The Impossible Chess Match
When we talk about the theodicy problem, our struggle to understand why bad things happen to good people, it is fairly easy to speak about philosophical, ethereal, and hypothetical events. We can get so deep into the theoretical, so focused on looking for answers to our how and why questions, we forget about the real pain real people are experiencing.
In week one of this series Pastor Bob introduced us to the problem of theodicy by giving us the impossible chess match where on the surface these four statements seem incompatible:
- There is a God.
- God is all-powerful.
- God is loving and good.
- There is innocent suffering.
In week two we looked at the book of Job which is comfortable holding all four of those statements in tension, without trying to resolve them. Job calls us to trust God with our whole lives, even in the midst of our suffering.
Last week, part 3 of the series, Pastor Bob looked at a collection of parables in Matthew 13, most notably the parable of the wheat and the weeds. We heard Jesus’ call to see kingdom among us – like wheat among the weeds, a tiny mustard seed, a treasure buried in a field, a pearl we have to search for, the dough in spite of the yeast, and a catch of good fish out of which we must sort the bad.
This morning my task is to make this a bit more personal as we address the evil in our lives: our hurts and struggles, the things in our lives that bring us pain, and how our faith in Christ addresses them. I begin with a story:
In the movie Forrest Gump, we are introduced to Jenny, a troubled young woman who floats through bad relationships and other questionable decisions. As a child Jenny was abused by her father, and much of Jenny’s adult life is spent running from that pain, seeking to find love, peace, and acceptance wherever she can.
One day, she and Forrest go for a walk in the neighborhood they grew up in, and come to Jenny’s childhood house. Here is what happens…
Here I played the clip of the scene where Jenny throws rocks at her childhood home. The scene ends with Forrest’s voiceover, “Sometimes there just aren’t enough rocks.”
For Jenny, many of us, and others we know, the theodicy problem is no theoretical exercise argued in seminaries and Sunday School classrooms. This is life. They have questions of parents, of God, of the goodness of creation, of God’s love for them, and whether God had the power to protect them. They struggle with why they have to go through all this pain. Like Jenny they cry out, “How could you do this?”
What would you say to Jenny? Would you give her answers like, “Don’t worry Jenny, God will sort it all out in the end,” or, “Hey, Jenny, you know you just have to accept that bad things happen,” or maybe, “You know, Jenny, we’re all sinners, and therefore you were not innocent in this,” or maybe worst of all, “Jenny, God sent you this struggle so you could learn from it”? No. Each of those is an unacceptable response to someone in pain.
I think Forrest was onto something, “Sometimes there just aren’t enough rocks.”
Early in his book What Shall We Say?: Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith, Tom Long tells the story of an article published in the New York Times soon after the tragic Indian Ocean tsunami that struck Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand on December 26, 2004. The author of the article interviewed a Sri Lankan father “who, despite desperate efforts, including trying to swim through the boiling sea with the arms of his wife and mother-in-law wrapped around his neck, was nevertheless unable to prevent any of his four children or his wife from being swept to their deaths by the surging waters” (Long, location 532f).
Long then writes:
Here’s the ethical dilemma: If one had the opportunity to speak to this man at the very moment of his tears, at his most fragile time of grief, what should one say? … [Certainly, we would not say,] “Sir, your children’s deaths are a part of God’s eternal but mysterious counsels,” or “Your children’s deaths, tragic as they seem, in the larger context served God’s complex design for creation” (Long location 538).
Long then argues that any answer to the problem of theodicy we would not share with that father “is a trustworthy sign that this so-called ‘wisdom’ is not really the gospel” (Long loc 546).
What would you say to the Sri Lankan father? What would you say to Jenny? Forrest answered, “Sometimes there just aren’t enough rocks.”
Wheat and Weeds
A couple of weeks ago, as I was writing the devotions for the parables in Matthew 13, including the parable of the wheat and the weeds, I was disappointed with the conclusion I began to draw from those readings. Jesus’ point seemed to be, “You need to take the bad with the good,” or as I have heard it stated, “if we didn’t experience bad, we would not know what good is.”
That is not the point of those parables, though. They never try to answer the question we want to ask of them, Why is there evil in the world? The best answer we get is the five-word response of the farmer to his farmhands when they ask where the weeds came from, “An enemy has done this.”
Instead of addressing our how and why questions, these parables assert the presence of God and his Kingdom in the midst of our struggles. They tell us not to assume God is absent because we experience evil. Rather, they argue we ought to seek out and take note of the Kingdom of God breaking out all around us even when we are confronted with tragedy.
