The following is an imagined dialogue on theodicy, how God stands sovereign with tangible evils, and how to be a community that can absorb suffering. Quotations indicate exact words taken from the authors’ respective texts. Centered text indicates narrator dialogue.
Good evening and welcome to this week’s Talk Track on WCJE 101.3. As always, I’m your host Christopher. Today’s topic is sure to be a difficult one for many, as we continue our God and You series with God, You, and Death, Disaster, and Depression. While tonight’s theme may yield deep introspection, as with every night, we want you to be a part of this conversation, so don’t hesitate to call us with your questions or comments at 888.314.1013. Helping us today are Drs. Stanley Hauerwas, author of God, Medicine, and Suffering, and D. A. Carson, author of How Long, O Lord?. Thanks for joining us, gentlemen.
Carson: We appreciate the invite.
Hauerwas: It’s our pleasure, for sure.
Sirs, I want to start with a simple question — actually, more of a statement about both of your books. In reading them this past week, I perceived an adamancy from both of you that questions about death, disaster, and depression are healthy insomuch as they are particular and directed to God, and as they do not expect an answer. Is this take-away accurate?
Carson: That is quite more than merely simple. In short, yes, it is absolutely crucial to believe with certainty all of the accounts the Bible relays to us, especially concerning Jesus, the cross, and the resurrection. However, as comes with our finitude, our creatureliness, “in addition to great certainties there are great gaps in our comprehension”.
Hauerwas: I agree with Don. We need to be stripped of both wanting and expecting “easy answers and false comforts” so that we can ask questions about suffering with honesty. If we look at the early church, as depicted in Acts or handed down through tradition, we see that they didn’t ask for answers, they asked for comfort.
Which is why, I take it, you both go to great lengths to not answer the infamous “Why” questions. What, then, is the expectation readers should have in picking up your books?
Hauerwas: Well, I can only speak for my purposes in writing, but for me, I want the readers of God, Medicine, and Suffering to move away from a systematic theology of theodicy — how a completely good and all-powerful God co-exists with evil — and more towards a narrative theology of suffering. When we divorce the question of suffering from any reality other than an intellectual one, we churn out theoretical answers that provide no support in the storm. As a result, we tend to spout out pithy statements like “God works all things for good”, which is true to a point, but is of no help whatsoever (and may actually be more harming) to those surrounded by dust that just won’t settle. “We have no theodicy that can soften the pain of our death and the death of our children, but we believe that we share a common story which makes it possible for us to be with one another especially as we die.” And honestly, will any answer, no matter how true, actually be of help to you if you were in the midst of suffering? If you could peer behind the current, could see that the Accuser is trying to win a bet with God, would that make you feel any better? Of course not! What you need is place, not reason. Recovering your story’s place in the Grand Story is what I want readers to capture in my book.
But why story?
Hauerwas: If we view our lives as nothing more than the isolated happenings of each day, we have no purpose. When we find ourselves drowning in sorrow over something as tragic as the death of the child, that purposelessness becomes fatalism, because that very death is completely separate from what happened yesterday or the day before. If there is no Grand Story, and consequently we have no dwelling in it, we simply are recipients of either good or bad impersonal luck. “Stories serve to relate individual experiences to the explanatory constructs of the society and culture and also to place the experiences within the context of a particular individual’s history”.
That makes sense, Dr. Hauerwas, but I can’t help but hear you saying we need to find a purpose in our suffering, something I distinctly felt you push against in your book and in your earlier comments.
Carson: Stan, if I may… Dr. Hauerwas is not saying to find the purpose of one’s particular suffering. He’s saying that your life has a place in a story that is bigger than just us. Knowing where you are in that larger story helps not to explain the suffering, but to expect it. “It is important to stress the Christian’s location — between the fall and the new heaven and the new earth, enjoying the downpayment of the Spirit, but by no means free of death and decay.” Furthermore, placing your story into that larger story must inevitably lead you to the cross, where there even God Himself cried out with a “Why?” that was not answered.
Hauerwas: Exactly. “The appeal to narrative at least has the advantage of reminding us that our lives and our deaths are not occasional bits of unconnected behavior but part of a larger pattern; recognizing this gives purpose to our lives.” You’ll notice I say that story gives our lives purpose, not necessarily our suffering. Our suffering — for lack of a better phrase — fits into our story especially if it is aligned with the larger story of God’s redemptive-historical plan. “If Christian convictions have any guidance to give us about how we are to understand as well as respond to suffering, it is by helping us discover that our lives are located in God’s narrative — the God who has not abandoned us even when we or someone we care deeply about is ill.” And there, Christopher, is our comfort, but not necessarily our answers.
That clears the air, I think. Thank you. Dr. Carson, what do you wish to cultivate in readers of your book?
Carson: I wish to cultivate a wholistic approach to Christianity. What I mean is this: we have to take all the good the systematic theology movement has brought us and apply our biblical knowledge to our everyday experiences. In particular, I want readers to see that God being sovereign and God being good are both necessary in traversing “the valley of the shadow of death”. So often we focus on one aspect of God, one kernel of theology, that we lose the whole of the biblical narrative. “In addition to holding that Christian beliefs are true and consistent, the Christian, to find comfort in them, must learn how to use them. Christian beliefs are not to be stacked in the warehouse of the mind; they are to be handled and applied to the challenges of life and discipleship. Otherwise they are incapable of bringing comfort and stability, godliness and courage, humility and joy, holiness and faith.” Put more succinctly, we often theorize that we want God’s justice or God’s goodness in the midst of our storms. If we only seek A or B, we wind up creating a god who is either sadistic or helpless. “Only the triumph of justice and love” as the Bible describes them in God will bring us some comfort during our sufferings.
