The Tears of God
To question God's goodness is not just an intellectual experiment. It is rebellion or tears. It is a little child with tears in its eyes looking up at Daddy and weeping, "Why?" This is not merely the philosophers' "why?" Not only does it add the emotion of tears but also it is asked in the context of relationship. It is a question put to the Father, not a question asked in a vacuum.
- Peter Kreeft
In the previous post, I hoped to persuade you that it is rational to continue to believe in God in the face of a good amount of counter-evidence. God is a person, not a proposition or conclusion of an argument. Admittedly there is a limit to the amount of counter-evidence one can absorb before trusting God becomes impossible. In these situations we might be able to affirm a belief in a "higher power" or a vague notion of a creator, but not the God of the Bible, who claims to be loving and good.
Recall the objection from the previous post:
I question God’s character. He has let me down too many times to continue to ignore the evidence and give him the benefit of the doubt. It seems more likely that he doesn’t exist than that he does. Even If he does, why should I trust a God who has the kind of character he has? He seems more cruel than loving.
When we feel let down or even betrayed by God it's natural to ask "What possible reason could justify God's decision to allow hurt to come into our lives?". That question is both reasonable and natural. Evil and suffering count - at least to some degree - as evidence against the existence of a good and loving God. For this reason, it's natural to seek an explanation that accounts for the existence of a good and loving God and God behaving in ways that don't seem to be good and loving.
And yet, it seems that even if God did answer us and provide a reason why he acted, (or failed to act) in a way that seemed to us as bad and unloving, we could still ask why that reason was important to him. And if he was patient enough to answer us and give us a reason why, the previous we could ask him why that reason was important to him. again. And so on and so on. For example, imagine a situation where I contract a life-threatening disease. Perplexed at how God could be both good and loving and also allow me to get a life-threatening disease I ask God to explain himself so I can continue to believe he is good and loving.
God graciously replies that he allowed me to get a life-threatening disease so that I would repent of my sin.
"Why", I ask him, does he want me to repent of my sin?
God replies that he wants me to repent of my sin so he can use me more effectively.
"Why do you want to use me?" I ask him.
"Because through you many people will come to believe in Jesus," he says.
"Why do you want many people to believe in Jesus?" I ask.
"I want many people to believe in Jesus because it will bring me great glory," God responds.
"But why do you want great glory."
"Because I'm God."
"But why are you God?"
"Because I am."
I realize my fictionalized dialogue between God and me is a little artificial and silly, but it makes my point: at some point in any reason-giving exchange with another person, the reason-giving will come to an end. It will bottom out. There will be no more reasons to offer. And it sounds like this:
"Because I said so."
"That's just the way it is."
"Because that's what I decided."
Any parent knows this well. Parents know that sometimes, no matter how much they may want to offer a satisfying reason to their children why they can't eat ice cream for breakfast, they can't do so. Usually, the reason is that the child is too young to understand all of the factors involved. The parents might begin to offer some preliminary reasons why they won't allow the child to eat ice cream for breakfast. But if the child continues to ask "But why?" in response, even the most patient parent will eventually utter the phrase that all children despise, "Because I said so!" Reson giving has come to an end.
At that point, the child has to decide if they're going to continue to believe that their parents really are good and loving even though they are depriving them of ice cream without offering satisfactory reasons why.
Another way of putting it is, without a good reason, why should the child trust his parents really are good and loving?
Likewise, why should we trust that God is good and loving despite the contrary evidence that comes into our life? Evidence such as the life-threatening disease in my hypothetical example. Why believe what he says over what he does? Why trust that he cares for me when he allows me to suffer? Don't his actions speak louder than his words? I think they do. But I think there is one action that God has performed that we can look to as decisive evidence that, in spite of all appearances, God is good and loving. And that is the cross.
If the Bible is an accurate record of what happened at the cross, then we are left with one of two choices: God is either a sado masochist or he is love. The horror, injustice, and brutality of the cross were so extreme that it is hard for me to imagine there being any middle ground. On the one hand, if God subjected his son to the humiliation, torture, and death of a Roman cross to save us, that gives us good reason to believe that God really does love us despite what evil and suffering he allows to touch our lives. And in spite of his unwillingness to provide us with a satisfying reason for it. Think about what he was willing to sacrifice. Think about the love involved. Think about the pain not only of Jesus but of God the Father. On the other hand, if the cross wasn't necessary to save us, but he subjected his son to it only so that humans would laud him with praise and worship, he is a psychotic, vile beast. Who other than a madman would sacrifice his own child to receive the applause of his creations?
John Stott, in his book The Cross of Christ, puts it this way:
I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the One Nietzsche ridiculed as 'God on the cross.' In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of the Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time after a while I have had to turn away. And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in Godforsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of his. There is still a question mark against human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross that symbolizes divine suffering. 'The cross of Christ ... is God’s only self-justification in such a world” as ours....'
'The other gods were strong; but thou wast weak; they rode, but thou didst stumble to a throne; But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak, And not a god has wounds, but thou alone.
Edward Shilito in his short story The Long Silence, powerfully expresses the same idea.
At the end of time, billions of people were scattered on a great plain before God’s throne. Most shrank back from the brilliant light before them. But some groups near the front talked heatedly – not with cringing shame, but with belligerence.
“Can God judge us? How can he know about suffering?” snapped a pert brunette. She ripped open a sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a Nazi concentration camp. “We endured terror…beatings…torture..death!”
In another group a Negro lowered his collar. “What about this?” he demanded, showing an ugly rope burn. “Lynched..for no crime but being black!!
In another crowd, a pregnant schoolgirl with sullen eyes. “Why should I suffer?”, she murmured, “It wasn’t my fault.”
Far out across the plain there were hundreds of such groups. Each had a complaint against God for the evil and suffering he permitted in his world. How lucky God was to live in heaven where all was sweetness and light, where there was no weeping or fear, no hunger or hatred. What did God know of all that man had been forced to endure in this world? For God leads a pretty sheltered life, they said.
So each of these groups sent forth their leader, chosen because he had suffered most. A Jew, a Negro, a person from Hiroshima, a horribly deformed arthritic, a thalidomide child. In the center of the plain they consulted with each other. At last they were ready to present their case. It was rather clever.
Before God could be qualified to be their judge, he must endure what they had endured. Their decision was that God should be sentenced to live on earth – as a man!
“Let him be born a Jew. Let the legitimacy of his birth be doubted. Give him a work so difficult that even his family will think him out of his mind when he tries to do it. Let him be betrayed by his closest friends. Let him face false charges, be tried by a prejudiced jury and convicted by a cowardly judge. Let him be tortured.
“At the last, let him see what it means to be terribly alone. Then let him die. Let him die so that there can be no doubt that he died. Let there be a great host of witnesses to verify it.
“As each leader announced his portion of the sentence, loud murmurs of approval went up from the throng of people assembled.
“And when the last had finished pronouncing sentence, there was a long silence. No one uttered another word. No-one moved. For suddenly all knew that God had already served his sentence.”