The Theodicy Problem
How can God be just when there is so much evil in the world? Why do good people suffer while those who oppress them seem to prosper? Where is God in this unjust, unfair reality? These are the problems labelled as theodicy, literally meaning “justice of God,” and they are older than written language. We look around at the unfairness of life and wonder where God is in the midst of it. We wonder if the ideas of justice and God have anything to do with each other.
Psalm 37 is often labelled as a theodicy, because it is an exploration of the idea of God’s justice. Why do the righteous suffer? Psalm 37 doesn’t offer a definitive answer on WHY. What it does is offer a contrast between the righteous and the wicked in the form of an alphabetic acrostic of proverbs – practical instruction for living. The identified problem is the prosperity of the wicked. The implied faith question is, “Do you believe, put your trust in, prosperity and success of those who are unprincipled – or in the providence of God/Yahweh?”[i] This psalm is trying to educate people on the providence of God – what it is and what it isn’t. But it first points out the real problem.
Our banner summarizes the challenge: “The selfish plot against the compassionate and glare at them with disdain…”
We look at the world and see the wrongs….1 in 7 people are hungry in the world – and 1/3 of all food is wasted. In the US, 10% of the population controls 50% of the income. This has been accelerating since the 1970s as taxes on income and wealth have been lowered disproportionately. The wealthiest people benefitted disproportionately more from economic recovery than the average worker. That’s according to the US census. Politicians say what they think we want to hear and then follow their own inclinations once they are elected – and those who tell us the truth seem unelectable. Wars tear apart nations and take human lives all around the globe. There are, right at this moment, four major wars going on – defined as taking 10,000 or more lives: Afghanistan, Mexican Drug War, Yemen, and Syria. Add to that 5 wars taking between 1,000 and less than 10,000 lives: Kurdish-Turkish Conflict, Somalia, Insurgency in the Maghreb, Iraq and Libya. Then there are 17 “Minor Conflicts” causing deaths of less than 1,000 – including South Sudan, Pakistan, and Israel-Palestine. And 19 considered mere “Skirmishes or Clashes” because less than 100 people have been killed. [ii] And many of those hurt are innocent bystanders.
M*A*S*H* In one episode of M*A*S*H, Hawkeye Pierce responded during surgery to Frank Burns’ comment that “Everybody knows war is hell,” by saying, “War isn’t hell. War is war and hell is hell, and of the two war is a lot worse.” Father Mulcahey asks, “How do you figure that, Hawkeye?” He answers, “Easy, Father. Tell me, who goes to hell?” “Sinner, I believe.” “Exactly. There are no innocent bystanders in hell. But war is chock-full of them. Little kids, cripples, old ladies. In fact, except for a few of the brass, almost everybody involved is an innocent bystander.”[iii]
We’ve got trouble. The world seems to be going steadfastly in the wrong direction, sweeping us along for the ride. And it isn’t surprising if we wonder where God is in the mix. The question of the justice of God in the midst of the mess is a natural one for us.
Modgnik and the Strange Blessings
For Jesus, the reality of God’s rule turned worldly values upside down. Because God rules the world, everything we think we know turns upside down or backwards. Like the Psalms, which challenge or even dismantle what life seems to be like, the Beatitudes point to a different reality: that God sees things very differently than the way we ordinarily do. The Psalms and Beatitudes point to the often-hidden theological realities of life.[iv]
It is because God rules the world that the meek will inherit the earth…. Because God rules the world, “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled. Because God rules the world, there is a peace the world cannot give and life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.[v]
Marcus Borg explains this as well. “In the kingdom of God, the poor will be blessed, the hungry filled, and those who weep will laugh. ..in the kingdom , there will be laughter and joy, not weeping and sorrow.”[vi] “The Beatitudes confirm that the kingdom of God is both religious and political: it is God’s kingdom, and it is a kingdom of the earth that involves a transformation of life for the poor and hungry.”[vii]
Our daughter Carol led a youth group to Guatemala to build brick stoves for women accustomed to cooking over an open fire. The smoke inhalation was very bad for their health, and the stoves they built made a huge difference in health and labor for these women and their families. For a bit over a week she lived out of a backpack and depended on the generosity of the people in Guatemala for food and shelter. She said it was one of the most powerful experiences of her life. When she got home she wanted to simply her life and get rid of a lot of stuff – because the people of Guatemala, poor as they were, were happy and their faith was strong. She said that we clutter our lives with all kinds of things that don’t matter – and those things distract us from our faith.
