God How Could You Let This Happen?

As I sit here on the Pier at Garden City beach, safely overlooking the perpetual waves of the mighty Atlantic gently rolling in to meet the Carolina shores, I can sense the disparity between the calm beauty before my eyes and the restlessness of my heart. And as warmly as the morning air of the ocean breezes upon my face, in my spirit, there is the unmistakable chill of sadness and loss — and even of profound defeat. Yesterday, just before dinner time, as my wife and I were making plans for our last days of vacation here in South Carolina, I was looking forward to the fried oysters and scallops and the sound of her laughter as we celebrated the good life. But then the notification from Twitter suddenly flashed across my phone — and I instantly knew that we would have to cancel our plans for the evening. The headline made it clear that tonight there would be nothing to celebrate or laugh about: in Uvalde, Texas, two adults and nineteen children, most of whom were only about ten years old, had been gunned down and murdered in their elementary school.

At first, like most everyone else, I felt a hot flash of burning anger — but not of shock. To my own shame, I have become almost totally desensitized to the now daily headlines of horrific mass shootings in the Divided States of America. Still, this one seemed to hit differently. “They were only little kids” I thought to myself. The all too familiar feeling of helplessness and the suffocating sense of inescapable grief and disillusionment quickly began to set in. I sunk my face into the my palms of my hands and screamed in the frustration of my heart “HOW CAN THIS KEEP HAPPENING? WHY IN GODS NAME WONT SOMEBODY DO SOMETHING?!” Just a couple of days ago a deranged racist had committed mass murder at a supermarket in Buffalo. “It. Just. Keeps. Happening.” I felt guilty for not remembering whether the mass shooting from just over a year ago in the city of Indianapolis — just twenty minutes away from my house — happened at the UPS or FedEx building. I couldn’t remember whether it had been nine or ten people who had been murdered in the worst mass shooting in the history of Indiana. I reasoned to myself, probably in a desperate and rather pathetic attempt to console myself: “There are too many mass shootings in our country to keep track of…” In my defense, there have already been more mass shootings in 2022 than there have been days in the year. And as I was considering the horror of it all, a surprising and perhaps even impious question arose in my heart: “God, how could You let this happen?

A great and terrible question, to be sure. What makes the question infinitely more difficult for me is that I believe in the God of infinite and unconditional Love: a God Who is Goodness and Beauty Itself. I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God— the gentle King of kindness and goodness and peace — the One in Whom we have perfectly seen the Father. My favorite verse in the Bible may be from 1 John 1:5 — “This is the message that we have heard from Him [that is, from Jesus] and announce to you: that God is light and in him is no darkness whatsoever.” As far as I am concerned, this is the good news: there is absolutely nothing at all about God that is not infinitely Good. He is the Good Itself. And yet, I cannot deny that this haunting question still sometimes overflows out of the depths of my admittedly small and sinful heart: “God, how could You let this happen?

I am certainly not the first person to ask the question. All of the religions flowing out of the Abrahamic tradition have always taught that God is omnipotent: “all-powerful.” And so, logically, although He could prevent evil things from happening, He obviously does not always do so. Though He does not directly will evil — and we could never imagine a more blasphemous thing about a good God Who truly loves mankind than the thought that He directly wills evil for His creatures — He nonetheless does allow it. So, despite the immense complexity and even audacity of the question, in the face of all the great evils of the world, we often ask it throughout our lives. Why? Because most of us desperately want to believe in God’s omnipotent goodness despite all the apparent evidence to the contrary. And when we do ask the question, we are in the very best of company. After all, this is the question that has troubled the greatest minds the world has ever known, from the Hebrew prophets, to the early Church fathers, up through history’s greatest philosophers and theologians, to the most brilliant artists, poets, musicians, and geniuses,[1] all the way down to the most pure and innocent children, up to and including at least some of those survivors of Uvalde. In the horrific aftermath of what happened in Texas — and what will undoubtedly continue to happen if we don’t do something drastic soon to address this great evil of our time — this must be the question in the hearts of the masses of traumatized children and their parents all over the world: “God, how could You let this happen?” How do Christians answer it? 

