God may not be who you think God is.
The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop and Primate of The Episcopal Church
The Rev. Dudley Rose, Associate Dean, Harvard Divinity School
The Rev. Dr. John Westerhoff, Professor of Applied Theology (Retired) Duke Divinity School
A Trinitarian love story, inviting a profound exploration of life’s thorniest questions: what do we do with the evil, wretched, horrible, painful parts of life and our relationship to that suffering? Where does suffering come from, and why? Does God create or permit it, and what does that say about God and our relationship with God?
Edwards deals with traditional and age-old explanations of these questions, finding limitations in some, and drawing us into a Trinitarian understanding that will bless and accompany suffering humanity. An excellent introduction to theology and theodicy, accessible to the general reader, this would be an excellent resource for adult education and all sorts of ministerial formation.
— The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate of The Episcopal Church
God of Our Silent Tears is an introduction to theology . . . for lay persons and clergy, ordinary folk and academics. . . . This is a book for everyone who has . . . wondered about . . . how God is with us in our suffering. It is a personal testimony that introduces us to the author’s pilgrimage in search of a connection between the . . . doctrine of the trinity and our striving to believe in a good God in a cruel world.
— The Rev. Dr. John Westerhoff
Professor of Theology, Retired, Duke Divinity School
At last, a book about suffering that that makes sense and is actually useful. With care and wisdom Edwards reaches into the lengthy stream of biblical and Christian theology and finds pure gold — better than that, he finds God (at least to the degree that is possible).
In the face of immeasurable suffering, much of modern day Christianity settles for either an all-powerful God whose will we cannot know but must simply trust, or a powerless God who weeps for us. Neither God delivers much solace or meaning. Edwards convincingly shows us that neither is found in credible Christian theology, either.
Edwards takes us on a delightful expedition through biblical texts and the works of classical and contemporary theologians as he recovers an eminently sensible and accessible Trinitarian theology. He takes what has been a vexing and opaque question (how do we reconcile any idea of God with human suffering?) and draws us a picture that, once seen, seems obviously true. The result is a book that is so helpful and potentially transformative that it should be preached and read anywhere that has been heard the simple but heartbreaking question, “Why?”
— The Rev. Dudley C. Rose
Associate Dean, Harvard Divinity School
Dan Edwards grew up in rural Texas, earned his B.A. and J.D. at the University of Texas, then moved to Colorado where he practiced Migrant Law for three years. He went on to practice law for another nine years in Idaho before attending the General Theological Seminary where he earned his M. Div. and an S.T.M. in Spiritual Direction. As a young adult he practiced Buddhism and was social justice activist, but never was able to reconcile his spirituality with his politics. His return to Christianity coincided with his despair over the possibilities of social action. But 9/11 forced him to rethink the role of religion in the social and political order. A Merrill Fellowship at Harvard Divinity and a Guthrie Scholarship at Columbia Theological Seminary gave him an opportunity to start rethinking the socio-political implications of Christian theology and spiritual practice. The writing of this book has been a decade long process of thinking aloud as he has been revising his beliefs and prayer life to a channel for God’s grace, as he works with community organizing efforts to make the world more just and merciful. The process is on-going.
He has published a few scholarly articles, but this is his first book. His poetry has been published by Sacred Journey, Ars Poetica, and the Austin Poetry Society Newsletter. Dan Edwards presently serves as the 10th Bishop of Nevada, after having been a parish priest in Macon, Georgia for 18 years.
Foreword by John Westerhoff
Chapter One The Numb blow fallen in the Stumbling Night: Why Do We suffer?
Chapter Two The Natural Order is Deadly
Chapter Three People Behaving Badly
Chapter Four “Perverse Motives” Attributed to God for All Manner of Suffering
Chapter Five God May Not Be Who You Think God is
Chapter Six Then What Do We Say About God?
