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Friday, April 16, 2010


Do you notice how Adam and Eve invent blame? When God asks Adam, "Have you eaten from the tree I told you not to eat?" Adam immediately responds that it is the fault of this woman "whom you gave to be with me" -- in other words, it's her fault, and by the way, God, it's your fault.

So God plays along. "What is this that you have done?" And Eve's response is "The serpent deceived me" -- the serpent, God, that you created and allowed to be in the garden, so in the end it's your fault.

Both Adam and Eve (and you and me) are quick to blame God for things. We don't do it out loud, however, and we don't dwell on it. It just lays under the surface and begins to create a wall of separation between us and God, a chasm of resentment that keeps us apart. But perhaps the most amazing part of the story is that God never defends himself. He doesn't say, "No, it's not my fault, it was your choice" or "If you're going to be free to love me you have to have choices not to obey me as well" or any of the stock answers we give to defend God's honor. In fact, God seems quite unconcerned about his honor. And other places in the Bible he out and out says that if we're just going to have one God, he'll have to take responsibility at some point for the existence of evil. (See for example Isaiah 45:7)

This is a branch of theology called "theodicy." It is the question of how God can be righteous. We know that God is righteous, of course, but how is that possible when so many bad things happen? Frederick Buechner has put a fine point on the problem by laying out three statements:

1. God is all powerful.
2. God is all good.
3. Bad things happen.

Logically you can have any two of these statements but not all three. It just doesn't work. If you say, for example, that humans have freedom of choice (which, by the way is a suspect statement if ever there was one), you have just limited God's power (see #1), so you can hold on to #'s 2 and 3. (This is the solution Rabbi Harold Kushner adopts in his popular book, Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, by the way.) Or if you say God is sovereign, but we don't understand the "why" of God's activity, so like John Calvin we say that God consigns some to heaven and others to hell, and this is a mystery and above our pay grade so we should just accept it and not question too deeply, then we hold #'s 1 and 3 but we let #2 slide a little bit, because how could a good God consign people to hell? Or maybe we say (as is becoming increasingly popular among Christians these days as the pendulum swings) that "everything happens for a reason" and God is at work in all things to do good, well then nothing that happens is really bad, so we can hold on to numbers 1 & 2, because we have let go of #3.

You can't have it all three ways.

Trouble is, the Bible seems to make all three statements. Evil things happen. God is all powerful. God is all good.

People tried to pin Jesus down on the question of theodicy and he didn't do a very good job answering their questions. In Luke 13, they come to Jesus with a gruesome story about some Jews who had been killed by Pilate while they were in the act of offering sacrifices. They were hoping for some sense of meaning, of justice, in this awful killing, but Jesus refuses to say the people deserved their fate. Instead, he says, this story offers you a great incentive to repent and turn away from your own sin, and turn to God in the face of such uncertainty. Then Jesus ups the ante a step. He tells a story about a tower in Jerusalem that collapsed at random, killing thirteen people. Life is uncertain and death is coming, he seems to say -- so turn to God while you have a chance.

Is this helpful?

Probably not, if our goal is to understand what C.S. Lewis called "the problem of pain." But if the goal is that our suffering -- or the suffering of others -- should be the occasion that brings us closer to God, then Jesus' answer is exactly spot on helpful.

Adam and Eve miss their opportunity, really, because they explicitly stop at blaming each other. Their blame for God is simply implied, just like ours usually is. If they would go a step further and rail at God, it would do them good. If they gave in to the impulse to vent their anger and say something like, "This is such a comedy, God! How could you set this up this way -- with one tree right at the middle of the garden with the best fruit in the whole place, and then you say 'Do not eat of it'? This is stupid! Then to top it all off you allow the snake to come in here and lie to Eve! Is this fair? Does this make sense? NO." If they'd vent a little bit, they might come to the end of themselves and realize they need mercy, not fairness. They need love, not justice. They might come to a point of throwing themselves at God's feet and weeping for their sin and the brokenness they've brought upon themselves and on all creation.

The Psalms is the Bible's book of railing at God. Oh, sure there are some beautiful worship passages as well, but the psalms are full of passages in which David and the Israelites lay out their laments before God. They blame God for evil, for suffering, for unfairness, for his silence, for his failure to act, for his absence. It's scandalous, really, to read some of these things. We can't say things like that. We know God is just and fair and righteous. We can't blame him for stuff.

But Jesus did.

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" It's the first line of Psalm 22 and Jesus cries out from the cross in abject misery with this line that leads into a poem of self-indulgent grief and pain. At the end of the psalm the poem turns again to faith and hope ... and that's nearly always the way of it. If we can be honest with God about our pain, sooner or later we will empty our reserves of anger and self-pity -- and we will come to the throne of God emptied of ourselves and ready to acknowledge him as Lord.

God isn't afraid of our blaming him. He just wants us to come to him honestly, with what is really going on inside us. That way our frustration can become a bridge between us, rather than a wall to keep us apart.


  1. Two questions:
    A) What do you mean when you say that the statement, " has a choice" is suspect?

    B) When I read Buecher statements:
    1. God is all powerful.
    2. God is all good.
    3. Bad things happen.
    I immediately nod and think, yeah he is correct. If one believes that God created man with a free will, and that sin came into the world as a result of man exercising said free will, then why is it illogical to nod to all three statements?

  2. Jeff, back to my question 'A' above. Is that getting at the idea of predestination?

  3. I think the deeper we dig, the less we can really say we have free choice. Sure, I can pick out my socks or decide to have toast for breakfast -- but even in those decisions, how much freedom do I really have? How much of my choosing is influenced by what I was taught as a child, by what the people around me are doing, by an innate sense of color or taste or texture that is appealing vs. what is repulsive? So in those areas I don't know that it's predestination as much as it is influence. We have this American myth that we are free agents, capable of choosing for or against things. But the more important the choice, the more difficult it is for us to have freedom in our choices. Ever tried to choose to quit smoking or overeating? How much freedom do we have?

    So your question (B) above -- if I have free will, it means that in some sense God's sovereignty is limited. You can argue for that position, but it means that God is no longer all powerful, because if nothing else he has limited his sovereignty to allow me freedom.

    Where freedom of choice gets really suspect is when we claim to have freedom of choice in things that are "above" us - in regard to loving God or not, surrendering to Jesus or not. Do we have power to choose these things -- especially when we are still in bondage to our sin? If I'm really in bondage to my sin, can I then choose not to sin?

    We're into headache territory. Great question!