Saturday, September 3, 2011

Threats and Theodicy

A knock on the door isn't usually threatening. Sometimes it can be rather nice. But it is threatening when it's at 2.30 in the morning. It's threatening when you don't know the person at the door. It's threatening when it's obvious you won't answer the door but he still won't go away. It's threatening when you talk to him through the door and find no good reason for him being there - and you don't feel any less threatened when he says that he's okay. And it's threatening when he still won't leave even after you tell him you're going to call the police.

I still didn't feel safe, even after the police came and told him to go. And I remember thinking, somewhere between 2.30 and 6.30 in the morning, Lord, why aren't you protecting me?

It was a silly thought for two reasons. One, I pretty much was safe. He never came inside. He left when the police came. As far as I know, he didn't even try to enter the house. I wasn't physically harmed. The only thing I suffered was a feeling of not being safe.

We seem to have such high expectations in the western world today. We expect to be healthy. We expect to live a long life. We expect to look gorgeous. We expect to be happy and we expect to see good reasons for our happiness. We not only expect to be safe, but we expect to feel safe. Why else would we spend so much money on security systems?

But is it really reasonable to say, being safe isn't enough, I want to feel safe as well?

And, if so, what do we then say to all the people who live with very real threats? I was a lot safer last night than many other people in the world. Is me feeling safe more important than their actual safety? If so, does this really reflect a God of love and justice and compassion on all human beings? If not, why should I expect to feel safe when other people aren't safe?

So then that brings me to the second point. Do we actually have any reason to expect God to protect us?

If we take a good long look at Christian history, we find many examples of people who loved God, but who still suffered or were even killed. How many missionaries have been killed? How many Christian martyrs have there been through the years? And some people might say, well, martyrs and missionaries are different. Although I've never quite figured out why God won't protect people when they're dying for Him, but He will when they're just driving home from a holiday.

And even if we ignore suffering for Christ, Christians have still suffered. The Middle Ages were a time when many people had a very strong Christian faith. Yet this was also a time when the plague took the lives of many. And it wasn't an easy death either. I'm quite sure that there were many Christians praying for God's protection during that time who still died. Or the children they were praying for even more fervently died. And I'm sure there were quite a few towns where the good people died and the evil and wicked people seemed to escape the plague altogether.

We may not have the plague, but things are really no different for us today. Christians suffer and Christians die. I remember reading recently about an old lady who had been killed in the church car-park on her way home from bible study. It's not the first time someone's been killed on their way to or back from church or a church-related event. Can we really expect God to protect us when church car-parks aren't even fatality free?

Questions of theodicy have been around for a very long time. And I'm not even going to attempt to answer the question of why a loving God allows evil to happen to good people. What I am interested in is what it means for how we approach God.

Every night I pray that God keep us free from fear, free from harm and free from evil. And last night, I had fear. But I'm still going to pray that prayer every night. Because, despite everything I've said above, I believe prayer does something.

Maybe it doesn't protect you in all circumstances. Maybe it doesn't always prevent someone knocking on your door in the early hours of the morning. Maybe it doesn't always stop some car driving into you as you're coming home from bible study. Maybe it doesn't prevent your home being flooded. Maybe it doesn't even protect you from turning up to work as normal, to have two airplanes fly into your building.

But maybe sometimes it does. And I do believe that when we pray, God can work with us. There are some things God can't prevent (or he could, but he doesn't because everyone has free will). Then there are things God does prevent. And then there are things he tries to get us to prevent.

He may not be able to stop the drunk getting into his car. Because that drunk has free will. But he can try and get us to avoid going to the shops at that particular moment in time. Maybe he protects us best by whispering something in our ear. Get out of that car. Lock the front door. Don't go into work today. Wait for the next bus instead of running for this one. And often we don't hear that voice. But I believe that when we pray for God's protection, we are more tuned into it. That doesn't mean we're going to hear it all the time. But it is more likely that we will hear it.

But then I also think that some suffering is unavoidable. In a world where everybody has free will, some people (a lot of people) are going to get hurt. And nothing God could say or do (save taking away free will) could stop it happening.

But then we live with that uncertainty all the time. We take vitamin C tablets even though there's no guarantee it will stop us getting the flu. We wear seatbelts in our cars, even though there's no guarantee it will prevent us from being killed in an automobile accident. We lock our houses, even though that's no guarantee that someone won't find another way to break in.

So I believe that praying for God's protection is not, and was never meant to be, a guarantee. But it does invite the Holy Spirit into a situation. It gives God more freedom to work in that situation. And when I'm in a dangerous situation (or even one where I just feel unsafe) I want God and the Holy Spirit working in that situation as much as possible.  

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