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On God, Hope, Suffering, and Prayer: For Those Who Believe and Those Who Don’t

Human beings are surprising in their ability to hope.

We live in a world filled with pain, violence, injustice, death and cruelty. Human history is a record of people perpetrating horrible acts against one another through war, genocide, holocausts, interpersonal abuse and cruelty, and just plain-old-every day meanness.

In addition to all this human-caused suffering, there is all the suffering that comes from disease, frailty, and random violent acts of nature (like forest fires, earthquakes, and hurricanes).

Despite all this darkness, we find ourselves longing for good things. We long for peace, goodness, love, justice, beauty, and every other good gift. And we often find ourselves, whether we believe in God or not, reaching beyond, asking someone, in some way, to give us these good things. Prayer is one expression of this.

Horizontal sisterhood

I was unable to find the author and title of this beautiful piece.

Human beings are Homo Sperens—Hoping Humans. Is all this hope merely an exercise in futility?

I don’t think so.

I would like to explore the wisdom of hope in this post, but first let me say that whether you believe in God or not, this post is for you.

I have believed in God and prayed regularly since I was about eight. As such, I hope my agnostic and atheist readers will pardon me if I take a jaunt into the realm of philosophical theology. I wish to explore some concepts about God that I believe are helpful in understanding how we can practically hope in a world filled with so much suffering.

At the end, I will apply these ideas to everyone, whether we believe or not.

Does God Want to Give Us Good Gifts?

There is a verse in the book of Matthew in the New Testament that reads, “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”[1] And a verse in the Psalms reads, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.”[2]

I remember reading these verses when I was younger and feeling excited by God’s generosity. My exuberance was soon tempered, however, by my every day observances of suffering in the world.

What about my beautiful piano teacher who died from cancer?

What about people who were in horrible accidents that disfigured or paralyzed them for the rest of their lives?

What about people who longed for love and relationships but remained alone, despite all their prayers to the contrary?

What about the people starving from famine in Ethiopia?

What about all the abused children in the world?

What about the people in the United States living in poverty who went to bed cold and hungry every night?

Why didn’t God answer their prayers? I wondered. Why didn’t he give them good gifts or give them the desires of their heart?

Some people would say that folks’ prayers went unanswered because of sin in their life. This answer was unsatisfactory to me. There were plenty of people I knew who were paragons of virtue and yet suffered tremendously and other folks who were reprobates and lived luxurious lives.

Parable of the Persisent Widow

“Parable of the Persistent Widow”

Other people argued that God always wants to give us good things but that we don’t have any idea what the good actually is. If we did, we would see that all our suffering is the best thing in the world for us. This answer was, at best, only marginally satisfactory to me.

I mean, I knew I didn’t fully comprehend all that was good for me—like when a young child rejects the medicine that makes her well. But I also read verses like this: “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone?”[3] And I knew a lot of people who asked for bread who seemed to be given stones. Why was this?

I heard other people argue that God uses the difficult things in our life to humble us and make us rely solely on Him. This answer was the least satisfactory to me. Why in the world would a loving God resort to such drastic measures as genocides, holocausts, famines, and abuse (especially of women and children), and horrible diseases to humble people, many of whom were already kind and humble to begin with?

I rejected the notion that such draconian measures were necessary for a loving God to teach his creations lessons in humility.

I never discovered a completely satisfactory answer growing up, and this question continued to haunt me into adulthood. It still haunts me sometimes.

The Problem of Evil

Of course, the question I am wrestling with is rooted in the classical problem of evil. How can an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God permit evil to exist in the world?

If you were hoping for a solution to that problem in this post, I am sorry. I am not going to attempt that: at least not directly. I think working on such solutions is valuable. However, in this post, I am interested in the practical question of how and why we hope for good things in the face of suffering.

The Suffering God

Most people who grow up in a Christian or otherwise theistic environment learn early on that God is omniscient (all-knowing); omnibenevolent (all-loving); and omnipotent (all- powerful).

Attributing these qualities to God makes sense. After all, God is the being who contains all perfections, and the attributes above are certainly perfections. Holding these attributes of God in tension becomes problematic, however, when we deal with extreme suffering such as in the case of World War II, the concentration camps, and the many people who endured unspeakable horror at the hands of the Nazi regime.

Hans Jonas was a philosopher who wrestled with this problem. He was a Jew living in Germany when the Nazi party gained power. Jonas was betrayed by his mentor and professor Heidegger who joined the Nazi party, and Jonas eventually immigrated to England[4] where he married an English woman and joined the British army.