Again, it is a supremely difficult — and even scary — but honest question. Who possesses the wisdom to totally discern how a good and loving God can allow the most terrible things imaginable to happen every single day to His children? I certainly don’t. We can contemplate and venture our most orthodox and coherent and perhaps even daring theological speculations with all humility, but we should most definitely never offer any kind of “soul-making” theodicies to those who are suffering. In fact, the best thing we can probably do in such situations is to resist the temptation to speak at all and to instead just remain silent and tenderly weep with those who weep. When His good friend Lazarus died, our Lord Jesus did not preach a lengthy discourse on God’s goodness in the face of evil to those who were suffering. Instead, perhaps tellingly, in the shortest verse in the Bible, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). Still, in such terrible moments, most of us cannot help but to wonder in our secret hearts about where God is. “How could He let this happen?” How can we live in both such a profoundly beautiful and monstrously cruel world? And how is it possible for God to be totally innocent in all of this? I believe He is, by the way, but I do not know exactly how. Do you? Does anybody?

Here is what I know — or at least believe: God, in order to be worthy of our love and even worship must be the Good Itself. If He is not the Good itself — if He is in any way evil or even has only the faintest hint of darkness in Him — then He is not worth a moment more of our time or consideration. And yet, as we all know, God does in fact allow the very worst things imaginable to happen. Again, just think: He even “allowed” His own Son — His very Own Heart — to become the most famous victim of injustice and betrayal that the world has ever known: to be mercilessly tortured, mocked, hung on a tree — lynched — and left for dead. God’s own Son was massacred by the hands of lawless and wicked men. Jesus’ disciples and closest friends must have also asked, with us, “God, how could You let this happen?” Christ Himself, quoting the broken-hearted prophet in Psalm 22:1, cried out from the very depths of His being, from His cross, “My God! My God! Why have You forsaken me? “God, how could You let this happen?” If even the Son of God can be crucified, then apparently anything can happen.

And, as we know all too well, “anything” has happened. For all its goodness and beauty, history is also filled with the absolute worst of horrors. I think of it and tremble: God allowed the utter outrages of the Holocaust. He could have stopped it — but He didn’t. This is a terrible thought, is it not? He allowed the death camps and the atomic bombs to fall on the precious children in Japan. He allowed African men, women, and children to be taken from their homeland so that they could make the white man rich on the backs of their forced and terrible labor. He allows the violence of the cartels and their drugs to find their way to our poorest neighborhoods where they kill our mothers and fathers and kids. He allows our children to be gunned down on the streets and in schools and even in His churches. We could go on and on about the outrages of wickedness perpetrated mostly against the most vulnerable and powerless and often innocent among us. And we all know the terrible things that He has allowed to happen in our own lives. As a hospice chaplain, I see it everyday in the lives of the terminally ill patients I visit with and in the faces of the addicts that I have worked with over the last fifteen years. I am sure that you see it too.

Yet, we still believe that God must be good, do we not? That He must be the wellspring and beginning and end of every good and beautiful and true thing. That He is the Good as such… Is not His goodness our very hope? Though we still sometimes sin against Him and against our brothers and sisters, do we not yet love Him still, with all our hearts and pray to Him and serve Him and sing to Him and even dance for Him? Is He not the love of our lives and the deepest desire of our hearts? Do we not long to be with Him, as a bride desires her bridegroom, to be with Him and with each other, where all pain, sorrow, and sighing have fled away (Isa. 51:11)? Of course we do. Though we do not understand His ways and are sometimes tempted to think less of Him and in our heart of hearts to question His goodness — especially when disaster strikes — we still love and put all our hope in Him to somehow make everything right. What other hope do we have in the face of all this suffering, violence, evil, and death?

Except, even in spite of all our hope, we still know that even “the restoration of all things” (Acts 3:21) cannot “undo” what has happened in our world. History, at least for now, has lost these precious children. I do not know why bad things happen to good and even innocent people. At the end of the day, the only thing I really have — is hope. I can only hope that God will somehow one day make all things right. And I believe He will. But in the midst of the madness, I can only hope and try to love and comfort those who are suffering. In the final analysis, when we are suffering through the terrors of life, we don’t need answers, we need love. Yes, I can hope with St. Paul that one day, “God will be all in all” (1 Cor. 15.28), that one day there will be no more sirens or guns or terror or funerals for little kids. I can and do hope in the eventual “restoration of all things” but even this powerful hope does not change or take away what has happened. We live on, in tears, and in the hope that things will somehow change and get better for us. But for those little children and teachers and for their families and loved ones, things can never be right again for them. At least not in this life.

