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Posted: March 4, 2011 12:00 a.m.

About Faith: Calling God to task

"When I get to heaven, God and I are going to have a few words," a friend of mine once said.

We had just heard news of unspeakable human suffering in some far-flung corner of the globe. I do not remember the particular tragedy, whether human or natural disaster, but I recall the thought of innocent children facing a cruel fate. "Yes, God’s got some ’splainin’ to do," she added.

In spite of the sadness of the moment, I had to smile at the thought of my spunky friend addressing God like a drill sergeant addresses a new recruit. Of course, the real encounter is likely to be much more awesome, with fear and trembling. Her words, if they come at all, will be more like Isaiah’s: "Woe is me. I am a woman of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips."

But who among us has not wanted to give God, who placed a longing for justice in our hearts, a piece of our minds? Has anyone lived to adulthood without wanting to rail against a supposedly omnipotent Creator? If God can do anything, why did God let this happen?

This question (which theologians call theodicy) is too deep for my poor mind. Instead, I would like to ask, is it proper for us to ask? What office do we presume to occupy when we call God in on the carpet? What are the consequences for such impertinence?

The Bible instructs us in this matter. The Psalms (which are essentially poetic prayers to God) contain many complaints, and many "impertinent" questions. "O God, why do you cast us off forever? Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture?" (Psalm 74:1) Even Jesus expressed his complaint before God, who must have seemed absent to him in his darkest hour. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?" (Psalm 22:1)

"Why" is often rhetorical. It is a gateway to catharsis, beyond which we find peace. The typical complaint psalm begins with an honest and highly figurative complaint to God, followed by an expression of trust, and a plea to correct the wrong. By the end of the psalm, the psalmist and God are in the same camp. By the structure of the Psalms, we know that we are not supposed to remain stuck in complaint mode. The result is not an answer to the question, but peace in the midst of the mystery of suffering.

When Job had had enough, he let loose a stream of questions and complaints to God. He even complained about God’s silence, and insisted on an answer. Finally, God replied in a way that restored right relations, that is, put Job back in his proper place. "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?..." (Job 38:2). Yes, we can ask, but we may not like the answer.

As for consequences, we hopefully find peace of mind and heart, if not the actual answer to our question. Sometimes we see resolution to our complaint, as if our pleas caused God to relent and show mercy. What we do not see is wrath. God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Our Father adores the children who come with pouted lips to make their complaints. And although the mystery will be revealed by and by, we can find contentment in the thought that our fate is in his hands.

 

Brian Dale is pastor of Allen Memorial Methodist Church in Oxford.

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