Theodicy Thoughts

I assume that God is good, loving and powerful. This leads to the thought that if that is God’s nature, then wouldn’t any universe he created be the best possible?

But if that’s the case, then why is there suffering?

A standard answer is that suffering is inevitable if God makes us free, rather than not, since freedom to choose means that it is possible for us to choose poorly. Which we have.

This implies then that God thinks freedom is more important than us being good, since all the evil and suffering of history is the consequence of the freedom to choose.

If we say that suffering and evil are a necessary consequence of freedom, and that God values freedom so much that all of human history was worth it, then how can we explain Heaven? That is, if freedom is precious to God, and this is the best of all possible worlds given the existence of free will, then what the hell is Heaven? Doesn’t Heaven, by its very nature, suggest that this world then actually isn’t the best of all worlds? It could be better. It could be Heaven. And since this current world isn’t Heaven, then what is God playing at? Why didn’t God make Heaven to begin with? Why this world as a trial run?

One possibility: Heaven is a consequence of this world and can only exist as an effect. That is, Heaven is not possible without the world as it is.

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God Speaks

The Mighty One, God, the LORD, has spoken,
And summoned the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting.
Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty,
God has shone forth.
May our God come and not keep silence;
Fire devours before Him,
And it is very tempestuous around Him.
He summons the heavens above,
And the earth, to judge His people:
“Gather My godly ones to Me,
Those who have made a covenant with Me by sacrifice.”
And the heavens declare His righteousness,
For God Himself is judge. (Psalm 50:1-6)

Just because someone talks, doesn’t mean anyone is listening. It is easy for people to not notice that God is speaking, or to misunderstand him, or to explain him away. Sometimes what God says is not what we want to hear; so it is easy, at such a moment, to decide that we didn’t hear anything at all.

Human failure to pay attention or to believe what we heard, or to properly understand what we heard does not prevent God from communicating with us. God has ways of getting our attention. He is also patient and is willing to repeat himself until we get it.

The time when human beings are least likely to hear what God says is when everything is falling apart. It’s during the dark times, when all seems lost, when people are dying and suffering, that people are most tempted to believe that God has gone silent, that prayers are going unheard, that maybe God is not there or doesn’t care.

But through four hundred years of slavery, God heard every cry, noticed every wince of pain, and he finally answered those prayers and spoke clearly through Moses. Was the lack of Moses for four hundred years indicative of God’s lack of care or his silence? Of course not. God was still there, God was still speaking. He walked beside every slave, he whispered encouragement to every struggling individual, whether that person understood or knew God was speaking. God’s words had their impact and kept him going, even when he seemed most alone and abandoned. We do not get up every morning and face each day, and find ourselves at last in bed at the end, without having experienced the word of God in our lives all day, whether we noticed or not.

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Why do the nations rage,
And the people plot a vain thing?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
And the rulers take counsel together,
Against the LORD and against His Anointed, saying,
“Let us break Their bonds in pieces
And cast away Their cords from us.”
He who sits in the heavens shall laugh;
The LORD shall hold them in derision.
Then He shall speak to them in His wrath,
And distress them in His deep displeasure:
“Yet I have set My King
On My holy hill of Zion.” (Psalm 2:1-6)

Those strings that you think are marionette strings—those strings that are making you do stuff that you think you don’t want to do—how do you know they aren’t really the strings of a parachute? It might not be so wise to cut them.

People wanted to break free from what they perceived to be God’s unreasonable demands. God’s response was derisive laughter. How come? Because God’s demands were not unreasonable, unless they found a parachute strapped to their back, or a seat belt across their lap and shoulders too restraining. The so called constraints were hardly that: they existed for their benefit. They made life better, not worse. They maximized pleasure, rather than restricting it.

Some people decided to reject God because they thought he stood in the way of human pleasure. Only after they burned themselves out, like the prodigal son, would they come to realize that perhaps the “old man” wasn’t so stupid after all and may have been telling them stuff for their own good, that could have saved them a lot of pain along the way.

God loves us and wants what is best for us. God is also very smart and knows a lot. But too often we’d rather listen to ourselves, or other people, who know next to nothing. We find it hard to believe that God really loves us and knows what is best—knows even better than we know ourselves.

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In Control?

