God’s Ways…are NOT Our Ways

A few days ago I was reading the story of John the Baptist, holed up in prison for having irritated Herod because “The Baptist” disapproved of  Antipas’ marriage to his own brother’s former wife, and Herod feared an uprising, according to the historian Josephus. John the Baptist had apparently said, out loud, that he disapproved of Herod’s marriage “to your brother’s former wife.” That woman, then, named Herodias, hated “The Baptist,” and when her daughter Salome danced for her and Herod, Herod was so inspired that he said to Salome, “whatever you want, ask, and I will get it for you.” Herodias saw her chance, conspired with Salome, and with her mother’s prodding, asked for the head of John the Baptist’ head, delivered to her mother on a platter.

As I read that story, and talked about it with a few students, I asked them what they thought about what this story tells us about “God‘s ways.” Here sat John in prison, for doing what his loyalty to God and belief in God’s command to him to “speak truth to power,” and he apparently was not feeling the presence of God. His situation so bothered him that he sent some of his friends to Jesus, who was nearby, to ask Jesus, “Are you the Messiah, or should we look for someone else?” That meant, to me at least, that John was feeling the absence of God when he needed to feel the presence of God most. His unasked question seemed to be, “would God really let this happen to me? Would God not send his son Jesus, who has done so much good for people he hasn’t even known, to rescue me or save me, at least, from death?”

Jesus answered, telling John’s “people” to remind “The Baptist” of how he healed the sick, made the blind see, helped the deaf to hear …basically giving a review of all he had done and was doing, which was not news to John. He knew that. His immediate unasked but internalized question, though, went unanswered. “Aren’t you going to save me?”

The answer was no. “The Baptist” was beheaded later that month, according to historian Josephus. God’s ways are NOT our ways.

There is value in studying God’s ways, even when or especially when, we do not understand something that is going on in our own lives. I would imagine that some of the parents of the children who were shot and killed in Newtown in December 2012 asked God something like, “Would God really have allowed this to happen?” I would imagine that the tragedy that left former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords to be shot and severely injured left someone asking, “Would God have allowed this to happen?” So many times, in so many situations, personal and public, things happen that make people who believe in God scratch their divine-leaning hearts and ask, “Where was God? Why didn’t God stop this?”

Richard Rohr wrote that we cannot think our way into doing something different; we must do some things to get ourselves into another way of thinking. I am still pondering that thought. How would doing that make us more ably handle the things that happen to us that we do not understand, and that either are unfair or certainly feel unfair? And if we were able to do that, when we would find ourselves in a prison of pain or confusion or grief so deep that we cannot reach the bottom, would there be a peace about us, making us know that our ways truly are not God’s ways?

The truth is, sometimes, perhaps many times, God DOES allow bad things to happen to us or in our lives. God allowed Joseph to be terrorized by his brothers, left for dead. God allowed Job to lose everything except his own miserable life. God allowed the children to die in Newtown, God has allowed racism and sexism and homophobia to exist, alongside white supremacy. God allowed the storm in Joplin, Missouri, that killed so many and caused so much destruction; God allowed Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, storms which absolute wreaked havoc on innocent people, many of them too poor to be able to even jump in a car and get out of harm’s way.  God allowed the Holocaust and the Inquisition and Crusades. God allows rampant gun violence in urban areas, responsible for the deaths of way too many children and young adults, but we don’t dare talk about ways to get handguns off the streets and out of the markets! God is allowing scores of children in our United States to suffer from hunger, even though it is said this country grows enough food so that nobody has to go hungry. God has allowed and does allow bad things to happen to really good people, and as we can see from the John the Baptist story, this tendency of God is not a new thing.

In a strange way, knowing that can give comfort. At least we know that this is really the same God that has always existed. Jesus’ answer to John, and God’s answer to Job, were not particularly comforting, in that neither God nor Jesus gave the hard, quick, direct answers that those men and we who have read their stories wanted. No, both deities recited all the divine work they were doing and had done…and apparently, freeing and saving John or giving Job an answer for his dilemma, was not in the Divine Planner.

And yet, these two men believed, as have countless people who have been in a fire of some sort and either come out burned or not come out at all. God blessed Job once his wager with The Adversary was done; John didn’t fare so well. But it is apparent that John, once he received Jesus’ answer about what he was going and had done, calmed down and rested in his faith.

