Category Archives: Theodicy
I’ve been in the habit of confusing confession with repentance. They go together, but they are not the same thing.
Not only did I confuse confession and repentance, I left out lament. All three are vital and necessary to effect change.
Neither confession, nor lament, nor repentance has to do with shame. Shame is the belief that one is unlovable, beyond the reach of love. Shame is toxic, demonic.
Confession is admitting that what we’ve done is wrong. Not only admitting what I personally chose to do or say, but what the systems I’m a part of have chosen to do and say. I am not an island. I’m a part of an immediate family, a family of origin, a culture, a society, a nation, and a world. At various times in my life, I am a part of institutions, neighborhoods, friendship groups, work teams, and so on.
I’ve done and said things that are wrong, unethical, immoral, or just not nice. The systems of which I am a part – those nations, neighborhoods, family groupings, and workplaces – have also done or promoted things that are wrong, unethical, immoral, or simply not very nice.
Confession means I honestly admit that. No sugarcoating; no excuses. To whom do I confess? God and those I have hurt. I confess to God and those hurt by the systems of which I am a part. Confession means apologizing to my wife when I’m inattentive, to my colleague when I’m overly critical, to the Black community for the racism of my privileged station, to Native Americans for the genocide of ancestors, and to the LGBTQ community for the vitriol of my faith community.
Confession is essential because it allows us to realize the harm we have caused. It opens the door for empathy and understanding. It is not meant to leave us down on ourselves, guilty, or ashamed; but instead, kindhearted, understanding, and sympathetic.
Lament is the expression of grief. Lament creates space to grieve the harm caused by neglect, selfishness, greed, bigotry, unforgiveness, or social injustice. If I truly enter into confession, it will produce empathy for the victimized, whether individual or collective, and empathy will express itself in lament.
Confession is not repentance. Lament is not repentance. Confession allows me to realize the harm done; lament allows me to express grief over the harm done.
Repentance repairs the harm down.
As much as is possible, repentance undoes the harm. It aims to make amends, restore, repay, rebuild, reconcile, set things to rights.
While talking heads scream at one another, while dueling protestors shout insults and hurl bottles, while guns are brandished and lies are repeated, we who seek to follow Jesus are called to confess, lament, and repent in order that love, peace, and justice may rain down upon us all.
God (along with those whose hearts were aligned with God’s) was appalled that people who claimed to follow the only true and living God, whose very nature is pure love, would go into the Valley of Ben-Hinnom (later referred to as Gehenna), heat up images of Molech until they were red-hot, strap their live babies onto the images’ arms and work themselves into a frenzy while children fried to death.
Jeremiah 32:35 They built the high places of Baal in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to offer up their sons and daughters to Molech, though I did not command them, nor did it enter into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.
In the time of Jesus, Gehenna was the town dump where all the sewage, garbage, and refuge was dumped and continually burnt. It was also where the brutal Romans tossed the bodies of the many people they executed by crucifixion. It was a horrible place of stench, where the fires were always burning and where worm-like maggots lived in abundance.
Some English translations render Gehenna as “hell.” We sometimes hear people speak of “hell on earth.” At times, it can be. Imagine being thrown into Gehenna alive.
Something like that happened to Jeremiah about 600 years before Jesus was born. He was thrown into cistern because his message was deemed unpatriotic. A well connects to underground water; a cistern simply collects rainwater. It is a hole chiseled out of rock. This particular cistern had no standing water in it. Around five feet of mud sat in it. Most likely, people dumped their sewage in it, and perhaps their garbage as well.
Jeremiah38 Now Shephatiah the son of Mattan, Gedaliah the son of Pashhur, Jucal the son of Shelemiah, and Pashhur the son of Malchiah heard the words that Jeremiah was saying to all the people: 2 “Thus says the Lord: He who stays in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence, but he who goes out to the Chaldeans shall live. He shall have his life as a prize of war, and live. 3 Thus says the Lord: This city shall surely be given into the hand of the army of the king of Babylon and be taken.” 4 Then the officials said to the king, “Let this man be put to death, for he is weakening the hands of the soldiers who are left in this city, and the hands of all the people, by speaking such words to them. For this man is not seeking the welfare of this people, but their harm.” 5 King Zedekiah said, “Behold, he is in your hands, for the king can do nothing against you.” 6 So they took Jeremiah and cast him into the cistern of Malchiah, the king’s son, which was in the court of the guard, letting Jeremiah down by ropes. And there was no water in the cistern, but only mud, and Jeremiah sank in the mud.
Hell on earth.
Sometimes, we wind up in a hellish situation through our own choices. A drunk driver faces prison. Hell on earth.
More often, we wind up in hellish situations because we live in a broken world. Our hell on earth might be the loss of a loved one, a chronic ailment, eviction, job loss, debt, addiction, mental illness, divorce, or being victimized by prejudiced people. Maybe it was partially our fault; maybe it was the fault of others; maybe it just happened.
Hell on earth.
We cry out to God. God never seems to answer quite as quickly as we would like.
