreciate this one. 🙂    )

Remember that the not‘s aren’t saying ‘not true’: they’re saying ‘not the big picture idea in this area.’ Many of the not‘s above are true and important, it’s just they’re part of a larger category which I have tried to identify instead. John 3:16 is a beautiful and massively important saying, but it describes one aspect of what God is doing in his Psalm 110:1/Mark 1:15 plan. Preaching is important, but not the big-picture of our identity.


*eschatology in the sense of the directedness or forward movement of all things as they head towards the goal which God has planned for his creation.

In Christ, suffering has an eschatological significance. It also takes on a relational meaning: we can say that suffering is a major currency in which our experience of connection to Christ is now transacted. Paul writes:

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.  Philippians 3:10

Sufferings have been so thoroughly subverted by God’s grace that they have actually become a vehicle of his love:

Endure trials for the sake of discipline: God is treating you as children… he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness…discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.   Hebrews 12:7-11

So the Christian has great cause to hope in sufferings, for they guarantee us a good future which our Father has prepared for us in Christ:

For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure…         2 Corinthians 4:17

The words of C S Lewis in the film shadowlands capture this in a striking image:

The blows of His chisel, which hurt so much, are what make us perfect.

We must be careful at this point to notice: we are talking about the suffering of Christians here. Not about wars or tsunamis or the suffering of puppies, or children in Africa. This teaching creates a special category of suffering in Christ, but says nothing much about the general suffering of the world outside of Christ.

It also does nothing to change the basic nature of evil and suffering. Evil is still evil. Suffering is still, in itself, meaningless. It is part of the futility into which the world has fallen. Suffering and death is still the enemy, the ‘last enemy’, which must be abolished. All this is still true for Christians. When a believer’s child dies, a terrible evil has occurred, and there is no reason, no explanation we can give for why. And we long for the time when this wrong will be righted by the justice of God. This is still the first thing to say about what has happened.

However, there is more to say in this case. God has allowed this believing parent to face misery and meaningless pain, along with Christ. Because he loves us. And that suffering is going somewhere. God will work in and through it to bring redemption and life. And so in the midst of the pain, the grieving parent can take comfort at the thought of what is to come, at the thought of resurrection. Like Jesus ‘who for the joy set before him endured the cross’. In her distress this parent is sharing fellowship with Jesus in his story, and that is of great encouragement to sufferers. Once the first truth is appreciated, this second truth can be meaningful.

As we warned earlier in this series, the gospel’s take on suffering involves a story, and therefore is not simple but complex. Option 2 gave us a much neater answer. And in fact, it is not easy to hold these two truths about suffering at the same time: its futility and its eschatological role in Christ. One reality will tend to swamp the other. But they are both true and both needed if we are to respond to our trials with faith in Jesus.


Some people think that Christ suffering for us is disturbing. Personally, I find the next part of the story more disturbing: we share with Christ as he shares in our sufferings. Consider this from the apostle Paul:

I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. Colossians 1:24

See what I mean about disturbing? But the epistles are chock-full of talk about suffering. It was something of a favourite topic for the apostles:

the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us     2 Corinthians 1:5

This was not just something for apostles, however:

we [believers] are heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him.               Romans 8:17

when you do right and suffer for it, it is a gracious thing. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you…   1 Peter 2:20-21

It seems that, Christ Jesus having answered his calling and borne our sufferings and tasted our death, standing in for us at the cross, now we are called to bear them with him, and taste his death, and stand with him in crucifixion.

This is disturbing for a few reasons. One is that it plays havoc with our favourite evangelical doctrine of substitution. Whatever that term means (and I think it is a relevant word for the cross), it doesn’t mean we remain distant or uninvolved.

