NOTE: In my first post on the Cross, I mentioned that people who face suffering attempt to draw a picture of God on a connect-the-dot page with no numbers, just words like sin, love, grace, justice…. Unfortunately, it’s never quite right. God comes across either all-powerful and uncaring, or all-loving and impotent. This is the problem of theodicy.
On the radio, a young college student described how a tornado ripped into her dorm room while she and her friends huddled in the bathroom. “God is sovereign,” she bravely proclaimed several times throughout the interview. “And if he wanted to take us, he could take us.” Her voice was filled with emotion—fear, relief (none of them got hurt), shock. My heart melted for her. I pictured in my mind a group of girls clinging to one another, shaking, praying, eventually screaming in the dark while the building creaked and crashed around them from the tornado that God had sent.
At the end of the conversation, though, the interviewer asked an interesting question. He said, “As you look at the pile of rubble that was once your dorm, what are you looking for?”
She had an immediate answer. “I don’t care about my car or my computer; that can all be replaced.” She paused, choking back tears. “But I really want to find my Winnie-the-Pooh doll that I sleep with at night.” She hesitated, trying hard not to break down on national radio. And then she added, “It’s the one thing I have that I can’t replace.”
Another image emerged in my head: a traumatized young woman, scanning brick, broken glass and busted furniture looking for a tattered, golden stuffed animal. I wondered how her faith would be affected if she wasn’t able to find her doll. In her mind, though, I’m sure getting a chance to hug her doll again was the only thing she was really thinking about. She wasn’t psychoanalyzing her behavior as she searched. She wasn’t trying to figure out why finding this doll was so important to her.
But I was.
Her words haunted me for the rest of the day. I rooted for her to find her doll, and I found myself wondering from time to time if the joyous reunion had occurred, yet. And I also pondered how her connect-the-dot picture of God had changed after experiencing such a devastating, near-death ordeal, now that the question of theodicy was no longer academic, and she felt drawn to her doll for comfort rather than the Sovereign who sends tornadoes.
I imagine that her drawing looked a little more like Winnie-the-Pooh.
My daughter is involved in a church soccer league, which the organizers view as a great opportunity to witness to the kids and parents. And so during half-time, some brave soul attempts to hold everyone’s attention for ten minutes with a devotional. It’s always an uncomfortable time, because the kids are rambunctious and thirsty, and the parents are trying to attend them. You can tell that people don’t want to be rude, but it’s obvious that few are listening. And so the devotionalizers resort to various gimmicks or humor or hyperbolic statements to engage their audience. During one such half-time the man speaking made a bold declaration— “God is your Superhero! You can always count on Him to rescue you!” The man said it with such confidence, too, proclaiming, “The Bible and all of history testify that God always comes through for people.” I bristled when I heard this taught so emphatically.
Ironically, I had just read an article that morning about an army chaplain who was going through a crisis of faith in Iraq. He had been taught in his Sunday School class that God always rescues you. And yet, as he prayed earnestly for the protection of the men and women he ministered to, it didn’t seem to have any effect at all. At first, even though he didn’t understand, he continued to dutifully pray, believing that with enough patience and diligence, God would answer.
But months went by, and still no change: people continued to be riddled with bullets and ripped apart by bombs. The suffering was senseless—soldiers, citizens, children. And it was all done in the name of God. The chaplain invoked his God to protect. The terrorists invoked their God to wreak vengeance. It didn’t seem to matter who prayed or what doctrine they believed, the killing and the suffering continued. Eventually, the daily trauma whittled away at the chaplain’s faith to the point that he didn’t know if he believed anymore. In a brutally honest confession, he said that some days he did, and most days he didn’t. Yet, no matter how he felt, he did his best to pray and minister to the men and women under his charge, all the while hiding the inner turmoil caused by his impression that God didn’t seem to be rescuing anyone, despite the bold proclamation of the soccer-dad, living safely far from the war.
Both of these individuals represent honest attempts to reconcile a personal trauma with a caring God. The student clung to a powerful God who sent a terrifying tornado, and so she struggled to find comfort. The chaplain clung to a graceful God who seemed powerless to do anything about the violence, and so he struggled to see God at all.
And this is the tension found in the cross; it is the place where evil and love collide, and the question of “why?” is left hanging.
Over the course of Lent, I will be reflecting on the Cross and how different people have understood it throughout centuries, especially as it relates to evil and suffering. The final meditation will be on Good Friday.
Kelly Pigott is a church history professor who teaches at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas. You can find more musings on history, culture, contemplative spirituality and theology, along with interviews with authors at kellypigott.com. Follow him on twitter @kellypigott