Most often, God rescues us by using other people. Frequently, they are people we wouldn’t expect.
An outsider rescued Jeremiah. Reminds me of the good Samaritan. This person was gender-neutered – not female, not male. He (they?) was a black African, not Middle Eastern. He was a slave. He had no wealth and no privilege other than the fact that he worked in the government building, so he regularly saw the people in charge.
Jeremiah38:7 When Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, a eunuch who was in the king’s house, heard that they had put Jeremiah into the cistern—the king was sitting in the Benjamin Gate— 8 Ebed-melech went from the king’s house and said to the king, 9 “My lord the king, these men have done evil in all that they did to Jeremiah the prophet by casting him into the cistern, and he will die there of hunger, for there is no bread left in the city.” 10 Then the king commanded Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, “Take thirty men with you from here, and lift Jeremiah the prophet out of the cistern before he dies.” 11 So Ebed-melech took the men with him and went to the house of the king, to a wardrobe in the storehouse, and took from there old rags and worn-out clothes, which he let down to Jeremiah in the cistern by ropes. 12 Then Ebed-melech the Ethiopian said to Jeremiah, “Put the rags and clothes between your armpits and the ropes.” Jeremiah did so. 13 Then they drew Jeremiah up with ropes and lifted him out of the cistern. And Jeremiah remained in the court of the guard.
I’ve met people who would rather stay in mire up to their necks than accept help from “that kind of person.” I’ve seen very sick patients so full of hatred that they refuse the care of physicians and nurses of color.
Who are the strangers, the “others” in our lives? Undocumented workers? Those who do not speak English? Alcoholics? Drug addicts? Pro-life folks? Pro-choice folks? Young black men? Old white men? The poor? Wealthy? Red Necks? Harvard elitists? Prisoners? Muslims? Refugees? LGBTQ? Democrats? Republicans? Liberals? Fundamentalists?
Each one of us is “other” to someone.
Who are the people in our cities and towns who are living a hell on earth? Are they sleeping under bridges? Incarcerated? In hospitals, nursing homes, or hospice programs? Hiding in the shadows? Hiding in plain sight? Harassed by law enforcement because of their skin color?
How can we lift others out of their personal hells?
Do we, perhaps – some of us – find ourselves in a living hell?
Expect rescue from unlikely sources.
Scriptures are quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
I came to God because of love. I came to fundamentalist Christianity because of fear.
Growing up I had a ton of anxiety. I was what some might call overly sensitive and fairly easily traumatized. Yet, from the time I was a toddler I sensed a divine presence. Occasionally, I found myself in a thin place of connectedness. Once, my room flooded with light and God spoke to me of God’s perfect love for me. I intuited God’s presence and love in scriptures, religious texts, philosophy, literature, music, psychology, and biology. I felt God in sunbeams, crashing waves, 60-knot winds, old men, and Christmas lights. I came to God because of love.
Then I got into church.
A lot of church was great – music, worship, washing feet, baptism, communion, preaching, teaching, laying on of hands, prayer, celebration, dance. It was exciting and fun, refreshing and inspiring.
But the mainline liberals and the conservative fundamentalists pushed back. Hard. The tribe I joined, at the time I joined it, was warm, accepting, tolerant, and loving. It was neither liberal nor conservative. As the decades rolled on, however, it became increasingly inflexible, dictatorial, and pejorative. Unperceptively, I became dogmatic, judgmental, and theologically confined. To gain and maintain acceptance with my tribe, I distanced myself from all the other tribes. I woke up one morning and realized I was a militaristic bigoted ideologue quick to condemn a very many people.
Unconsciously, I had become gripped by fear – fear of judgment, fear of divine wrath, fear of hell, fear of rejection. I feared being rejected by my primary mentor and by my tribe. I knew what would happen. There’d be no formal hearing, no appeal, no ecclesiastical court, but I would be functionally excommunicated and effectively shunned. At some level I thought God would join my condemners. Fear of rejection drove me deeper into intolerance, toxic escapist eschatology, untenable cosmology, and reactionary political views. I turned my back on most of the world out of fear that a handful of fundamentalists would turn their backs on me. They did anyway, and I was, just as I feared, excommunicated, shunned, rejected, and demonized.
It hurt me deeply. After all, I am deeply sensitive. Gradually, however, as the hurt healed, I discovered that that which I had feared, that which had indeed happened, was a divine gift. I came to God because of love. I descended into fundamentalism because of fear. I came up into the light because I rediscovered God’s infinite love.
Doubt, Faith, & Freedom
Gleanings from Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Sacrificing freedom in exchange for happiness is the devil’s bargain. God created us in God’s own image – with freedom to choose goodness freely, rather than with the base obedience of a robot. Free choice can only exist where there is doubt. Where there is certainty, there is nothing to choose. The QED of Euclidian geometry leaves no room for choice.
