Q: God, we're told, is a loving God. He's not at fault for wars. Wars are created by man, but how does a loving God allow children to be deformed? Why are there hundreds of diseases and so much suffering from these diseases? — B., Levittown, N.Y.
A: I've seen far too often how the personal and collective catastrophes of life suddenly intrude or slowly corrode the fabric of our hope. I've learned from broken people that very few of them, indeed, want a theological explanation for their suffering. Most know in their souls that we're given the gift of life, but none of us are given the gift of a life totally unencumbered by pain, loss and suffering.
We are on a blessed road, but it's a bumpy road. Grieving people know this. What they need most, in my experience as a rabbi, and my friend Fr. Tom Hartman's experience as a priest, is the loving and comforting presence of friends, family and clergy through their times of sorrow. And mostly they're best comforted by a silent presence.
Some are prepared to forgo theological questioning because they believe their sufferings are, like those of the biblical Job, a test of their faith from God. Some believe their misfortunes are part of a larger divine plan for their lives. They're comfortable with the view that God's ways are a mystery and don't require any other explanation.
However, there are always some people, like you, who are angry at God and demand that I represent them as a kind of prosecuting attorney to bring the case of their unjust suffering (or the sufferings of others) before God. Perhaps their anger comes from the fact that even before their sorrows, they didn't really believe in God, and now feel that they have conclusive proof of the Almighty's impotence or evil.
As the playwright Archibald MacLeish wrote in "J.B.": "If God is great, he is not good. If God is good, he is not God. Take the even, take the odd."
This is my view of theodicy, which is the proper word for the justification of God's goodness in the face of suffering innocents.
First, there are sufferings we cause by our own free choices. These are a problem for our hope but not our faith. If we as individuals and as a community of humanity here on earth choose to pollute our world and thus subject ourselves, our children and others to carcinogens, pathogens and environmental catastrophes, we can't blame God for our choices.
These horrible sufferings are all on us. These death choices are precisely why God commanded us to choose life or suffer the consequences when we don't. These are what we can call moral evils, and they are by far the greatest cause of the sufferings we face.
In addition, there are, of course, the much more theologically difficult cases of natural evils. These are evils not caused by our moral lassitude: hurricanes, earthquakes, tornados, tsunamis, etc. Why, you rightly ask, would a good God allow these disasters to occur?
The answer that preserves God's goodness is that most of these events are not evil at all, but merely the unfortunate consequences of human beings getting in the way of the natural forces of a living earth. A tsunami slamming into an uninhabited island is no different from a tsunami flooding a beach resort. In one case, no one gets in the way of waves caused by an undersea earthquake, and in the other, thousands die. Since we choose to live in danger zones, the blame is on us, not God.
Genetic mutations that cause stillbirths or genetic diseases occur because that's the way our genetic material sorts through mutations and achieves the natural selection that has made our brains larger and made us more perfectly adapted to the needs of our evolving species. They are part of God's perfect design for adaptable life.
Save your anger for the way we treat each other, not the way God treats us.
Send questions only to The God Squad via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.