Lately, a number of things that I’ve both encountered and have been studying have led to my doing a lot of thinking about ‘theodicy’. Theodicy is essentially the relationship between the goodness of God and the reality of evil. The word first appeared in print in the 1700’s in an essay by a philosopher named Gottfried Liebniz in which he was attempting to reconcile the goodness of God with the presence of evil. The word itself is the combination of two Greek words: Theos – God and Dike – Justice. Understood using those terms, theodicy is the study of the justice of God.
Three things have led me to contemplate this lately. First, I’m taking a class on the book of Job this semester. Much of the discussion in the class has centered around the challenge of reconciling the goodness of God with the reality of evil. We have essentially been wrestling with the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” What does the book of Job offer us, if anything, in answer to that question? In addition to that, we’ve been discussing the providence of God in Systematic Theology which leads to the question, “What is God’s plan?” Second and third are two instances of untimely death that have affected friends of ours. Last week, our neighbor's 18 year-old niece was killed in a car accident after she got in a car with a drunk driver; and just this morning we learned that a young father of three who is a friend of a friend died of a sudden heart attack while biking.
Why do these things happen? Were these deaths a part of God’s plan? If God is good, why does he allow bad things to happen? I’m not going to pretend to answer any of these questions here. There has been much ink spilled in literally hundreds of books over hundreds of years that have attempted to do just that. There are a lot of people a lot smarter than me that have done a lot more thinking about these issues than I have. Besides, I wonder if it’s even possible to give a humanly satisfying answer to that question. So what do people who’ve been throw into unexplained grief need to hear? What do you say to a child who’s just lost their dad? To a mother who’s just lost her daughter?
I’ve thought a lot about how to address these questions pastorally.It seems to me that questions of this type of even harder to answer when you’re a Christian. If you don’t believe in God to begin with, in a certain sense, the problem of theodicy doesn’t exist. In that case, the questions of “why?” are profoundly different than if you believe in God that is good – a God that is “slow to anger and abounding in love.”
I’ve heard my share of pastoral horror stories, Pastors and other friends who, even though they mean well, end up saying just the wrong thing. Instead of helping they end up hurting. I’ve also heard my share of stories of pastors and friends who’ve done the right thing and have made all the difference. Note the distinction between saying and doing. Most often, the stories of helping that I’ve heard have centered not so much on words but on actions.
I don’t think we can ever provide words that can answer the questions imbedded in theodicy, but I think we can provide acts of kindness that acknowledge the grief of another. Often what people need most in times of suffering are not words, but gestures – a hug, a smile, a tear, sitting with them in silence and sorrow. I think, this is where Job’s friends get it right. Job 2 tells us that his three friends sat with him in silence for a whole week before entering into a series of speeches attempting to console Job and defend God. In the end, Job 42 tells us that Job spoke rightly and his friends did not…perhaps sitting in silence and solidarity with their grieving friend was the best answer of all.
It might be that, as a pastor, I’ll never be able to satisfactorily answer the question, “Why?” for those that are grieving. But I do hope that I’ll be able to satisfactorily mourn with those who mourn in such a way that doesn’t attempt to answer the questions but at least attempts to understand them. Part of my job will be to provide the words, but I hope that through my actions, more so than my words, those who are grieving will, at some point, be able to say again with the psalmist, “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation” (Ps. 13:5).
God is Good and God is Just….I’m just not sure that there is good way reconcile those two things in this life. Ultimately, that lack of reconciliation is itself the problem of evil.