…has not really been a question that has taken up much of my time. Theodicy is the theological discipline that seeks to vindicate God’s goodness in the face of the existence of evil and suffering in this world. Strangely enough, for all my theological education, I don’t think I ever took a course on the subject.
Allow me to begin with a little personal background.
I grew up in a rural-bordering-on-suburban home in the small city of Chilliwack, British Columbia. My parents were married in 1957; I came along in 1959, eventually followed by three siblings. For as long as I can remember, my mom dealt with the increasingly debilitating effects of rheumatoid arthritis. Illness was therefore a constant companion in my childhood years. A lot of therapies were yet to be developed in those days and so my parents tried what was available at the time. Two things stick out in my mind. I remember my mom dipping her hands with their swollen joints into melted paraffin wax, so that the heat of the wax would provide some relief. At another time, I remember her drinking some sort of Chinese herbal remedy that, at least in my mind, smelled utterly vile. Ultimately, her best relief was to take prednisone, the “miracle drug,” that controls inflammation, but at the expense of pretty terrible effects on her bone strength and her stomach. My mom died at an altogether too young 72.
Along the way, my mom spoke of well-meaning people who would come and visit when she was convalescing from a surgery, a stint in a physical rehabilitation centre, or just in the middle of a particularly rough patch of poor health. As Christians, we welcomed their prayers. Sometimes, though, those prayers sought more than the comfort of God’s spiritual presence, the remembrance of Christ’s own suffering on our behalf, or the hope of the resurrection. Some would refer to Jesus’ ministry of healing and suggest that if only my mom would have sufficient faith, she too could be healed. These were not necessarily comforting words.
My life does not precisely parallel my mother’s. We were both young married adults when our respective diseases were diagnosed. We have both used prednisone, although in my case, somewhat more sparingly. Although…there was a time in Japan in the 1980s when I went through several days in hospital of a high dose therapy intended to arrest the progress of the disease. That was followed by “pulse therapy,” where I was slowly weaned off the prednisone by taking a high dose one day, and no dose the next day, and stepping down the dosage very slowly over an extended period of time. I don’t remember how long that went on, but I was quite nauseated every other day, vomiting routinely.
I can talk about my mom, myself, or about any number of other people whose lives are limited by disease or disability. I can also talk about people who live in some impoverished corner of the world who, were they to get my disease, would not have access to a doctor, or medicine, and would have probably died very young indeed. I can talk about people who were living perfectly “normal” lives but who found themselves caught up in a war and who lost family members, property and everything but the clothes on their backs. Suffering is nothing new in this world, although for us in the relatively wealthy West, there is much less of it in view than there is elsewhere in this world and at other times in history.
So, what do I do about it? How do I get my head around it? Basically, I attribute suffering to sin. Back to theology again, I guess. I take more of a literary or figurative view than a literalistic view of the opening chapters of the biblical book of Genesis. One of the important things that the authors strove to deal with was why, if God created the world good, the world is manifestly full of evil and suffering. The writers attribute this situation to sin, the rejection of God’s good provision in an attempt for something more. And it all falls apart. Well, actually goodness remains. But not unmitigated goodness. Sin taints all. And if you notice, it’s not just, or even primarily, the personal elements of life that are affected. God speaks to the man about how it is that he came to eat the fruit and the first thing he does is blame the woman. The social or systemic dimension is affected. The woman in turns blames the serpent. As the consequences are spelled out we read of physical pain and difficulties in obtaining food. Life has gotten a lot less easy. The impact of sin is woven into the environment, or more broadly, into the cosmos. In sum, sin is personal, social/systemic, and environmental/cosmic. I’m left to think not, “Why did God do this to me?” but “Why should I be exempted from suffering?” Having more faith, less faith or no faith is irrelevant.
How I hope faith makes a difference, though, is in how I respond to my situation. I’d rather not take the advice of Job’s wife, “Curse God, and die.” Each day remains a gift for me and that is how I choose to live it. I know that, for some, that would be very difficult to say, and I will not say that for everyone. But I know I can say that. And so I am grateful.