Read Part 1 here.
Sometimes God tells you why you’re suffering or have suffered. He parts the clouds and speaks. That’s certainly possible, and I believe that it happens.
I believe, too, that God’s grace can work itself out in suffering and violence. Flannery O’Connor, more than anyone or anything else, has expanded my sense of how God’s grace operates amidst evil. In certain ways her stories have operated as a kind of commentary on Biblical violence for me, causing me to reconsider what God is up to in stories I have known since earliest childhood. In fact, there are some times when I want to say to her, “No, Flannery, God cannot work in this. This is too much.” I won’t get into it because it’s frankly too difficult to discuss, but there’s a moment at the end of one of her stories where the devil rapes a boy, and God ends up using that as a means of grace. I am deeply uncomfortable with that. But then I am equally uncomfortable saying, “No, God cannot come into this situation. It’s too gritty and nasty for him.” We serve a God, after all, who has entered into human wickedness and fully experienced its consequences.
Although I firmly believe that God works through suffering and evil, and I know that he sometimes condescends to reveal why we suffer, I remain skeptical of attempts to piece out concrete and digestible explanations for suffering. I am hesitant to do it with my own suffering, and I absolutely refuse to do it with the suffering of others. O’Connor can do it in a story with fictional characters, where she is essentially assuming the omniscience of God, but I would feel an impulse to slap anyone who decided to do the same with an abuse victim. The prophets can do so because God has divinely revealed his will to them, but I am very skeptical when people try to explain God’s prophetic purpose in, say, the First World War.
C.S. Lewis’ fine essay on “Historicism” draws a distinct line between those who claim to understand the “inner meaning” behind history due to their own genius, and those who claim that God has specially revealed it to them (in all likelihood a thinly veiled dig at Christopher Dawson, who suggested that God had revealed to him the course of human history in a vision). I will echo Lewis in saying that the latter “claim (with supporting evidence in the way of sanctity and miracles) would not be for me to judge.” That is a matter for the Church. I am merely talking about those who believe that human study and reason, unaided by a special revelation from the Creator, can discern divine purpose in history.
That God can and does work through suffering does not simultaneously mean that we get to understand the specifics. I am aware of no promise in Scripture telling us that God will always explain Himself to us. Many times throughout the Bible people cry out to God for explanation, and I find it startling how often God either does not answer or answers in a way that I find totally incomprehensible. As Walter Brueggemann writes, in Job “God seems to know nothing about pastoral sensitivity, for after Job relates in great detail his anguish and pain and bewilderment, Yahweh responds, ‘Let me tell you about my crocodile.’”
Confronting suffering matters beyond my own personal dispute with God. Some historians depict history as nothing more than a series of successively unfolding tragedies. That’s overly simplistic, but it remains nonetheless true that teaching history requires confronting suffering.
How one does so is a matter of considerable controversy in Christian schooling. In contrast to some, I am absolutely loathe to turn history into theodicy—which means to try to make history speak up in God’s defense. I will not take a moment of triumph and draw a neat line from some Christian virtue to God’s favor, nor a moment of disaster and draw a similarly neat line from some evil to God’s wrath.
I am hesitant for two reasons. To begin with, I believe that this ultimately makes light of tragedy and suffering.
Question: Why did God allow half a million Americans to slaughter each other in the 1860s?
Answer: As punishment for the sin of slavery.
And then we can move on. It’s very tidy. It takes something fundamentally inexplicable, something beyond human comprehension, and cuts it down to bite-size pieces we can swallow without harming our digestion. In order to do that we have to chop off a lot of ragged edges and smooth over a great deal of human suffering.
In other words, it’s uncharitable. Most of us know not to bring such reasoning and logic to bear when those around us suffer. Few of us, I hope, would respond to a friend’s tale of woe as Job’s friends did—by pointing out personal sin and assigning blame to the sufferer. We avoid this not only because Jesus himself exposed the bankruptcy of that reasoning in John 9 (“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”), but also because such a response lacks kindness, graciousness, and charity. To condemn the sufferer for his suffering—even in cases where poor decisions or outright sin led directly to suffering—betrays a dangerous lack of mercy.
Even so, many of us show no such qualms about employing that reasoning in history. We lack charity for the dead. Few of us hesitate to be uncharitable to figures whose names and stories we know, much less masses of unknown men and women ground down by the various catastrophes that speckle the landscape of history. Good historical thinking requires—and the teaching of history ought to model—charity and empathy. To reduce historical tragedy to a clear-cut result of particular sins, and therefore to undercut compassion, reflects the same merciless nature (not to mention ignorance) of the disciples in John 9. It is fundamentally uncharitable to pass over human suffering lightly.
Putting aside the lack of charity, such explanations ultimately ring hollow. Generally speaking, Christians try to explain history by saying that God is responsible for the good stuff and Satan’s to blame for all the bad stuff, and that’s that. Of course that’s true on some level, but if we leave it at that we’re overlooking a lot of messiness and complication. History is deeply messy, and it continually resists our attempts to apply an unambiguous, ideological, explanatory superstructure. It’s a tidy explanation—tidy to the point of seeming like we’re trying to have our cake and eat it too.
I teach middle school students. They really are marvelous little image bearers, but they are also not especially intelligent yet. As a fellow teacher likes to say, “I’m smarter than you. I have degrees, and you’re in middle school.” It’s a bit ridiculous to speak in those terms, of course—but it’s simply the case that, due to their developmental stage, I am smarter than my students. I feel confident that, if I committed to it enough, I could make history a really simple, black-and-white, 1-to-1 justification of the Christian faith. Some might raise objections, but I could crush them. And I suspect that some parents would find that comforting.
But I am equally confident that for many of my students—not all certainly, but many—there will come a time when that explanation rings horribly hollow. For some of them that time has already come, and while I would triumph in a debate with the doubters, that wouldn’t really convince them, would it? For others, that time is still to come, and I could certainly keep them in their comfortable faith for a time if I committed to simplifying history into a justification for God. But eventually many of them would start to sniff the falseness and oversimplification of that narrative. It might happen due to study—wait a minute, you’re telling me that some European colonists practiced biological warfare under pseudo-genocidal policies? and just what did God get out of decimating the European continent twice in the span of three decades? Or it might happen due to an inexplicable tragedy in their own lives or even a superficially minor but deeply felt pain. At some point, like Job or the Sons of Korah, they are likely to find the easy connection between sin and suffering no longer quite so easily drawn.
And when that happens, clever organization of data and good-hearted manipulation of history will not do. When that time comes, I’d like them to know that God welcomes lament, and that He does not expect or want us to hide our distress, disappointment, or anger from Him. I would like them to know that, yes, the world most assuredly is not as it should be, and, no, you cannot tame it by faith or by virtue. And I hope they will sense that the world’s brokenness demands a Savior.