Chapter Seven Dusting Off an Ancient Riddle
Chapter Eight The Cosmic Vortex that Swallows Sorrow: How the Family Trinity Responds to Suffering
Chapter Nine The Serene Father: The Job Description Trinity and Suffering, Part 1
Chapter Ten The Compassionate Son: The Job Description Trinity and Suffering, Part 2
Chapter Eleven The Revitalizing Spirit: The Job Description Trinity and Suffering, Part 3
Chapter Twelve Mirroring God: How We Respond to Suffering
With these hands I lifted him from his cradle, tiny then, soft and warm,
and squirming with life. Now at the end with these same hands I touched
him in his coffin.
— Nicolas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son
If I knew! If I knew why!
What I can’t bear is . . . the blindness . . .
Meaninglessness . . . the numb blow
Fallen in the stumbling night.
— Archibald MacLeish, J. B.
When I walked into her hospital room, the young woman was lying there in her hospital gown, her forehead damp from the physical ordeal of labor and delivery, her cheeks damp from the tears. She reached her hands toward me and called out a single desperate question: “Why?” The stark simplicity of her question made it huge, absolutely impossible. It haunts me now, a decade later. I said, “I don’t know.”
Months earlier the couple announced they were expecting their first child. As their priest, I was looking forward to the baptism. But at the end of a full-term normal pregnancy, the baby was born dead. And her mother wanted to know why.
The pregnancy had gone smoothly. The baby girl had seemed healthy. There was no sign of any pathology at the birth. The baby was simply dead. In the absence of any other explanation for a stillbirth, doctors say, “It was a cord accident.” Maybe it was. But that answer is just something for doctors to say. When there is no other explanation for a stillbirth, “cord accident” is the default diagnosis, not a verifiable fact. It doesn’t really answer anything. If the doctorscannot give a reliable medical explanation, how is a pastor to decipher the mystery of death? Still, I would have given a fortune for something — anything — to say. I had no theological equivalent of “a cord accident.” So I said, “I don’t know.”
WANTING OUR FAITH TO MAKE SENSE.
When life disappoints us deeply in ways that make so little sense, we ask “why?” For those who believe in God, senseless sorrow shakes our faith. We lose not only a child, a lover, a hope, but also our sense that life is good and meaningful. We loseour faith. We want faith to make sense. We need our beliefs to be reasonable so we can trust them. Disasters don’t fit with our trust in God’s benevolent care. They make belief in an all-powerful loving God appear absurd.
Philosophers and theologians call the disconnect between faith in God and all the bad things that happen “the problem of evil.” Right off, we have trouble with the vocabulary because philosophers and theologians use the word “evil” with a special meaning. Most people today use “evil” to mean seriously immoral behavior. In ordinary speech, we would not use the word “evil” to describe a medical condition or a natural disaster. But traditionally, “evil” has meant anything that is not as it ought to be. It could mean any kind of “bad” — bad weather, bad health, bad luck. “Evil” is very much like “malignant.” In the law “malignant” means something akin to malice; but in medicine a cancerous tumor is called “malignant.” “Evil” can be used both in moral and other ways. The term an “evil day” in times past meant a day with bad weather or a day on which an army was defeated.
That is how the philosophers and theologians use the word. So when we talk about “evil,” we mean sickness, natural disasters, and misfortune as well as people doing cruel things to each other. Rabbi Kushner used the phrase “bad things.” This book will use a variety of words to describe a variety of “bad things,” but it will also use “evil,” the way philosophers and theologians have been using it since the 1700s, as an umbrella concept to include all of them. “The problem of evil” challenges faith. The challenge goes like this: “If God is omnipotent and God is good, then why is there evil in the world?”1 Logically, it would seem that one of the following must be true: (1.) God is not all-powerful. (2.) God is not all good. (3.) There is not really any evil in the world.2 You see “the problem of evil” is a serious threat to the faith of those who believe in a loving God. The poet Czeslaw Milosz puts it better:
All my life I tried to answer the question,
where does evil come from?