And so, in the wake of the loss of life in Uvalde, Texas, along with (literally) about a million others we have lost to guns in this country alone over the last 40 years[2] (as long as I have been alive), we again grieve together. We lament the societal, moral, heart, and gun problems of our nation and hope for change. Our Lord Jesus Christ said, “Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4). And, so that we too will be comforted, let us mourn with those who mourn. Let us weep with those who weep. Let us hope with those who hope. Let us love, with the love of God, with the love that St. Paul taught about that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:7). And when we are tempted to despair at the thought of how God could let all these things happen to us, St. Paul comforts us in the very next verse with the daring apostolic promise that “Love never fails.” God, Who is Love, never fails. If there is an “answer” then this must be it. Maybe, instead of asking “God, how could You let this happen?” there is a better and more important and infinitely more glorious question, asked by St. Paul on behalf of God’s children in Rome — and on behalf of ours too, here in America:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Affliction or anguish or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or the sword? As has been written: “For your sake we are being put to death all day long; we were reckoned as sheep for slaughter.” Rather, in all these things we more than conquer through the one who has loved us. For I have been persuaded that neither death nor life nor angels nor Archons nor things present nor things imminent nor Powers, nor height nor depth nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

[1] See especially “Rebellion” in Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gun_violence_in_the_United_States

Can You Be a Christian and Still be Violent? (A Rift is Coming)

The following was posted on Thinking Peacefully on December 15, 2015.  You can read it here.

Well, it depends on what you think Jesus came to do.  Let me explain.

If you think Jesus came because God is obligated by nature to punish sin by sending people to hell but he didn’t want to…instead sending the second person of the Trinity (the Son) to experience a type of hell in your place such that, if you claim a certain religious belief or perform a certain religious rite you are now forgiven and freed from eternal punishment…then sure.  Most folks whose view of sin and salvation can be boiled down to this have no problem with doing violence—in fact—most folks who think of sin and salvation this way seem to assume that to be unwilling to do violence is immoral.  The reason is the whole theology is wrapped up in a simple exchange between the Father and the Son on our behalf.  Jesus’ life and teaching have little bearing on what it means to actually “be saved.”  Salvation is all about having a certain status (that of “being saved”) and that status is achieved through the actions of someone else (Christ on the cross) and a simple religious affiliation (the sinner’s prayer or baptism) on my part.  One might go so far (and many have) as to say that the central assumption in this theology is that God is, at his heart, a violent God who must atone for the sins of his people violently.  And people emulate the God they claim to follow.  Therefore, violence is the normative reality for these folks, rather than love.

This is the reason that people who think differently than these folks are often stymied when saying, “But what about Jesus’ teaching to turn the other cheek or to love your enemies?”  The blank stares and mystified looks of those who hold to this view are a way of saying, “What does being a Christian have to do with any of what Jesus said?  We like our view of the God of the Old Testament better anyhow.  There’s a God who knew how to make things happen.”

However, if you think (as I do) that what Jesus came to do was not just a simple exchange, then…no.  I (and many others like me) don’t believe that Jesus came to die in our place in the sense that people often think.  He didn’t stand in between God and me, facing God’s wrath.  He stood in between God and me, facing mine.  Jesus on the cross was not man being killed by God, but God being killed by man.  Yes, in the Old Testament, God worked around violence and sometimes acquiesced to violence.  But, as Hebrews 1:1-3 says,

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven (Heb 1:1-3 NIV).

In other words, “Jesus is the complete revelation of God.  This is what God always wanted us to know about him.  It supercedes what we take God to be in the Old Testament because God hadn’t revealed himself to us fully until Jesus.”  And in Jesus, we see a God who would die himself rather than kill you to defend himself from you.  Jesus is God dying in our place, but in a way different than we thought.  He died because he loved those who hated him.

In this view, salvation is not about a simple exchange to keep you out of hell.  In fact, the idea of salvation is full and robust.  It is about the coming of God’s full kingdom to the earth, his will on earth as it is in heaven.  Salvation is met out through a group of people who believe that Jesus’ way of doing life (a cross-shaped life) is the solution to all of the sin of this world (and all sin is a type of violence we do to ourselves, one another, or God).

“Salvation” for folks who believe this is about following Jesus on the way of the cross.  It’s about saying, “If Jesus is God dying because he’d rather die by his enemy’s hand than kill his enemy, then I’m supposed to be a person who’d rather die by my enemy’s hand than kill my enemy—because I love my enemy the way Jesus loved me.”

And, yes, that means even someone who comes into your home to steal, rob, and destroy.  And, yes, even if you have a family whom you love…because if we love our family we’ll want them to follow Jesus, too.

We believe this because we believe that it is the only hope for a world torn apart by violence.  We believe that Jesus demonstrates that love is the true normative reality, not violence.  And love is enacted on crosses, not with swords.  And crosses are a daily way of life, where people serve one another rather than take advantage of one another; and those with little status are held in high esteem because God cares for all people, even those who the violent world has marginalized.

