The Problem of Goodness

2:46 AM

My interviewer was very tall, even sitting down -- but then, everybody is tall to me. We were in a little back office, three feet by five feet, if even that. The sun blinded my eyes. Then my college interview began, the Christian studies version: What books influenced your Christian life? Are you a Calvinist? Don't you then believe God is responsible for people's ultimate destination? If you were born and raised in a Hindu family, do you think you'd still be Christian?

"Bailey," my interviewer asked, "no doubt you've heard about the problem of evil -- how could a loving God exist when there is so much suffering and pain in the world? What are your thoughts on that?"

I'd spent the past few showers contemplating the same problem. It used to baffle my mind, the disconnect between broken world and good God. The Bailey a year ago would have twitched in her seat, blinded by the bright November sunlight -- good God? Evil? How? But the thing that baffled my heart, the thing that confused me the most -- that overwhelmed me -- wasn't the problem of evil. People were mean. Life was hard. I could understand a God being horrible and terrible, vindictive, cruel and capricious like the Greek and Roman gods before. That made sense.

What didn't? The problem of goodness.

Even in the most broken life -- and I've fallen pretty low, though nobody believes it of me -- something gives hope. Some little shred of goodness. Some glimmer of grace. And the part of us that longs for something fuller than our brokenness, the part that cries out for something better than current circumstances -- how can life be devoid of a good God in the face of that?

An evil god could not have anything to do with the true love between best friends. He could not create the wonder of the night's first snowfall. He could not imagine color and light coming together in brilliance. He could not work beauty and goodness and love through ugliness and evil and hate. Those who reject God -- either His existence or His goodness -- may have solved the problem of evil, but they haven't remotely touched upon the problem of goodness.

The other day, my sister turned to Google to find one of those dog-eat-dog comment threads on the Greek gods. (You didn't know the Greek gods were controversial? Of course they are. Everything's a life or death issue on the internet.) I like Greek mythology myself -- it's much better than Roman mythology, which is to say, I like the Greek names more. In any case, it spiralled into bashing Christianity, a typical occurence, one where naysayers prove to have more snark than sense and supporters more sentiment than sensibility. The point in conflict: the Christian God is allegedly a jealous God, one who smites His enemies and sends people to hell at whim. Therefore, He is just as capricious and sadistic as the Greek gods.

Take that, Christians!

The sad thing was, my sister informed me, that the only Christian response went along the lines of, "But He still loves us!" -- a thought which could have proven profound, I suppose, if it had led to the problem of goodness. It is true, though, that there are just as many pleas for repentance from the Christian God as there are judgments, just as many acts of grace as acts of vengeance. And we must explain how an evil god would die for a people he owed nothing. The evidence, both in the world and in the Bible, does not conclusively point to an evil god. In any case, the one thing the Christian God cannot be accused of is caprice -- and that is the difference between Him and every other god or system of religion out there.

The Greek gods ruled by whim. Our God rules by justice. Obviously we don't agree with everything God does; obviously not everything looks fair to us. There's no point in denying that. We may not like His rules, but we cannot accuse Him of inconsistency. Our God is fair in His justice: do this, reap that. The fact that He punishes does not make Him evil. The fact that some go to heaven and others do not does not prove His caprice, but His grace, His mercy.

But this is still armchair theology in some sense, without starving children staring at you from magazine ads or the memory of a friend's divorce or miscarriage or funeral.

"I wish I had a definite answer to that question," I'd told my interviewer (not so concisely), and I say it again. The problems of both evil and goodness are too complex to solve by saying one cancels out the other, logically and conclusively. It'll take an eternity of showers to think that one through to the end. But I think something must be said about the problem of goodness. We're very nihilistic in our thinking most time, more apt to complain about the rain than feel grateful for the roof that keeps it out of our beds. Modern literature is obsessively morbid. Intellectualism attacks any attempt to hunt for goodness amid pain as "Pollyannish." The real problem, so they imply, is sin and evil and sorrow and loss -- that's what we've got to solve.

I admit that if I visited an African village and saw the horrible poverty or sat with an abused woman while she cried out her story -- I would have no easy answers. There aren't easy answers.

But the problem, in a way, has been solved: on the cross, once for all.

It is finished.

And the problem we then face is the problem of goodness and why on earth our God would seek to join our suffering. I hope I can be obsessed with that problem for eternity, whether in cold isolation in a foreign country or curled up in my bed.

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3 impressions

  1. So true, Bailey. God has His plans, His wills. We are merely humans, thus cannot intervene with His plans. I mean really, He created the universe. He created us. He knows so much more. I used to wonder the same thing, why He would let little children starve or have some tornado come up and kill thousands. But that's His plan. It doesn't make sense to us, but He still has His plans.

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  2. But the ultimate reason why God does anything is: For His own glory. Everything, somehow, is working together to glorify God.
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  3. One thing that I once heard when this question was brought up is this: We, in the world, spend our entire time shunning God, what are we surprised when He allows something to happen to us, and feel that He has deserted us?

    I thought this was very profound and very useful when thinking about good and evil.

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