Another reason this is disturbing is because these are redemptive acts we are being called to share in. This death is an atoning death. And we don’t just benefit from it, we enter into it. The mind reels from following the full implications of this, and we will not attempt it here. But Peter pushes some of them:

Christ also suffered for you, leaving you a pattern, so that you should follow in his steps… He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross…by his wounds you have been healed…now you have returned to the shepherd of your souls…Wives, in the same way, submit to the authority of your [potentially harsh] husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word…     1 Peter 2:21-3:1

The pattern is a redemptive pattern, and there are things about that which I don’t understand.

Taking a step back, however, this NT teaching about Christians suffering clearly places it in a special category.  It is not just suffering anymore: it has been charged with new and redemptive meaning. While suffering in itself is an evil and therefore futile and pointless, God has now overlaid even this with a web of meaning and relationship: Christ for us and us with Christ. This most meaningless of human experiences now carries purpose: for Christ has gotten involved in the thing. Suffering has been swept up in the life-giving, creative work of God. Its attempt to subvert the good of creation has itself been subverted, and suffering has been employed to bring about new creation:

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.     Romans 8:22-23

The imagery here is of that most purposeful and meaningful experience of suffering: the pain of labour and childbirth. As Christians suffer with Jesus, through that pain new life is coming. Suffering even takes on an eschatological significance.

The gospel’s view of suffering and evil is rather unique: it declares God’s victory over it. In fact this is the big-picture story of the gospel, the main thing it has to say to us: God’s victory over evil. How does that victory come about, and why don’t we experience more of it now? I mean, our suffering continues, right?

The OT is full of stories of God’s victory of the forces of evil and misery in our world: think the exodus. But it is also full of promises and expressions of longing for the time when God will definitively deal with evil and suffering. The attitude of the Jew in Jesus’ time was one of waiting and hoping for a new age of freedom and peace, when God would set up his kingdom on earth at last.

Traditionally Christians have tended to say, ‘the trouble with the Jews was they took these promises in a worldly way, as though God’s kingdom would be a physical, this-wordly, political reality’. Instead, Christians have often relocated God’s kingdom to a spiritual sphere. There, it has little to say to our this-worldly sufferings.

The NT never makes this move. Its critique of the Jews is different: they thought God’s kingdom would be established through strength, whereas God’s plan was for it to be established through suffering.

When Jesus Messiah came, people wanted him to reveal himself and claim leadership over Israel – a power manoeuvre. When he arrived in Jerusalem, many thought he would start a fight. Instead, he came and died. “My kingdom is not from this world,” he told Pilate. “If it were, we would fight. But it is not”.

Jesus not only died, he died in the same way the nation of Israel had died historically: handed over to the Gentiles in disgrace, led away from the city to die in exile. Jesus took the evil and suffering of the nation upon himself, relived it, re-enacted it, exhausted and finished it. He ‘by the grace of God tasted death for everyone’ (Heb. 2:9). Like Gandalf and the Balrog of Moria, Jesus took death down to the pit with him, and defeated it there. He ‘shared our flesh and blood, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death’ (Heb 2:14-15). In his passion and resurrection, Jesus got the victory over the forces of evil.

Deliverance for Israel, then, came not through power but through suffering: the sufferings of the Messiah. This was the victory by which his role as saviour was fulfilled. God ‘made the pioneer of their salvation complete through sufferings’ (Heb. 2:10).

And the gospel declares that this victory over evil was won not just Israel but for all who were subjected to it: all mankind. For Jesus did not only suffer as a Jew, but as a human. 

for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God
saints from every tribe and language and people and nation…
and they will reign on earth.                           Revelation 5:9

This song from Revelation sums up the gospel story of Jesus who brings the victory of God. It also helps us answer our second question: Why don’t we experience that victory more fully now?

Traditionally Christians have often said, it’s a victory in the spiritual realm, it doesn’t change things in this world. But once again, the NT gives a different answer: ‘they will reign on earth.‘ It’s not that the venue is wrong, it’s that the time is not quite right. The NT makes great use of this element of time.