He returned to Germany to find his mother after the war, only to discover that she had  perished in a gas chamber at Auschwitz.[5] It was certainly through his wrestling with these horrors that Jonas eventually wrote, “The Concept of God after Auschwitz: A Jewish Voice.”[6]

El Greco-St. Francis in Prayer.jpg

El Greco, “St. Francis in Prayer”

In this piece Jonas argues that if we insist on holding to all three of the classical attributes of God (ominiscience, ominibenevolence, and ominpotence) in the face of the Holocaust, we must explain how a loving God who knew the holocaust was happening and could have stopped it allowed the extreme suffering, torture, and death of millions of Jewish people, many of whom were women and children.

Jonas argues, and I think he is right, that an all-powerful God who permits such atrocities cannot be loving in any traditional sense of the word.  What if, Jonas asks us, we reframe our understanding of God’s omnipotence?

Jonas suggests that perfect love and total power cannot exist simultaneously. In loving someone, we desire the best for another person, but we also desire, above all else, to protect their freedom, for we know that love is only authentic when it is freely given. We know that our Beloved may choose to love or not. In fact, we know that our Beloved can hurt us, neglect us, betray us, harm us. Authentic love entails vulnerability.

Pierre_Mignard_-_The_Virgin_of_the_Grapes_-_WGA15663

Pierre Mignard, “The Virgin of the Grapes”

Jonas applies this reasoning to God and argues that an all-loving God voluntarily lays down some of his* power to love us as free beings. God’s willingness to do this creates a space in which evil can exist, but it is also the only space in which true love can exist.

In the process of relinquishing some of his power, Jonas argues, God becomes the suffering God. He suffers the evil in the world with us. He longs for love’s triumph with us. He hopes and works for the eventual return of everything and everyone to him with us.

Hans Jonas.jpg

Hans Jonas

Speaking about God in these terms feels odd initially, but it helps to make sense of a lot of stories and parables in the Christian scriptures.

I think of the parable of the Prodigal Son. A wealthy and powerful man has two sons, the story goes. One is faithful and loving, and the other one, the Prodigal Son, is not. He asks his father for his inheritance early, which the father freely gives him. The Prodigal Son abandons his family to live large in the world and grows increasingly dissolute and desperate in the process. He eventually ends up on the brink of starvation working for a pig farmer, at which point he realizes what he left behind. He returns home.[7]

And the amazing thing is that when he returns, his father doesn’t scold or reject him. The father throws his Prodigal Son an extravagant party. This parable is a beautiful picture of a vulnerable God: one who loves without coercion, who suffers rejection, and who throws extravagant parties when his loved ones return.

And then there’s the story of Lazarus and his sisters who were close personal friends of Jesus. Lazarus fell seriously ill, and his sisters sent for Jesus to come and heal their brother. By the time Jesus arrived, Lazarus had died and been buried.[8]

In one of the most surprising scenes in scripture, Jesus stands by the tomb of Lazarus, weeping for his dead friend. In the next moment, he raises Lazarus from the dead. The events of this story show that Christ suffers the pains of tragedy and loss with us, even as he resurrects.

And there’s that time Jesus was with his disciples, and Roman centurions came to arrest Jesus, an event which would eventually lead to Christ’s crucifixion. In the shock of Jesus’ arrest, one of his disciples draws a sword and cuts of the ear of one of the members in the arresting party [9]. Christ puts the ear back on the man and heals him. The vulnerable Christ suffers evil as we do, and he also heals in the process.

The question now is what does all of this have to do with prayer and hope?

Show me the Way Lester Kern

“Show Me the Way”, Lester Kern

Prayer, Suffering, and Hope

If God is a suffering God who voluntarily lays down his power to pursue authentic love, this has several interesting implications for prayer.

First, it suggests that God’s defining characteristic is love, and if this is so, God certainly longs to give us good gifts that benefit ourselves and the whole world. Prayer is one of the ways we ask him for these good gifts, and God loves to hear our prayers, much like loving parents love to hear the earnest requests of their children.

Second, it suggests that God’s desire to give us good gifts can be temporarily disrupted by evil people or natural processes (like death).

Third, it suggests that God suffers with us when evil disrupts, thwarts, abandons, and attacks us.

Fourth, it suggests that despite the onslaughts of evil, God continually works to heal, restore, and resurrect. God continually works to make the world whole through love.

