Tuesday, 20 October 2015

The Question that Never Goes Away

Earlier this year, before death struck my family, I read this book because it was another one of those free kindle deals. Yancey has made it his thing to look in to how people deal with suffering and how God fits into the whole picture.

The premise of this book revolved around the Sandy Hook shooting, and how Yancey was asked to speak at a local mega church the weekend after this event. This book then draws on two other recent experiences Yancey had in confronting pain and suffering. It traces his struggled to think about what he would say to the people of Sandy Hook. It does implicitly pose an interesting question to the reader: what would you say to people graving the murder of their five year old?

Yancey reflects on his time in Japan one year after their massive earthquake in March 2011. He draws on the abstract question of finding a "why" in all this and then scratches on some Bible laments, point out that most of these are answered with silence. However, in another direction, the Bible does say a bunch about how we should care for those in need.

Sandy Hook was not cause by a natural disaster, it was not "nature taking it course" it was cause by a person who had moral choices. Yancey then turns his mind on his experience in the Balkans in October 2013. Even though more than 10 years had passed since the Yugoslav Wars, Yancey was still able to hear and feel the horror that these people felt. Trapped in a city, with no power, in the middle of winter with snipers outside ready to pick off anyone, children included. This was no "naturally occurring event" this was moral people making a concerted effort to kill others. Despite this situation, where you think God would never be found, Yancey heard of many many stories of the "good times" where people helped and supported each other. Yet niggling in the back of people's mind was: why didn't God stop this or intervene? Yancey points out that we can not avoid suffering but we also do go through suffering alone. Our God knows what it is like to suffer. He came down to us, to suffer with us and also for us.

The final movement in the book is the Sandy Hook shooting. Details about what happen, who was hurt, and how the community gathered around and supported those in need. Yancey leads us right up to his talk, and then kinda leaves us hanging a bit. He doesn't really tell us exactly what he says. I actually think this is fitting as this topic (what boffins call the issue of theodicy) really has no air tight answer, although some are better than others.

Yancey seems to focus on the agents of change after tragedies and why drives other fellow human beings to help those without. What ideas drive them and do we see the unseen God in them? He says things like this throughout:
Far more often, God works through changed people to change history. We cry out for God to do something for us, whereas God prefers to work within and alongside us.
The one main thing that I didn't like about this book is probably this paragraph:
Committed Calvinists strain to explain catastrophes, along with everything else, as an expression of God’s sovereign will. I follow their arguments with some sympathy, yet wonder why Jesus never used such reasoning with the suffering people he encountered. Never do I see Jesus lecturing people on the need to accept blindness or lameness as an expression of God’s secret will; rather, he healed them. He taught us to pray, “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” and directed us to work diligently toward that goal. Since we anticipate no wars, gun violence, terrorist acts, or natural disasters in heaven— indeed, no tears or death— I choose to speak of God’s desire for humans on earth, leaving the intricacies of “God’s will” to the theologians. The aftermath of a catastrophe is probably the worst time to quote, “God is on the throne.”
Pastorally, I do agree that there are some truths that don't need to be said in times of trouble. You don't tell some victim of a crime that their own moral failings put Jesus on the cross, instead you say something about how Jesus on the cross can clean and heal them from the crimes that have been committed against them. Still, I disagree with some of the above. When our baby died, I took comfort knowing that "God is on the throne". Yes it is sad, and death is a pain and "not what it was meant to be", but I think a high view of God, knowing that He is in control of all things is a comforting thing in times of trouble. Just imagine if that wasn't so. What comfort would we have if God was as surprised by earthquakes as we were, or  He was an emotional wreck and confused when small children get shot...

I do think the issue of theodicy is a complicated and hard one, and probably the non-believers strongest argument against theism. However, a non-believer still doesn't get a pass on this. Stpehen Fry's point about suffering and God is that he is a monster because pain exists. However, not believing in God because of pain and suffering, still leaves pain and suffering. What do you do with it now? If life is just pain and suffering, then why fix it? Isn't it only natural? Why is it even bad in the first place?

Years ago I went through a big Yancey phase, and I even saw him when he came out to Canberra. His Whats so Amazing about Grace? and The Jesus I Never Knew are two books that I recommend and I probably need to re-read again. This book was quite short and may not give you any hard answers to pain and suffering, but may walk you through some personal and nice thinking on the issue.

Other links on theodicy:
Keller on Suffering and God

A while back did a four part series on different views of theodicy that maybe of interest (I reserve the right to disagree with myself from the past):

  1. Atheism
  2. The Free Will Defense
  3. Process Theology
  4. God's discipline

1 comment:

  1. I loved "Whats so amazing about Grace" but have found some of Yancys books on suffering unsatisfying - its partly the difficult nature of the topic but I have found some other authors more helpful. I haven't read this book but was glad to have read your review.