Wired to Suffer: On Theodicy and Personality

I was thinking yesterday about the personality types that struggle the most with theodicy questions, why a powerful and loving God allows such suffering in the world.

My thoughts ran along these lines. Generally speaking, people tend to cluster in one of two groups. On the one side are your rational types. On the other are your emotional types. It's head versus heart. We are speaking of these types when we talk about left-brained and right-brained people. We also see it in the "either/or" nature in the Myers-Briggs personality types where "thinking" is placed in tension with "feeling" in how we make decisions. You're a T or an F.

But what if you're both?

For the most part, the two don't go together. Highly rational, logical and analytical types aren't generally known for their empathy or interpersonal skills. (I'm smiling here as I think of Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory.)

On the other side, socially intuitive, sensitive, and emotional people don't tend to specialize in logic, physics, or computer science.

Of course I'm painting with very, very broad strokes with all this. But here's the point I want to make. Theodicy has two sides. There's an analytical side and an empathic side.

The empathic side is easy to see. When we see others suffer our hearts go out to them. We suffer with them. Thus, if you have a soft, compassionate heart you'll likely struggle more with theodicy issues. Many of us can put images of suffering out of our minds. Others can't. And that creates a heavy theological burden.

But theodicy has an analytical side as well. There are a lot of people who struggle with God simply because they are tenacious in following the theological thread to the logical and bitter end. A lot of us think our way into faith problems. It's not that we think too much, just that we insist that people face up to the logical assumptions and consequences of their beliefs.

Generally speaking, because for the most part people specialize in one of these two areas, you can find solace in the area you aren't so good at. Emotional types, who don't really want to reason through theological puzzles, often settle for mystery. They don't mind "not knowing." Here their disinterest in analysis gives them a place to run when the emotional burden gets too heavy. When the emotional weight starts to crush they can fall back on "God is in control."

Conversely, analytical types can find shelter on the emotional side. That is, in demanding logical consistency these people might reach a conclusion that demands a certain level of hardheartedness. A lot of Calvinists fit this description in how they handle the problem of evil. As a system Calvinism has a sort of cold, implacable logic to it. But tender-hearted people simply recoil in the face of it. We get the logic of the system but are too softhearted to stomach the conclusions. That's what I'm trying to point out. You can work the logic but you have to hedge on the empathy. And by reducing empathy you can wiggle out of the theodicy trap your theology is creating.

So we see people doing one of two things to run from theodicy problems. Hedge on the empathy or hedge on the logical consistency.

But what if you're the sort of person who can't hedge on either? What if you're one of those rare individuals who are both very analytical and very empathic?

It seems to me, if you are one of these sorts of people, that you're basically screwed. All around you people are suffering. And you feel this acutely. More, as you reason it all out God comes out looking more and more like a monster or less and less like the God of orthodox Christianity. You're getting hit from both sides. You are unable to run from either the empathy or the logic. More, the two fuel each other in a feedback loop. Our analytical minds penetrate the bubble of worship and Sunday School platitudes. And our hearts won't hide the horror of life.

It's a theological nightmare.

You can't turn your mind off. Or your heart.

Theologically speaking, I think some of us are just wired to suffer.

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66 thoughts on “Wired to Suffer: On Theodicy and Personality”

  1. Frederick Buechner seemed to have that problem, as well (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/slacktivist/2012/01/26/frederick-buechner/). And me, when I can't force myself to hide at either polarity.

  2. That sounds very much like how I feel. Although I'm still holding out hope that there may be somewhere I can run to "hide", as you put it. So far the only thing I have found that helps - a tiny tiny little bit - is Adrian Plass's take on suffering. "Nothing is wasted". God didn't make it happen, and for some reason he isn't stopping it or making it better, but he will at least make sure that given all that, it will not be wasted.
    And some days that doesn't help either.

  3. I (read very high "T") usually follow Henri Blocher's argument which, after much wrangling, says that the ORIGIN of evil is indeterminate. The only solution is in the termination of evil (Christus Victor). I outline some of that starting here: http://perichoreticlife.blogspot.com/2011/11/evil-talk.html

    That said, no intellectual argument removes the pain of the event at hand. To use a technical term: It just sucks!

  4. Hey Richard - can you edit Josh's link above - just needs to lose the closed parenthesis at the end of the url. And then delete this post.