The victory of God is not an abstract doctrine: it is a story. As such, it is not simple but complex. It has details, and it takes time to reach its conclusion. There is a before, a now and a later. In the story, the victory was won at the cross, and Jesus has fully entered into that victory already. He no longer suffers. But for us, the victory is announced and tasted in the here-and-now, and is fully ‘rolled out’ in the future. Some things change now, but for others we have to wait. In other words, we are located just a little before the end of the story. Things are still unfolding, deliverance is still arriving. That’s why we still suffer.

But that won’t go on forever: pretty soon Jesus will return, this time not to suffer but to put an end to all evil, all suffering. On that day,

God himself will be with them;
He will wipe every tear from their eyes.
And death will be no more,
Nor will mourning nor crying nor pain be any more
For the old things have passed away.
And the one who sat on the throne said, “Look! I am making all things new.”    Revelation 21:3-5

This is the victory of God. And isn’t it just the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard? When I hear about Jesus the sufferer, and about his victory, I feel I can wait and pray and hope, and not despair. Don’t know about you, but I’d rather have this promise kept for me in Jesus, than all the explanations in the world about why suffering is OK.

What sort of change does the gospel have to offer? Let’s hear it the way Jesus tells it in the incredibly compact prayer he taught his disciples:

may your kingdom come:
may your will be done on earth,
do not lead us into testing (and leave us there),the way it is in heaven…
but deliver us from evil.

That’s the whole story right there. The sovereignty of God over his world is currently incomplete: resisted, threatened or compromised in some way by the forces of evil and sin. The kingdoms of this world are not yet the kingdom of God. In particular, God’s will is not done here the way it is in heaven. The world is in a state of rebellion, it has been hijacked from its proper course, its citizens held hostage by dark powers. Under these powers we suffer and die.

But in this situation, a promise is made to us, a promise of change. Not an explanation: the word that comes to us does not say,  ‘Actually, behind all that, God is already controlling everything. He is absolutely sovereign even when the world rebels. So you can relax about your suffering.’

No, the gospel brings us a promise: it tells a story in which God’s kingdom does finally arrive and his sovereignty over the whole creation is perfected and established forever; the story in which his will prevails at last on earth, in which the powers of evil are routed and the captives (us) set free from them, released from suffering into peace. It’s the great story of the Scriptures, the story Israel always told: the story of God’s victory over the dark powers, on behalf of his suffering creation:

for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope  that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.     Romans 8:20-21

The Gospel’s take on evil is not, then, to explain it, but to promise victory over itAnd the Christian response? Hope. We pray and wait for the story to take place, for the promise to be fulfilled in time:

and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.            Romans 8:23-25

Tomorrow: Jesus the sufferer

God has all our suffering under control. If you complain about your suffering, you’re probably lacking faith.

We have already outlined a couple of the problems with our Option 2 (that God decrees or purposes suffering). But perhaps its biggest problem is that it explains too much. It appears to say all that needs to be said about the problem. Once you have said, it’s all part of God’s plan, then there’s no need for a further solution. Or for further discussion: everyone can just shut up after that. Certainly no place for further complaining from the sufferers!

The problem of suffering becomes an intellectual one, which is resolved intellectually, rather than a historical, existential one which needs a concrete solution. And being intellectual, it can be resolved on the spot. Today.  With words. Suffering is no longer such a problem, because we have the explanation.

The explanation Option 2 offers holds out reassurance: ‘Even though it hurts, things are fundamentally OK.’ Most religions and philosophies seem to make this same move. They suggest some logic to suffering. This hopefully enables the sufferer to accept things the way they are, and not rebel too much against his pains. After all, they are probably incurable!  In this way religion tends to be deeply conservative.

Most religion is therefore non-eschatological: it tends to have no story, no goal for the world. By neutralising the problem of suffering, it minimises the need for a real-life resolution, a rescue. If God is already in control of everything, then there’s no need for a victory. There is in fact no need for anything to happenTime is not of great importance in this sort of religion: there is nothing to wait for.

