My church is located right next to the main cemetery in town. It’s not uncommon to hear gunshots at random parts of the day at military funerals, and recently I heard a mariachi band playing for at least 20 minutes. In many ways, our location is fitting, because one of the chief roles of the church is to walk alongside people who are in the midst of pain and grief.
This leads me to the issue of theodicy – trying to figure out how evil and pain can co-exist with a perfectly good God. This question lies near the heart of most theologies. Open and Relational theism (which I encountered heavily in college) posits that God is not responsible for evil because He has set aside his ability to know everything for the sake of maintaining our freedom. Christians whose theology leans more toward the reformed camp place their focus on the knowledge of God, trusting in God’s incredible knowledge and plan. No matter what your theology is, holding the the goodness of God in contrast to the evil present on earth is a challenge. It’s a question every person of faith wrestles with. Every pastor has heard questions like, “why did God let this happen?”, and has earnestly hoped for an answer.
I used to want to find an answer for that question. I still find myself looking for a justification when someone comes to me reeling. However, I’ve stopped believing I can articulate an answer for the pain. I haven’t stop believing there is one, but I doubt I can find it, and I doubt even more that I could articulate it to somebody who is grieving.
I’ve become skeptical for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that, for all the philosophical and Biblical arguments about an all-encompassing theodicy, I can’t say I’ve encountered one in scripture. In fact, I believe much of the debate stems from the fact that all we see in scripture are hints of God’s reasoning behind narrow events. We can learn much from Job, but it’s a stretch to call it a complete theodicy that applies to all. Neither can the travails and triumphs of Paul, David or any number of Biblical figures be construed as a rationalization for God’s goodness in the midst of all the earth’s injustice. Simply put, Scripture seems to give more glimpses of God’s thinking than an actual theology of suffering.
In addition to what I’ve seen scripturally, there’s another reason I lean toward a very humble theodicy. The truth is, when people are hurting, they often ask for a sense of balanced outcomes. They are hunting for something that tells them “the x amount of pain you feel is balanced by y amount of beneficial consequences“. The truth is that most of the time such equations are not visible to us. The fact is, it’s exceedingly rare to see so much good come out tragedy that the person afflicted comes to believe it was all worthwhile. Even when good comes from our pain, we find ourselves asking if there could have been a better, less painful way to see the good results.
And this leads to the third reason I’m skeptical of theodicy. It’s seeking a rational answer to a deeply human question. When we suffer, we ask for a rational reason, but what we’re truly seeking is emotional healing. It’s natural to think that if we could grasp the “deeper reason” behind our pain then we would find emotional restoration. It’s natural to think, but it’s not true. Pain defies our rationality, reasons and expectations, it is not explained, it is endured.
Here’s the only answer I can find to grief. We don’t get the answers we want 99% of the time from God, but we do get his presence. God doesn’t tend to answer us when we yell at Him to justify Himself, but the Holy Spirit remains. This is crucial for us as ministers, because it’s a reminder to remain humble. It’s a reminder that our efforts to talk our congregants through the pain they feel will likely fall short, but it’s also a reminder that God’s presence, and the presence of the church is usually God’s bandage for our wounds. That’s all we really have to offer – presence, love, and grace.
In the face of tragedy, our attempts at theodicy will always fall short. God’s presence, and ours alongside, is what can actually bring peace and strength. I’ve come to believe that in this life, that must be enough.