  5. "Some of us are just basically screwed."  I know that feeling...  I think that in opening myself to *both* head and heart life, and in moving outward from the interior realm of my own spiritual world, it is at that exact location where joy in suffering is discovered.  I was also thinking of something else from yesterday's two posts about Liam.  When we enter into the suffering of others, it requires us to make room in our hearts for them, just as we make room in our hearts for Christ to dwell.  Our hearts are transformed, and also expanded in the process.  I also think that in identifying with others who are suffering, it enables us to confront our own brokenness and need.  I do take comfort in the belief-hope of "Resurrection Life" in a broad sense.  God actively recreates and redeems even, if not especially, through the messes of life.  Words truly are inadequate at a certain point.  Loving presence and solidarity in suffering "speaks" much healing to hurting hearts.  ~Peace~

  6. Ha, well, thanks for those words of encouragement on a Tuesday morning! 

    As a mixture of the two extremes, I get into these problems by feeling like something is wrong, then thinking them through to their logical conclusion, which also leaves me nowhere to go. As I work through theodicy on my own blog, yours has been a big help, so thanks for that! I think the only way any of this makes sense, as you've pointed out several times, is through a universal – or at least incredibly broad – ultimate reconciliation to God. Which lets me sleep at night, at least, but doesn't really make me any less angry, hurt or confused when situations like Liam's occur.

  7. Yes. Good point that being more of a T doesn't make you less of an F--and that the two together put us at the heart of the theodicy nightmare.

    There are also other factors. I'm thinking about theodicy and individualism. This can put the screws on us--many extremely smart, extremely empathetic people do not (I would guess) worry about theodicy so much because they trust a community wiser and more compassionate even than themselves. Those of us who feel that WE must come up with the answers are doubly screwed.

  8. My son came home from school yesterday and told me about a boy he knew who had brittle bone disease who just died from an allergic reaction to an antibiotic. I remember him from junior high band concerts (he played percussion), in a wheel chair and physically small, but always smiling, always friendly. He was in 10th grade. No matter what the spin, no theology will answer for it all and make that okay. And God, as always, silent, while his children argue for and against Him and dispute the meaning of things. Count me in among the screwed. At least it seems I'm in good company.

  9. Somehow, I decided to live with being screwed rather than seek relief  by fleeing this ambiguity and settling for a one sided refuge. This somehow is born of something from me; it's also born of grace, albeit a kind of grace that's thwarted more than embraced as most seek relief from ambiguity rather than live within its tensions--which at times are horrific. 

    I left the grace or work argument long ago.

    I also left worship. I love God with all my being. But, by my embrace of this "somehow" I have earned an adult level of relationship (as so many have) with God; so if God is willing to be a colleague/lover with us who seek this grace, I am willing to be a colleague/lover in response, embracing a faith/hope/love/grief/work while working together in creating human life. 

  10. A faith community can help heal and answer questions, or, it can actually do more harm and create more confusion.  It depends a lot on the theological "blik" I guess, of the community.  When Richard said in his follow-up advice/comment to 'The Bible Made Impossible is Impossible' that it is good to realize that people will say the damnedest things, but at heart, they mean to do good, it was helpful to me.  The problem is, when people are raw with grief, those "damnedest things" can really strike deep.  Those who have "ministered" to me the most are the people who can simply *be* with me, quietly, unconditionally, and not need to provide answers at all.  I remember my dept. supervisor rushing to the ER to be present for me, and bursting into tears and embracing me for a long time.  He had no answers; only willingness to fully share in my grief.  He was a very devout Worldwide Church of God member, but he didn't try to impose his beliefs on me at the time.  Only allowed the outcome of his faith to flow outward in Christian love to me, in a very dark time.  I'll never forget that kindness.

  11. I'm there right now, for sure. I have a hurting heart for so many people in so many places, but at the same time, I'm attending a Bible college, where my intellect questions everything I'm taught. It's a fine line to walk, and a lot of people don't understand it, but I think it also allows me to more fully understand (analytic) and experience (empathic) God, his love, his goodness, his mystery, and his presence.

  12. Richard,

    As hollow as I know this may sound to you right now, I feel your pain more than you will ever know.  "We were born to suffer.  It's our lot in life".

    When it comes to anything that comes from a book, I am Dr. Sheldon Cooper.  When it comes to my relationships with other human beings, I am Dr. Leonard Hofstetter. (Sorry to those unfamiliar with "The Big Bang Theory").  I also note that others here also claim to be combinations of the two.  (My guess is everyone is.)

    Therefore -- my dilemma with Christianity all of my life.  It requires me to read and understand a book which is irrational and illogical.  But then, it says God is more than a concept -- he was also a human being with whom we can all "have a relationship".  Since I am fundamentally wired to use my left brain for concepts and abstracts, I cannot "know" an idea.  I need my right brain for that, and you need to inhabit this dimension.

