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A Letter About 9/11 - Good, Evil, God, and the Decisions We Make
This is a continuation of a letter written in response to an email from my friend, Elizabeth, asking how God could allow such evil. This letter was written September 19, 2001, and different parts will be posted leading up to the 10-year Anniversary of 9/11.
III. Personal versions of the problem
The inductive formulations concern issues of gratuitous evil and the probability that an all knowing, all powerful, all loving God does not exist in light of evil. If the deductive formulation was a direct attack on the rationality of God’s existence and argued for the certainty of God’s non-existence, the inductive formulation merely says that given all the evil and suffering, it seems unlikely that such a Being exists.
This is much harder, this is the question that everyday people (and philosophers and theologians) have, and I believe it is really your question. At this point I’m going to slide out of the jargon of academic philosophy and address your question in a more normal manner.
The best attempts to address this problem I will save for the end. If you consider your own life and the decisions you make, both big and small, I have a hunch you deeply value your ability to make decisions. In fact, upon reflection you might even say it is at least part of what makes you human, and certainly what makes you Elizabeth. Your freedom to make determinations for yourself is no small thing.
Perhaps you can imagine living life with a dictatorial husband who keeps you physically locked in the house, who beats you, whose caprice is your command. The words you speak would not really be your words or your choice of words. Your actions would be controlled. From what I’ve heard and read, this is the tragic lot of many abused wives.
We rebel against this despotism. The very idea of this produces feelings of claustrophobia and anger over injustice. Being free is essential to life.
But being free to make one’s own decisions means the possibility of making foolish ones and even malevolent ones. A foolish decision might be to drive home in a middling state of inebriation…not really drunk but somewhat impaired. A difficult driving scenario unfolds and the driver’s choice to drive even slightly impaired leads to an accident. Let’s say that you are the driver of the other car involved in the accident and you wonder, “How could God allow this to happen?” and his answer is, “I let the other driver exercise his precious, essential-to-life freedom to choose.”
In a matter of a few years, you will experience the joys of seeing Susannah make good and wise choices. You might be pleased if you controlled her utterly and she made no poor choices, but your joy will be much greater when she freely makes good choices. But, the downside of this is that you’ll be saddened by poor choices she makes. If you get wind of her bullying kids at school or in the neighborhood, you’ll be disappointed that she made such choices. But you wouldn’t give up the exhilarating joy in her wise decisions in order to keep her from making poor ones.
But being free to make one’s own decisions means the possibility of making foolish ones and even malevolent ones.
For me, this is a satisfying answer when I contemplate your motherly role with Susannah. Where this scalds and seems drastically insufficient is in cases like the Holocaust, the rape of my friend that we’ve talked about previously, or the WTC attack. I can see how you wouldn’t take away Susannah’s choices, even when poor, because you could also see ways she could grow from poor choices. And while undoubtedly there is some “soul-making” going on in the lives of the 9/11 victims’ families, it is easy to wonder whether the good of “maturity” experienced by the victims' families equals the pain and loss. Could God not have intervened and diverted the planes? Could he not have arranged for the terrorists to be caught in advance of the flights? Wouldn’t these be some free decisions he could understandably obviate?
Could He? Yes. This is not a question of God’s power (although this is the disappointing answer Rabbi Kushner gives in Why Bad Things Happen to Good People—he says God is impotent—unable to do what he wishes to do). God could divert a plane, insure that a terrorist get caught, keep a father from running out on his children, and make a stock go up so that an investor doesn’t lose her shirt.
But he chooses not to in order to protect that same very important aspect of our lives: choice. He chooses to let us choose.
You might ask if all this talk of choice and freedom undermines the Christian belief in the providence of God.
More to come next Sunday...