Thursday, December 14, 2006

Open Theism: Suffering

Implications on Prayer In The Midst of Suffering

Prayer is never more difficult than when we are surrounded by the storm clouds of tragedy, pain and suffering. Biblical heroes like Job, Jeremiah, Habakkuk and Jesus Himself were brutally honest in their agonizing prayers before God in the grip of evil. Similarly our deepest hearts and attitudes towards God are laid open by how we respond to Him in the dark night of the soul. There is a noble motivating impulse behind open theism that is the hope that a new model of God would provide a better solution to the problem of evil and pastorally responsible approach to the grieving. Open theist John Sanders was spurred on to wrestle with the issue of divine providence after the death of his brother in a road accident. Unsatisfied with well-meaning attempts to explain why God would allow it to happen, he wondered, “God, why did you kill my brother?” Wouldn’t it also be better theodicy, for example, to counsel the victims of World War II that God did not know all along how Hitler would use his freedom?

Boyd also explained that open theism logically leads us to believe in pointless evil. “[T]hings can happen to us that have no overarching divine purpose. In this view, ‘trusting in God’ provides no assurance that everything that happens to us will reflect his divine purposes, for there are other agents who also have power to affect us, just as we have power to affect others” . For example, it is pious but confused thinking to wonder about the “purpose of God” in the tragic death of a young girl caused by a drunk driver who alone is blameworthy. “The only purpose of God in the whole thing is His design to allow morally responsible people the right to choose whether to drink responsibly or irresponsibly.” Isn’t it more comforting to those who suffer to know that God didn’t know in advance the evils that had befallen them else He would have prevented them?

Despite its initial appeal, we need to beware of the exorbitant price tag that comes with open theism. Its perceived benefits lost much luster when we examine its parallel claim that despite God’s respect for human freedom, He is also sometimes able to override their choices. So the problem of evil is not significantly allayed since it would have been easy for God who knows all possibilities to predict Hitler’s war plans and prevented tragedy by removing him with a deflected bullet. If we apply this model to Boyd’s scenario of the fatal car accident, we are either forced to say, “God could have saved the accident victim but chose not to do so, because He purposefully respects the drunk driver’s freedom” (which is really another form of “greater good” theodicy in which God is in some ways involved in the tragedy) or we could say, “God did not foresee what the drunk driver would do so He is not able to save her” (which attributes a ‘caring but helpless passivity’ to God, just watching as the events spin out of His control).

In the former response, the only difference it makes in contrast with the classical view lies in what the greater purpose is: Open theists believe the good reason God permitted it was because He planned contra-causal freedom without which relationship is impossible, while Reformed theists believe the higher commitment is God’s wise purpose to display the full range of His glory in justice and mercy for the good of His people. Ultimately, both sides need to admit an element of mystery and resist the temptation to limit God’s power, knowledge or goodness in order to seek an easy escape. In the latter response, we must ask, “If the risk-taking God is unable to foresee the possible danger posed by a drunk, what hope do we have that He would fare any better with more complex risks of wars, terrorism and economic depression where millions of choices are involved? What then about the claim that God still knows all possibilities and capable of intervening at times?” We may sympathize with such a deity, but it is hardly the glorious vision of the omnipotent and wise God worthy of our worship.

Indeed, a denial of God’s foreknowledge undercuts the very hope we have that God is powerful enough to cause all things to “work together for good to those who love Him” (Rom. 8:28). “All things” include hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness or danger or sword (Rom. 8:35). Although the agency of Satan was clearly present, the author of the book of Job did not consider the presence of secondary causes as proof of ‘pointless evil’ (Job 1:12 & 42:11). Rather Job sought to understand why God had caused it and clearly attributed his calamity to the ultimate cause: “Yahweh gave, and Yahweh has taken away. Blessed be the name of Yahweh." In all His dealings, God is righteous and not the author of evil. While nothing happens apart from the decretive will of God, it does not follow that God approves the event that He ordains in itself. For example, He detests the murderous conspiracies that led to the crucifixion of Christ and grieved by the heinous crime (Acts 4:13). Betrayal is clearly against His revealed will and moral laws. Yet He wills the cross in view of the greater good (i.e. salvation of many), which would spring from and through the vicarious suffering of Christ. His decree does not however negate the responsibility of moral agents. Instead, it is accomplished through their compatibilistic agency without turning anybody into automatons.

Through the clouds of tragedy, we derive comfort not from probing the secret mind of God but from trusting in Heavenly Father’s heart of compassion and righteousness. Surely, we need to provide practical help and sensitive counsel even as we grieve alongside those who suffer. While we often cannot fathom God’s mysterious plans, we could be confident that He knows exactly what He is doing at each moment. God is still on His throne, skillfully weaving out His bright designs for our ultimate good through dark threads of adversity. It is hardly ‘comforting’ to provide the afflicted with an assurance that pointless evil has happened and gratuitous suffering could be just around the corner since God cannot foresee the freewill of drunk drivers, wicked war-mongers and demonic beings.

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