can god be trusted

An MHP Interview with John Stackhouse

MHP: In your book Can God be Trusted, you speak about Job and the assurance that God can indeed be trusted. But, you also place a precautionary statement related to the certainty of absolutely knowing. Is this a construction of postmodernity or do you feel that this was likened to the belief that Job had - or more broadly, the belief held by Israel as well as the Church - essentially hold our breath and dive in?

John Stackhouse: I don’t think either alternative is quite true to the biblical theme of faith. Faith is trust in something or someone, and that trust involves a positive and a negative element. The positive element is all that I think I know about that thing or person, all the warrants I have to believe that this canoe or this babysitter is trustworthy. The negative element is the genuine uncertainty of the situation, in that I cannot be entirely sure that the canoe won’t fail when I get into it, or that the babysitter won’t make a mistake to the harm of my child. So faith is anchored in knowledge and then is cantilevered over the unknown.

Postmoderns highlight the modern insight (it goes back at least to the time of John Locke) that most or all of what we think we know is subject to our finitude and, in Christian terms, our fallen nature But this insight—that we cannot properly claim certainty for our beliefs, but instead we can properly claim more or less confidence in them (and note that “fides”/faith is in the center of that word)—is an essentially biblical one. Again, that’s why the Bible speaks of knowing God, yes, but also of having faith in him. There is much that we do not, and cannot, understand, and particularly about God’s providence and the problem of evil. But on the basis of what we believe we know, we trust God in the dark places where our knowledge gives out.

MHP: I remember that Franklin Graham on one of the evening talk shows just after the Tsunami said that the storm was the work of Satan since we live in a fallen world. What are your thoughts on weather patterns (to border on the ridiculous) in a year that has brought such calamity. Are they depraved as I suppose Augustine would reference - all nature bemoans, or are these simply in the realm of the spinning top that God once started and will one day stop... or maybe a bit of both... somewhere between these stark lines? Essentially, are weather patterns or strikes of lightening evil or there to relieve evil in any way similar to Elijah bringing down fire from the sky, Noah building his ship, or Jonah in a restless boat? And then, so often in literature, rains and floods act as cleansing agents.

JS: Franklin Graham badly needs someone to tell him how to talk to the press, as well as a significant tutorial in theology. His father, to his credit, recognized his own theological limitations and stuck to the elements of the gospel. Franklin hasn’t learned that, and he embarrasses his fellow Christians and alienates others.

We do not know why the tsunami struck how and where it did. We do not know why hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck how and where they did. But these disasters should tell us, at least, that they aren’t merely “judgments of God on sin,” as some preachers have confidently announced. For the floodwaters swept away the just and the unjust, the believers and the unbelievers, alike. And if judgment was really God’s intention here, it remains unclear why these were his high-priority targets. We can all think of places that could use a good scrubbing….

Nor, however, do I think we should opt for the device of getting God off the hook by attributing these evil events to Satan, or to “just the way the world is,” or to anything else. God created the world in foreknowledge of its subsequent history, and God maintains the world in knowledge of what is happening and will happen. The buck stops at the divine desk, as Biblical writers themselves recognized. Even if Satan did this or that bad thing, as he does in the Book of Job, he does so under God’s aegis—so much so that Satan disappears from the narrative of Job and the whole thing resolves to just Job vs. God. We simply do not know why a good God—the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ—allows such things to happen under his providence.

We have clues, to be sure, about the possible goods that can arise out of various sorts of evils. I take some time in my book to set out as many of those as I plausibly can. And they help—some. But at the end of the day, I don’t think they explain enough. Faith in the goodness of God has to reside somewhere other than in theodical explanations and excuses. And I think it has to reside in the face of Jesus, the face of God that is unquestionably good even when the goodness of the work of God in the world seems questionable indeed.

MHP: I heard a Catholic nun on NPR this week. She is in Baton Rouge and spoke of the families that are looking to place their children in a diocesan school. She mentioned something along the lines - "Our faith teaches us that we are to suffer. Jesus suffered and died on the cross before raising from the dead." She went on to indicate her role and the role of the Church was to bring people from the suffering and into a recognition of the strength found in such things. Is that the role of the church - not to necessarily find a solution to the crisis but to use the instruments to nurse us into heaven - the sacraments, community, worship and love of God?

