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By ANDRES ALBERTSEN
From Morning Devotions at the Folk Meeting
Tyler, MN, August 19, 2017
“Jesus said: Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:29-31).
“Yet not one little sparrow will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” This is a translation of the original Greek into English. Probably the language that Jesus spoke was Aramaic, so we don’t know if Jesus’ words here were translated into Greek by the evangelist or if somebody else had already done it. What I want to share is the fascinating detail that in the original Greek, when it says “apart from your Father,” the word Father is in the genitive case, so that what the sentence literally says is: “not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father’s.” Your Father’s what? It is crucial to know, but the sentence is unfinished. Some translations have felt the need to complete Jesus’ sentence. There are translations where it says that not one of them will fall to the ground “without your Father’s consent,” or “without your Father’s permission,” or “without your Father knowing it,” or “apart from your Father’s will,” or “outside your Father’s care,” or “without your Father’s leave and notice.”
But if we take Jesus at his word, what he promised was that not one of the sparrows would fall to the ground apart from our Father’s . . . , and then he lets each listener discern for him or herself how God is present in his or her suffering, or taken more broadly, how God is related to evil, or if God is responsible for evil.
The challenge is to explain that the following three statements are all true: God is omnipotent; God is perfectly good; and evil exists. Many people consider that the truth of any two of them implies the falsity of the third. It is not a problem to argue that God is omnipotent and good if evil doesn’t exist. It is not a problem to argue that God is omnipotent and that evil exists if God isn’t good. In this case, God can do good but doesn’t want to. And finally, it is not a problem to argue that God is good and that evil exists if God is not omnipotent. In this case, God would like to do good, but God cannot.
The first time in my life I was able to reflect on the relationship between God and evil was when I was 14 years old and my mother died. She died of a stroke caused by an aneurysm, but I believed that it was my fault. I accepted that God was omnipotent and good, but I discarded the statement about the existence of evil. What existed was my fault and I deserved to be punished with my mom’s death.
It was not until several years later, when I was at the seminary, and a Jewish friend loaned me Harold Kushner’s book When Bad Things Happen to Good People that I changed my mind. Kushner discards the statement about God’s omnipotence and argues that God doesn’t cause our misfortunes. Some are caused by bad luck, some by bad people, and some are simply inevitable consequences of our being human and mortal, living in a world of inflexible natural laws. The painful things that happen to us are not punishments for our misbehavior, nor are they in any way part of some grand design on God’s part. Because the tragedy is not God’s will, we need not feel hurt or betrayed by God when tragedy strikes. We can instead turn to God for help in overcoming it, precisely because we can tell ourselves that God is as outraged by it as we are.1 Although God can’t do everything, there are some important things God indeed can do, so argues Kushner.
Kushner’s view of the relationship between God and evil was very comforting to me many years ago and it took away the burden of the guilt I felt over my Mom’s death, but it was not satisfactory in the long run—most of all, because I came to realize that perhaps it is not possible to use the concept of God unless we unite it inextricably with the idea of omnipotence. To deny that God is omnipotent would not only be the dissolution of the concept of God, but also the rejection of the existence of God. That God is almighty implies that God causes everything that actually happens―as it happens. The world would collapse into nothingness if God withdrew from this creative activity just for a second.
We experience the power of God—or we notice the power of God that is active all the time—in a beautiful sunrise, in the positive attitude with which we get out of bed and face a new day, and in a lasting relationship of love. But the power of God is also experienced in an earthquake, a drought, a flood, a devastating war, or when a person we love is killed in an accident. Sometimes God overwhelms us with gifts; sometimes God makes our lives miserable. It is not ostensible in our world that God is good and much less that God is loving.
The power of God we experience in life is in fact ambiguous. The trust in the superiority of goodness is often discredited. “Reality has a way of intruding,” as former Vice-president Joe Biden likes to express it. Often we don’t understand what God’s intentions are. I believe now that even if we could imagine a God who lacks power, then to the extent that God lacks power, God might also be ineffectual. And short of there being no God at all, what we have to ask is whether we should settle for an innocent but ineffectual God or run the risk of relating to a God who is really master of the universe but much less than perfectly good by any standards that we can comprehend.2 I have chosen to run this risk.
