A world without heroes: a brief and humble attempt at theodicy
Imagine if you called for help and no one came.
Imagine further that no one even knew what you meant when you asked for “help”, that when you said the word “compassion” all you got was a blank stare or when you said “justice” people just scratched their heads.
The problem of suffering has plagued theologians (both the armchair variety as well as the professional kind) and braced cynics for millennia. How can we look at the world in which we live and conclude that God is either all-powerful or all-loving? Either He loves us but is powerless to end our suffering, or He is able to end suffering on earth but just doesn’t care enough to want to make the effort. Perhaps He is neither all-loving nor all-powerful. Perhaps, some wonder when they watch the evening news, He isn’t there at all.
This topic has been extensively written about, and endlessly debated. I think for many newly-minted college atheists it’s definitely a hot seller. There are many good ideas about the problem of evil, and how a good God could allow suffering (most of those ideas having to do with the inevitable consequences of man’s free will). Even so, I’m fairly certain I can’t end the debate here. But I do want to add a twist, and that’s this: Without evil in general and suffering in particular, most of the qualities that we love in people, many of the things we think of as “character”, would be non-existent.
It occurred to me awhile ago as I thought about what had happened on Sept 11th that just as without sin there would also be no forgiveness, and just as without crime there would also be neither justice or mercy, a world without suffering would also be a world without compassion. A world without need is a world without giving. And a world without all of the things which we hate in life just might also be a world without all of the things we aspire to, all of the things we hope to be, all of the best qualities that we love to see in others and someday hope to see in ourselves.
Think of it this way: The outpouring of compassion and charity in response to acts of terrorism, the actions of a heroic many, acts of sacrifice in the face of suffering… all of these would have been left undone, had tragedy never occurred. A world without terrorists is a world without heroes.
Does that make it worth it? Does growth justify pain? Does healing justify illness? I don’t know if I can answer that question. In fact, the question is so large, I feel helpless in the face of it. But I do know that when I see suffering, looking for the Kingdom response, seeing the positive character quality that the particular tragedy could evoke helps me to make sense of what would otherwise be completely senseless.
They say that a broken bone, once healed, is stronger than one never broken. What if, in God’s economy, a healed person is better than one who has never been sick? What if a grateful, forgiven person is better than one who never needed forgiveness and a person who has been through tragedy, loss and suffering, yet grown because of it is better than one who never knew pain? What if a fallen world, filled with compassion, forgiveness and redemption is better than one that never knew sin. Maybe that’s why God “allows” all those things that make us ask why.
Recently I watched the Michael Moore documentary “Roger and Me’ about GM plant closings and their effect on the town of Flint, Michigan. All through the film was sprinkled footage of families being evicted from their homes, even one on Christmas Eve. Moore’s point was to show culpability by the head of GM, Roger Smith- why wouldn’t he come to Flint and see what practical effects his decisions were having on this community and on families and individuals? As I watched scene after scene of mostly women being removed from their houses or apartments, what I kept wondering was not “where is Roger?”- not even “where is God?” but “where are the Christians?”
The tragedy of those evictions represented many things- a failure in the system, irresponsibility both corporate and individual, the downside of a capitalistic system… but most of all they represented an opportunity for compassion, for mercy, for giving. But no one seemed to want to grab hold of that opportunity. The cries for mercy from mothers of small children watching their belongings being lined up on the street outside of the houses they were losing went unheeded.
What would have been the result had someone stepped in, taken one of those families under their wing and helped them? How would the Kingdom have been advanced if it had been Christians rather than a film-maker who heeded the words of Scripture to “Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the orphan. Fight for the rights of widows.” (Isaiah 1:17)
Jesus said that we would always have the poor. The real question is, will they have us? Will we allow the suffering in the world to act upon us, will we allow tragedy to have its intended effect on us- planting the seeds of compassion, seeing them sprout into giving and coming to full flower in self-sacrifice?
The question of suffering will always remain. People will always ask “Why is God allowing this?” But at a certain point we lose the right to even ask the question if we are unwilling to do anything that might contribute to an answer, even if it’s just the answer to one other person’s suffering.
Imagine if YOU called for help and no one came.
Bob Hyatt lives in Portland, Oregon and is a recovering youth pastor, media designer, husband and soon-to-be father who dreams of a position as teaching pastor in a church that appreciates the spiritual value inherent in a good cup of coffee.