Much of the Christian tradition (at least in the West) has had this tendency, this static, timeless quality. It has been captured by the forces of conservatism, institutionalised, and lost its forward-looking quality.

Trouble is, many sufferers do not find a purely intellectual solution that satisfying. They find themselves longing for a real-life solution to their misery. If my tooth is aching, all the explanations in the world are not that much comfort – I want it out! But many pains cannot be removed as easily as a tooth…

The Scriptures, by contrast, assert that evil and suffering are meaningless, as we have seen. Evil is and remains a problem. This view does not allow anyone to accept the status quo, but rather condemns the status quo as intolerable and wicked. There must be change! While the gospel does not promote violent revolution, at this deep structural level it is revolutionary. And this also gives the element of time central importance: things must move, there must be a before and an after. The gospel is essentially an eschatological message. It is an unfolding story in which the current order of things is overturned.

This insistence on change leads to a tradition of complaint from godly sufferers in the Scriptures. (The focal point for this tradition is the Psalms.) For complaint is a cry for help, an urgent call for relief and rescue. The classic cry of the sufferer in the Psalms concerns itself with the question of time:

How long O Lord?

Jesus, standing in this tradition, teaches his disciples to pray ‘Deliver us from evil!’

Now here is the great strength of the Christian account of suffering. While other philosophies give an explanation, the gospel tells a story: a story of change. And isn’t that a far more satisfying response to the problem of evil?

Tomorrow: the Victory of God

Suffering 5 – Given over

Posted: June 14, 2013 by J in Bible, Pastoral issues, Theology

What about our Option 1: that God allows evil and suffering, but does not decree or purpose them?

Paul, in his letter to the Romans, chapter 1, describes how mankind fell into wickedness and all the suffering which it brings. I take this to be a historical narrative-type descrition:

though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.   Romans 1:21

There’s that word ‘futile’ again, same word used so famously in Ecclesiastes. How did this evil, this futility and senselessness come into the world? Through man’s actions and will.

they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator…they did not see fit to acknowledge God…    Romans 1:25,28.

Truth exchanged for lies, reality for fantasy, the structure and logic of relations overturned. These are all the qualities of ‘futility’ which the Preacher identified in the human condition. There is no understanding man in the grip of this evil:

Though they know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.    Romans 1:32

Crazy. Stupid. Senseless. But the point here is that this is something man has done to himself. We chose this, and rejected God and his order of things. There is no hint in this passage that anyone else’s desire is being followed besides the wicked desire of mankind.

What of God then – how did he view these developments? The passage is framed with statements of God’s wrath, his strongest disapproval of what has occurred (1:18, 32). The message is clear: none of this was God’s intention – quite the opposite. His response is to judge and condemn the evil which man has generated. And this judgement takes a particular form:

So God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves…     Romans 1:24

Three times Paul tells us God’s response was to ‘give them over’ to their wickedness. He left them to it, to reap what they had sown. It would be the most perverse misunderstanding to suggest that God intended the evil which he allowed to spread through his beautiful creation. Paul is saying the reverse: the evil did not originate with God or form part of his purposes. He detested it. Rather he allowed mankind to have what they chose, instead of what he chose for them.

What did that giving over look like? It looked like suffering:

They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips,  slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents,  foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.    Romans 1:29-31

Every war movie, every violent confrontation you’ve ever seen should be flashing before your eyes. Every instance of school-yard or workplace bullying. Every torture session, every cruel word. Every family bustup. Here’s where it all comes from. From God’s purposes? No: from man’s choice of the evil rather than the good.

Now this is a classic statement of Option 1: God allows but does not decree evil.