It is true that injustices are committed where it is possible to determine who in particular is responsible and should remedy the wrong or take the consequences. It is also true that structural injustices are committed (I’m thinking of socio-economic disparity, racism, sexism, population displacement and genocide, among other examples) where it is impossible to determine who in particular we should blame, where there is a shared responsibility by many different people and groups and the responsibility could and should be discharged through collective action. But even when much evil against human beings is perpetrated by other human beings who should individually or collectively take responsibility, it is God and not the human being who is omnipotent, and therefore the evil of human beings doesn’t excuse God from responsibility.
Historically, the capacity of human beings to inflict harm has seemed very small in comparison with the capacity of nature to cause destruction, but given that climate change is in a large part caused by human activities, human beings now are also held responsible for some of the natural disasters attributed to climate change. However, in the same way as with regard to the evils perpetrated by human beings directly against other human beings, the evil of human beings against nature doesn’t excuse God from responsibility.
Viewed dispassionately, we could say that death is a necessary natural phenomenon, and that all living creatures survive at the expense of other living creatures. In order to survive, the plants will compete for the soil’s nutrients, light and the water, and if these things are scarce, then one plant will steal them from another and condemn another plant to die out. And if one gazelle is lucky to escape from the lion, the consequence is that the lion will eat the gazelle’s sister, who was not so fast. In our societies, we can and should try not to repeat what happens in the order of nature, but even when we do our best to protect the individual, some (few or many), will be sacrificed to the public interest. Any social system built by human beings will have its victims, its forgotten and its neglected, although we may think that we have invented the ideal system. It is also certain that in the short or the long run, we all shall indeed die.
All this is not something I can view unaffected by passion. It does bother me and I don’t think that we are supposed to defend God. On the contrary, we should accuse and protest against God, and then let God defend Godself. It is by honestly recognizing that we are angry, if this is what we are, that we can communicate seriously with God. It is only when we accuse God that we give God the opportunity to defend Godself.
This is what God does: God defends Godself when God reveals Godself in Jesus, who promises us that all individuals, each and every one, are precious and valuable to God. “Not one little sparrow falls to the ground apart from our Father’s…” Yes, you and I can complete the sentence as we want. The promise of God in the gospel is that God in Jesus loves and cares about each and every individual, and this promise is what truly makes it contradictory and problematic that God doesn’t prevent evil from happening.
The promise of God’s love is not something that can be confirmed with our own experiences in the world of the ambiguous power of God and the reality of evil. If it were, we would not need to have devotions every morning at the Folk Meeting, nor go to church and listen to a new sermon on the love of God each Sunday. In fact, it is not guaranteed that something will happen each time we are exposed to the proclamation of this promise. But when we are caught by God’s promise and trust it as a message aimed at, and relevant to us, the resulting faith will be the work of God (or of the Holy Spirit, if we want to use more precise language).
All this means that I believe now that the three statements can indeed be true: God is omnipotent, God is perfectly good, and evil exists. That God is omnipotent and that evil exists are truths based on experiential thinking anybody can agree to. That God is good, on the other hand, is a truth based on the faith that each person can be seized with. May you and I be seized with this faith today, so that we can have an argument with God about all the bad things that God lets happen in the world and commit ourselves to remedying evils and assisting victims of evils as much as we are able.3
1 Kushner, Harold S., “When Bad Things Happen To Good People” (New York: Schocken Books, 1981), 134.
2 John K. Roth, “A Theodicy of Protest,” in Stephen T. Davis (ed.), Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy. A New Edition (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 14.
3 My main argument has been inspired by Jakob Wolf’s Jobs Tårer: “Om Gud og Det Onde” (Copenhague: Forlaget Anis, 2010).
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