Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Bible Is Less Naive Than Me

If God is good, why is there suffering? If God, why evil? People have been asking that question pretty much forever. And I started asking it a few months ago.

I guess I used to think I was immune, like the bad things in the world only happen to other people, not me. I suppose part of my change in thinking is because feminism taught me about how things like injustice and racism and rape and abuse are a lot more widespread than I thought- they're real and they affect people I know, but they're often hidden. Also I got really sick last year and had to have surgery and was basically unable to do anything for several months... I didn't know that could happen to me, that something out of my control could just stop me from doing what I want and living my life.

So... sometimes I read the news, hear about violence, and I think I should just never go outside again. God didn't protect those other people, why would he protect me? The only thing protecting me is probability. The number of people who randomly get killed in crimes or accidents every day is ridiculously small compared to the number of people who go out in public every day. Probability has kept me safe my whole life. Not God.

Seriously, what's the point of God, what's the point of praying? If God actually does stuff, then people would get better when they prayed, and people wouldn't die if someone was praying for them. See, it all doesn't make sense, the existence of God and the existence of suffering... Christianity makes claims about God and the world, and we can only believe them if we don't think too hard about reality.

And then I happened to be reading the bible, the book of Hebrews, and realized I was looking at this wrong.

Here's what I read (Hebrews 10:32-35):
Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.
Those early Christians who first read this were suffering persecution for their faith- they were being specifically targeted. Way different from my situation, where I'm afraid of random bad things that could happen to anyone.

And maybe they were wondering where God was, if suffering is real. And the writer of Hebrews talks about finding meaning in that suffering, and God rewarding them for their perseverance. In fact, Hebrews 11 lists characters from the Old Testament, one after another, and tells about how they remained faithful to God, even though they suffered for it, even though obedience didn't seem to make sense at the time, even though they received no reward during their lifetimes.

And wow, this was a big realization for me- I'm not the first Christian to wonder about why bad things happen and where God is. Even the writers of the bible talked about it (in many other passages besides Hebrews 10-11).

Well, gosh. Turns out Christianity is way different than I thought.

See I thought Christianity promised that bad things would always be overcome by good things. We may have problems and suffering, but God will always show up to fix it. And in this naive Christianity, there's no room to wonder what about when he doesn't? What about when people die and it seems like there is no reason?

And I thought no one would understand those questions. I thought the bible told a naive story about the world, where good always wins and those who do the right thing don't suffer too much. Where God makes every story a happy ending.

In Sunday School we learned about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, saved by God from the fiery furnace when they refused to obey the wicked king. But we didn't learn about the prophets of God who were hunted down and killed by Queen Jezebel. We learned about the city of Nineveh turning from their evil ways when Jonah preached to them, but we didn't learn about the prophet Zechariah, who was killed when he confronted King Joash about his wickedness. We learned about the angel who rescued Peter from the prison, but quickly skipped past the execution of James, which actually set the stage for Peter's arrest in the first place. We learned about God forgiving David for his adultery (rape?) with Bathsheba and murder of Bathsheba's husband, but tried not to think too much about Bathsheba's baby, who died as a part of David's punishment (and, you know, the husband who was murdered).

I thought the bible presented a naive religion that couldn't handle anybody asking questions about God letting evil things happen. I thought it promised puppies and rainbows and had nothing to say about sickness and tragedy. But nothing could be further from the truth.

No, the bible presents the same reality I know today: God protects and heals some people, and doesn't protect and heal others. And I don't know if it gives an answer for why that is, but the important thing is it acknowledges that reality. And even talks about the question of suffering, a lot, though I seem to have missed that in church while growing up.

And perhaps the reason the bible records the accounts of huge miracles is because that WASN'T normal. Because it WAS so unusual, for God to show up and help those who were powerless and suffering.

It's the same world I live in. Sometimes the strong oppress the weak. Sometimes people rise up and fight for justice. Sometimes people die for seemingly no reason. Sometimes God intervenes.