JS: The mission of the church is to cooperate with God in his own mission to the world: to save it. So we are deployed by God on multiple fronts: some of us work on intellectual explanations, some of us offer wise counsel, some of us bind up wounds, some of us lead worship, and some of us pay for it all.

I don’t think we should validate one form of ministry, then, at the expense of another—which is what I think you’re asking me. We shouldn’t say, “It’s not this, it’s that,” but “It’s both this and that, and I’m called to one form of ministry while I affirm others called to something else.”

But perhaps the point is a different one. I certainly would say that the church’s role is not “to find a solution to the crisis” in two senses: first, the main responsibility for the crisis brought by the Gulf of Mexico hurricanes is the state’s, not the church’s; second, God alone can bring a perfect solution, and we won’t see it until Jesus returns.

So let us each do our part, as individuals and as groups of various kinds, under the providence of God, to do what good we can—as we long for the full and final coming of the Kingdom.

MHP: I know you are not professionally a Greek or Bible scholar ( you more of the historian's guild, I think), but this is a verse I have heard more than once this last year - Jesus talking about rain and sun in Matthew 5 falling on all kinds of people?

JS: It’s true that I’m not a Greek scholar, but I have dabbled in theology as well as history, and theology ought to be Biblical, so I’ll venture a reply. Indeed, I already have, under (2) above. We do need to hear Jesus reminding us of the complementary truths that God loves everyone, not just Jews and Christians, and is generous to all and that we are all in a fallen world together, suffering its vicissitudes together—including God, we must remember, who suffers along with us and our neighbors. So there is truly both light and dark in this hard saying.

MHP: Finally, what is your advice in times of great struggle or suffering? Not necessarily to make one feel better - give old clothes or loose change - but what is the discipline in time of struggle? I mention this because my 12-year-old cousin got struck by lightning about a month ago in Tulsa. There were no signs of storms. He is not doing very well with one leg already being removed from him, a star soccer player. He is mentally not here with his eyes wandering and his lips mumbling some code to the angels I hope. How is one to act? Is Job the model? Is the Apostle John? Is Martha - hey, if you were here a few days ago my brother would be alive? Is it David, stripped naked on some hillside screaming?

JS: I’m better at scholarship than at wisdom, but what I have, I give you -

The Biblically-endorsed pattern of response to evil seems to be authenticity and faith. So some will cry, some will shudder, some will argue, some will get busy, and some will shriek. But the faithful ones are those that do any and all of these things to God and with God, not away from God and in spite of God.

God can handle any honest thing we bring to him, including honest emotions such as rage, fear, confusion, and doubt. Indeed, the whole idea of faith, to recapitulate, means that we are trusting precisely because we do not know for certain. And the confrontation of extreme evil can be one of those times when we cling to God in spite of almost overwhelming impetus to abandon him—or to feel abandoned by him. So that’s what faith means, and it’s not only okay, but expected, in the Bible to both feel terrible and keep trusting.

We might see God bring good out of evil in any given case. That can be cause for appropriate celebration—“appropriate” in the sense of “all things considered,” with due recognition of the evil that is really there, too. But I think we must be very cautious about trying to explain the evil by the good, as if the latter justifies the former. I think it’s terribly risky to people’s faith to engage in that kind of calculation.

Instead, I think we can give thanks for the good we do see, to him who is the fountain of all good, and continue to trust God in spite of the evil that we also see. And how do we keep trusting? By resolutely holding before ourselves and each other the face of God in Jesus Christ. For the God evident in nature and the newspaper is a fearsome God indeed, but the God evident in Jesus is no less fearsome, yet also convincingly and satisfyingly good.

John Stackhouse is the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology and Culture at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada and Author of Can God Be Trusted? Faith and the Challenge of Evil (Oxford University Press, 1998) Interview by Zach Kincaid.