just an apprentice

the Word became flesh and dwelt among us...

Saturday, January 28, 2006

God's Wise and Loving Providence (cont.)

Hall (Learning Theology with the Church Fathers) says that many modern discussions of the problem of providence and suffering follow an inductive approach. That is, we first inductively weigh the evidence--apart from prior presuppositions about what we should or should not encounter--and then make philosophical and theological decisions about the viability of traditional understandings of God's character and God's governance over creation and history. Modern realities and events such as Auschwitz seem ipso facto to refute an understanding of God as omnipotent and loving.

Chrysostom's approach takes the opposite methodological tack. It is deductive rather than inductive. He accepts by faith certain revelatory truths, whether found in nature, Scripture or history, as fundamental presuppositions for a correct understanding of providence. Among these fundamentals is God's love for humanity. The love of God for us must be a primary interpretive grid for making sense of the empirical data of our lives.

God allows sickness to strike or an accident to take place. Does this occurrence indicate that God does not love us, does not possess knowledge of the future or has lost control of history? No, Chrysostom insists. Because Chrysostom accepts by faith God's love as a fundamental datum for interpreting human experience, any interpretation we give to the data of our lives, no matter how inexplicable or harsh our circumstances might be, must be framed within the context dictated by divine love.

A faulty conception of God's love and goodness poses a serious roadblock to our acceptance and praise of God's providence. C.S. Lewis warns against attaching a trivial conception to the word love. We do so, for example, when we equate love and kindness. Lewis explains:

By Love, in this context, most of us mean kindness--the desire to see others than the self happy; not happy in this way or in that, but just happy. What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, "What does it matter so long as they are contented?" We want, in fact, not so much a Father in heaven as a grandfather in heaven--a senile benevolence who, as they say, "liked to see young people enjoying themselves," and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, "a good time was had by all."

Much the same could be said of a misconceived notion of God's goodness. Frequently we ask the question in the midst of our suffering. How could a good God allow this to happen? Chrysostom would encourage us to answer our question in light of two further considerations: (1) God has embraced our suffering in the incarnation of his Son; and (2) the final goal God has in mind for his creation governs how divine goodness and mercy manifest themselves in corporate human history and in the narrative of individual lives.

If, as both Chrysostom and Lewis point out, all God's purposes and actions for humanity could be summed up in the phrase "human contentment," most of us would remain happy indeed. We long for a God who will meet our needs as we define them but who will also leave us alone, to ourselves and our own devices.

But this is exactly what the divine love refuses to do. God discerns our illness even though we believe we are healthy and will take whatever steps necessary to restore us to full health. These steps often involve pain, just as the lance of the surgeon's knife and the aftermath of the surgery entail suffering. The ultimate outcome of the pain suffered is the restoration of health with the eradication of sin's infection, the very goal God pursues in history through his providential actions.

Divine love, then, will often be a painful love, one Chrysostom describes as fiery, precisely because the disease love is acting to heal can only be conquered through pain and death. Hence, the incarnation and cross serve as fundamental paradigms for interpreting how God's love and goodness are presently operative in history.