12 March 2010

"Why do we suffer, God?" The ever-popular question with horrible popular answers, today at NPR

Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of "Why Bad Things Happen to Good People" was interviewed today on National Public Radio. His interview confirms the fact that the problem of suffering is still a very present issue in people's souls and that solid, biblical, hope-giving, God-exalting answers are hard to come by.

Consider his thesis statement in the interview:
"What I realized is, where did we ever get the notion that worshipping power was the greatest compliment we could pay to God? If I, walking through the wars of a hospital, have to face the fact that either God is all powerful but not kind or thoroughly kind and loving but not totally powerful - I would rather compromise God's power and affirm his love.

So the conclusion, the theological conclusion I came to, is that God could have been all-powerful at the beginning, but he chose to designate two areas of life off-limits to his power. He would not arbitrarily interfere with the laws of nature and, secondly, God would not take away our freedom to choose good and evil." - Rabbi Harold Kushner
Let's consider the Rabbi's claims in light of the Old Testament. They are not that simple, not that Biblical and not that hope-giving.

"I would rather compromise God's power and affirm his love."
It is important to note that Rabbi Kushner begins with his intellect being superior to God's (if we are assuming the Bible to be God's revelation). He is subjecting the revelation of God in the Old Testament to his preferences ("I would rather...", "...the theological conclusion I came to..."). If God exists, He is not subject to Rabbi's Kushner's preferences. If (as if we had any say in the matter) we compromise God's power, doesn't that destroy our hope for deliverance? Why pray? Isn't God's choice to no longer "interfere with the laws of nature" arbitrary and cold?

The Old Testament does not compromise either God's power or His love.
God is gracious and compassionate:
The LORD passed before [Moses] and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands,forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34.6–7)
And, in the words of Nebuchadnezzar, His dominion is everlasting:
At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever, for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?” At the same time my reason returned to me, (Daniel 4.34–36 ESV)
Note that reason returned to Nebuchadnezzar when he subjected himself to God - not the other way around.

"He would not arbitrarily interfere with the laws of nature."
This is a facinating statement from Rabbi Kushner. Every year, I would assume, he faithfully celebrates God's deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt via a series of God's interferences with the laws of nature - the greatest being the parting of the Red Sea (Ex. 14:21). The Passover is a celebration of God's miraculous keeping of covenant promises. This celebration of the past was meant to solidify a hope for the future. That is why God continually addresses Himself to Israel as the one who delivered them from Egypt (1 Sam 10:18). God was able to deliver then and, one day, He will finally deliver His people from every enemy including evil, sin and suffering (Isaiah 60 and 61).

Again, to satisfy his limited intellect, Rabbi Kushner rejects God's infinite delivering power. It's not helpful and eventually everyone who adheres to this theology will find its limits in despair.

"God would not take away our freedom to choose good and evil."
Here the Bible agrees. But the Bible does not agree with the Rabbi's subtle implication, namely that God is therefore not sovereign over the choices of man. Consider Joseph's statement of God's sovereignty over his brothers intentions to sell harm him by selling him into slavery:
But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. (Genesis 50.19–20, emphasis mine)
Our brains prefer "either/or" statements. They are nice and clean. The Bible is not limited by that preference. "Both/and" ideas exist all over the Old and New Testaments (Acts 4:27-28). Man, therefore, is responsible for evil and God remains sovereign over it - working it together for the good of those who love Him as recounted in the most hope giving (and God's-sovereignty-celebrating) passage in the New Testament proclaims:
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
(Romans 8.28–39)
Rabbi Kushner's fundamental error is that he begins with himself. His intellect is the standard by which we judge God's revelation and actions. Answers that provide hope, fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore are found when you begin where the Bible begins - "In the beginning, God..." God is all-powerful, He is intentional (Ps. 115:3) and He seeks His own glory first for our own good (Ps 16:11).

To examine this more in the life of Jesus, listen to last week's message.

Additional Resources
A much more Biblical and hope-giving NPR Interview


  1. Nice job applying the Biblical lens here, bro! RF

  2. Did anyone notice my misspelling of "horrible" in the title? Ugh. Help a brother out ;)