When do mountain goats
and deer give birth?
Have you been there
when their young are born?
How long are they pregnant
before they deliver?
Soon their young grow strong
and then leave
to be on their own.
Who set wild donkeys free?
I alone help them survive
in salty desert sand.
They stay far from crowded cities
and refuse to be tamed.
Instead, they roam the hills,
searching for pastureland.
Would a wild ox agree
to live in your barn
and labor for you?
Could you force him to plow
or to drag a heavy log
to smooth out the soil?
Can you depend on him
to use his great strength
and do your heavy work?
Can you trust him
to harvest your grain
or take it to your barn
from the threshing place? (Job 39:1-12)

We don’t have as much control over our own lives as we think. We cannot control the day of our birth, or the day of our death. We have no power over the forces of nature: rain or drought, storm or earthquake, illness or health. But we’d like to be in control.

God confronted Job with how little he controlled about his life. He couldn’t make wild animals domesticated. He couldn’t breed them or take their offspring for food or sacrifice. He couldn’t rely on them to help him with his harvests.

Job’s friends believed that good things came to the good and bad to the bad. How people behaved determined the outcome of their lives. It was all up to them. That’s why they insisted that Job had to be bad. If instead, the circumstances of life were not dependent upon their choices of behavior, that meant that they couldn’t prevent bad things from happening to them. It was in God’s hands, not theirs. They didn’t like that. And really, Job didn’t like it either. He—and his friends—trusted his life in his own hands more than in God’s. Which God pointed out to him was both silly and foolish. Whose hands were better? Job, who knew and understood little, or God, who knew and understood everything? So what if Job didn’t understand why the bad stuff had happened to him? Job didn’t understand a lot of things. So what else was new?

Our desire to control and manipulate our environment leads us to absurdities. We become superstitious, imagining that certain rituals, certain objects, can somehow allow us to control those things that we otherwise cannot.

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During the summers of 1976 and 1977 I worked on a kibbutz in Israel (between semesters in college). While I worked in the fields the radio was always tuned to one station: “The Voice of Peace.” The on-air slogan was “From somewhere in the Mediterranean, we are the Voice of Peace.” It was very popular in Israel back then; it seemed as if that was the only radio station I ever heard while I was on there. Since it was sort of a pirate station, it was broadcasting from a ship, and hence the statement that they were coming from “somewhere in the Meditteranean.”

Now they have a Facebook page and stream online:

Wikipedia’s description of the station:

The aim of the Voice of Peace, rumoured to have been established with money from John Lennon, was to communicate peaceful co-existence to the volatile Middle East. The output was popular music presented by mostly British DJs broadcasting live from the ship. The main on-air studio consisted of a Gates Diplomat mixer, Technics SL-1200 turntables, Sony CD Players, and Gates NAB cartridge machines, on which the jingles and commercials were played. The second studio, for production, had a Gates turntable, reel-to-reel tape recorders, and an NAB cartridge recording unit.

Voice of Peace was Israel’s first offshore pop station and the first commercially-funded private operation. The station’s American PAMS, CPMG, JAM, and TM Productions jingles, English-speaking DJs, and Top 40 hits attracted sponsors such as TWA and Coca Cola. Initially, the station transmitted on 1539 AM (announced as 1540 AM) and in 1980 added a signal at 100.0 FM….

The Voice of Peace was primarily in English, but a small output included Hebrew, Arabic, and French. Several shows ran for nearly its entire life, including Twilight Time (daily at 18:00, using the Platters hit of the name as its theme), the Classical Music Programme (daily from 19:30), and Late Night Affair (00.00-03.00).

The telephone forum chaired by Abie Nathan called “Kol Ha Lev” (Voice of the Heart) and then Ma La’asot? (?מה לעשות, “What to do?”) was the only uncensored direct public dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians.

The Voice of Peace was tolerated by the Israeli Government, as Abie Nathan was a personality in the country; however the IBA was alarmed at its popularity and set about a state-run pop service, Reshet Gimel, in May 1976. Nathan was imprisoned on several occasions for violating laws forbidding contact with enemy states and the PLO.

I found out about the station’s revival as an online streaming service when someone posted a link to their Facebook page on the Facebook page of the kibbutz I worked on so long ago. It brings back a lot of memories.

