I had to preach today in church. This is what I talked about:
If I were in charge of the universe, I would make it a better place. In fact, as a descent and good man, I spend each day trying to leave things a little better than they were, if by simply cleaning up after myself, and mowing the grass; let alone the beauty I might create, or the help I might render a fellow human being. So if I can imagine a better world, and strive to make it better, then what in the world is God thinking, then? This is not a very nice place; we are reminded of that simple fact, especially after the terrorist attack in New York and Washington. If God is good, and he loves us, then why does evil exist? Why is their suffering?
In his book Candide, Voltaire argues that to say that this is the best of all possible worlds is demonstrably ludicrous. Only a complete idiot would believe that.
I must be a complete idiot, then, because I disagree with Voltaire. I still believe that this really is the best of all possible worlds. Given free moral agents, this world has the least possible evil and suffering in it that there can be. How can I say something so insane? It is not as silly a position to take as one might initially imagine.
If God is good, if he loves us, how could this not be the best of all possible worlds? To argue otherwise impugns God’s character. Suffering, after all, is not an end unto itself. Everything that happens does so because it must, in order for the Eternal Kingdom to be reached. Jurgen Moltmann argues that it is eschatology which makes sense of current misery; eschatology is the answer to the whole issue of theodicy. The ends justify the means, from God’s perspective, and ultimately, from ours as well. I argue that God does have a purpose, he knows what he is doing, and it could not have been any other way.
I’ll use my own life as an example of this. If it were not for my wife and I meeting, if it were not for the fact that we are both infertile, if it were not for the fact that we went through some unpleasantness at a certain college in Newhall, California, which set us up for moving to Lancaster, California, we would not have found out about foster care, and we would not have wound up in the middle of December 1993 with a tiny, scared, and neglected 8 pound, 4 month old coming into our home, nor would the next two little baby girls who came in 1996 have wound up with us either. Everything had to happen exactly as it did, in order for the enormous blessing of my children to happen. And the purpose of the misery that my wife and I experienced here and there, was for our adopted daughters’ benefits, since God had a design for their lives as well.
Doubtless, there is more to our suffering than just that, but that is an obvious and clear cut example of what the hand of God working in two lives managed to accomplish, and the importance of the suffering that we endured. And my life is not unique in this regard; most Christians, who have gone through hard times, can look back and say with certainty that there was a purpose to the agony they experienced. And if nothing else, we have the perfect example in the life of Jesus himself: leaving behind a perfect environment, absolute power, complete control, infinite knowledge and experience, to become a baby, born in a stable, growing up in a dirty, pre-industrial society, leading a handful of men in long peripatetic walks about a rather hilly country, doing good, only to be betrayed by one of his best friends and executed in one of the most painful ways imaginable. And yet we know how the story ends, and we understand clearly the enormous benefit that his suffering produced. It was worth it to him, even as he was uncomfortable going through it. We are called upon to imitate Christ, to consider his way of life. We can see the same pattern of unpleasant and uncomfortable circumstances in person after person in the Bible, and yet, from our perspective in our more comfortable situations, we recognize the necessity and value of what they experienced. Sometimes, we know, they did too.
In January 1998 our foster baby boy died from SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Sydrome). Why? Why did we suffer a long, agonizing period of being sued by the biological parents afterward (the case was ultimately dismissed)? What was the point of it all? Obviously, the point was not the suffering; suffering is not an end unto itself. No trial seems pleasant while it is going on. A seed doesn’t bear fruit unless it falls to the ground and dies. I can think of quite a number of applicable verses, applicable examples. If I cannot see a good reason now, does that mean there isn’t one?
Of course not.
But what do I see now? This unpleasantness forced me to, at last, confront my life, my emotions, to examine more closely who and what I am. I have gained fuel for creative expression; my future novels will be informed, colored, impacted, themed, and built upon what I have been through. Would the current novels I’m working on become what they will be, will future novels, perhaps yet unthought or imagined, exist only because of the trouble I’ve experienced in my life? I think that’s a part of the explanation. We look at a lot of artists, poets, writers, musicians, and they have lives that are not always happy. They are sometimes emotionally and mentally unstable. But would the world be a better place had Beethoven not grown deaf? Should Mozart be granted a longer life, and more stability financially and emotionally, and should he be less of a reprobate? One would suggest that the value of their work, their suffering and instabilities, are worth it for the great, enormous blessing their art has been to humanity. Which is better, to be Dostoyevsky and write Crime and Punishment, and suffer an uncomfortable, often miserable life, or to have a life of comfort, wealth, and ease, and not to have written that book? Which is better for the human race? Which is more enduring? Which benefits most? And really, if Dostoyevsky could be faced with the choice, which would he really pick? Of course, he wasn’t given the choice, at least not after the fact.
I can and have looked back on my life, on the choices I’ve made. Has it all been worth it? Of course my daughters are worth it all. And which is better, that I would have had a normal job, doing normal things, having no financial strains, facing no criticism — or that I wrote the books I have written, and the books I yet will write? That I should teach in an already existing school, or that I should start my own?
Many times I questioned the choices that lead to today; thankfully, questioning the choices of my life does not give me any chance to change them. Without a time machine, I am not granted the opportunity for making a different decision, and playing it out, and seeing whether it leads to a better outcome. Frankly, I have come to believe that a different choice would invariably have been a worse outcome.
Here are some interesting what ifs. What if Hitler had died in the first attempt on his life, when in 1938 he missed being blown to bits by ten minutes, because he ended his speech uncharacteristically early. What was God thinking? Would the world wind up a better place, if Hitler died then? Or maybe if he had died of his childhood illnesses? What was God thinking? Or maybe if he had gotten adopted out and was raised by a nice Rabbi and his wife? What was God thinking? But if we assume that this really is the best of all possible worlds, we have to assume any alternate scenario is actually worse than what happened.
If not, then I have to give credence to the possibility that had I chosen to accept a full time position teaching at a different college than the one I chose, my life would have been better, that the outcome in that alternate reality would have been happier for both me and the world.
Frankly, I cannot accept that; otherwise, God is evil, because the more painful, the more vile of the alternatives became reality. I don’t think that’s reasonable. I don’t think it is consistent with who God is. If passages like Proverbs 3:5-6 (Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.) and Proverbs 16:9 (In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps.) have any meaning at all, then I must believe that this is the best of all possible worlds.
I do not accept the possibility that the universe is just a random act, or that my life is without purpose or goal. God knows what he’s doing; he always has, and I have a lifetime, a life, that illustrates it. Thus, Christianity is optimistic; it rejects pessimism utterly. This is the best of all possible worlds, a statement which on the surface seems almost obscene in the face of the Holocaust, the events of September 11, 2001, the events for July 20, 2012, or the intermittent misery of an individual life. And yet, I embrace it, because I think it is a greater obscenity to suggest that God doesn’t love me, or that he doesn’t know what he’s doing, or that he doesn’t have the strength to do anything, or that he doesn’t care. And even worse, would be to suggest that Hitler was right and God simply is not. If there is no God, then why should we have the sense that suffering is bad, or that there is even such a thing as evil? Where does our concept of what is right, and just and fair come from then?
Do we tell a father when he holds his dead baby in his arms that this is the best of all possible worlds?
Having lived such, I tell myself that; and I actually believe it.
The issue of suffering is always going to be with us; but I affirm that God loves me, that he loves us, that he really does reign, and he knows what he’s doing. And one last thing. If we try to solve the question of evil by deciding that God does not exist, or worse, that he simply doesn’t care – have we really solved anything at all? Do you feel better if you assume that you’re alone in the universe?