Some Christians will want to say, ‘Yes, but behind that story is another one, which points in a different direction. A story in which God is secretly the cause of everything.’  And of course this story, lying behind all others, trumps them all. All we will say here is, we don’t find Paul or the Preacher or Job telling that other story about evil. Any story which neutralises the story they do tell, so that it can’t function in our lives, should be treated with caution.

This ‘giving over’ which Paul describes is pretty scary: God leaving us to our own wickedness. Terrifying, really. But what it doesn’t do is to align God with the calamity. At the pastoral level, the great difference between this view and Option 2: (God decrees evil and suffering), is that here God is not seen as behind our suffering. He never sides with the misery, as something he approves or initiates or sends. Evil is ours, not his. Even while allowing our evil, God still detests it. He remains on our side, as his creation, and against evil, as the enemy of the created order. This is perhaps what James, that wise pastor, is getting at in his teaching about testing:

Blessed is anyone who endures testings. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life … No one, when tested, should say, “I am being tested by God”; for God … himself tests no one.

If God is not the one behind the trial, then however angry we get about the suffering, we are not going to feel angry with him. In fact, it gives us something to talk to him about. Under the most intense pressure, our connection to God is not likely to be strained or alienated. On the contrary, it is at those times that we can turn to him most energetically, as our protector, as the only one who can help. When you’re in trouble, you instinctively look for backup, for a strong ally. And this is exactly what we find repeatedly in the lament psalms, with their familiar cry: ‘Don’t leave us in this mess, Lord, save us!’ It’s the sort of desperate appeal to God our saviour which Jesus teaches his disciples to pray:

Deliver us from evil!

Tomorrow: “How long O Lord?”

Suffering 4 – Angry at God

Posted: June 13, 2013 by J in Bible, Pastoral issues, Theology

“Thankyou God! Thankyou so bloody much!”

“I felt so angry with God I could hardly pray”. This came as a text from a friend coming to terms with a tragedy which had just struck a mutual friend of ours.

Traditionally the problem of suffering and evil has often been felt to be one of the strongest objections to the Christian faith. By Christians, as well as others. In fact, when Christians experience great suffering, it often creates a faith crisis for them: under pressure this weak area sometimes gives.

(It’s interesting that this situation did not always prevail: in the early centuries of the church, believers were very at home with suffering. It caused no crisis of faith – far from it, martyrdom was bread and butter stuff for Christian experience. I’m not suggesting they had more faith than later generations: to me it seems there was a difference in the structure of their faith which caused them to react very differently to ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’.)

I find the whole dilemma strange, for it seems to me that ‘the problem of evil’ is actually one of the strongest objections to every other view out there, and one of the areas of greatest strength in the gospel of Jesus.

Put simply, no one else is offering a satisfying account of suffering. Other views end up with us either angry at God, suspecting his goodness, or else trying to say that evil is good, cancer is good if we could only see it in perspective – or else feeling all alone in a big, bad, empty universe, in which we ultimately count for nothing. By contrast, the Christian view as found in Augustine does not confuse good with evil, it vindicates God, and offers real hope to the sufferer.

But we need to consider further this question of God’s relationship to evil and suffering. Does God:

1. Allow evil?

2. Decree/inflict evil?

3. Reject evil but without the power to prevent it?

These are the three main options. Options 1 and 2 are similar, while option 3 is quite different. Christians have tended to go for Option 1 or 2, often unclear on the distinction. Some other religions go for a dualist explanation, Option 3.

Language is not precise, there’s probably no one phrase that captures the right answer.  But we want to find language that safeguards a few things: God’s goodness and divine power, and his special relationship to the creation as its loving creator and sustainer and guardian.

Consider this scenario:

James and Rachel, Christian believers, have a child, a baby girl – but within one week of being born she dies. They are devastated, they feel overwhelmed with disaster. His parents, who are not believers, ask them, “Why would God do such a thing? What kind of God is that?” James and Rachel don’t know how to answer. A friend at church tells them, “We need to trust God, this thing has come from his hands, it might seem terrible but God only gives good gifts to his children. You’ll find the good in this sooner or later.” As for Rachel, she is so distressed, she finds it hard to pray for a long time afterwards. 

