by Lisa Michaels
I recently ran across a selection of empathy cards by Emily McDowell. To say the least, they were a little out of the ordinary. This line of cards uses phrases such as, “Please let me be the first to punch the next person who tells you everything happens for a reason,” and, “If this is God’s plan, God is a terrible planner.” I love these cards, and it’s not because I love stirring up controversy or saying horrible things to people who are suffering! I love them because they express something about what it is to live real, challenging, painful narratives in the midst of a bigger story filled with other people who understand.
In his book, The Uncontrolling Love of God, Thomas Jay Oord makes a daring proposal. He has solved the problem of evil. It’s a gargantuan claim yet there is much truth to this declaration. Essential kenosis presents us with an image of God that supersedes the prevalent theological debate between a god who coerces evil and a god who allows it, leaving us with a God who is fully love, unable to act unilaterally outside of this primary, defining attribute. If God is legitimately love, God cannot be anything less. God cannot be culpable for evil, because this would contradict God’s very nature. God would then cease to be God. This shifts the blame. In the process, the burden of culpability lands squarely on humanity, on creation, and sometimes even on random chance.
The difficult truth is, as humans we have made God into who we want God to be. In humility, we must admit we have often been wrong. At this juncture, it seems like a good trade-off to shed both the controlling, hands in everything, micromanaging god and the distant, untouchable, indifferent god for the God of unending love and goodness. There is peace in this. There is comfort. When we accept God is, indeed, lovingly doing everything God can do; we eliminate the temptation to accuse God of causing our suffering or prolonging our pain. Empathy reigns, but the problem of evil persists. People continue to experience pain, loss, and grief. This leaves me asking the question, “Now what?”
God does not desire evil, and God surely didn’t create it! God created a world in which people make decisions, on a regular basis, whether to participate in redemption or destruction, and God acts persuasively, through grace, calling us to respond. In many ways, this is cyclical in nature. God calls; we respond. We call; God responds. In the best case scenario, it goes on and on like this over the course of a lifetime.
One question often raised in light of essential kenosis is, “Does prayer matter?” This question was of great concern to me when I began to explore this theology. The answer is a resounding yes! One important thing about our good, loving God is God always responds. God keeps covenant. God participates in our lives on a regular basis when invited to do so. Unfortunately, people are not always so reliable. The greatest tragedy is when we fail to respond to God.
I would venture to say our failure to participate in redemption is deeply connected to our failure to recognize, as Oord points out, “God’s power is essentially persuasive and vulnerable, not over powering and aloof… cruciform… other-oriented love.” We need to be more other-oriented, but this does not come naturally. Even those of us who hurt deeply for others who are suffering often lose sight of where the real pain lies.
We talk about social justice and debate how to best become the hands and feet of Jesus, but in all of our discussions we sometimes forget to act. In our zeal to raise awareness or even to be transformed into people who look like Jesus, I fear we risk becoming like those James describes as having dead faith when he writes, “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” The right spirit is there, to be sure, but the follow-up is lacking.
Instead, in this world in which an uncontrolling God calls us to partner with him, we must take responsibility for pain even when we are not directly culpable. Interestingly, God appears to do this, as well, for we have certainly blamed God time and time again. Still, God has continued to act in relationship with humanity to squeeze as much good out of genuine evil as possible. Although God’s power is limited, God’s presence to us in the midst of suffering is not. God offers us the kind of love that moves heaven into our own personal hell, if we will accept it. As followers of Christ, we also are called to embrace Kingdom principles incarnationally and to bring this kind of heaven into the lives of those around us who are suffering. Our partnership with God should look more like the words from the Gospel of Matthew, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
Perhaps the greatest problem we face is not that we must re-think the probability that we do not serve a magical god who has the power to mysteriously coerce creation in order to bring the world’s narrative into submission to his desired endgame. Almost no one legitimately wants God to be more powerful than loving. No, the challenge is that this theology of an uncontrolling God places a great deal of responsibility on us. When faced with the question of what happens next, we realize we must act, bringing healing to a hurting world.
L Michaels is a follower of Jesus, theology student, author, blogger, educator, wife, mom and aspiring peacemaker.