Thomas G. Long explained – “The Beatitudes turn the world’s values upside-down…the people whom the world would see as pitiful…are the very people Jesus claims are truly joyful.”[viii]
“Oh, the blessedness of….a right relationship with God. That is spelled out in the beatitudes as those who know their need of God (poor in spirit). This is the opposite of self-sufficiency. Now, wait a minute Jesus….
One scholar suggested that the poverty of American religion is an inevitable decline stemming from the high value that we place on self-sufficiency. We believe, in point of fact, that there is very little need for God.[ix]
“Oh the blessedness of”…being discontented and grieving the state of the world…those of march for justice are blessed. Those whose hearts are broken over the state of the world are blessed. These will find comfort in God’s reign. (And by implication – those who are materially comfortable and possess emotional reserves, or who tune out the troubles permanently out of weariness or boredom – they will be discomfited. Now, wait a minute Jesus….God wants the church and us as individuals to be disquieted enough to act as God’s agents of comfort now.[x]
“Oh the blessedness of…” the meek, humble, those not easily provoked. Those like Ghandi who seem to take the difficulties of human interaction in stride. Now, wait a minute Jesus….
“Oh, the blessedness of…” those who are merciful – who are kindness in action – like the Good Samaritan. Mercy is an attribute of God and those who follow God should show it.
“Oh, the blessedness of…” those who are single-minded and their minds are focused on God., THEY can stand in God’s presence. Purity on the outside may help in preventing the Coronavirus. Purity on the inside will prevent spiritual corruption. Now, wait a minute Jesus…. (Missing the point – only the body at risk with Coronavirus…)
“Oh, the blessedness of…” those who actively reconcile and spread good will. The peacemakers – those who show their kinship to God by working to create harmony and shalom (good for all). Now, wait a minute Jesus….
“Oh, the blessedness of…” righteousness. Those who do what is right.Those who live in comformity to God’s will. Longing for this righteousness show up in active obedience to God.[xi]
NOT a “Quid pro quo.” Jesus doesn’t say, “Do this and you will get a reward.” This way of acting, of living, is not about the rewards. BUT he says that a certain way of living here will bring happiness both her and hereafter. In Matthew 25, which some have called the “Parable of Great Surprises,” those who are found worthy of eternal life are amazed – that’s not been their motivation. They acted out of what they believed to be right – and were rewarded for it. (Not like here. Where good seems to be punished.)
Trusting God and doing good engender opposition – and it’s real. But that isn’t the end of the story.
The promises of both Psalm 37 and the Beatitudes have to do with God’s kindom, not life on earth. There is no proof that these wrongs will be made right – except that there is a community here and now being shaped by the character and nature of God and God’s dream. “We prove that God rules the world when we trust in God (v. 3,5), “do good” (v 3,7), commit our way to God (v 5), “give generously” (v. 21), “speak justice” (v.30), open ourselves to God’s instruction (v. 31), and “take refuge in” God (v. 10).”[xii] These actions show us to be a part of the community of the new kindom – God’s new order that is breaking in to this world and giving a foretaste of the next.
“To live eschatologically means not only to live for the future but also to live by the future. Living by faith and hope has a profound impact on the present, in terms of emotion and behavior.”[xiii]
“Trusting God also enables one to live constructively in the present, to continue to “do good” (v. 3.27) even when it appears that evil _____________ quite real.”[xiv]
It isn’t that God-followers have a trouble-free existence or a path without opposition – but rather that God is available for strength when it is needed and offers hope for a different future. Christian faith is “ a way of living based on the firm and sure hope that meekness is the way of God, that righteousness and peace will finally prevail, and that God’s future will be a time of mercy and not cruelty. So, blessed are those who live this life now, even when such a life seems foolish, for they will, in the end, be vindicated by God.”[xv]
Jesus reversed the general value system of the world with these strange blessings: the poor, the hungry, those
[i] Walter Brueggeman, Psalms. 183. [ii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_ongoing_armed_conflicts [iii] Season 5, Episode 20. “The General’s Practitioner.” [iv] Walter Brueggeman, Psalms and the Life of Faith, 43-44. [v] NIBC on Psalms 830. [vi] Marcus Borg, Jesus, 189. [vii] Marcus Borg, Jesus, 190. [viii] Thomas G Long, Matthew: Westminter Bible Companion, 47. [ix] Katherine Paisley, lecture on Religion in America. 2000. [x] Alyce McKenzie, Matthew. 35. [xi] Archibald M Hunter, A Pattern for Life. [xii] NIBC on Psalms, 831. [xiii] NIBC on Psalms, 828. [xiv] NIBC on Psalms, 828. [xv] NIBC Matthew, 181. Photo by Jonas Verstuyft on Unsplash