When God is unfair

On my way home from school today, I saw the inelegant statement written on a bathroom wall: “I asked god [sic] for bread, and he gave me a stone; I asked him for a fish and he gave me a serpent.” I do not know who wrote these tortured lines on the bathroom wall, but I can identify with the sentiment, perhaps we all can. Its easy to take the route I would have taken in my younger days, to simply bypass the argument, condemn the scribbler on the wall; and in a sense, my analysis would have been correct, but in a sense, it would miss the entirety of the human dilemma, the sorrow that so often accompanies this life.

Looking down at my young son, you see, I had the incredibly selfish thought that my dream of returning to full-time ministry is now harder, and questioning whether I can continue to work a swing shift job, be a good father, attend school, and try to do something to become known enough in my field that I can leave the mind numbing secular job that I hate. And yet, this isn’t wholly the selfish thought it seems at first glance.  After some e-mail exchanges with a former New Testament professor, I thought about abandoning the dream of full-time ministry, but realized to do so would be to bury my talent in the sand and whatever grief it has brought me, my goal of ministry was, I still believe, a calling. Whatever else I may be, good or ill, I will always be first in my own mind a failed pastor.

Its easy to start looking at the pains along the journey, its easy to start second guessing. What if I had attended a school that cared about its graduates? What if I had asked better questions before taking a pastorate in Wisconsin? What if I was actually a good blogger? What is wrong with me that all those men I have asked for help in getting back into ministry have failed to assist in any meaningful way? And yet, these questions are the tantalizing irritants of a tortured soul; hope deferred, the proverbs tells us, makes the heart sick, and we can all understand Solomon’s point here, we have all had that hope deferred. Our scribbler on the wall, reveals something of the true nature of what apologists call the “problem of evil” (or as I prefer to address it, as the problem of suffering). The problem is at root personal not merely academic. This issue reveals one of the true agonies of these existential dilemmas: our fears that God has abandoned us. Unbelievers will discuss this in terms of seemingly clinical logic (called “the deductive problem of evil”), or in terms of hot outrage for God’s alleged victims but I believe in reality it is our own pains, inadequacies and sorrows that motivates the various arguments underlying “problem of evil.”

But what our wall writer has missed, (as I have as well in times past), when we declare God to be unfair is the more basic problem and question: do we have the grounds to say that we really deserve better? The point constantly overlooked so easily is our own sinfulness, our own inadequacies, our own failures. To accuse God of being unfair, we forget that he is also a judge, and that we stand before the bar guilty, we are, as the prisoners I used to hold bible studies with in a detention center: we are simply the guilty complaining that our sentencing is unfair; our complaints are a (at times sophisticated) self-deception.

And yet, for the believer, as I noted recently, the problem of evil isn’t ended in discussions of punishment, no matter how richly we deserve it, (and we admit to this desert when we turn to him in repentant faith). God takes the pain of the moment to build Christians into something more, we call this the “soul building theodicy,” to wit, God ingeniously is interested in taking the evils spread into the world after the fall, and using them for His children’s benefit, but this process takes time, and often suffering. It took time, after all, for Joseph to change from the boy boasting of his family bowing down to him, to becoming the man that would be used to save his family from disaster, suffering slavery and wrongful imprisonment along the way.

And over time, what our scribbler misses is that our experiences and the painful ones at that, often don’t deter us, but redirect us. Let’s go back to my “selfish” thought, for example. I could think of my son as the end of a dream, but in reality he is a motivation to continue. You see, I turned to apologetics because it was an area I thought I could be useful, because so many young people ask questions about the faith, and many sadly abandon it, at least for a time. In a sense, he is a reminder of why what I do is ultimately important; I look at him and think of the legacy I would leave for him. The answer then in life is not to give up, it’s not to quit, even when we often feel we should. Its to remember that God is righteous, and that we will reap, if we faint not, and what we hope ultimately to reap is to be more like Him; we simply have a tendency to look at things too much in the short term.  The problem in truth, is not that God is unfair, the problem is my faith is too small, my vision too limited and my understanding to dim.

I hope someone will tell our scribbler this, because the issue for the problem of suffering is one of the human heart; easier to discuss in a classroom than to apply to one’s own life.