The word “theodicy” is what theologians call an explanation of why an all-powerful and all-loving God would allow evil and suffering to exist. A God that isn’t totally loving or totally powerful would have an excuse for evil and suffering, but an all-loving and all-powerful God doesn’t have one—at least not one we mortals can understand. Yet, how we approach the question of theodicy matters immensely. In large part, our approach to this seeming paradox matters, because an approach that is too simplistic or too insensitive can do great harm to those who suffer or who are the victims of evil. A well-meaning effort to console with words such as “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle” or “everything happens for a reason” is naïve at best and grossly offensive at worst.
The best book I have ever read on the subject is called A Scandalous Providence: The Jesus Story of the Compassion of God by E. Frank Tupper. Tupper is a Baptist theologian now teaching at Wake Forest Divinity School. The fact that he is Baptist probably explains why he isn’t more widely read. Tupper is a first-rate theologian, however, a student of the German theologian Wolfhart Pannenburg and most important of all he is nothing if not painfully honest. A Scandalous Providence is painfully honest, because while it is a work of deep theology it is also in large part autobiographical.
Tupper’s wife died of cancer and he grieved her death as a loving husband and as a father to his children who were school-age at the time. He tells in his book about trying to make sense of why a loving God who could have saved the life of his wife and the mother of his children did not in fact do so. Furthermore, as a person of faith—a faith that included a belief in God’s activity in the world, activity that sometimes included healing—Tupper had to reconcile the troubling issue of why it seemed God would help some people but not others.
At the heart of A Scandalous Providence is a discussion of Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus. He notes that the birth of the Christ child is depicted as a glorious event, an intervention of God in the affairs of humanity and a light to all nations, yet in Matthew’s story immediately after Jesus is born the insecure King Herod slaughters all the children two years and younger living in Bethlehem in a failed attempt to kill the newborn king. Taking Matthew’s story at face value means accepting that one result of Jesus’ birth was the killing of innocent children. What are we to do with such a story?
Although Tupper does examine questions of historicity surrounding Matthew’s story, he is more interested in using it as a means of approaching the larger question of why some suffer and others are spared. His examination of the problem is honest but also complex. My oversimplified summary of it would come down to a belief in an all-powerful God who is also all-loving choosing to place limitations upon how and when God will act in the world. When God “can” act depends upon a complex number of variables that include things like human free will, the laws of nature and the most good that can be done without a corresponding harm in any given situation. The seemingly infinite variety of combinations of such circumstances may defy our human limitations but apparently such is not the case for God.
Tupper tells the story of driving home from church with his daughter one Sunday after his wife’s death. A woman in their church had recovered from a terrible illness and the church thanked God for her recovery. His young daughter asked why God had saved the other woman but not her mother. Tupper sighed and replied, “Honey, God would have if God could have.” When Tupper came to lecture at my seminary, I asked him if such a view did not leave us with a weak and maybe even inadequate God. He looked me dead in the eye and replied, “I’m much less concerned about God’s power or lack thereof than I am about God’s morality.” I will always remember that moment, and when presented with the choice of erring when I preach or teach about God, I always choose to err on the side of God being moral. A God that could save a child from dying and all things being equal chooses not to do so is not a God worth believing in as far as I’m concerned.
Such labored explanations for God’s scandalous activity in the world are the stuff of the Epiphany season. The season of Epiphany begins this coming Sunday with the arrival of the Magi or Wise Men to present gifts to the Christ child. Yet, hidden in the shadows of this story lies a violent and murderous king who is willing to slaughter children in order to hold on to power. Epiphany is the season in the church year when we celebrate the image of light as a metaphor for God’s work in the world, yet in our world the shadows still exist alongside the light. Whether you buy or not the thoughts I’ve presented in this column or what I will offer this Sunday regarding the light of God in the midst of this world’s shadows, you are nonetheless invited on this Epiphany journey. We will wrestle together with these questions as a community of faith.
During the season of Epiphany, I will be preaching about different ways of discerning the light of God in the midst of a world often filled with suffering and evil.
January 6—“Searching for God’s Light in the Midst of Darkness”
January 13—“The Light of God Revealed by Your Baptism”
January 20—“The Light that Drives Out Darkness According to MLK, Jr.”
January 27—“Allowing God’s Light to Shine in Our Church”
February 4—“Allowing God’s Light to Shine in Our Community”
February 11—“Allowing God’s Light to Change You”
Come, let us look together for God’s light as we travel in the midst of darkness!
Grace and Peace,