    My pain has always been real and almost constant, and has only been assuaged by my interactions with other empathetic human beings.  No book or religion or concept can do that.  And I am truly sorry for your loss.

  13. "But what if you're one of those rare individuals who are both very analytical and very empathetic?"

    Oh man, I have thought a lot about this for a couple of years now. In fact, it was the reason I took the Myers-Briggs test. I couldn't help feeling conflicted, like their was something wrong with me. I didn't know anyone who struggled with this analytical/empathetic issue. When my results came back, it said that I was an INFJ(with some analytical tendencies), the rarest personality type, or so I'm told. This helped a little because it showed that I am, well...different. But, still knowing that you're "rare" doesn't do anything to help me with the issue of theodicy.

    I like "screwed" better than " rare"; it better describes how I feel.

    Thanks for this Richard.

  14. When I finally lost my "christian" certitudes and innocent thinking patterns, I have never been able to shake the 'tragic sense of life' feeling that haunts my thoughts -- more often, it seems, in the midst of joy and blessing. And I don't suspect that I ever will.

    But at the same time, I can't shake this God character, believed to be manifested in Jesus. And so it seems, neither can the world (for better or for worse). So all I can do is rest in hope, and learn (as best I can) to hold both suffering and love together without transmitting our natural habits of anger, judgement, fear and despair. I'm no pro at this at all (which ironically causes more psychological suffering), but that is why Jesus means a great deal to me. He shows us a new way to be human, faithful unto death, but unfortunately doesn't answer all of our human questions, explicitly...how I wish he would have! But "to whom else shall I go?"

    This poem by Wendell Berry always helps me think differently, I hope it may help some of you as well:

    The seed is in the ground.Now may we rest in hopeWhile darkness does its work.

  15. I hear you loud and clear JR. For all it's worth, I hope we can use our "screwed-ness" in a life-giving way, even in the midst of confusion and uncertainty.  Take care!

  16. Hi Mike,

    I definitely have went through those 'horrific' times you mentioned, and I'm happy to hear you can live with being "screwed" (staying with the blog terms). My only question is this: Why can't an "adult level" relationship not include worship? I'm interpreting the term 'worship', as you used, to mean Church or Mass. I say this because, more than ever in my life, mass (or worship) services are more meaningful than ever?

    I'm sure you didn't mean this as an insult, and I didn't take it that way either; just wanted to hear your thoughts. Thanks.

  17. I think you're right on. And I think maybe this was at the root of Jesus's suffering. He wept over Jerusalem; He wept for the pain of Lazarus's friends. He sweated blood in Gethsemane. And at the pinnacle of His suffering on the cross, they mocked Him, asking why He could not come down from the cross. Imagine: He had more perfect wisdom and more perfect love than any mortal. And so He was conscious of the suffering in the world more than anyone else at any time, and he FELT it more than anyone else at any time. And He had the power to stop it. And yet, He knew that doing so would destroy the human race. Can you imagine the way that would tear someone apart? The physical pain of the cross was nothing; the pain of death was nothing; but for anyone else, and even almost for Jesus, I think the pain of allowing suffering to continue would be far too much to bear.

  18. My understanding is that you would say a person has a problem with theodicy if they can not find an acceptable answer to the question of "why a powerful and loving God allows such suffering in the world."

    Your answer seems to be that one is to "run from either the empathy or the logic" fueled answer.  If one can not 'hedge' then they are in trouble.  Let me offer another answer, faith.  I know, I know, . . . how utterly simplistic and naive.

    Feeling pain at the pain of others is not the problem.  Sure it hurts.  But, do I accept that God has already done the calculus and put reality thus?  Do I accept that it is better this way than if the pain were not there because otherwise God would not have put it here?  Or, do I shake my fist at 'the bad god' who is being 'unloving?'

    This is not about emotion or reason or the curse of a particular personality type; it is about faith.  What is there to not understand about "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, . . .  , nor anything else in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."

  19. Hehe, when I began my graduate work in the Graduate School of Theology at ACU, we were required to take numerous profiles...DISC, psychiatric evaluations, etc.  On the first few pages of my results I was told I'm a walking contradiction, very emotional and rational, very dominant but very much an observer.  God had a great time making me.  We'll have a long talk about then when I see him.

