by Jesse Thorson
An individual’s first experience of suffering or deep pain often leads to an intense questioning of reality and a loosening of once tightly held convictions. For followers of Jesus, these seasons sometimes serve to pull a loose thread from our perfectly knit, neat understanding of God’s goodness and power. Indeed, a single, loose thread in the fabric of our systematic theology can threaten the efficacy of the entire tapestry, sometimes completely unraveling our understandings of God’s love and sovereignty.
In his book, Lament for a Son, Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff pens a guttural lamentation in response to the death of his 25-year old son Eric in a mountain-climbing accident. He wrestles with the widely held view that, for God, death is a tool used to send us all to the heavens of the next world at one time or another, a seemingly arbitrary moment when ‘our time is up’ and God decides to ‘take us home.’ Attempting to piece together the role of death and God’s goodness in the great puzzle of reality, Wolterstorff ultimately concludes, “I cannot fit it all together by saying, ‘He did it,’ but neither can I do so by saying, ‘There was nothing he could do about it.’ I cannot fit it together at all. I can only, with Job, endure. I do not know why God did not prevent Eric’s death. To live without the answer is precarious. It’s hard to keep one’s going.”
Thomas Jay Oord, in his work, The Uncontrolling Love of God, goes as far as to offer an answer to this predicament so poignantly problematized by Wolterstorff. Although I must admit that I am one-part skeptical and one-part excited whenever I hear that a theologian has stepped forth to solve the problem of evil, I am very compelled by Oord’s proposed account of theodicy— the essential kenosis model of providence. Most importantly, Oord maintains that “uncontrolling love is the logically preeminent attribute of God’s nature” and that because that is the case, “God’s power is essentially persuasive and vulnerable, not overpowering and aloof.” Oord understands that insofar as God inevitably and necessarily loves his creation, which he does, God necessarily does not exercise coercive, unilateral power over and against this creation. Here, the answer to the problem posed by Wolterstorff is that God did not cause Eric’s death but instead, perhaps surprisingly, did everything within his power to bring flourishing and goodness out of the accident because the nature of God is uncontrolling love. Because “God cannot unilaterally prevent genuine evil,” genuine evil exists in the world even though God does not wish this to be so.
In what has been my first true season of suffering, I also now question the extent to which I can claim that the agency of God is responsible for all that transpires, not only within my experience of the world but also throughout reality at large. Confronted by a mixture of life-goods blurred together with deep pain, I often find myself in a similar situation as Wolterstorff—puzzled and unable to make sense out of any notion of God’s sovereignty.
I am quick to thank God for the blessings of friendship and support during this season, because I can easily recognize these gifts as flowing out of the loving, others-oriented nature of God as demonstrated in the person of Jesus Christ. But now that suffering has entered my life in a new and intense way, the often whispered superficial promise that, “God is in control,” no longer strikes my heartstrings in any kind of positive way. If God is exhaustively ‘in control,’ then my experiences of pain and hurt are necessarily included in his directive will for my life as a part of His creation. However, if God’s sovereign agency is not the primary culprit behind my suffering, how can I make any sense of the praiseworthy, good gifts in my life for which I desire to give thanks? In other words, if God is not to be blamed for my suffering, or at least exhaustively blamed for all types and instances of suffering, is he responsible for any of the blessings and goodness that I encounter in my journey?
In the end, there is no perfect system with which I can analyze and assess the exact degree to which God’s agency is responsible for the diverse events and occurrences that I encounter in this life. Perhaps I ought to trust the idea that James conveys when he explains that God cannot tempt others nor be tempted. In his New Testament epistle, James writes, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” I can thank God for everything good in my life, because everything good is from God. It seems as though James instructs his readers to “not be deceived” in the preceding verse because there actually exist evils and temptations which the recipients of the letter falsely ascribe to God. In other words, that which is not good does not come from God.
I am unable to rest easily with the claim that there are some things which God is simply unable to do, but I ultimately find myself agreeing with Oord: “We can only trust unreservedly the God in whose nature love is essential, eternal and logically primary.” Underneath the uncontrolling love of God, suffering does not and will not have the final word.
Jesse Thorson is a MN native studying Sustainable Development at Columbia University in NYC. He loves to practice theology in community and is passionate about addressing climate change, making music, and eating plenty of pancakes and other breakfast foods.