Which view/s of God’s involvement is operating here?

No one much is going for Option 3 here. It would undermine God’s power, in effect he wouldn’t be God. Even non-believers don’t mostly think like this about God – at least not in the West. We will rule out Option 3 as a major player.

Option 2 makes evil very close to God indeed, it tends to make him responsible for it, or behind it, the way he is for the creation. You can learn something about God from looking at his creation – can you do this with evil also?

James’s parents assert that you can. God is behind this evil, therefore God must be evil (implied in their minds is probably that the whole God thing is a nasty myth and should be given up).  This is a common agnostic/atheist view in the West. Most unbelievers are Calvinist unbelievers.

Friend at church also goes for Option 2 – this tragedy has come direct from God’s hands – but asserts that the evil which has overwhelmed James and Rachel is not evil after all, but actually good. This is a common Christian move to make. Christians of all stripes get more Calvinist in the face of suffering. Trouble is, there’s only so far you can go with speaking positively about evil events, before you run into moral problems to do with lack of truthfulness. In Scripture, calling evil ‘good’ is considered a bad idea (e.g. Isaiah 5:20), whereas being able to distinguish between them is a mark of mature godliness (Hebrews 5:14).

Rachel feels a bit alienated from God by what has happened, it seems to block her prayer life. She’s reacting as though Option 2 were operating. This terrible evil has come, an unseen enemy threatening to tear their lives apart. And it seems God is behind it. In this struggle, God seems to be on the other side, aligned with the evil, not on her family’s side. Not surprising Rachel feels less close to God. What would the point be of praying to the guy on the other side? If she had someone on her side, she might turn to them. My friend whose text I quoted back at the start of this post, was struggling with the emotions generated by Option 2.

However, as we have seen, God has a special relationship to the creation which he does not have with evil. It is a mistake, then, to read back into the character and purposes of God the evil that plagues our lives. Option 2, though so very deeply ingrained into the Western psyche, tends to lead us into this error – it inevitably puts evil under God’s umbrella. The language of decreeing evil does not sit well with what the Scriptures reveal of God.

We might need to explore Option 1 more: that God allows evil, but does not inflict or purpose it. This at least distances God from the sources of evil, creating the possibility that God could be on our side in the sufferings that beset our lives. In which case we could still feel angry at disasters, but it wouldn’t drive us away from God. However, as we will see, Option 1 is not a simple option.

When people suffer, they cry out ‘Why?’. It’s instinctive. Instinctive too, is the religious response that provides an answer, attempts an explanation. We are desperate to give meaning to suffering.

But we have seen how the Christian Scriptures label the suffering and evil of this world as ‘futile’ and ‘meaningless’. Can this be a faith position? If the is a good God of purpose and order, how can anything in the world he created be meaningless?

Augustine, one of the Fathers of the early church, wrestled with these problems, and the answers he came up with are still deeply helpful today. Augustine said that the goodness of the creation comes from God, who created the world. Part of that good is existence itself, the creation’s ability to be itself, real and distinct from God the creator. And part of the goodness of that existence is rationality: the world has an order or structure to it, a logic of its own given and guaranteed by God who sustains it. It can, for example, be investigated by scientists and found to have regular patterns (which we sometimes call ‘laws’). There is cause and effect, so that events occurring can be explained by reference to previous events. If Augustine was into diagrams, he might have represented it thus:

Screen Shot 2013-06-10 at 8.54.09 PM

The inverse thought to this is that the existence and rationality of the cosmos depends on its relation to God, on his sustaining hand. Only that which is upheld in created existence enjoys these God-given qualities.