  20. Mike, I was just listening to some U2 tunes as I drove my daughter to a class, and was moved by the lyrics of 'Bad'.  It seems to speak to our dilemma of both thinking and feeling too much.  These words, in particular, eloquently express my perspective:

    If you twist and turn away

    If you tear yourself in two again

    If I could, you know, I would

    If I could, I would

    Let it go



    If I could through myself

    Set your spirit free

    I'd lead your heart away

    See you break, break away

    Into the light

    And to the day

    I'm wide awake

    I'm wide awake

    I'm not sleeping

    Oh, no, no, no

    I'm not sleeping

    Oh, no

    This desperation




    In temptation




    Let it go, aha

    Bono may have meant something different from the way that I interpret it, but the themes conveyed in the song certainly have deep spiritual overtones -- both of inner wrestling, and of a desire to pour out one's heart in compassion for others who are suffering.  Mike, much of your experience sounds familiar to me, too.

  21. Firstly, Richard, our hearts and prayers are with you, with those that love Liam, with all who have shared their stories here recently.

    Secondly, thank-you for pointing us to the writing of Ernest Becker.  "The Denial of Death" is blowing my mind to the point that I can't concentrate on my day job, but it's jaw-droppingly brilliant.  I need to read it all (and then read it all again, I suspect), and I find it almost impossible to precis any single argument from the book, but one of the many things I'm getting from it is this:

    There's a tension between living honestly and living happily.

    I was talking about the book with Amy and she asked me, "Why shouldn't someone just settle for happiness?"  I didn't have an answer.  I just know that I can't.  I wouldn't be happy being happy.

  22. Hi Justin,

    You're absolutely right in that I in no way meant this as any kind of insult. 

    What I mean when I say that "I left worship" doesn't refer to any kind of church service or gathering together. What I am referring to is the relationship with God that looks a lot like the one an Emperor has with their subjects where the subjects fawn over the Emperor believing that they aren't in the same class.

    That said, of course I realize that on one dimension, the one of infinite/finite, we are indeed in different classes and- I deeply respect my contingency especially in light of Jesus's experience and revelation of God.

    Yet on another dimension, that of being humanly alive, how can God even compare? In a very real way, we have to accomplish the same thing God does without any omniscience or omnipotence. God is non-contingent; we are. I will relentlessly argue that the toughest life to live in this universe is the human one. If you don't believe me, watch the animals in your area, and look for evidence of their suffering. Here in Minnesota, I see Canada Geese merrily paddling along the surface of nearly frozen water below skies of freezing drizzle as they dunk their head for green bits with nary a trace of suffering. 

    And still, why aren't I willing to give up my human "level of order" if I were offered the chance to miraculously get transformed back into an animal level of order, as exemplified by the Canada Goose?

    Because there's something about human life that is utterly compelling to me; even though we have to suffer losing our Liams. It's on this dimension that God can't compete with us. So it seems to me that there's something here that levels the ground between ourselves and God. Not in terms of size, but more in terms of experience and love.

    So if God is ultimately looking for an Emperor styled relationship, I'm not interested. If however, God is looking for something more like an adult marriage, and something more like a co-creating relationship, then I'm all in. And this is more of what I mean by "leaving worship". (And let me add, emphatically, that I'm not meaning to diminish the pleasure of worship where such pleasure is enjoyed!)


  23. Hello Patricia,

    More wordless head-shaking and sighing for me.  You always hit the spot with how you describe things, succinct yet full of
    rich compassion. Thank you again!
    Gary Y.

  24. Thanks Richard, for a very insightful article. I am definitely a "both," though more on the F side. Above all my beliefs have to satisfy my heart, but they must also be completely logical. The reason I never felt comfortable with the Arminian view (and most certainly the Calvinist one, once I became familiar with it) is that it never presented a view of God that was at all appealing to me. I simply did not want to know a "god" who would abandon his own children due to their own bad luck, ignorance, and misconceptions, or one who would actually predestine some for eternal torment. Any view of God short of a loving Father who would restore ALL of His creation is unacceptable to me. The only other options - Arminianism and Calvinism, and their variants - simply present a "potter" who CANNOT or WILL NOT mend his own broken vessels. And a "god" who is unable is not worthy of the title, and a "god" who is unwilling is not worthy of any praise or worship, much less my love and admiration. 

    "More, as you reason it all out God comes out looking more and more like a monster or less and less like the God of orthodox Christianity."

    As I see it, the "God of orthodox Christianity" (Arminianism and Calvinism) IS a monster, and/or an incompetent "god" wanna-be, and I most wholeheartedly reject "him." It was only after I began studying scripture on my own, and comparing my own studies with the works of many theologians within the differing viewpoints, that I came to the conclusion that only Universalism satisfied my heart as well as my head. Having now studied Calvinism in depth I find it very humorous that John Piper would describe it as requiring "intellectual rigor" when its own doctrines require the abandonment of logic to accept them, and his own preaching, more often than not, contradicts those same doctrines. What Calvinism lacks in rationality is only exceeded by its complete lack of emotional satisfaction... unless of course you don't really care what God does with anybody else. As far as Arminianism is concerned, its reliance on the unsupportable notion of "free will" as an alternative to the "monster" of the Calvinist god is simply another attempt to blame man's sinful NATURE on himself rather than on his CREATOR and redeemer. While both systems always proclaim the "sovereignty of God" they both also claim that "man is responsible," which is an absolute contradiction in terms. Why more don't see it as such is merely another example of religious indoctrination and the fear and unwillingness to question "orthodox" teachings.

