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The Power of Hope...
Chagall - White Crucifixion

The Power of Hope

An Alternative to Theological Despair...

by John J. Parsons

Preface: The following was written in the aftermath of a difficult discussion I had with someone who is angry at God over personal suffering... Though it raises some difficult questions, I share it in the hope that it might help others who might be in despair over suffering, evil. etc.

Is it ever appropriate to be angry at God? Recently I talked with a woman who had experienced various kinds of hardship in her life. Her father died when she was young and she was raised by an alcoholic and distant mother. She later married (and eventually divorced) a man who was abusive and emotionally unavailable to her. Her children suffered terribly from debilitating mental illness and insecurities.  In light of all this, she defended her "right" to be angry at God and to question His goodness (to her). It was "safer" for her to consciously keep her distance from God, perhaps because she was afraid of being hurt once again.... Sadly, her ongoing sense victimization was more important to her than any promise of a future and hope (Jer. 29:11)... Today she remains "stuck" within the pain of her past and is offended by the idea that God personally loves her. Perhaps you know someone who has a similar struggle?

Jewish post-Holocaust theology (i.e., "theology after Auschwitz") has wrestled with these sorts of harrowing and disturbing questions, though on a far larger and more traumatic scale. How could an all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful God allow (or permit) the horrors of the Shoah? For many Jews, the Holocaust marked the practical end of their faith, while for others it marked the start of a "theology of protest." In either case, however, the horrific reality of the Holocaust requires an authentic response from all of us. Providing an intellectual theory about the "problem of evil" seems empty and even irreverent in the face of such unspeakable acts of cruelty. Beware of any theology that denies the reality and heartache of human suffering.  Yeshua offered up "loud cries and tears" during the days of his flesh, and he wept over the pain others experienced (Heb. 5:7, John 11:35).

Chagall - Pogrom

Notice that this problem is not one regarding God's existence or His perfect attributes, since it is assumed that God exists and is supremely good, powerful, and wise.  Indeed, the problem of evil is essentially a problem of faith. It results from the collision between the real world and the ideal world, or between the present world and the promised world to come... Those who utterly abandon their faith no longer struggle with the "problem of evil" (or the "problem of goodness," for that matter), since presumably the "is/ought" dichotomy of life is resolved in despair. Genuine faith, on the other hand, results in a form of "protest" over this world and a resounding call for lasting hope to be realized.... Choosing to live in light of this hope is to live the "good fight of faith" (ἀγῶνα τῆς πίστεως).

In Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov (1880), Ivan Karamazov argued with his devout brother Alyosha regarding the nature of faith. Ivan intellectually accepted God's existence, His wisdom, and His heavenly goal to ultimately save an alienated world, but he nonetheless challenged the idea that any future good -- even if it should be "beyond all the heart's imaginings" (1 Cor. 2:9) -- could ever "atone for" the present evil and manifold suffering found in this world. To make his point, Ivan needed to find just one case of entirely "gratuitous evil" - an irrefutable counterexample to the viewpoint that this is the "best of all possible worlds." He therefore listed a number of cases of extreme and excessive cruelty in the world, but he finally focused on a heart-wrenching account of a five year old girl who was chained to an outhouse and left to die in the Russian winter. No matter what might be offered in the way of "defense" of God, no "future good" could possibly justify the suffering of this child.  Despite the sanctimonious theory that God will one day "wipe away every tear," Ivan stated that he could never accept the nature of this-worldly reality: "I refuse to accept this world of God's... Please understand, it is not God that I do not accept, but the world he has created. I do not accept God's world and I refuse to accept it." Commenting on this statement, Albert Camus writes, "If evil is essential to creation, then creation is unacceptable. Ivan will no longer have recourse to this mysterious God, but to a higher principle - namely, justice. He launches the essential undertaking of rebellion, which is that of replacing the reign of grace by the reign of justice" (The Rebel, 1951).

Since Ivan's lack of acceptance is so profound, let us ask a provocative question: What is it that may transform a theology of rebellion into a protest of hope? Ivan was unwilling to accept the world's evil as "the price of admission" into the world to come, and therefore he consciously chose to rebel against the very existence of the universe itself (symbolized as the world under God's control).  His appeal to a sense of "justice" functioned as a rejection of God's sovereign plans.  But why didn't Ivan instead choose to regard the world "under protest" and to appeal to God to intervene in its affairs? Why did Ivan give up the idea of hope and sink under the weight of an insoluble despair? 

    And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, 'Give me justice against my adversary.' For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, 'Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.'"

    And the Lord said, "Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" (Luke 18:1-8)

In this parable, Yeshua likens God to an "unrighteous judge" who neither feared God nor man. However, it was on account of the persistence of the widow's protest that he finally relented in his indifference and acted on her behalf. 

עַד־אָנָה יְהוָה תִּשְׁכָּחֵנִי נֶצַח
עַד־אָנָה תַּסְתִּיר אֶת־פָּנֶיךָ מִמֶּנִּיָ

ad  a·nah  Adonai  tish·ka·chei·ni  ne·tzach?
ad  a·nah  tas·tir  et-pa·ney·kha  mi·me·ni?

"How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?" (Psalm 13:1)

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Why were so many of the great tzaddikim of faith chosen to suffer? God troubled them in order to cause them to seek His face.  Rabbi Bahya said that the prayer is the goal all along, and suffering or hardship was a divinely appointed means to that end. 