Jesus offers no proofs; scripture offers no proofs. Scripture points to Jesus and Jesus guides us with his life, image, and teaching. We must choose goodness freely in the face of doubt. Choice made in the face of uncertainty, however, always leaves open the inevitability of making mistakes, which leads to guilt and regret. Desperate to avoid guilt and regret, many people choose to surrender their freedoms to totalitarian ideologies championed by demagogues who honorifically talk of “freedom” while redefining freedom in selfish and intolerant ways. When we flee guilt and regret, we fail to recognize that they are divine gifts of guidance. We confuse guilt with shame, which is long-lasting, deep-seated and toxic. Our need to be right supersedes and short-circuits our experience with divine love.
Secularists erroneously define “faith” as blind belief in something some authority has told us. That might include such things as a religious narrative, the myth of a Christian nation, the myth of redemptive violence, the lie of white supremacy, a belief in an inevitable evolutionary utopia, racialized capitalism, or narrow-minded nationalism. For the Civil religionist who is immersed in the homogenization of the American myth retold in Christianeze, “faith” means acceptance of a nationalistic triumphalism coupled with an escapist eschatology that often results in a lifestyle diametrically opposed to the Sermon on the Mount.
True faith, however, is not blind belief in a religious or secular authority. Nor is faith the absence of doubt. Conversely, genuine Christian faith cannot exist without doubt. If a thing is absolutely certain, there is nothing to choose. That, however, does not mean that we cannot know anything. Clearly, both goodness and badness exist in our world. Torturing children is wrong. It is good to savor the beauty of a rose. True Christian faith begins when we choose to love life.
For me, that process includes:
- A deconstruction and rebuilding of my theology, my philosophy of life, my religiophilosophical worldview. The jingoistic warrior god of vengeance is being replaced with the true and living God revealed in Christ, whose essence is perfect unconditional love.
- Discovering, embracing, and loving my inner child with the help of therapy and spiritual direction.
- Hanging around knowledgeable people who are helping me see the wondrous beauty of nature.
- Purposely looking for the imago Dei, the image of God, in others, and asking God to enable me to love others – all others.
- Learning to be comfortable living in the liminal space of uncertainty, of not knowing with absolute assurance, of recognizing that I could be mistaken, being open and teachable.
With fresh inner freedom, seeing (as for the first time) the marvelous beauty of God, others, creation, and myself, I daily become increasingly convinced of the essential truth of Christianity and the presence of Trinitarian Love. Settling into Abba’s arms, I have peace and joy and no need of being right.
Every sociological measure agrees that Christianity is rapidly declining in North America. Churches across the theological spectrum are hemorrhaging members and failing to attract and hold onto millennials and Gen-Z.
Explanations abound, but if you ask those who are not connecting with faith communities, the answers are fairly consistent. They include:
- Christians are judgmental.
- Christians are homophobic.
- Christians deny science.
- Christians support war, capital punishment, and institutionalized racism.
- A person cannot rationally believe in an all-powerful God of love because of all the evil in the world.
If we are talking about conservative Catholic and conservative evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants, the first four points are both entirely valid and entirely unbiblical. Biblically founded Christians should never be judgmental, homophobic, support violence and death, or deny the clear realities of science. And, there are many of us who are not.
It is the last point that is the primary dissuader of faith.
Several points to consider:
When we speak of God being almighty, we do not mean that God is an arbitrary magician. Looking at our universe, we might expect God to be rational and orderly, but not magical. God cannot do anything at all. God can only do what is consistent with God’s nature. God cannot, for example be hateful because God is love.
Much of the evil in the world is moral evil – it is caused by choices humans make. War, school shootings, greed, police brutality, racial discrimination, and environmental destruction are only a few examples. The only way God could stop moral evil would be to suspend free will, which would make us robots.
Some evil is physical. Often the two intersect. Human produced pollutants may cause cancer, for example. Things like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions seem to not be connected to human behavior. The damage they do is physical. They have geological causes.
So, if God is omnipotent, why doesn’t God step in and prevent physical evil? Could not God have designed a world in which cells don’t mutate into cancer? I suppose so, but if cells did not mutate, life would not evolve. There is freedom in nature as well as freedom in human choice.
God’s universe is dynamic. God is always creating. God is not only at the Alpha and Omega, the Big Bang and the telos; God is also at work all along. That does not imply that God is controlling everything. God doesn’t cause a child to have cancer or tectonic plates to shift and bury cities. Bad stuff is not God’s fault. Bad stuff exists because freedom is designed into the system, including the freedom to evolve and freedom of choice.
Additionally, there are in the universe intelligent malevolent forces – devils and demons, principalities and powers, spiritual wickedness, angelic creatures who chose to embrace the dark side.
None of this theodicy helps us when we’re suffering, however. If your loved one is dying of cancer, it’s not a matter of why or who is to blame. Jesus’ response to human suffering was not to assign fault, but to respond in compassion. The questions are how can we help and what do we do now? The problem of pain remains. Debating why an earthquake struck is pointless. Dig out and rescue the victims.
The beauty of the incarnation is God joining us in our suffering, in our joys, in our hopes, and in our disappointments. Jesus is God with us. God is with us in our suffering, not watching it from the sidelines. God invites us into empathy. God invites us to help.