If Matthew 13 was all we knew of scripture, this would be a very unsatisfying answer. Imagine telling Jenny or the Sri Lankan father, I know you were abused, or I know your family was killed, but there’s so much good in the world. You should focus on that instead. Don’t focus on the weeds, focus on the wheat.
Forrest has a different answer, “Sometimes there just aren’t enough rocks.”
In a series of Peanuts comic strips, Linus shares with Charlie Brown how he deals with his problems. “I don’t like to face problems head on,” Linus says. “I think the best way to solve problems is to avoid them. This is a distinct philosophy of mine. No problem is so big or so complicated that it can’t be run away from.” In the next day’s strip Charlie Brown asks Linus, “What if everyone was like you? What if everyone in the whole world suddenly decided to run away from his problems?” To which Linus replies, “Well, at least we’d all be running in the same direction!” (Seamands 116).
In many ways, we all, like Jenny, are running in the same direction – away from our problems. We bury ourselves in relationships, work, food, shopping, alcohol, drugs, pornography, gossip, Facebook, fantasy, self-help and anything else we can find to avoid the pain and difficulty in our lives. We do all we can to run away from, or around, our pain and difficulties.
What if, in spite of us all traveling in the same direction, we are all running in the wrong direction? What if instead of running from our problems, or around our pain, we should instead turn around and head directly toward our hurts, our pains, our woundedness? That’s what Jenny was forced to do when she returned to her childhood house. She came face-to-face with the pain. And… well, … “Sometimes there just aren’t enough rocks.”
Counseling through the Pain
Any decent counselor will steer one who is struggling directly into their pain. A good counselor will help those with repressed memories recover them, even though the process is painful. A drug and alcohol counselor will seek to help the addict face the source of the pain he or she is trying to dull through substance abuse. One who needs to be healed after divorce will not be told by their counselor to find another spouse that will be better for them. First they will be asked to dive into the pain, to confront it, to deal with it, and eventually heal from it. Then they will be ready to move on, knowing all the while God walks with them.
Evil likes to frighten us. The satan, the accuser, likes when we are on the run, away from or around our problems. Evil is a bully, and like most bullies is fed by our fear. When we turn to confront the bully, it loses all of its power.
We know we can’t let the evil win. We also can’t allow evil to drag us down into its way of fighting – where might makes right, where we try to intimidate, where we use evil means to combat evil (that just makes evil stronger rather than defeating it). There just aren’t enough stones. To exorcise the demons that haunt us, our best move is not away from or around the struggle and the pain. Instead we defeat evil by confronting it, by moving toward it.
Early in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, we read of Jesus being given an opportunity to try another way. After his 40 days of fasting in the desert, the devil shows up and offers Jesus three temptations – (1) to turn rocks into bread to satisfy his hunger and prove he is the Son of God, (2) to receive authority over all the kingdoms of the world by bowing down and worshiping the devil, and (3) to jump off the Temple so the angels will come to save him, again proving he is the Messiah. Many have pointed out that each temptation represents something Jesus would ultimately do – feed the hungry, have authority over the nations of the world, and be protected by God in the resurrection. The temptation is to do it another way. One scholar puts it this way, “Knowing he couldn’t deter Jesus from doing God’s will, Satan tempted him to do it his own way or the people’s way rather than God’s way” (Seamands 114). Jesus chose instead to do “God’s will God’s way” (ibid). This, we know, meant the way to the cross.
Jesus’ Prayer at Gethsemane
A similar thing happens in the Garden of Gethsemane right before Jesus is arrested, tried, and executed. Jesus prays, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.” Jesus is again tempted to take a different, less painful route. His human instinct, like ours, is to move away from or around the pain. In the end though, Jesus chooses again to do God’s will, God’s way, praying, “yet, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).
Some have asked, “If Jesus knew when he got to Jerusalem he would be killed, why did he go?” The answer: he was doing God’s will, God’s way. Jesus knew something we need to learn: defeating evil means facing it. Jesus had to go into it, take all it had to give, and exhaust its power in doing so.
Victory Through the Cross
This is what we heard declared in our Scripture reading this morning. Colossians tell us that on the cross “[Jesus] disarmed the rulers and authorities and make a public example of them, triumphing over them in it” (Colossians 2:15).
