Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Does God Punish?

Thomas Hardy says of the main character in The Mayor of Casterbridge, Michael Henchard, that “misery taught him nothing more than the defiant endurance of it.”   What does misery teach us?  What can it teach us?  Can it teach us more than just the fact that we must endure it?
This is a tricky topic, for suffering is a mystery--a mystery in the deepest sense of the word.  We all suffer, some much more than others; and some suffer under the same circumstance that others would consider a blessing.  

A lot depends on expectation.  The one who expects pain and finds only discomfort rejoices.  The one who expects luxury and finds discomfort is miserable.  We can be cheated or abused by a stranger and think little of it, but cruelty or mere neglect from someone whom we expected to love us leaves painful scars that last a lifetime.  Suffering and misery are never good, and yet good may come of it.  Misery does teach us, but what we learn depends a great deal on us.  
The prophets of the Old Testament repeatedly tell Israel and Judah to learn from their suffering.  What are they to learn?  They are to learn that their sins have separated them from their God.  Learning this, they are to repent, turning their attention back to God and ceasing to oppress their neighbors.  However, the correlation between misery and repentance is not a direct one. Turning to God seldom immediately changes our circumstances, although it may immediately change our attitude toward our circumstances, which makes a huge difference in how we experiences our circumstances.  
Some, like Michael Henchard, do not easily learn to turn to God in misery.  Henchard “could not help thinking that the concatenation of events...was the scheme of some sinister intelligence bent on punishing him.”  For the character Michael Henchard--and maybe for the author Thomas Hardy too--suffering is punishment.  Suffering is the “this” in the cry, “What did I do to deserve this?”  There is no answer to the question except the answer given in Genesis, an answer in the form of a story, not an explanation.  The questions itself reveals the problem: separation from the knowledge of God has resulted in a view of God as “a sinister intelligence bent on punishing.”  Like Adam and Eve in the Garden, our separation from God leads us to hide from God because we are afraid.  The shame of nakedness could have spurred Adam and Eve to run toward God, but it rather led them to fear punishment and hide.  Their view of who God is had changed.
Ultimately, Christ-God conquers misery by himself becoming the most miserable one.  He enters our misery and suffers with us, because of us, for us.  He suffers to destroy suffering through suffering.  He shows us how and what to learn from suffering.  He shows us how to turn to God and love our neighbor in the midst of suffering.  He shows us that suffering is limited, but Life is eternal--and that Eternal Life can begin even before the suffering ends.
We all die.  No suffering endures forever (unless somehow we choose it, but that is yet another mystery); however, the opportunity to repent, to turn toward God and to begin to love our neighbor, the opportunity to enter into Eternal Life, also may last only as long as our hearts beat on this earth.  Blaming God or our mother, or our illness or our society for our suffering only muddies the water and increases our anger and pride and misery.  Humbling ourselves brings peace in the midst of the storm, in the midst of the pain, in the midst of the misunderstanding and misery.  Humility lets us learn from misery.  Humility does not lead us to say that suffering is good, only that suffering is, and that I am no more or less an appropriate candidate for suffering than anyone else.  Humility enables us to turn to God, not as the Great Punisher, but as the Great Co-sufferer, the One who showed us the way to Eternal Life even in the midst of suffering.

9 comments:

Brad Jersak said...

Thanks for this. We need to hear this message again and again. You are helping heal our image of God. Will be forwarding this,
Brad Jersak

Brad Jersak said...

Oh, can we post this at www.clarion-journal.com?
Brad

Fr. Michael said...

Brad,
Please use this post in any way you think it will be a blessing.

Christopher said...

I recall reading something from David Hart where he says that God does not *justify* (i.e. explain, rationalize, etc.) suffering, that is evil. Like you say, evil (and good) are mystery's - which is to say Christ and Christianity do not add to the wisdom of man on the subject.

I wonder if this is really right however. Limited though we are (not being God) we now recognize something of God and creation, namely good and evil. I certainly sympathize with Adam and Eve for running. Even if they did not know, the outcome is the same: God has not and apparently will not justify evil. Suffering now despite the promised relief of suffering at a future point in an eternal life does not justify suffering. Suffering just is. Christ overcoming suffering does not alleviate suffering - it still is something that exists and is to be "overcome".

I think that is the central insight in Genesis in that it does not justify God. It forthrightly and without judgment lays evil at the feet of God who created both good and evil (they are only knowable because they are part of creation).

I think Christianity (or rather many Christians) is often dangerously close to justifying good and evil with various explanations. Hart argues against these in "The Doors of the Sea".

Still, a part of me rejects this - want's evil to be justified, made sense of, somehow explained in the context of a good creation. Is this a part of me that is simply not "humbled" enough? The Christian answer is yes. At least this answer is consistent. The fact that suffering is so humbling is indicative that it is of God in my opinion. It is a humbling thing to come before God, to accept it as Christ accepts it. Perhaps it is not such a mystery after all...