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Augustine denied this status to evil, however. For God made the world and it was very good. So anything evil – and this includes suffering – cannot have been part of this original creation. Evil, said Augustine, has a different source (we’ll return to that). Evil is not a created thing at all, and so is not gifted and upheld in the way the creation is. It lacks those qualities which the creation has received from its source, God. Evil does not have its own proper existence, nor does it have rationality. For those qualities are given by God to his creation. But evil is not his creation: its nature is quite different.

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If evil (including suffering) does not come from God, where does it come from? If it is not a created thing that enjoys proper existence, what sort of thing is it? Augustine had a pretty good answer for this too. He said that evil is a destruction of the good. When a created good is distorted or destroyed, ruined so that it can no longer serve its created purpose: then there is evil.

Evil has no positive nature; but the loss of good has received the name ‘evil.’ (The City of God XI.9)

Evil, then is a purely negative phenomenon. Like the shadow is not something, but rather the absence of light, so evil does not really exist, in the way the creation does. It is parasitic on the creation, it is the undoing of what is good. Like the Nothing in The Neverending Story, it feeds on reality and destroys it, but can never be part of it. Suffering is a corruption or loss of the peace and blessedness of created life as God made it to be.

I don’t know about you, but the more I consider Augustine’s explanation for evil, the more satisfying I find it. Seems to be based, too, on sound deductions from the Scripture’s teaching. We still haven’t got the whole story of what the gospel says about suffering, but what we have got is pastorally spot on.

When sufferers cry out ‘Why?’ we can answer, “Good question. I don’t blame you for asking why? Life was supposed to make sense. But things have gone wrong. This power that’s got hold of you has no why – it’s evil. Evil cannot be understood, for at its heart it is madness and futility. And it has turned our world into a place of futility also. So there is no answer to your Why? – there is no reason for your suffering, no point to it. It is evil and meaningless. It is not ‘meant to be’. It just is.” (Maybe I wouldn’t give this answer all at once!)

Augustine’s view effectively blocks off the path of understanding suffering, of pursuing the ‘Why?’. It forbids us the heartless platitudes about ‘every cloud having a silver lining’, the cruel nonsense about character building and moral improvement, and ‘don’t you realise your cancer is a gift?’, which sufferers find so alienating. Augustine’s take on evil warns us against the temptation to make peace with suffering, to come to terms with it. It leaves as our only possible avenue of hope, a change of situation – that we might escape; that evil might be destroyed. It prepares us, in fact, for that most basic Christian prayer:

Deliver us from evil!

The way forward is not resignation, but salvation.

Suffering 2 – Why?

Posted: June 11, 2013 by J in Bible, Pastoral issues, Theology

The first question people ask when disaster strikes is ‘Why?’ Why has this happened? Why has it happened to me? Did I deserve it? Is someone to blame? What does it mean?

Suffering is not a minor or peripheral matter in Scripture: it’s a big deal. The Scriptures always teach the reality and lordship of God. So then you would expect them to assert the reasonableness, the logic of suffering, some sort of cosmic plan behind it all. But strangely, you find very little of this in Scripture. There are two books devoted largely to the problem of suffering: Job and Ecclesiastes. Neither takes this ‘cosmic plan’ line.

In Job, Job’s ‘friends’ are constantly hitting on the Why question: finding a logic in the miseries into which Job has fallen. God does not do anything without reason. He is always just: therefore Job must in some way have deserved the disasters he’s suffered. Or at least, there is a rightness to them which requires him to trust God. Shut up, knuckle under, stop complaining.

This is traditional advice which would hold good in most cultures and religions. So it comes as a bit of a surprise when these ‘friends’ turn out to be the bad guys. When God comes on the scene, they are punished for their callous, pious platitudes. They got it badly wrong, regarding suffering.