In the cross, in what looked like weakness and defeat, Jesus was winning the victory over evil. In the cross, Jesus didn’t run from evil, he didn’t redirect his route around the pain. Jesus stood up to the bully of evil, took its worst, and won the victory. He didn’t strike back. He was beaten. He didn’t call down a curse upon those who were crucifying him. He prayed for them, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). He did not let those in power – the civil and religious authorities – take his identity from him, nor cause him to doubt God’s provision. With his dying breath he prayed, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46 emphasis mine). God’s will, God’s way.
In the cross, we see the victory of God. Real power that appeared as weakness. A victory that looked like defeat.
Monday of this week we celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. King, a Baptist pastor, was criticized by many contemporaries for not fighting, for being weak, for organizing sit-ins and marches rather than calling people to battle. Gandhi, who read and took very seriously Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, was criticized for working toward Indian independence with marches and hunger strikes instead of going to war. Desmond Tutu continues to be roundly criticized by many in South Africa for not seeking what they call justice, but he sees as vengeance, and instead working toward forgiveness and reconciliation.
Jesus took on evil, once, for all. He also gave us the example of God’s way to defeat evil in the world around us. It is not by fighting fire with fire, evil with evil, bombs with bombs, or guns with guns. As Forrest said, “Sometimes there just aren’t enough rocks.” I would amend that slightly and say, “There are never enough rocks.”
Jesus has shown us a better way. Jesus calls us to follow his example of doing the difficult thing, moving toward the evil and exhausting it of its power. There are never enough rocks to win the battle, but there is always enough of the love of God we know in Jesus Christ, which is the way to real victory over evil. When we confront evil, we know we do not go it alone, but Christ goes through it with us.
Little Miss Sunshine
I close this morning with another story from a movie, one far less popular than Forrest Gump. On the surface, Little Miss Sunshine tells the story of a highly dysfunctional family traveling by VW microbus to the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant in which their daughter Olive, has been selected to compete. We quickly learn that very member of this family, except Olive, played by Abigail Breslin, is running from his or her problems, many of which they perceive as one another.
The scene I’m about to show you, focuses the son, Dwayne, who has decided ton no longer speak, communicating through pencil and pad. Dwayne’s hope to escape the struggles is that he will one day soon be a pilot. His entire life is focused toward that goal.
Fighting boredom on the road, Olive gives him some eye tests, where he discovers he is colorblind. His uncle tells him his colorblindness will disqualify him from becoming a pilot which creates a crisis.
When Dad finally pulls over the VW bus, which throughout the movie symbolizes life, Dwayne jumps out, runs a distance from his family, and for the first time in the film we hear his voice as he screams his anger and frustration. Mom eventually goes down to comfort and convince him to get back on the bus. All are concerned that if they don’t get moving soon, Olive will be late to registration and will be disqualified from the pageant. Dwayne refuses. He does not want to reenter life. Watch what happens next…
Here I played clip of Olive going down to meet Dwayne where he is crying and putting her arm around him. The clip ends as Dwayne and his mom hug before he gets back on the bus.
Everyone in that family wanted to avoid the pain. Just forget about it, and move on, the mom encourages, as she tries to talk him into getting back on the bus. There is so much to do and no time for this, “I’m just worried about the time,” the Dad says. “I’ll wait here with him,” says the uncle from the top of the hill. Everyone stays away from the pain, except Olive. The one with the most to lose if they don’t get moving again, doesn’t stand at a distance from her brother’s pain. She moves toward it, and without saying a word, gives her brother strength to get back on the bus. She uses no words, no rocks, only love. This is God’s answer to the problem of evil, pain, and suffering.
Forrest was right, “Sometimes there just aren’t enough rocks.” But there is always enough love. There is always enough God. We don’t need to fight. We don’t need to run. Instead we need to turn, enter into, and love. Oh yes, that makes us incredibly vulnerable. Yes, that means we will hurt. But it also means we will heal. Resurrection only comes after death.
Olive does God’s work for her brother. God, comes down the hill to us in the person of Jesus Christ, walks right into our pain and the evil in the world, throws his arm around us as we sob, and loves us. That, my friends, is what gives us the strength to get back on the bus, to reenter life. Jesus knows our pain, and walks with us through it. I can’t explain it, but I’ve read the story. This is the gospel.
Long, Thomas G. What Shall We Say?: Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011. Kindle.
Seamands, Stephen A. Wounds That Heal: Bringing Our Hurts to the Cross. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003. Print.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotations of Scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version available online at http://bible.oremus.org .