Tuesday, March 15, 2011

What Do We Say When We Talk about Japan?

You're watching the news... how do you respond to what you are seeing? Of course, our hearts go out to all those who are suffering and we should respond in some practical compassionate way to help them (Central Presbyterian is currently putting together a plan to get our folks involved with relief efforts... more on that later), but how do we make sense of these events?

Many people will say in the heartbreak of seeing the devestation, 'how could a loving God allow this?' This is a very good question... not simply because it's to the point, but it's honest.

The most rudimentary form of this question takes this shape: why do bad things happen to good people? Who has an answer to this question? Do Christians have an answer? Does the Bible? Does the pastor have an answer? When I am asked this question, I let people in to my own struggles with it. I don't hope to have some "objective" justification for suffering but I do present what I think is a personally satisfying resolution to suffering.

So, to ask the question again: "why do bad things happen to good people?"... well, I am not sure what qualifies as 'bad' and I am certain 'I' don't qualify as good (I don't mean to speak for anybody else). Oh, I am not a man guilty of capital offenses, but I am guilty of pride that has broken the hearts of my wife and children. I am guilty of brutal selfishness, offering less than my best efforts at work and therefore less than what I am paid for, thinking other people are not as important of me and at time wishing other people would simply disappear... certainly the root of murder. I am not a good person. Therefore, whatever joys I have in this life are more than I deserve.

And defining 'bad' is also more difficult than at first glance. Our personal definitions of 'bad' and 'good' matter a great deal. They depend on what we think are worthy goals... right goals in our life. Is happiness our pursuit? Pleasure? Knowledge? What? 'Bad' is usually defined as something that hinders us from these pursuits, death being the ultimate 'bad'. Yet, we all face death.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a man with a bright future in Soviet Russia. He had education, a keen mind and an ability to write. He served faithfully in the Red Army but his criticism of Stalin in a personal letter to a friend led to his imprisonment in a labor camp. Was this 'bad'? Solzhenitsyn wrote about his imprisonment and how it changed him... in his mind for the better:

"It has granted me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of my youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer, and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first strivings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and then all human hearts”

(from Cancer Ward)

He later wrote:

“And that is why I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me, bless you, prison, for having been a part of my life.”

Perhaps we call some things bad because we simply don't have eyes to see the good.

Japan, however, falls into the category of horrific. I don't have a great answer for it except to say that I believe God will redeem all pain and death in the resurrection - that restoration of our bodies and reuniting of body and soul... that God himself, who is good, suffered the most horrific evil (death on the cross and the suffering of divine wrath) to accomplish this. We either chose to take refuge in this or face a bleak "unyielding despair" (Bertrand Russell, "A Free Man's Worship"... see below for the full quote) without him. And this is no answer at all.

Bertrand Russell, from A Free Man's Worship
That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end of they were achieving; that his origin… his loves and his beliefs are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism… can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all labors of the ages, all the devotion.. all the noonday brightness of human genius are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system… are so nearly certain that no philosophy that rejects them can hope to stand…. [O]nly on the firm foundation of the unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

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