Sunday, October 25, 2009

How Can a Loving God...?

He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matthew 5.45)

Three Camps of Doubt

It seems most atheists and agnostics pitch their tents in one of three camps of doubt. There’s Camp Literal, a joyless conclave of inflexible thinkers who can’t bend their minds around anything that isn’t wrapped in solid evidence or, at the very least, logical theory. There’s Camp Maybe, a collective of slope-dwellers who prefer slippery instability to putting a stake in the ground, be it on faith’s summit or in disbelief’s valley. The third group settles in Camp Why, a shambling spot where chaos rules because no one cares to sort things out. (The lingua franca of Camp Why is limited to questions.)

When the three groups convene, it’s always at Camp Why. And why is that? Well, first off, most Literal and Maybe campers spent a good chunk of time in Camp Why before hunkering down where they are. They’re familiar with its customs and jumbled layout. Second, the sprawling expanse of Camp Why easily accommodates all types. All anyone needs to fit in is one or more questions to ask over and over. But most important, Camp Why is built around a bonfire that rages in the mind of every non-believer. It’s the one place on the faith-free map where they can discuss their misgivings in a unified context. And with Camp Why as their gathering site, the discussion consists of infinite variations on one question: How can a loving God allow suffering?

Talking About the Weather

They know it’s a conundrum that can’t be solved on its own terms, which makes it a highly effective tool for harvesting recruits as well as cutting believers down to size. If God is real and if He really cares for us, why doesn’t He put an end to violence and poverty? Why would a God of love sanction the premature death of a child? If Jesus is The Living Christ, how can He stand by as people wage war, preach prejudice, and bilk believers in His name? Questions sparked around the Why bonfire can be very troublesome for easily shaken believers; they’re apt to mistake inability to respond for inadequacy of faith. But the question is where inadequacy really resides. It’s a flawed attempt to debunk belief in a loving God with evidence that actually proves He loves all of us equally.

In Matthew 5.45, Jesus smoothes out this gnarly dilemma by talking about the weather. After telling us to love friends and enemies equally, so “that you may be sons of your Father,” Jesus says, “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends his rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” The operating principle is equality, not fairness, merit, or mercy—equality. Because we are all equally loved, we are also equally vulnerable to suffering. Neither the blessings we enjoy nor hardships we endure are any indication of how much God loves us, if He loves us, or if He exists to love us. God’s equal care and concern for all of His children means none of us is less likely than the rest to experience turmoil, deprivation, or profound grief. And the reason for this comes from knowing none of us is more deserving of God’s love, mercy, or protection than anyone else.

Depth of Perception

Carefully reading Jesus’s explanation gets to the heart of the issue. Rather than saying, “Be like your Father. His sun shines on everyone. He sends rain to everyone,” Jesus calls out “evil and good” people who enjoy sunshine and “the righteous and the unrighteous” who suffer rain. Seeing no differences among His children, God makes no distinction in who thrives or struggles at any given moment. But the manner in which we respond to what He sends our way makes a huge difference in how we see Him—or even if we see Him at all.

People with no regard for God will disregard His goodness in sunny times—never pausing to wonder why God blesses them despite their disregard. Yet when the rain starts to fall and floodwaters rise, the same people will rush to accuse God of callous disregard for their suffering. “Why would God let this happen?” becomes the question. In contrast, people who love God look for His love at work in every situation, rain or shine. When times are good, they recognize it’s because of His love. When times turn sour, knowing His love is there is how they recognize it.

Solving the Camp Why riddle boils down to depth of perception. Those who can’t reconcile a loving God with human suffering take His goodness for granted, leaving them nothing to fall back on when the sun drops from their skies. Those who acknowledge God’s presence when things go well will see His goodness in the midst of storms. Confidence in God’s compassion for everyone translates into faith in His constant concern in every situation. When the sun shines, He loves us. When rain pours, He loves us. Finding Him with us wherever we are is how we know He’s alive and transforming our circumstances for His glory and our good. Since Why campers only speak in questions, we answer with one of our own: “How can I allow suffering to shake my faith in a loving God?”

Allowing ourselves to see a loving God in every circumstance solves the riddle of “How can a loving God allow…?”

(Tomorrow: Help Wanted)

Postscript: Hymnology by Jake--"In the Garden"

Last Sunday I posted video of a hymn suggested by Marion, a Straight-Friendly email subscriber. Thinking it was a lovely addition to the Lord’s Day post, I invited other readers to submit titles or video links to their favorite hymns. Jake responded immediately with this:

I have such a hard time picking favorites, especially when it comes to hymns. I have an old Baptist Hymnal on my bookshelf with so many post-its stuck in it the binding has been stretched! The one most likely to move me when it catches me off-guard is “In the Garden.” I tried to find a decent version, and I do like Anne Murray, but I'm not sure what's up with the wolves at the end?!

Thanks, Jake. And I look forward to more reader suggestions today and in the future!


kkryno said...

In light of my circumstances the last few days, this post really spoke to me. I have been questioning The Lord as to why He couldn't wait to act on a matter until my return to Alaska.

I still don't know why, and I know why we're not supposed to ask; but it still is part of me to do so. I just wish...knowing that it is pure selfishness on my part.

In all my wondering, I'll never give up on my faith, nor will I lose my belief that He is there for me. Even when I am a pain in the backside with all of my questions! :)

Thank you, Tim. Your posts are very timely; and I treasure you.

Tim said...

Vikki, I'm sorry to hear you're dealing with being away from a situation you'd prefer to be nearer to. This kinds of situations can be very trying and I'm praying God's strength for you.

I don't believe it's wrong to ask God why things are happening. It's when we question His character and motives that we go astray. The fact that you're holding on to your faith and resting in His presence is exactly what believers do.

So often what we want isn't what's best for us. In God's wisdom He removes from situations, even temporarily, for our benefit. It never feels that way while it's happening. But He knows the path we should take and leads us--as David said "beside still waters to restore our souls."

Keep the faith, my dear sister. All things are working together for your good.

With much love and care,