Impossible that people should suffer so much, if God is in Heaven
The problem of evil has been called “the rock of atheism.” Atheistic philosophers from David Hume in the 18th century to John Mackie in our day have argued that this “problem of evil” makes belief in God irrational.4 Theologian Gordon Kaufman, summed it up: “In the face of death camps, hydrogen bombs, and napalm, of unbearably painful and destructive diseases, of impersonal calamities and unmerited suffering, how can one say that the Ruler of the world is good, loving, or merciful . . .? The particularly overwhelming evils of the twentieth century have brought home this dimension of the problem of God with renewed force.”5 Bart Ehrman’s book God’s Problem is his account of how the horrible things that happen to people make it impossible for him to believe in God.
OUR FIRST INNER CONFLICT:
DO WE WANT TO BELIEVE GOD IS IN CHARGE?
The “problem of evil” runs deeper in our hearts than a logical conundrum in our heads. It is a matter of our conflicted longing. Do we want to believe God is in charge of what is happening or not? The “problem of evil,” at the feeling level, lies in our conflicted desires. On the one hand, we want God to intervene — to part the Red Sea when it blocks our way, to heal our diseases, cast out our demons, and raise our dead. We need help finding our car keys, paying our bills, and keeping our tempers. We want a higher power to liberate us from alcohol. We want to turn it over, to let go and let God. All of that requires God to be both powerful and actively involved in our lives, even arranging occasional miracles to save our necks. On the other hand, if God is powerful enough and involved enough to help us, then aren’t our problems his fault to begin with? Where was God when things went wrong? If God can help us, why hasn’t he already done it? What kind of a God would insist that we crawl and beg before he helps, and sometimes he won’t help even then. Better to think God is powerless or uninvolved. Such a God would be innocent and perhaps likeable, but not particularly important or even relevant to our lives. Then to confuse things further, miracle, wonder, and serendipity come along. Grace happens just often enough that we can’t dismiss the notion that God may be lending us a hand on occasion. Why then does God act only on occasion? Believing God could deliver us from suffering actually implicates God in our suffering. A man trapped in the World Trade Center on September 11 prayed to be saved. He was saved, but his response wasn’t gratitude. This is his story: “Lord help me please,” he prayed, the primal prayer. “Then,” he said,“I feel like this strange force came over me, that I never felt before . . . and I busted a little hole [and crawled out] . . . My Lord upheld this building. Then we were in perfect safety, and the building collapsed.
And here I am. God delivered. And I’m angry. Angry because all these good people who were there, all these good people were left in this
building. So I’m angry.” If God can save but doesn’t, we have to blame him. But blaming God for suffering is problematic. If God is our ideal, our highest concept, what we strive to resemble, then blaming God for suffering actually corrupts our souls. Emulating the person we blame is a mind-twister, so we are inclined to say God cannot do anything about real world problems. Despairing of God’s ability to do anything about our suffering is practical atheism. God may exist but he does not matter. I know two people who each lost a child to death. One of them dealt with his loss by trusting that God caused his daughter’s early death for a greater good. The other bereaved parent exonerated God of her child’s death, insisting God does not run the world. Their opposite answers each helped them cope for awhile, but neither answer was
truly adequate. The first answer made God a killer. The second made God a helpless bystander. Which one deserves our worship? We can escape this dilemma by simply rejecting God. Indeed, if we want to reject God, the persistence of misfortune can give us reason to do so. We can say there is no God or that God is not good. Those responses, however, are not particularly helpful when it comes to finding ways to survive, to find the meaning in our experiences, or to overcome the obstacles that hold us back in life. Perhaps the “overwhelming evils of the twentieth century” may lead us to re-think who God is instead of giving up on faith and succumbing to despair. This book will present such an alternative. Instead of using life’s sorrow as an occasion to deny God, we will reconsider who God is. We will use this occasion to find a truer, more praiseworthy God, a God who will empower us to overcome hardship and affliction.