From Theodicy to Theophany

Posted by on Feb 13, 2022 in Blog | 6 comments

a man with bruised knuckles having a headache

Ok, I admit the title of this post is not exactly catchy! But you are still reading, so let me quickly say why I think it is important.

You probably know people who have suffered greatly – perhaps you are one of them. All suffering is hard to watch, but it is especially devastating when it seems to be senseless and unfair. There are a thousand different scenarios I could paint, but in your heart you already know your “why, why, why” questions.

How do we come to terms with life’s most devastating heartaches without shaking the fist at God and questioning how we could call this Deity – who apparently knows everything, is everywhere present and has the power to do anything – loving, when every prayer for help is met with silence?

If your theological studies extend to even the 101 level, you are likely to have been introduced to the theodicy debate – or the defence of God’s goodness in the face of suffering and evil. It usually follows along tried and tested lines… God, who knows more than we do (so don’t question God’s wisdom), has eternity to set things straight (justice is an eschatological category) and in the light of eternity, most current suffering is fleeting. Furthermore, this God has been incarnated and has suffered alongside us, so never expects us to do what Jesus has not done (and the crucifixion was an extreme form of torture which relativises our pain) and so on – blah, blah, blah.

Depending on your disposition, you may well find the argument convincing, and given that it has now been out there for a few thousand years (many parts of it pre-dating Christianity), it offers sensible points that provide some consolation – especially if your questions are theoretical rather than existential.

But what if your questions are existential – and it is you who are suffering, or (and often this is worse) it is someone you deeply love and care for who is suffering? At this point, too quick or too trite a theodicy will hurt and infuriate, rather than help.

So what might it mean if we move from a theodicy to a theophany?

Put simply, a theophany is an encounter with the Divine – a meeting where God’s presence is felt deeply and profoundly. No, I don’t mean an encounter where sickness suddenly disappears or the reason for the suffering goes away. It is wonderful when that happens – but then people who have had that experience are not usually talking about the theodicy question. I’m talking about an encounter after which the sickness doesn’t go away, or the business doesn’t bounce back into profitability, or the marriage isn’t suddenly wonderful, or the war doesn’t just end. But something does change. You see it in the persons face and posture, you hear it in their language, you sense it from the things they no longer say.

For all the miracles that don’t happen during times of great suffering, let’s note one that fairly often does (and fairly often is NOT always, and for some there is no relief ever). It is the God encounter that sometimes takes place in the midst of suffering and confusion. It is common for it to change nothing other than our perspective and our sense of hope – and strangely, often that is more than enough.

When friends suffer, or I suffer, or I am overwhelmed by the pain in the world, I remember the prayer of Jesus, “If it is possible, let this cup be taken from me.” But if it is not, Lord, stay close, stay very close, for if I know you are with me, I can walk through even the darkest valley (or as the Psalmist puts it, the valley of the shadow of death), and not be afraid – for you are with me.

Should you be passing through the time of trial, forget about theodicy. Pray for theophany – Lord please (please) encounter me, please be with me…

As always, nice chatting…

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Please forward this post to any who might find it helpful.

6 Comments

  1. I feel I have been learning about suffering lately. Here are some links that you may find interesting. Michael Lloyd of Wycliffe Hall in Oxford wrote his doctorate on the problem of suffering and evil. Michael and John Lennox make a lot of sense in the comments. https://youtu.be/u4Sb07jHiMA https://youtu.be/Epp77DMrjSw. I also found this panel talking about evil and suffering very interesting especially the ladies story. https://youtu.be/6CWxWbqqExQ

    • Thanks Ruth. These are really helpful links and I imagine other readers will benefit from them as well.

  2. Brian this article meant so much – thank you. My daughter Sarah lost her first baby ( an IVF baby) at 29 weeks due to hyper coiling of the umbilical cord. He was such a fit, healthy little boy he had spun himself 27 times in the same direction and cut off his own food and oxygen by tightly corkscrewing his own umbilical cord. It has been utterly devastating; made worse by the fact that her husband Matt lost both his parents two years ago So I have been struggling with Why? It just seemed so senseless and so easy to avoid – he just had to spin the other way a few times. He was almost too big to spin again. So this article felt directed at me. You write beautifully and make difficult concepts easy to understand. Lots of love Jen

    • Thanks Jen. As you say, devastating for you all. So sorry for the loss – not a pain that just passes… Do hope that at unexpected moments there can be consolation for you all. Carry on being kind to each other.

  3. Thank you for the inspirational message. For me it is so amazing how God at best prepares a person ahead of time to experience suffering. God provided an opportunity for me to be a relief chaplain at Bethany, Jenchep for six months to fund our studies and travel. It was an amazing blessing to be present and serve the residents with dementia and to attend Bethany’s dementia training courses. Unbeknown that on my return to Cape Town, I had to take my Mother for two consecutive assessments to her panel doctor in the leather industry she had worked for 40 years. The most challenging was that she had no ailments, no medications, even at 80 years old, no tablets, and yet the dementia has slowly robbed her from us, no more dancing, no more playing her favorite dominoes game. By God’s grace and mercy we were blessed to accommodate my mother with affordable care in a loving community just before the first major lockdown.

    At present I am re-reading M.Scott Peck’s book, The Road Less Travelled. The introduction continues to challenge my view on problems and pain, by his opening statement that “Life is difficult”. “Once we truly know that life is difficult – once we truly understand and accept it then life is no longer difficult.” Every blessing

    • Thanks Chivaughn. So sorry to hear about your mom but glad you are able to be near her.
      Love the Scott Peck quote. Very true.

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