Thank you, Dr. Carson. Let’s turn now to one of our callers.
Caller: I want to thank you for choosing this topic, but I have an issue. Earlier, one of you said it was wrong to quote, I believe it’s Romans, that says, “God works out all things for the good of those who love Him.” Saying that sounds very unChristian. I mean, it’s the Bible, God’s Holy Word. How can that be wrong?
Hauerwas: That’s a great question. When you quote specific Bible passages such as Romans 8.28 to those in the midst of suffering, in essence you are saying, “Whatever you are dealing with is not so bad, so buck up, because God has it.” While it is absolutely accurate that God is sovereignly in control, eschatology and other theology is not comforting. We are called to bear with one another in their burdens, which does not mean making their burdens less burdensome, or trivializing what they are going through, but sitting with them in their grief, in their sorrow, in their deaths and other sufferings. Otherwise, you are not present with me. You are looking at my sufferings from the New Heaven and Earth, and not from where I am in my suffering. People want presence. God Himself recognizes this in that one of His Son’s names is “Emmanuel”, meaning God with us.
Carson: To add to that, quoting Bible verses about and only about victory consciously forgets those passages and narratives that show God’s people in anguish and turmoil. Our “name it and claim it” culture has infected us with a “pious version of…triumphalism” that all we want to do in our church communities is focus on the Victory. Now, focusing on the Victory is crucial as many epistles argue, but the victory has to come from a struggle, a struggle of which we are a part, a struggle where we will experience loss. “We struggle here, and much of the comfort and perspective the Bible offers has little to do with any appeal to the End. It would be tragic if all such comfort and perspective were lost because we fled immediately in our thought to ‘the hereafter.’” “There is no attempt in Scripture to whitewash the anguish of God’s people when they undergo suffering. They argue with God, they complain to God, they weep before God. Theirs is not a faith that leads to dry-eyed stoicism, but a faith so robust it wrestles with God.” Even for God, the defeat of sin, evil, and death came at the cost of His Son’s own life.
I want to play a clip real quick. It is from the 1981 film My Dinner with Andre. I think it adds poignancy to the discussion:
Clip: “You know, it’s like what happened just before my mother died. You know, we’d gone to the hospital to see my mother, and I went in to see her. And I saw this woman who looked as bad as any survivor of Auschwitz or Dachau. And I was out in the hall, sort of comforting my father, when a doctor who is a specialist in a problem that she had with her arm, went into her room and came out just beaming. And he said: ‘Boy! Don’t we have a lot of reason to feel great! Isn’t it wonderful how she’s coming along!’ Now, all he saw was the arm, that’s all he saw. Now, here’s another person who’s existing in a dream. Who on top of that is a kind of butcher, who’s committing a kind of familial murder, because when he comes out of that room he psychically kills us by taking us into a dream world, where we become confused and frightened. Because the moment before we saw somebody who already looked dead and now here comes a specialist who tells us they’re in wonderful shape! I mean, you know, they were literally driving my father crazy. I mean, you know, here’s an eighty-two-year-old man who’s very emotional, and, you know, if you go in one moment, and you see the person’s dying, and you don’t want them to die, and then a doctor comes out five minutes later and tells you they’re in wonderful shape! I mean, you know, you can go crazy!”
Here’s my question: do you feel as if evangelicals are in danger of cultivating a similar atmosphere as the one described in this clip? What advice do you have for those who wish to suffer with the suffering, as is the biblical mandate? Is there a way to do care wrong?
Carson: Without a doubt, and I think we covered a little of the ‘how to do care wrong’ question. The bottom line is that we need to expect suffering, and as such, allow others to expect it as well. Hebrews attests that our Lord learned obedience through suffering. How deep is the disillusionment that we should be better off than our Master?! Jesus didn’t tell His followers to “count the cost” with the expectation that the cost would be benign. We must come to grips with the mysteries of life, with the questions posited from both our finitude and our “seclusion” from the heavenly court. We also need to cling to the cross, where we see the true God suffering for His people. Furthermore, we must not try to discern the mysteries of God’s sovereignty and His goodness. Finding an answer does not peace bring. “To walk into the unknown with a God of unqualified power and unfailing goodness is safer than a known way.” That means, when suffering with suffering, even when they ask, “Why?”, don’t think they want an answer. Sit with them. Pray with them. Help them regain their place in their story and in God’s Larger Story, and help them do so by deepening their relationship with God through counseling, praying, and comforting. Show the life of God to them, not mere intellectualism. Finally, “It is important to help people live one day at at time.” Be with them where they are, do not rush them to the eschaton. They may eventually need to hear of the hope of the final resurrection, but where they are is, at first, where you should be, also.
Hauerwas: Amen, brother. “The greatest experience open to man is the recovery of the commonplace.” Ultimately we must be grounded at and help others ground themselves at the cross. The cross shows our God is not above our sufferings. The cross offers us both grace in the now and hope for the future. The cross shows we are not abandoned. We may think increased intelligence and knowledge bring us hope, but in the storm, we need presence, and the cross is so divinely placed right in the midst of the overarching storm. As I said earlier, this is the hope the early Christians had. This is the hope we need to recover.
That’s all the time we have today. I want to thank you both for taking the time to talk through this heavy subject with us. Again, listeners, be sure to pick up God, Medicine, and Suffering by Dr. Stanley Hauerwas, and How Long, O Lord? by Dr. D. A. Carson. Thank you for tuning into Talk Track as we discussed today’s installment in the God & You series: God, You, and Death, Disaster, and Depression. Tune in next week for the continuation of this series: God, You, and Vocation, where we will be joined by Drs. Amy Sherman and Christopher Wright. Until then, I’m Christopher, thank you for joining us on WCJE 101.3.