By itself, doubt is not an evil thing. Faith is not defined by certainty, after all, but by courageous trust (אֱמוּנָה). In the Scriptures we see Pharaoh - the consummate unbeliever - persisting in his unbelief despite the miraculous "signs and wonders" the LORD had manifested before his very eyes. Some of the commentators have said that the phrase "God hardened Pharaoh's heart" means that God (eventually) took away his freedom to choose (i.e., by ratifying his rebellious attitude so he had no further choice). Others, however, have said that the phrase can be understood to mean that "God strengthened Pharaoh's heart" so that he was enabled to doubt, since without the freedom to question we are unable to make a genuine decision...

I once heard the following statement: "The optimist believes that this is the best of all possible worlds; the pessimist believes the optimist is right..."  The facts remain the same for both, but what is different is something within the heart, something that moves the will to no longer recoil from the world but rather to accept it.... Faith is a type of courage, a willingness to take risks, even in the midst of ambiguity. It surrenders to God's plan and will, even if that plan makes no rational sense at the moment. Of course it is intellectually "safer" to abstain from such trust and to yield to a "hermeneutic of suspicion." It is woefully easy to play the skeptic, to toy with ultimate questions, to affect intellectual superiority -- but at what cost?  Is the supposed "defense" against being mistaken more important the risk of commitment?  But such an approach to life is a essentially a form of cowardice. Without risk, we would never marry, have children, or take hold of our dreams. Some people might dismiss the dream of God's love as nonsense and futility, but the Scriptures make it clear that such hope represents the very substance (ὑπόστασις) of our faith (Heb 11:1).

Ayin Tovah

There is a "false zeal" that leads people to estrangement and confusion. Withholding acceptance of the universe (or worse - withholding acceptance of others) is ultimately grounded in an abstract sense of "justice." However, justice itself cannot stand alone, since God Himself is the Source and Standard of all true justice. Those who invoke the ideal of justice therefore implicitly call upon the God of Justice and Truth as their ally. Among other things this implies that blaming "God" or accusing Him of being unjust is a "category" mistake. God cannot be unjust - by definition - and therefore an accusation that God is unjust is really an accusation against an idol of the mind.  There is no "higher court of appeal" in the case of the LORD, and ultimately, how we choose to see is our own responsibility. We cannot "suspend" judgment indefinitely. As Yeshua taught us: "Forgive we forgive...", which means that our forgiveness of others (including God) is the measure of our own state of forgiveness, "for with the measure you use it will be measured back to you" (Luke 6:38). This is the principle of middah keneged middah ("like for like") - the very essence of justice itself.  "According to your faith, be it done unto you." Passion is often the determiner of reason, and the carnal mind will invariably find itself at odds with the nature of the spiritual truth and reality.

In C.S. Lewis' book The Silver Chair, the "White Witch" cast an evil spell on Prince Rilian, Eustace, Jill, and Puddleglum who had bravely faced the risks involved in rescuing the deposed prince.  "There is no Narnia; there is no Aslan," she kept chanting as she sprinkled the seducing incense, attempting to cause them to doubt the message of hope within their own heart. It took the burning of Puddleglum's flesh to awaken their hope once again. It is a mystery, but the LORD uses suffering in our lives to rouse us from our deathly slumbers.

Necessarily every human being is a theologian of sorts, since thinking about what is ultimately real is inescapable, especially when we are confronted with questions regarding life and death.... The issue often isn't whether a person will believe in God, but rather how he or she will approach the question of God's Presence in light of suffering. Part of the difference between a "theology of rebellion" and a "theology of hope" is that rebellion is a mode of the intellectual (i.e., a deification of logic, a demand for temporal and this-worldly justice, and so on), whereas hope is a mode of personal trust (i.e., a "letting go" of the demand for answers in order to surrender to love). When you encounter God as the lover of your soul, you begin to apprehend the truth that "love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude; it does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth" (1 Cor. 13:4-6). Being in a genuine love-relationship with God gives you the courage to face the ambiguity of a world filled with suffering with hope and compassion.

חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת אַל־יַעַזְבֻךָ קָשְׁרֵם
עַל־גַּרְגְּרוֹתֶיךָ כָּתְבֵם עַל־לוּחַ לִבֶּךָ

che·sed  ve·e·met  al  ya·az·vu·kha,  kosh·rem
al  gar·ge·ro·tey·kha,  kot·vem  al  lu·ach  lib·be·kha

"Let not love and truth forsake you; bind them around your neck;
write them on the tablet of your heart" (Prov. 3:3)

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The Scriptures declare that "we are saved by hope" (ελπιδι εσωθημεν). God's Holy Spirit imparts hope to our hearts so that we can walk in the victory of faith (Rom. 8:24-28). The LORD gives birth to our hope and is the goal of our hope's deepest longings... Yeshua's personal love for you is the answer to all your heart's questions. And now, "May the God of hope (אלהֵי הַתִּקְוָה) fill you completely with joy and shalom (שִׂמְחָה וְשָׁלוֹם) in your trusting, so that by the power of the Ruach HaKodesh (בְּעז רוּחַ הַקּדֶשׁ) you may overflow with hope" (Rom. 15:13). Amen.

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