So, since we will never understand God’s ways, we have an assignment to learn all we can about how to live in faith, regardless of what is going on in our lives. We still fight for what is right and just, because injustice is and always has been, a major problem in this world…but we fight for it because it IS the right thing to do, not because we think we are going to get a nice, succinct answer from God on why things are as they are, why they are so slow to change, or why God allows suffering to exist. We do it because by doing it it shows we are “righteous,” that is, in right relationship with God, and that has its own rewards.

A candid observation …


A Good God in Bad Times?

In light of the tragic massacre of 26 people at the Sandy Hook

Night (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Elementary School in Connecticut , some people are going to gravitate toward God, seeking shelter from their pain…but some are going to turn away, maybe not forever, but for a while.

We have a need to have God “behave,” and protect us from bad things, especially when we think we are good people. The question of theodicy – i.e., is God all good and all-powerful? If God is all-powerful, and this happened, then is God NOT all good? Or…if God is all good and this happened…then is God NOT all-powerful?

When tragic and senseless things like this happen, people become confused about God. In general, they are not open to hearing about the need to forgive, or to show mercy…No, their pain, our pain as vulnerable human beings kicks in, and we get angry at God and wonder where God was when the disruption of our peace and stability occurred.

Elie Wiesel wrote, in Night, that as he was suffering in a concentration camp, he felt this anger. In one part of the book he wrote that summer was coming to an end and the Jewish year was almost over…people were suffering and for what? Because a maniac was in control and had no sense of shame or morals or compassion. Where was God? Why was God allowing this to happen? Wiesel wrote, “What are You, my God? How do you compare to this stricken mass gathered to affirm to You their faith, their anger, their defiance? What does Your grandeur mean. Master of the Universe, in the face of all this cowardice, this decay, and this misery? Why do you go on troubling these poor people‘s wounded minds, their ailing bodies?” (p. 66)

He and the other inmates were uttering prayers. “Blessed be God’s name?” Wiesel remembers asking. “Why, but why would I bless Him? Every fiber in me rebelled. Because he caused thousands of children to burn in His mass graves? ” He goes on, asking why anyone would bless this God. His pain, his agony, is palpable.

It is in times like these that we often cannot find God, but it isn’t because God is not with  us. We don’t really look for God, and if we found God, we are not sure of what we would say.  Like Wiesel, we would wonder why we should bless this deity who is either not all-powerful or all good. Tragedies like this shake us to our foundations, and it takes us a few minutes to get back to our center.

These parents of the slain children are in mortal agony…there are no words to describe their pain. The spouses of the slain women are likewise in torment. How does one deal with the fact that he or she sent a child to school, only to have that child dead hours later? How does one reconcile the goodness of God with the fact that such a horrible thing happened to totally innocent people?

What I have learned is that we have to let ourselves go through the process of finding God in dark places. There is no quick and easy fix. We cannot take a pill and feel spiritually and/or emotionally OK. God comes to us…or we receive God…in fits and starts. God allows us to turn away over and over as we writhe in pain…and God receives us when we turn back to Him/Her. Emotional and spiritual pain, both of which is part of the emotion called grief, is like a spiritual virus that must run its course. It cannot be rushed. God allows us to rebel, to scream, to shake our heads in disbelief…and God waits for the pain to run its course, after which God hopes we will have a new awareness and appreciation for the kind of omnipresence that is God and that is with us, even when we cannot feel it.

That is a fact, but does not erase our rage or confusion or both about “what” God is, as Wiesel asks, when horrible things happen.  God knows that we have a choice: to sit in our pain and be emulsified by it, or to get up, inch by painful inch, to serve God in spite of the loss and pain we have endured. God does not erase the pain we suffer; Jacob wrestled with God in his pain and wound up with a limp. If we are lucky, we will wrestle with God during our most acute pain, and walk away…albeit with a limp. The limp is the sign that we decided to hold onto God even when we were disgusted or angry or confused or all of the above, because we realized that in spite of our pain, in the end, God was the best answer to recovery and relief from that pain.

I wish that troubled man had not shot and killed all those children; I wish he had not shot the principal and school psychologist and teacher at that school. I wish he had been able to go to God for his tormented soul, or to a doctor if he needed psychiatric help…and yes, I wish God had lent a divine hand and stopped every one of those bullets. But that’ didn’t happen, and the result of that young man’s actions is a slew of people in deep pain. I hope they turn to God, even if that turning is, at this point, sporadic…because in the end, God is the best answer to the questions and the pain that they have.

A candid observation …