I’ve completed two books in the past week. The first was Elizabeth Smart’s “My Story” where she recalls her kidnapping and torture at the hands of Brian David Mitchell. Reading this book led me to pick up another book that I had intended to read, but had been delaying. That book was Bart D. Ehrman’s “God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question–Why We Suffer.”
The story of Elizabeth Smart should be fairly well known to most folks who will read this, especially in the LDS community. The short of it is that she was kidnapped from her home near Salt Lake City when she was 14 by B.D. Mitchell, held prisoner and raped almost every day for 9 months, and eventually rescued. If you want more than that, read her book, it’s very compelling (it’s actually the first book I have ever read cover-to-cover in a single sitting. I started at about 9:30 one night and kept reading until I finished it at about 2am). I will say, however, that this book raises a rather difficult theological issue, though she may not have intended for it to do so. She mentions in the book, over and over, that Mitchell talks about being some prophet of God who is here to lead God’s people after the coming Rapture and that’s he’s supposed to take 7 wives who must all be virgins and he has decided on his own that they must be young because young folks are easier to manipulate. (That is my summary of him, again, read the book if you want more) And though you might be thinking it, he is not insane, that was proven in court, he is simply an evil human being. She stated several times that Mitchell said that God had told him to do all these things. She makes a perfect point that God would tell someone to do the evil things that Mitchell did. This statement can, depending on one’s mindset, can lead a person to ask the reverse question of “why did God allow this to happen?”
Frankly, that is a perfectly reasonable question to ask. Why does the God of Mercy who Christians believe in allow things like this to happen? This question led me to Ehrman’s book. An introductory note about this book is necessary. Ehrman, or his publisher one, is very good at selecting titles for books. Looking down his list we see “Lost Scriptures,” “Lost Christianities,” “Misquoting Jesus,” and “Forged.” “God’s Problem” is much the same. The book freely admits that the Bible does, of course, give answers to why we suffer, it just gives more than one and, to Ehrman, none of those answers are very satisfying. To be quite honest, none of them are very satisfying to me either, particularly in the Elizabeth Smart situation. What are the answers?
First, we have the traditional view that we suffer as a punishment for sin, so that we can see that we are sinning, and return to God/Christ. So basically, you’re getting punished because you deserve it. The sailors joke of “the floggings will continue until morale improves” seems to fit well here. This also seems to not fit well at all in the Smart situation given that it would certainly seem that she was living a very satisfactory life, though of course not perfect. To be sure, she was not living in enough sin to deserve 9 months of Hell on Earth.
Next, there is the Apocalyptic view of suffering. Now, in this view people basically suffer BECAUSE they are righteous. Based on my understanding of theology, I think this view is generally garbage at it’s core so I certainly do not think it applies to Smart’s situation. My problem with this one is that it simply makes no sense, especially in light of the previous response. This view of suffering basically shows that not only are we flogged when we are disobeying God’s commandments, He keeps flogging us even after we turn our lives back to Him. Umm…really? My major issue with this comes from the real implication here. Logic would tell us that God would not directly punish those who are keeping his commandments, it simply does not make sense. Why follow them at all? To be sure there are eternal benefits to following even through suffering, but most people will simply not endure “righteous suffering” for very long. So it really makes no sense for us to say the righteous are being punished specifically because they are being righteous.
We then move to two situations from Ehrman that can possibly fit Elizabeth Smart’s situation. The first one is obvious and obviously fits: we suffer because other people sin and act unrighteously. Yes, to be sure she suffered because Mitchell was a sinner and a generally wretched human being. The next one is redemptive suffering where we are caused to suffer for a greater good. I can possibly buy into this given that she has started a foundation to educate people about sexual assault and such, but I consider this to be a bit of a stretch.
OK, so I admit that the “other people sinning” reason fits this given situation. Now the uncomfortable question that must be asked is Why? Why was she allowed to suffer so much? Because given the normal definition of God in the Christian church, that’s what it was. If we consider it to be a given that God is all-powerful then why was she allowed to be tortured the way she was? Is that a difficult question to ask? To be sure it is. Especially if one looks for an answer beyond the quaint little “we just don’t know” response. We either must admit that it was allowed to happen and then that leads to a second question of for what benefit? Is there really some greater good can come from someone going through that? I don’t think so. The second answer is even more uncomfortable because it means that God did not allow the situation to happen and is not all knowing and all powerful. This one, if true, is incredibly difficult for Christian folk to understand or accept. This is not a view that I agree with, though I do actually think it’s closer to reality than the first one.
