By Lee Karl Palo
© 2014 Lee Karl Palo
A question I have been asked from time to time is: how does theology matter in everyday life? It is a good question, and it points to a problem. To put it bluntly, the question wouldn’t be asked unless there were people who can’t see how theology makes a difference in everyday life. For this particular blog post on theology in the daily grind, I would like to talk about the problem of evil (why bad things happen if there is a good God). In fancy theological language the problem of evil is called “theodicy.” I am not proposing to solve this most difficult and disturbing of theological problems, but instead to look at one issue.
[How do you pronounce “theodicy?” …it rhymes with odyssey.]
People often have an aversion to talking about bad things. When they do talk about them it is to find a way to defeat or overcome those bad things. In the church, miracles are frequently hoped and prayed for. God is petitioned to intervene and put a stop to some bad thing. You don’t really hear the average person praying for bad things to happen, though it does happen. There is even a name for it: imprecatory prayer (for examples, read the book of the Psalms, and you will find plenty). In any case, you don’t generally hear people praying for their own or others’ bad circumstances to continue.
[God, please smite my enemies in some suitably nasty manner.]
This brings us to the first conundrum. If human beings are mortal, and if people always pray for healing, sooner or later those prayers for healing are not going to work. This is the dark side of the miracle. If you believe in miracles, there will be times when miracles will not happen. This leads to that sorrowful question many people face, “why didn’t God heal me? Why didn’t God perform that miracle that many prayed for? Some have gone so far as to say that not enough people prayed for that miracle, or they didn’t pray with enough faith. If you follow the logic however, you know that miracles will not always be forthcoming.
[Have a little faith.]
The first way to be like Satan is to tell someone they didn’t have enough faith for their miracle to come. The go-to verse of people accusing others of not having enough faith is Matthew 17:20. I think Jesus may have been employing a bit of hyperbole in that passage, but I have been told by a fellow Christian that if a person had enough faith they could be immortal. Nonetheless, it is bad enough to be mired in some horrible circumstance, then you get told it’s your own fault! No, the simple theological truth of the matter is that while God loves everyone, miracles will never be a certainty.
[That which does not destroy me makes me stronger – Friedrich Nietzsche]
The Bible goes even further than that. Those bad circumstances can actually be used or turned toward some good. “We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose” says the Apostle Paul (Romans 8:28 CEB). Romans 8:28 is an often cited scripture, and a much misunderstood one. It doesn’t mean God causes all of the bad things in order to test us and bring about some “good.” God may have a plan to bring some good out of a given bad thing.
[Didn’t God have a plan for some bad thing to happen to Jesus?]
Jesus knew he was headed to Jerusalem to be executed by the Roman authorities (crucifixion was a peculiarly Roman form of capital punishment—Jews used stoning). To say being executed on a cross was a horrible way to die was an understatement. Like most people, Peter doesn’t wish for bad things to happen to his good and dear friend (Matthew 16:22). It is bad enough to struggle with some bad thing that is a part of your life yourself. It is much worse when people tell you that God will surely take away that bad thing.
How did Jesus react? In Matthew 16:23 he calls Peter, “Satan!” What does this mean in practical terms? When someone tells you they are suffering from some bad thing, very often one of the worst things you can tell them is that God will fix it. God will certainly not always fix it, because miracles don’t always happen. Further, God may even have a plan to bring some good out of the bad thing.
[Don’t be Satan.]
There are couples who struggle with infertility. There are people with MS. Managing diabetes is a daily affair for some. Loved ones don’t always get better. There are many other bad things that are a part of people’s lives. Some bad things can be used for good, even for the salvation of the whole world!
[What do I do?]
In regard to his imminent crucifixion, Jesus simply asked to let God’s will be done (Matthew 26:39 and 42). It doesn’t hurt to pray that God’s will be done (I seem to recall a famous prayer with that as one of the lines in it). Perhaps if you feel God will intervene with some kind of miracle it would be best to take Jesus’ advice and pray in secret (Matthew 6:6). It is not easy to accept the bad things that are a part of your life. I can tell you, when you sense that God is not going to provide a miracle to liberate you from your bad thing, it hurts a lot to be told that God will take that bad thing away.
Don’t be like Satan!
© 2014 Lee Karl Palo