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Samuel summoned the people to the LORD at Mizpah and said to them, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘I brought up Israel out of Egypt, and I rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of all the kingdoms that were oppressing you.’ But today you have rejected your God, who saves you from all your calamities and your distresses; and you have said, ‘No! but set a king over us.’ Now therefore present yourselves before the LORD by your tribes and by your clans.”

Then Samuel brought all the tribes of Israel near, and the tribe of Benjamin was taken by lot. He brought the tribe of Benjamin near by its families, and the family of the Matrites was taken by lot. Finally he brought the family of the Matrites near man by man, and Saul the son of Kish was taken by lot. But when they sought him, he could not be found. So they inquired again of the LORD, “Did the man come here?” and the LORD said, “See, he has hidden himself among the baggage.” Then they ran and brought him from there. When he took his stand among the people, he was head and shoulders taller than any of them. Samuel said to all the people, “Do you see the one whom the LORD has chosen? There is no one like him among all the people.” And all the people shouted, “Long live the king!” (1 Samuel 10:17-24)

Getting others to recognize God’s will—and to accept it—may take awhile. If God can be patient, then you can be too. Samuel already knew who would become king. But he went through the motions of casting lots—in essence, rolling dice or flipping coins—because both he and God needed the people to recognize that it really was God selecting the king and not just Samuel picking a favorite. The Israelites believed that God’s hand was involved in the casting of lots when they asked him to help them make decisions. And so, as the lot was repeatedly cast, the field became ever more narrow until at last, the lot fell on the individual whom God had determined all along would become king: Saul.

And what of Saul? He wasn’t surprised, either. Samuel had already told him that he would be king. Saul knew what was going on and he knew what the outcome would be. There could be no doubt in his mind. And yet, when the selection was made, Saul was hard to find, but not because he was busy. Saul had gone into hiding. Like Adam and Eve hiding from God in the Garden of Eden after they had eaten from the forbidden fruit, so Saul was hiding from God—and the people of Israel. He was not pleased with God’s will for his life. Abraham Lincoln compared being president to being tarred and feathered and that if weren’t for the honor of the thing, he’d have rather skipped it all together. Saul apparently could identify with that point of view.

But like Adam and Eve discovered, so Saul discovered: you can’t hide from God and you can’t resist God’s will. In the contest between our will and God’s will, God always wins.

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13 Years

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Cooking Goose

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Get up early in the morning and confront Pharaoh as he goes to the water and say to him, ‘This is what the LORD says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me. If you do not let my people go, I will send swarms of flies on you and your officials, on your people and into your houses. The houses of the Egyptians will be full of flies, and even the ground where they are.
“‘But on that day I will deal differently with the land of Goshen, where my people live; no swarms of flies will be there, so that you will know that I, the LORD, am in this land. I will make a distinction between my people and your people. This miraculous sign will occur tomorrow.’ ”

And the LORD did this. Dense swarms of flies poured into Pharaoh’s palace and into the houses of his officials, and throughout Egypt the land was ruined by the flies.

Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, “Go, sacrifice to your God here in the land.”

But Moses said, “That would not be right. The sacrifices we offer the LORD our God would be detestable to the Egyptians. And if we offer sacrifices that are detestable in their eyes, will they not stone us? We must take a three-day journey into the desert to offer sacrifices to the LORD our God, as he commands us.” (Exodus 8:20-27)

God knows the best way to cook someone’s goose. He was in no hurry with Pharaoh’s. God distinguished between his own and those who were not his own. This illustrated an important point about the nature of God’s love: how it is perceived depends upon the relationship the object of God’s love has with him. Those who love God will recognize God’s hand as beneficial. Those who do not, can’t see it. The Egyptians suffered, while for the Israelites, the plague brought them just one more step closer to their liberation.

For the first time, the Pharaoh’s magicians found themselves unable to duplicate the plague and informed the Pharaoh that clearly there was a god involved in events. Of course, Pharaoh already knew that; but, despite the increasing severity of the plagues, he still could not see yet why he should do what this God or his representative were demanding of him. Pharaoh was still on his throne; his power remained undiminished. Discomfort did not mean he was in any danger, or that Egypt was on the brink. So he felt comfortable lying to Moses once again. Lying had been effective before: the last time he lied, the plague went away and despite his refusal to follow through on his promise, the previous plague had not come back. Instead, it was a different one. Clearly, Pharaoh believed, this slave god was not so powerful. He might try different things, but so far, Egypt and Pharaoh remained. He wasn’t going to back down. The slaves were important to the prosperity of Egypt. Without their labor, many things could not be done. He needed the slaves; they were part of Pharaoh’s—and Egypt’s—wealth. But God was patient and though it might have seemed to both Pharaoh and the Israelites that nothing was changing, God’s plan was in motion. It would work when and how it was supposed to. Sometimes slow roasting is better than quick fried.

