“Yes, I think that God does not want us to suffer; he loves us.” Joe explained this as what nearly everyone he knew believed. “That’s why God tells us to pray, to avoid evil, and to follow his ways. If we do these things, then God will protect us, give us what we ask for, and provide a good life for us.”
“So it’s just that easy?” said Sam. He was skeptical of Joe’s sunny outlook on God’s ways in the world. Having watched his mother suffer a long struggle with cancer, Sam wasn’t ready to begin trusting God again when so many prayers for healing were ignored.
“Well, yeah. God wants his children to be happy, to give them good things. When Israel disobeyed God and wouldn’t follow his commands, they suffered discipline. It’s the same for us now. If we do the things God says to do, then God will protect us like he did for Israel.” Joe smiled. He took a long drink of liquid candy through the straw and felt the little carbonated bubbles trickle down his throat. Maybe he would get a milkshake later.
“What was God doing with my mom’s cancer then?” Sam’s voice was thick. He’d not heard an explanation yet of how an all-good and all-powerful God would just let his mother suffer and die from a disease. The whole idea of being good because God would make your life go well didn’t add up anymore.
“There’s spiritual warfare too, so maybe that’s what happened with your mom,” said Joe.
“Well, there’s the devil and stuff that are attacking us, and that’s why bad things happen in life.”
“So my mom’s cancer was because of the devil.”
“And God couldn’t heal her because of the devil? Why would God let the devil do that?” Sam’s irritation with Joe’s simplistic responses was rising.
“Well, the devil is powerful, and God wants us to have free will, to choose for ourselves to do good. He lets the devil mess things up and cause suffering in the world because that’s part of free will.”
“So, what you’re saying is that my mom had to die from cancer because of free will. That doesn’t sound very good of God to do. I thought God was ready to answer our prayers, and that he heals us of our diseases. I thought you said that God doesn’t want us to suffer.”
“Well, yeah, that’s right. But we have to do the right things for God to hear our prayers. He wants us not to suffer, but we have to be good people. We can’t just sit on the couch and ask for stuff. God wants us to do our part of working, loving people, tithing our money, and worshiping him. He’s there for us when we need him, but we have to do what he says.” Joe was a little annoyed that Sam wasn’t getting it.
“Whatever. I don’t think that works. You’re saying my mom had cancer and God didn’t heal her because she didn’t do something right and so God didn’t stop the devil.” Silence followed Sam’s bitter critique.
“Well what do you think God was doing?”
“I don’t know. He just seems cruel not to have healed my mom. She was a good person. She did all the Christian stuff. You can’t say this was her fault.”
“I don’t mean it was her fault. I think God gives us protection and helps us when we do what he says. Cancer’s nobody’s fault, except maybe the devil’s.” Joe was feeling deflated that he didn’t have an answer to Sam’s interrogation. He couldn’t figure out why everything seemed so clear to him and now was all jumbled when he tried to explain it to Sam.
“How do you know God is even listening when you pray? With all the mess in the world, it doesn’t even seem like God cares.”
“The mess is because of people not obeying God, and because of the devil,” said Joe triumphantly. He had clarity again. “In the beginning, God made everything perfect in the garden, but Adam and Eve wouldn’t obey, and so all this evil is the result. Jesus made it so that we can obey God again and not have to suffer for going our own way of sin.” It’s so simple, Joe thought.
“I don’t buy it. There are too many good people that have bad things happen to them for what you’re saying to be right. I think there has to be something more going on, besides the devil.”
“Well how do you think God should do things?”
“I think God should have made it that everyone has what they need, nobody suffers and everyone is happy.”
“You’re saying we can have that now if we just be good and ask God for stuff.”
“No, I’m not saying that. There’s more going on than that.”
“Exactly. Like cancer and children dying of starvation.”
“That’s because of free will.”
“So you’re saying that God would make everything right, but he won’t because he wants to respect our free will?”
“Yes.” Things were making sense to Joe again. Surely Sam would see it that way too.
“That’s stupid. You’re saying my mom’s cancer was justified by her getting to have free will, and little kids dying is because of free will.” Sam was disgusted.
“Well, no. I'm saying that suffering is not what God really wants, but he has to allow it because of free will.”
“What happens when God healed people then; was he violating some free will then?”
“God heals us when we have done the right things.”
“Like my mom.” Silence. Irritation.
“I don’t know about your mom.” Joe was deflated again.
“You want to know what I think? I think you think that God wants us to be good and that he is there for us and that he doesn’t want us to suffer because you haven’t had anything bad happen to you yet. If I had your life, then I’d probably believe that too. ‘Follow your heart’ and all that Disney propaganda. I think there’s more going on with God and the world than what appears on the surface. I think God wants something more of us than just that we do what he says.”
“So what is the meaning of life, Sam?”
“I’ll tell you what it’s not. It’s not being happy and being comfortable and having fun all the time. The way you talk, if we would just obey, then it’s like God makes the world like Chuck.E.Cheese—we get to play games and get prizes and eat pizza with our friends. A big vacation and everyone gets along all the time. That’s not reality. Reality is that life is a mess and I don’t know what God is doing with it.”
“Look, I’m sorry about your mom. I don’t understand why God didn’t heal her.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“If there were something more going on, then I wonder what that is. I guess we won’t know until we get to heaven.” Joe was resigned, and then he perked up again. “It’s all for the glory of God, we know that for sure.”
“Whatever. I can think of a lot of bad things in the world that would be pretty hard to fit with the glory of God.” Sam rolled his eyes at the familiar refrain.
“But think about what we’ve always been taught at church. We have to obey God. He’s always there for us. He’ll help us when we ask for things. He loves everybody.”
“Yeah. That and the American dream, right? ‘God is fair and treats everyone the same. He makes everything depend on our choice so we can have free will. Everyone will end up in Heaven because a loving God won’t actually send anyone to Hell. God wants us to be happy all the time, and confortable, and well-fed, and never suffer.’ Oh yeah, and ‘All our pets will be in Heaven too.’”
“You’re just grumpy, Sam.”
“Maybe, but maybe we’ve just been lied to. Maybe the truth is a whole lot more complicated and strange than we’ve been told. I’d like to know.”
As a commentary on this little dialogue, we are continuing to face the strong undertow of Moral Therapeutic Deism and its cousin, Prosperity Theology, in evangelical churches. Christian Smith (and collaborators) identified M.T.D. about ten years ago as characteristic of America’s teenagers in the book, Soul Searching. The basic idea is that teens believed God wants them to be moral, behaving nice, and that such relation with God by good behavior and knowing there is a benevolent God “up there” is a therapeutic benefit to us living fulfilling lives. This view of God and His involvement with us is deistic since it leaves our lives intact to do what we wish so long as we follow the rules of “good behavior.” Smith guessed that teens learned this from their evangelical parents and churches.
Deeper than the recent history, we seem to be pushing against the same thing that Martin Luther identified as the theology of glory. Luther recommended to us the contrast of the theology of the cross. As an orientation to this radical message, I recommend the little book by Gerhard O. Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518. As we remember the Reformation at this time of year in October, let us remember that we are continually in need of such strong drink to help us wake up from M.T.D. The phrase, “glory story” is from Forde.