Power and miracles, but also suffering and hopelessness. And I don't know how to make sense of it, believing God can do anything but it's not likely that he will... I want to say "I trust God," but... trust him to do what? I believe that he's always with me and he understands everything I'm going through... and I guess that's it, for now.

But I'm glad the heroes of the bible also struggled with this question. I'm glad the bible is less naive than me.


  1. forgedimaginationMarch 23, 2013 at 1:36 PM

    This made me cry, because it is so true. I grew up reading the Bible through such an incredibly narrow filter-- somehow, I missed all of this, even when it was staring me in the face.

  2. Yes, exactly. Somehow I can read the entire bible, multiple times during my life, and miss this stuff.

  3. The only place the bible ever comes close to answering the question of God's justice, or the lack thereof, is the Book of Job. Its answer is a disturbing one: after God destroys Job's life to win a bet, Job concludes that God is a cruel, arbitrary tyrant who uses his power to hurt whoever he pleases.

    “How then can I dispute with him?
    How can I find words to argue with him?
    Though I were innocent, I could not answer him;
    I could only plead with my Judge for mercy.
    Even if I summoned him and he responded,
    I do not believe he would give me a hearing.
    He would crush me with a storm
    and multiply my wounds for no reason.
    He would not let me catch my breath
    but would overwhelm me with misery.
    If it is a matter of strength, he is mighty!
    And if it is a matter of justice, who can challenge him?
    Even if I were innocent, my mouth would condemn me;
    if I were blameless, it would pronounce me guilty."

    And at the end, after God spends four chapters yelling at Job, God then says that Job is, in fact, right about everything, and actually berates Job's friends for attempting to defend God's justice.

    After the Lord had said these things to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has."

    It's a dark, disturbing story. The only real moral I can find in it is that the strong will do what they please to the weak whenever they want, and there's nothing you can do about it. I don't think this is true though, and I suspect you agree.

    1. For what it's worth, I've been reading through a rather different take on Job, which isn't theodicy but anthropology. The short version is that "Eliphaz & Co. all argue that God is a carrots-and-sticks deity, which misrepresents God enough to merit His complaint at the end." (And Job's protest of innocence is a valid one; in the OT God does back down when the righteous ask Him to.)

  4. In the end, God never even gives Job an "answer" for why it all happened. What I get from the book of Job is that if you try to give people theological explanations for their suffering, you're going to come across as totally insensitive and you're going to be totally wrong anyway. Kind of like when there's a big tragedy and some pastor gets on tv and says "it's because we've taken God out of our schools!" (or some other nonsense) Really?

  5. If I had to guess, I'd say that Job was written as a response to the just word fallacy: Bad things aren't always the victim's fault, and it's pointless to pick apart the life of the victim to see where they went wrong when the problem comes from outside. The writer of Job seems to have lost that argument, and the idea of cosmic justice set in. It's depressing just how little progress we've made in this area since then. (See: Objectivists, rape culture, Republicans in general)

  6. I think the idea is that there are things going on spiritually in the universe that are beyond us. I think God's "bet" with Satan wasn't just a game; it had serious, if not eternal, ramifications, and God was trusting Job-- imagine that, this supposed tyrannical God risking so much in trusting a human being!-- to prove Satan wrong for real reasons that were, and are, important. I don't see God's questions to Job at the end of the book as "yelling" at him at all. Rather, he was Job's understanding of things in perspective for Job-- which is that Job didn't know much about God or how to run the universe.

    God also didn't say Job was, in fact, right about everything. He simply said that Job spoke about God "what was right." In context, that is that God wasn't punishing Job for sin. I don't think more than that should be read into the text.

    Finally, I really disagree that God represents "the strong" here, or that God is illustrating that right makes might. God is in a category by Himself, alone in wisdom and understanding that humans lack. And there was something Job could do about even God's actions, which he did. He prayed and cried his innocence out to God, and God responded.

