suffering and human agency

I offer this as part apology and part explanation of my recent absence from this blog.  Last Thursday, we held the long-planned Veritas Forum at my school, for which I was the Forum Director, and, more terrifyingly, the emcee.  We brought in John Lennox from Oxford to speak to one of the hardest questions to answer: why suffering exists if there is a God who is both loving and powerful.  Why can’t He just stop that suffering?

I’ve spoken to several people about this.  Honestly, the answer that I give to most of them is that I don’t know myself, but if God is great enough to be in control, He’s also got to be great enough to have his own reasons for doing things.

I’m in the business of making connections and gleaning information, though, and Dr. Lennox pointed out several interesting things about this problem that we face.  Mostly, it brought up the idea of our own free will as a cause for much suffering.

Firstly, God is not a stranger to suffering.  He didn’t sit back and leave us to our own pain.  He has mourned over our suffering and sent His own Son – his own person – to a broken and needy world to take all of our pain onto Himself.  God understands suffering because He’s gone through it with us.

The next part.  Dr. Lennox mentioned that after an earthquake in New Zealand, he was reading a book about plate tectonics, and here’s the thing:  in order for us to survive here, the tectonic plates need to shift.  It’s a beneficial action.  However, the world is flawed, and when these plates grind against one another, you have an earthquake.  An earthquake isn’t just a fluke, but a malfunction of a necessary system.

And it hit me then that even this stems from the gift of free will.  When man fell, death, decay, and brokenness entered into our own flesh, yes – but they also permeated the fabric of our world itself.  Everything dies, and everything tends to entropy.

“For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” (Romans 8:20-21)

Creation groans to be freed from death just as we do, caught in our sinful decision.  “But couldn’t God have done better?” we ask.  “Couldn’t he have created perfect things that wouldn’t screw everything up?”

“Well, we can do that,” John Lennox responded.  “They’re called robots.”  Because eradicating the possibility of sin and suffering also eradicates the possibility of love.  We have free will so that love, one of our greatest gifts, can exist, extended from God to this world.  A mandated love is really no love at all.  C.S. Lewis, as usual, puts it beautifully:

Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.  A world of automata – of creatures that worked like machines – would hardly be worth creating.”

There can be no yes without the possibility of a no.  It’s beautiful, really.  John says that we know what love itself is by looking to Christ, who suffered so greatly on our behalf! (1 John 3:16)  If the only way to experience a world of love is to take a world of suffering with it, I choose to take them both.

 

This free will, however, leads us directly to the thought that has plagued me this past week, though: after the influence of society and the power of God, how much agency do I have as a human being, acting in my own power?  If God controls everything, then which of my choices are my own? How does this free will impact my own life?

I’m beginning to understand, perhaps a little bit more, now, that although God is omnipotent, He still allows me to make my own decisions.  Of course there are the ones that I can’t control – death, nature, information that comes to me.  But I choose how I react, and although God may tell me things, I may still rebel.  When He tells me to follow Him, I still have to follow.

And that’s hard for me, because I am prone more to inertia than to action, to stability than to change, and to indecision more than what I choose.  In part, I’m terrified of where I’m going, because I don’t know it.  I’m afraid that I will regard an opportunity with indecision until it passes and I live with regret after that.

Yes, I want God to be in control of my life; I submit it to him.  But I also have to stop using that as an excuse to stop making my own decisions.  He hasn’t given us a spirit of fear, but of boldness, and this is where that great paradox of humble confidence has its inception.  It’s hard to do anything purely, without an ulterior motive, and this includes seeking the Lord.  I want Him desperately, and I seek to serve Him – this is true.  But it is also true that I am human, and selfish, and frightened.

I don’t have agency figured out, and I don’t think I ever shall.  It’s one of those knotty paradoxes that I am beginning to conceive, a great and intriguing both/and.

The two givens of the theorem:

a) God is omnipotent and in control of our lives

b) We have been granted free will to shape our lives.

And although I cannot fully understand this, I accept is as the truth of the matter.  We are free to make choices but also controlled by whatever consumes us.  But we choose what it is that consumes us.

I choose my God, loving and powerful Creator and Sustainer.

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A note: I’m aware this is an incomplete rendering of both topics.  Talk to me about it.

2 comments on “suffering and human agency

  1. […] this is so, so hard.  I’m not going to go into detail about the problem of pain here, about what God’s doing, or how He could possibly let these things happen.  I don’t […]

  2. […] It still is, honestly.  That day I sent frustrated messages to my parents as I tried to reconcile these concepts of agency and sovereignty.  I sat on my bed at the thought that my classmates, the strangers I pass on the street, the […]

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