Theodicy (a conversation with my teenage daughter)

*originally written Jan. 16, 2014

I’m pretty sure I’ve said this before, but parenting is HARD.  Parenting a teenager is often painful.  My 14 year old daughter is sharper than a tack.  She is constantly challenging my husband and me, purposely pushing our buttons – trying to get a “rise” out of us.  She’s great at testing limits.  So I  guess she’s doing exactly what a teenager is supposed to do.

But the other night something unusual happened.  As we were finishing dinner she told my husband point blank that she wanted to talk to ME about God, not him, that she wasn’t looking for his opinion, she wanted mine.  I’m sure it pained my husband deeply not to get involved since he’s the talker of the two of us, and theological conversations are to him like chocolate is to me – can’t resist.  It might sound at first like she was being hurtful or rude to her father, but you need to understand that at this point in her life her father is also her pastor.  That’s tough.  And she is going through confirmation instruction so he is also her Sunday School teacher right now – so she hears him talk about God more than enough.  Her mom, the quiet one?  Not so much.  Because I serve another congregation, she has hardly ever heard me  preach, let alone teach a class at church.

So, I ended up having a Theodicy 101 class with my daughter after dinner.  FYI – definition – Theodicy: (from Greek theos, “god”; dikē, “justice”), explanation of why a perfectly good, almighty, and all-knowing God permits evil. The term literally means “justifying God.”

Her questions flew, fast and furious – so urgent, so important.  Why did God allow the Jews to die in the Holocaust?  If Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, then why doesn’t he raise people now?  Why do babies get sick and die?  Why didn’t God save our friends’ son who committed suicide?  Why are there people suffering and dying in Syria and I’m living in comfort and safety?

She was actually looking for answers, not a fight.  I was SO proud of her for her deep thoughtfulness, her desire to make sense out of what she is seeing in the world around her.  Yet also saddened because this is an example of how her intense thoughtfulness also contributes to her adolescent angst that keeps me up at night. Anyway, here’s the gist of what I told her, purely from my perspective, based on what I’ve learned about God and my experience of God.  And I thought I would share it with you as well.

God is not a puppeteer – we are not puppets that God manipulates.  In creation God gave us freedom – freedom to choose good or evil.  When a 12 year old boy walks into his school gym and shoots people (which happened a few days ago in New Mexico, USA), that boy is using his freedom to do evil.  God didn’t “make” him do it.  When a teacher stood in front of him, with the gun pointed at his face, and talked the boy into giving up, that teacher used his freedom to do good.

God does not cause suffering – ever.  God manifests God’s self in healing, not destroying.  God weeps over injustice.  God was there IN the gas chambers of the concentration camps, just as God is profoundly WHEREVER there is suffering – whether it be on the global scale of the Holocaust, or the small (but individually great) scale of a child growing up in an alcoholic home, a wife abused by her husband, a boy bullied at school, or the man lying in bed dying of cancer.

As Christians (as human beings really), God works through us to bring justice to the world.  We are God’s hands and feet.  It’s our calling as disciples to be advocates and workers to sow love and peace in a world of suffering and violence.  If my daughter sees suffering in Syria, it is her call to do whatever she can to end it.  It may be something as seemingly insignificant as praying, or giving part of her allowance to a relief organization, or writing  letters to our congressman or the president, but that is her part.

But, you know, we cannot understand all of God.  God is so much bigger than the human mind can comprehend.  We can know some things, but we cannot know all things.  I’m not afraid to admit my ignorance, even to my children and my parishioners.   I do not know why babies get sick and die.  I do not know why some people die in a car accident and some live.  I do not know why my other daughter has autism.  I do not know why, despite their best efforts, our friends’ son took his own life.  But I do know that God did NOT cause these things.

You may point to parts of scripture where it seems that God causes bad things to happen.  The FLOOD is probably the best example, and the whole book of Job.  My understanding of scripture is that, while it is certainly inspired by God, it was not written by God.  The writers saw events, and interpreted them through the eyes of their faith, just as we do today.  The idea that Job was tested by God, for me, is how the people around Job interpreted his situation.  Life was making no logical sense for them, so if Job’s life was spiraling out of control, God must be doing it.  I see things differently – shit happens, sometimes life just plain sucks.  Bad things DO happen to good people.  Does God cause it?  I think not.  The God I know in Jesus would rather die himself then cause us to suffer.

This doesn’t mean that good cannot come from “bad” things.  I firmly believe that God, as a source of healing, can help us to find some good lesson or purpose or mission as a result of our going through suffering.  My suffering has made me a much better person, a more compassionate pastor, and an infinitely more patient wife and mother.

Still, mystery is a hard thing to sit with, so many people would rather believe that God gives us cancer, or muscular dystrophy, or autism, or allow us to be raped or abused, or that certain people must somehow “deserve” to be oppressed and victimized.  But I’ll say it again, that is not the God I’ve come to know in Jesus.

By the end of this completely unanticipated conversation, I was emotionally and cognitively spent.  My daughter seemed comforted, which was my whole intention, but I was completely drained.  Parenting an adolescent is much less about physically managing the child and much more about reinforcing values and toughing it out through the periodic, unplanned and intense conversations.

HARD stuff.  Takes me out of my comfort zone of silence.  Makes my brain hurt.  But in the end, these are the conversations that will bind us, not only as mother and daughter, but as sisters in Christ.  And they are worth the effort.

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