    I agree with what Perfectnumber says-- what it comes down to is that there are no pat answers to the question of human suffering. That, I think, is why Job is a long poem full of human drama and feeling, and not a theological treatise. What it's really saying is, "I, God, get it. I know what you're going through. Trust me."

  7. God's bet with Satan, or rather HaSatan (it's a title here, not a name) has absolutely nothing at stake other than the participants' pride. Would you torture a loved one in order to win a gentleman's bet? There's no cosmic battle going on here, no revelation of spiritual truth. Just two deities playing a game with a man's life. Satan even disappears entirely after the second chapter, after which God is the only supernatural being.

    Job might have cried his innocence at first, but he eventually caught on to what was happening: His innocence didn't matter. God didn't care. And God admits it. Read Job's passage again, and then read God's statement at the end. Job says that God is unjustly destroying an innocent man, and God agrees! Job's friends are to be punished because they claimed God was just! If Job, who says that God is unjust, is saying "what was right" about God, and Job's friends, who are saying that God is just, are in the wrong, how else can you interpret it? God doesn't even bother trying to defend his actions. Instead he challenges Job to do this:

    Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm:

    “Brace yourself like a man;
    I will question you,
    and you shall answer me.
    “Would you discredit my justice?
    Would you condemn me to justify yourself?
    Do you have an arm like God’s,
    and can your voice thunder like his?
    Then adorn yourself with glory and splendor,
    and clothe yourself in honor and majesty.
    Unleash the fury of your wrath,
    look at all who are proud and bring them low,
    look at all who are proud and humble them,
    crush the wicked where they stand.
    Bury them all in the dust together;
    shroud their faces in the grave.
    Then I myself will admit to you
    that your own right hand can save you."

    That's God's challenge to Job: not to become wiser, or more loving, but a test of power. If Job can conjure up a suitable display of power, God will take him seriously. Not wisdom, not love, not grace, just pure, destructive power. And nothing in the Book of Job suggests that God cares about Job's suffering in any way. Even the bet seems forgotten by the end.

    The book of Job never acquits God of Job's charges. The God found in the Book of Job is a cruel, petty bully who hurts others on a whim because he knows that no one can stop him. Even God's alleged wisdom is meaningless: Even with all his knowledge, his leviathans and his behemoths, it still doesn't make him a better person. The best that can be said of the God of the Book of Job is that he hides his petty motives behind a veil of mystery.

    Ultimately, I think the truth about human suffering is this: We live in a universe where living things can harm each other. A universe where deterministic events such as weather systems or the movements of tectonic plates can cause suffering for living things. There's no great plan, no deeper meaning, and no higher power behind it. Neither an all loving heavenly father nor a cosmic despot like Job's God.

  8. "how else can you interpret it?"

    I don't interpret it through your worldview-- therefore I interpret it differently. How can you say "how else can you interpret it?" as if your hermeneutic were the only possible one?
    God's questions to Job aren't a challenge or a test of power. They are rhetorical questions to help Job look at himself in another perspective-- as one who is neither as powerful or as wise as God.
    Clearly the original authors did believe in a just God and did not intend the meaning you are putting into it. You're reading it with what has been called a "hermeneutic of suspicion" - predisposed to take the worst view of the text.

    Ultimately, you're taking the same position Job's friends did-- that if there's a God who is just, good things should happen to good people and bad things should happen to bad people. Job was suffering. Job's friends therefore condemned Job. Instead of that, you condemn God. But what if what the text is actually saying is that God's actions in the world are not in terms of a simple "put the goodness coin in the God slot and get the reward" thing?

    That's what Perfectnumber is saying. The text of Job shows an understanding that things just aren't that simple: that the Bible actually isn't what either fundamentalists or atheists expect it to be.

  9. This made me cry, because it is so true. I grew up reading the Bible
    through such an incredibly narrow filter-- somehow, I missed all of
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  10. I keep going back to the book of Job. In the end, there is no simple answer to Job's questions. It's all just ambiguous. And whenever I ask, "Why does suffering happen?" that's usually the kind of answer I get.