    I will always support anyone's right to believe as they see fit, but I am personally convinced that any alternative to the universal restoration of all of mankind is not only irrational and ultimately hard-hearted, but contradictory to the word of God as revealed in Christ. While I understand why many do not agree I do feel that it is always because they have not "faced up to the logical assumptions and consequences of their beliefs," and are simply repeating what they have been TOLD to believe -- the "traditions of men" -- rather than thinking for themselves.

    I readily admit that I am extremely biased in my opinion. God is love, and love never fails. I see no room for compromise.

    Just my two and a half cents.

  25. Susan,

    I read through your comment and was about to reply and then it hit me- "I'll bet this song's on you tube!"

    And, of course it was. Especially with the music the song feels like what I'm trying to say here and in my reply to Justin. The song in its notes and lyrics- no, the song in its whole intertwines grief and faith. Very apt.


  26. Well said David: What is there to not understand about "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, . . .  , nor anything else in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."

    Unless, of course, it is God Himself (as in Calvinism), or Satan, or ignorance, or bad luck, or our own misconceptions, or DYING as an unbeliever, or any of those other "things in creation"..... that end up separating us from His love. 

    It all sounds so good until we start to list the "exceptions to the rule." It's funny how Paul, God's chosen messenger, said "nothing," but man always has to find "something." 

  27. Thank you for your reply, Mike. Point well taken!

    I've never had a problem with the idea that I am penultimate; therefore I've always maintained (and hope I will always maintain) a high level of reverence for Whomever or Whatever creates and grants life. But even at my most grateful moments, I get lost in questions, confusions, doubts, anxieties -- wanting desperately to know there is meaning to all this...but never hearing or receiving an answer. Your metaphor of marriage fits well here: I can't break from this unconditional love for God (aka my spouse), but find that It can (and will!), in my viewpoint, disappoint sometimes without fully understanding why.

    Like yourself (from what I gather from your blog), I, too, am a student and lover of science. During my studies I've never understood why there can't be an Immanuel (incarnate or not), even with all of our scientific knowledge and advancements. I am often disheartened by all the highly educated and well-versed scientist (of all branches) that want to completely remove any sense of wonder, meaning, and Immanuel -- demonizing faith as irrational and a crutch. How have you learned to stand by your conviction of God within the context of our post-enlightenment rationality?

    Thanks for your time, Mike. No need to feel obliged to respond.

  28. Hi Gary! Thanks!

    Though I haven't been far away either. There's only two blogs that I participate in (until I restart my own) here, and 13.7 cosmos and culture, which is a science blog hosted by NPR.- and there predominately with Stuart Kauffman.  What I share with Stuart (a pioneer in the science of complexity) as well as Richard here, is this sense that the ways we've been looking at human life are feeling insufficient. 

    Yet I don't think either of us are saying we need 'something new' to see in order to find a more sufficient way of seeing our selves: for me, we don't need a new Christ, and for him we don't need a new biosphere. (He's a theoretical biologist.)

    Here's an analogy that might point to what I'm getting at. As you read this, look at the eye you're using to look at these words. I think this 'insufficiency of seeing' involves a similar difficulty akin to looking at our eyes while using them to look at words.

    And then a moment of rupture happens, and  Richard hammering on an anvil, creates a  moment of revelation and a sliver of something redemptive in a moment of horror. 

    It's because of community members like you (and others) as well as Richard' work that I don't stray very far from you guys..... 


  29. I am an INTJ, strongly T but with enough F that I reject Calvinism as being callous to the reality of suffering.  There is enough natural evil in this world that is wrong, and sits squarely at God's feet.
    When I hold the view of a close and immanent God, I find myself literally shaking my fist at his apparent inaction.  My relationship with God and understanding of theodicy is clearer and calmer if I take the view of a more distant God- an intermittent theist, but with loooong periods of apparent absence from the immediate reality of mankind.
    I simply resolve to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly.  Any greater hope tends to get battered by reality and circumstances.  David's solution of faith just doesn't work for me for very long at all.

  30. Thank you for describing me to a T, Richard. We are like winter brothers from another mother. Except for that Lady Gaga thing.

