Is Defending God Always Helpful? Reflecting on O Death, Where is Thy Sting?

Photo by Cherry Laithang on Unsplash

I’ve never had a heart-to-heart conversation where somebody didn’t express some sort of pain.  To be sure, I’ve had plenty of deep conversations full of wonderful ideas, good humor, and plans to solve the world’s problems, but those aren’t necessarily heart-to-heart conversations.  Heart-to-heart conversations are more reflective than cerebral; they involve the opening of ourselves to another and being vulnerable about our lives – and there is much pain in our lives.

As a Jesuit, people will often share with me their struggles.  Some people will refer to God as a bulwark of strength for them.  Many others, however, will refer to God negatively and ask accusatory questions: Why isn’t God doing anything?  How could God allow this to happen?  Where is God now?  Is God even good?

When these questions arise, my philosophical instincts wake up and I remember all kinds of theodicies and justifications for God’s actions or inaction.  I nearly begin talking about those theories when I stop myself and remember that I’m not even satisfied by all these defenses of God.  Why feed these ideas to others when I struggle to accept them myself?  It is in these moments of dissatisfaction that I can better empathize with their pain and accompany them.

Perhaps this is why Brother Joe Hoover, SJ’s recent book O Death, Where is Thy Sting: A Meditation on Suffering resonated with me.  It doesn’t offer theodicies or justifications of God’s goodness; it is a collection of thoughts from a man trying to process the suffering in the world.  It raises more questions than answers. It’s good for people like me and those I encounter in ministry to realize that we are not alone in asking these questions.  There is value in commiseration.

The reality of commiseration helps to explain why some people don’t find much comfort in theodicy.  Paraphrasing Georges Clemenceau’s famous quip that “war is too important to be left to the generals”,  Hoover shared in a conversation about his book that, “theology is too important to be left to the theologians – it needs poets.”  When I heard this, I thought of the brain recognizing that it needs the heart.  

Perhaps this is because the heart is agile; it can soar to the heights of mysticism and sink to the depths of despair and still maintain its integrity.  It is the heart that seeks to understand not by theory, but by internalizing and communicating the riches and poverty of reality – a reality that needs to be communicated.

“More than anything, I think people just want to be heard,” Joe Hoover told me.  Sometimes people aren’t looking for an explanation of their suffering, but a recognition of it.  They want us to show that we hear them, that we are affected by their suffering, and that their suffering is important.  They want the validation of their frustration, confusion, and pain, rather than theories about God which turn the conversation away from their own experiences.  If they take their pain out on God and want to put God on trial, who am I to stop them from making that all too human prayer?  The philosopher in me might balk at this, but the poet in me welcomes it.

We would do well to consider Christ on the cross.  He cries to the Heavens, “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?”  This is the message of Divine commiseration as Jesus effectively screams out in his own pain to all of us in our pain, “I hear you!  Your suffering is horrible and I am suffering alongside you.  You are not alone.”  

And in that agony, in the tension of believing in a good God yet feeling abandoned by God, we find that we actually have more in common with Jesus than we might have thought.  He felt abandoned too—and, mysteriously, we become closer to the Divine in commiserating with Jesus over the distance we feel from God.

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