Brad Jersak said...

I quite like Hart.

I like Simone Weil more... saved my life once. She makes the following observations:

1. The Goodness of God and the Affliction of man ('malheur'--unsolicited, unconsoled, non-redemptive suffering) is a *real contradiction*. Rational attempts to solve it (most theodicies) ultimately and inevitably end up calling evil good. There is a dark abyss of eternal distance between the perfection of God and the 'gravity' of this world. One cannot bridge that distance. One can only be arrested by the suffering, silenced from rationalizing, and finally, we gaze into the abyss. And when we do, we see a Cross--the Crucified One is the only intersection of divine goodness and human suffering in the universe. Truth is not figured out there. It is revealed. And that revelation is the co-suffering, radically forgiving, love of Christ.

2. Mystery: There is an inaccessible mystery in eternity about God is simultaneously responsible for ONLY GOOD and at the same time FOR ALL THAT IS. If we could access how these intersect, I have no doubt we would conclude that it is ALL GOOD ... but we can't conclude that. We are asked to believe it.

So far so good.

But when it comes to other dilemmas, like the apparent violence of God in some of the OT texts, we are often asked to suspend our questions, again in the name of mystery. Here Weil pauses: she says there are two kinds of mysteries and what one must do is to ask, 'What is being projected from this mystery? Light or darkness?'

Practically, she implies that for all the mystery of the Cross, something of divine light shines from there. When it comes to the OT instances where God apparently commands cruelties that which He has already forbidden and are in obvious discord to the revelation of God in Christ, something dark emanates from there.

My suggestion is that we keep checking with the early church Fathers who struggled honestly (in ways that we don't) with this problem.

Brad Jersak said...

I quite like Hart.

I like Simone Weil more... saved my life once. She makes the following observations:

1. The Goodness of God and the Affliction of man ('malheur'--unsolicited, unconsoled, non-redemptive suffering) is a *real contradiction*. Rational attempts to solve it (most theodicies) ultimately and inevitably end up calling evil good. There is a dark abyss of eternal distance between the perfection of God and the 'gravity' of this world. One cannot bridge that distance. One can only be arrested by the suffering, silenced from rationalizing, and finally, we gaze into the abyss. And when we do, we see a Cross--the Crucified One is the only intersection of divine goodness and human suffering in the universe. Truth is not figured out there. It is revealed. And that revelation is the co-suffering, radically forgiving, love of Christ.

2. Mystery: There is an inaccessible mystery in eternity about God is simultaneously responsible for ONLY GOOD and at the same time FOR ALL THAT IS. If we could access how these intersect, I have no doubt we would conclude that it is ALL GOOD ... but we can't conclude that. We are asked to believe it.

So far so good.

But when it comes to other dilemmas, like the apparent violence of God in some of the OT texts, we are often asked to suspend our questions, again in the name of mystery. Here Weil pauses: she says there are two kinds of mysteries and what one must do is to ask, 'What is being projected from this mystery? Light or darkness?'

Practically, she implies that for all the mystery of the Cross, something of divine light shines from there. When it comes to the OT instances where God apparently commands cruelties that which He has already forbidden and are in obvious discord to the revelation of God in Christ, something dark emanates from there.

My suggestion is that we keep checking with the early church Fathers who struggled honestly (in ways that we don't) with this problem.

Christopher said...

Interesting Brad. I have never given Weil much attention as her political activism always turned me off. Will have to give her a second look.

I wonder if naming something "a mystery" is not itself a justification even if not a *logical* one: A contradiction is a contradiction even if labeled a mystery.

In a sense the Love of Christ is not enough - not yet, while we suffer in this world. It does not satisfy in the way that having something fulfilled does. Faith, Hope and even Love all have objects that are not yet. You don't need hope in something that is fulfilled as St. Paul says.

In that sense to assert that "God is simultaneously responsible for ONLY GOOD and at the same time FOR ALL THAT IS." is really a kind of justification in my opinion. In that sense, I take Genesis to be more accurate about God. It does not hide the fact that God (not out of necessity it appears) is at least an indirect cause for human suffering (or think of Job where God stretches forth His hand so the Devil can do his work).

I am not trying to say that God punishes, but that he is the Creator, including good AND evil. Calling this "a mystery" seems to almost intentionally obscure this fact...

Christopher said...

Quick question for Brad (or anyone else): Where would you start with Weil. Is "Waiting for God" a good beginning?

Brad Jersak said...

Sure. Waiting for God is as good a place as any, I think.

She's complex and brilliant and frustrating, at times formally heretical, but I believe she had some genuine encounters with Christ.