  31. Thanks for the story. Most of us can point to people who responded very well in our suffering, as well as others who didn't respond so well. Even more, sometimes the very response that was life-giving and gracious to you may not have worked for me (and vice-versa). Thanks for your beautiful story.

    Thanks, too, for noting that I was too quick to imply that the community always makes things better (rather than worse). Trusting the community may make us hurt more. But it may help with the theodicy-dilemma.
    Sometimes I simply say, "If Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Corrie ten Boom and Martin Luther King, Jr. found no insuperable contradiction in following Jesus, what's so special about my encounter with suffering? If these people could still live in and for the church, what's so special about my own disillusionment with the people of God?"

    It doesn't solve any problems, head-problems or heart-problems. But it does (to use a favorite word of mine) relativize my aching heart and splitting head, reminding me that neither MY head nor MY heart is the final arbiter of what is true and worthwhile.

  32. Makes sense. My thinking and feeling drive me in the opposite direction--toward a deep distrust of my own thinking and feeling, a deep longing for certitude that goes beyond myself. My visceral reaction against the world's evil makes me rely less and less on human justice/ mercy/ humility, and depend more and more on a close and immanent God. Rich Mullins: "I will never doubt his promise, thought I doubt my heart and doubt my mind."

  33. Jlh, the value, I think, in what you have shared (and what I, too, have learned to be true), is in acknowledging and honoring others' very personal way(s) of experiencing and expressing grief and faith.  *My* way isn't necessarily the way another person will exactly see or experience a loss or a "crisis" of faith.  As much as we, rightly, try to empathize with others, their journey is to a great extent just that -- *their* own.  We learn from each other and grow in the ability to be merciful and compassionate when we seek to understand and comfort.  I think back to those who have demonstrated this "art" and realize that they have taught me how to "go and do likewise."  Though not co-members with me in a localized church community, I think those individuals have served as my spiritual mentors and "heart" kin.  Isn't this blog community the same such "knit-together-in-love" group?  There's an atmosphere here which is both a sanctuary and an encouragement.

    I love the heroes you named (Bonhoeffer, ten Boom, King).  I also think that, as Dr. Beck said, Liam Lowe is a hero.  As well as his parents.  Their courage has inspired and humbled me.  Thanks for your thoughtful, engaging words, Jlh.


  34. Hey Jim,

    You might wish to retract your atta boy when you figure out who paul means by 'us' in that passage.  It isn't 'ALL' of us.  Just saying. . .

  35. "While both systems always proclaim the "sovereignty of God" they both
    also claim that "man is responsible," which is an absolute contradiction
    in terms. Why more don't see it as such is merely another example of
    religious indoctrination and the fear and unwillingness to question
    "orthodox" teachings."

    WOW, Jim.  This is EXACTLY what I have been trying to explain to my family (Puritans, Calvinists) for the past 45 years.  They simply will not challenge, or even acknowledge, their assumptions.  I finally unfurled my white flag and took my toys home from the playground.

    Your two and a half cents are worth millions to me.

  36. I am a seminary student.  As I write this, my good friend has lost her mother.  Another friend has lost her father.  One of my beloved teachers is dying.  You're right:  this is when theology stops and when all the systems break down.  Like Job, we are left to ponder a system of no justice and a seemingly arbitrary God.  We stand on the brink of the abyss and cry, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?"  And we don't know whether to throw ourselves in or hope that we don't fall.   

  37. Once again you're missing the point of the post, David.  You might want to stop and thoughtfully consider, if it is possible for you, why Paul was "convinced", or as you frame it, why Paul had "faith" in that truth.  Was it just a simple decision for him?  If so, could that have something to do with his personality?  I would suggest there is quite a bit to not understand about the passage in Romans that you cited.  For starters,  just as a technical point--you aren't part of the "us" either (unless you were hanging around a certain house church in Rome during the latter half of the 1st century).   

  38. stellarpiper, your words remind me of C.S. Lewis's reflections in 'A Grief Observed.'  Even having arrived at a hard-won faith through intellectual reasoning, when he lost his beloved wife to cancer, he journaled some of the same agonizing grief that you describe.  I remember that Lewis described his experience of prayer during that dark time of grief as his echoing knocks on a heavy, impenetrable door that was not answered or opened to him.  Heartbreaking, only because I could so relate and feel his pain!

    I read that book of Lewis's first, and gained such an admiration and respect for him as a person, and for his faith, that I went on to read many of his other books (both fiction and non-fiction).  Other favorites:  'Till We Have Faces' and 'Out of the Silent Planet.'  Lewis's writing is infused with his theology.  But, again, my real affection for him was won through reading 'A Grief Observed.'