What is going on, then, in Job’s calamity? He never finds out. Meaning never emerges. The reader knows more, we have been privy to the heavenly councils where Job’s lot was decided. But even we don’t know much. We see God agreeing to let Job be tested with miseries which he clearly doesn’t deserve. The ‘test’ thing makes sense, for a man of faith. But the suffering itself is never really given a meaning. It is not for Job’s moral improvement. It is not to expiate some sin. It is not to give Job wisdom or understanding, for he hardly gains any from his suffering, so far as we can tell from the story. The suffering itself remains a mystery to us also. If anything, it is a malicious assault from an enemy who longs to destroy Job: the satan. Why he wants this, we don’t know. Not much logic to all that. And God? All we know is that he allows the attack. We are never given a satisfactory because to answer the why. 

Ecclesiastes is much blunter. The Preacher deals at length with the problem of ‘life under the sun’, which he finds to be ‘nasty, brutish and short’ (to quote Thomas Hobbes). What does it all mean then, all this labour and toil, this blood, sweat and tears in which we live our brief lives? The Preacher is painfully upfront about his conclusion:

‘Meaningless, meaningless!’ says the Preacher. ‘Everything is utterly meaningless!’

He conducts extensive investigations to check his facts. He explores the various sufferings and injustices which are the universal lot of mankind, and whichever way he turns, his conclusion is confirmed:

I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem,  applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with.  I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.

The Preacher repeats this word no less than 38 times in his discourse: it is his major finding. The Hebrew word havel can be translated ‘vanity’ or ‘futility’ or ‘meaningless’. It is an assertion of non-logic, of the absurdity of human life. The Preacher looks for a ‘Why’ – and concludes that there is no Why. Human suffering is not susceptible to rational explanation.

For the apostle Paul, too, creaturely suffering is a big deal. He picks up on the language of the Preacher, in his Letter to the Romans. He agrees with the verdict of Ecclesiastes,

The creation has been subjected to futility        Romans 8:20

The word Paul uses here is the signature word of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes: futility! (LXX: mataioteti) In this way he refers back to the argument about human experience found there. This then forms part of Paul’s own argument, about suffering. (we will return to this key passage in Romans later).

To return to our illustration of the tapestry, this Scriptural view would seem to say, ‘When seen from below the tapestry of life is shot through with dark and ugly threads. It’s covered in loose ends. The whole thing is a bit of a mess. And when viewed from above – it looks pretty much the same. In fact, it’s a sucky tapestry however you look at it.’

This is a pretty grim assessment of human life. Unpalatable, even. Sounds almost atheistic. A random universe and all that. How does this help people who suffer? As we will see, it does have something important in common with an atheist view, and in this regard we will assert that atheism is more faithful to Scripture than much ‘Christian’ teaching is.

Paul has more to say, new things to add to the OT account of suffering. He doesn’t leave us in total bewilderment as Job and the Preacher do. He ends with hope. But it’s important to notice that Paul’s starting point is agreement with the message of Ecclesiastes: the suffering of the world is futile and meaningless. His message of hope does not swamp or neutralise this insight.

Perhaps unexpectedly, this understanding of the futility of evil and suffering comes as welcome news to many sufferers. Often sufferers – especially religious ones – have a double burden: firstly the pain itself, and secondarily the pressure to somehow feel good about it, to find some positive meaning in it, to not cry out or complain. Sometimes the secondary burden can be even greater than the first. To hear that the evil besetting them is truly evil and need not be viewed as good – this can come as a great relief.

Interestingly, modern counselling practices have implicitly adopted this view of suffering. Victims of misfortune, such as those dying of cancer, will instinctively ask ‘Why?’. But the counsellors tell us that a mature response to suffering involves moving on from this, letting go of the why question. It doesn’t get answered – it’s just that people learn to stop asking! And this is considered a key part of the grieving process. Implicit in this model is that there is no Why. People must come to accept the irrationality of human suffering. In fact, counsellors are warned in their training to NOT go providing answers to the Why question, as this can hinder a person’s progress through grief. In any case, answers given at the Why stage are particularly objectionable to the sufferer, and can easily increase distress.