All of this suggests that hope is neither reckless nor ignorant. It is wise. Hope recognizes the healing, restoring, and resurrecting work of God in an evil world.

El Greco- st-dominic-in-prayer.jpg

El Greco, “St. Dominic in Prayer”

Prayer, Hope, and Evil

Even before I read Jonas, I have long held this view of hope, and it affects how I pray in several ways.

First, I ask God for good gifts all the time because I believe he wants to give them to me and to everyone else. As such, I do my best to ask for gifts that benefit both myself and the world. If I only consider my personal benefit, without regard to others, it is likely that I am contributing to the suffering in the world. Therefore, I pray for good gifts that bring good to me and the whole world.

Second, I know that some of the things I pray for will be temporarily or permanently disrupted because of evil. My political prayers are a good example of this right now. I wish this wasn’t the case. I wish God made everyone behave. But, when I think about this further, I realize what I really want is for God to coerce everyone else but to love me in my freedom. This isn’t how it works. The only way I can have both freedom and love is for other people to have these same gifts. And this entails that they have the freedom to make bad choices that disrupt my life.

Third, I know that when these disruptions happen, God suffers with me and there is no shame in crying, in suffering, and in feeling anger. There is no shame in recognizing that this isn’t how the world is supposed to work. I don’t have to settle for an evil world: I can long for a better one, and I can hope it is possible.

Fourth, I know that even in my pain, God works to heal, restore, and to resurrect. I want to be a part this process. Therefore, the gifts I pray for the most are wisdom, love, creativity, and compassion because they are the gifts that allow us to heal, restore, and resurrect, even in the face of evil. In this way, we become partners with God in restoring the world through love.

In fact, wisdom, love, creativity, and compassion are some of the only gifts that evil can never destroy. No matter the wickedness, stupidity, and recklessness in the world, we can always become more wise, loving, creative, and compassionate, and when we do, we bring new life to the world.

This fuels hope.

Black Women Who Want More

I was unable to find the title and artist for this beautiful painting.

And for Those Who Doubt

To my Agnostic and Atheist Readers: If you have stuck with my blog post to this point, you have been incredibly patient, and I thank you.

All of this relates to you, too:  I believe that the gifts of wisdom, love, creativity, and compassion are for everyone, not just for those who believe. I have long been impressed with folks in the Buddhist tradition, many of whom are agnostic, who consistently practice wisdom, love, creativity, and compassion every day.

I see this in the life and writings of the Dalai Lama and Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh (both of whom have suffered much). In the face of evil, they are a quiet and persistent voice for love. They give people, including me, hope.

And I think this path is possible for anyone, whether they believe or not, who consistently pursues wisdom, love, creativity and compassion for themselves and the world.

Loving the world is one of the greatest things we can do. It is from love that all the good in the world comes. And yet love makes us vulnerable to suffering. Sometimes this makes us want to abandon love, but the alternative is force, coercion, and violence, which may reduce our suffering in the short-term but destroys the possibility of love and leads to greater suffering in the long-term.

Whether we believe or not, the only alternative is an educated hope (docta spes) which embraces vulnerability and suffering and also embrace love to heal, restore, and resurrect.

Hopeful prayer is one ways we heal, restore, and resurrect. It is a gift to the world.

*****

If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it on social media.

You might also like this post:

Prayer: When We Believe, When We Doubt, and When We Don’t Believe

If you would like some prayers or intention to help you pray, you might enjoy these posts.

An Intention or Prayer for Growing in Light and Wisdom

An Intention or Prayer for Women Everywhere

An Intention or Prayer for the Hopeless

An Intention or Prayer for Illumination

An Intention or Prayer for Political Healing

You might also like this post:

When Faith Exhausts Us

*I ask my readers to pardon my use of the masculine pronoun to refer to God who is certainly beyond gender or, rather, encompasses both male and female and everything in between. I am using the masculine pronoun in this post for the sake of simplicity.

[1] Matthew 7:11, NIV

[2] Psalm 37:4, NIV

[3] Matthew 7:9, NIV

[4]You can read more about Jonas here.

[5] You can read more about this here.

[6]You can read the article in its entirety here:  file:///C:/Users/ShellyJ/AppData/Local/Temp/Jonas-Concept-of-God-After-Auschwitz-1.pdf

[7] Luke 15:11-32

[8] You can read Lazarus’ story in the book of John, chapter11

[9] You can read this story in the book of John, chapter 18

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