  39. Hah! and your reply makes sense to me too.  Two different people finding different ways to accommodate the tension.  Note that I use 'apparent' in my post- I know I don't have the whole picture, I hope it will all make sense  in the end....but darn it, people are hurting now.  And up pops the T in me again- WHY??

  40. "For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD. "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."  Jeremiah 29:11 NIV

    Two young girls open the door to a stranger
    And are raped at gunpoint.
    (Remember always to welcome strangers, for by doing this,
    some people have entertained angels without knowing it  Hebrews 13:2   JB)
    A small girl, hiking in the hills with her parents
    On a windy day
    Is killed by a falling branch.
    A wonder-full six-year old boy lies in intensive care
    At Children's Hospital,
    Face swollen and disfigured.
    Necrotizing fasciitis is the diagnosis.
    Flesh eating disease.  He was only playhing basketball.

    Children bombed to bits;
    A pool of blood on a dirty Baghadad street.
    Little ones sleeping the tired sleep of childhood
    In a remote Pakistani village
    Now sleep the eternal sleep.

    Answer me! 
    Higher Power!!

    We, your children too, grieve.

    Are you the planner of
    No hope, no future?
    Or is this the randomness
    Of an unplanned universe?

  41. As always, my friend, your opinion differs from mine, and I knew exactly what I was saying and what you had meant with your original comment. And I would easily imagine that you also knew that my "atta boy" contained more than a bit of sarcasm towards your view of that scripture, as well as the beautiful truth that I see in it.

    The interesting thing about Paul, and his relationship with Christians like yourself who believe that he was only referring to them, is that he was often writing to them in order to correct their ignorance.

    "But I do not wish you to be ignorant brothers...

    ... that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles." (Rom. 1:13)

    ... so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved," (Rom. 11:25-26)
    ... about spiritual gifts... Therefore I tell you that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit."  (1Cor. 12:3)Just as was the case then, there is much ignorance among Christians now, especially those who view unbelief as an "exception to the rule." But Paul understood it completely: "I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief."Thankfully it is God who "locked up ALL men in disobedience (unbelief), so that He may have mercy on them ALL"... you and I included. Contrary to your assertion that Paul's words only apply to Christians, unbelief is not an "exception" to the rule that "nothing can separate us from the love of God." It is a requirement. At first, we are ALL unbelievers.... and then, when God decides otherwise, we are not. "It is the gift of God... so that no one can boast."

  42. As one who has put years of deep thought (as well as much blood, sweat, and tears) into all this "God stuff" your support means much to me Sam. Thanks for voicing it.

  43. ... and concerning your family's closed-mindedness, please don't hold it against them. They were instilled with a fear for God that far outweighs any thoughts of thinking for themselves, or challenging the "church." They were taught to equate the church with God, and that any challenge to the church's teaching were a challenge to God's holy word. Fear is a great motivator to simply sit down and shut up, and the church knows exactly how to use it.

  44. Brian,

    Why the ad hominems, my friend?

    Anyway, I never framed it as 'Paul had faith in the truth contained in this verse.'  He said he was convinced; no need to change that.  Since he was writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, his being convinced is good enough for me.  Is it good enough for you too?  And, no, his personality had nothing whatsoever to do with the truth of what he wrote.

    As to your 'technical' point, 'us' is well qualified in Romans and it has nothing at all to do with hanging around a 1st century house church.

  45. " But Paul understood it completely: "I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief."

    Yes he did understand completely.  He was shown mercy with regard to his being a "blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man" because he did those things in ignorance.  Ignorance, however, is not an excuse for unbelief.  Unbelief is not shown mercy by God.

  46. "We were born to suffer.  It's our lot in life".

    Oh, Sam, you had to bring my favorite pessimist into the discussion! ;)

    I see yours, and raise to:

    "Who's the bigger fool?  The fool or the fool who follows him?"


    "I was born, here, you know."
    "You're gonna die, here, you know. Convenient."

    --[different] Justin

  47. "Unbelief is not shown mercy by God."

    And so you apparently disagree with Paul, who said that he WAS shown mercy because he acted in unbelief. Are we each reading different scriptures, or are you just not seeing the word "unbelief" in it?

  48. My screen doesn't show all the text at once, of course, and as I scrolled down, I got to the section right before your "but what if" and paused. I'm not a good hedger. I'm caught constantly between the two impulses. Belief, and especially trust, are impossible. To love and trust God are at the heart of faith, and that is precisely what I can't get at. I'm an INTP whose T score was barely to one side of the line and I might well be an INFP. I don't think I'm suffering more than others but I am stuck and I am not living. And I read on and you just explained it all to me. I don't know if we're rare or if it's just a third type. What are the implications of being so close to the line? That's never explained in the charts.

