Thought for the week - 2 October
“But the righteous live by their faith.”
Most Christians believe that God is perfectly good and that he would therefore want to do something about all the evil in the world. We also believe that God is fully powerful and surely able to do something about suffering. Yet still, horrific evils exist, both moral and natural, and they provoke honest intellectual questions about whether Christianity makes any sense at all.
The Bible, in many places, wrestles with this so-called problem of evil but in a personal rather than in an intellectual way. How does my own life make sense in a world so full of suffering? Instead of pious platitudes and easy, but unconvincing, answers about the problem of evil, the Biblical authors vent their emotions with brutal honesty. One entire book of the Bible grapples with the theologically unthinkable: how could the Babylonian hordes have vanquished God's elect people and ransacked Jerusalem. The book is simply called "Lamentations." These ancient dirges lament Israel's slaughter and destruction: depopulated villages, abandoned streets that once bustled with business, refugees deported to foreign lands, starvation, mass unemployment, and the humiliation and helplessness that result from total subjugation. Where was God in such death and destruction?
One of the psalms for this week anguishes over the same catastrophe. Exiled to the banks of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates in Babylon, he rages for revenge: "O daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us.”
This verse is embarrassingly honest, but it is an authentic human cry of indignation. A perfectly human reaction in the face of injustice and suffering. Whereas the psalmist rages, the prophet Habakkuk complains. He complains that God feels silent and aloof: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgment comes forth perverted.”
And why does God seemingly choose wicked Babylon to punish elect Israel? “O Lord, you have appointed them to execute judgment; O Rock, you have ordained them to punish” Where is the morality in that?
The pages of the Bible are soaked with the tears of human pain and suffering, just like our own lives. Do not be afraid to cry out and complaint. The Bible is full of such cries and complaints. The Bible is full of grief, weeping, torment, disbelief, vindictiveness, envy, anxiety, wrath, bitterness, tears, betrayal, affliction, distress, desertion, desolation, weakness, violence, and the silence of God who appears not to save. By venting their frustrations, perplexity, and pain, the Biblical writers are showing themselves for what they are – human just like us. We should not be ashamed to ask questions and vent our feelings in the face of evil and suffering. There are no easy, glib answers.
These biblical protesters remind us that we will never understand everything about the mysterious ways of God. Some of the suffering we experience is inscrutable, it admits to no resolution no matter how much time, money, effort, prayer, or therapy we throw at it. St. Augustine of Hippo said, "the secrets of heaven and earth still remain hidden from us" and therefore we must "rest patiently in unknowing."1 So, if venting our emotions is okay, so is recognizing our ignorance and helplessness.
In the last verse of our Old Testament reading for today the prophet Habakkuk writes that "the righteous will live by faith". He chooses faith and decides to watch and wait. “I will stand at my watch post, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint.”
In the next chapter he writes:
Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Saviour. (3:16–18)
Perhaps watching and waiting in faith is the only response to our unexplained and unexplainable suffering. And, indeed, a significant aspect of faith is that waiting. In the face of pain, suffering, and injustice, God assures Habakkuk that, despite appearances, He is working, and so he should watch and wait.
“Then the Lord answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.”