God’s ways are not our ways, says the prophet Isaiah (55:8-9). And indeed, they are not. The will of God is often inscrutable to us and we are frequently reminded, through the haphazard, often tragic, and seemingly random events of history, that it is folly to try and tie these events of time and space too closely to the direct will of the Lord. If you play that game, you will be disappointed since God doesn’t shut one door that he doesn’t slam another.
Horrible things happen to good people—even righteous people—with great frequency. The evil often prosper and die happy. Nor is there any real evidence that the check for the roof repair will appear in the nick of time, if only one trust in the Lord. If that were true, then no real believer would ever have a leaky roof.
Or suffer financial ruin. Or starve to death in a famine.
We are also told in Scripture that not even a sparrow falls to the ground without God’s notice and that God is, in fact, the Lord of history, guiding its pathway to the fulfillment of his plan. The God portrayed in the Bible is not a distant and indifferent Lord of the Sky, but an intimate and loving presence, ever-ready to answer the prayers of his people, if they would turn to Him. Jesus says “ask and you will receive” and tells us that we can move mountains if we only have faith.
Such is the care God has for His children, all of whom are far more worthy than sparrows and lilies.
This seeming contradiction has vexed theologians for centuries, both in the Scriptures themselves and among the learned commentators on Scripture, both Jewish and Christian. If you tie God’s direct will too closely to every event in history, or to your own life, you end up with a major theodicy headache, wherein God becomes the author of evil itself. If you try to avoid this problem by imagining God as an absentee landlord you end up on the other hand with a God indifferent to the plight of the very creatures He alone brought into existence. God thus emerges as either evil, or indifferent, or impotent, which is the opposite of how the Bible describes God on all three counts.
The Old Testament is filled with this tension. It is not an exaggeration at all to say that it is one of the central preoccupations of its authors. God’s special love and providential care for the children of Israel is central to the ancient Jewish understanding of their covenant with their Lord. But this only sharpens the pain and mystery of God’s apparent absence and indifference to the many humiliations Israel suffers at the hands of her enemies. The prayerful literary genre of the “lamentation” plays on this tension and reaches its crescendo in the psalms, many of which are nothing short of an agonistic cri de coeur begging God to “tabernacle” with his chosen people again.
There is an open wound in these lamentations—the biblical authors question what it means, after all is said and done, to be so “chosen.”
This same tension reaches its zenith in Christ’s cry of dereliction from the Cross: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” This is the first line of psalm 22, a painful prayer that simmers with anxiety over God’s seeming absence in the face of the taunts of one’s enemies, even as the psalmist clings to the hope that God’s vindication will be sure and decisive in the future.
I have never had much sympathy for those who want to gloss over the soul-devouring horror that Christ’s cry of dereliction must have induced on those who heard it. Or, for that matter, on those who, like me, are haunted by it still. What can it mean that the Son goes to the very limits of human alienation from God in order to sanctify our own anguished cries of hopeful hopelessness? What can it mean that the entire biblical corpus reaches its ultimate climax in a resurrection event that is itself the fruit of such a searing and tortured agony?
Shortly before his death, Leonard Cohen—a poet and songwriter I consider to be a latter-day psalmist in a certain secular register—released an album called You Want It Darker. The title track beautifully captures the dynamic I’ve been after—the deep synergy between earthly hopelessness and the theological virtue of hope. The song opens with a punch to the gut:
If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game
If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame
You want it darker
We kill the flame
Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame
A million candles burning for the help that never came
You want it darker
I’m ready, my lord
This song reminded me of the hundreds of candles I lit in Church, and the thousands of prayers I offered to God as a young man on behalf of my sister, who was born with a severe heart defect. She died. Painfully. At the age of five. I am reminded of this every time I see my mother who, 50 years later, still has a dead spot in her soul, covered by the spiritual scar tissue of anger towards God. “All He had to do was heal her,” she says with simple and cutting honesty. It is a wound that never heals.
“A million candles burning for the help that never came.” Indeed.
Larry Chapp, PhD taught theology at DeSales University for 19 years. He now runs the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker Farm with his wife, Carrie, near Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania.
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