We can do all of this because we believe what the apostle Paul told us in Romans 8,

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.  The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory (Rom 8:14-17 NIV).

We believe that those who die with Christ will be raised with him.

The first view of salvation is about hell and retribution.

The second is about cross and resurrection.

The first about violence and fear.

The second is about love and trust.

The first assumes violence is necessary and nonviolence has nothing to do with Christianity.

The second assumes that violence is unnecessary and that Christianity is about nonviolence in all forms.

The first is about a violent God who takes out his violence on the innocent to save the guilty.

The second is about a loving God who innocently receives the violence of the guilty and beckons them to follow him.

The first sees no tension between being a Christian and the pursuit of power of the Empire.

The second sees these two things in mutual exclusivity.

These two views are inherently incompatible.

A rift is coming.

So, what does this say?  Can someone be a Christian and be violent?  The answer depends on what you think Jesus came to do.  If you are of the first camp, you say “yes.”  In the second, “no.”  But here’s the thing: a rift is coming.  There is little about these views of Christianity that can be harmonized.  I’m not sure I’m willing to say that those who believe in the first view “aren’t Christian.”  But what I must admit is that I think what they believe “isn’t the Gospel.”  And I suppose that what they must admit to themselves is that what I believe isn’t the Gospel to them either.  And I don’t know what to do about that other than keep asking them to consider the Gospel I’ve discovered.  And I keep doing so, and nearly all of them reject it.

Someone will say that this is judgmental.  I don’t think so.  Here’s what I think, though.  As our world becomes more violent and as fear motivates people to think darker thoughts…as the country we live in turns more and more to guns and war…I think it will not be those who claim that Jesus calls us to active peacemaking who will be the judging aggressors.

We live in the most well-armed, richest, most well-defended society in the history of this planet.  And I believe most people are more terrified than they’ve ever been.  “More guns, more soldiers, more violence” is what I feel I see Christians saying over and over and over.  I think the time is coming when those who believe in the first Gospel will take up arms against those who believe in the second.  And those who believe in the second will have an opportunity to prove their faith as well.  It will come when a peacemaker comes to the aid of someone perceived to be “the enemy,” and the violent Christian cries “traitor!”  It’s coming.

Historically, it was certain Roman Catholics and certain Protestants who teamed up to torture and murder the early pacifist Anabaptist Christians.

This post is dedicated to my close friends who taught me the second view of the Gospel; that Jesus came to instate his peaceful kingdom here.  I dedicated it at a time when they were enduring a type of crucifixion, being, in a sense, killed by those who have publicly stated that they believe that the heart of the Gospel is the will do violence, to harm the other to save self.  Like Cain, they had wielded their hateful rock and killed the people they were supposed to call “brother and sister.”

The Gospel is something that we are told will divide us, so perhaps we should not be surprised that it often does.  I may be wrong in my view and I’m sure there are some who will think so.  And I love my brothers and sisters who disagree with me.  And I pray they will be moved.  But let those who believe in a peacemaking Messiah and those who believe in a war-making Messiah understand that, though they may both call their Lord “Jesus,” they do not believe in the same God.

Looking for the Church

Driving on the interstate with my wife tonight, we passed another giant church billboard advertising for a church which, prophetically and almost literally, meets at Six Flags here in Atlanta.  In bold letters next to a picture of the preacher in a slick suit, it said something to the effect of, “[name of church] Feels Just Like Home.”

In the darkest recesses of my mind I found myself thinking, “Then why not just stay home?” Continue reading “Looking for the Church”

Billy Jack Versus Francis: Therapy for Overcoming Metaphysics

The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters. Pope Francis, Encyclical on the Environment Continue reading “Billy Jack Versus Francis: Therapy for Overcoming Metaphysics”

Nonviolence as the Essence of Christianity

The orientation to death which is sin shows itself in systemic (religious, nationalistic, tribal) sadistic or masochistic violence.  The violence of war, the violence of sacrificial religions, the genocidal violence of tribalism, the violence of nationalism, or suicidal or murderous violence, are all manifestations of a singular structure – sin – the diagnosis of which is given to us in Christ.  This is a claim which requires substantiation (only initiated and not fully developed below) and which is posed over and against theological systems which presume violence is a necessary part of redemption. Such systems cannot equate sin and violence (though they might picture an overlap between the two) but, I would claim, they are inherently incapacitated in recognizing the root problem.  Should this argument prove to have any value, the implication is that certain theologies and forms of Christianity, in incorporating violence, are in danger of practicing sin under the guise of righteousness and of perverting the image of God by projecting evil onto God.  Continue reading “Nonviolence as the Essence of Christianity”