  49. For many years I have been unable to discuss these issues.  You have a clarity of expression that I admire, and I know at a deep level that you have found answers to the exact questions I have always pondered..  I have learned to no longer think of them as the Other.  That has come through transformative experiences of my own.  I think most of the people here are more perceptive to the ambiguities, because they dare to question in the first place.

  50. Oh, Hell!  (Or is it: Oh God!)  My take is that theodicy itself is both a burden and a temptation.  It is at once an effort to control God for self-protection and a kind of glib, drawing-room form of unintended cruelty in the midst of suffering.  Anger and pity and emptiness and deep sadness and fear and silence in the face of God for God's creation with all its horrible and glorious mysteries is better.  Explanation in the midst of unbearable loss and suffering and death is like giving a stone instead of a fish.  "Rage, rage against the dying of the light . . . .!"

    Blessed be the name of the LORD.

  51. I certainly identify. I think a lot of us gravitate here because we tend toward both directions.  (Introvert- check, analytical-check, empathetic-double check, I have the Experimental Theology trifecta!)  But "screwed"? It sounds self-pitying, which given the huge number of things in this world to feel bad about, I'm not sure my empathy is one of them.  I would like to think this rare personality type would serve as a bridge between the two extremes.  I can share in the pain of others, where many would try to "comfort".  

    I've made my peace with suffering.  Not by reasoning it out or by hiding.  But by knowing that if I am "wired to suffer" then the least I can do is help alleviate the suffering of others.  And I am not the least of sufferers.  I get my tender heart from my mom, my intellect from my dad, and my extreme empathy from being hospitalized for seven weeks from burns on 40% of my body at the age of five.  I have a practical approach to theodicy.  For me, pain just is (not literally, I'm very active and healthy).  So, instead of asking why God allows pain, I ask myself how I am going to use it. However, I cannot recommend this approach for anyone else (It would be like recommending AA to someone who never drinks). 

  52. Yes, I see the word 'unbelief.'  I am sure you remember Jesus' words on the cross about forgiving them BECAUSE they didn't know what they were doing by crucifying Him.  They were acting out of 'unbelief' in Him.  Likewise Paul in the list of actions he includes here.  He too was acting out of ignorance or unbelief.  He was shown mercy for the things he did BECAUSE of his unbelief.  He was not shown mercy for his unbelief.  Later, God gave him faith and then he believed.

  53. I am a musician. I write songs and poetry from time to time. I cry easily at anything from seeing a mountain sunrise to seeing a stupid chick flick.

    I am a Software Architect and Developer. Logical, analytical and all that.

    Yep, this post describes me perfectly. I have long been caught in this endless feedback loop. It is exhausting!

    Like Jim here it is only as I have begun to see God as both willing and able to reconcile all things that I have finally been able to start finding some peace and hope in the midst of all the crap.

  54. Your openness has always been a great blessing to me Sam, and I'm sure to many others. Thanks for being one that refused to accept the status quo and dared to question. I hope we can meet face to face some day. 

  55. Well. This certainly explains things. It all probably started when we moved to the bowels of Afghanistan when I was 12. After that I thought Egypt was a picnic, but my buddies in America didn't have a clue. And when I experienced three multiple deaths at age 26 my Christian family and friends thought I should have finished grieving after 3 months and were awkward during months of lament. So to buck up and show everyone I was strong in my faith and didn't lose any joy with a Jolly God I gained weight and made them more awkward.   

    Glad to get that cleared.

  56. I have never had something describe my interaction with theodicy so well. Wow. 

    Have you read much protest theology? In someways I can just relate to that better. 

  57. George MacDonald's writings came to me at a time that just preceded the tragic sudden death of my fourth son. I devoured them all beforehad and so I was somewhat prepared with the great visions on the true character of God....his goodness and love. When my son left my arms for his Father's arms, my heart was smashed into billions of bits. God is making those pieces into something wholly new now. But, in the meantime, I strain and sweat to understand analytically the nature of God and of suffering and I feel the depths of pain for all of those I see torn apart by brokenness surrounding us.  So, I guess I too am both and I'm glad I am because I feel I can then understand more fully the complete nature of God.  Thanks for your blog, and I will be reading.

  58. I was groovin' along with this post - glad to see that someone was tackling the idea that one can be on the cusp of empathic and analytical and then found out... I'm screwed. Not news, but dang! Oh well.

    Honestly, I prefer this place of both/and instead of either/or. Even if it's hard, it's real.

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