Before I really go into that, there is one incident in the Elizabeth Smart’s book I want to address. She reports that one time she and her captors were out of water. One night she says that she woke up and found a full cup of water in the tent where they slept. This after they had run out of water the previous day. Certainly this was not somehow found in the camp, her captors would most certainly have drank it before they gave it to her. The only real remedy for this is to say it was a miracle in the truest sense. This leads to my main question: can God directly intervene in this life, this Earth? I don’t have a definite answer for this question, but I have an answer that, to me, fits. No, God can’t. At least not without some serious consequences. First, I have to logically look at some situations. Allow me to ask some questions. Why was Elizabeth Smart allowed to be kidnapped and raped and tortured for 9 months? Why were 27 people allowed to be killed in Newtown? Why were 230,000 people allowed to be killed in a tsunami in 2004? Think for a minute and consider how many times God has directly reached his hand down to deliver someone from trouble? I might be forgetting something, but I can’t recall any. There have been theophanies, there have been angels coming to help individuals at specific times, and obviously Christ came to deliver us from sin, though not in this life but after death. What about God himself?
The closest story I can remember to God directly delivering people from injustice or punishment was in Exodus…and it took Him virtually exterminating the Egyptian people in order for that deliverance to happen. A second story of deliverance is in Daniel where we read about Christ (or an angel depending on your theology and which Biblical text you read) coming to the rescue of Shadrach and friends when they are thrown into the furnace. However, even in that situation, they were not outrightly delivered, they were shielded and comforted until the fire went out. That’s perhaps the truest story we can read. In “God’s Problem” Ehrman summarizes a book by Rabbi Harold Kushner called “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” Ehrman writes:
For Kushner, God is not the one who causes our personal tragedies. Nor does he even “permit” them when he could otherwise prevent them. There are simply some things that God cannot do. He can’t intervene to keep us from suffering. But what he can do is equally important. He can give us the strength to deal with our suffering when we experience it. God is a loving Father who is there for his people, not to guarantee miraculously that they never have hardship, but to give them the peace and strength they need to face the hardship. (Ehrman, God’s Problem, 271)
Ehrman says he finds this to be a powerful view and so do I. I find myself wanting to read Kushner’s book to get the entire story. I do not agree 100% with Ehrman’s summary of Kushner, however. I actually think miracles can happen. I think Elizabeth Smart finding water in the tent that night was a miracle, one that I can only attribute to an angel or other divine being. But it was not within the ability of that angel to deliver her from the situation. Such is the world we live in. We are here and this is our world. The world of humans. An imperfect planet (see hurricanes, earthquakes, etc.) inhabited by imperfect beings. God may know what is going to happen but he can’t deliver us from it because this is not His realm. He simply can’t intervene down here. It is not God’s fault that a man decides to get drunk, turn his car into a 2 ton missile of death, fall asleep at the wheel, and run it through a schoolyard while kids are on recess. It is not His fault because He is unable to intervene, for positive or negative. The only time we have in writing God physically trying to inhabit Earth (after the fall of Adam & Eve, that is) is during and immediately after the Exodus. Here we see that Earth needed to be purified in order for Him to come. Is that what we want in order for a few people to be delivered from a given situation? No, truly God is basically unable to deliver us from these situations. But we do have the Holy Ghost to give us comfort during these problems.
So, why do we suffer? We suffer because we are imperfect beings inhabiting an imperfect world. Because of imperfection, bad things happen. Why does God not deliver us from these sufferings? He can’t. This is the human world and without dire consequences, He can’t directly intervene. Is this different theologically from what many people believe? Sure is. Is it any kind of official view of the Church? Not that I have ever seen. In fact, I would say a great many church folks would disagree mightily with that I have written. However, what I have written does not change anything. I still believe that we are the spirit children of God, our Father in Heaven. I still believe that Jesus Christ is the savior. I still believe we can receive spiritual promptings from the Holy Ghost. Still sustain leadership and so forth. I simply don’t believe that God can reach his hand down and physically deliver us from suffering. In that sense, I also do not think he causes us to suffer in any way. I don’t think we suffer as punishment for our sins. I don’t think we suffer because we are being righteous. I don’t think we suffer because other people are sinners, at least not in a standard theological sense. And I don’t think we suffer in order to bring about some greater good. Most certainly I think the latter two are more reasonable (and not illogical when taken together) than the first two, but I still don’t think they are exactly right. No, as I said, we suffer simply because this entire world we live in is imperfect. And because this is our realm, there is nothing God can do to directly change it. I really find great comfort in that.