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Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go back to Pharaoh and announce to him, ‘This is what the LORD says: Let my people go, so they can worship me. If you refuse to let them go, I will send a plague of frogs across your entire land. The Nile River will swarm with frogs. They will come up out of the river and into your palace, even into your bedroom and onto your bed! They will enter the houses of your officials and your people. They will even jump into your ovens and your kneading bowls. Frogs will jump on you, your people, and all your officials.’ ”

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Tell Aaron, ‘Raise the staff in your hand over all the rivers, canals, and ponds of Egypt, and bring up frogs over all the land.’ ” So Aaron raised his hand over the waters of Egypt, and frogs came up and covered the whole land! But the magicians were able to do the same thing with their magic. They, too, caused frogs to come up on the land of Egypt.

Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and begged, “Plead with the LORD to take the frogs away from me and my people. I will let your people go, so they can offer sacrifices to the LORD.” (Exodus 8:1-8)

Tyrants are not quick to keep their promises. As his nation was overrun with frogs, the Pharaoh recognized that they came from the God of the slaves, and he asked Moses to get his god to send them away. In exchange, Pharaoh promised to do just what the slave God said.

But of course, this was but the second plague that had come upon the land of Egypt, and like those before, though it was annoying, it wasn’t exactly devastating to his kingdom. Frogs don’t bite, they just make noise and startled people by their presence. And they were messy and really, you didn’t want them in bed with you, or in your food.

But like many a tyrant after him, who would ask for concessions, and then when they were given, would ask for some more and who never, ever did what was promised, so the Pharaoh was quick to give in to Moses. But once he got what he wanted, he felt no obligation to follow through on his promise. After all, he was talking to slaves and promises to slaves were meaningless. What could a slave do, after all if you broke a promise? Who cared what a slave thought? They were already resentful; another injustice piled on a lifetime’s worth of them, wouldn’t change their performance. Slaves were property; why worry about what you said to them? As well worry about what you said to your horse or donkey or chamber pot. Pharaoh underestimated the sort of God the slaves had–one who cared about the oppressed and one who was willing—and able—to help them. God will not forget about us.

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Here I Am

So when the LORD saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, “Moses, Moses!”

And he said, “Here I am.”

Then He said, “Do not draw near this place. Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.” Moreover He said, “I am the God of your father—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look upon God.

And the LORD said: “I have surely seen the oppression of My people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters, for I know their sorrows. So I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up from that land to a good and large land, to a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites and the Hittites and the Amorites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites. Now therefore, behold, the cry of the children of Israel has come to Me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. Come now, therefore, and I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring My people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” (Exodus 3:4-10)

The people of Israel were in slavery because God had put them there. God sent Joseph to Egypt at the hands of his brothers so that he would be in the right place at the right time to save their lives and the lives of the Egyptians. Then God sent Jacob and the rest of Joseph’s brothers to Egypt to live. God had told Abraham that they would spend four hundred years in slavery there. And that is precisely what happened. Joseph’s enslavement, though done with evil intent, happened because it was ultimately a good thing. With Moses, the time had come at last to rescue the Israelites from their bondage, a bondage that had not come through disobedience, but through their ancestors’ obedience to God’s commands. God wanted the Egyptians to know about him. He wanted the Israelites to learn about God’s power and to give them a picture of salvation.

God intended to take the land of the Canaanites and give it to the Israelites. The Canaanites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites all spoke a language similar or in many cases the same, as the Hebrews. The Hittites, however, spoke a language related to the languages of Europe and India. The people living in the Promised Land were disunited; no one king ruled the entire area, no one language or culture bound them together beyond their evil religion, a religion that included child sacrifice. Israel would get the land of the Canaanites because God needed to punish the Canaanites.

Sometimes doing what God wants might not be pleasant. We simply must trust that God knows what he is doing and that he is doing it for a very good reason.

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