Poverty, war, ecological disasters, abuse, death, cancer, famine. Why do we experience suffering and evils? It’s a question that I’ve thought about for a few years now, and the lack of a concrete answer begs one of the oldest and most popular theological questions: if we are to believe that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and comprising all that is good, what does the existence of suffering and evil do to God?
There are two very common, and incomplete, answers to this question that attempt to justify God. The first is the claim that “everything happens for a reason.” If there is suffering, it is because God made it so. There is no such thing as coincidence: everything that happens, good or bad, is either a gift or burden from God based on his plan for each of us. This paradigm upholds God’s omnipotence and omniscience, but it also accepts that God permits, even sends, evil and suffering to the world. This is an unacceptable paradigm.
As a reaction to this cold-hearted God that sends despair, others will characterize God as a “watchmaker,” forming all creation as good but then stepping away and taking the role as compassionate observer as it is set into motion. This paradigm upholds God’s omniscience and goodness, but it asserts that God is distant from us in our suffering, and powerless to effect change in creation. This, also, is an unacceptable paradigm.
Though technically complete opposites, both of these explanations share the same flaw: neither is willing to accept that there are different forms of suffering that may have different origins. They both attempt to protect God by saying that he is EITHER in complete control OR completely innocent of any harm. The truth is, God is BOTH just AND merciful; BOTH respects our autonomy AND values our connectedness; and through the incarnation, BOTH separately divine AND similarly human. God is at once in our lives, articulating and inspiring his plan to us through word and deed, responsible for some of our suffering, and also autonomous, allowing for the world to work itself out, free from his every command or desire.
The true question in theodicy, thus, is not whether or not God causes suffering, but rather which acts of suffering are at God’s hand, and which are not (and what are other possible sources)? Part two of this series will deal with understanding how and why God causes suffering, how this suffering does not negate his goodness, and how we are to respond to it. Part three will recognize the free will God grants us, the inevitable consequences of such an act, and how God then responds to us. Taken together, I hope to create a more complete paradigm through which we may see and understand God, refusing to accept easy answers and half-truths. There is no doubt that my synthesis is incomplete and will need further adaptations, but I hope that it may add to each of your own perceptions of God.